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"Photosynthesis," Zavlin said.

"Plants," Bolan said. "That's the process they use to convert sunlight and water into oxygen."

"More or less," Zavlin said.

"More," Subrov said. "So much more."

They were sitting in one of the offices away from the main production area. A filter system cleaned and recirculated the air in the room to allow them to remove their masks.

Bolan sat in a chair against the wall. Zavlin ran one hand through his white hair and used the other to hold his gun leveled at Bolan's chest.

Subrov was in his early twenties, with gaunt cheeks and hollow eyes. He had a certain intensity that indicated obsession.

"Dr. Subrov is only twenty-one," Zavlin explained with some annoyance, "but he is in charge of this project."

"Exactly what is this project?" Bolan asked.

"No need for you to know, Mr. Blue. If that is your real name. I will ask you several questions. You will answer them without hesitation."

"And if I hesitate?"

"I will kill you."

"And if I speak?"

Zavlin smiled. "I will kill you, of course. But there is death and there is death. One is much more uncomfortable."

"I've been hearing that distinction a lot lately."

Zavlin raised an eyebrow. "I suspect that is because you are the type of man who leaves his enemies no other choice."

"What's all this got to do with plants?" Bolan asked.

"It is not your concern," Zavlin repeated firmly. He was a professional all the way. There would be no bragging or explanations. Just interrogation and then death.

But his young comrade was not so experienced. He was pleased to have yet another ear to explain his own brilliance. "It was my idea," Subrov said, pointing his bony finger at Bolan. He leaned up against the blackboard next to his desk. There was chalk dust in his black hair and some on his pants.

So this is Superbrain, Bolan thought.

"I discovered the process while in the university at Moscow when I was fourteen. But it took me another seven years to perfect." He was lecturing now, as if addressing a classroom of admirers. "How, I asked myself, could the proper nutrition be introduced into the masses who are basically resistant to anything healthy? How do we combat their stubborn ignorance and the stupidity of the individual for the greater good of the whole?"

"Likes people, huh?" Bolan said to Zavlin.

Zavlin's jaw was clenched. Bolan could sense the man bristling. Apparently this hundred-and-twenty-pound kid carried more weight with Moscow than even the great Zavlin.

"Photosynthesis, that's the key," Subrov continued. His accent was British, with only a hint of Russian in the vowels. "If we could interrupt the photosynthetic process by which a plant produces carbohydrates..." He picked up a piece of chalk and attacked the blackboard, writing a complex chemical formula. "Then we are using the glucose units as they link together to form starch as pockets to hold these nutrients. If we also consider that in the light reaction, the energy of an absorbed photon of light is used during the enzyme-catalyzed transfer of an electron from an unknown molecule to a carrier..."

"Which all boils down to what?" Bolan said.

"Boils down?" Subrov said, annoyed at the interruption. "Ah yes, you mean what is the end result?" He dropped the chalk on his desk and stared contemptuously at Bolan. "You are a very rude man."

Bolan waited. He knew the kid's arrogance would force him to tell, to show off to one more person.

"It 'boils down' to this. We can now introduce certain substances into plants, merely by sprinkling the substance onto the leaves. Eventually, the plant absorbs it, transforms it until it becomes a part of the plant itself. Simple enough?"

Bolan nodded. "You're saying that if you sprinkled nutrients on a tomato plant, that plant would add the nutrients to the tomato. The person eating the tomato would be healthier."

"Yes. Something like that."

"But somehow I have a feeling you aren't shipping nutrients around this country."

Subrov hesitated. "Nutrients were only one aspect of my discovery. There are other chemicals that can also be introduced."

"Like what?"

The Russian youth smiled. His sunken face and oversize teeth made his head look a little like a skull. "Like synthetic heroin. Also a substance I created. We sell it as pesticides to your farmers. They spray their crops. The synthetic heroin is absorbed and reformed as part of the vegetables and fruit you eat. The physical reactions will not be immediate. They take years to develop, and even then only in certain body types.

"But then those who are affected will have all the symptoms of heroin addiction. The excruciating pain, the epileptic fits. The physical and psychological damage will only be the start. Our scientists and economists estimate that the reduction in productivity by these people will cause staggering economic collapse. Not to mention the panic and mass hysteria of the rest of the country as they try to discover what this affliction is. But by then, of course, it will already be too late."

