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9

It was early evening in the Strip casino, the action heating up as tourists finished dinner or awoke from noonday siestas, coming out in all their finery to try their luck. Bolan merged with them, quickly becoming lost in the crowd.

Fully half the gaming tables were still covered, unmanned roulette and baccarat, poker and blackjack, the games that would draw high rollers when the tux and evening gown contingent emptied out of headline dinner shows and sought a way to fill the lingering hours of darkness. For the moment activity centered on the banks of slot machines — the clanking, jangling one-armed bandits that filled up the vast casino with their harsh discordant music. Here and there the flashing lights and buzzers called attention to a jackpot winner, bringing momentary interruption to the action as the other players paused to look in the direction of the lights and Klaxons, paying homage briefly or else cursing underneath their breaths, then turning back with new determination to the own machines.

The neon sign out front lured devotees to try the "Liberal Slots" by promising a "ninety-seven percent return" on house machines. No small print there to clarify the message but the locals understood it well enough. The slots were never meant to pay off ninety-seven percent of the time — and never did; rather, ninety-seven percent of the slots could be expected to pay off in some amount, sometime. As for the other three percent... House odds, damn right.

It was the name of the game.

Bolan crossed the casino floor, rubbing shoulders with the players and security guards — some of them county deputies moonlighting in the private sector. He followed lighted signs to the Tahitian Lounge and found the double doors already closed, the dinner show in progress. Brushing past a life-sized cutout of the grinning star, a stand-up comic billed as "The Ethnologist," he slipped inside the semidarkness of the showroom. Through the murk, a waitress in full black-tie regalia moved to intercept him.

"I'm sorry, sir..."

The soldier palmed a fifty, made the handoff smoothly.

"Don't be. And never mind the table. I'm just passing through."

All smiles now, pocketing the cash.

"Of course, sir, as you say."

The showroom was a horseshoe layout with the rows of mess-hall tables ranged along declining tiers, the stage some fifty yards downrange at center field. Bolan moved to his left, keeping to a narrow aisle that ran along the wall, moving on until he reached the curtained door that led backstage.

The wings were crowded, bustling with musicians, stagehands, nearly naked dancers and a juggler sorting through a crate of sharp-edged kitchen instruments. A pair of six-foot-tall show girls wearing spangled capes and very little else were standing in the wings, and Bolan found a place behind them in the shadows, concentrating on the lone performer occupying center stage.

"Now, I'm not no ethnician, but..."

A ripple of anticipatory laughter fanned out through the audience and Tommy Anders waited for it to swell, then subside, before he continued with his routine. It was the comic's trade line, and it never failed to preface a lampoon against the dark, ironic side of the American melting pot.

Anders had been successful for a score of years with his routines that gaffed the sacred cows of ethnic sensitivity. His talent for expounding on the obvious made him a figure draw in Miami, Las Vegas, Atlantic City. He was also on another, secret payroll circulated out of Washington, D.C. And as an agent of the Justice Department's Sensitive Operations Group, he had participated in a number of the Executioner's campaigns against the Mafia.

And it had all begun some years before in Vegas.

"I'm not no ethnician," he was saying, "but have you noticed how the Japanese are taking over everything these days? I mean it. Thumbing through a catalog at Monkey Wards, you might as well be looking at the Yellow Pages in a phone booth down at Tokyo and Vine."

Another pause for the laughter, rising now as the audience warmed to his subject.

"Just look at all the patriotic brand names that we're dealing with today." And he was counting on the fingers of one hand as he continued. "There's Akai, Datsun, Honda, Isuzu and Kawasaki, Nikon and Sanyo, Sony and Subaru, Toyota and Yashica." By the time he finished the roster everyone in the audience was laughing, drowning out the ice-cube rattle from their cocktails. "They've even got a Hirohito doll due out for Christmas now, I mean it," Anders continued. "Would I lie to you? You wind him up, he takes some snapshots of your town — and then he buys it."

