Chapter 1. Solutions

The big man crouched in darkness, immobile, his alert senses sending out reconnaissance probes into the surrounding blackness. Around him, the desert was vibrantly alive with secret movement — the nocturnal thrust and counterthrust of instinctive survival. Insects trilled lightly in the thorny bush beside the man, and somewhere on his flank a sidewinder lisped across the sand in its endless search for prey. The man, Mack Bolan, was also hunting, but his quarry was far deadlier than the venomous desert reptile.

The Executioner was hunting cannibals. He had followed their spoor from the killing grounds in Cleveland to the expanses of Arizona, where he found them in abundance. The Mafia savages were there, daily strengthening their parasitic grip upon society in the Grand Canyon State. There had, indeed, been such a wealth of targets that Bolan spent the better part of a week in Tucson merely cataloguing them and gauging their numbers, seeking the most propitious point and moment to strike. Amid the now familiar recital of scams and swindles which everywhere marked the symptoms of the Mafia cancer, the Executioner had uncovered “something else.” Beginning with vague whispers, fragmented rumors of a “joint in the desert,” Bolan had gradually pieced together an admittedly incomplete portrait of something special brewing on the Tucson Mafia scene — “something else” worth further in-depth investigation.

Bolan had found the “Joint in the desert” late on his sixth day in Tucson. He had come without preconceptions, expecting nothing and open to any opportunity for a “handle” on this latest phase of his unending war. What he found was an enigma. A solution without a mystery, an answer lacking the question. And so he had returned in darkness, seeking that question which would, in turn, lead him on to yet other questions and their ultimate solutions.

The Tucson Mafia’s “joint in the desert” was a military-style compound covering some thirty acres and ringed with tall chain-link and barbed-wire fences. In daylight, long, squat buildings were visible near the heart of the compound, all darkened now in the predawn hours.

The big project of the Arizona Mafia was currently narcotics, the wholesale importation of marijuana and “brown” heroin by jeep, truck, and private plane across the 360-mile border shared by Arizona and Mexico. Of late, Federal narcotics officers had come to speak of an Arizona Corridor for drugs which threatened to equal and eventually eclipse the volume of the old French Connection routes from Europe. Dope and a readily accessible border had built the southwestern Mafia, but this apparent hardsite in the arid wastes carried little of the narcotics smell about it.

Sure, there was the paved airstrip running north to south along the western rim of the compound, and Bolan would not be shocked to learn that more than one plane load of Mexican drugs had found their touchdown point there. But the joint itself was clearly more than an isolated heroin depot, and Bolan knew it at a glance. The mob preferred isolated and inconspicuous sites for such landings, and the Tucson mafiosi would never have considered erecting fences and buildings to advertise their purpose.

The place was, theoretically, an outpost of the State Land Reclamation Commission, as proclaimed by the metal NO TRESPASSING signs on the perimeter. The official facade meant nothing to Bolan, and fifteen minutes of circuit riding in the guise of an idle rockhound had been enough to convince him that the cover was fraudulent. No canals or irrigation pipes crossed that perimeter, and the buildings, which he scanned casually through field glasses, lacked the nebulous “official” quality he had come to expect in sites devoted to scientific research at state expense.

No, the place was a hardsite — or had been at one time. Neither Bolan’s daylight recon nor his silent nocturnal vigil had turned up more than a handful of hardmen moving too casually about their business. There was no open display of gun-leather, but those guys inside the compound were hardmen all the same. Bolan read their pedigree from a distance as easily as if they had been uniformed. City boys, unfamiliar and uncomfortable with desert living, even in the mild heat of early spring. They dressed casually in blue jeans and fatigues, but they moved like men more accustomed to flashy, expensive suits and alligator shoes.

The Executioner meant to know their number and their purpose. He had opted for a soft probe, if at all possible, and had outfitted himself accordingly. He was in blacksuit and blackface. His “head weapon,” the big silver .44 Automag, rode military web at his right hip. The silenced 9mm Beretta Brigadier, the “Be-Be,” nestled in side-leather beneath his left armpit. Extra clips for both pistols circled his waist. Slit pockets in the legs of his skinsuit held a stiletto and other useful accessories. Black sneakers on his feet completed the doomsday ensemble.

Bolan had planned the infiltration for dawn, when the forces of heredity and chemistry override training to produce sluggishness and torpor in the most alert of sentries. That hour was fast approaching. Off to the east, across the dry bed of the Santa Cruz River, the first gray fingers of dawn back-lighted the darker mass of Tucson. To the south and west, the San Xavier Indian Reservation lay in pitch blackness, its inhabitants awaiting nature’s signal to open another day of struggle and deprivation. Bolan was on the south perimeter of the rectangular compound, where the wire barrier drew closest to the clump of buildings.

He had earlier tested the fence for electricity and found none. He removed a pair of wire cutters from their holster at his waist and cut an entrance through the chain-link barricade in five minutes of concentrated effort. And then he was inside, a deep blotch of shadow which had shifted from one side of the fence to the other as if following a moonbeam.

Inside the compound, Bolan moved with speed and purpose. He crossed the expanse of ground between fence and buildings in a semi-crouch, sacrificing some concealment for the greater speed of long strides. His target was the longest of the structures, a squat rectangle of corrugated steel which stood like the head of a “T” in relation to the other buildings. Bolan gained the midnight shadow of that wall without encountering obstacles and merged silently into it. A long moment passed as his straining ears and keen night vision scoured the blackness in search of foes he never found.

