Chapter 13

The rider in black galloped in relentless pursuit of his enemy. It was late afternoon, and man and beast glistened with sweat. They had been on the go all day, winding their way through steamy jungles, climbing and descending hills, fording streams, and galloping on flat stretches to make up for time lost in picking up tracks on the other side of those streams.

Now he was once more on a flat stretch, galloping on a trail through a forest of sandalwood, eyes watering from the rush of air, face flushed from the heat, deaf to all sound but the rhythmic drumming of hooves as they carried him closer to his prey, his mind concentrating on what he would do to Janet’s killer.

And that’s what cost him, concentrating on the future instead of the present.

Too late did he realize that the birds no longer sang in the treetops. In the jungle this was a sure sign of an ambush, because while birds will sing when men go by, they clam up when the men stop. By the time he realized this and reined his mount, he was already in the ambush zone. Fate decreed that he undergo capture.

Ahead, a barrier of lianas blocked the trail. To the sides the undergrowth was too thick to pass. When he wheeled his mount to attempt a retreat he found himself staring into the muzzles of pepeshas held by Liu’s Montagnard-suited soldiers.

They made him dismount and disarm. He complied; he had no choice. Then they tied him with lianas, one vine around his wrists, another around his neck. He was put back on his horse and they rode off, the soldiers laughing, enjoying their success, the prisoner acutely aware that he was allowing fate the upper hand.

Of all people to get caught like this, he told himself angrily. He who was always lecturing men under his command to concentrate on the task at hand and not to let their minds wander. If you must think of any moment but the present, he would tell them, pause in what you are doing.

It was little consolation to him that he had been five nights without sleep and that when a mind is tired it begins to wander. A commander was not supposed to let himself be carried away by a mission to the point where his faculties were impaired. Back at the refinery he had already had warning signs that he was overstretching himself when he hesitated on the third floor wondering what to do. Hesitation! The product of a sluggish mind deprived of sleep. But he chose to ignore the warning and play at being superman. Pride, the downfall of men. Fate was trying to tell him something.

A slap in the face from a branch brought his self-critique to an end. They had gone off the trail and were crossing a dense forest. Low hanging branches, pushed aside by the rider ahead, snapped back into his face, delivering powerful stings. The only thing he could do, since his hands were tied at his back, was try to duck in time.

They came to another trail and set off at a trot. They crossed some swampland and after about a half hour’s ride entered a rubber plantation. They trotted past rows of palm trees with small cups attached to their trunks for the collection of the latex.

A mansion came into view, a magnificent white building with turrets, a relic from days when Burma was part of the British Empire. The architecture recalled the Taj Mahal. It was set in a park with fountains and beds of exotic flowers. A real palace.

The commander of the party dismounted and ran inside carrying Bolan’s gear. While they waited for him on their mounts, a young woman appeared on the first-floor balcony. One look at her told Bolan she was Liu’s daughter; the resemblance was striking. Their eyes met, and Bolan inclined his head. He did it unconsciously; she was that kind of a woman. She replied with a bow of her own, an expression of sympathy in her sad eyes. Why was she sad? Bolan wondered.

The officer returned and they rode off. They came to a work area, a large yard bordered by sheds with roofs but no walls. Bolan could see men pouring latex into huge tanks, and there was the smell of formic acid in the air, the acid used to solidify the rubber for shipment.

Beyond the work area were more sheds, these with walls. Bolan was led into one of them. The place stank to high heaven, being a storage shed for solid rubber blocks. In a space in the center was a post supporting the roof. One of the soldiers brought a chain, and they chained Bolan to the post like a dog.

The door closed behind them, plunging the shed into gloom. The only light came through cracks in the walls and roof. Bolan lowered himself to the beaten earth floor and propped his back against the pole. So this was Liu’s hideaway.

On the last radio check Nark told him he had found out from a prisoner that Liu had a hideaway in Burma. Nark was looking for maps in the administration building that would give the coordinates.

