Long miles lay between the deadly poppy fields of his recent mission in Turkey and the rainy streets of St. Paul, Minnesota, but Mack Bolan, the man now known as Colonel John Phoenix, had early learned to take his hellgrounds and his enemies where he found them. And that could be anywhere.
It was all one struggle, sure. All part of the same universal conflict, and you didn't need a program to tell the players apart if you could only get a handle on the game.
There were, of course, no living losers in the game.
Bolan had returned only hours earlier from the Turkish hellground, anxious for a brief respite from his war everlasting. The targets had been opium and the men who grew it. The method: total destruction. Executioner style.
And yes, Bolan had been more than happy to find the brief sanctuary of his Phoenix base, located on Stony Man Farm in the lovely Blue Ridge mountain country of Virginia. He could find peace there, or at least the illusion of peace.
But there would be no real peace at Stony Man Farm for Mack Bolan. Not on this return trip from the universal hellground.
He had been welcomed home by April Rose and Aaron "The Bear" Kurtzman, warriors-in-residence at the Phoenix base. Behind the lovely young woman's kiss of greeting and her sparkling eyes, Bolan had read a message of concern, even distress.
Something, yeah, had been happening on the home front while Bolan was circling the eastern frontiers, stomping vipers.
The last of the telexes had been received forty-five minutes before Bolan's arrival by air. The Executioner spent the next forty-five in gentle, aimless conversation with April, unwinding from his recent brush with death. He spoke in the vague generalities of a man who hates to worry his woman, and she listened with the incisive knowledge of a woman who lives on the fine edge between exultation and despair.
For the moment, though, simple gratitude was enough for both of them.
They were both alive, yeah, and ready to fight another day against yet another enemy. On another hellground.
And every day above ground was a good day for Mack Bolan and his woman.
The expected telephone call had come exactly on schedule, and Aaron the Bear had fetched Bolan from his seat on the porch of Stony Man's ranch house. April had stayed behind, watching him go with sad, knowing eyes.
Pol Blancanales was on the line, his normally firm voice almost cracking, his words dripping with grateful relief.
"Mack... thank God... I was afraid..." He broke off, as if struggling to collect disordered thoughts before continuing.
"Easy, Pol," the Executioner said. "Give it to me one piece at a time, from the beginning."
Something caught in the Politician's throat, far away at the other end of the line.
"Jesus, Mack, it's Toni. I... I..."
He broke off again, but already he had said enough to raise Bolan's hackles, letting him know that there was something deadly personal about this cry for help.
Toni Blancanales was the Politician's kid sister. And some "kid," yeah. All woman, that kid, and no question about it.
During the Executioner's home-front Mafia wars, she had worked on occasion with Bolan and the members of Able Team, and since the birth of the Phoenix project, she had been handling the overt aspects of Able Team's ongoing private eye business.
Bolan had the highest respect and affection for her.
There had been some physical substance to that mutual affection once, lifetimes ago and far away, on yet another hellground. Bolan cherished the memory of that brief encounter and relegated it to the untouchable, urreclaimable past.
But he loved the lady, sure, in his way. And always would.
So the trouble was Toni in St Paul. The kid sister.
"Take your time, Pol," Bolan had urged his distraught comrade-in-arms. "What about Toni?"
At the other end, Blancanales drew a deep, ragged breath before continuing.
"She's been beaten, Sarge. Beaten bad. And... and raped."
The last word came out as a strangled whisper, but it rang in Bolan's ear like the thunderous blast of close-range gunfire. Something turned over inside him.
He regained control swiftly. No observer would have seen it slip away from him. But his hand was white-knuckled as he gripped the telephone receiver.
"Is she going to be all right, Pol? Is she in the hospital?"
Blancanales hesitated. Then his voice was low and clipped. "She was, but I got her out of there. I couldn't leave her in there, Mack."
Bolan sensed something underneath his old friend's words, a tension beyond the fury of an outraged brother. "You'd better fill me in, Pol," he said.
"Jesus, Mack, I don't know where to start. Toni was already in the hospital when I got word about... about what happened. I went right over, and Jesus..."
Bolan waited for his friend to regain his composure and continue. Pol's voice came back at him almost as a whisper. Bolan could hear the guy choking on his pain as he spoke.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw her, Sarge. I mean, it looked like she'd been worked over by two or three guys, not just one..." He hesitated again, then forged ahead. "Hell, I've seen worse. We both have, hundreds of times. But it's different when it hits close to home. Very different."
And sure, the Executioner knew all about being hit close to home. Just such a blow to the heart had inspired his original "hopeless war," and the memories of martyred friends, the wounded and the dead, stretched out behind him like milestones on a personal road to hell. Mack Bolan had made the journey once, full circle, and he had returned to begin again.
Pol Blancanales was speaking to him, bringing Bolan back again to the here and now.
"You should have seen her," he was saying, "all stretched out up there in the ward, looking like death warmed over. I didn't recognize her at first. My own kid sister, for God's sake. They had her hooked up to an I.V., and bandages all over — Christ, I thought she was dying."
"What did the medics tell you?"
"Lots of nothing. Abrasions and contusions, a mild concussion — you know the routine, Sarge. She has hairline fractures on a couple of ribs, but no internal injuries, thank God. Three of her fingers were dislocated when she tried to protect herself. And then... of course, she was raped."
"You know it could have been worse," Bolan said.
"Yes, it could have been worse."
Mack Bolan realized that his friend was walking on the razor-edge of hysteria.
"Easy, Pol," he cautioned. "You've got to hold it together. For Toni."
"She could barely recognize me, Sarge," he said, swallowing. "They had her so doped up... But when she made out who I was, she started crying, and she said she was ashamed..."
Bolan cut him off. "When did the doctors decide to release her?" he asked.
The question took Blancanales by surprise.
"Oh, they didn't. I just sort of checked her out on my own."
"Well, goddammit, I couldn't leave her lying up there like a slab of meat on display. She was dying inside, Mack. And the place wasn't what I call secure. So I checked around, made sure the I.V. was only S.O.P. for shock instead of life-support. Then I bagged an orderly's uniform from the laundry room and picked up a wheelchair in the hallway. She was home in bed before those turkeys knew that she was gone."
"You were taking one hell of a chance, Pol."
"You know, I believe it would have been a much bigger chance leaving her there in the open," insisted Blancanales. "I have to check some things out, see what's out of line."
He paused. There was anguish in his voice.
"Listen, Sarge, something's wrong with this case. I mean... hell, I'm not sure what I mean, and I hate to say any more on an open line. Can you come?"
What in hell do you say to an old friend and fellow warrior when he tells you that his sister, a girl as close — closer — than your own, has been trapped and torn by animals?
You tell him that you'll do anything to help, go anywhere.
Sure, all of that. You owe it to him, and to her.
You owe it to yourself.
"I'm on my way," the Executioner told his friend without hesitation.
And the meeting had been set for Holman Field, just over two hours from Stony Man by light plane. Bolan allowed himself an extra hour for preparation, and scheduled the meeting for midnight. The gratitude and relief in the Politician's voice was full of pathos, almost more than Bolan could stand.
Can you come?
Rather, ask: Can you turn your back on a friend in torment?
It was not within Mack Bolan's power to ignore that plea for help. Not if he could answer in the affirmative with the last breath of life.
The quality of caring and of empathy for the wounded and dying of the hellgrounds had earned Bolan the nickname "Sergeant Mercy" on the Asian battlefields, even while his marksmanship and coolness under fire were winning him the "Executioner" label.
It took a big man to carry both names well.
And Mack Samuel Bolan was one hell of a big man.