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Mack Bolan hit a combat crouch in darkness, frozen into immobility among the shadows. His senses probed the desert night, reaching out for any sign of hostile life in the immediate vicinity, found nothing.

Still, he did not move for half a minute more, taking no chances. A cautious soldier never took anything on face value, and Mack Bolan was a very cautious warrior. Dressed for midnight action, he was virtually invisible among the shadows of the low retaining wall that he had scaled. The blacksuit fit him like a second skin, its snug fabric breathing with him, leaving no excess material to snag on undergrowth or rustle as he moved. His face and hands were blackened with camou cosmetics, leaving only the whites of his eyes to betray him if any foe should get that close.

But none who did would have a chance to sound the warning.

The Executioner was rigged for war. Beneath one arm, the sleek Beretta 93-R nestled in its shoulder harness, specially built to accommodate the silencer of Bolan's own design. Big Thunder, the .44 AutoMag cannon, rode military webbing at his hip, and extra magazines for both weapons ringed his waist in nylon pouches. The pockets of his skinsuit held stilettos and garrotes along with a variety of other tested killing gear. But the man in black was hoping he would not have to fire a shot this night.

His mission was supposed to be a soft probe, in and out, staying only long enough to gather some intelligence before he made his exit. In and out, right. Except that soft probes had a way of going hard when it was least expected, turning into firefights in the time it took to draw a breath or die.

Mack Bolan knew his job. And he was also painfully aware of how "blind chance" could intervene and throw the best-laid plans into the dumpster without warning. So he hoped for soft and traveled hard, a portion of his mind alert for any danger signal on this unfamiliar turf. The outer wall had offered little opposition, but he knew Minotte would have other lines of personal defense between him and the house. The desert night was perilous, and Bolan was not taking anything for granted so early in the game.

Bobby Minotte was the Dixie Mafia's representative on station in Las Vegas.

Theoretically no one controlled the open city and the different families were free to come and go as long as they refrained from stepping on one another's toes. But Minotte's faction was at least as strong as any of the competition. And he was big enough, for sure, to have a handle on the rumbles Bolan had been picking up for weeks along the covert grapevine.

The Executioner knew Minotte could provide the necessary battlefield intelligence if he would talk, and Bolan had unending faith in his own powers of persuasion.

Minotte's private palace in the desert was a rambling ranch-style house surrounded by acres of lawn. The house itself was flanked by stables, where the mobster raised his breeding stock of prize Arabians, and by tennis courts, all dark and deserted now. Despite the hour, the house was still ablaze with lights, and Bolan counted half a dozen cars parked end to end along the curving driveway out front.

The Executioner moved out across the sloping lawn, a gliding shadow, every sense alert for sentries and security devices. He had covered thirty yards, with fifty left to go, before he saw the lookout. The guy was stretched out on the dewy grass, unmoving, one arm raised above his head, the other draped across his chest. He was either dead or sleeping very soundly.

Bolan knelt beside him feeling for a pulse and quickly ruled out the latter possibility. His fingers found no sign of life; instead they came back slick with blood.

A sharp piano-wire garrote had taken out the sentry. The steel strand was buried in the folds of flesh beneath his chin, so deeply that it might as well have been a knife blade drawn across his jugular. The man had died without a sound, if not without a struggle; his side arm was still snug inside its holster at his waist.

The Executioner felt a tremor race along his spine. Someone else had passed this way within the hour, judging from the body temperature, heading for the ranch Bolan had no way of knowing who the hunter was, nor his mission, but the final target had to be Minotte. No one with a working brain would brave the mafioso's fortress just to ice a soldier on the lawn and let it go at that. The capo was the mark, and Bolan was confronted with two equally unpleasant choices. He could forge ahead and take the risk of stumbling into a hit in progress, or he could scrub the mission for tonight and start all over again.

Unpleasant choices, right. But for Mack Bolan there was really no damn choice at all. No question of retreat while there was still a chance of getting what he came for. And if he had to save Minotte's life before he got the chance to question him, fine. It might make the mobster more talkative in the end.

Bolan slid the silenced Beretta from the shoulder rigging, easing off the safety as he moved out, leaving the dead man alone with the universe. Bolan's business here was with the living, and he hoped that he would find some waiting for him in the ranch house. As if in answer to his thoughts there came a muffled burst of gunfire from inside the house.

Bolan hit a sprint, the sleek 93-R probing ahead of him as he devoured the lawn with loping strides. No time for caution now. If he was going to the party he would have to get there while the host still had some life left in him.

