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4

Las Vegas is a two-faced town. It wears one face by night, another by day. A first-time visitor might pass through the streets at different times and never recognize the city. Looking for the lights, the girls, the glitter, he could lose himself in no time, coming out the other side a different man... if he came out at all.

Las Vegas is a different city in daylight.

Warm by early morning, temperatures would soar to a hundred in the shade by noon; the streets a wasteland shimmering with desert heat. With dawn all the neon is extinguished and the town takes on a faded washed-out look, more common to a farming town than to a thriving tourist center. Beyond the downtown Strip the city could be ordinary, even drab — a sprawl of prefab shopping malls and cookie-cutter housing tracts. The scattered slot machines in drug stores, fast-food restaurants and supermarkets stand like remnants of some alien culture, badly out of place and out of time amid the trappings of a workaday reality.

The city lives on gambling but its people dwell apart from the casinos, pursuing separate lives that seldom intersect the fast lane. The rates of homicide and other violent crimes rival cities many times her size, but there are also parks and churches, synagogues and schools. It is a side the tourist seldom sees but warrior Bolan knew the varied faces of Las Vegas. He knew the gambling mecca was a town made up of people, sure. The builders and the civilizers. And among them were savages preying on the weak and willing, sometimes turning on each other. But the Executioner stood ready to oppose them on the firing line. If necessary he would give his life to keep the cannibals confined within their rightful place. And if it did come to that he would be taking many of them with him when he went.

The civic buildings in Las Vegas are as drab as the casinos are flamboyant, and the metro police headquarters is no exception to the rule.

It squats on Stewart near the cross-town freeway like a fortress ready to repel invaders or to keep its secrets safely locked away inside. Bolan found a space reserved for visitors out front and parked his rental car, the plain sedan fitting naturally with the other cars already in the lot. He spent a moment double-checking his custom fake ID before he locked the Ford and made his way inside.

He was relying on role camouflage to help him through this penetration of what was, in essence, enemy territory. No disguise was readily available beyond the fake credentials, but the soldier knew that with sufficient audacity, and just a dash of luck, he had a chance of getting through it in one piece.

In any case, he had to try.

The human mind interprets everything that passes through the window of the eyes; it color-codes and classifies, provides the connotations that give meaning to the world beyond our noses. Given time, experience, the brain not only "sees," but it begins predicting just exactly what it should be seeing in a given situation, taking certain things for granted in the absence of a jarring visual contradiction. Thus, role camouflage.

Mack Bolan long ago had learned that it was possible to manipulate the image that a pair of searching eyes passed on for coding and interpretation. Given static circumstances, the warrior could anticipate what normal minds would "want" to see. With very little alteration in his own appearance, he could readily conform to meet those mental expectations, and the end result, as often as not, was a kind of de facto invisibility that served the Executioner well at need. And he needed vital information now. There was only one place he could think of where he might obtain it. If it worked he would be well ahead, perhaps securing the handle that he needed. If it failed...

A khaki sergeant on the desk examined his ID perfunctorily and signed him in, providing Bolan with a clip-on plastic tag identifying him as Visitor. The officer steered him through a pair of swinging doors that opened on an antiseptic corridor, and Bolan paced off fifty yards of waxed linoleum until he reached the door marked Homicide. A nameplate mounted on the office door identified the Homicide CO as Captain Reese. The man behind the desk inside was fiftyish, with thinning hair above a weathered face. He seemed uncomfortable and out of place inside a modish polyester leisure suit. When he stood up the jacket opened, and Bolan saw the Smith and Wesson Model 59 worn on his left hip, butt forward to accommodate a cross-hand draw. Captain Reese rounded his desk, and Bolan let him eyeball the credentials that identified him as a federal agent.

"Frank LaMancha, Justice."

"Sam Reese." There was immediate suspicion in the homicide detective's eyes and voice. "What can I do you for?"

"I'm with the racketeering task force," Bolan told him, "out of Washington. They sent me out to run a recon, lay some groundwork.""

"Ah..." His tone was noncommittal.

Bolan glanced around the office, sizing up the man.

"The AG seems to think you've got a problem," Bolan said.

The captain frowned.

"We've got our finger on it," he replied.

"Oh? You have fingers on Larry Liguori? Spinoza? Johnny Cats?"

A ruddy color seeped into the captain's cheeks.

"I know the names. We keep an eye on all of them." His frown became a scowl. "You're pointing fingers at a bunch of citizens, and damned important ones at that. Their money talks around this town."

"Who does the listening?" Bolan asked him.

Reese bristled.

"Back off, La Motta."

"That's LaMancha."

"Whatever. I admit we have a problem but we're working on it. What we don't need in Las Vegas is a pack of hungry federales getting in our way with all that green felt jungle bullshit..."

