Authors: Don Pendleton
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Fiction, #det_action, #Non-Classifiable, #Men's Adventure, #Drug traffic, #Bolan; Mack (Fictitious character), #Opium trade
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.
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
and a black
In his hand he held a samurai's
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
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
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
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
his sword raised above his head to the right. Bolan continued with his sword in the
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
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.
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
and decided to move before Bolan could take advantage. Or perhaps with his concentration wavering he was unable to feel Bolan's
any longer — you cannot feel the other man's
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
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.
In a flash Bolan was out of the ring and running, the crowd on his heels. It was an undignified exit, but this was no time to stand on ceremony. All the right spirit in the world will not stop a bullet, and many in the audience were armed.
Bolan headed for the mansion. It was his only hope. In the mansion were his clothes as well as his radio and gun. Without them he was lost. He knew where gun and radio were, having spotted them that morning.
He streaked through the palms, sword in hand, outdistancing his pursuers. The fear of a man pursued by a mob ready to tear him apart lent him wings. In their eyes Bolan had read the righteous rage of men deprived of a livelihood. By killing Liu he had put an end to Tiger Enterprises, and a lot of people would be out of work.
Paradoxically, it was the mob's hate that probably saved him. So intent were they on catching him alive, to make him suffer, that no one thought of shooting at him.
He ran into the mansion through the front entrance, sword ready to slash his way through. But the house was empty, as the guards and servants had been at the executions. He bounded up the main staircase.
On the second landing he turned into a corridor and ran past the changing room to the room with the radio and gun. The door was locked! He lunged at it, but it was useless. There was not enough space in the corridor to give him momentum. He tried kicking it down, but he only hurt his foot. A boot might have done it, but not a raffia sandal.
From the staircase came shouting as the mob poured into the house.
"This way!" said a woman's voice.
Bolan spun around. In an open doorway stood Liu's daughter. He ran inside, and she closed the door after him. It was a study full of medical books. She pulled him through it into a bedroom and opened a closet.
The door shut, plunging him into darkness. The only light came from the keyhole, and he noticed that there was no key. He crouched among clothes scented with her perfume, listening at the keyhole.
From the corridor came the sound of boots. Doors banged.
A knuckle rapped on the front door of her apartment, boots crossed the floor of the study, and a man's voice spoke apologetically. The monologue lasted for a minute, the boots retreated, the front door closed.
Bolan waited for word from her. But there was no sound. Had she left too? Then he heard it, a muffled sob.
Bolan emerged from the closet. She was sitting by the dresser, sobbing into her hands.
Bolan's insides tightened. Liu was evil, he had to die, but none of that changed the fact that a daughter had lost a father.
Bolan went up to her.
He stood in silence.
"I am sorry, but it had to be done," he said after a while.
She nodded and went on weeping quietly. He remained by her side, immobile, in a gesture of sympathy. In the corridor the sound of slamming doors receded.
Suddenly there was another rap on the front door.
Bolan moved back into the closet and again crouched by the keyhole, this time looking through.
A man in the uniform of a captain entered the bedroom. Bolan recognized him from the executions. The captain had killed a Montagnard by splitting him in two with one stroke, one of the few clean kills of the day.
"Ty Ling," the captain said. But she paid no attention.
The captain proceeded to speak. Bolan guessed he was presenting his condolences. When he finished he went up and put a hand on her shoulder.
Liu's daughter jumped and backed away, eyes flashing.
The captain resumed speaking. The tone was conciliatory. He held out his arms and moved toward her. She grabbed a candlestick and raised it threateningly. The man shrugged and left the room.
As the front door closed, she put the candlestick down and went into the study. Bolan heard the key turn in the front door lock. She returned and opened the closet.
"You can come out," she said. "They think you ran through the house. You are safe."
"Where is your bathroom?" he asked.
She indicated the door and he went inside. He washed his sword and dried it. When he came out she was standing by the window.
"Put it in the closet," she told him.
He put the sword away and turned to face her. "Why are you doing this?"
"I need your help," she replied, staring out. "I thought if I helped you, you might take me with you. I must get away from here."
"Why must you get away?" asked Bolan.
