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Acting as unofficial backup to a CIA mission threatening to go hard, Mack Bolan is ready for action on the frigid streets of St. Petersburg, Russia. Soon a mix of blood and intelligence creates a picture of a deal brokered between militant Russian youth gangs and Jihadists--aimed at the United States. With too many pieces missing from the puzzle, Bolan plays the game he's played and won countless times before: shake up the enemy's infrastructure, derail its timetable and declare total war. But the fuse is ...
Acting as unofficial backup to a CIA mission threatening to go hard, Mack Bolan is ready for action on the frigid streets of St. Petersburg, Russia. Soon a mix of blood and intelligence creates a picture of a deal brokered between militant Russian youth gangs and Jihadists--aimed at the United States. With too many pieces missing from the puzzle, Bolan plays the game he's played and won countless times before: shake up the enemy's infrastructure, derail its timetable and declare total war. But the fuse is lit--all the way to the streets of Portland, where America's most violent gangs are being armed and primed to unleash the enemy's ultimate, shocking agenda....
Mack Bolan gazed out his hotel-room window and saw four armed men exit a sedan in front of the building. He immediately moved from the window to the nearby table, where he shrugged into the nylon shoulder holster that bore his Beretta 93-R. Then he donned a cream-colored sports jacket to hide the weapon.
As Bolan left the room and headed for a set of back stairs that provided the fastest unobstructed route to the first floor, he thought back on Hal Brognola's briefing.
"Her name is Kisa Naryshkin," said Hal Brognola, director of the Sensitive Operations group, America's ultra-covert antiterrorist organization based at Stony Man Farm in Virginia. "And according to our intelligence, she's the only link we have to Leonid Rostov and Sergei Cherenko.
"While this one falls totally under the jurisdiction of the CIA, we would feel a whole lot better with you there to act as backup, Striker," Brognola had told him.
"You're worried this might go hard," Bolan replied.
Brognola nodded. "Yeah. The guy they have there to oversee the transfer is Lyle Carron, and he's got a lot of years with the Company. He's one of their top agents on the Russian desk, as I understand it. George Bal-ford's another story, though. The guy's only three months out of Langley, background in accounting."
Bolan frowned. "When is the CIA going to learn that bean counters aren't exactly the best choice for these types of operations? A sensitive case like this requires a certain expertise."
"That was our assessment, as well," said Barbara Price, Stony Man's mission controller. "That's why we felt it was best to call you in on this one. Rostov and Cherenko claim to have informationcritical to uncovering some type of terrorist attack against the United States by the Jemaah al-Islamiyah. Apparently the Se-vooborot Molodjozhny, also known as both the Youth Revolution and the SMJ, has made some type of handshake agreement with them, where the JI will provide the SMJ arms and training."
"For what?" Bolan asked.
"That's what we don't know," Brognola replied. "All Rostov and Cherenko can tell us right now is that this has something to do with a plot against America."
"Sounds thin," Bolan said. "If the JI's planning a terrorist attack against us, I don't see any logical connection to a militant youth organization inside Russia."
"Maybe not, but the President thinks it's vital we keep our thumb on this one until the transfer's complete. That's where you come in."
Under other circumstances Mack Bolan might have passed, but something in his gut told him this went deep enough that he needed to get closer. And as he had no love for either militant Russian youths or Islamic terrorists—especially since both groups were quite outspoken of their hatred for America and her people—the Executioner decided to accept the mission and see what came of it.
The Executioner pushed through the door at the first-floor landing that opened onto a hallway running along the east-side front of the hotel. He got his first view of the scene unfolding ahead. The doors were closed, shooting and screams had ensued, and a lone armed man had crouched at the door leading into the conference room, apparently unsure of what to do next. Bolan catfooted up the hall and entered through the double doors of an adjoining conference room. In the early hours of that morning, he'd paced the empty halls and accessed each conference room—mapping the approximate square footage and other important details of this wing—and then returned to his room where he sketched the layout. From his recon, Bolan had made some tactical decisions and picked the lock of the door leading to the room adjoining the one where the CIA agents would be waiting to rendezvous with Rostov and Che-renko. It was at that point Bolan had detached the divider separating the two conference rooms and left it slightly ajar to facilitate an alternate entrance and access if it became necessary.
Unfortunately it had.
