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A gentle breeze passing through the vineyard from the Pyrenees turned the leaves on their stems, making them appear to be waving to the man who glided silently through their tethered rows. The soothing rustle as they stirred on warm air currents, exposing undersides that shimmered a silvery-gray in the moonlight, was the only sound reaching Mack Bolan's ears as he trod silently across the fertile fields that for more than eight hundred years had been producing wine for the St. Rafael Monastery north of Bayonne.
Dressed entirely in black, with green and brown camouflage paint smeared on the high points of his face to flatten his features, Bolan's large frame was all but invisible against the inky French countryside.
On his hip, the ex-soldier wore a .44 Magnum Desert Eagle, while a holster on his left shoulder held a Beretta 93-R loaded with a 20-round clip of 9 mm Parabellum ammunition. A foot-long Fairbairn-Sykes combat knife, honed to a razor's edge, rested in a weathered black leather sheath strapped to the outside of his right calf.
Bolan was approaching the monastery from the south because slipping into Spain at San Sebastian and traveling by car through the Pyrenees mountains to Bayonne was considerably easier for a heavily armed man than trying to fly into an airport, whether public or private, anywhere in France. The one hundred rounds of ammunition he brought for the Desert Eagle would have been impossible to get through French customsnever mind the concussion grenades and incendiary tape he carried in the pouches on his combat web belt.
As would most battle-tested veterans with whom death has become intimate enough to be a frequent visitor to their dreams, the man some called the Executioner was hoping not to use his weapons this night. But he had been schooled on the hellfire trail in distant jungles long enough to know firsthand that hope and death were frequent bedfellows. Those who came unprepared to kill at a moment's notice, surrendering their fate to optimism or hope, were the ones who found themselves easy targets when a supposedly cold spot turned unexpectedly hot.
Despite the vineyard's tranquil appearance, two CIA agents had been murdered there less than a week earlier, the homing device implanted in one's deltoid muscle leading the Agency to a wooded area ten miles north, where the operatives' bullet-ridden bodies had been discovered in a shallow grave. They had met their deaths while on the mission now assigned to Bolanto rescue Dr. Zagorski from the confines of the ancient abbey.
Bolan's Porsche 911 Turbo was hidden in a stand of trees about a mile south of the monastery where he had left it in order to approach his objective on foot, a tactic yielding the greatest variety of options. When combat veterans gained enough experience under fire, they learned that flexibility on the battlefield was what survival was all aboutthe soldier who ran out of options first was the one who died.
The choppy sound of helicopter blades cutting the air shattered the vineyard's stillness with a noise that touched nerve endings buried deep within Bolan's warrior psyche. He lowered himself to the ground, pressing his body against the single strand of heavy zinc wire. It ran about six inches above the soil the entire length of each row, alternately weaving inside and outside the slender trunks of adjacent vines, connecting an entire row into a supporting network able to withstand the rainstorms that rushed down the rugged slopes of the Pyrenees. The tended vines were leafless for the bottom two feet or so, forming a canopy under which Bolan would be concealed from the passing aircraft. Lying on his back, motionless to prevent an errant move from catching the eye of an alert passenger in the chopper, he waited for it to pass.
Coming straight across the vineyard, the helicopter was apparently not searching for intruders. As it whizzed past on a direct course for the monastery, more than ten rows to the right of where Bolan lay as still as a statue, he was able to see it was the Bell 206B-3 JetRanger that Hal Brognola told him the Order of Raphael had purchased six months earlier to replace their aging Hughes 300C. The new helicopter carried two-and-a-half times more weight, had room for four passengers and was almost twice as fast as the Hughes.
Bolan remained in place as he watched the chopper reach its destination. Abruptly illuminated by the landing pad's powerful lights, it hovered like an apparition for a few moments before descending slowly out of sight. From satellite reconnaissance photos he had studied back at Stony Man Farm, Bolan knew the landing pad was a mere thirty yards from a guarded entrance to the research laboratory that was his objective.
The helicopter's engine tapered off into silence, the landing pad's lights were turned off, and once again, a hush as deep as prayer blanketed the vineyard.
Bolan rose, touch-checking his gear before resuming. As he set off toward the base of the hill on top of which the ancient L'Abbaye de Raphael sat, he recalled the conversation with Hal Brognola two days earlier that had brought him to the South of France for his mission.
"THE CONSEQUENCES ARE too horrific for the President to ignore," Brognola had said at their meeting on the National Mall in Washington.
The man from the Justice Department was fully aware of the arm's-length relationship Bolan held with the federal government even when his sense of righteousness was inflamed to the point where he accepted a mission, so he wasn't about to beg or plead. Bolan would decide on his own whether to sign on, and that would be that.
Brognola swallowed hard, said, "This is much more than a random terrorist group developing something like anthrax, or getting their hands on a batch of nerve agent. At least we can contain those threats. A project like this could jeopardize humankind's very existence."
He paused for a moment before adding, "Jesus, Striker, the plague was devastating the first time around. No one wants to see an updated version."
They were walking west along the Mall's boundary on Madison Drive, the brilliantly white Capitol Building shimmering at their backs under the unrelenting sun. As he walked, Brognola mopped his face with one of the cotton handkerchiefs he carried during Washington summers.
