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The heat of a Nevada summer sun beat down on the forecourt of the Rancho Santo Motel with hammerlike intensity. The parking lot was practically sizzling, even in the few scraps of available shade, but Mack Bolan, aka the Executioner, felt the cool patience of a hunter.
Idly, he reached up to scratch at the stubble that coated his jaw. Three days ago, Bolan had agreed to take on a mission for Hal Brognola, and the soldier hadn't shaved since. He was squatting between the motel trash bins, a mostly empty bottle of cheap liquor clutched in his grimy fingers, and his threadbare thrift store duds reeking of booze, sweat and an all-prevalent odor of urine. He'd gotten used to the smell by the second day. "Small favors," he murmured. It was a good disguise. No one saw street people, not if they could help it.
He shifted his weight. The sound-suppressed Be-retta 93R holstered at the small of his back was a comforting presence. More easily concealable than his normal sidearm, the Beretta could be set to fire a 3-round burst. It had a 20-round magazine, plus one in the chamber. Bolan swept the Rancho Santo with his keen gaze, scanning the peeling paint, the rust on the piping and the filthy windows. All in all, it was a depressing place. Perhaps that was the point. Who would look for one of the past century's leading research scientists in a place like this?
Bolan had seen the man called E. E. Ackroyd only once since he'd begun his stakeout. Ackroyd was in his late sixties, if Bolan was any judge, but still fairly spry. He dressed like a stereotypical retiree and seemed to spend his days smoking, drinking and reading. At one time, he'd been one of the country's leading microbiologists and could have easily won a Nobel Prize if his research hadn't been part of some hush-hush, black-bag Cold War shenanigans. Or so Brognola had intimated.
Regardless, if his current residence was any indication, Ackroyd seemed to have fallen on hard times, and they were only going to get harder. Someone had set their sights on Ackroyd and targeted him for a snatch and grab. Sadly, who was behind it and why it was planned hadn't been as easy to determine.
The big Fed had sounded worried on the phone. That wasn't unusual; while Hal Brognola was one of the most unflappable men Bolan had ever met, he was also a man burdened by a weight of responsibility that would have crushed Atlas. Bolan wouldn't trade places with his old ally for anything in the world. Brognola fought on fields far removed from Bolan's experience, waging quiet wars in the back rooms of the Wonderland on the Potomac, his only weapons words and favors and influence.
Beneath his mask of grime and stubble, the Executioner smiled thinly. Brognola had been one of his most tenacious opponents once upon a time, in charge of the task force assigned to bring the Executioner to heel. Now they were brothers-in-arms. War makes for strange bedfellows, Bolan mused, especially a war like ours. His smile faded.
Brognola had been worried, but not for the usual reasons. There was something stirring, according to certain back-channel sources. There were ripples spreading in the ocean of information that the world's intelligence agencies trawled, but they weren't being caused by the usual suspects. Brognola wasn't a man to sit on such a warning, and neither was Bolan. The information was too ephemeral for any organization or group to act oneven Brognola's Sensitive Operations Groupbut the Executioner could do as he damn well pleased. Bolan had haunted the motel like a ragged ghost for three days. He knew that Ackroyd paid by the week and had been there for a number of years. If Ackroyd was hiding from someone, he'd been doing it for a while. Most of the rooms in the motel were empty, and those that weren't were occupied by nervous transients, drunken tourists, illegal immigrants, meth addicts and a transsexual prostitute named Sheena. Gunshots weren't exactly background noise in this part of Reno but the police weren't likely to be called with any alacrity, which meant he could do what he needed to do without fear of being interrupted. Bolan hoped for Brognola's sake that it wouldn't be too messy.
That hope died when a black SUV pulled into the parking lot. The men who got out were hard cases.
Bolan could tell by the way they moved and the set of their faces and the telltale bulges beneath their off-the-rack sport coats. White, middle-aged, trained muscle, rather than the gym-rat variety. They wore muted colors and dressed business casual. They could have been salesmen or FBI agents or hit men. Everything about them spoke of innocuous carea chameleon-like desire to blend in to the pastel and stucco of the motel. They were nobody and no one, and that alone would have pricked Bolan's curiosity. He knew, with a certainty born of grim experience, that he was going to have to kill at least one of them.
