National security is on the line when a senator's daughter disappears from her Florida college. The leader of the cult responsible is desperate to boost his sect's influence by gaining access to the sensitive government information the girl possesses even if she dies in the process. Needing to act fast, but quietly, the White House sends Mack Bolan deep into the swamplands.
Bolan's mission is to rescue the girl before she gives up any secrets, but infiltrating the leader's stronghold is no easy feat. Using the humid, marshy landscape to their advantage, the cult has laced the swamps with armed guards and deadly traps. And when Bolan discovers the sect's most dangerous weapons threaten the mind, not the body, he realizes he'll need more than guns and brawn to win this battle. But the Executioner has put his faith in justice, and he won't quit until his enemies are converted.
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"Do as I say and no one will get hurt. Don't, and maybe you will." The words were followed by a vulpine grin that suggested the speaker would love someone to step out of line so he could show he meant what he said.
It didn't look as if he was going to get the opportunity. Inside the Griffintown branch of the Florida First State Bank, everyone had hit the floor. It was a small space, between the half-frosted glass wall facing the street and the main counter. The lines to the tellers were cramped by tables for deposit slips. There had been two tellers on duty, five customers, and an aging security guard who had been slow on the uptake and due to retire in three weeks. If the pool of blood soaking the carpet around his head was anything to go by, he wasn't likely to make retirement.
Thursday afternoon, and the two mothers with babies, the hardware store clerk depositing takings, and the two men waiting to withdraw cash and cursing the defective ATM had been shocked for a frozen moment by the four people who had slipped in and bolted the double doors. A man and a woman stood at the front windows, the woman nervously peering out, then rapidly glancing back to the interior, the man coolly training his Glock machine pistol on the floor. The woman carried a mini-Uzi. Anyone who looked carefully enough would see it gently shaking.
The vulpine man, whose bearing and speech marked him as the alpha male, had strode into the middle of the room, whipping an HK MP5 from beneath his duster and waving it in an arc, the implicit threat enough to make the customers and tellers snap out of their fear freeze and hit the deck. The woman who had joined him was stone-faced, her eyes unreadable, but leaving little doubt as to her intent.
The vulpine man looked up to one of the closed-circuit television cameras that surveyed the bank interior from all angles.
"An audience. Good. I want you to listen. We do not want to harm these people, but if they get in our way, they are expendable. Make no doubt of that. Today's little raid is to help finance our crusade against the state that seeks to oppress us and to force us ever closer to extinction. We have inside knowledge of the way in which our governmentwhich has the audacity to claim that it serves on our behalfis working, and we will bring it to its knees. As you can see, we have Elena Anders, who is a devotee of the Seven Stars, and who is committed to our cause. Through her, we have discovered more of the secrets of power. When the time is right, and we can launch our revolution of the heart and mind, her knowledge will be shared with more than just our existing brethren. Then the fire of justice can spread throughout the land, and we will be as free as our constitution promises we are."
The woman murmured something too low for the mics on the CCTV to pick up clearly. The alpha man shot her a venomous glance, but nodded briefly in deference to her and turned to the tellers.
"Youout here, now. Don't give me no time-lock shit, either. The locks you have on the vaults here have manual overrides. I want you and everyone in the back room out here now. Call the sheriff and it's the babies who'll get it first. You want that on your piggy little consciences?"
To emphasize his point, he fired a short burst into the floor between the two mothers, who screamed hysterically as they clutched their children to them.
It had the desired effect: within a couple minutes, bank bags with cash, securities and items from safe deposit had been piled on the counter, ready to be carried out. The vulpine man's psychology had been sound; this was a small town where everyone was either distantly related or friends of friends. There were no strangers here, and no one wanted anyone to get hurt. They complied almost with eagerness.
He gestured to his stone-faced companion and to the nervous woman by the door. They moved forward and loaded the haul into large hemp sacks, which they then carried toward the doors as their compatriot undid the bolts. The vulpine man covered their retreat, pausing before he exited to stare directly at the camera above the door. His smile this time was arrogant and triumphant before he moved out of frame.
