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5

Bolan checked Fran Traynor's name and number against a St. Paul telephone directory and came up lucky. Unlike many police officers, who opted for unlisted phone numbers, the lady cop was listed on what turned out to be a medium-prosperous residential street lined with tract houses and scattered shade trees. At that hour of the morning, all the houses were sleeping, cloaked in darkness.

On his first drive-by, Bolan noted that the house's separate garage was set well back and away from the road. There were two cars in the driveway. A small foreign compact was parked nose-on toward the big garage door, and a long black Cadillac had it blocked, filling the drive behind it.

So the lady had company, or else she liked to drive in style.

Bolan couldn't see an honest cop laying out the necessary cash for the big Detroit black, so it remained to be seen only if Fran Traynor's company was welcome or unexpected.

And the Executioner suddenly had a strong negative feeling about that Caddy in the driveway.

He had seen too many like it before, sure, during his home-front war against the Mafia octopus, to avoid a warning tightness in his gut at the sight of the big steel shark waiting silently, as if for prey.

And yet he could not afford to jump to any conclusions, either. It was just that he could never be too careful if he wanted to keep on breathing and walking around with all his working parts in operating condition. Not after the greeting he and Pol had received a few hours earlier.

Bolan drove on by the apparently sleeping house and parked his rental car two houses down. Within seconds he had checked the load on the 9mm Beretta Brigadier beneath his left arm, and he was E.V.A., moving through the darkness like a wraith as he backtracked toward the home of the lady cop.

He entered her yard, which was wrapped in deepest shadow, and it didn't take thirty seconds to confirm his worst suspicions.

A cigarette was bobbing and glowing in the driver's seat of the black Cadillac. It did not take any combat genius to decide that a friend or lover spending the night with a lady would not leave his chauffeur waiting at the wheel.

The car was a crew wagon. If not Mafia, then some deadly affiliate. And it looked as if the driver was expecting his crew back at the car at any moment.

Mack Bolan decided not to keep the guy waiting any longer.

Sliding the Beretta Belle from its side leather sheath, Bolan made a stealthy approach to within arm's length of the driver's window. Even with the iron-clad certainty of experience and intuition burning in his mind, he refused to snipe the guy from a distance without making positive, final verification of his allegiance and identity.

The Executioner would have no innocent blood on his soul.

And from five feet away, he knew that his intuition still functioned, his combat instincts were still finely honed and working smoothly.

The guy was syndicate. There was no mistaking the bulge of bolstered hardware beneath the left arm. And even in the darkness, there was no mistaking the type, either. The thirty-dollar haircut and the expensive suit that somehow never matched the swarthy face of a street-wise, slum-born punk.

And yeah, Bolan was certain. But he had to be certain in his soul, where it counted, as well as in his mind and in his gut. There would have to be one last, indisputable test.

Bolan made the split-second decision, recognizing all possible consequences in the space of a heartbeat. If his instincts were wrong, and the guy was a lawman or an armed civilian bodyguard of some sort, he would have to withdraw as best he could and contact Fran Traynor another time. If he was right...

Bolan moved. He stepped out of the shrubbery, deliberately exposing himself and holding the Beretta out of sight along his thigh. The driver saw him at once, and his boredom vanished in a fast double-take. His reaction was swift, practiced, and it sealed his fate. The sawed-off shotgun that came nosing up over the dash told Bolan all he needed to know.

No cop or trained security man would react in such a fashion, without warning, and none would have armed himself with such a weapon. The guy was dirty, all right. And he was dead.

Bolan extended the Beretta to arm's length, the squat muzzle of its special silencer a foot from the wheelman's face, and he stroked the trigger lightly. The shotgun muzzle continued to rise and level out. The Belle coughed out a single breathless phut. The driver slumped sideways in his seat, the cigarette a fading ember now on the blood-spattered floorboards of the Caddy.

Bolan moved on, rounding the rear of Fran Traynor's house and finding the back door unlocked. From that angle, he could also see that lights were burning inside, although they had been invisible from the street.

The Executioner entered the house silently, moving through a cluttered utility area and down a hallway, following the source of illumination. The silenced Beretta nosed its cautious way ahead of him, ready for trouble.