He paused onstage, waiting for the uproar to die down. There was some appreciative applause amid the laughter now.

"I'll tell you honestly, it's getting so a real American just can't keep up with competition from the East. They tell me that the Japanese are even competing with the Mafia these days. I mean it. Honestly, now, I'm not antiethnic, but..." the other trade line and the audience responded on cue, "we've got to draw the line somewhere and it might as well be in the gutter, right? I mean, who needs a godfather who can't pronounce lasagna?"

He had them and the comic had no intention of letting his audience go until the point was made.

"You ever try to toss a body from a speeding rickshaw? Jeez, it's murder on the coolies. Seriously, though, I understand the Mob is getting nervous nowadays. Some of them are mixing sake in with their spaghetti sauce..."

The music and laughter came up together, and Tommy Anders began to disengage himself from the crowd, thanking them for their attention and waving toward the rear.

Around him the spotlights had begun to dance, and Bolan's show girls moved out onto the stage, distracting the faithful while a similar contingent emerged from the wings on the other side. He broke off an appreciative parting glance and made his way back toward the dressing rooms.

He did not miss the three torpedoes lounging near the door with Tommy Anders's name displayed in cardboard glitter. They were slickly dressed, neatly groomed, hard of eye — and they were Japanese. Mack Bolan casually moved on past them, feeling eyes on his back studying him, sizing him up and filing him away for future reference. He found a corner farther down and ambled on around it.

Tommy Anders would be close behind him now, and Bolan could afford to wait, observing what transpired when East met West. Another Five long minutes passed before the ethnologist arrived, and there was caution in his stride as he approached the Japanese contingent, concern disguised beneath the usual glad-hand smile. He made some offhand comment to the delegates from Tokyo — Bolan could not catch the words — and then the trio formed a semicircle blocking his admission to the dressing room.

The tallest of them took the middle, reaching out and jabbing Anders in the chest with one slim finger, punctuating whatever it was he was saying to the comic.

And Tommy Anders was no longer smiling.

Bolan reemerged from cover, closing quietly and keeping to the blind side of his adversaries. Anders saw him coming and relief was visible on his face beneath the show of mounting irritation. When he was half a dozen paces out and ready, Bolan made his presence known to all concerned.

"What's this?" he asked. "Somebody order takeout?"

The three torpedoes spun to face him, all off guard but recovering swiftly, professionally. The leader came at Bolan without preamble, launching himself at the Executioner's face in a flying kick that transformed his body into a hurtling projectile.

The jungle fighter sidestepped, going underneath the lethal legs and bringing up an elbow in the process, digging hard and deep against the other's kidneys as he hurtled past.

The guy lost balance, wobbled in midair and touched down hard upon the concrete floor, his silk suit offering no traction. He slid into collision with some standing scenery, which collapsed around him. His partners watched for half a heartbeat, sizing up the situation, then they made their move.

One of them made straight for Bolan and the other turned on Anders, bringing both hands up in the traditional karate stance. There was no time for Bolan to check out the comic's response now, not while he was fighting for his life against a pro who obviously knew the moves. But there is still a difference, right, between rehearsing in a gym and working out on humans who have nothing left to lose except their lives. A punching bag will never sidestep, never slam a rabbit-punch into your kidneys when you least expect it — and the training only takes you so far toward the razor's edge of combat.

Bolan on the other hand had been there many times, and he had always come back from the edge victorious.

Sometimes he was severely wounded, but the Executioner knew that injury in battle could make a tougher, stronger soldier in the end.

He had picked up the moves from experts in the Orient and then refined them on his own through years of combat trial and error. And if the Executioner was no Bruce Lee, his adversary was no goddamned Mack Bolan, either.

Bolan saw the hard hand flashing toward his face and feinted left, going in below it, driving bone and sinew into yielding ribs with all his might. The thin opponent doubled over, retching, gasping for a breath, but the Man from Blood was not through with him yet. No way.

