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Mack Bolan, aka the Executioner, cat footed through the London fog. He'd already picked up a tail, which was all right with him. Bolan was spoiling for a fight this evening, anyway. In fact, it was the number-one item on his agenda. He turned up the collar of his peacoat and pulled his watch cap low over his forehead against the chill, and moved toward his target.
London was one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth. Nearly every immigrant group on the planet, including their organized crime and terrorist syndicates, had an enclave in the city. Since ancient times, the Irish had been one of the first and foremost.
The Irish Republican Army was on Bolan's plate this night.
Pub Claddagh was his destination.
It was a well-known IRA meet-and-greet watering hole. Not surprisingly, Pub Claddagh was well used to visits by the English bobbies, inspectors from Scotland Yard and under-cover agents from MI-5. It had also received visits from two CIA field agents in the past three months, both of whom had wound up floating dead in the Thames River with severe contusions, multiple broken bones and a .223-caliber bullet through the backs of their heads. Ballistics had shown that the bullets had come from AR-18 assault rifles, one of the IRA's weapons of choiceone they were so pleased with they had come to nickname the AR-18 "Widowmaker." Both CIA men had left widows behind.
Now Pub Claddagh was about to have its first visit from the Executioner.
But first Bolan was going to have to get to the door. The two men tailing him were making no more attempts at stealth. Their boots thudded on the cobblestones as they briskly caught up with him. An Irish brogue broke through thethick fog blanketing the street. "Hey! Yank!"
Bolan turned to his opponents. They were large men and heavily built. One wore his hair cropped short, the other had shaved his head. Their lumpish faces, poorly set broken noses, scarred brows and cauliflower ears only added to the "goon" effect. They looked like archetypal British soccer hooligans, only they spoke with Irish accents that could be cut with a knife. The skinhead leaned forward, jutting a jaw you could break a croquet mallet on.
"And where d'you think you're going?"
Bolan spit casually on the pavement between them.
"What's it to you, Paddy?"
"Paddy!" The skinhead grinned happily. "D'you hear that, Liam?"
"Oh, I do, Shane." Liam smiled like a shark. "A bold boy, this one."
Both men were dressed in Team Ireland football jerseys voluminous enough to hide some significant weapons. Bolan suspected this was to be a beating, albeit a brutal one, rather than an assassination or a kidnapping.
"If you two are looking to beg a fiver, bugger off. If you're looking to get buggered, you've got each other."
Shane laughed delightedly. The American was being very obliging.
Liam's eyes narrowed slightly. He was a predator, but he sensed something was wrong. The American wasn't belligerent or filled with drunken defiance. He was showing no fear whatsoever, and his burning blue eyes were disturbing even in the dim light. Liam folded his arms across his thick chest and tsked sadly, still confident in his and his partner's control of the situation. That was his first and last mistake.
Bolan took the opportunity to kick Shane in the shin.
During the early years of the Cold War, the OSS and other intelligence agencies had issued shoes with steel toecaps for crippling opponents in sudden struggles. Such modifications couldn't make it through today's airport X-ray or metal detector screenings, but Bolan had the modern equivalent made out of polycarbonate Lexan that had the tensile strength of industrial-grade cast zinc. They weren't quite as strong as steel, but then again neither was Shane's tibia. The bone cracked with an audible click noise.
Shane let out an amazingly high-pitched scream for a man of his size.
Liam had made the unforgivable mistake of crossing his arms and posturing when he should have been attacking. He unfolded his arms with alacrity, but he was already behind the curve.
Bolan's hand blurred into motion, and he slapped Liam. But rather than slapping the man across the face, the soldier slapped into it. He cupped his palm as he hit Liam to create an air pocket, and the blow sounded like a gunshot. The cupped air concentrated the blow and drove the force into Liam's Gasserian ganglion, where the trigeminal nerves carrying information from the eyes, ears and face met. Tears geysered out of Liam's eyes and blood burst from his nose from the force of the blow. The trauma beneath the surface was far more severe. The Gasserian ganglion had a direct route to the brain, and by crushing the nerve bundle Bolan's blow had reproduced the symptoms of facial neuralgia, which many medical resources described as the most terrible pain a human being was capable of experiencing.
Liam dropped to his knees, clawing at his face, his screams slurred by his malfunctioning jaw. Within heartbeats he collapsed and went fetal in blissful unconsciousness. Shane was still hopping around on one foot, screaming and clutching his fractured left shin, so Bolan stepped in and fractured his right.
Shane toppled, howling, to the cobbles.