Bolan let the door close behind him with a barely audible click. He waited long enough for his eyes to adjust to the light that emanated from the adjoining conference room, then made his way to the divider. Sidling up to the break in the divider, he took in the site with a practiced eye. The four men had moved the hostages to the back wall and lined them up single file on their knees with their hands on top of their heads. Good. That would keep the innocents out of his line of fire.
He then noticed the bloodied body of a young, fresh-faced man, a pistol lying just out of reach. It was George Balford. He recognized the face from the dossier provided by Stony Man. The poor kid hadn't even known what hit him, probably, and if he had, he certainly hadn't expected such a short career. So that meant Car-ron was out of the room when the gunmen had entered.
Bolan moved the divider slightly as the gunmen paced up and down the line, shouting at their hostages in a mix of Russian and English. He sighted on the closest gunman first, took a deep breath, let out half and then squeezed the trigger. The Beretta coughed discreetly as the 9 mm subsonic bullet crossed the expanse in a millisecond and punched through the target's throat. The SMG clattered on the floor as the gunner raised his hands to his throat, then staggered.
The Executioner already had the second man in his sights before the body of the first hit the ground, and he squeezed off another shot. The round punched into the gunner's breastbone and continued into his lung. The impact drove the man backward into his partner, who was apparently reacting to the falling body of the first man. While the third man tried to disentangle himself from his falling partner, the fourth gunman realized something was wrong and reacted, furiously scanning the area, fanning his weapon left and right.
The sound of a door flying open briefly drew everyone's attention from the carnage. Bolan's eyes flicked toward the front in time to see Carron burst through the doorway. The fourth man at the far end now had a visible target and swung his SMG into target acquisition, but he was too late. The .45-caliber pistol in Carron's grip boomed twice. Both rounds landed on target, punching through the man's stomach. Bolan gritted his teeth against the possibility one of them might continue through and strike a hostage, but his fears were never realized.
Bolan reacquired a sight picture on the remaining gunner as the man triggered a burst in Carron's direction that sent the CIA agent diving for cover. The weapon skewed upward and delivered a flurry of rounds harmlessly into the corkboard ceiling as the Executioner pumped two slugs through the man's skull. The bullets split his head clean open and dumped him to the floor.
In a snap decision, Bolan backed from the divider and raced across the room. He opened the door, peered into the hallway and then made for the steps when he verified it was empty. As the Executioner pushed through the door and climbed the stairwell he considered the situation at hand. The St. Petersburg police would undoubtedly swarm the building in the next ten minutes, which didn't give him much time. He couldn't remain in his room—they would conduct a door-to-door search, to be sure, and that meant a lot of uncomfortable questions. He would have to exit by the first-floor window of the rear stairwell. He could stow the pistol in a locker of one of the nearby train stations, so if they cordoned the area he wouldn't get caught with a weapon.
Bolan went quickly through his room, left the clothes hanging in the closet and the bag of toiletries on the sink, and removed only his forged identification and passport and heavy overcoat. He made his exit through the rear stairwell window unobserved, donned the overcoat once outside, then headed to a nearby pay-phone. He dialed the hotel, asked if he had any messages, then hung up immediately. That would probably provide a fairly decent alibi if he was questioned by police at any later point. Bolan then headed for the train station where he could dump his armament.
Then it would become a waiting game. He would need to touch base with Stony Man at some point to see if he could get a line on Carron. There was no point in keeping his cover. He would need some backup in his search for the two missing contacts, and Carron seemed the most sensible one to provide that given he was out to accomplish the same end as Bolan. Things were shaping up just as they always seemed to for the Executioner.
Yeah. Business as usual.
Even with their advanced computer systems, it took Stony Man more than four hours to track down Lyle Carron. By the time Bolan found him in a small coffee shop on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, the massive clock on a nearby church had nearly struck 10:00 p.m. and another three inches of snow had fallen. Bolan shook the snow from his overcoat as he came through the door. He nodded at the barista, ordered a coffee in Russian and then moved over to Carron's table.
"Mind if I sit down?" Bolan asked quietly.
Carron's eyes focused on Bolan's with surprise, then the company guy gestured to a seat in front of him. Bolan sat but the two men said nothing until the barista arrived with a carafe of hot coffee and then departed. Wisps of steam danced off the coffee as Bolan poured a cup for himself and then refilled Carron's. The Company man looked bothered, his face gaunt and drawn, and Bolan had been in the business long enough to know what was eating at him.