The Executioner was twenty yards out from the ranch-style and gaining when the front doors opened and a man emerged onto the porch. He was dressed in shirt-sleeves, reeling like a drunkard, both arms clasped across his abdomen. His once-white shirt was dyed red from the armpits down, a glistening crimson that was sickly brilliant under the floodlights.

And the guy was struggling to hold his guts in with both hands, no longer able to retain his balance as he sank down on one knee. Someone had done a bit of surgery without the benefit of anesthetic, and the patient was using up the last of his strength in the search for a second opinion. Incredibly, the man was rising to his feet again, his face an ashen mask from the exertion. Bolan saw him swivel in the direction of the open doors, one hand rising from his ravaged abdomen, a pistol in the fist with bloody streamers trailing from the snubby barrel. The dying man was trying to sight on some elusive target.

Suddenly a slender black-clad figure vaulted through the open double doors, reminding Bolan of a gymnast in midflight. Swathed in midnight black from head to foot, complete with hood and mask, the figure seemed to be armed only with a three-foot-long flashing sword. He came in low, beneath the houseman's trembling gunhand, bringing the blade up in a glittering arc, almost too fast for Bolan to follow.

One instant the hardman was standing there aiming his weapon at nothing, and then the gun was gone.

As was his hand, his forearm, everything, in fact, from his elbow down. It took a heartbeat for the houseman to decipher what had happened, and by the time he recognized the blood pumping from the severed stub it was too late for him to take evasive action. Any action. The stainless blade was overhead, whistling downward in the time it takes to blink. It made contact with the hardman's forehead, biting through his skull and stopping just short of the shoulders where it met resistance in the jawbone. Satisfied, the swordsman tugged his weapon free and shouldered past the faceless straw man as he took the low-slung porch steps in a single bound.

Mack Bolan spent a frozen moment watching the man's retreat in the direction of the waiting cars.

The hood and mask prevented the Executioner from making a secure ID, but he had seen the swordsman's kind before, and Bolan knew a ninja when he saw one.

Right.

Now what the hell...

Before his mind could even formulate the question, three more black-clad figures burst onto the lighted porch. The first two held a struggling form between them, half dragging their reluctant captive over the flagstones. The third, their flanker, hesitated in the open doorway and turned back to face invisible pursuers. From his hip, he raised an Uzi submachine gun and unleashed a ragged burst into the house.

So they were not all armed with swords and strangling wires, Bolan thought. Their arsenal was broad enough to take in heavy hardware that would make them lethal at substantial range. The soldier had to decide his course of action, but as he watched the little clutch of moving figures the decision was made for him by pure chance. He caught a glimpse of raven hair spilling around the shoulders of the struggling captive, and the floods provided him a flash of slender leg beneath a skirt as it rode up across the prisoner's thighs. A woman, dammit. And she was not going with her escorts voluntarily. Whoever she might be — Minotte's wife or daughter, part of the domestic staff — she needed help. And Bolan seemed to be the only game in town. He pushed Minotte and the mission out of mind, recognizing that a human soul in need was more important than the prospect of interrogating someone who might already be dead inside the house. Bobby Minotte would have to look out for himself tonight, if he was still alive.

The Dixie capo was a secondary target now.

Downrange the submachine gunner was backing across the lighted porch, still firing through the doors and holding back pursuers with his fusillade. Bolan raised the sleek Beretta and stroked the trigger lightly, riding out the recoil, never wincing as the weapon kicked back solidly against his palm.

The parabellum mangler took its target just below the jawline, boring through the mask. The ninja's head snapped back and he was momentarily airborne, making solid impact with the flagstones a second later. He was dead before he hit the porch and still he never let the Uzi's trigger go. The stubby little autoloader emptied out its magazine in one sustained stream of fire, raking the front of the ranch house and shattering one of the twin floodlights before the hammer fell upon an empty chamber.

The two surviving ninja saw their companion fall, but they could not divine the source of Bolan's silent shot. They assumed someone in the house had dropped their comrade so they put on the speed, dragging their hostage toward a waiting Lincoln, whose engine purred softly in the semidarkness.

Bolan swiveled, sighting swiftly.

He had a moving target, with the girl still in the line of fire, but there would never be another chance. The play was now or never — for himself and for the captive. Bolan took a breath and held it, squeezing the silenced Beretta's trigger... once, twice. And he could see the parabellums strike his human target, rippling the fabric of the black costume, boring in to find the man inside.

The ninja on the woman's left side stumbled, sprawling facedown on the flagstones, motionless.

