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3

Bolan sat inside his car with the driver's window down despite an early-morning chill. He was waiting outside a phone booth set against the wall of a deserted service station. The night warrior was restless, smoking in the darkness and checking his watch at frequent intervals, noting the time since he had placed the call to Washington. Almost ten minutes now, and he disliked the waiting, felt too damned much like a sitting duck despite the knowledge that no one was looking for him.

Yet.

Allowing for three hours difference in time zones, he knew his party should be up and free to call him back by now. If Leo Turrin had been able to complete the contact. If the inside man was able to return his call without attracting any heat or bringing down suspicion on himself.

Mack Bolan cursed the uncertainty and knew that there was nothing he could do about it. Voluntary choice had placed him on the outside, and along with that decision there came certain minor inconveniences, for sure. And minor inconveniences could get a careless warrior killed. Bolan sometimes missed his contact with the wily Leo Turrin, once his closest covert ally in an all-out holy war against the Mafia. From his position in the highest councils of the brotherhood, Turrin had been able to provide the soldier with the kind of battlefield intelligence that could be indispensable for someone fighting on the run.

His inside view of Mobland had saved Bolan's life on more than one occasion, and the two of them had grown into a friendship that was deeper than the bond between most relatives.

When Bolan staged his six-day "Second Mile" assault against the Mafia, then disappeared into the Phoenix program, Turrin had been forced to sacrifice his seat at the right hand of La Commissione, withdrawing from the Mafia the way he entered it covertly.

Now Leo Turrin, a.k.a. "The Pussy," was busy riding a desk in the Justice Department.

He was a valued asset to the program, with his inside knowledge of the syndicate.

He was riding a desk, right, but Turrin was far from inactive. He had kept the land lines open to Mack Bolan, joining the Phoenix program as an active member. And when the choice came down to bailing out or selling out for Bolan, Turrin maintained their contact on the sly. At need, he could be reached — as "Leonard Justice" — and the Executioner had never doubted Leo's loyalty for a moment. Anything he had or knew was Bolan's for the asking. But the warrior used him sparingly, aware that he could compromise his closest friend and greatest resource, if the Executioner made their fleeting contacts a matter of routine. And they were back to square one. The war had come full circle for them, with Leo on the inside and Mack Bolan looking in. Except that there was now a new man in the Mafia reporting back to Justice, leaking out the information that was necessary for concerted moves against the brotherhood.

His name was known to Leo, and through him it came to Bolan. Hal Brognola's new man on the inside had grudgingly agreed to work with Leo, funneling intelligence to Bolan as the need arose, albeit cautiously. He had a reputation to protect and there were aspects to his underground existence that made Leo's stint within the Mafia look like a cake-walk in comparison. For openers, the mole — one Nino Tattaglia — was at one time a true-blue mafioso. Whereas Turrin had been trained and groomed for infiltration of the brotherhood and planted in its ranks deliberately by Justice, Nino entered as a true believer, working the underworld for half a lifetime, seeking nothing more than profit and the power that accrued through terror. At thirty-five he had attained the rank of first lieutenant in the Baltimore family of Don Carlos Nazarione before he stumbled into the hands of the Feds on a double murder rap.

The choice Tattaglia received was simple: go to trial and face the death house in an age of multiplying executions, or "turn over," stay inside the family as a mole for Justice.

The choice was simple, right, and Nino went for life without thinking more than twice. If there had been regrets along the way he kept them strictly to himself, and so far, all his information had survived the acid tests devised by Turrin and Hal Brognola.

Bolan had made but sparing use of Nino's talents, tapping in on certain basic information, but declining to involve him in the front-line action, anything that might expose his tenuous position or incline him to think twice about his deal with Justice.

Now for the first time the warrior needed hard intelligence about a do-or-die campaign, and he was hoping that Tattaglia was up to it.