Their voices lost to the wheezing roar of a dozen air conditioners, the three men climbed the outside stairs of the motel. They moved with purpose, but without hurry. Why rush, when their prey didn't know they were coming?
Bolan had asked Brognola why Ackroyd hadn't been taken into protective custody at Stony Man, given that they knew someone wanted him. The answer had been callous in its simplicity. They needed to know who wanted Ackroyd as much as why. Moreover, Brognola wanted to know why Ackroyd, who knew what he knew, whatever it was, was allowed to live out his days in a flea-trap motel in Reno. So the old man was bait, and Bolan the hunter.
"Try to keep one of them breathing," Brognola had said. Bolan had made no promises, but he knew the value of information. They were boxing shadows, and getting some lightany lightwould be helpful. Bolan wasn't a fan of situations like thesetoo much could go wrong. There was too much they didn't know. But when the situation warranted it, Bolan had little problem dealing himself in.
Bolan stood, still clutching the bottle. He'd poured most of it over his clothes, but there was still enough remaining to slosh softly. Wobbling slightly, the Executioner stumbled in the direction of the stairs, his eyes on the trio as they ascended. They hadn't noticed him yet.
Bolan stumbled up the stairs, moving with deceptive speed. They had stopped in front of a room on the third floor. Two men stood to either side of the door and the third knocked politely. When Ackroyd didn't answer he knocked again, a bit more forcefully. By the time Bolan had reached the third level, the knocker had stepped back and was readying himself to give the door a kick. He paused when one of the men gestured to the Executioner.
Bolan took his cue and broke into song. He swung the bottle back and forth for emphasis and weaved toward them. The closest man intercepted him. "Be off with you," he said tersely. His accent was harsh and Teutonic-sounding. German, possibly, Bolan mused. "Pitch him down the damn stairs," the knocker barked. He was American, probably Nebraskan, Bolan thought. The German reached for him, apparently intent on following the orders.
Bolan staggered back, forcing the German to pursue him. When the man reached for him, Bolan flipped the bottle around with a quick twist of his wrist, grabbed it by its neck and brought it up and across the German's skull. Contrary to every bar brawl seen on film, a good bottle rarely broke when you hit someone with it. But it did the job well enough.
The German toppled onto the Executioner, who caught him, shoved him aside and snatched the Be-retta from his holster even as the German fell. Bolan fired. The member of the trio who hadn't yet spoken pitched backward with a yell. The Nebraskan, caught flat-footed, clawed for his own weapon. "No," Bolan said. A minute and a half had elapsed.
The Nebraskan's hand froze. "Back away from the door," Bolan said and jerked his chin for emphasis. He stepped over the unconscious German and drew close to the door. The man backed away, hands spread.
"Police?" the Nebraskan asked.
"Not quite," Bolan said.
"We've got money," the Nebraskan said, licking his lips.
"Small world, so do I," Bolan replied. "I want information."
The Nebraskan's eyes went flat. He said nothing. Bolan gestured with the Beretta. "Downstairs. We're going for a ride."
"No," the Nebraskan said harshly.
Bolan hesitated. He was a good judge of character. Some men could be pushed and threatened. Bolan himself was not one of them, but from the tone of the Nebraskan's voice, it seemed he wasn't, either. Or at least, he hadn't reached the point where he could be yet. That was a problem. They needed information, but the man before him wasn't likely to provide it. And Bolan couldn't leave him or let him go, not without knowing what was going on. The door opened. Ack-royd's eyes widened as he took in the scene. His mouth was half-open, a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip. The Nebraskan threw himself at the old man. Before Bolan could take him out, a pistol snarled, biting into the wall of the motel. Plaster and Sheetrock spattered his cheek.
The man Bolan had shot moments earlier had pulled his piece. The front of his shirt was red and his eyes were unfocused, but even a dying man could be dangerous. He fired again and Bolan lunged to the side, his hip connecting painfully with the rail of the walkway. The Beretta spoke eloquently and the wounded man fell back, his weapon clattering to the ground.
Bolan turned. The Nebraskan stepped out of the room, holding Ackroyd in front of him. He had his weapon pressed against the old man's head. The Nebraskan said nothing. He didn't even glance at the dead man. He simply backed away, dragging Ackroyd with him. Bolan began to follow, the Beretta extended. "Stop," the Nebraskan said, "or I'll paint the wall with his brain."