Hopefully, Nark would find them. Hopefully, too, when he did not hear from Bolan on the next radio check he would put two and two together. And hopefully he would pay the plantation a visit.

An outside rescue was about the only way Bolan could see of getting out. After the caper he pulled the night he was tortured, he doubted Liu would leave much to chance. The chains he had on were a good example.

He was bound solid: cuffs around his wrists, cuffs around his ankles, a chain linking the two with the pole, everything joined by a padlock. No way out of that.

He stretched himself out on the ground, figuring he should rest while he had the chance. Through the cracks in the roof he watched night fall. Bolan began imagining food; he had not eaten since noon of the previous day. Bit by bit his eyelids grew heavy. What was his fate going to reveal to him?

* * *

The sting of a whip on his cheek brought him out of a dream. The light was on, he could feel blood oozing down the side of his face, and he could see a pair of highly polished riding boots. Before he could remember where he was, the whip lashed out a second time, catching him in the neck.

“Get up!” a voice barked.

It was Liu, dressed in a golf shirt and breeches, standing with his feet apart and a long whip in his hand in the pose of a circus animal trainer. And his eyes glared with anger.

But so did Bolan’s. He sprang to his feet and charged his tormentor. The other stepped deftly aside, and Bolan was pulled back cruelly by the chain.

The whip flew at Bolan, catching him in the mouth and filling it with blood. “Get up!”

Once more Bolan went for him, and once more Liu stepped aside. But this time the whip moved constantly, forming red welts on Bolan’s body, tearing strips from his shirt and trousers, the cracks of the whip mixing with the rattling of the chain as Bolan rolled on the ground to avoid the painful blows.

Finally the whipping stopped. “Better get it into your head, Colonel Phoenix, that here it is I who command. You might be commander at Stony Man Farm, but here you’re just another white dog. A white dog, do you understand? Get up!”

Spitting blood, Bolan rose to his feet.

“That’s better,” said Liu. He wound the whip and went to take a seat on a rubber block. He leaned back in a relaxed manner against the blocks as if on a couch. “And so finally we meet, Stony Man One,” he said, crossing his legs. “Don’t look so surprised. You’re not the only one with an intelligence service, though I must admit mine leaves a lot to be desired of late. You’ll be pleased to hear that the man who interrogated you has had his head cut off. So has the man who interrogated Nark. They actually fell for that cock-and-bull story you fed them about a Russian-sponsored Montagnard uprising.” He recrossed his legs. “I need some answers. What happened to my directors?”

“They’re dead,” said Bolan.

“You killed them?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“It is part of the war against the drug rings,” said Bolan. “The ringleaders will be executed.”

“Is that why you were following me? To kill me as well?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a real St. George, aren’t you?”

Bolan said nothing, observing his enemy in silence. Close up Liu looked even more the prince of darkness than when Bolan saw him the first time through field glasses, the day he and Nark reconnoitered the Tiger hardsite. Now, in addition to the handsome, satanic face and the muscular build, Bolan was conscious of Liu’s charisma. He was also conscious of Liu’s superior intelligence. A formidable enemy.

“When you killed my directors did you just bump them off or did you give them a speech first?” asked Liu.

“I read them the charge,” Bolan lied.

“Which was?”

“Crimes against humanity.”

“How American,” Liu mused. “You people are so moral… when it suits you. Did you know that in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion when China was fighting to rid itself of the opium trade imposed on it by the Europeans, the U.S. sided with the Europeans? Righteous Americans like yourself went around slaughtering Chinese in the name of free trade. Today they are equally righteous about preventing free trade. How do you square that, Colonel Phoenix?”

Bolan said nothing. History was full of whores.

“The question is too profound for you, is it?” asked Liu, contempt in his voice. He stared at Bolan for a while as if studying him. “I understand you are an adept of kenjutsu.”

“I have studied kenjutsu, yes,” Bolan replied.

“The reason I ask is that tomorrow we are holding our annual tameshigiri. I will be trying out swords on the necks of some criminals, and I propose to add yours to them. Since you are a swordsman, I will give the opportunity to die sword in hand. Unless you would prefer the block.”