Satisfied that he was alone to this point, Bolan moved out, edging along the wall of the building. He had traversed one-third of the structure’s length when he encountered a door, secured by an outside hasp and padlock. He crouched with his ear close to the door panel before touching the lock, striving in vain to pick up the telltale sounds of human presence. There were none. The lock yielded to the probings of a specially constructed pick, and the hasp swung open with a faint grating sound. Again Bolan froze, every muscle tense in anticipation of impending attack.

He gave the moment all the numbers, then slipped quickly inside to stygian darkness, electing to risk the advantage of a needle beam from his penlight. Folding chairs, small tables, metal lockers lining one wall — then yawning emptiness to the far wall where heavy mattresses formed a backdrop from ceiling to floor — just hanging there, suspended … and shot all to hell. Those mattresses were riddled with holes, their cotton innards trailing in spidery strands to the packed-earth floor. To Bolan’s eyes it was obvious that the pads had formed a backdrop for an indoor shooting gallery, from which the actual targets had since been removed.

Interesting, sure, but not particularly revealing. More interesting was a small blackboard affixed to one wall behind the tables. Someone had been illustrating a talk — or a strategy of some type — with chalked arrows and other cryptic marks which, standing alone, had no meaning whatever. Beside the blackboard was posted a well marked-up street map of the city of Phoenix. Bolan removed the map and consigned it to a slit pocket as he moved silently outside.

The remainder of the compound was laid out before Bolan like a miniature town. Or, more precisely, like a miniature combat training base. A second glance revealed that the double row of “buildings” was in fact a mockup of a town, false fronts complete with occasional open doorways and windows. A make-believe town. Mack Bolan had seen this sort of town before.

It was a shooting gallery, or — more correctly — a combat range. The mockup was used by the military, the FBI, and many metropolitan police forces to hone the combat reflexes of their line personnel. The trainee walks through the “town,” and life-size photos of friends, foes, and innocent bystanders pop into view in the vacant windows and doors. It was a hypothetical survival course, with the trainee required to make split-second decisions of life and death, whether to fire or hesitate, whether to live or die. Bolan himself had run a similar practice course on several occasions, earning a “master” rating each time.

Easing the silent Beretta from its sheath, the Executioner moved cautiously down that dark and lifeless street. As he walked, he was reminded of the climactic showdown in High Noon. The tall silent stranger with a gun, stalking his villainous prey as he fought to “clean up the town.” Bolan did not overlook the apt comparison between that mythical crusade and his own grim war without end.

He paced off the street of that hollow town with measured strides, every sense on the alert for danger, the slim Beretta nosing out ahead of him like a sensor of peril. Bolan was ready, therefore, when a subtle alteration of the shadows to his left brought him spinning into a confrontation with death.

A dark man-shape filled one of those empty doorways, and faint starlight gleamed on polished gunmetal as the man brought his heavy automatic to bear on Bolan. The Beretta got there first, sneezing out a pair Of silent words to discourage the foe. The deadly parabellum slugs sighed in on target, punching twin paths through head bone barely a finger’s width apart. The man silhouette dematerialized, leaving the doorway empty again.

Bolan crossed quickly to the Plywood facade, examining his fallen enemy as much by touch as by sight. A middle-aged man, his body lean and hard under the rough work clothes he had worn in life, the remaining features of his face thick and swarthy.

Mafia.

The Executioner moved on, stepping more carefully, quickly along the blackened street of the combat range. At the far end of the mock town he found deserted barracks and an equally empty combination kitchen-dining room. There was nothing exceptional about either building, nothing of interest to Mack Bolan.

The dead man had been alone.

Bolan knew it with certainty as he left that place behind, moving across the compound with no effort at concealment. The guy had been on night-watch, in the wrong place at the wrong time. His tab had come due to the universe for past wrongs, and the bill had been collected in full. That was the end of it.

But not for Bolan.

He had come in search of a clue to the purpose of that enigmatic “joint in the desert.” And, at least in part, he had that answer. The place had been a school. A school of death, a finishing academy for gunmen.

And the pupils were gone.

The maneuvers Bolan had witnessed earlier had plainly been the mechanical actions of a cleanup crew, tidying in the wake of the Mafia’s graduating class.

And where were those “graduates” now?

Already bent upon their missions of pain and death?

The mob had never taken this sort of trouble before to train its palace guard, and Bolan had no reason to believe they were starting now. The pupils of this death academy would be intended for some special post-graduation exercise.

The Executioner’s Arizona blitz had begun as a relatively simple thrust against the heroin traffic, a logical culmination of Bolan’s progress from the Cleveland hellgrounds, but it had suddenly become much more. A new element had been introduced into the Arizona game — a wild card element that had to be identified and understood if the chains binding this desert state were to be broken. All the indicators pointed to the existence of a paramilitary force under mob sponsorship. Who were they? Where were they now? What was their mission? Such were the questions being raised by the answers discovered on this desert encampment. A subliminal tremor shivered Bolan’s spine.

What was awaiting the Executioner in these new hellgrounds?

He quit that place and returned quickly to the gully where he had stowed the warwagon. The answers would find him. He was positive of that. Those answers always seemed to find their way to Mack Bolan’s door.

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