The footage continued for a few minutes after this. The people in the bank were too shocked to move or make a sound for a few eerie seconds. In the distance, the sirens of a late-arriving cruiser approached. The raiders' research and preparation had been goodthey'd picked a time when the sheriff's staff roster was low, and they'd placed hoax calls that stretched the department's resources, dragging officers far from the main street and buying valuable time.
Then, just before the CCTV footage finally elapsed, the silence was broken by a wail of fear and relief from one of the mothers. After that, pandemonium broke out, as the hardware clerk and one of the men rushed to offer what first aid they could to the stricken security guard, while the bank staff and the other male customer tried to comfort the mothers and children.
The picture cut out abruptly just as the sheriff's team entered the bank.
Hal Brognola hit the remote, and the wide-screen monitor on which they had been viewing the footage blinked and shut off.
"What about the guard?" Mack Bolan asked, although he was certain he already knew what the big Fed would say.
"Three days in intensive care. Didn't regain consciousness," he said shortly, shaking his head. "Albert Myres, sixty-year-old vet. Fifteen years on the Jacksonville sheriff's department, twenty-five in the service."
"Some part-time job for retirement," the soldier said. His tone was brooding, both at the waste of the old man's life, and the stupidity of the suits who had thought nothing of putting him in that position.
Brognola shrugged. "People walk around with their eyes shut all the time, Striker. Not much we can do about that. And to be fair, this is a real sleepy town where nothing much happens aside from the annual gator hunt. It's a family and retirement town, with just the newspaper industry to keep it afloat."
Bolan frowned. "Newspapers? In rural Florida?"
"I use the term loosely." Brognola shrugged. "It's the editorial and printing headquarters for the Midnight Examiner. Hardly cutting edge news, but"
"But it's been a while since I was in line at the supermarket long enough to be tempted," Bolan finished. "I had no idea that rag was still going."
"It's not what it was, but it keeps the town afloat. More relevant to us, it still has a strong circulation, and being the only game in town, it got to the CCTV before we did."
Bolan's eyebrow quirked. "We, Hal? Why would a small-town robbery interest you that much?"
"You heard the man on the movie. Elena Anders."
As he spoke, Brognola tossed a copy of the Midnight Examiner across the desk. Bolan picked it up and scanned the headlines. "But there's nothing in here about any bank robberies."
"Exactly," Brognola said.
As Bolan read on, it became obvious that the Midnight Examiner's reputation as a celebrity scandal sheet and paranormal purveyor left its writers ill-equipped to cover the kind of story that had fallen into their laps.
"The Seven Stars is a religious cult," Brognola explained. "They peddle a mix of Christianity and an apocalyptic worldview fueled by too many B-movies and 'true-life' UFO books. A few months ago, Senator Dale Anders's daughter, Elena, left her college in Tampa and fell in with this cult. Our intel stops there. At this point, we can only speculate about how much of Ms. Anders's participation is willing, and how much of it is forced."
Bolan sighed as he threw down the tabloid. "They clearly excel in stories about celebrity diets and alien abductions, but why would they omit such a huge scoop? Especially if they got the footage?" He paused. "There's a backstory here, right? And it won't be long before the serious reporters start sniffing around."
Brognola nodded, but remained silent.
"There's a reason this hasn't broken yet," Bolan continued. "And there's a reason you called me here."
Brognola walked across the room and stared out his office window.
"Dale Anders is a good man, Striker. A kind, fair man. That's rare enough among senators, these days. He's the kind of guy Jimmy Stewart would have played."
"We're not doing thiswhatever this isbecause you like him, Hal," Bolan said softly.
The big Fed shook his head. "No, but it is relevant. Dale really cares about his job. He's never courted headlines, and doesn't see this as a fast track to presidential nomination. He actually wants to make a difference. Both sides of the House like him, despite policy differences. He's got integrity. I know he was worried about Elena for a good while before she finally disappeared. He even tried to accept that she was old enough to make her own decisions, even though it killed him. But anyone with half a brain gets alarm bells ringing when it comes to crank cults, and so he called me up for some advice, and maybe some information. He'd been trying to establish some kind of communication with her for several months, and I'd kept the press at bay for him. We both hoped this could be resolved without any undue attention."
