A jihadist bomb brings down a massive church in Ibadan, and injured Catholic bishops flee the sanctuary-turned-death-trap straight into the machetes of Nigeria's most fearsome terrorist group, Boko Haram. This bloodbath is only the beginning of a reign of terror linked to al Qaeda. As the gloating leader amps up the massacres of Christians across the country, Mack Bolan sets out to hunt him down and smash al Qaeda's hopes of building another major African power base.
Yet the moment Bolan hits Nigerian soil, his identity is compromised. His only allies have little training, and their priority is protecting children orphaned by the terrorists' brutal attacks. Now survival means fighting his way through the crowded city, ambush by lethal ambush, and staying one step ahead of a traitor moving in for the kill. With the death toll rising, the Executioner will have to play one last gamble to restore the region's rightful governmentand send this unholy gang of jihadists into fiery oblivion.
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The Learjet bore no military, police, national or corporate emblems, only the bare minimum of markings required by international law. It had flown directly from the United States to Argentina, where the big man, who was Jack Grimaldi's only passenger, had provided officials with documentation that he was an executive for Gulf Oil.
The trip from the US to South America had been nothing but show. It was a simple ruse on the million-to-one chance that any of the world's antagonists had stumbled across the Learjet's real destination.
After refueling, Grimaldi, the number-one pilot at Stony Man Farm, had charted a new route, from South America across the Atlantic Ocean and then the Gulf of Guinea, allowing them to enter Nigerian airspace from the south without tripping the radar of any other country.
During the flight, the big man had changed from the perfectly tailored suit he had worn in the guise of an oil mogul into faded blue jeans, well-worn and scuffed hiking boots, and a gray T-shirt beneath a khaki photographer's vest. Now he was a freelance photojournalist.
But beneath this outer shell was the man's true identity. He was not a photographer.
Mack Bolan, aka the Executioner, was a warrior.
Hidden beneath his long, multipocketed vest, on the left side, was a Concealex nylon shoulder holster that had been specially designed to carry his Beretta 93-R machine pistol. The weapon was equipped with a custom-made sound suppressor threaded onto the barrel.
On his right side, connected to the other end of the shoulder rig, was a double magazine carrier. Its rigid form held the twin mags securely, without the need for retaining straps or other devices that would slow down a reload. Also on Bolan's right side, secured on the thick leather belt threaded through the loops on his jeans, was a holster that toted his mammoth .44 Magnum Desert Eagle.
At the small of Bolan's back was a Cold Steel Espada knife, which bore a notch in the top of the blade that enabled it to be drawn, hooked on a pocket or belt, and snapped open in one fluid motion.
Last but not least was a tiny North American Arms .22 Magnum PUG mini-revolver. The small but mighty weapon had saved Bolan's life on more than one occasion as a last-ditch, hidden "hold out" weapon.
The landing gear of the Learjet descended and locked into place. Ahead and below, Bolan saw the runway. He knew that much of the clothing and other gear he had brought along would not be needed. But the cameras and other photographic equipment backed up his cover story. And in regard to his combat accessories, the soldier's philosophy had always been that it was better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
The largest of several screens set into the control panel in front of the two men blinked twice. Then the head, shoulders and chest of a man wearing a gray suit and burgundy necktie appeared. "Good evening, Striker," the man said.
"Evening, Hal?" Bolan queried. "Does that mean it's evening where you are or where Jack and I are getting ready to land?"
Hal Brognola, the man on the screen, pulled a ragged-looking cigar from the breast pocket of his jacket and shoved it into a corner his mouth. "Sounds like you just woke up," he said around the cigar stub.
"I caught a few winks after we left Argentina," Bolan answered.
"It'll be early evening by the time you touch down in Ibadan. You may want to reset your watch. How much sleep did you get?" Brognola looked slightly concerned.
"Enough. I slept all the way from the US to Argentina. Then caught another nap after we took off again. I'm good to go." He studied the man on the screen. Hal Brognola was a high-ranking official at the United States Department of Justice. But he was also the director of Sensitive Operations at Stony Man Farm, the top secret counterterrorist command center with which Bolan often worked.
"So tell me what I'm getting into, Hal," he said.
"I could tell you, but I think it'll mean more if I show you."
The screen went blank for a few moments. Then a grainy video, probably shot by a cell phone, began to run. In the short clip Bolan saw the ruins of what looked to have once been a church building. Bodies were strewn among the rubble of what might have been a chapel. Partially burned booksBibles and hymnals, perhapswere scattered here and there. Chunks of scorched wood that resembled the corners of pews and the top half of a broken crucifix lay among smoldering embers.
But the setting took a backseat to what was happening in front of the decimated church. Men dressed in the odd combination of civilian and military clothing so often found in warring, developing countries, were swinging their machetes at other men wearing the long cassocks of Catholic clergy. The weaponless men in the long garments all looked as if they'd been inside when the explosion had detonated; they were covered head to foot with ash.
The Executioner felt his eyebrows lower and his jaws tighten as he watched the barbaric mass murder. The clip ended with one of the bishops being slashed across the throat and falling forward to the ground. Bolan concentrated. Something had caught his attention, but he wasn't sure exactly what.
Brognola's face returned to the screen. "Ugly stuff, Striker."
"Some of the worst I've seen. Where'd you get it?"
"A CIA snitch happened to be close to the action and recorded it," Brognola replied. "We hacked into the Company and made a copy."
Bolan paused, letting the righteous anger filling his chest recede slightly. Out-of-control anger would not serve him. If a warrior let rage take over, he ended up like the men bleeding out on the ground in the clip. And no one was helped.
"That was a meeting to kick off the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria," Brognola said. "In Ibadan. Opening day."