"So I can marry the man I love," she replied, still staring. "I am a doctor. Until a month ago I was working in a hospital in Mandalay. I met a man there, a German doctor. He was on an exchange. We fell in love, and he asked me to marry him. I came here to ask my father permission to marry. My father refused, told me I had to marry a Chinese, told me he had promised me in marriage to an officer, Weng Shi. He is the second man who came here. Now that my father is dead, Weng Shi will force me to marry him. You are my last chance."
''Are you a prisoner here?" asked Bolan.
She nodded. "The guards have orders not to allow me off the plantation. My father even refused to let me return to the hospital. He was afraid I would elope. When Gunther came here looking for me, my father told him I had left for America, that I had changed my mind." She paused to look at Bolan in a way that reminded him of Liu, that scrutinizing look. "Have you ever been in love?"
"Yes, I've been in love," said Bolan. "Where is it that you want to go, Mandalay?"
"Bangkok," she replied. "Or Rangoon. Gunther is back in Germany. I will take the first plane out. But you don't have to take me that far. I can take a train. I will not burden you, I promise. I am in good health and I can walk far. I can ride, too. I might even be useful to you. I know the trails around here."
"There's only one problem," said Bolan. "I'm not fleeing from marriage, but from people who want to skin me alive. If someone should try to stop me I'll shoot, no matter how many there are. And they'll shoot back. By coming with me you risk being killed."
"I'd rather be dead than spend the rest of my life with Weng Shi. I don't want him and I don't want this life. Hate, kill, hate, kill — that's all they know around here."
"So I've noticed."
"My father started it," she said with a sigh. "In the beginning it was a way of keeping them together, preventing the Ninety-third from disintegrating. The world was against them. To survive they had to hate back. Eventually it got into their blood; like a drug, they needed it to keep going. Ironic, isn't it? While poisoning the world with one drug they became addicts of another." She turned to took at Bolan. "If you wish I will pay you. I have money in Bangkok."
"That won't be necessary," said Bolan.
"You will take me?"
"I'll take you, yes. And now let's sit down and figure out how we're going to do it."
* * *
In darkened silence Bolan tiptoed down the corridor. Somewhere a clock chimed nine. Otherwise the house was still, everyone at the wake for Liu. The mistress of the house had made a special point of asking that everyone be in the pagoda at nine o'clock that evening for a special prayer: workers, servants, and soldiers united in a joint tribute to the memory of their master. The service was to last an hour... which was exactly how long Bolan had to organize their escape.
He came to a door and opened it with a key Ty Ling had obtained for him. He turned on a flashlight and swept the inside with its beam, half prepared to see his gun and radio gone. But the AK-74 still hung from the coat rack along with the gun belt, and the radio was on the floor by a water cooler.
Bolan collected the gear and went to another door. He opened it with a second key and went to a cupboard. The Montagnard suit hung where he had left it. Below were his boots. He changed back into his clothes, and when he emerged into the corridor a few minutes later, the sixteenth-century samurai was once again the twentieth-century warrior, the Kalashnikov in one hand, the silenced Makarov in the other, the radio on his back.
He left the corridor and tiptoed down the staircase.
From the front steps of the house came the murmur of voices. Guards! So
everyone was at the wake for the master. This did not surprise him. Bolan could not see an experienced commander like Weng Shi leaving the house unguarded when the long nose was stilt free, no matter how much Ty Ling insisted that every member of the plantation be at the service.
Luckily Bolan had planned for this. In the afternoon Ty Ling had drawn him a map of the house, so he knew the layout. When he reached the bottom of the staircase he simply retreated into the house until he got to the main sitting room. He crossed it and climbed out a window. For a minute he crouched in the shadows, listening. Judging that the coast was clear, he sprinted into the trees.
He made his way through the trees to the park and set out along the path, heading for the work yard, his ultimate goal the stables. To walk on the path was risky — he might run into guards — but it would be even more risky to walk off it. The ground was dry, twigs snapped easily, and anyone walking on the path would hear him. This way he had an equal chance, better in fact, for guards usually talked.
The work yard appeared. He crossed it, keeping to the shadow of the buildings. Suddenly he smelled cigarette smoke. He crouched and listened. From around a shed came the murmur of voices. A man coughed. Guards. Bolan slung the Kalashnikov over his back so he could use both hands.
