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11

A swift conversation with Pol Blancanales netted Bolan the information that the hardmen he'd encountered earlier that morning were driving vehicles registered in the name of Twin Cities Development, Inc. And the Politician's encyclopedic mind had filled in the fact that TCD was, in reality, a dummy corporation manufactured to front for the numbers and shylock operations of one Benny Copa, mobster.

Copa had been born Benjamin Coppacetti in the Hell's Kitchen district of New York City, and had migrated westward at the tender age of sixteen, one jump ahead of some heavy-duty robbery and assault indictments in the Big Apple. He had never been a real power in the Mafia, no one to be reckoned with outside St. Paul, even in the days before Mack Bolan's syndicate wars, but he was a localized underworld honcho of sorts.

He needed to know from Copa why the guns had been called out, and he needed that information before the day got any older.

Benny Copa operated from second-floor offices set above a billiard parlour two blocks over off Arcade Street. The place was called Freddy's, but there was no Freddy in residence, and no one in the neighborhood was quite sure anymore if he had ever existed.

Bolan found the place easily and parked his rental sedan a block past the darkened entrance, near an intersection. He had passed an alley as he circled the block, and he found it now on foot, moving cautiously along behind the businesses that faced the street. In a moment, he had reached the rear entrance of Freddy's.

And the place was locked. Naturally.

No pool hall would be open at that hour of the morning.

The cheap lock yielded quickly to the Executioner's pick, and he found himself inside a darkened doorway. The service stairs were immediately to his left.

Bolan's combat senses made a quick remote probe of the ground floor, picking up no sounds of human occupation. When he was satisfied that he wasn't leaving unknown dangers behind, he moved to the staircase, Beretta Belle in hand and ready to meet any challenge.

There was a hardman stationed at the top of the stairs, leaning back against the wall in a metal folding chair and dozing after a long night on duty. Bolan was almost on top of the guy when he woke, trying to right his leaning chair and reach holstered gunmetal in one awkward, unbalanced motion.

The Beretta coughed its single deadly word, and the guy went down with a thud, the chair rattling out from under him as he fell. His passing left a viscous crimson smear on the grimy wall.

Bolan had to assume that the racket of the hardman's dying had alerted everyone inside the adjacent office. He hit the door with a flying kick and burst in, the Belle up and seeking targets.

There were three of them, all clustered around a big desk littered with loose cash and crumpled bits of paper.

Three pairs of eyes locked onto Mack Bolan at his explosive entrance, noting his hard eyes and deadly side arm. Two of the men, conditioned by a lifetime in the mob's gutter wars, broke for their weapons, peeling off in opposite directions in an effort to divide Bolan's attention.

It almost worked.

But almost isn't good enough.

Bolan nailed the one on the left, plugging a 9mm mangler through the bridge of his nose before he could reach gun leather. Then he spun to take the guy on the right. Round one pinned the guy's gun hand to his chest as he was coming out of his death spin. Round two entered his gaping mouth and exited from the rear in a shower of blood and bone fragments.

And the sole survivor was taking it all in with astonished eyes, standing behind the desk with both hands flat on the broad top and making no move to leave it. His round eyes never left the smoking muzzle of Bolan's lethal Beretta.

Mack Bolan had known from the moment of entry that this man would be Benny Copa, and that he would not be packing. The self-styled honchos of the mob considered themselves exempt from the dirty chores of the gun-bearers, and Bolan had learned from experience that that arrogance made them vulnerable in a pinch.

The pinch was on Benny Copa now, and he knew it.

Bolan crossed the office, his eyes and gun never wavering from Benny's pallid face. When he was less than a foot from the mobster, his Beretta almost grazing the little guy's nose and letting him savor the cordite smell of death, Bolan gave the guy a light push that dumped his slack form into a waiting swivel chair.

And at that, Benny Copa recovered enough of his voice to break the silence.

"Easy, man," he said, not quite pleading. "There must be some mistake."

"You made it, Benny."

Copa thought that one over quickly, licking dry lips.

"Well, hey, I mean... it can't be all that bad, can it?"

Bolan's face and voice were hard, unyielding.