Bolan seized a wrist — the one that had been meant to drive bare knuckles through his face — and twisted, bringing the arm out to full stiff extension. He wrenched it up and back until the socket yielded, and at the same instant drove his full weight down onto the elbow in a power smash.

There was a matchstick cracking sound, a strangled scream, and pain drove Bolan's adversary to his knees. The useless arm hung slack against his side, its outline now reminding Bolan of a cartoon figure's arm, just caught inside a door.

The guy was sobbing, and the Executioner put him under with a swift kick to the head, his heel impacting on the temple of that would be samurai and driving him against the nearest wall where he lay slack and flaccid like a leaky bag of grain. When Bolan looked, the comic already had his man on the ropes, employing moves they never taught in any comedy school. A slashing right cross dropped the hoodlum in his tracks, and Anders stepped over his prostrate form to survey the field, looking for other contestants.

"Want to leave them here?" the comic asked. "We've got a good custodian."

"Why not," the Man from Blood responded.

"Use a drink?"

"I thought you'd never ask. Just let me change."

Bolan followed Tommy Anders through the narrow door into his dressing room. Behind them, three of Tokyo's finest were stretched out on the cold cement, already drawing curious show girls and stagehands. As the door closed behind him, Bolan heard them calling for someone to fetch security, an ambulance.

The numbers, right.

He heard them running now, and he was running out of time in Vegas. This had been a skirmish, but it would be suicidal to hang around and answer questions for police.

Tommy Anders recognized the urgency and kept his quick-change to a minimum, having Bolan in and out of there in something less than one minute flat. They were well along their way in the direction of the parking lot before security arrived to deal with their attackers.

Outside, the desert night was cooling off despite the blood-red fire of glaring neon. By midnight, you could freeze to death beyond the city. But for Vegas this night, Bolan forecast heat enough to burn some houses down. Enough perhaps, to warm the whole damned town.

"We've played this scene before, you know." Mack Bolan smiled and sipped his coffee, making one more scan of the perimeter around the all-night drive-in restaurant. "I thought it looked familiar." And the Executioner could not escape a certain sense of deja vu, right, sitting there with Anders in the rental Ford. A sense that he had seen and done it all, been through it all before with the comic. Their initial meeting had been backstage from a Vegas showroom, all those lives ago, and Anders had been feeling pressure that time, too. The heat was coming from a pair of Mafia sluggers then, and Bolan had pulled him out from under. They had cooperated on that first campaign in Vegas, and later when they met again in Honolulu, Anders had rendered valuable aid to Bolan's hellfire effort on another front.

He was an ally, right, and so much more.

He was a friend.

"You still have that old knack for charming your admirers," Bolan told him wryly.

Anders grinned, shrugged.

"What can I say? It's my magnetic personality."

"You working this officially?"

"Let's call it a fortuitous coincidence. The date was booked, and then it all broke loose between the local Mob and their Eastern competition. Hal figured as long as I'm here, what the hell."

Mention of the big Fed's name made Bolan smile. The man from Justice was another friend, and friends were few and far between in Bolan's world these days.

"How is... everybody?"

"Getting by. You know how it is — win one here and lose it back over there. You're missed, guy, where it counts."

There was a momentary silence and when he resumed the comic's voice was lighter, more upbeat.

"I hear you took a turn with Hal there a while back."

Bolan smiled and nodded at the reference. His "turn" had been with a group called Savannah Swingsaw, four women determined to shake up the Mob in the southern United States.

"Some guy," Bolan said.

"Yeah." Another silence, longer this time, finally broken by the comic in a cautious tone. "You here to meet the man from Tokyo?"

"He's on my list. Were those his soldiers at Minotte's?"

"You were there?" Anders's eyes widened briefly. "Well, that clears up some question marks. And the kamikaze squad was his — or a very nifty frame."

"There was a girl..."