"Aside from the fact that no one deserves that type of treatment," Bolan said, "how do we fit into this picture?"
"One of the men in attendance was a Nigerian-born but naturalized US citizen. Bishop Joshua Adewale, from New York."
"I take it the bad guys are Boko Haram?"
"Have to be," Brognola replied. "It's Nigeria, after all. What's a little unusual, though, is that the Bokos have operated primarily in the northern part of the country up until now. Kano, Maiduguri and the surrounding regions. But I guess the Catholic bishops conference in the south was more than they could resist. Made it worth the trip."
Bolan's ears popped and he realized that Grimaldi was still bringing the Learjet down through the sky. Glancing at the pilot, he said, "How much longer, Jack?"
"About five more minutes." Turning his attention back to the screen, Bolan said, "The Bokos have ties to al Qaeda, don't they, Hal?"
"We're 99 percent sure of it. There's a rumor about some 'super assassin' from al Qaeda who's running with the Nigerian terrorists." Brognola pulled the cigar from his mouth for a second. "Informants don't know who, though."
Bolan squinted slightly at the screen. "I saw something on that clip," he mused. "I'm not sure exactly what, but it got caught on the radar between my ears. Can you run that video again?"
"Sure thing, big guy." A moment later the grainy film was on the screen again and the machete massacre was repeated. The Executioner continued to frown, concentrating more on the top, bottom and sides of the screen than the main action on which the photographer had focused. As the clip neared its end, he saw what only his subconscious had caught the first time.
Just before the final bishop's throat was slashed, to his side and almost out of the frame, two men with machetes were attacking other victims. One chopped at an arm. The other went for the neck. But what seemed weirdly out of place was that another bishop walked unsteadily right between them. Both men with machetes turned and saw him, but ignored him.
"Take it back a little, Hal," Bolan said. "Then pause it."
The clip ran in reverse, with machetes leaving the cuts they'd made on the bishops and returning to the raised hands of the attackers. Blood flew back through the air, reentered the bodies of the men in the black cassocks, and the bishops who had fallen stood up.
"Stop it right there," the Executioner said, and the clip froze on the screen. "Did you see what I just saw?" he asked Brognola.
"I didn't until just now," the director of Stony Man Farm admitted. "There's barely enough room between those two Bokos for the man to squeeze through. And they both obviously saw himthey turned their heads and looked directly at him. I'll have our computer team run a facial recognition comparison, to make sure, but I recognize the man who walked out of the picture. That's our American. Bishop Joshua Adewale."
"Any idea where Adewale went?" Bolan asked.
"No. Like I said, I hadn't even noticed him until you pointed him out. But I"
Bolan heard a phone ring in the background and Brognola said, "Hang on. That's Aaron. He's got a copy of this footage and he may have found something."
Bolan waited. By now he could see the runway below. Aaron "the Bear" Kurtzman was Stony Man Farm's resident computer genius and one of the most knowledgeable computer experts in the world. He viewed what he sometimes called his "magic machines" with an eye for both science and art, and was an invaluable asset to the Farm.
As the plane's tires hit the tarmac, Brognola came back online. The frozen image of Joshua Adewale walking between the two Boko Haram terrorists was still on the screen, but Brognola's voice could be heard behind it. "I'm putting you on speakerphone, Aaron," he said. "Tell our man in Nigeria what you just told me."
A second later Kurtzman's familiar voice said,
"Hello, Bear. What have you got for me?"
"Not much, I'm afraid. I'm staying tapped into the CIA because it was their snitch who shot the clip. I noticed the bishop walking between the two machete-wielders myself."
"Great minds working independently," Brognola said with a trace of humor.
"Yes, whatever," Kurtzman replied. "In any case, the same informant tried to follow Adewale. They walked away from the university chapel and into a low-rent housing area, where the snitch lost him."
"But we know he's alive someplace?" Bolan asked.
"Well," Kurtzman replied. "We know he was alive. At least for a while after the bombing and machete attack. But we've got no idea where he might be now."
"Thanks, Bear," Bolan said. He turned his attention to Brognola. "Okay, Hal. My guess is you'd like me to find Adewale, as well as track down the terrorists responsible for this and eliminate them?" Before the big Fed could answer, he went on. "I'm assuming the rest of the conference has been canceled?"
"There aren't enough bishops left to continue it," Brognola replied. "There were two who arrived late and were still at the airport when the explosion occurred. The Vatican ordered them to get out of the country immediately. The Nigerian officials recommended they do the same. So they're on their way to Rome. The church is going to have to reorganize its entire structure in Nigeria, and that's going to be a monumental job."
"Sounds like my mission's clear," the Executioner said. "Rescue Joshua Adewale. But with no more to go on in locating him, I'll plan on going after Boko Haram. I've got a feeling the bishop will pop up somewhere along the way."
"How you operate is your call," Brognola agreed. "As always."
"How do I stand on entering the country, Hal?" he asked.
Brognola knew exactly what he meant. "I pulled a few strings through a CIA friend of mine. You'll be met by a customs agent named Sean Azizi. He'll walk you through customs and immigration and stamp your passport himself. No search of your bags or person."
"Sounds a little too good to be true."
"My friend just happened to have an informant in the right place at the right time," Brognola said. "You know how that goes. A guy who knew a guy who knew a guy, the last guy being Azizi. Anyway, unless Azizi or one of the other guys can't keep from flapping their gumsand they're all getting paid big bucks to keep it a secretno one else in Nigeria should be aware that Matt Cooper is anything other than the photojournalist he says he is. And even Azizi won't know who you really are or why you're there."
Bolan cleared his throat. "It won't matter," he said. "Everyone in Nigeria will know about the chapel bomb and the machete attack. If my cover ID gets burned, it won't take a genius to guess why I'm there."