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Mack Bolan parked his rental car in the lot of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's Marina del Rey station and climbed from the air-conditioned interior into the midday August heat. The salty odor of the Pacific breezes stung his nostrils. Bolan pulled the mirrored sunglasses from his face and rubbed his eyes. He still felt the aftereffects of jet lag. Shortly after his return from a personal mission in Europe, Hal Brognola had called and begged him to go to California.
"What's up?" Bolan asked the Stony Man chief.
"We don't have all the facts quite yet, but it was enough to draw the Man's attention."
Mention of the President got Bolan's interest. "Let's back it up a little. Tell me what you know."
Brognola—head of the ultracovert Sensitive Operations Group, based at Stony Man Farm—told Bolan about the drug raid in Marina del Rey. Police had seized almost two hundred kilos of pure-grade opium. "And there were seven bodies," Brognola added.
"Any make on them?"
"Three were Asian, but local law enforcement is having one hell of a time putting names to faces."
"The other four?"
"Three Hollywood celebrities and Senator Simon Lipinski's daughter."
"Lipinski…" Bolan murmured. "From California?" "Yes, the same Lipinski who's been making such a big stink over human rights on cheap, exported labor. He also happens to be a close personal friend of the President's family. Their kids went to high school together."
"That explains why the Man's involved."
"It gives us a possible reason for why someone might want to kill the girl, too," Brognola said. He paused and his tone softened. "She was just a college freshman, Striker. Barely outof high school with her whole life ahead of her, and just like that it's snuffed out."
Bolan could sense his friend's pain, even empathize with him, but he'd learned long ago he couldn't take those things personally. Vengeance, even exercised with righteous might, wasn't the sort of baggage a professional soldier could afford to carry—not that Bolan hadn't been tempted himself a time or three. He'd started his war against the Syndicate for the sake of vengeance but quickly converted it to a much higher call: duty.
"Lipinski may not be popular, but I doubt professionals would risk indiscriminate murder," Bolan replied. "If the killers wanted to send him a message, there are easier and more effective ways."
"We considered that possibility," Brognola said. "Truth be told, it's the drugs that concern us the most."
"Yeah, that's the angle I think we should play. Myanmar's the place I think of for that volume of pure opium."
"And they have the distribution network to back it up." Brognola's tone became matter-of-fact. "If anyone could move it without drawing attention, the heavies in the Golden Triangle would be my first choice."
"Practice makes perfect. There are two main transshipment points in that area. China, via the Thai route, or straight out of Myanmar. Myanmar still runs the major action, near as I recall. I'd say we start there," Bolan said.
"I'll make some calls to our DEA contacts, see what I can come up with as far as the current atmosphere. We'll make the travel arrangements here. You can expect Jack there within the hour."
"So soon?" Bolan asked.
Brognola chuckled. "I already knew you'd say yes."
So four hours later the Executioner stood before the LASD's station in jeans and a polo shirt. A DEA badge hung from his belt, and the Beretta 93-R rode in a canvas shoulder rig beneath his left arm.
Bolan entered the cool station, and a uniformed woman behind the desk greeted him. Sergeant stripes adorned her sleeve. She sported an enviable California tan, and her blond hair was short. Her clear blue eyes immediately locked on Bolan's pistol. He tapped the badge and the cop relaxed some.
"Special Agent Cooper, DEA. I'm looking for Captain Amherst."
"Do you have an appointment?" the young officer asked him in a brisk, judicious tone.
"Not exactly, but I'm sure she's expecting me," Bolan replied. It didn't exactly constitute a direct answer to the sergeant's question, but it wasn't entirely untrue, either. Bolan's experience in role camouflage had taught him middle-of-the-road tales always sounded the most believable.
"Maybe not, but just a moment," she replied, and reached for a telephone.
Bolan turned to look out the glass doors and tuned out the sergeant's conversation with whoever picked up at the other end. He couldn't have cared less about their internal bureaucracy. Bolan had come to find out about the death of an innocent college girl, and partly because his friend had asked for his help.
"Captain Amherst will be with you in a moment, sir. Would you like something to drink while you wait?" the sergeant asked. Her voice had lost much of its edge; someone had obviously instructed her to show him the first-class treatment.
Bolan requested a mineral water. The sergeant smiled and inclined her head, mumbled something, then turned to a compact refrigerator. She produced a plastic bottle a moment later and tossed it to him. He caught it one-handed and nodded his thanks.
