Chapter 5. Understandings

Sharon Kaufman gathered her breath, mentally gauging what she could afford to tell the big man in black. She was more than a little frightened by his words and grim demeanor, and still shaken by the morning’s grisly events, but she sensed traces of warmth in his voice, more than a touch of heart behind those graveyard eyes. At length she began to speak slowly, haltingly, weighing her words carefully to present them in the desired context.

“About an hour before those men arrived, my father got a phone call from Ike Ruby.”

“I know Ruby,” BOLAN told her. “Go on.” Sharon was startled, suddenly off balance, no longer certain how much the big man already knew. She fought to collect her thoughts again before continuing.

“The call seemed important. My father acted … well, not angry, exactly … upset.”

Bolan broke into her musing train of thought. “So he went over to see Ruby.”

“I-I don’t know. Honestly. He may have, but he only told me that he had to go out for awhile.” She hesitated, then added, “My father and Ike are in business together. They might have met at Daddy’s office … if at all. I just don’t know where he went.”

The ice returned to the big man’s voice as he responded to that. “Okay. Where can I drop you?”

It startled her. She was not prepared for such quick dismissal. “I-but-what … ?”

“I believe you. We’re square. Let’s end it on that note.”

“It isn’t ended, though, is it?” she ventured meekly, adding, “For my father.”

“I’m afraid not,” he replied gently.

She read that loud and clear. Lifelong protests rose automatically through the tightening throat. “You have it all wrong. My father is a decent man. He has business enemies … political enemies … but this other is … well, it’s just not true!”

“Where do I drop you?” he asked again, ignoring the impassioned protest.

“Ike Ruby has been a second father to me! I’ve called him “Uncle Ike’ as long as I can remember.” She thought she saw a flicker of human light in those steely eyes and leapt quickly to summon it again. “Please. I sense a-a fairness in you. Why save me only to-to cast me back into the flames!”

He sighed wearily as he told her, “I’m casting you nowhere. All I want from Kaufman and Ruby is the truth. I can’t very well get that if I can’t find them, can I?”

She made a quick decision, quivering lungs fairly bursting with it. “Then I’ll just go along and help you find it.”

He showed her a genuine if tiny smile as he replied, “No way.”

“Why not? I have a stake in this, too. I have a right.”

The smile departed as he grimly responded to that. “The right to die?”

Those incredible eyes flashed with some inner misery. “We all have that right. But I don’t have to help you exercise it.”

There was a recognizable finality in that response. Her gaze dropped to her lap and she fidgeted. Then, in a barely audible whisper, she said, “I can’t go back home.”

“No,” he quietly agreed.

“i-I’ll need to make a telephone call.”

He sighed and pointed out the instrument, instructed her on its use, and watched unemotionally as she made arrangements to “crash” with a college friend. From that point, conversation with the big, quiet man was confined entirely to small talk and directions to the drop point.

It was a brief ride, the destination being a “singles” apartment complex off North Central avenue, almost in the shadow of St. Joseph’s Hospital. She used that time to visually probe the interior of the fantastic vehicle and to wonder pointedly about the grim secrets it carried. A vehicle of war, certainly, as grim and threatening as the silent man who piloted it so casually through the Phoenix streets. He pulled out beyond the complex to methodically circle the neighborhood, thoroughly “casing” and probing that quiet neighborhood before pulling to the curb on a deserted side street behind the complex.

She rose from the seat and prepared to leave him, turning in the doorway for one more attempt at reaching him. “Mr. Bolan …” “No promises, Sharon,” he reminded her in a gentle voice.

She began to say more, thought better of it, and left him, saying simply, “Thank you again.” She hurried across the damp lawn toward the apartments, pausing briefly at the entranceway to watch the motor home as it rounded a corner and disappeared.

Sharon Kaufman turned and hastened to her own destination, her young face set in lines of grim determination. She would make her own promises.

Bolan knew Ike Ruby, all right. The girl had called Ruby a businessman, but the Executioner knew him as the chief enforcer and general staff officer of Moe Kaufman’s desert empire. A native of the Bronx, Ruby had been an early protege of Lepke Buchalter in the labor wars before migrating westward toward his ultimate destiny as Kaufman’s strong right arm. His rap sheet included seven arrests for first-degree murder, with one indictment and no convictions. And that was only the tip of the iceberg, for despite the periodic disappearance of opposition partisans and persistent rumors of a graveyard in the desert, Ruby had been unhampered by investigation or arrest for the past quarter-century. A “businessman,” yeah. Read that “cannibal.” Mack Bolan knew Ike Ruby, all right, and somebody else knew him, too. The little mobster’s estate was another of those “marks” on the captured map of Phoenix. Like his master, Ike Ruby was a target, and Bolan realized that he might already be too late for his “talk” with the guy. Not that he was bleeding over the fate of a decadent savage, far from it. Other circumstances might find Ike Ruby on the Executioner’s own hit parade. But right now Bolan needed a score card for the Phoenix game, and Kaufman’s right arm might be the one to supply it.

Bolan urged the Toronado power plant to greater speed as he homed on the Ruby estate, his near-photographic memory displaying the map of Phoenix streets for navigation. His target lay to the north and west of Camelback Park, within an easy rifle shot of the Interstate highway. He found it easily and circled the walled grounds in a brief recon, senses alert for any traces of hostile presence.