“Sword in hand will be fine,” said Bolan.

Again Liu stared at Bolan as if studying him. Abruptly, he rose. “Very well, my adjutant will come for you in the morning so you can wash and dress. Sleep well.”

Bolan watched him walk out.

A little later the door opened and two soldiers entered. One carried a bucket, the other a tray of food. They undid Bolan’s hands and left him to eat.

The gladiator submits, thought Bolan. Not that he had any complaints; he was starving and the food was excellent. There was noodle soup, a shrimp dish, vegetables and rice, ngapi sauce — a Burmese specialty — mangoes, and Mandalay beer.

When he finished he called to the guards for a light for a cigarette. He pondered the passivity that commanded his actions, that cast a pall over his soul so deep that the flash of fate’s vision would soon be inescapable in the darkness. What was he about to endure, about to see?

When he finished his cigarette, Bolan sat in the dark, his mind on the fight to come.

He must not be afraid, he told himself.

Fear was the greatest obstacle to concentration.

Then, too, it was selfish to worry about losing your life. He had been put on this earth to promote the good of man, not his own welfare.

Get beyond love and grief: exist for the good of man.

One of the Four Oaths of Bushido, the way of the warrior.

From some recess of his memory Bolan recalled the words of Sensei Matsubara, his kenjutsu master, on the side of a mountain in Virginia: The way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death.

This means choosing death whenever there is a choice between life and death.

If you can accustom yourself to the idea of death you become one with the way of the warrior.

You can pass through life with no possibility of failure and perform your off ice properly.

The way is not technique.

The way is the right spirit.

God, give me the right spirit, Bolan prayed.

* * *

The sword was a blur, and the Yao bandit toppled, brains spilling from his severed skull.

Bolan, a spectator, bowed his head and the crowd applauded.

It was the fourteenth death of the morning and they had all been grisly, the main object of the executions being not so much to kill the man as to test the sword.

For this purpose various cutting techniques were used. They ranged from the simple across-the-waist-in-two, to the more sophisticated shoulder-to-opposite-nipple. The last one had been horizontally-above-the eyes.

Every technique required a special pose. The victims were made to lie sideways on blocks, hung from bars, were spread-eagled between bamboo poles or simply held by guards in a particular position.

The end result of these elaborate cuts and poses was that death was seldom instantaneous. To Bolan this was the worst example of Animal Man in his life to date. He did not fully realize it yet but the event was to be an inescapable exorcism for him.

About a hundred people were watching the executions, mainly Tiger soldiers with a few Burmese plantation workers. The mood was as festive as if it were a bullfight. The fact that men and not animals were being killed bothered no one but Bolan.

In Burma, as in Thailand, Montagnards were a slave class, considered no better than animals. Not even in death was any respect shown them. The bodies were not disposed of until they had been hacked some more to test other swords.

The grim business took place in a sandy enclosure red with blood. To the side were tables where the results were noted. After each execution the sword was brought to Liu who examined how the blade cut through bone, how the fat stuck to the blade and how the iron was discolored.

A scribe committed Liu’s comments to paper. The observations would be included in the certificate that went with the sword as well as inscribed on the tang, the part of the blade that went inside the hilt.

Bolan watched the proceedings from the front row of the spectator benches. He was dressed in a white gi, a black hakama— a divided skirt of the kind samurais wore — and raffia sandals. In his lap lay a beautiful sword. He prepared to execute Liu with it.

Earlier that morning the adjutant, who was sitting next to him, took him to the mansion to show him Liu’s private collection of swords. Bolan was told he could have any weapon he wanted. He chose a sixteenth-century katana, a samurai long sword.

The Japanese weapon was one any sword collector would have given his eyeteeth for. The scabbard was of finely lacquered wood, colored cherry red, overlaid with a silver mesh. The hilt was of ray skin bound in leather thongs with silver pommels decorated with chrysanthemum designs. The guard was of bronze and silver.

