Mack Bolan flattened himself against the dirty brick building and slid cautiously around the corner. The narrow garbage-strewn alley was oppressively dark. It smelled of urine and decay. Dank puddles from the morning's heavy rain still freckled the grimy cobblestones like pools of black ink.
The puddles nearest the main streets reflected shades of red neon. Each sign, in various stages of disrepair, was promising something just short of paradise.
Paradise, sure, Bolan frowned with disgust that was the place where there was no morning after. But Bolan was not concerned with paradise right now. More like its opposite.
He held his breath a moment, listening for threatening sounds. There was nothing too unusual. Just the normal night-life noises of too much drink and laughter that was too loud. Things that folks did to hide the too little happiness that goes with life in a dumpy hotel in a sleazy part of Frankfurt, Germany. Bolan waited for a flurry of headlights to pass by before sticking his head back around the corner and waving briskly for the two MP'S to follow.
Seconds later he heard the clomp of heavy combat boots as the MP'S jogged around the corner, splashing through the murky puddles, M16-AI rifles clutched in front of them. They came expectantly to Bolan, young faces alive with determination to do a good job for the mysterious Colonel Phoenix to whom they had been assigned only a couple of hours before. Both had less than two years experience in the U.S. Army. But they knew enough to recognize a real soldier when they saw one. And they saw one in this Colonel Phoenix. "Yes, sir!" was Corporal Philo Tandy reported, snapping to attention. His trim blond hair peeked out from under his white MP helmet. He was very large and very young. "What next, sir?"
"Justias we planned it, Corporal," Bolan said, standing tall before them in his skin-tight black nightsuit. The .44 AutoMag was strapped to his hip. The 9mm Beretta Brigadier, with sound suppressor screwed tightly in place, rode snugly in the snap-draw holster under Bolan's left arm.
Extra clips were tucked away within easy reach.
Should he need them.
He hoped he wouldn't. Just a quick round-up operation. In and out with nobody hurt, that was the plan. Plans, of course, like people, have a way of unraveling on their own.
It had been a tough probe right from the start, with no time for the usual precautions. Mack did'nt like rushing in like some comicbook soldier, a grenade in each hand and a submachine gun clenched between his teeth.
Hell, he had hardly had time to change his fatigues from the Warco wipeout in the Everglades when Hal Brognola and April Rose cornered him during a quiet dinner at Stony Man Farm.
Brognola had addressed him as Striker, and Bolan immediately knew something foul was in the wind.
At the mention of his code name, his fresh four-inch wound earned in Algeria smarted as if in alert.
Information had come directly from the Defense Intelligence Agency, but not nearly as specific as Stony Man Farm would have liked except for the timetable. Specifically, it was a now-or-never operation. April and Hal had shown him photographs and filled him in on the few details they knew. Too damn few, and Bolan had complained about it at the time.
But in this business, damn few was sometimes all you got.
So it had to be enough. And this time it was.
Certainly enough to send him packing, still chewing his porterhouse steak as Jack Grimaldi joined him to jet them both to Frankfurt. To stop a "business" meeting that must never take place.
Not if Mack Bolan could help it.
Bolan looked at the two anxious MP'S assigned to him and grimaced. Corporal Philo Tandy was a baby-faced hulk from Tennessee who towered over Bolan like a cement wall. He had told Colonel Phoenix that he still dreamed of parlaying a Creek Bend High School MVP football trophy into an NFL half-back career, after he had paid his dues to Uncle Sam.
Not dumb, Bolan knew, just a mite inexperienced in the ways of the world outside Creek Bend, Tennessee. Not so his partner. Corporal Isaac Cleveland was a skinny, soft-spoken black man from Miami who had taken the trouble to learn German while stationed overseas and was now studying Russian. He was apparently not the kind of man to waste an opportunity: if he stayed in the army, Bolan realized, he would probably end up a general. And considering the mess that Bolan had been sent over to straighten out, the army could use a few more officers like Isaac Cleveland.
Okay, maybe they were not the toughest or most experienced MP'S in the world, but they were the best General Wilson could come up with on such short notice. The general had huffed about security clearances for almost twenty minutes before Bolan had stopped him with a few choice words of his own.
It didn't matter to Bolan anyway. Tandy and Cleveland would do. They would have to.
"Listen close," Bolan snapped briskly, his voice all business. "This is a simple arrest. You've both done that before, right?"
"Yes, sir I", Corporal Tandy barked.
"I will go up the fire escape and block off the window. They cannot get out that way. Then you two go in the front door and arrest them. And keep your guns, aimed and ready. These guys play for keeps." Bolan checked his watch. "I want you through the door at 01.23. That's five minutes from now. Got it?"
Corporal Cleveland checked his watch. "Got it, sir".
"Okay, get moving. Remember, I want them alive. If possible."