His partner reacted with the smooth instinctive timing of a true professional. Before the woman could react he secured his grip upon her arm, preventing her from breaking free. With measured strides he kept the woman close beside him, using her as an effective shield until they gained the little flight of steps.

She made her move then, fiercely, desperately, kicking out at her captor's legs, whipping her free hand around to claw at his eyes.

She was no match for the ninja, but she managed to throw him off balance for a second, gaining purchase on the steps and almost twisting free of his grasp before he had time to react.

The Oriental warrior seemed about to let her go, had actually released her arm with one hand. But before she could break loose, his free hand slashed across and struck her just below the ear with a disabling karate chop. The woman turned to rubber in the ninja's arms, and he half-dragged her in the direction of the Lincoln.

Bolan burst out of cover of the slanting shadows, snarling as he moved. The snarl became a roar, deliberately directed at the ninja and his captive now, distracting the attacker before he could gain the car and load her inside.

The Executioner's move was effective, and the slender black-clad figure turned to face him, aware of danger on his flank for the first time. A glance took in the gun that Bolan carried but the ninja never hesitated, dumping the woman unceremoniously on the asphalt at his feet as he took up his stance to meet the enemy attack.

One hand dipped down along his waistband, coming up again and flashing forward in a lightning underhand. Bolan saw it coming and went into a flying shoulder roll, rebounding off the new-mown grass and tumbling out of range before the blade sliced air above him.

He came out of the roll with his silenced blaster ahead of him. He milked a searing double-punch out of the autoloader, putting both rounds through the target at a range of fifteen yards. The twin parabellums knocked the man off his feet, one hand raised ineffectually to close the pumping holes above his heart. Another second, and the last reserves of life had melted out of him, his slack form collapsing backward on the pavement. One left, and Bolan was already veering off to meet the driver of the captured Lincoln when the swordsman reappeared, rolling out of the car and onto his feet in a single fluid motion. Instead of the glistening blade his fist was filled with blue-steel hardware, making target acquisition on the Executioner's chest.

Suddenly the guy exploded, face and chest disintegrating into crimson spray, the useless pistol tumbling from his lifeless fingers. The echo of a shotgun blast from the direction of the porch was painful in Bolan's ear. He spun around to face the gunner, knowing one man dressed in black would look like any other to the shaken houseman in the heat of battle. Bolan was just in time as the gunner, already working the slide to chamber up another buckshot round, swung his bulky pump gun across to find the second standing target.

The 93-R coughed discreetly and the shotgunner collapsed along the parabellum mangler's flight path, buckling where it pierced his abdomen and tore up his vital organs. He staggered, lost his balance, fell... but Bolan did not wait around for confirmation of the kill. There would be other men inside, perhaps more prowling on the grounds. He had not risked everything, aborted his reconnaissance, to die there in the driveway with the woman sleeping soundly at his feet. He holstered the Beretta reluctantly, stooping down to catch the woman underneath the armpits.

He felt the warmth of a breast against his palm as he wrestled her into the Lincoln through the open driver's door. She was dead weight, and the Executioner needed a moment to get her in position wedged down at the passenger's door and out of the immediate line of fire.

He slid behind the wheel and threw the Lincoln into gear, allowing momentum to close the door behind him as he burned rubber out of there. Before they had traversed the first long loop of driveway, he could pick out human figures in the rearview mirror, milling about the porch and following his progress with their weapons. A straggling burst of gunfire peppered the Lincoln's trunk before he took it out of range. The driveway straightened out beyond the looping curve and then ran arrow straight across the acreage of manicured lawn. Somewhere ahead would be the gate, which was his only exit now. It might be guarded, but the Executioner was out of options. With the woman at his side there was no hope of a withdrawal on foot.

To the gate then, and whatever hard defenses lay in store there. Running through the darkness without lights, the soldier put his trust in the remaining slim advantage of surprise... and in audacity.

Beyond the gate, if he could get that far alive, the desert night was filled with peril and with promises.

Also the wrought-iron barrier was visible at sixty yards despite the darkness. Bolan saw that they were closed, and he could make out moving shadow-shapes to either side. They would be gunners, perhaps alerted now to what had happened at the house. But even if he took them by complete surprise they would still be dangerous.

At thirty yards he flicked the Lincoln's headlights on and kicked them into high beams, pinning the huddled gatemen in the sudden glare. They were collected in a little semicircle, and Bolan got a glimpse of handguns and a sawed-off twelve-gauge leveled at the speeding Continental.

Instinctively he hit the Lincoln's horn and held it down, a warning blaring out against the night, reverberating from the wall ahead of him. It took the gunners by surprise, and they were breaking, faltering, responding with conditioned reflexes that made them move out of the way before the Lincoln plowed them under.