He found those traces immediately. The front gates to the place were open wide, and mental alarm bells jangled at the flagrant breach of security. He could see nothing else beyond the protective walls except scattered treetops and a tiled roof about seventy-five yards back.

He parked the warwagon and quickly outfitted himself for action. Big Thunder, the .44 Automag, went at his right hip to supplement the silent Beretta. A light machine pistol went around his neck, and clips for the weapons filled his belt. He briefly contemplated a rack of small grenades, then decided against them and put the battlewagon behind him.

Bolan ignored the beckoning front gate, opting for an entrance over the north wall. The grounds rolled away before him, dotted with trees at irregular intervals. His attention immediately centered on the house, a long low structure in the Spanish style, its red tile roof supported by thick adobe walls. A long crew wagon was idling at the front door, with a dark man-shape at the wheel, another lounging too casually against the passenger’s side. A tall guy, well dressed, black, stiffening suddenly as staccato reports of gunfire erupted within the house.

Those shots galvanized Bolan, and he took advantage of the outside man’s preoccupation to make his sprint for the house. He hit the side door with a flying kick and plunged inside, his light chatter gun at the ready. An empty room sneered at him. From beyond the doorway opposite, a second burst of fire exploded, the reports hollow and thunderous. He crossed to the door and slid it open a crack, scanning the hellgrounds beyond through that narrow aperture.

Two guys were barricaded inside the kitchen, directing revolver fire into the parlor from behind an overturned oaken table. Three guys were returning that fire from behind heavily padded furniture in the living room. A riddled corpse was sprawled in the no man’s land between those guns, and neither side showed signs of budging. Bolan caught a fleeting glimpse of Ike Ruby’s bald head as he popped up to peg a shot at the invaders.

Bolan announced his entry into the battle with a short burst from the chopper. The deadly stream hit one of the invaders broadside, ripping him open from armpit to hip and punching him sideways across an ornate coffee table. The firing spluttered to a halt as four pairs of eyes swung toward Bolan’s position, each side evaluating the new arrival in terms of personal jeopardy and need. Ike Ruby recognized help and cackled in triumph, rising from a crouch with his pistol barking an assist for the new ally. The hardmen in the parlor recoiled and tracked about, weapons seeking a new target in their desperate race for life.

Bolan was faster, stitching the first guy across the chest with a zipper of steel-jacketed slugs and sweeping him aside. The last hardman broke cover, crouching, his shotgun swinging uncertainly between targets for a fatal half-second too long. A deadly crossfire of machine gun and revolver slugs spun him like a top, blood spurting from a dozen mortal wounds as he corkscrewed to the floor. A dying finger clenched reflexively and his shotgun boomed toward Ruby and the houseman.

Peripheral images crowded Bolan’s vision. On the right, Ruby’s houseman going over backward in a spray of crimson, clapping reddened hands to his exploding skull. To the left, a looming form blackening the doorway, sunlight gleaming dully on gunmetal.

It was the big black from outside, an M-16 clutched in businesslike fashion against his hip. Bolan and the black man poised in that confrontation for a moment frozen in eternity, faint recognition crackling between them like electric current. Then Bolan was back-pedaling and plunging to the floor as flame spluttered from that deadly muzzle and a stream of 5.56 tumblers chewed up the doorway. Bullets raked the walls, showering Bolan with adobe chips and splinters of wood. For a long second he was pinned there, unmoving, as the leaden wand of death stroked the air above him. Then it tracked on, seeking other targets in the room beyond, thumping through heavy wood to rip a scream from human lips in there.

It ended as suddenly as it began, and Bolan was in instant motion, the chopper nosing ahead of him as he reentered the silent hellgrounds. Outside, through the open doorway, the rasp of spinning tires on gravel telegraphed the end of the engagement. Taillights were winking through the front gate even as Bolan gained the porch.

He let it go, returning to the slaughterhouse within.

Bodies were draped around the furniture, but Bolan ignored them as he went in search of Ike Ruby. He found him stretched out behind the shattered remains of the oaken dining table. Slugs had stitched him across the chest, and each pained breath brought blood welling up from mangled lungs to soak his torn pajama top.

The guy was dying hard. His vision was going in and out of focus as he squinted up at Bolan, words of warning rasping in his throat. Ruby obviously thought Bolan had been sent by Kaufman to help out, and he was determined to get his message out before it was too late.

“Tell … tell Moe … couldn’t reach Weiss … couldn’t tip him off …”

The guy’s head was lolling crazily about, breath wheezing in his throat and burbling through the holes in his chest at the same time. “Tell Moe.”

“I’ll tell him,” Bolan assured the corpse, and then he quit the place, quickly retracing his path to the warwagon.

Ruby’s dying plea echoed in the Executioner’s mind as he fired the warwagon and left the neighborhood behind. Tell Moe that I couldn’t reach Weiss. A fragmentary message, sure, the garbled last words of a delirious and dying man, but suddenly as clear as crystal to the Executioner.

Another piece of the Arizona jigsaw puzzle dropped jarringly into place. A picture was forming in Bolan’s mind, a confused and admittedly incomplete picture, to be sure, but a chilling one all the same. The game was assuming unexpected proportions, and new players were coming out of the woodwork on every side — most recently a dark and deadly face which Bolan vaguely recognized but could not immediately identify.

Bolan drove on, his jaw set in grim determination, mind intent on the dying concern of Ike Ruby. The Executioner had a message to deliver. To a United States senator named Weiss.

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