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Outside Panama City, Panama
It was a brutally hot night, the air deathly, and Mack Bolan could feel the steady flow of sweat down his neck and arms.
A headband kept his face dry, and military rosin did the trick on his darkened hands. But every breath was a minor effort, as if the atmosphere itself was trying to steal away his strength and resolve.
Jungle warfare is a bitch, Bolan thought, fighting the urge to take a sip from the canteen at his side. Instead, he licked at the perspiration on his arms. Sweating drained off vital salt, and that would weaken a man surprisingly fast. Licking his own sweat stopped the leeching effect and would keep Bolan alert. He had salt tablets in his pockets, just in case. But those were for emergencies only. He really had no idea how long this vigil was going to last. Hours, days. There were just too many unknown factors. But that was true of most combat situations, especially in the jungle.
Bolan shifted slightly amid the splintery crossbeams of the old abandoned water tower. The ancient timbers were stronghe had checked them thoroughly a few days ago, disguised as a vagrant dressed in dirty rags. It had taken several days for him to gather the munitions and supplies needed for this mission. Then two more days to confirm range acquisition and mark all the vital targets in the proposed kill zone. He knew every inch of the landscape around the creaking water tower and could recognize the sea gull droppings on the struts by their coloration. Many of the birds hid under the tower during the heat of the day but went hunting at night for insects and food scraps in the nearby garbage dump of the bustling city only a few klicks away. Panama City was a mixture of slums and skyscrapers, the old and new, rich and poor, operating on the most basic and sometimes most violent levels. It was a sniper's paradise. That is, for the right kind of soldier.
Staying in the shadows of the crisscrossing timbers, Bolan adjusted the telescopic sight of the bulky Heckler & Koch rifle with Saber chassis. The angular rifle fired standard 5.56 mm ammunition but also supported a 20 mm grenade launcher with a sound suppressor of Bolan's own design. That drastically reduced the range of the shells but lowered the already soft thump of the grenade launcher to something barely discernible a few yards away. That would be very important for the first part of the assault.
Stealth was the goal for tonight. Death from above. Not open combat. If this mission was to succeed, Bolan needed to do it fast and quiet. A ghost in the night.
For tonight's mission, the Soldier was wearing a black Ghillie suitfor warmth and to help him merge with the darkness. It was hard for armed guards to shoot what they could not see. All of his equipment was masked with black cloth to prevent any possible reflection; even the lens of the Zeiss sniper scope was cut with microprisms to neutralize any light flash from revealing his location. Soon enough, Bolan would have to move fast. But speed without a clearly defined goal could mean death in his line of work. Sometimes, survival depended on sitting absolutely still while the rest of the world around you violently exploded. He knew of an old proverb, "Softly, softly, catchee monkey." Translation: go slow, and get it right the first time.
Just then a cool breeze blew in from the nearby Pacific Ocean, carrying the rich smell of salt along with a trace of diesel fumes.
Studying the flutter of a rag hanging on a bent nail overhead, Bolan concluded the wind was likely a steady north-by-northwest, blowing five to six miles per hour. He mentally added that to the equation of trajectory, caliber, speed and distance, and minutely adjusted the scope again. Bolan had specific goals tonight, and killing civilians was not among them. Very long ago he had sworn never to take an innocent life. He did not kill randomly or without purpose. Every bullet had a goalthe preservation of life.
Gunning down a mad dog in the street before it could attack innocent bystanders was not sport for him, or fun, or even very interesting, except in the purely intellectual aspect of tactics and deployment. It was a job that needed to be done. Nothing more. A job that he was uniquely suited for.
I am not their judge. I am their judgment. The criminals and mad-dog killers of the world had forged their own destiny when they turned against the rest of humanity. Bolan was merely the instrument of the payment.
Bolan adjusted his sights again. The low roar of a jet sounded overhead. Out in the canal, a cruise liner the size of a small city maneuvered through the array of elevated locks connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. A full moon shone in the starry sky over Panama City, the silvery light reflecting off the ocean's low swells. In the far distance, the horizon glowed from the electric lights of the busy port town. Ships from every nation were waiting in a long queue to trundle through the canal.
Once a poverty-stricken nation, nowadays Panama was thriving from the steady influx of fees and import duties that accompanied the massive flow of cargo Almost a million tons of produce and manufactured goods moved through the canal every week, making it one of the most important arteries in world commerce.