Bolan took their wallets and removed their ID cards before moving on up the street. Above a green-painted oaken door thick enough for a medieval castle hung a classic tin pub sign. On it was painted a golden claddagh symbol, a heart topped by a crown and held by two hands. The heart symbolized love, the hands friendship and the crown loyalty. Bolan pushed open the heavy door and the smells of cigarette smoke and shepherd's pie washed over him. Warmth radiated from a glowing fireplace. The interior was classic pub. The wood was ancient dark varnished oak, crushed red-velvet upholstery covered the walls and the furniture and gleaming brass was everywhere. There were about thirty patrons in the pub; most sat at tables or in booths. A few sat at the bar watching the football scores on the television.
Bolan pulled off his watch cap and walked up to the bar. The bartender was an immense man in formal bartender attire. His red hair was cut close to his skull and was the same shade as his short beard and mustache. He looked like a jolly Irish Santa. He had a lazy eye, and one eye looked at Bolan while the other one appeared to be taking note of the scorers on the television above the bar. He smiled at Bolan benignly. "What'll it be, mate?"
Bolan ran his gaze across the taps. "Half and half."
The bartender nodded wisely and filled a pint glass half full of Harp lager. He filled the rest of the glass with Guinness stout poured down the side of the glass over a spoon to create two distinct layers of light and dark beer. He topped it with a flourish that left a four-leaf clover shape in the foamy head. Bolan sipped his beer and acknowledged its perfect execution with a grin. He reached into his coat and produced pictures of the two dead CIA agents. "You seen either of these two in the past couple of months?"
The bartender squinted at the photos and shrugged. "Can't say's I have, but then I can't say's I haven't." He gave Bolan a merry smile. "Y'see we are London's most famous Irish pub. We get a lot ofAmerican tourists and businessmen coming in."
Bolan hadn't said the two dead agents were Americans, but he was willing to chalk that up to an assumption on the bartender's part. Bolan took out Liam's and Shane's ID cards and placed them on the bar. "You know these two?"
The bartender had an excellent poker face, but his face froze for the barest instant and he knew it. He lost his veneer of friendliness. "And where'd you get those, then?"
"From Liam and Shane," Bolan said.
"Are they under arrest?"
"No." Bolan smiled. "But I left their crippled asses lying in the street a couple of minutes ago."
The bartender's thick fingers clenched into fists. He took a long breath and unclenched them. "You know, I think you'd best be leaving."
Bolan feigned surprise. "But I haven't finished my beer yet."
The bartender's lazy eye suddenly swung into line and the big man glared at Bolan in binocular anger. He slowly leaned forward, worked his jaws a moment and spit into Bolan's half and half. "Take your time, then."
Bolan scooped up his pictures and pushed away from the bar. He went from table to table, showing the pictures and asking the same questions while he felt the bartender's eyes burning holes in his back.A glance back showed him the bartender talking rapidly into a cell phone. Bolan went on with his interviews. Most of the Claddagh's patrons genuinely didn't recognize the pictures. A few clearly recognized Liam and Shane. When Bolan responded that no, he was not with the police, he was informed of several unique places he could "bugger off" to.
The big American concluded his interviews, leaving a card with a phone number and the address of the hotel he was staying at with whomever would accept one. Bolan pulled on his cap and stepped out into the London night.
Liam and Shane were gone. Rooted in the same spot where the fight had occurred stood two men of equally goonlike dimensions. They wore long coats with hooded black sweatshirts underneath. The hoods were pulled low over the men's brows to throw their faces into shadow. A similar pair of men stood directly across the street from Bolan. One of them held a cell phone to his ear. Standing there like stones with the fog creeping around them, they looked like the IRA's own Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Bolan's hand went to the grips of the Beretta 93-R machine pistol beneath his coat.
The IRA was different from a lot of terrorist organizations. They had what some might describe as a vaguely achievable goal of driving the British out of Northern Ireland and uniting their country. Driving the Protestants into the sea was part of it, but driving out the British had to come first. IRA members also tended not to be suicidal. Martyrdom usually wasn't on the agenda, and they wanted to get away with their bombings and killings. However, like any such organization, they had their hardcore "soldiers." Men who were ready to die beneath the bullets of British soldiers or do a life sentence in an English supermax prison standing on their heads and not talking.
Bolan faced four of them now.
One of the men across the street took a single step forward. He twisted his wrist and a length of wood slid down out of his sleeve. The weapon was a shillelagh, the ancient Irish war club. Only this wasn't one of the walking sticks sold to tourists in the airports. The tapering blackthorn terminated in a root-ball the size of a human fist.
The weapon was not a total anachronism.
During a riot when British soldiers were wielding batons, firing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets and the rioters responded with bricks and stones, an IRA man could produce his shillelagh and crush the skull of a traitor or political target. One more fatal head trauma would go unnoticed in the melee.
