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2

"I haven't thanked you properly... for everything."

Bolan glanced over at the lady, noting that she had fixed up her hair a little while they drove.

She did not look so battle weary now in the reflected dash light and the glaring neon from outside.

"You're welcome," he said simply.

They were driving north along the Strip in Bolan's rental car. Some fifteen minutes earlier they had ditched the captured crew wagon, swapping it for a nondescript sedan, which he had leased for the duration under a cold alias.

"Just like that? You saved my life."

He shrugged it off.

"We both got lucky."

She gave him a quizzical look.

"Well... I guess we ought to introduce ourselves. I'm Lucy Bernstein."

"Blanski. Mike." He paused briefly, considering an angle of attack, then forged ahead by the direct route. "What are you to Minotte?"

She made a sour face and tossed a strand of hair back from her forehead.

"A minor headache," she responded. "I work for the Beacon."

"Reporter?"

"Don't look so surprised," she said. "I've been assigned to do an in-depth series on the local Mob, their infiltration into gaming."

The lady read his face and when she spoke again her tone had gone defensive.

"We're not all in their pockets, if that's what you've heard.""

"It never crossed my mind," he told her sincerely. "I'm just surprised Minotte would agree to interviews." Despite the semidarkness he could see the blush that crept across her cheeks.

"He didn't. Actually, I guess you'd say I broke into his house."

The soldier looked at her with growing interest and a touch of admiration for her courage.

"You don't look much like a burglar."

"It's a last resort," she told him. "But you're right, I didn't pull it off. His houseman bagged me right away. I think they might have killed me... if they'd had the time."

"Minotte had a busy night."

"I'd say." Her voice faltered, the brave exterior slipping out of place. "Mike... I saw him die. One minute he was sitting there and asking questions, then..."

"The hit team?"

Lucy nodded shakily.

"They came in out of nowhere, hacking, shooting. It was like a nightmare."

"Did you recognize them?" Bolan prodded. "Anything at all."

She shook her head.

"There wasn't time. Beyond the fact that they were Oriental... Japanese, I think..."

Her voice trailed off and Bolan heard her fighting to hold back the tears. He felt a tremor at the confirmation of his first impression from the battlefield.

"Go on," he urged her.

Lucy took another moment to collect her thoughts and bring her voice under control.

"There have been rumors lately that the Mob is facing competition from abroad. The Yakuza, for instance. That's..."

"I know what it is," he interrupted, recalling his encounter with the Japanese mobster organization, on a former mission to the land of the rising sun.

She frowned.

"You seem to know a lot. Who are you, anyway?"

"Let's just say that I'm an interested observer."

She raised an eyebrow.

"You were doing more than just observing at Minotte's. Not that I'm complaining, mind you."

"Well?"

He felt her watching him as they proceeded for another block or two in silence. When she spoke again her tone was thoughtful, introspective.

"There was an item on the wire from Washington last week. Maybe ten days ago..."

The tension spun between them like a taut steel thread as she hesitated before resuming. Bolan felt his stomach turning over as he knew, with sudden certainty, what Lucy Bernstein was about to say.

"It was all about a soldier with a score to settle," she continued. "Seems he doesn't care much for the Honored Society."

"A lot of people feel that way," the Executioner told her, knowing that he could not bluff it out.

"Not many take it this far," she responded evenly. "Fact is, I can only think of one."

His gut was churning, but he kept the tension from his voice as best he could.

"That so?"

She nodded distractedly, seeming lost in her story now.

"I understand that he was out of circulation for a while, presumed dead or some such." She paused briefly for effect, then went ahead. "But now the papers say he's back in action — maybe westbound."

"That's a lot to swallow," Bolan countered, trying to keep it light and flippant, knowing that he missed the mark.

"Up until an hour ago, I thought so too."

He pinned her with a steely glance.

"We were talking about the Yakuza," he said.

She smiled.

"Just rumors, bits and pieces." As she continued, the little smile became conspiratorial. "I might be able to come up with something, given the incentive. Say, for instance, we cooperated..."

Bolan cut her off.

"Where can I drop you?"

She looked stunned as if the Executioner had slapped her face.

"Wait a second, now..."

"Forget it, lady. I'm not planning any media events."

"Well, dammit!"

"Where can I drop you?" he repeated curtly.

Grudgingly, she let him have an address off West Sahara, a mile from the Strip proper.

"Is that home?"

She nodded silently, her profile reminding Bolan of a pouting child.

"Better try an alternate," he told her. "You might have unexpected company."

She got his meaning and the pout softened a shade, giving way to a new rush of fear and uncertainty.

"I didn't think of that." Civilians, right.

She shifted in her seat and turned to face him, clearing her throat.

"I've got a friend. She'll let me stay at her place, but I've got to make a call."

He took a side street off the Strip and drove for several blocks until he found an all-night convenience store. He pulled into the lot and waited at the wheel, the engine idling, while she made her call from a phone booth. She was back inside the car within a minute.

"It's set," she told him, rattling off another address.

Bolan put the car in motion, rolling toward the drop. They did not speak at all for the duration of their journey through the desert night. The warrior's mind was on his mission now — and on the lady, granted. She was civilian excess baggage, and he could not afford to carry her along with him into the hellgrounds. It would spell death for both of them and Bolan was not ready yet to spend his blood without a valid purpose. Pulling her out of the fire at Minotte's had been one thing — a conditioned reflex. But dragging her back with him into the furnace was a different game entirely. One the Executioner refused to play. There would be opportunities enough for spilling blood — his own and others — in the coming hours. Bolan felt it in his gut and in the lifting of the small hairs at the back of his neck as he drove through the darkness, away from the synthetic day produced by glowing neon. Away from the Strip, Las Vegas lay in darkness, waiting.

There were savages out there, still hunting, most of them still blissfully oblivious to the arrival of their judgment day. And the Executioner did not plan to keep them waiting long.


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