A straggle-fire swept over Bolan's metal steed, most of the rounds going wild or ricocheting off the bodywork. A single bullet drilled the windshield and exploded through a window on the woman's side, but she was safely below the line of fire on the seat beside him. Bolan held the pedal to the floor and braced himself for impact with the gates.

A single sentry failed to get the message or refused to heed it. He was standing at ground zero when the Lincoln's bumper met wrought iron and drove on through, flattening him between the hard unyielding layers of metal like a slice of ham inside a ghastly sandwich.

Bolan had an image of the guy's head poking up above the grille like some human hood ornament, little of him left below the armpits where his body had been riced by impact with the gate. Then he was gone.

The gates buckled, ripping loose from hinges set in concrete. Bolan set his teeth against the grinding, scraping sound as metal tore metal off the Lincoln's roof and sides. Then they were through, briefly losing traction on the gravel of the driveway, fishtailing as they found it again and gained the purchase of the blacktop highway. They were clear but far from out of danger. Bolan knew he could expect pursuers. He was waiting for them. Still, the speed of their reaction almost took his breath away.

Before the Continental had covered a hundred yards he saw the two pursuit cars in his rearview, one emerging from the ruined gates and then the other, close behind. Their high beams cut a yellow tunnel through the darkness, reaching out and blinding him, until he pushed the mirror up with an impatient gesture.

Both his headlights had been shattered when they hit the double gates. Bolan shut them off, simultaneously killing the Continental's taillights with the hope that pursuit would be a trifle harder. It was dark, with a sliver of moon riding low in the sky. There was just a chance that he could get some mileage out of running dark.

The woman groaned, stirring on the seat, and Bolan glanced across at her. She was coming around, already struggling up through fitful semiconsciousness, instinctively using both hands in an effort to push herself upright. She made a little retching sound, but held her own against the dizziness that gripped her.

Behind them the chase cars were closing, filling both lanes as they ran two abreast. The wheelmen were pushing it and their passengers had started to unlimber their weapons, trying out the range and scoring scattered hits on the Lincoln. Heavy rounds plunked into the trunk, the fenders, probing for the fuel tank.

Suddenly a Magnum round burst through the broad back window, whistling past Bolan's ear before it took out half the windshield. Pebbled safety glass blew back against his face, the fragments filling up his lap and bouncing off the dash like hailstones.

The woman gave another lurch and sat upright, a perfect target for the gunners who had found their range. Bolan reached across and shoved her roughly down beneath the dash, wincing as he heard her skull make contact with the glove compartment. Still, his companion had the best seat in the house in terms of safety.

Not that it would matter if the gunners on their tail should find the gas tank or hit a tire and send them off the road into a lurching death spin at ninety-plus miles an hour.

Behind the Executioner, the chase cars jostled for position, first one surging forward then the other. Gunners leaned out of both, sniping at the stolen Continental. Some rounds scored, some missed — but they were good enough and close enough to let him know that it was only a matter of time. A bullet clipped the useless rearview mirror off its post and sent it bouncing across the hood; another burned through the seat beside him, grazing his arm before it plowed into the dash.

Bolan hunched his shoulders, trying to minimize the target he presented to his enemies. He braced himself, fists white knuckled on the wheel as he waited for a round to burrow between his shoulder blades.

He played a long shot, easing back a fraction on the gas as he allowed them to close the gap still further. When the closest tail was almost on his bumper, Bolan reached out and flicked on the taillights again, then held his breath. A long shot, right... and it paid off.

The wheelman on his tail mistook the sudden flash of red for brakelights and slammed on his own brakes reflexively, almost standing the Caddy crew wagon on its nose. It drifted hard left, cutting right across the center stripe and jostled hard against the other chase car. A shower of sparks glittered briefly on the asphalt, quickly burning out. The two vehicles ran along together for a hundred feet or so as the shaken drivers fought to correct. Then they separated, weaving like two wounded dinosaurs, losing precious momentum.

Bolan seized the opportunity and gunned it, pulling away from his enemies before they could recover from their near catastrophe. He used the extra numbers he had gained to put some ground between himself and his pursuers, momentarily losing sight of them as he rounded a curve in the highway.

It was merely a respite, but he had carved himself some breathing room. The enemy would be cautious now, and it could all work in his favor if he played it skillfully enough.

If he was not already leaking gas from bullet ruptures in the fuel tank. If he did not allow himself the sin of overconfidence that marked a destined loser.