They had devised a system similar to the one Bolan used for making contact in his early war against the mob. Bolan would call "Leonard Justice" at a private number, leave some brief message and a call-back number of his own before he severed the connection. "Justice" would connect with Nino on his own through any of several fronts that he maintained for such occasions, and the mafioso would get back to Bolan at his earliest convenience. Bolan killed his smoke and checked his watch again. There was a chance that Nino would not call. Bolan realized the pressure he was under, living on the razor's edge between the Mafia and the government; an edge honed all the sharper by his off-the-record link through "Leonard Justice" to the Executioner's private war.

As if in answer to his thoughts the telephone began to jangle; shrill tones ripping at the predawn silence of the parking lot. Bolan scrambled from his car and caught it on the third ring.

"Morning, Sticker." It was the code name he had used with Leo Turrin in the "old days," and it felt good, rolling off his tongue without a second thought.

"Morning, hell," the gruff male voice came back at him. "I'm not awake yet. What's the rumble?"

Bolan smiled.

"Rumor has it that Minotte bought the farm last night."

Surprise was evident in Nino's distant voice.

"Oh, yeah? I hadn't heard that. Who was selling?"

"They're a new firm in town," Bolan told him. "I take it that they're based in Tokyo."

There was a moment of thoughtful silence on the other end before Tattaglia continued.

"Well, uh, maybe I have heard of that, after all."

The Executioner sensed the mafioso's hesitance, realizing the position he was in, but it did not change the immediacy of Bolan's problem, the urgency of his need.

"I need whatever I can get," he prodded.

"Well, there might be something... sorta vague, you know, but nothing definite."

Bolan could feel the strain the other man was under, wondering how much to say, what to hold back.

"Anything at all. I'm on short numbers here."

"You've got a guy out there," Tattaglia said at last. "He runs a restaurant or something. Sushi, all that kind of shit. Name's Seiji Kuwahara. What I hear, he's sort of the ambassador from Tokyo. You know?"

"How firm is that?"

"It's carved in stone. Like, maybe, headstones, if he made the move against Minotte."

Bolan frowned to himself.

"You hearing war drums?"

"Nothing solid but it's on the edge. Chicago's asking for a sit-down with the Five Families, to protect their investments."

"Is it set?"

"Not yet," Tattaglia responded. "I get the message that somebody in New York is stalling. As to why..."

Nino let it trail away, and Bolan did not pursue it. He had plenty on his mind right there in Vegas, without wasting precious time on the motives of an unnamed "someone" in Manhattan.

"Okay," he said at last. "If you run into anything..."

"Just pass it on to Leonard J. I know."

There was another hesitation on the line and Bolan was about to break connections when Tattaglia spoke again.

"Hey, Striker?"

"Yeah?"

"Good luck. I really mean it."

"Thanks."

The line went dead and Bolan cradled the receiver, staring at it for a moment, mixed emotions welling up inside him. Instinct told him that Tattaglia was sincere or getting there, at any rate. And Bolan knew that nothing was impossible. There might be ways to reach the hardest heart, given time and patience.

But right now in Vegas, Bolan did not have the patience to sit back and wait for answers to come calling on him. He would have to hunt them down and find them for himself if he intended to find out what all the rumbles coming out of Vegas really meant.

And if the melee at Minotte's was a preview, open war between the Mafia and the Yakuza could lead to bloody chaos in the streets. He hoped to head it off with swift and surgically precise preemptive strikes. But in order to accomplish that objective he would need a better handle on the situation in Las Vegas. There were still too many open-ended questions: the vacuum left by Bob Minotte's passing, the role of Seiji Kuwahara and the reticence of "someone in New York" to make a stand. Mack Bolan had to know the enemy before he moved against him. And for that he needed hard intelligence, the kind that canny warriors use when making battle plans for doomsday.

By the time he reached his car the Executioner was well into a partial resolution of his problem. Bolan knew the source of the information he required. Now all he had to do was go and get it. It would be simple, just a matter of some skill, some raw audacity, and maybe a helping hand from Lady Luck.

The Executioner was rolling deadly dice in Vegas, and he knew that if he crapped out this early in the game he would be paying with his life.

No matter.

There was only one direction he had always chosen in the hellgrounds. Straight ahead.

The Executioner was rolling on, for all the chips.


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