Bolan allowed himself a narrow smile.

"I guess you're working on Minotte, too," he said. "You don't waste any time."

"I can't afford to."

Bolan crossed the room to stand before a wall map bristling with multicolored stickpins. A shiny blood-red pin protruded from the near vicinity of the Minotte stud farm.

"You've got a gang war on your hands," he offered without turning around.

"Says who?"

"Says common sense. You think Minotte's Eastern visitors were wise men following a star?"

"There anything you don't know?"

"Plenty," Bolan told him frankly. "Like where Seiji Kuwahara and the Yakuza fit in."

There was a momentary silence, and when Reese responded his tone was less hostile.

"We're working on it. Kuwahara runs a restaurant on Paradise — the Lotus Garden. We know he's connected, but that's where it ends. No wants or warrants out of Tokyo, nothing."

"What about the hit team?"

"Zip, so far. If we turn anything at all I'm betting on illegals."

"There'll be more where those came from," the Executioner advised him.

"You telling fortunes now?"

"Just playing the percentages. Your town is primed to blow wide open."

"Never happens, fella. No one wants to kill the golden goose."

"The rules are changing, Captain. There's a wild card in the game. No way of telling where the chips are going to fall this time."

Reese stiffened, thrusting his jaw out.

"Whichever way they fall, we'll be there."

"Picking up the pieces?"

"Playing by the book, dammit. Chapter and verse."

"So you start out three innings behind." The captain's face and tone were sour.

"Tell me something I don't know already." Bolan shifted gears. "I understand the Daily Beacon's working on a series that could turn some heads around your town."

Reese raised an eyebrow.

"It's news to me — no pun intended."

Bolan frowned.

"You sound surprised."

Reese shook his head.

"Not really. Old Jack Goldblume's always got an ax to grind."

"Who's Goldblume?"

"He's the Beacon's owner, editor — you name it. Likes to call himself the "Voice of Vegas." Been around forever. Mostly he takes potshots at the IRS or FBI. He doesn't care much for you federal boys."

"His privilege."

"Yeah." The captain's tone informed him that the feeling might be mutual. "It's funny no one briefed you on him..."

Bolan's gut was telling him that it was time to disengage, and he could feel the numbers falling in his head.

"I assume that I can count on your cooperation, Captain?"

Reese's face was devoid of all expression as he answered.

"By the book, LaMancha. You've got your job; I've got mine."

Bolan nodded.

"Fair enough. We understand each other."

As he retraced his steps along the corridor to daylight, Bolan thought he understood the homicide detective. Reese had the typical Nevadan's thinly veiled suspicion of the federal government, the world outside the borders of his state.

The local leaders often seemed to see themselves besieged by hostile outside forces, persecuted by the blue-nosed moralists who stubbornly refused to see the silver lining of a legal gambling economy. Reports of mob influence in the industry were commonly dismissed as slander or, providing evidence of guilt was overwhelming, minimized as transient aberrations in a squeaky-clean administration. Never mind that local politicians from the legislature to the highest of judicial benches had been busted and convicted for accepting bribes from mobsters. Never mind that union leaders closely tied to La Cosa Nostra had been climbing into bed with top official spokesmen for a generation now, and federal agents had been lately capturing their antics with videocameras for all to see. Nevadans by and large were still defensive and defiant, stubbornly refusing to believe. And it was not, Bolan knew, that most of the state's citizens were actively involved in the corruption. Not that they supported it, by any means.

But he had seen the same phenomenon in action elsewhere — locals closing ranks against the allegations from outside that seemed to signify a "ganging up" by hostile forces, amounting to a persecution complex in extreme examples. Bolan hoped that Captain Reese would not turn out to be one of those extreme examples. The captain of homicide could do a lot to help clean out his town if he was willing to admit the dirt existed in the first place. It would take some courage, sure, to go against the men whose money talked in Vegas, but it could be done. With any luck at all, Mack Bolan would be showing Reese the way within the next few hours. And Las Vegas was all primed and ready for his kind of action, certainly. The different factions of the Mob were at one another's throats and the media was standing by in hopes of giving them some overdue exposure.

Everything Bolan needed was in readiness, except a handle on the Yakuza, and what exactly they wanted in this desert town so many thousand miles from home.

Not what, precisely; that was obvious in Vegas, the town that skimming built. In actuality the question was more how they planned to go about achieving what they sought.

And whether Bolan could move fast enough to stop them short of resolution. If he could not, then Las Vegas was in for a bloody season of suffering. If he could — well, there would still be blood enough to go around.

The warrior did not care for the alternatives, but he was used to playing by the rules that others had established for him. It was how you bent the rules that made the game your own. And Bolan was playing to win in Las Vegas. All the way.


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