At last he stood beside a partially open bathroom door, poised and listening, his every combat sense alert. From beyond that threshold came the sound of water and the low mutter of voices, as if someone within was washing clothes by hand and talking to himself.

Bolan risked a glance around the doorjamb, taking in the whole scene immediately.

Two hardmen, both in shirtsleeves, knelt beside the porcelain bathtub. Their jackets had been laid carefully aside, their sleeves rolled up above the elbows to avoid becoming drenched as the men went about their task.

They were drowning a naked woman in the tub.

Almost reluctantly, it seemed to Bolan, they would dunk the blonde head under water and hold it there, strong hands subduing what were minimal struggles at best. He guessed that the woman had been drugged or otherwise rendered semi-conscious as a prelude to her watery execution.

And they kept dragging her up again from beneath the water's surface, shaking her as if they sought to keep her at least partially sentient and aware throughout the ordeal. Bolan caught a quick glimpse of a flushed face half-hidden by a screen of sodden hair, and the roundness of one breast before the lady was submerged again.

And close up now, he could understand the words spoken by the two rental ghouls.

"I still say it's a shame all of this has to go to waste," the one on the left was saying with a leer.

"Forget it, stud," the guy's partner snapped. "This is supposed to look like an accident, not an orgy."

"A goddamned shame," the first guy grunted, bending to his task with renewed vigor.

Mack Bolan had seen and heard enough. He stepped through the doorway, the Belle up at full extension and steadied in a two-handed grip for optimum accuracy in rapid fire. He nudged the bathroom door wide open with one foot, and the hinges gave out a tiny squeak of response.

One of the gunmen was half turned toward him, growling, "Dammit, Joey, I told you to stay..." The kneeling man saw not Joey, but the dark, grim specter of Death poised in the doorway, ready to collect its dues.

The guy's mouth dropped open, emitting a strangled sound somewhere between a curse and a prayer.

Neither helped.

The Beretta Belle chugged once, the 9mm bone-crusher impacting between startled eyes and bouncing the man off the side of the tub, draping him over the toilet bowl. The back of his skull gleamed sticky red in the artificial lighting.

Hitman number two was at last aware, in the slow motion of crisis, of something terribly wrong in the bathroom. He twisted in his crouch, one wet hand clawing at the .38 snubby on his right hip.

He never made it.

Bolan shot him through the throat. Then a second parabellum slug ripped through his temple to core his brain and explode on the other side in a shower of bone and tissue.

Moving swiftly, Bolan sheathed the hot Brigadier and moved to the side of the tub. Reaching down, he snared the naked lady still submerged there, and hauled her, coughing, out of a watery grave.

She was very naked, yeah. And there was a single purple bruise on her right temple.

The hitman's words came back to him, loud and clear.

It's supposed to look like an accident.

So the bruise was meant to give a touch of authenticity to an ordinary bathtub fall and accidental drowning. Once the place was checked for prints and found squeaky clean, not even Fran Traynor's friends on the P.D. would have cause to look any further for an alternate solution.

It was a slick plan, if not exactly original. Slick and professional. But that was the least of the problems.

Problem number one was clinging to Bolan's arm for dear life, sucking wind like a drowned rat and shivering in the half-conscious knowledge that she had somehow been saved.

Bolan led the lady on shaky legs out of the bloody shambles of her bathroom and into an adjoining bedroom, where he flicked on the lights and deposited her in an upright position on the bed. He had snared some towels on the way, and now he began briskly drying her off from head to toe. As he worked, he noted the return of healthy color to her pale flesh.

Her first feeble protest was swallowed in another fit of coughing that brought up more water from her lungs, but within moments she was strong enough to wrench the towel away from him and hold it in front of herself as a shield for her nudity.

Bolan left her there, breathing heavily, one of her hands pressed to her head and the other holding the bath towel against her breasts.

He moved quickly, finding the kitchen and scanning the household items beneath the sink. He found a fat roll of paper towels, some rags, and a half-empty box of plastic trash can liners, then took all the items back to the bathroom slaughter-house with him.

After sliding an extra-strength trash bag over the mangled upper quarters of each lifeless man, Bolan set about swabbing the walls and tub area with the paper towels, careful to expunge all vestiges of blood and tissue.

He did not intend to leave any trace of the two hired killers behind.