He followed the highway through a series of S-curves, pushing the captured Continental to the limit, feeling her drift on the outer curves as he approached the boundaries of her tolerance. The speed was essential, but he could not risk their lives on unfamiliar highway with a wounded vehicle.

A morning recon had revealed the winding stretch of highway to him. He knew there were five or six more of the looping S-curves dead ahead, but darkness strained perception, played myriad tricks with the mind.

Even a conditioned warrior might misjudge, miscalculate, and when it happened.... Bolan dismissed the thought and concentrated on his driving. Two more curves and he would be back on the open straightaway with nowhere in the world to hide or make his stand.

It would have to be soon. He did not intend to let the chase cars tail him back to downtown Vegas.

He was not prepared to put his battle on the streets.

Not yet.

The woman stirred again, and Bolan saw that she was awake and watching him. Her eyes were wide with fear, reflecting pinpoints of the dash light as she huddled against the floorboards. There was no time for words of consolation as Bolan saw his chance and acted on an impulse, going for it on his instincts, without preparation or planning. He stood on the brakes and cranked the wheel hard to starboard as he brought the Lincoln around, rocking to a halt diagonally across the two-lane blacktop. He set the brake and left the engine running, reaching for the woman in the same fluid motion as he sprang his door and shoved it open.

She recoiled briefly, but their eyes met in the semidarkness and something flashed between them. She let Bolan pull her out of there with moments left to spare and followed him on shaky legs as they put the Lincoln behind them in the darkness.

They had barely reached cover — the woman lying prone and Bolan crouching with the AutoMag in hand, when the chase car came into view around the curve. The vehicles were running single file now, but with no loss of speed. If anything, the hunters anger and frustration seemed to milk some extra RPM out of the straining engines in carbon-copy Cadillacs.

The leader saw his peril much too late, and there was barely time for him to tap his brakes before the stunning impact of collision. Heavy-metal thunder filled the desert night, and Bolan watched an oily ball of flame devour both vehicles along with everyone inside. The second car was screaming in toward the roaring funeral pyre, but the driver somehow gained control, hit his brakes and leaned on the wheel to put his gunboat in a sidelong skid.

The Caddy drifted with its four tires smoking, but the wheelman missed the pileup by a yard or two and came to rest upon the shoulder of the road, his engine stalling. A single figure staggered from the raging bonfire in the middle of the highway. He was wrapped in flames, a lurching, screaming scarecrow. The Executioner was sighting for a mercy round when a secondary blast rolled out and knocked the figure sprawling, snuffing out the final spark of life.

Doors were springing open on the second Caddy, shaken gunners piling out with weapons in hand but aiming nowhere as they took in the holocaust at center stage. One or two of them were shielding their eyes from the heat, none looking out for Bolan as he drew down on them, with the silver AutoMag from less than thirty yards away.

His first round took a shotgun rider in the chest, 240 grains of pitiless extinction ripping through his heart and lungs and blowing him away. His flaccid form rebounded off the fender of the Caddy, touching down beside a startled comrade.

Number two had heard the shot, had long enough to gauge its source and pivot on his heels in that direction before Bolan stroked the hand cannon's trigger once again, dispatching death across the intervening no-man's-land. The gunner's head snapped back and kept on going, portions of it outward bound and lost in darkness. The guy was dead before he knew it, and the Executioner was tracking on to other targets long before the gunner hit the ground. Three.

Four.

Five.

They toppled like silhouettes in an amusement arcade's shooting gallery, the last one getting off a single shot that never came within a hundred yards of Bolan. The Executioner took a moment to recon the vehicle, making sure that there was no one left alive inside or crouching behind it. Then he slipped Big Thunder back into its military holster. The probe had gone to hell, and he was nowhere near the battlefield intelligence that he had hoped to gather from Minotte. For a fleeting instant, Bolan wondered if the Dixie capo had survived the hit on his estate. No matter. There would be other sources of information available in Vegas.

The big warrior knew that he would need that information now more than ever. There were wild cards in the game — for all he knew the whole damned deck was wild — and he could not proceed another step along the campaign trail without some hard intel.

The Vegas warning signs were badly out of synch, and he had to get some stretch, some cool perspective to prevent himself from making lethal errors along the way.

One means of gaining that intelligence, perhaps, was already within his grasp. The woman, right. Someone had thought she was important enough to steal her from Minotte and to lose lives in the process. Bolan meant to know what made her worth the trouble.

It was deathly still beneath the velvet midnight sky, except for the hungry crackling of the flames. The warrior made a final fleeting survey of the dead, then turned back toward the living.


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