Captain Amherst came around the corner of the hallway to Bolan's left. She strode with confidence, but the uniform didn't quite hide the curves of her slight, lean form. She wore her coal-black hair pulled back in a ponytail, but the oval face looked mature. She projected the air of a woman in charge, and Bolan immediately pegged her as a pro through and through. This wouldn't be easy.
"Captain Rhonda Amherst," she said, extending her hand.
"Matt Cooper," he replied.
"We weren't expecting anyone from the DEA just yet," she said.
"You probably weren't expecting us at all," Bolan said with a lopsided grin. "Or at least hoping."
She inclined her head slightly. "We're all in this together. Would you follow me, please?"
Bolan fell into step behind her. She led them to a conference room, flipped one of the wall switches and gestured toward a seat at the lit end of the long table. Amherst took the seat at the head of the table, folded her arms and leaned forward. She lowered her voice, but her eyes burned with pure scrutiny.
"Just to be sure I'm making no mistakes, I don't suppose you'd be willing to show me some official credentials?"
"No problem." Bolan reached into his back pocket and removed his wallet. He flipped out the identification, set it on the table in front of her and then added the badge to it.
She studied them a minute, then returned both to him. "Thanks. Can't be too careful these days."
"You'll find out they're in order when you call."
"I saw your lips move," Bolan said. "You memorized the ID number. I was letting you know I'll check out when you talk to the DEA."
Amherst couldn't do a thing about the sudden flush in her cheeks, and Bolan figured she knew it.
"So forget it," he said with a wave. "I'm not here to tread on toes, Captain. I'm only interested in tracing the origin of the drugs your people seized. Washington tells me it was high-grade opium, and there isn't too much of that flying around in the quantities we're talking here. You knew it would attract attention."
"I'm afraid it goes deeper than that, Agent Cooper."
"Tell me what you know," he said, leaning back and relaxing. Bolan figured she'd open up if he kept it loose. "Maybe I can help."
"Let me start by giving you some idea of our territory," she replied, getting out of her chair and walking over to a wall map. She stopped to eyeball him and added, "Only because it's important to our present circumstances. I won't try to snowball you."
Bolan nodded his acknowledgment. "This map encompasses the entire jurisdiction of LASD. My particular area is that part shaded in light blue. Chiefly we provide service to the unincorporated parts of L.A. County, broken into three main areas.Area Marina we monitor with six patrol boats, and we share responsibility with another division over at Santa Monica Bay. We're also responsible for a number of communities east of us and then of course Lost RD."
"The what?" Bolan interjected.
Amherst chuckled. "Our little pet name for a small island piece about a mile inland."
"You said this little tour you're giving me is important." Bolan shrugged. "In what way?"
"We recovered more opium in every one of our jurisdictional areas. This stuff has been located in everything from the mansions in Windsor Hills and Ladera Heights to the slums in View Park. That's what hasn't been in the papers. I'm under strict orders from the higher-ups to keep this as quiet as possible. I've argued with the sheriff. Hell, I even risked my rank by threatening to take it over his head and straight to the county commissioners, but he swore to me he's keeping them apprised. And yet, nada."
"So you don't believe him."
"I don't know what to believe anymore," she said with a deep sigh.
"Exactly how much opium are we talking about?" Bolan asked.
Amherst dropped into a chair next to the wall map. "Including the other night, I'd say we're up to about three thousand kilos. Frankly, it's more than we can handle. I'm actually relieved the DEA's involved. The sheriff has no choice now that the cat's out of the bag."
Most of what he'd just heard didn't make sense to Bolan. "So your superiors ordered you to keep it under wraps?"
"Until the other night. You know, it's a little easier to keep this quiet when the drugs aren't accompanied by seven corpses aboard a boat owned by one of the most famous actors in Hollywood."
Amherst nodded and expressed distaste. "Yes, but I don't know why they called him the Latino Angel. I can testify he was anything but."
"The only reasons we even ran that raid was because of a reliable tip and a very friendly judge. Hell, he's probably one of the few judges on our side."
"You're too young to be that jaded," Bolan replied easily. She frowned. "I got a lot on my plate, mister, believe me. There's more graft in the L.A. County court system than hookers on Hollywood Boulevard."
Bolan got to his feet. "I don't doubt you have a lot on your hands, so I'll keep out of your way and you keep out of mine. But you can bet I'll look into this further."
"That a promise or do you really mean it?"Amherst quipped.
"Funny," Bolan said. "You could help by keeping word of my involvement strictly need-to-know for now."