"That depends on you."

And Bolan could see the guy's face and mind working, trying to read the possibility of a deal — or survival — into Bolan's words.

"Okay, yeah," he said at last. "I can dig it. Let's talk a deal here."

"Make it simple," Bolan said. "You have some information, and I want it. You give, you live. Simple."

The look in Benny Copa's eyes was telling the Executioner that, yeah, the guy understood simple very well indeed. Copa nodded rapidly as he spoke.

"Fire away... hey, I mean... ask, okay?"

"You sent some crews out this morning, Benny. They didn't come home."

Copa's face registered shock at Bolan's inside knowledge. He covered it a second later, but not before Bolan had duly noted the reaction.

"Uh, I've got lots of crews, man," he said, stalling. "I run a big operation here."

"I'm only interested in two."

"Uh-huh, well... maybe we can make a deal here," he said, smiling craftily.

Bolan pressed the hot muzzle of the Beretta Belle against Benny's forehead, hearing the flesh sizzle on contact. He let Copa wince and wiggle for a moment before withdrawing the gun, leaving an angry red circle above the guy's left eye.

"You heard the deal, Benny. The minute I think you're shucking, I terminate the conversation."

And Bolan's tone left no doubt that the conversation would not be the only thing terminated, sure.

"Okay, okay," he said hastily. "Jesus, you can't blame a guy for trying."

"Sure I can," Bolan said.

Copa glowered back at his uninvited guest.

"Christ, you don't give a man much slack, do you?"

"The crews, Benny. Last chance."

"All right, dammit! We're talking about five boys, right? Two at the airport, and three more at a certain lady's house?"

Bolan nodded silently, letting the cornered weasel continue.

"Okay, right," Copa said, nodding affirmation of his own words. "They were part of a package deal. Outside contract, you know? Nothing to do with organization business."

And he smiled, as if that piece of information should settle everything.

But it didn't.

"What was their mission?" Bolan asked.

The little mobster managed a sarcastic snort.

"What do you think?"

The cold expression of the Executioner's face stifled the feeble snicker.

"They were disposal teams, man, you know?" Benny hastened to explain. "They were sent to dispose."

"Hit teams," Bolan said.

Copa nodded jerkily.

"Who was their mark at the airport?"

Copa shrugged elaborately, making a show of ignorance.

"Some dude, who knows? I told you it was an outside contract, right? The customer fingers his mark, and I count the dollar signs."

"I'll want the customer's name."

Benny Copa stiffened in his swivel chair, knuckles white as he gripped the armrests. There was new fear behind his eyes that had nothing to do with Bolan and the deadly silenced Beretta inches away from his nose.

The guy was silent for a long moment, but in the end the fear of clear and present danger won out, loosening his tongue.

"Really, man, I could buy real trouble by answering questions like that."

And it seemed the guy would never quit trying.

"You have trouble, Benny," Bolan reminded him curtly. "You're trying to buy time."

There was another, shorter pause. Then Copa opened up.

"Well, hey, I only know the dude's voice, can you dig it? We made the arrangements by phone."

Bolan's answering voice was almost sad.

"You commit five soldiers without knowing the customer's name? Goodbye, Benny."

The Beretta slid out to full extension, and Bolan was tightening into the final squeeze when Copa gave a strangled little yelp and threw out both hands, palms open, as if to ward off hurtling death.

"Wait! Shit! All right, man, I'm sorry."

The Beretta never wavered from its target.

"The name," Bolan said, his voice icy.

Benny Copa was sweating profusely. He wiped his forehead with a shirtsleeve, but it didn't seem to help.

"The name's Smalley," he almost whispered, "as in Roger. Satisfied?"

"What is he to you?" Bolan asked.

Copa looked incredulous at first, and then a canny little smile crept its way across his pale, damp face.

"You really don't know, do you?" Benny said, shaking his head. "I'll be goddamned and go to hell."

Bolan waited silently, ticking off the numbers in his head and staring at one round eye along the slide of his Beretta autoloader. Copa felt the vibrations of imminent death, and started talking again.