"Oh, yeah?" The comic raised a lone ironic eyebrow. "I wish you'd tell me where you find the time."

Bolan's answering grin was weary, brief.

"You've got to pace yourself," he answered. "But this was strictly business. Bob Minotte had her in the bag before the samurai express rolled in. I got there just in time to take her out."

"The litter on the highway?" Anders spoke with mild awe in his voice, a tone that said he knew the answer before Bolan voiced it.

The Executioner's silent nod was anticlimactic.

"She does some writing for the Daily Beacon here in town. Name's Lucy Bernstein."

A frown creased the ethnician's face. He seemed to be searching for something in the mental data banks and finally found it.

"You don't mean old Abe Bernstein's granddaughter? That the one?"

"Abe Bernstein?" Small alarms were going off in the back of Bolan's mind, insistent but still ill-defined. The name meant something to him, but....

"You have to know him, man," the comic said. "The Father of Las Vegas. Word is, he built everything that Meyer and Bugsy missed."

And it was coming back to Bolan, sure. He had dismissed the name and face, consigned it to the small "inactive" file reserved for mobsters who retired because of age or illness, but he called the reference back now, ran it through the terminals of memory.

Abe Bernstein was originally from Detroit, where he had helped to found the famous Purple Gang around the time America was entering World War I. He got a jump on Prohibition, staking out a territory on the river just across from Canada and turning bootleg liquor into liquid gold, defending his investment with a formidable army.

A year before Repeal he smelled the winds of change and made the shift from booze to big-time gambling, staking out preserves around Kentucky, Florida and Southern California that saw him through the Great Depression.

When the Mafia started flexing muscle in the thirties, easing out or killing off the old-line Jewish gangsters, Bernstein traveled west, giving ground reluctantly before the Sicilian juggernaut. Along the way he pioneered in legal gaming, setting up his first small clubs in Reno, moving south when Bugsy Siegel struck the mother lode along Las Vegas Boulevard in 1947.

The Gold Rush Hotel-Casino was his first investment in Las Vegas — one of many that included real estate and industry, construction, politics and cattle ranching. Bernstein funneled thousands — some said millions — into local charity and was rewarded with a host of plaques and honors for his labors, testifying to his latter-day respectability. In time, his sanctuary was invaded once again by mafiosi, and this time there was nowhere to run. As the new wave gradually replaced the old, Abe Bernstein was reduced to something of a puppet, going through the motions of administering that which he once owned outright. Among the Justice Strike Force leaders there was little doubt who held the puppet's strings — and they were long ones, stretching east to Brooklyn and Manhattan.

"I didn't know Abe had a family," Bolan said at last.

The comic frowned.

"A daughter," he responded. "Out of wife number three or four... I don't remember. The daughter's gone now, but there was one child... the granddaughter." Anders hesitated and a chuckle crept into his voice, almost reluctantly. "If she's your Lucy... well, they've got a sense of humor, anyhow."

"What's funny?" Bolan asked.

"Well, Old Jack Goldblume, down there at the Beacon... hell, he used to work for Bernstein at the Gold Rush. Handled all the joint's PR back in the old days, before he got religion and went into the civic conscience business full time." Another hesitation and Anders was no longer laughing. "Kind of makes you feel like it's all in the family, eh?"

Bolan barely heard him. He was already thinking through the riddle, trying jumbled pieces, rejecting each in turn and moving on to something new.

Jack Goldblume used to work for Bernstein at the Gold Rush. Now he ran the Daily Beacon, and they were, presumably, still friends.

Now Bernstein's granddaughter — if she was his granddaughter — worked for Goldblume. As a plant?

A favor for old times' sake? And Lucy Bernstein, acting under Goldblume's orders, was preparing to expose the very Mafia that owned her grandfather. Why?

Bolan knew that to receive the necessary answers, he would have to ask the proper questions. And of several potential sources, he planned to start with one who owed him something. Like her life.


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