"Yes, sir!" Corporal Tandy said.
Corporal Cleveland's eyes flickered with doubt. "Might be difficult, Colonel. What you told us about them... his..."
"If possible, Corporal," Bolan repeated. "If possible".
The two soldiers moved off into the darkness at a trot, dodging the puddles this time. They disappeared around the corner.
Bolan did not hesitate. He ascended the feeble old fire escape, its shaky vibrations rattling up his spine with each step. At the third-floor platform he squatted close to the wall. He pressed his face against the gritty brick. With fingertips spidering along the rough wall, the night warrior silently eased himself to the edge of the dirty hotel window, just far enough for him to see what was going on inside. He did not like what he saw.
Three men in U.S. Army uniforms were sitting around a cheap folding card table. The one with the sergeant's chevrons was the highranker of the three; he was tipped back on his metal folding chair so that it balanced on its two wobbly back legs. The guy's big gut bubbled over his belt in a slab of lard, and a couple of bags of flab sagged down his cheeks into jowls. He was tossing playing cards one at a time across the room into his army cap. Bolan mentally searched the file of photographs stored in his mind since the mission briefing. He soon had the handle to match the face.
"Sergeant Edsel Grendal, pure one hundred percent USDA trash, weight exceeded only by greed," was Brognola's acrid assessment. The other two "soldiers" were at least twenty years younger than Grendal's midforties. One was tall and gangly-looking, even sitting down. A PFC.
He had straight red hair with a stubborn cowlick sticking straight up at the back of his head.
Occasionally he gave it an absent pat, more out of habit than any real expectation it would lay down.
He also had a nasty rash encircling his neck as, if his skin were still too sensitive for shaving. He was shifting a good deal in his chair, blinking with nervousness.
The third man was a corporal, though he looked to be a year or so younger than the redheaded boy, unless you looked closely at the mouth: it was thin and bloodless, twisted into the kind of smug grin seen on a sadistic child setting fire to the neighbor's cat. The guy was slumped forward in his chair, staring at the paper napkin as he methodically shredded it into neat little piles on the table. The hard cruel mouth set in a weak, pasty face made the effect utterly demonic.
In the center of the table were seven or eight .45 M1911AI handguns heaped together; also about two dozen clips of ammo. The young corporal dropped a few flakes of shredded napkin onto the pile of guns and snickered. "Look, Sarge, it's snowing in Germany." Sergeant Grendal saw what the corporal was doing and sighed. Suddenly his meaty hand lashed out across the table and slapped the corporal's cheek in a hard-knuckled backhand.
"What the hell to..." the corporal cried, covering his cheek with both hands. "What'd you do that for, Sarge?" he whined.
Grendal leaned back into his chair again and tossed another card across the room. Ten of hearts.
It dropped neatly into his cap. "You're fuckin' with the merchandise, boy. This ain't no little deal like you're used to makin' with your grunt buddies. This is big business with big bucks, and I don't want no shit-kicking punk like you treating it lightly. Get my meaning, boy?" The corporal stayed sullen, still pressing his hands against a swollen cheek. Two small drops of blood trickled out of a nostril. He smeared them away with the back of his hand.
"I didn't mean nothing."
The sergeant's voice was taunting. "You never do, Billy boy. So just try to sit still and be good like Gary here. Right, Gary?"
The redheaded PFC smiled weakly. "R-right, Sarge," he stammered. Bolan felt rage throb thickly into his brain.
These "soldiers," especially the bloated Sergeant Grendal, they were prepared to deal in the death and terror of innocent victims for nothing more than a handful of paper dollars. Bolan cursed such people even more than the actual terrorists themselves, because cynical bastards of this ilk did not even have a phony political slogan to hide behind. Except "me first". And before his eyes here, they were wearing the uniform of the United States Army. Mack Bolan was aware that to some soldiers the uniform was just an outfit you had to wear, nothing more. But to the Executioner and a few damn good men he knew, the uniform meant a million things more. Symbolic, in a word. It meant you stood for something good and right and you were ready to show the world you'd do anything to protect certain important and selfevident values.
To Bolan it should always be that you could take one look at such a uniform and know that the man or woman in it had a code of honor and justice that would not ever be compromised. And the big guy had seen too many of his buddies spill their guts into the stinking swamps of Indo-China in defense of their uniform, and what it stood for to let scum like this dishonor it. That was going to cost them.
Yeah. They were gonna pay that price in full.
Bolan checked his watch again. Fifteen seconds left. He unsnapped the Beretta and slipped it out of its holster. The solid weight felt, as usual, appropriate in his hand. Good and right. The muscles in his legs tensed like coiled snakes as he rocked onto his toes, waiting.
The loudest sound to him now was the thumping of his own heart, so anxious to act.
As he counted off the final three seconds, he felt the predictable cold spurt of adrenaline spearing through his stomach.