When he was finished, he gave the whole room a quick visual inspection, then shoved the bloody towels inside one of the laden trash bags. As a last step, he rifled the pockets of the dead men, coming up with drivers' licenses that identified them as Philip Ciccio and Joseph Lupo, respectively.

Bolan pocketed the ID cards and moved back to the bedroom doorway. Inside, Fran Traynor was standing beside the bed, a large bath towel draped across her, toga-fashion, hiding her shapely form from collarbone to upper thighs. Still a bit unsteady, she stood with one slim hand braced against the edge of a bedside nightstand.

And the other hand was clenched tightly around a snub-nosed .38 special.

Aimed right at Mack Bolan.

"You don't need that," he said. "I'm not the enemy."

"So you say." Her voice was firm, no longer waterlogged.

Bolan shrugged impassively. "If I wanted you dead, I could have done it in there." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the bathroom beyond. "Or I could have let Mutt and Jeff finish what they started."

There was a trace of uncertainty in the lady cop's eyes now, and the stubby muzzle of her weapon slipped a notch lower, freezing somewhere on a level with the Executioner's groin.

"So... who are you?" she asked at last "What are you?"

Bolan moved a cautious step forward before the .38 snapped up again to freeze him in his tracks.

"An ally, Fran. Perhaps a friend."

For the first time that night, the lady cop looked not frightened or exhausted, but honestly surprised.

"I didn't drop in here tonight by accident," Bolan assured her. "I came looking for you."

The gun was slipping lower again, and Bolan sidled another step closer, farther into the room.

"So did those two in there," Fran Traynor retorted. "Are they both... dead?"

Bolan nodded. "We have to start thinking about who sent them after you, and why."

"We?"

She clearly was having a hard time accepting this dark stranger as a friend, even though he had just saved her life.

"I'm an ally," Bolan repeated patently. "For the moment, your enemies are mine."

"Who are you?" she asked again. She was sounding increasingly desperate.

"We can talk about that after I finish cleaning up and get you safely out of here," he said.

The .38's hammer snapped back into full cock under her thumb.

"I'm not going anywhere, and neither are they," she said sharply. Her gun flicked away in a swift gesture toward the bathroom and its lifeless tenants.

Bolan forced a casual shrug. "Suit yourself. If you'd rather wait here for the backup team..."

Fran Traynor tossed her head defiantly, flinging wet strands of hair back from her face.

"I can take care of myself, Mr... whatever. And I can have a police squad here within minutes."

Bolan nodded toward the bathroom. "Those guys were puppets, Fran. Think about it. I wouldn't make any calls until I found out who's been pulling the strings."

That shocked her, and the .38's muzzle did a rapid slide in the direction of Bolan's ankles. He knew that he could take it from her easily, but he let her keep it.

"What do you suggest?" she asked after a long pause.

"First, you get dressed. Meanwhile, I take out the trash, and then together we find you a safe place to stay. After that, we must talk."

Bolan left her to get dressed, and returned to the bathroom and the two corpses laid out headfirst in the garbage bags. He carried them out to the waiting Caddy one at a time, slung over his shoulder in the traditional fireman's carry. Outside, the ignition yielded up a key, and he dumped each man in turn into the trunk. Joey the driver joined them in that ignominious pile.

Trusting that Fran was confused and frightened enough to heed his advice and stay off the telephone, Bolan spared more precious numbers to fire up the Cadillac's engine and pilot the big crew wagon down the block to the next intersection. He left it sitting beside the trash dumpers of an all-night quick-stop market, and locked the keys inside.

Walking back, he retrieved his rental car and parked it in the Caddy's former place in Fran Traynor's driveway. A quick glance down the street showed him lights newly turned on in two of the houses, but there was no other sign of activity.

They wouldn't have much time to waste, even so. He meant to be out of there with the lady cop before being observed by any of the early-rising neighbors, or police cruisers.

When he reentered the house, Bolan found Fran Traynor dressed and ready to go. She was waiting for him in the bedroom, a purse and overnight bag on the bed beside her. The snubby .38 was nowhere in evidence.

"I didn't know when I'd be coming back, so..." She gestured toward the bags, leaving the sentence unfinished.

"Good idea," Bolan agreed. "And I hope it won't be for long."

"Let's go," she said, sounding suddenly disinterested, preoccupied. "It doesn't feel homey here right now."


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