After picking up a new rental car and ditching their riddled sedan on a lonely side street, Pol Blancanales and Mack Bolan drove directly to a fashionable apartment complex east of downtown St. Paul. They were not followed.
On their way up two flights of stairs, Pol filled Bolan in on some of the background to Toni's case. She had been living in St. Paul the past three months, working out of this same apartment building while handling some of Able Team's business that was unrelated to the covert Phoenix effort.
They reached a nondescript door on the third-floor front, and Pol gave a prearranged knock before letting himself in with his key. Mack Bolan followed his friend into a modest but comfortable living room, where the lights were kept on their lowest setting, casting shadows in the corners of the room.
Toni Blancanales was emerging from a rear bedroom to greet them, and Bolan was struck by the change in her appearance since their last meeting.
The Politician's kid sister was wan, almost cadaverous, and harried-looking. Her face wore the look, yeah, of a cornered animal. She was drawn and pallid, with dark circles under her eyes.
Toni's shoulder-length dark hair was mussed, looking as though it had been neither washed nor even brushed for several days. And she wore a loose-fitting housecoat, clearly designed to hide her young woman's figure, buttoned high around her throat and trailing almost to the floor.
She greeted them with a weak smile and a breathless monosyllable. Bolan watched her curl into a padded armchair, slim hands clasped tight around her drawn-up knees.
Bolan and Pol sat on the couch opposite, neither of them speaking for a long moment. Bolan used the time to study Toni closely as she sat there, her eyes averted, looking for all the world like a small child peeking through the top of some shapeless tent or sleeping bag.
Where her hands were clenched around her knees, the knuckles were white with tension, fingers tightly interlocked as if to keep those slender hands from trembling.
"I expected you back from the airport sooner," Toni said at last, breaking the awkward silence.
As she spoke, her eyes darted briefly to meet Bolan's, then skittered away again like mice frightened by a sudden noise.
"Yeah, well, we got tied up," the Politician told her.
Bolan let Toni's brother brief her on their meeting at Holman Field and the violence that followed. Her gaze never returned to him, and he used the opportunity to study her more closely, picking out new lines and shadows that he had never noticed on her face before.
Worry lines, sure. And the shadows of a pain and grief that knows no voice, no expression. She listened to Pol's story.
"What does it mean?" she asked no one in particular.
"Someone is watching Pol," answered Bolan, "or me, or both of us. Beyond that, it's too early to say."
He hesitated briefly before going on. "I'd like to hear your story before we try putting the pieces together," he finished at last.
At the first mention of her own story, of her troubles, Toni Blancanales paled again, seeming to shrivel inward, withdrawing before Mack Bolan's eyes.
"I don't know how much Rosario has told you," she began at last. "Able Team does a lot of its regular business here in the Twin Cities. You'd be surprised how much of the country's big business is transacted right here." Rosario broke in, trying to help her out. "At last estimate, the area was tied with San Francisco for seventh place in the nation as a corporate headquarters site," he said tonelessly.
"You can imagine some of the fierce competition that goes on around here," continued Toni. "Industrial espionage and occasional sabotage, the whole bit. Anyway, we've been working a low-level snooping case, possible pirating of patents, that sort of thing. I had an evening meeting with our client, to pick up some surveillance equipment and collect the final installment of our fee."
"When was this?" Bolan asked softly.
Toni paused, thinking.
"Four days ago now," she answered. "God, it seems like a lifetime."
"Go on, kid," the Politician urged gently.
Toni swallowed hard and said, "Okay. I finished the meeting and went downstairs. The building has one of those underground garages that look like something from Phantom of the Opera."
"Anyway, I was stowing our gear in the back seat of my car when this... this man... grabbed me from behind. I never heard him coming.... I never... never..."
She stopped, choking on the words, one hand pressed over her mouth as if she might be ill at any moment. Her dark, hunted eyes stared out through space toward some invisible focal point, watching the nightmare sequence unfold again on a silent mental screen.
"I fought him, believe me, but... he was stronger.... He hit me, Mack, and he forced me into the back seat of the car. He had a knife, and... he said he'd kill me if I didn't... if I didn't..."
Bolan felt a hard fist clenching in his gut, his gorge rising.
"He tore my blouse," she said, "and then... he... made me undress. He... he... oh Jesus."
Sobbing raggedly, the young woman was in fierce pain. But something made her continue, something forced her story to unravel under its own power.
"When he was finished... somehow I knew that he was going to kill me. I knew it. He was crazy. I was able... I don't know... somehow I pushed or kicked him out of the car, and I slammed the door shut. I was so afraid of passing out from the pain and the bleeding. He was outside, clawing at the glass like an animal, trying to get in, when... when..."
The words dried up and died. It was as if Toni had lost the thread of thought and was too bone weary to go looking for it again.
After another long moment, Pol composed himself and finished the story for her.
"Our client came down to get his car about that time, Mack, and he scared the stinking son of a bitch away, although he never got a real look at him. Christ almighty, if only he'd been a few minutes earlier!"
"If he had, Toni might not be here," Bolan said gently.
"I've been thinking about that," she murmured, "and you're right. Another minute, either way..." She shuddered and said, "He was willing to kill me. I could feel it."
"Were you able to describe him for the police?" Bolan asked.
The girl nodded jerkily.
"They put together a composite sketch. He didn't try to hide his face from me. I'm convinced he didn't expect to leave a witness behind."