Turning away from the bustling city, Bolan focused the telescopic sights on a warehouse in an isolated inlet to the south. Down here in the darkness of the Cordan Quay, roughly a million dollars of goods were moved on an almost daily basis. Only none of it was legal, sanctioned or even registered. Cordan was a known focal point for smuggling narcotics, slaves, gold andof courseweapons.
Built to merge seamlessly into the rolling sand dunes and rocky hills, the disguised warehouse had an irregular rooftop covered with bushes and trees to help mask it from aerial observation. In front, a splintery wooden pier looked just about ready to collapse. But Bolan knew it was actually made of welded steel recovered from a stolen Brazilian battleship. The rust was painted on, and the thick corrosion was merely plastic flakes. To a casual observer, the warehouse and dock appeared long-abandoned, as lifeless as the dark side of the moon.
In reality, the warehouse was a hardsite, the reinforced walls thicker than those of many military forts. Hidden in the sand and mounds of garbage were enough surface-to-air missile, or SAM, bunkers to hold off any conventional attack. Bolan estimated the area could be destroyed by heavy bombing, but even then, unless a nuclear charge was used, the people inside the building would be long gone before any significant damage was donethe warehouse was built very deep into the ground. Besides, there were more important things inside that warehouse than merely the men who sold death to the highest bidder.
Hidden in plain sight. It was a bold move for Pierre Cordan, the so-called king of South American smuggling, but so far it had paid off big.
He'd even heard rumors that Cordan was attempting to expand into Asia. However, his every effort had been met with deadly resistance from the Sun Nee On, the largest Chinese triad in the world. Bolan had tangled with those lunatics be-foreand carried the scars to prove it.
The smell of diesel fumes grew stronger, and a diesel engine rumbled into life with a sputter. An old Russian fishing trawler, covered in camouflage netting, was moored at the dock. Wavecutter was the name on the stern. But under the magnification of the sniper scope, Bolan saw that was just a magnetic banner placed over the real name. If it had one. According to his intel, as soon as the ship was in deep water the banner would be tossed aside, and a new name would be slapped onto the hull. Fast, easy and much cheaper than repainting. The ship got a new name at every port.
Burly men stood guard on deck, openly holding Atchisson auto-shotguns, pistols holstered behind their backs. The crew was busy lashing down a pair of unmarked crates to the aft deck. They were a mixed groupmost looked European, but there were more than a few East Asians. The ship was old, but through the dirty windows of the wheelhouse Bolan could see that it was equipped with state-of-the-art navigation equipment, GPS, radar, sonar and what looked suspiciously like a radio jammer. A Russian ship with Chinese electronics? Yeah, the Wavecutter smelled like a smuggling vessel. Which meant that Bolan had no interest in itthe captain or the crewright now. Tonight, he was only interested in the warehouse.
A man cursed on the foredeck as a static line snapped loudly. The heavy rope slashed across the deck like a bull-whip, smashing a wooden barrel into splinters then lashing right through where the sailor had just been standing. Now, the sailor was flat on the deck, alongside his huge captain.
Bolan was impressed. In spite of his size, the captain of the trawler was fast, quite possibly the fastest man Bolan had ever seen. As the two men got back up, Bolan briefly studied the captain. He moved with catlike grace, always on the balls of his feet, not the heels. That was a martial arts stance. Perhaps he was a sumo wrestler, although the captain did not look Japanese. They were huge men who could move with lightning speed. It was a deadly combination of size and speed. While the crew checked the other lines, the captain waved at the dockworkers, then tossed over a small packet of money. Grinning widely, a skinny man with a beard made the catch and nodded in thanks. Bolan recognized him as Pierre Cor-dan. The man climbed onto a forklift and drove back toward the warehouse, the rest of the workers following on foot.
As the crew of the Wavecutter tossed off the mooring lines, the workers disappeared inside the warehouse, a huge steel door closing behind them with a muffled boom. Instantly, Bolan stroked the trigger of his rifle. A soft cough from the weapon went unheard, the noise completely lost in the sputtering roar of the fishing trawler's big diesel engines.
Arching high into the night, the 20 mm grenade landed on the roof of the warehouse with a clatter and rolled across the patched surface, coming to rest directly alongside a spinning intake vent. The canister began issuing a steady stream of light gray smoke.
Changing targets, Bolan fired five more times. Soon, the entire roof was covered with thick, dark gas, the vents sucking it all down into the building.
