Mack Bolan was a supreme military strategist, his expertise acquired in the crucible of Southeast Asia. He had long ago learned that the best offensive tactic is seldom a wild-assed charge into the stronghold of an unknown enemy. Such kamikaze tactics might suffice on certain rare occasions but generally tended to be suicidal. Discretion often was the better part of valor, and the Executioner knew from practical experience that an overzealous enemy may sometimes be lured into a rash offensive with suitable bait. Invested with a false sense of progress, the enemy may be sucked to his doom in a prearranged ambush. The tactic was especially useful when the enemy was successful in camouflaging his base of operations, as Nick Bonelli’s strike force had done so far.
Yeah, a suck play was clearly indicated. It remained only for the Executioner to choose the site and the bait.
The site was a shallow horseshoe basin on the western fringe of Echo Canyon Park, a miniature valley, really, bisected by a two-lane highway with lightly wooded hills on three sides. He parked the warwagon atop a shaded knoll on the left or northern tip of the horseshoe, nose toward the highway and rocket pod elevated. From his Position he held a commanding view of the basin and the highway leading into it, ready to unleash his lethal firebirds on selected targets as they Presented themselves.
Next on tap was the matter of bait.
He made the necessary call and again received instant pickup. “Ranch.”
“It’s me again. Put the man on.”
“That was some damn fancy shooting, mister. Just a minute.”
It was not a minute but a mere second before another instrument clicked into the line and Kaufman, very subdued, said, “Okay, you proved your point. We need to talk. Let’s meet. You say where.”
Bolan told him where, adding, “Ten minutes. If You’re later than that, I won’t be there.”
“I can make that. I’ll, uh, have some people with me.”
“I strongly advise it. Bonelli has troops out scouring the countryside for you. You’d better travel heavy. But this is the way you do it. Two-“
“Wait a minute!”
“Shut up and listen. It’s this way or no way. Two cars. Yourself and a wheelman in the first. A backup crew following at 100 yards. The second car keeps its distance.”
“How do I know?”
“Use your head,” Bolan said disgustedly. “If I wanted it, I’d have had it instead of your telephone. I’m not your present hazard. Do we meet or don’t we?”
“We meet,” was the instant response. “Your way. But it better be cool.”
“Ten minutes from right now,” Bolan said and hung up.
It was a gamble, sure. Chancey as hell. A guy with Kaufman’s resources could pull a lot of fancy strings in ten minutes. He could send police helicopters. He could probably field a makeshift force of forty to fifty men on a moment’s notice, even should he elect to keep the cops out of it. And that was only half the risk.
He was gambling also on Nick Bonelli’s field forces, practically certain that the telephone surveillance wires on Phoenix were Bonelli’s wires but decidedly uncertain as to the number of guns in the Phoenix task force and their deployment.
It was purely an educated estimate that Bonelli could send no more than two or three cars to any point around the city with no more than ten minute’s notice. If that estimate should prove wrong … then Bolan knew who could just as easily get sucked into this one.
It was possible, even, that he would be contending with two massive forces, one from each side of the set. And that could be curtains, for sure.
He had tried to foresee and to prepare for any contingency to the limit of his combat capabilities. But only the “meet” itself could tell the final tale.
He used the ten-minute wait for final preparations. The rocketry was “enabled” by electronic command, automatically superimposing the control system upon the optics, the electronic grid glowing red from the viewscreen. From the console: Fire Enable Go.
He set it up for manual command and made a slight adjustment to the optics, refining the focus, narrowing the vision field to a fifty-yard radius surrounding that fated slot on the desert floor.
Target selection, now, would be “gunner’s choice.” Wherever the optics wandered and settled, a simple bang on the knee would dispatch a firebird unerringly to the target centered there. Combat capability was limited to four birds, how ever. A reload would require sixty to ninety seconds at best — and many a battle had been lost in a single heartbeat.
But he settled into the wait with a satisfied mind. He had done all within his power to set the contest. The rest was in other hands.
He had chosen the site well. Not a vehicle strayed into the trap — not even a jackrabbit — when the thing began falling into place at minute eight. The first to enter was a speeding Continental — a burly, crew-cut man at the wheel, Moe Kaufman seated stiffly beside him. The optic system reached out at first contact to pull the vehicle into Its resolving field, locked on, peering within to divine by long-range surveillance the true interior status. It was clean, straight.
Bolan punched back to wide-field surveillance, Immediately picking up the trailing vehicle — a nine-passenger station wagon crammed with tense flesh, obediently maintaining a 100-yard separation behind the Continental. He localized momentarily to read the firepower in that wagon then punched back to wide field to track both cars on into the slot. Kaufman was indeed traveling “heavy.” Bolan had read a couple of choppers, a long rifle with telescopic sights, and several shotguns among other armaments bristling from that crew wagon.
They were a minute early.