Outside the Smithsonian Castle, Bolan could see a group of tourists, mostly families with kids out of school for the summer, clustered around an idling tour bus. Their limp hair and sagging postures told him long before he came into earshot of the children's whining voices that they had been outdoors in the brutal humidity for a while.
Bolan himself showed no sign of the heat. He was dressed in pressed khaki pants and a navy blue golf shirt. The portion of his face visible under his dark glasses gleamed in the sunlight with a vibrant glow akin to that produced by the light film of oil that coated the ex-soldier's handguns.
"Terrorists won't fly airplanes into buildings anymore," Brognola said as Bolan studied the transcript from the Oval Office while they walked. "They'll escalate their tactics by using science and state-of-the-art technology to develop more exotic weapons of mass destruction. The news is full of the bird flu. What we're talking about here has the potential to be ten, maybe a hundred, times more dangerous. A designer disease with its genetic roots reaching all the way back to the Black Death? Tell me that's not a doomsday scenario."
"How sure are they?" Bolan asked. "The government's track record for getting good intel is an embarrassment."
At the junction of Madison with Twelfth Street, a dozen college-aged girls were sunbathing on the heavy concrete slabs outside the National Museum of American History. As Bolan walked past the building's front lawn, he could smell the pineapple and coconut fragrances from their tanning lotions.
"This time the CIA has French verification," Brognola answered. "INSERM doctors working with Sentinelles have forensic evidence from animal carcasses. Someone is definitely mucking around with genetically engineered diseases."
"And why do they think the carcasses came from" Bolan hesitated until a group of schoolchildren heading toward the Capitol passed them "the Order of Raphael?"
They had reached the Washington Monument, the 555-foot marble obelisk pointing ramrod straight into the sky. Brognola steered them to the right, onto Constitution Avenue, waiting until they had distanced themselves a few yards from the closest tourist before saying, "The Order is centuries old, dating all the way back to before the Crusades. Today, they're a fully modern paramilitary organization with a few hundred members in France, the United States and Australia. Their American office is in Boston. Almost a year ago, they caught Homeland Security's attention. They"
Bolan interrupted by asking, "What triggered the initial alert?"
"Cell phone patterns. The NSA's eavesdropping programs recognized words spoken during the Order's calls to and from Boston and the monastery at Bayonne. That led directly to Internet surveillance and an on-site CIA probe. The more we pulled the string, the more the Order of Raphael looked like a terrorist organization."
"But the CIA didn't find anything in Boston or France?" Bolan asked.
"No. There's a lab at Bayonneno law against independent researchand the Agency mined the databases of medical supply houses and uncovered sales documents relating to scientific equipment and supplies. But when Dr. Zagorski was kidnapped from her home outside Paris three months ago, the French authorities suddenly became as interested in the Order as we were."
"Hold on," Bolan said while flipping through the five-page report to find and reread the section mentioning the scientist. "Okay. What's her story?"
At the far west end of the park, Brognola could see the sloping walls of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, crowded as always with loved ones seeking healing from a generation-old wound.
Brognola kept his eyes on the monument in the distance as he answered Bolan's question. "Sonia Zagorski is one of the world's leading virologists. Shortly after her disappearance, L'Abbaye de Raphael ordered some very specific equipment. Right down to model numbers, it was the same stuff Dr. Zagorski had in her Paris lab."
"If the French and the CIA both believed that Zagorski had been kidnapped by the Order of Raphael, why didn't they raid the place?" Bolan asked.
"Interpol did. Two months ago. They didn't find any trace of her or the new equipment we know the Order bought. Since then, our satellite flyovers have recorded increased security around the monastery with roving guards and limited access to outside suppliers like the electric company and water providers. Homeland Security says the Order is definitely lowering its profile, but we're still monitoring a ton of coded phone calls, encrypted Internet traffic and scientific purchases. Agents McCabe and Gardner were sent in the night before last for what should have been a soft probe. Langley thinks they were ambushedneither of their weapons had been fired."
Bolan continued reading the report, his mouth drawn into a thin line as he turned back to review an earlier portion.
Brognola said, "With the war in Iraq, we aren't on the best of terms with France right now. The President wants someone independent to get in there and rescue Zagorski."
Independent, Bolan thought. How many times had he accepted missions knowing that if he was caught, his government would deny knowing him? Granted it was the path he had chosen when life had nothing left to offer, but sometimes he questioned his very existence. He knew he'd eventually find himself in a hot zone out of control, and that's where it would all end. Was hoping that he went out honorably, a warrior in the heat of battle, the best his future could offer?
"If she doesn't want to be rescued, I won't know until it's too late. Too late for her to be anything more than an obstacle blocking my escape," Bolan stated.
Brognola looked away, wiping his handkerchief across his brow. "Nothing indicates she's connected to the Order in any way," he said.
"Okay," Bolan said abruptly, handing the file back to Brognola.
They parted without another word, the man from Justice setting off to inform the President that his request had been accepted. Bolan quickly melted into the swells of Washington tourists the way a tiger melted into the jungle.