He made his way to the end of the shed and peered. Ahead two cigarette ends glowed in the dark. Bolan worked his way closer, invisible in the shadows. The two guards, were also invisible, but after each man took a couple of drags Bolan knew where to shoot. Just as he raised his gun, however, the glows began moving and the men's voices rose.
Bolan lowered the pistol and waited for the argument to finish. But the soldiers went on arguing, moving all the time. Seconds ticked by, and Bolan did not have seconds to spare. Somehow he had to get them out of the shadows. Then an idea occurred to him. He slipped the magazine clip out of the pistol and extracted a round.
The side of a shed clanged, and the glowing cigarettes stopped their ballet and fell to the ground. Weapons at the ready, the two guards emerged from the darkness. The Makarov hissed twice, and the soldiers crumpled. Bolan ran to make sure they were dead, then pulled the corpses back into the shadows. One man had a couple of offensive grenades attached to his belt, and Bolan took those. For a getaway at night, such goodies were very useful. They were much louder than defensive grenades.
On the other side of the work yard were the stables. Bolan entered the first barn and shone his flashlight. He selected two horses, made friends by feeding them sugar cubes given him by Ty Ling for the purpose, and saddled them. On a hook by the saddles hung a holster for a rifle, and Bolan strapped it on. He attached one horse to the other and led them out, closing the door behind him.
The moon shone peacefully in the sky. The night was still. Bolan mounted, and rider and animals disappeared into the trees. Now began the most nerve-racking part of the adventure: a mile-long trip along a footpath made at walking pace. But there was no other way. A gallop, even a trot, would alert the guards by the house. At night sounds carried far.
It took nearly a half hour to reach the pagoda. It stood in a clearing bordered by palms, a solitary building with a curled-up roof. The windows flickered with light, and from inside came chanting. Bolan observed it from the tree line to see if there were any guards. But there were none. Ty Ling had done her job. She had promised to have everyone inside praying, including the guards. Bolan dismounted, tied the horses, and ran for the entrance.
The inside of the pagoda was packed with humanity, the men on one side, women on the other. On a dais, under a statue of a peak-headed Buddha, lay a coffin draped in the flag of Nationalist China. It was surrounded by candles and flowers, paper money hung from rafters, and the air was heavy with incense.
Bolan shouted, stepping inside.
A woman screamed, faces turned, the chanting stopped.
"Anyone speak English?" he called out.
By the coffin, Ty Ling rose to her feet. "What is it you want?"
"Step this way, lady," Bolan commanded. "And tell the people if anyone moves, I shoot. I don't care how many I kill."
Ty Ling addressed the congregation in Chinese, urging calm, then moved toward the entrance through the aisle separating the men and women. Bolan panned the crowd nervously with the Kalashnikov as if he were slightly mad. It was a trick he had learned way back. No professional soldier will try anything with a madman, because you cannot judge his reaction.
Ty Ling came up. "Outside," Bolan ordered.
Ty Ling went out, and Bolan continued waving the gun back and forth. By the coffin he could see Weng Shi look at him, a puzzled expression on his face. Did he smell a rat, Bolan wondered. Was he trying to figure out how Bolan got the key to the room with his gun?
Sixteen... seventeen... eighteen. Bolan counted the seconds, giving Ty Ling time to reach the horses. "Outside" was a code word they had agreed on. It meant everything was going as planned, the horses would be by the path.
Twenty-five, Bolan counted. Ty Ling must be there. He stepped out and ran to join her. Halfway there, a gun opened up and colored tracers flew by. He spun, dropped to one knee, and sprayed the entrance. Figures fell, figures retreated, and he was back running.
He ran into the woods. Ty Ling was already on her horse, holding the reins of his mount. "Go!" he shouted and swung into the saddle as shooting broke out anew. Ty Ling spurred her mount and they galloped off, the shouting and shooting receding in the thunder of hooves and panting of horses.
They crashed through the undergrowth, keeping their heads down to avoid branches. He followed her easily, and soon they came out onto a plain and picked up speed. Now they could really fly. The terrain was flat and solid. But they were also more visible, and the mounted Tiger patrol that emerged from the tree line on the left, attracted by the gunfire, headed straight for them.