As for the blade, it was of Osufane steel, hand tempered. A clover flower pattern of burl grain ran along the tempered line, the hallmark of a famous sword-maker of the time. The blade was as sharp as a razor and had not a trace of discoloration. Bolan could not have asked for a better weapon.

It surprised him little that Liu would throw open his private collection to him. A man whips a man then makes a grand gesture. It was to be expected of an individual who saw himself as a god. From the adjutant Bolan learned that Liu’s title in Chinese was Lord of Life and Death. This place of ritual had locked Bolan into a myth and a struggle older than man.

“How many more executions?” Bolan asked. The Yao’s body was being dragged out of the enclosure by a pony. The corpse was hacked beyond recognition.

“One more man,” replied the adjutant.

Only it was not a man. The next victim was a boy. To Bolan he looked no more than fourteen. Tears flowed down the boy’s face, and he was shaking with terror. His wrists were tied at the front, and he had a cord around his neck, the usual way prisoners were led in.

“You execute children, too?”

“He stole a chicken,” said the adjutant. They spoke English.

“And for that you’re going to kill him?”

The adjutant shrugged. “The colonel ordered.”

A blindfold was tied around the boy’s head. His wrists were undone so he could hold his hands over his head, the pose for the next cut. The cord from his wrists was used to tie his ankles so he would not run away. A name was called out, and a young soldier rose from the spectator benches. He was not much more than sixteen.

“A cadet,” said the adjutant.

The cadet went up to Liu who handed him a sword. He bowed to Liu, then to the audience, then stationed himself at the boy’s side. The boy continued shaking, his hands held high in a position of surrender.

“Ichi no do,” Liu ordered loudly.

“Across the chest,” explained the adjutant.

The cadet raised his sword and swung at the boy. A red gash appeared on the boy’s chest and he fell backward screaming. As he rolled in the sand in agony, the blindfold came off. The cadet gazed at him, a stupid expression on his face.

Liu shouted something, and the cadet moved in on the boy, sword raised. Now there followed a macabre game of cat and mouse, the cadet slashing, the boy rolling to avoid the blows, sand flying, the boy screaming, the crowd on its feet yelling with delight.

Bolan bent his head to avoid the spectacle. On the way to the enclosure the adjutant had told him that if he so much as tried to disrupt the proceedings the colonel had ordered that a hundred Montagnards be executed.

“Tsuki!” shouted Liu. Thrust.

A high-pitched scream rent the air as the blade pierced the boy’s heart. The crowd applauded as the cadet ran to Liu with the sword dripping blood. The colonel took one look at it and threw it down with disgust. He shouted orders and left the enclosure.

There was a stir in the crowd and faces turned to Bolan. The long nose was next. The enclosure was cleared of tables and equipment. Soldiers appeared with buckets of sand and rakes, and the bloodstains were covered over. In minutes the ring was ready for the main event.

Bolan stared at the ground between his feet in silent communion with his Creator. God, give me the right spirit.

A short while later Liu returned. He no longer wore a uniform but was dressed like Bolan in a white gi and a black hakama. In his hand he held a samurai’s katana similar to Bolan’s except that instead of lacquered wood, his scabbard was of gold encrusted with lapis lazuli.

Liu entered the enclosure and faced Bolan. With a gesture of the head he bid him enter. Bolan rose and entered the ring. For a while the two men faced each other in silence, Liu looking at Bolan as if he were studying him. Then Liu drew his sword. Bolan followed. Both threw their empty scabbards in the sand.

Holding the swords with two hands in front of them at an angle of forty-five degrees, the men faced each other, standing stock-still. Both had their eyes on the line from the tips of their weapons to the opponent’s throat. Both were projecting their life forces, their ki, as it is called in the East.

It was an exercise that required tremendous concentration, possible only if the mind was completely empty. The slightest thought would detract from the ki pressure. Feeling the slack the other would take advantage and move in. It was an exercise in willpower as much as physics.