Bolan's face was stone, the features chipped from some blazing comet. The eyes glared with anger. "From nutrients to help the masses to mass poisoning. Some leap for a genius."

Subrov shrugged. "I do what is right for my country. And for science. What does your country matter anyway? Beach Boys and jeans, that is all they know."

"Enough," Zavlin said. "You have had your say, Dr. Subrov. And you too, Mr. Blue. Now it is my turn." He walked over to the laboratory table where test tubes and flasks and chemicals were set up. There, leaning on a metal stand, directly over the blue flame of the gas Bunsen burner, was a branding iron. The tip of the iron glowed a fearsome red.

Zavlin slipped a leather glove on his right hand, transferring his gun to his left hand. He picked up the handle of the iron and carried it carefully toward Bolan.

The boy genius watched with a detached curiosity, as if interested only in how flesh might react when introduced to a glowing iron. Bolan sat rigidly in his chair, not moving.

"You may scream, Mr. Blue," Zavlin said, coming closer. "But movement might be fatal. Any attempt to knock this away and I will have to shoot you."

And suddenly he pressed the tip of the running iron against Bolan's thigh. The pants hissed and smoked as the iron burned through and sizzled against the skin. Bolan flinched, his hands gripping the side of the chair as if to crush it. But he made no sound.

Zavlin pulled the iron away and smiled. "That was just a touch. Nothing like what will happen next. Are you ready to speak?"

Bolan said nothing. There was no point. The truth would only make things worse.

They'd kill him immediately. As long as they thought he was holding out, they'd keep him alive.

"I have work to do," Subrov said with a bored expression. "Please clean up when you are finished." He started out of the office, but was stopped by a uniformed guard wearing a surgical mask. He was dragging Shawnee beside him. She wore no mask, so her curses were very clear.

"Bastard!" she spit, punching and kicking at the guard. One kick caught him in the shin and he angrily threw her against the wall.

"What's going on?" Zavlin demanded.

"She was sneaking through the fence," the guard explained. "They'd used wire cutters."

"I'm so sorry," Shawnee said to Bolan. "I couldn't wait. I had to help you." She saw the burn on his thigh. Her eyes widened with horror, then anger. "What have they done?" She fell to her knees to examine the wound.

"Tie her to that chair," Zavlin told the guard. Then he smiled at Bolan. "Let's see if she is as indifferent to my branding iron as you are."

The security guard grabbed Shawnee by the arm, yanked her to her feet, then threw her into the chair next to Bolan's. He reached to his holster for his cuffs.

But when his hand came up, it was gripping an S&W .38. And the guard was spinning around, pointing the gun at Zavlin.

"Move it, Mack!" Hal Brognola said to Bolan as he tugged his mask down. Zavlin was caught by surprise, but his reflexes were astounding.

He jumped to the side just as Brognola fired. The shot gouged a hunk out of the blackboard. Zavlin fired back, the Tokarev kicking 9mm Tokagypt cartridges around the room. One sliced across Shawnee's hip, drawing a little blood but doing no major damage.

Dr. Subrov, the twenty-one-year-old Superbrain, ran blindly for the door, saw Brognola with his big .38, spun and ran directly into Zavlin's scorching iron, impaling himself on the sharp tip. The hot metal seared through cloth and flesh, between ribs, and finally through the heart, boiling blood as it sank deeper into his chest.

Zavlin released the iron and fired at Brognola. The big Fed dropped behind the desk and prepared to fire back, but Bolan had leaped across the room and had his hands around the KGB assassin's throat. One of Zavlin's security guards burst into the room spraying bullets, but Brognola cut him down with two rounds to the face. Bolan had his hand around Zavlin's wrist and was banging it against the floor, trying to shake the gun free.

Finally the hand opened and the gun flew out.

And then the Executioner went to work.

He didn't need to think about the van of cons or guards that Zavlin had had killed, or the other past victims of this assassin. He didn't even have to think of the hideous plot they'd been hatching right here, the attempt to addict innocent people.

He didn't have to think of all that, but it helped.

Helped him gather the strength as he dug his elbow into Zavlin's throat, crushing the windpipe. Then hammered blow after blow into the Russian's face, smashing every bone. Or when he twisted the head until the neck crackled like a little boy's stick being dragged across a picket fence.

* * * | Savannah Swingsaw | cледующая глава