She did nothing to hide the derision in her tone as she threw up her hands. "Oh, great, another person who wants to keep this all hush-hush. Oh, well, who would I tell?"
"I don't want to keep it quiet because I have some hidden agenda," Bolan said in an even tone. "I just don't want to attract attention. If there are legit reasons the sheriff has kept a gag on this, fine. But if there's corruption involved, then it would be better if they didn't know anything about me until I can determine how deep it goes. Make sense?"
Amherst nodded. "Yes. And I owe you an apology, Cooper. I'm just tired, I guess. It seems like nobody wants to do anything about this."
"I do," Bolan said. "Trust me."
BOLAN SPOTTED THE TAIL in a nondescript sedan as soon as he left the parking lot of the LASD station. It didn't make sense. He hadn't been in-country even twelve hours, and nobody outside of Stony Man Farm would know of his existence or mission. That meant one of two things: Amherst had arranged for her people to follow him and see what he had up his sleeve, or someone already had the station under surveillance and Bolan's sudden arrival sparked their interest.
Bolan bet the latter scenario as the likeliest.
He'd use the next few minutes to decide if the followers were friend or foe. As Bolan merged with traffic on the interstate, he kept an eye on the tail through his rearview mirror and considered his options. Jack Grimaldi, Stony Man's ace pilot and longtime friend to Bolan, waited at the airport with the plane that had brought them there. Bolan had skipped renting a hotel room; he didn't figure they'd be long in L.A.
The Executioner didn't have a hotel, sure, but his tail probably didn't know that. The soldier quickly formulated his plan and then took the next exit when he spotted a hotel sign. Bolan kept to the outermost exit lane. His eyes flicked to the rearview in time to see the sedan slide into the lane next to his and keep back a couple of car-lengths. The maneuver left no doubt in Bolan's mind the followers weren't new to the game.
Bolan spotted the large hotel ahead of him and signaled early enough to make sure his tail saw where he planned to go. He swung into the parking lot and parked in one of the side-lot spaces. The L-shaped hotel was actually split into two sections separated by a breezeway at a right angle to the main office.
Bolan walked into the breezeway and broke into a jog after moving from view of the observers. He reached the other end, then turned right at the end. He followed this causeway to the rear of the hotel and crossed around the windowless back side of the office. Bolan waited about half a minute, then vaulted the eight-foot wall. He dropped to the pavement and skirted the wall to the edge of the lot.
Bolan peered around the wall and quickly spotted the sedan. The driver had pulled into the parking lot of a taco joint directly across from the hotel. It afforded them a virtually un-obstructed view of the hotel. It seemed they meant no violent threat to the Executioner—at least not an immediate one— and Bolan planned to make sure it never got that far. He'd learned that sometimes discretion wasn't the better part of valor, and this was one of those times.
Bolan turned and strolled to the stoplight half a block away. He crossed with the light and then doubled back so he could approach from the rear. When he reached the building next to the taco stand, he circled it and came up on the sedan from the rear. He took the last twenty yards in a crouch and approached on the passenger side. Two men in crew cuts and short-sleeve shirts occupied the front seats. Bolan kept low and quietly tested the rear door handle. Locked.
Bolan went in hard.
He reached into the open window and grabbed the passenger by the collar. With his left hand, he shoved the man to the left and produced the Beretta 93-R in his right fist, pointing it toward the head of the driver.
"You packing?" he asked them.
The passenger yelped something as Bolan's rock-hard knuckles pressed against his neck, and the driver's eyes went wide. The men were young and inexperienced. They hadn't expected their quarry to become the aggressor, and Bolan had taken them by total surprise.
"I asked a question," Bolan said. "You guys packing?"
"Yeah, yeah," the driver replied.
"Right or southpaw?" Bolan asked him.
"Are you right- or left-handed?"
"Right," he said. "Why?"
"You first, then. Use your left hand and dump the piece out the window."
"You're making a big mistake, asshole," the passenger finally squealed in outrage.
"So is he," Bolan said, gesturing in his partner's direction with the muzzle of the Beretta. He returned his attention to the driver. "Last chance. Lose the sidearm or it all ends here."
"Fine, fine," he said.
When Bolan heard the pistol hit the pavement outside, he ordered the passenger to carefully hand over his weapon. The guy complied. Bolan immediately recognized the Glock 21. He tucked the pistol at the small of his back, then commanded the pair to put their hands on the dash. He opened the rear door once they had done it and slid to the center of the backseat.
"Okay, let's have it," Bolan asked.