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Don Pendleton

Battle Mask

Prologue

The priest who christened Mack Bolan did not, as some of his former army acquaintances claim, sprinkle the infant with human blood. His 'executions' in the jungles and hamlets of Vietnam were not, as some leftist correspondents claimed, the acts of a cold-blooded murderer who was being sponsored by the U.S. government. Bolan was a professional soldier, a career man with ten years of unblemished service behind him when he was consigned to the weird warfare being staged in Southeast Asia. He exemplified what the army psychologist called 'the perfect sniper — a man who can kill personally yet impersonally, and who can objectively accept the blood on his hands as a matter of national duty, not just personal conscience...'

Sgt. Bolan was an expert marksman and a disciplined soldier. He could command himself, and he could command others. As his reputation grew during the two years in Vietnam, he became known as 'the Executioner.' He was feared by the enemy, admired by his superiors, and held slightly in awe by his associates. The verified accounting of Bolan's 'kills' in Vietnam shows 32 high-ranking North Vietnamese officers, 46 VC guerrilla leaders, and 17 VC village officials.

Bolan was philosophic about his army specialty. 'Someone has to do it,' he once remarked. 'I can do it.' At the age of 30, and after two full years of combat duty, the nerveless perfectionist was called home to bury the victims of another brand of warfare — his mother, father, and teenage sister. For the Police, it was an open and shut case of suicide and double murder — with the father taking the blame. Bolan saw it somewhat differently, learning that his father had been harassed, brutalized, and pushed beyond the limits of human endurance by a loan-sharking operation which was controlled by an international crime syndicate, popularly called 'the Mafia.'

Convinced that the police were powerless to act in the tragedy, Executioner Bolan turned his sharpshooter's sights onto the guilty ones and launched 'the most impossible war in history.' He became an over- night American legend, one lone man versus the seemingly invincible forces of the dreaded Mafia. The Executioner brought Vietnam tactics to the jungles of the American underworld and, in a vicious and bloody battle that staggered and stupefied the opposition, virtually neutralized the Mafia's influence in Bolan's home town.

In the aftermath of the Pittsfield War, prognosticators were quoting million-to-one odds against an old age for Mack Bolan. The object of the most massive police manhunt in modern history and with a $100,000 Mafia pricetag on his head, the plucky fighter moved his thunder and lightning to Los Angeles, recruited a 'death squad' of former Vietnam buddies, and took on the powerful 'family' of L.A. czar Julian DiGeorge. Though harassed by the unrelenting efforts of the Los Angeles police, Bolan and his 'hellish squad' succeeded in crippling the DiGeorge operations in Southern California. The victory was a hollow one for Bolan, however; his own casualties were 100% and DiGeorge himself escaped the final showdown at the Mafia stronghold near Balboa, a California resort town.

The odds against Bolan again pyramided. Alone, wounded, sought by the police and by every ambitious hoodlum in the country, it seemed that the Executioner was due for extermination. For Mack Bolan, however, life was a road which stretched between birth and death; he had not yet conceded that last bloody mile.

Chapter One

Flushed

Mack Bolan was dreaming, and he knew it, and he liked the dream, and he was becoming increasingly irritated with the demands that he awaken. In the dream, his former comrades of the Death Squad were with him once again, and they were sprawled about the large living room of the beach house base-camp.

Chopper Fontenelli and Deadeye Washington were wisecracking about the status of black men in the Mafia brotherhood. Flower Child Andromede was reciting gruesome poetry to Gunsmoke Harrington while Harrington practiced his quick-draw. Boom-Boom Hoffower was booby-trapping a light fixture while Bloodbrother Loudelk quietly kibitzed the operation with Indian signs. Whispering Zitka was throwing a stiletto at flies while Politician Blancanales and Gadgets Schwartz were fiddling with an electronic panel.

The panel was causing Bolan's irritation. It persisted in emitting loud squawks, endangering the rosy dream. It was nice having the hellish bunch together again. Suddenly, the irritation was gone and Bolan was wide awake. He was alone in the dimly lighted room, fully dressed, half reclining in a large lounger. The security monitor, a makeshift console occupying a low table to Bolan's right, was flashing an amber light and buzzing furiously.

Bolan was on his feet and gliding across the room toward a window even before his conscious mind could fully assess the situation. He pulled back a drape and peered into the blackness, then hastened back to the monitor to check the location-identifier. The flashing light indicated an intruder at the gateway to the drive, some 200 yards from the house. Abruptly another light began flashing, then another. Bolan suspended a machine-pistol from his shoulder, smiled grimly, and moved soundlessly onto the side patio. The house occupied an isolated stretch of beach on California's rugged southern coastline just above Santa Monica, sheltered between sheer cliffs to each side, with the surging ocean to the rear. Bolan had selected the place because of the remoteness and natural defensibility; it had seemed a perfect base camp for his Death Squad in their operations against the Mafia. Now, however, there was no squad. Only Bolan remained, and he was wondering if the place might not turn out to be an inescapable trap for a lone defender. The isolation bore in on him, emphasized by the muted roar of the ocean behind him and the cloud-darkened skies above. And someone was coming calling.

Bolan hurried back into the house and picked up a waiting suitcase, carried it outside and across the patio, and tossed it onto the seat of a black sedan. He started the engine, left it idling quietly, and went back to the forward wall of the patio. There he lined up a collection of flare-shells, checked the azimuth and scale settings of a small cannon-like object, and immediately dropped in a shell. The tube belched a puff of smoke and gave out a soft whump. Bolan quickly re-set the azimuth and dropped in another shell, and was lifting binoculars to his eyes even before the second firing occurred.

The first shell exploded high in the air directly above the gateway and the second one opened at the midway point. Two automobiles had been moving slowly along the drive, without lights. Each halted abruptly, in reaction to the sudden dazzling brilliance of the flares. A door on the lead vehicle was flung open and two men erupted into the open.

Bolan caught a familiar face in the vision field of his binoculars. He grunted in recognition of Lou Pena, one of the local Mafia 'enforcers.' So, he calmly realized, the Family had finally tracked him down. He shushed the butterflies in his stomach and reached for his long-distance sniper, fitted his eye to the high-power scope, and picked up a target from among the rapidly dispersing invaders. His hand squeezed into the trigger guard, the big piece roared and slammed against his shoulder, and his target abruptly disappeared from the vision-field. He swung the long Mauser toward the vehicles and rapid-fired the entire clip into the enemy's mobile units. The lead car exploded into spectacular flames which quickly spread to the car behind. Someone began shouting loud instructions and a volley of returning gunfire swept into the beach house.

Bolan grinned, dropped the Mauser, and ran to the far end of the wall, where Fontenelli's prized fifty-calibre watercooled machine gun was emplaced. He hurriedly checked the ammo belt, positioned the swing-stops to a 30- degree sweep, and affixed the continuous-fire mechanism he had devised only hours earlier.

The heavy staccato of the big fifty began lacing the air, the muzzle swinging freely between the stops under the impetus of its own eruptions. Satisfied that the device was operating properly, Bolan sprinted for his car, climbed behind the far wheel, and gunned out across the parking lot in a spray of gravel.

He hit the driveway with lights out and in whining traction. Just as he entered the periphery of flare-light, an object loomed up over his front bumper, He felt the impact even as he recognized the object as a human figure and saw it hurling off into the darkness. And then he was in full light, hunched low over the steering wheel and in screaming acceleration. His head was jerked involuntarily as a projectile crashed through his windshield. Something

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