Bolan didn't currently want to shoot any of these men. He wanted the men controlling them. The Executioner took out his cell phone and punched a preset number. A cheerful Englishwoman asked him if he required a cab and he provided the address of the pub and then waited. He stared at the Irish, and they stared at him.
A London black cab turned the corner and proceeded up the street. The clubman threw his weapon, and it clattered across the cobblestones to rest at Bolan's feet. The four men melted away into the fog. Bolan scooped up the shillelagh, surprised at its weight and heft. He tucked it under his coat and climbed into his cab. The club was a challenge. The IRA had dropped a punk card for Bolan and dared him to pick it up.
The Executioner had picked it up, and he'd left ample calling cards in the bar.
Bolan lay on the bed of his hotel room and examined his new club. The three-foot length of blackthorn was three inches in diameter and varnished against the elements. The Irish craftsman had added a brass cap on the tapered end to prevent splitting. The most interesting aspect of it was the business end. The ugly lump of the root-ball had been partially drilled out, and molten lead had been poured in to "load" the stick. It was a club that would not just crack a human skull but go through it.
He sat up as the satellite link peeped at him from its aluminum case. Bolan flipped open the attached laptop and clicked a key. Aaron "The Bear" Kurtzman's craggy, bearded face appeared on the eleven-inch monitor in real time all the way from Stony Man Farm in Virginia. Bolan held up his shillelagh for the camera. "Look what I got."
Kurtzman's brow furrowed. "Nice battle bludgeon you got there. Who gave it to you?"
"A nice Irish lad." Bolan tossed the cudgel onto the bed.
"Speaking of likely lads, what did you get on the two IDs I faxed you?"
United Kingdom criminal justice forms began to scroll on the screen beneath Kurtzman's image. Liam and Shane had rap sheets. "We have Shane O'Maonlai and Liam MacGowan, both born in Ulster, Northern Ireland. Shane did two years for assault at Magilligan prison where apparently he was recruited by Liam. Both men have had multiple cases of assault lodged against them, though in almost all cases the charges have been dropped."
Bolan nodded. "They're low-level muscle."
"Yeah," the computer expert agreed. "Their MO seems to be cracking heads and keeping people in line for the IRA in London, but by their rap sheets they've also dabbled in leg-breaking and loan-sharking for the London Mob to earn pocket money." His eyes flicked to the bed. "The shillelagh strikes me as a bit odd. Liam and Shane do their work with their hands."
"I didn't get it from them. Like you said, they're leg-breakers. When I left them on the ground and started poking my nose around the pub, the bartender called in some heavy hitters."
Kurtzman frowned. "You took it off one of them?"
"No, they gave it to me."
"As a gift?"
"No, it's a challenge."
Kurtzman sighed. It was one of Bolan's usual tactics. When all else failed, he stuck his head out and waited to see who took a swing at it. "I don't suppose you got any fingerprints off it?"
"They were wearing gloves, and it's as clean as whistle."
The computer wizard regarded Bolan dryly. "I gather you left a road map to your exact location."
"Pretty much," Bolan admitted. "You get anything on the bartender at the Claddagh?"
"Ronald Caron, former Irish wrestling champion, former military policeman in the Irish Defence Forces, suspected of gun trafficking, suspected of harboring fugitives, suspected of assault, twice arrested on conspiracy charges but released for lack of evidence and a 'person of interest' in nearly every alleged IRA action in London for the past two decades."
Bolan nodded. The bartender might be a hundred pounds over his fighting weight, but underneath the jolly exterior he had given off the vibe of a very dangerous man.
Kurtzman pulled up MacGowan's file again. "It's of note that Liam MacGowan and Caron both served at the same time in the Irish Defence Forces. Though MacGowan was light infantry rather than an MP."
That didn't come as a surprise, either. The Irish Defence Forces were small by nature, generally equipped with obsolescent equipment due to budget constraints, and chronically short of manpower. English recruiting officers for the U.K.'s armed forces were only a ferry ride across the Irish Sea and offered better pay, better benefits, better terms of service and were always happy to enlist Irishmen. The only reason to join the Irish Army was that you were Irish and wanted to.
The Irish government denied it, but there had always been cells of the IRA within the Irish Defence Forces, who used the Irish military as an IRA recruiting and training ground, as well as using the military structure for networking. He had no doubt that Caron had probably recruited MacGowan. When it came to petty intrigues, strong-arming and IRA errand-running on the streets of London, Caron was MacGowan's and O'Maonlai's control officer.
Still, killing CIA agents seemed somewhat above their pay grade. There was something bigger happening, and bigger fish were involved. Bolan was sure of it.