"Not much chance of that now," Bolan said quietly.
"This is the third raid in as many weeks," Brognola said. "That's a hell of a lot. They're either trying to grab as much as possible before the law catches up with them, or else they desperately need the cash. And if that's the case, then you've got to wonder why. Just what do they have planned?"
"So what do you know about them?"
"The asshole with the HK who loves the camera is Duane Johansen. Thirty-four, served ten years on a robbery charge. Files show that there were probably a whole lot more that he didn't get arraigned for because of lack of evidence."
"These cults will take anyone these days. Other IDs?"
"Not on this raid. The woman standing next to Johan-sen is on all three, but she hasn't been identified. On the second raid they had a crystal meth dealer named Arnie Fry, who's dabbled in illegal arms on a small scale."
"So they know what they're doing. At least, some of them do. What about the rest of the cult?"
"The Seven Stars. When they align it will be a sign that the time of great change is on us, blah-blah-blah. The usual." Hal waved dismissively. "There's a file on them that I can get Bear to download for you. It's not pretty reading. The usual collection of misfits, criminals and the confused."
Bolan nodded. "I get your point, but it could be dangerous to think of them that simply. These raids seem to have been pretty well planned and executed. If they can do that "
"I know," Brognola agreed, rubbing his forehead.
"Well, what would make heror thema target?" Bolan asked.
Brognola smiled wryly. "On the money, Striker. Dale is a very conscientious man. He serves on committees that deal with the procurement and deployment of software and hardware that are vital to homeland security. A lot of very sensitive information passes through his hands."
"It doesn't have to be that crude. We're pretty sure that the Seven Stars have put two and two together, and it won't be long before other enemies of the homeland do so when more information leaks."
"What kind of information?"
"Elena was a good student before the cult started to get to her. She was like her fathervery studious, very conscientious, very hardworking and very patriotic. College vacations weren't a holiday for her."
Bolan assented. "I think I see where you're going.
Not being one for spring break, Elena liked to busy herself helping her father, right?"
Brognola agreed. "She was an additional secretary and researcher, which meant she had access to a lot of sensitive information. Also, her mother died two years ago, so Elena became her father's confidante when it came to his work."
"I can see why you wanted to keep a lid on this, and why you're keen to get her back. But if she had that much access, where the hell was security when they should have been keeping an eye on her?"
"Slipped through the net, Striker. She was never on payroll or official staff. Only Dale really knew how much she was privy to, and that was why he came to me. Make no mistake, this is a sensitive issue."
Bolan's tone was grim. "If you have too many agencies involved, crawling over half of Florida, then you alert everyone, from the press to our enemies, that Elena Anders is more than just a runaway daughter. If you leave it to the local boys on the ground, then you're looking at Waco and a bad result for the senator personally. In between the two, there's no knowing what these whack-jobs have got out of her and what they'll do with it."
"That's about the size of it. Elena was at Tampa, but since hooking up with the cult she's moved farther south ."
"I gathered that." Bolan stood and walked across the room to where a map of the United States covered half of one wall. He reached out and indicated the southern Florida area, around the Keys. "If what just happened here" he drew a circle with his finger "and the other two robberies took place within a radius like this, then it figures that the cult is based somewhere within the circle, which would put it right in the swamplandstough to access without drawing a whole lot of unwanted attention to yourself."
Brognola nodded. "We know where they are. They make no secret of that. The problem is it's not exactly easy to get to." He stepped in front of Bolan and indicated a spot almost in the exact center of the circle the soldier had traced. "There's an abandoned amusement park that was built in the seventies. Eveland. As in Evel Knieval rather than Adam and Eve. All the rides and attractions were themed around the old rider's stunts."
"Should have made a killing back then," Bolan mused. "And he's become almost mythical since dying, so why is it a wreck?"
Brognola grinned. "Money. First of all, they neglected to give old Evel any for using his name and image. And even if they'd done that, or won the resulting court case, they were too mean to grease the right palms when it came to getting an interstate re-routed so that it passed nice and close to where they were situated. As a result, it's been closed for thirty years, a hunk of useless real estate accessible only by one or two small roads that wind through the tropics."