The long swords gleamed in the sunlight. The crowd was completely silent. Seconds turned to minutes, the sun beat down, the heat grew, the tension became unbearable. For how long could they keep it up?

“Eee-yiii!” Liu charged, his feet raising sand, his sword going up for a sky-to-earth cut.

Bolan watched him come without moving a muscle.

He stood completely unprotected. In a moment the impending blow would cleave him in two. The fight was practically over. Liu was going to kill Bolan with his first blow.

Then something happened that brought a gasp from the crowd. As Liu’s sword began its descent, Bolan stepped sideways. By then Liu’s attack was fully committed with no possibility of his changing the angle of the cut. The sword swished through thin air.

A murmur ran through the crowd. Who was this man? The way Bolan had reacted was the act of a swordsman who fought in the spirit of munen muso: no conception, no design. The phrase meant the ability to act calmly and naturally even in the face of danger. It was the highest accord with existence, when a man’s words and actions were spontaneously the same. Rare indeed were the men capable of it.

Bolan’s horror at the executions, which had appalled his imprisoned eyes, turned to pure power as their avenging became his task.

Now that they had gone into motion, Bolan and Liu continued to move, circling each other, Liu changing his stance to a hasso, his sword raised above his head to the right. Bolan continued with his sword in the jodan position, held straight out at a forty-five-degree angle.

To the spectators the change in Liu’s position indicated he intended to end the contest. The death, of the long nose would not be preceded by a display of sword fighting. The Lord of Life and Death was going for a quick kill.

Step by step they walked the thousand-mile road, Bolan keeping Liu company every inch of the way, moving sideways, backward, forward, his ki always flowing, his whole being concentrating on the task at hand, his mind empty of thought.

The righteousness of Bolan’s cause, the readiness to accept death in the cause of mankind, gave him tremendous powers of concentration. No thought entered his mind because there was nothing to worry about. There was only one way on this earth for him and he was on it: do good for mankind and fight evil.

But Liu was worrying.

The unsuccessful charge had rattled him. It was like charging a phantom. Liu asked himself if the American was one of those who could sense an attack in advance. It was said that some men could do this. They were able to register the intent, that spurt of radiant energy emitted a moment before it is converted into action.

If so, Liu knew he was in trouble. Instead of killing the American, the American might kill him. Unlike Bolan, Liu had not entered the fight to die; he had entered the fight to win. The thought that he might not win forced him to consider a number of techniques to kill Bolan quickly.

“Eee-yiii!”

Liu’s charge was premature. Everyone could see it. Just what made him do it no one could tell, not even Bolan. Liu may have realized he was losing his ki and decided to move before Bolan could take advantage. Or perhaps with his concentration wavering he was unable to feel Bolan’s ki any longer — you cannot feel the other man’s ki if yours is not out — and he mistakenly thought it was time to move in.

Either way, Liu thought, and that was what cost him his life. In kenjutsu one had to feel a move.

Once more Bolan watched Liu come. Once again he waited until Liu’s attack was committed before moving out, and this time as Liu passed him he brought his sword down on Liu’s neck. A red gash appeared in the pale flesh. Liu’s legs buckled and he fell to his knees, rocking, blood spurting from his neck.

Bolan stepped back and raised his sword.

The crowd rose to its feet.

The sword in Bolan’s hand flew down, and in a silent ending to the day’s butchery, the Lord of Life and Death, heroin king of Asia, was executed.

The exorcism was over. The most hideous experience of his incarnation as Colonel Phoenix was over for Mack Bolan.

He had been trapped in a purposeless knot, the struggle between life and death, when the real struggle, the war between good and evil, had been put aside by the maddening and miasmic pull of the Far East, a murderous place on a bad day….

He was purged now, and he would never allow such executions again. He had submitted to the ritual of death long enough. Now he prepared to face the future alone, to fight the good fight by fighting for the good, free of the corruption of others, of ancient societies and modern agencies.

Oh God, give me April, and home.

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