"It wasn't your fault," Bolan said. "Balford, I mean."
Carron looked Bolan in the eyes, something few men seemed able to do without looking away just as quickly. While the CIA agent didn't say anything, Bolan could tell Carron was sizing him up. Many other men had looked into those same twin points of ice blue and shrunk under the stare. Carron seemed to take little more than a passing interest, obviously trying to decide whether he could trust Bolan.
"How did you find me?" When Bolan frowned, Carron waved it away and added quickly, "Never mind. Dumb question." He took a sip of coffee and said, "You're not Company."
It wasn't a question and Bolan shook his head. He extended his hand and said, "Name's Cooper. Or Matt, if you prefer."
"Let's just say I'm not on any page in the book," Bolan said with a wan smile.
"The other shooter at the hotel. You?"
Bolan nodded. "Sorry I didn't stick around, but I had to beat feet for the same reasons you did."
"I'd like to know who sent you," Carron said mat-ter-of-factly. "And why."
"And I'll be happy to tell you," Bolan said. "But first I have a question for you. What do you think may have happened Rostov and Cherenko?"
Carron shrugged and let out a sigh. "I figure they made someone who was onto them, maybe they had a tail. They would have known it was too risky to make the rendezvous or lead their friends from the SMJ to the hotel. Probably took them on a wild-goose chase. Either that or the SMJ caught up to them before they could meet us, tortured them for the time and place, then sent some boys to take care of me and George."
"What about the car? You didn't try to follow it?"
"The one that deposited the four hardcases outside the front door."
Carron shook his head and frowned. "There wasn't any car there. I used the front for my own exit, and only thing I saw was a corpse. Figured that was your handiwork, too."
"No dice," Bolan replied.
The Executioner felt a knot settle in his stomach. Somebody had obviously ambushed the driver, left his carcass on the sidewalk and taken the car. All of that had probably happened during Bolan's trip to the first floor and the subsequent gun battle. He hadn't even thought about that; he figured the driver would either get spooked after a certain amount of time elapsed and split, or the cops would pen him in and nab him when they arrived.
"The fact someone smoked the driver and got away means they were waiting for them," Bolan finally said. "Either that or they saw an opportunity and decided to exploit it."
"Yeah," Carron replied. "And I don't think it takes a genius to figure out who did it."
"I sat watch on that street for more than an hour," Bolan said. "And I never saw Rostov or Cherenko. Never saw anybody."
"Not your fault. The weather was shit and you couldn't have figured the SMJ would try making a play with me and Balford covering all bets. Besides, you weren't there as the primary."
Bolan reacted to that.
The CIA man smiled. "Don't look so surprised. The Company has some sources, too."
"So you knew they sent me?"
"Well, not you specifically, but I figured they'd send someone," Carron replied. "Let's face it. It would've been stupid for the upper echelon in Wonderland to put all of their eggs in one basket. I think that's what got me incensed more than anything. They put out George and me as sacrificial lambs, almost like they were expecting us to blow it. Okay, I'm thick-skinned and I can take it, but George was barely out of college. Just a kid, Cooper."
Carron lit a cigarette and poured them more coffee, then said, "I get it, though. And I understand them sending you as backup. The information Rostov and Cherenko have is obviously too important to trust without some type of failsafe operation in place. For what it's worth, pal, I'm still glad you were there to cover my six."
"Fact of the matter is, we both lost this one," Bolan said.
"Maybe just the battle," Carron replied with a wink. "War's not over yet. Just what do these two know that's so important? Any idea?"
Bolan weighed his one of two possible responses. He liked Carron, genuinely trusted him, but he couldn't be sure how much he should let on he knew. Of course, Carron would have had a general idea anyway, although maybe not privy to all the details Stony Man had given Bolan. Still, the Executioner would need all the allies he could get if he were to find Rostov and Cherenko and get them out of the country. Carron had all of their documents, and he also knew the Russian sector pretty well if the information contained in his dossier was any indication. Besides, he'd lost his partner to this mission already and Bolan doubted he'd be able to keep that guy at any distance. Bolan had succeeded on missions like this partly because he knew when it was appropriate to take a lone-wolf stance versus when to accept an offer of help.
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