"I don't think so," Bolan said, without stopping. "I think you need him and his brain intact. That sound about right, Mr. Ackroyd?"
Ackroyd cleared his throat. He looked frightened, but he was controlling himself. Bolan's estimation of Ackroyd climbed a few notches. "Iand I want to be clear about thishave no idea what's going on," the old man said, his voice rusty from years of drink and cigarettes.
"Quiet," the Nebraskan said.
"You're being kidnapped, Mr. Ackroyd. Do you have any idea why that might be happening?" Bolan asked calmly. Sweat stung his eyes, but he didn't blink. He concentrated on the Nebraskan.
"Who's asking?" Ackroyd said. The old man had guts. Bolan was impressed.
"The man who's trying to keep you alive," Bolan replied. The Nebraskan took another step back. Bolan took another step forward.
"I was told this place was safe," Ackroyd said. "I was told I'd be left alone."
"Somebody lied," Bolan said, "or made a mistake."
"Probably both," Ackroyd agreed.
"Shut up," the Nebraskan snapped. His grip on Ackroyd tightened. The old man winced as the Nebraskan's arm flexed against his throat. He had pluck, but he was still on the wrong side of sixty, and hadn't been keeping himself in shape.
"I can keep this up all day, friend," Bolan said, a note of menace creeping into his voice. "Let him go."
Something in the Nebraskan's eyes made Bolan tense. A shadow crossed the ground in front of him. Big arms snapped tight around him like the jaws of a trap and he was jerked from his feet even as the air was squeezed out of his lungs. Bolan gasped. The German had recovered, and far more quickly than Bolan had anticipated. The Nebraskan had been drawing him out, giving his compatriot time to recover.
The German shook him, and Bolan lost his grip on the Beretta. "Go, Sparrow!" the German shouted as he squeezed Bolan hard enough to make his ribs creak. "Take the old man and go. I will handle this fool! Vril-YA! "
Bolan grunted and drove his head back, into the German's face. He heard bone crunch and the grip on him loosened. Bolan slithered free and dropped to the ground. He twisted around and drove a hard blow into the German's belly. The man gasped and staggered, but didn't fall. His fists smashed down on Bolan's head and shoulders like hammers. The Executioner lunged forward, tackling his opponent. They crashed against the wall.
The German was strong and he knew how to fight. But Bolan knew how to win. Two swift, savage strikes to the German's kidneys made him gasp in agony. He responded with a knee to Bolan's groin. The Executioner caught the blow and sank his fingers into the meat of the man's knee, twisting savagely as he rammed his palm into a momentarily vulnerable windpipe. The German fell back against the wall, gagging. Bolan didn't let him recover. He unleashed a rapid salvo of precise hammerblows to the man's belly and sides.
The German stayed on his feet with a tenacity that was almost impressive. Wheezing, he lunged. His fingers clawed at Bolan's face and throat, and the Executioner found himself forced back until his spine connected with the rail. Bolan shoved his arms up and swatted aside the German's hands. The heel of Bolan's palm struck his opponent's already mangled nose, forcing fragments of splintered cartilage and bone up toward the man's brain. Bolan spun as the German pitched backward with a gurgle.
The NebraskanSparrowhadn't wasted any time. He'd dragged Ackroyd down the stairwell on the other side of the walkway and shoved the old man into the SUV. He was climbing in himself when he saw Bolan looking down at him. Sparrow cursed and raised his weapon. He fired, driving Bolan back from the rail. The SUV's engine growled to life and gravel crunched beneath its tires. Bolan sprang to his feet, caught the rail and swung his legs over. He dropped onto the SUV as it backed out of its parking spot, the force of impact radiating upward through the soles of his boots to his skull. Unprepared, he was flung off his feet as Sparrow twisted the wheel, whipping the vehicle around. Bolan rolled off the roof and slid down the windshield, striking the hood. He scrambled desperately to keep from slipping off and falling beneath the vehicle's wheels.
Then, in a squeal of rubber, the SUV cut a sharp turn and hurtled out of the parking lot, taking the Executioner with it.