Bolan waited ten minutes for the sleeping gas grenades on the roof to stop working, and then another five for everybody inside the warehouse to be overcome. Then he pulled on a gas mask and climbed down from the water tower. Retrieving a heavy backpack from the bushes, Bolan drew his silenced Be-retta and boldly walked across the open ground of the garbage dump toward the warehouse.
He encountered trip wires, easily avoided, and proximity sensors, rendered useless by an EM broadcast unit tucked into Bolan's equipment belt. The two guards hidden in the garbage dump were slightly more trouble to neutralize, but Bolan had marked their locations well. The first died under an expert knife thrust to the back of the head, the "doorway of death" located just behind the right ear. The man went stiff and stopped breathing, dead before his mind could even register the attack. But the second guard must have heard something, and she spun around, frantically clawing for the Steyr machine pistol on her hip. Although Bolan disliked shooting any woman, he put a single hollow-point 9 mm into the bridge of her nose, blowing out the back of her head, and kept going. Swim in blood, you pay in death, he thought. End of the discussion.
Pausing just outside the main door, Bolan listened carefully for any suspicious sounds. But there was only a soft snoring mixed with the low hum of the refrigerators cycling on and off. The door was locked, but a keywire gun tricked it open in only a few seconds. The smoky interior was vast, stacked to the ceiling with boxes, barrels, crates and trunks of every possible description, all of them carrying military markings. Numbers only, but Bolan knew the codes. United States, France, Russia, United Kingdom, Iran, Argentina, the ordnance of the world was packed to the ceiling of the warehouse. Death incarnate.
Limp bodies were sprawled on the concrete floor, and, turning them over, Bolan recognized every man as part of the Cordan organization. The hard weeks of surveillance had been a success. His intel had been good. Every one of these people was a known murderer, most of them escaped convicts with rewards on their heads.
Bolan did a fast recon of the entire building and found nineteen men and four women, all of them wearing work clothes and carrying guns. No civilians present. It never hurt to double-check.
Suddenly, an engine revved and a forklift charged out of the shadows. Diving to the side, Bolan rolled to his knees with the Beretta leveled and ready for combat. Son of a bitch, it was Pierre Cordan himself. And the bastard was wearing a gas mask.
As Bolan took aim, Cordan fired a Skorpion vz 61 submachine gun with his free hand, the other tight on the controls. The wild hail of 7.65 mm rounds hit everything around Bolan, and a ricochet slammed aside the Beretta, making his own stream of copper-jacketed rounds stitch across the rear of the forklift, missing Cordan completely.
Screaming muffled obscenities, Cordan fired again, now angling the forklift directly at Bolan. As the twin steel blades filled his line of sight, Bolan dove into a shoulder roll and came up with the Beretta now braced in both hands.
Bolan hammered the side and rear of the forklift, the rounds throwing sparks as they were deflected by the safety cage. He hit Cordan twice, ripping holes in the skinny man's shirt, but the bullets flattened harmlessly on the tight body armor underneath.
Wheeling around sharply, Cordan tossed aside the empty Skorpion and pulled out a Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol. Knowing better than to fall for that old trick, Bolan quickly got behind a concrete support pillar just as the Glock seemed to explode, the disguised Model 18 machine pistol issuing 33 rounds in under two seconds. Several bullets caught the Beretta, sending it flying out of Bolan's hands, so he reached behind his back to produce his reserve piece, a Desert Eagle .357 Magnum.
Laughing, as if this was some sort of a game, Cordan flung the spent Glock to the ground and jerked his left hand forward. A snug .44 derringer came out of his sleeve to slap into a waiting palm.
It felt like minutes, but each man paused for only a few seconds for better aim, then they fired in unison. Both barrels of the derringer blasted flame as the Desert Eagle sounded a single, solemn boom.
Bolan grunted as a graze ripped open his shoulder, exposing his own body armor underneath, and Cordan was thrown back against the safety cage as the massive soft-lead .357 Magnum round slammed him directly in the middle of the chest.
Expertly spinning aside, Bolan fired twice more as Cordan sped by, a round from the Desert Eagle neatly removing his gas mask. Gasping in surprise, Cordan inadvertently inhaled and started to reel. Fighting to regain control, the man angled the forklift again for Bolan, just as the Executioner took aim at the man's vulnerable throat. Before he could fire, Cordan slumped at the controls, his head lolling about helplessly. The bastard had succumbed to the sleep gas at last.