Both vehicles pulled to the side of the road at the designated spot. No one stood down. Both engines kept firing. After a moment, the Continental backed around to a position ten yards off the highway — poised Perpendicular to the ribbon of blacktop, leaving the option open for fast take-off in either direction. Instantly, the station wagon did likewise. A couple of guys stood down, shielding eyes with the hands and craning the heads in nervous inspection of the surrounding terrain.
They didn’t like it.
With good reason. It was the sort of place where wagon trains of old ran tautly at full speed in fear of red man ambush.
But it was perfectly to Bolan’s liking.
Minute nine arrived, and, with it, another vehicle running swiftly into the focal field. But it was not the hoped-for Tucson task force. It was a pretty girl moving a small British sports car with the hammer down, long hair riding the wind inside that open convertible, face set in grim concentration. There was no time for Bolan to speculate upon the presence of Sharon Kaufman. Obviously she had followed the convoy from Paradise Ranch — Perhaps arriving there just in time to note the hurried departure and opting for pursuit.
There was no time because a grimmer presence had also made an entrance into the set. It began as a dark mass at the extreme edge of vision, separating quickly under the probing focal finesse of the optics system into a four-car caravan, big black crew wagons running in close consort and closing quickly.
A quick pull-back to wide field showed Moe Kaufman stumbling from his vehicle and running with arms flailing toward the blacktop, galvanized by the unexpected appearance there of beloved flesh — the little sportster burning rubber and fish-tailing to a quick halt.
Another punch of the optics revealed the prime enemy in disturbing close-up. A black face there, eyes concealed behind dark glasses, lips moving rapidly in final instructions, a black beret perched jauntily at the side of the head. Another — lean and brown, narrowed eyes harshly scanning the terrain from the tail car. The rest of those faces were stereotypes. Bolan had seen thousands just like them. But those other two — yeah, it all flooded back, ghosts from the past, psychotic goons in army O.D.
Now he knew his enemy.
Another face from the same past should have been present also. That it was not brought a chill to the Bolan spine. Hinshaw was the name, cannibalism was the game — but cannibalism with a difference — a military difference.
And now he knew that the die was cast. He’d sucked a bit more than he’d expected — and now Kaufman and his girl may have to pay the price for an Executioner’s sloppy intelligence effort.
The hit team was speeding into the slot.
Kaufman’s crew was now electrically aware of the “betrayal,” scrambling for position and sending frantic signals across the 100-yard separation from their boss. Kaufman had the girl in tow, and the two Were sprinting toward the Continental.
Bolan hoped the big vehicle was a “tank!” — an armor-plated retreat — but it did not bear the telltale signs, and even that would not prevent disaster should the “betrayal” become a fact.
Mack Bolan was resolved that it would not.
He banged his knee when the charging lead vehicle was three lengths into the slot. An angry firebird lifted away with a rustling whoosh to sizzle along the target track on a tail of flame and smoke. He saw their flaring eyes in the vision field as the fiery missile closed — then flaring eyes and all disappeared behind a mushroom of roiling flames. The vehicle reappeared a moment later as it careened onto the desert, first kneeling then shuddering onto its crumpled nose and doubling back in an end-over-end barrel roll of disintegrating metal. The fuel tank caught the spirit of the thing on the third bounce and completed the destruction with a secondary explosion that littered the area with smoking flesh and shredded hardware.
Meanwhile, the closely following second vehicle discovered the hard way the hazard of running too close in a pack. At the moment of rocket impact, something had blown back and smashed the windshield of that second car, sending it spinning out of control along the blacktop and coming to rest on its side in a grinding slide almost to the doorstep of Moe Kaufman’s outraged crew.
Automatic weapons fire immediately joined the cacophony of doom, accompanied in concert by the basso booming of rapid-fire shotguns — and there was no comfort there for the survivors of that second pile-up.
Cars three and four were meanwhile reacting in the only sensible manner, both of them peeling instantly away from the blacktop and jouncing across open country on widely diverging courses.
But Bolan had punched back to target focus and he had one of them in the range marks. The console sent him an immediate Target Acquisition Go. He thumped his knee and sent another terror. It rustled along the range and overtook the target vehicle, punching in from the rear and lifting the whole works in a thunderous plunge to nowhere. Two of Kaufman’s boys immediately trotted off in pursuit to assure the fate of the occupants.
The fourth car from Tucson was executing a tight circle, careening along the reverse course in a desperate effort to regain the highway and put those hellgrounds behind them. Bolan acquired them on his grid, doubled fist poised above the knee, then he changed his mind and instead disabled the rocketry. The pod retracted and locked Into place beneath the sliding roof panel. He sent a quick probe into the slot, saw that all was well there with the Kaufman camp, then instantly returned his attention to the fleeting prime enemy. He watched the wild fish-tailing as some newly educated goons in O.D. found their purchase on solid surface and began the streak to safer ground.
Moments later, the warwagon was moving smoothly along the track, the optics maintaining “shadow distance” behind the remains of the retreating task force.
Bolan had not spared them … and they would never again find “safer ground.”
“Take me home, boys,” he said quietly to the optics monitor. “Let’s take it all the way to hell.”