"Roger Smalley, man... he's only the deputy P.C. for all of St. Paul, that's all."

"So what was this Smalley character after? Why did he send you to the airport? No one knew I was coming in."

Now it was Copa's turn to be genuinely in the dark. "We weren't after you, man. All I know about you is what's going down now... And that's enough, thanks."

Bolan jammed the Brigadier's muzzle against the man's sweating nose. "Keep talking facts, little man. Who were you after? And why?"

"The customer said something about a bad detective," replied Copa, fast. "He said this dick had kidnapped a girl from the hospital. I guessed we had some sort of vigilante on our hands, a guy getting away with all kinds of shit and embarrassing the Commissioner. But it was just a contract, don't you see? No big deal."

Looking into Benny Copa's frightened eyes, he had no doubt the little guy was leveling with him.

He lowered the Beretta a notch, maybe half a notch.

"Okay, Benny," he said at last. "Live."

Bolan backed away from the littered desk and toward the door opposite. He could see relief tempered with caution flood into Benny Copa's face and form. The little mobster was desperately wanting — hell, needing — to believe that he was off the hook, but he couldn't quite accept it so suddenly. As the final realization hit him, he started to regain a touch of his natural bravado.

"Jesus, fella," he said, "you really had me going there."

After a quick glance around at the bodies on the floor, he added, "You also left me a helluva mess to clean up."

"Your problem, Benny," Bolan told him curtly. "You could have gone with them."

Copa snorted, grinning from ear to ear.

"Right, hell, buttons are everywhere... dime a dozen."

The little hood seemed struck by a sudden inspiration.

"Hey, wait," he called. "Maybe we can make another deal."

Bolan paused in the doorway.

"You've got nothing else I want, guy," he told the little cannibal.

"Well, Jesus, hear me out, huh? I'll double what you're getting now. Name your price. I could use a man of your... abilities."

Bolan said nothing. He was amazed at the guy's gall in trying to buy him and his gun.

"Listen, really," the mobster prodded, "I know natural talent when I see it. These boys were no shitheads, you know? Not like the old days, hell, but okay. You didn't take them out with no friggin' beginner's luck."

Bolan remained silent, letting the guy spill his guts.

"Fact is," Copa continued, "damned few guys I ever heard of could take two men... three men... in a face-to-face. Some of the old aces maybe, but hell..."

Behind those weasel eyes, wheels were turning, gears clicking into place as an embryonic idea or suspicion took shape. Benny's face underwent subtle changes, and Mack Bolan's gut rumbled in response, feeling something coming.

"You know, if it wasn't so goddamned far out... hey, uh, listen... that wouldn't be a Beretta you're holding, would it?"

Bolan saw the end coming, inexorably, the last unknown variables falling into place behind Benny Copa' s suddenly haunted eyes.

And he nodded.

"You called it, Benny."

Copa's mouth worked soundlessly for a moment, then he licked his lips and tried again.

"You're dead, guy," was all he could manage.

"So are you," Bolan told him.

And the Beretta chugged once, putting a 9mm parabellum round through Benny Copa's left eye socket and slamming him over out of sight behind the desk. There was no need to check his condition, and Bolan didn't bother.

He put Copa's place behind him swiftly, his mind occupied with his own thoughts. As he reached the bottom of the stairs, the office phone began jangling overhead, loudly and insistently. There was no one up there to answer the call.

Back in his rental car and rolling, Bolan heard the grim words again in his mind. First spoken by Pol Blancanales in predawn darkness, and now, again, by the late and unlamented Benny Coppacetti.

You're supposed to be dead, guy. Dead and buried.

And yeah, theoretically, hypothetically, Mack Bolan was buried. Parts of him had been shed forever in Southeast Asia, in Pittsfield, in the final New York firestorm of his second mile against the Mafia.

It might come to pass that another part — or all of him — would be buried right there in St. Paul that very day, but he couldn't — hell, wouldn't — live in fear of the unknown and the inescapable. It was not his way, and never would be.

Mack Bolan was alive and living large.

All the way to a meeting with the assistant P.C. of St. Paul, yeah, and beyond that, if necessary, into the gates of hell itself.


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