Go! Go! Go!
Bolan sprang through the closed window, an unleashed, lashing-out body of muscle. His head was tucked down. His Beretta was tight in his right hand.
Glass exploded everywhere. Bolan had burst into the room like some avenging angel, or devil. The startled men at the table gasped in shock and horror.
The violent appearance of the warrior with the black grease smeared over his face, his shape all clad in black, was the coming of their fate.
As planned, Bolan's action had distracted them long enough to allow Cleveland and Tandy to bust open the hotel door and cover the three prisoners with their rifles.
""Don't move!" he heard Corporal Cleveland command.
Sergeant Grendal was first to recover. Aware of what grim punishment the army would have in store for him now, he obviously decided to take a chance. A desperate chance.
He slammed his chair forward to the floor and grabbed at one of the guns on the table, snapping in a magazine with his palm. It took only a couple of seconds for the two MP'S to pivot their rifles directly in the fat sergeant's direction, but by then too much else was already in motion. Taking his cue from Grendal, the pasty-faced corporal vaulted out of his chair like a damn fool and lunged at the throat of Corporal Cleveland. "Black sonuvabitch!" he shrieked.
Corporal Cleveland swung his rifle butt up and into the smooth face of the flying corporal. It caught the soldier squarely in the open mouth and jaw. The jaw broke with a crack like it was some cheap plastic toy. The whole anatomical mechanism twisted too far to the left and white splinters of bare bone poked through the cheek's skin. Several blood-drenched teeth had exploded from his mouth and the dumb corporal tumbled into a heap of convulsions against the folding metal chair. His coughing sprayed a pink mist of bloodied phlegm out from his face and onto his shirt.
Corporal Tandy, diligent of Bolan's command to take these creeps alive, was meanwhile attempting the same rifle butt technique on Sergeant Grendal. But Grendal was combat trained, and despite his bulk he easily sidestepped the inexperienced MP, deftly clubbing the younger man on the back of the head with the butt of his just-grabbed pistol. Then with brazen expertise, he swung around to face Bolan, and squeezed off several rounds from a two-fisted crouch position. But Bolan was not a sitting target.
From the moment he had plunged through the window he had kept moving, rolling across the wooden floor and its new carpet of glass shards to a better vantage for return fire. He heard the loud report of the .45 as he came out of his roll, saw dust and splinters kicked up from the floor before him as the sergeant's bullets dug in.
Bolan heard the third shot and felt a tug at his pant leg, enough to know it had been too damn close.
He twisted around, gaining enough leverage to dive behind the hotel's torn overstuffed chair near the corner. Halfway through the dive, he squeezed off two rounds of his own. The Beretta spat its smoldering chunks of brimstone into the fleshy neck of Sgt. Edsel Grendal. The hardguy's throat burst open like a water balloon, pouring forth crimson blood over his chest and fat stomach. Grendal reeled for a moment, desperately wrapping his hands around his throat like a tourniquet and choking out some rasping words of protest. But the blood merely pumped out between his sticky fingers as he collapsed face forward into the card table, knocking it over. The guns and ammo clips rattled across the floor.
It was not over yet. Bolan continued his roll out from the other side of the chair, beading the Beretta toward the last soldier. The wretched redhead stood in the far corner, his hands already raised high over his head. "Jesus," he was saying. "J-Jesus goddamn..."
Bolan rose slowly to his feet. There was no way anyone could mistake the shots from those M191IAIs as anything else but gunfire. However, it was doubtful that anyone would come snooping around. Especially the law. It was that kind of hotel, in that kind of neighborhood, it had been built in the 1600's to house the finest Dutch banking firm in the land, but time had changed and now all of this section of Frankfurt was frequented by anyone with a few bucks to spend on the dirtier pleasures. Especially bored young American soldiers killing time. The police avoided the area. There was no need to worry about the noise.
The Executioner had other things to worry about. He approached the redheaded kid. "You PFC Gary Cottonwood?"
"Yes, sir. Cottonwood. T-t-that's me."
Bolan poked the corporal aside with the barrel of the Beretta as he stepped toward the slumped Corporal Tandy, just now coming back to consciousness.
"How's the head, son?" Bolan asked.
Tandy rubbed the back of his neck, rolling his head slightly to bring himself to alertness. "Fine, Colonel. I'm fine."
"I want you to take your prisoner." Bolan pointed Belle at the face-wrecked corporal on the floor. "Comeback to the base and lock him up, and tell General Wilson what happened. He'll know what the hell I need."
"Yes, sir. What about him, sir?" Corporal Tandy asked Bolan, glancing over the body of Grendal toward PFC Gary Cottonwood.
"I'll be bringing him along myself. After I ask a few questions." At that, the doughy-faced victim on the floor tried to shout a threatening warning at the red-headed Cottonwood, but anything that came out through the mashed and mangled jaw was badly garbled. Two more teeth fell from his mouth and bounced across the floor.