"So he made a mistake, and the police have something to work with," Bolan said. "What about mug shots?"
Toni tossed her head in a quick negative. "I must have looked at thousands, maybe every bad guy in the Twin Cities. Some were close, but none of them was him. Fran says he probably hasn't been arrested before, at least not locally."
"Who's Fran?" Bolan asked.
Toni brightened visibly. "Fran Traynor," she said. "Officer Traynor, actually. She heads up a special squad for the St. Paul P.D., specializing in... rape."
"She's been great with Toni," Politician chimed in. "One of those new breed of cops with a special empathy for the victim. I understand she's built her own squad from the ground up, just to handle cases like this."
"God. Cases like this." Toni's voice was hollow as she echoed her brother's words.
Pol moved to kneel beside her, trying to slide a comforting arm around her shoulders, but she twisted away. Rising from her chair, she crossed the room to a bar and poured herself a stiff drink from the lone bottle that was standing there.
Pol looked after her with hurting eyes, then turned again to Bolan.
"The police are the problem, Mack," he said as he sat down again. "I mean, for the first day or so, everyone was all gung-ho to find this animal and take him off the streets. Officer Traynor and her team seemed to be right on top of the case."
Bolan was curious. "So what happened?"
Blancanales shrugged helplessly.
"Damned if I know. As soon as Toni gave her description to the police artist, you could feel the ice forming. All of a sudden the faces started changing, and Traynor was out. There's this big bull..."
"Detective Foss, or something," Toni interjected from the bar. "I don't remember."
"Right," Pol confirmed, nodding. "He comes on to Toni like she can't trust her own eyes and her description's not worth a damn. I swear to God, he made it sound like she... like she asked for it, Mack."
Pol was furious now, eyes glazing and fists clenched as he finished.
"I finally told him to stay the hell away from her," he grated. "And we haven't heard a word from St. Paul's finest since then."
"I can't put my finger on anything specific," Toni added, "but I believe the police are hiding something."
Pol was shaking his head in dazed wonder, like a punchy fighter.
"I can't fathom any of this," he said, bewildered. "Why? What reason could they possibly have for protecting an animal like that?"
Bolan raised a cautious eyebrow.
"We don't know that anyone is protecting him, Pol. Not yet. I trust Toni's instincts, but we need a lot more to accuse the police of whitewashing rape and attempted murder. If we can prove a cover-up, we'll have the motive. If we can't..."
He left the statement hanging, unfinished.
It was Toni's turn.
"Then you'll have one paranoid woman, right?" she said, growing angry now. "Well, I'm not paranoid, dammit. I'm not!"
Bolan raised both hands in a soothing, pacifying gesture.
"Okay," he agreed," so we start digging. And along the way, maybe we'll find out why those guys were waiting for us at the airport."
"Where do we start?" Pol asked.
"You stay here with Toni," Bolan told him. "She's been through enough already, and if someone is calling out the guns, we don't want her alone."
Blancanales nodded quickly. "Right, right. What about you?"
"I'd like to see how Officer Traynor feels about being frozen out of the case. Do you know how I can contact her? Preferably off the job."
"Yes, just a minute," Toni told him.
She produced a small white business card. It bore Fran Traynor's name and precinct telephone number, with a home number penciled in below.
"She told me to call her anytime," Toni said softly, "but since everything's changed... I didn't want to make things any worse."
Bolan rose to leave, pocketing the card and glancing at his wristwatch.
"It looks like I'll have to wake her up," he said, then turned to Pol. "You have a way to keep in touch?"
Blancanales grinned, nodding. "I've got just the thing," he said, striding quickly off into the second bedroom.
With her brother gone, Toni seemed to shrink another few inches into herself. Mack Bolan moved closer to her.
"Try to get some rest," he said. "And leave everything else to me."
He reached out to rest one hand on her frail shoulder, but she jerked away, her mouth was suddenly tight, eyes wary, darting from side to side as if in search of an escape exit.
As Bolan regarded her closely for a moment, the trapped expression softened, and there was the glint of tears behind long eyelashes.
"I'm sorry, Mack," she said bitterly, "I... I just can't."
Pol Blancanales chose that moment to return. Sensing the tension in the room, he tried to defuse it, holding out one of a pair of compact radios he carried.
"A little something I cooked up in my spare time," he said, grinning at Bolan. "Boosted the range and what not. Inside of thirty miles you should read five-by-five."
Bolan pocketed the tiny transceiver and shook hands with his friend, saying hushed goodbyes before he let himself out.
He took the stairs two at a time on his way to the Politician's rented car.
There was no limit, it seemed, to the number of victims. Hell, it was always open season on the weak, the meek, and the good, whether predators were stalking the streets and alleys or the steaming jungles of the world.
And no limit on the human capacity for suffering.
Someone close to Mack Bolan was suffering now, and that someone had damn sure suffered enough.
Someone else, though, had not yet begun to suffer for the pain he had inflicted on others.
There was inequity there, right enough, and the Executioner meant to do everything in his power to balance the scales a bit. Maybe, just maybe, he would have the luck and the odds that he needed on his side to upset those bloody scales completely.
At least for a little while.
No war, it seems, ever is won. It only pauses to rest before breaking out again, somewhere else, under some other flag or justification. Today the battlefield was St. Paul. Tomorrow?..
Bolan put the grim thoughts from his mind and concentrated on his unscheduled meeting with a lady cop.