"I hope you like oatmeal, Corporal," Bolan said. "Because you're gonna be eating it for a whole lot of months to come. Now get him out of here."
Corporal Tandy hesitated. "Sir?" he asked in a quiet voice.
"I'm sorry, sir. I mean about not taking them all alive and everything. It was my fault, I know."
"Like hell it was," Bolan grunted. "Grendal knew he was facing a firing squad or worse. He was bound to take his shot, no matter how bad the odds. Had nothing to do with you. You understand?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Now move out."
Then they were gone, and Bolan turned a hard eye on the frightened private. Nudging aside Sergeant Grendal's corpse with his foot, he freed one of the overturned chairs. He set it in the middle of the room and sat down, his Beretta still aimed at PFC Cottonwood's chest. Cottonwood swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing tightly in his throat. "S-sir?"
"May I sit down please? Otherwise."
Bolan pointed his gun at the floor. "Sit." Cottonwood sat and waited silently.
"'Are you glad to be alive, Cottonwood?"
"Well, don't be too glad, because it may be a very temporary situation."
"I see, sir."
"I'm going to give it to you straight, and then you're going to give it to me straight."
Bolan stared icily into the boy's eyes.
"You're the one who passed on the report about this location and the meeting to the authorities. Right?"
"Why? And don't waste my time with rationallations or excuses."
"No, sir, I won't." Cottonwood swallowed something thick in his throat. "I work the VT100 computer terminal for incoming shipments of everything from toilet paper to tanks. Sergeant Grendal approached me a couple months ago with his idea of how to program the computer so that it kicked out certain supply orders as duplicate shipments. Hell, CFU is the most common explanation for anything that goes wrong over here."
"Computer foul up."
"Whenever we showed a duplicate supply of something, we had orders to crate and store the supplies in the warehouse, because you never knew when the CFU would go the other way and short us. That was General Wilson's idea. Once you got something, never return it. He'd always say that. It was Billy Tomlin's and Sergeant Grendal's job to crate the stuff and store it. Except that they started to sell the stuff on the black market." Bolan leaned forward, his eyes boring into the nervous private like a laser beam through the neocortex.
"It was just small stuff at first... food mostly... then auto parts... then..."
"Weapons." Bolan-finished the halting sentence for him.
"Yeah," the private said, uselessly.
Bolan stood up, his gun still aimed at the kid's chest. "So what happened to you? Lose your guts and decided to fink out on your buddies? They weren't cutting you in for enough of the take? What's your story, kid?"
PFC Cottonwood looked up.
His voice was clear for the first time, his eyes even.
"I know this might be hard for you to believe, sir. Especially now. At first I was in it for the money.... You know the horror stories about how hard it is to live over here on what we're paid. Especially if you're married, like I was planning on doing this summer... so the money looked good in the beginning. But then I didn't like it anymore. I didn't. Like I said, you, probably won't believe me, but so what."
Bolan glared at the soldier who was fast becoming defiant as he unburdened himself of his confession. He thight make a good soldier yet.
"Your report said the meeting with the Zwilling Horde was set for tonight."
"Yes, sir." PFC Cottonwood looked at his watch. "They're supposed to show up here in another three hours, at 04.30."
"Aren't you guys a little early for the meet?"
Cottonwood nodded. "The sarge had never met these people face-up before, so he was a little anxious." The young soldier shivered involuntarily amid the unscheduled wreckage that surrounded him. "Besides, the sarge didn't trust us out of his sight. He was afraid Billy would go off and get drunk or laid and not show up."
"Come on, guy," Bolan said, waving him to his feet.
"Where to, sir?"
"In less than three hours, killers in the butcher class, some of the most bestial in modem history, true man-eaters are going to be coming through that door. And I am going to be ready for them." Bolan's lips twisted into something less than a smile. PFC Cottonwood was simply very glad that he would no longer be numbered among those about to be on the wrong side of this man. No way could he stand it. The sprung tension that emanated from the blacksuit was like all of America's destiny coiled within one single individual.
The misguided but well-meaning private was enacting a surrender he had had in his mind as soon as the night-garbed apparition had come hurtling through the window. He knew instantly he was in the wrong league. The explosion of the window still sounded in his mind behind the sharper reports of the killing that followed it.
This big stranger clearly embodied more than the vast majority of men could hope to enact in a lifetime — he seemed to represent in his presence, his manners, his dark and profound look, the manifest destiny that no longer could be spared on the frontiers of the American West but which was a gift to the Old World now, to tame and to teach the primitives of a new generation who should know already that the lessons of American history are written in blood.
PFC Cottonwood was only too happy to give in to that history and be accountable, at least, for his own blood. He would watch this stranger with manifest awe.
And he would serve him if he could.