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The white phone caught Brognola halfway out the office door. He thought about ignoring it but habit and a sense of duty drew him back. He did not bother turning on the lights. The big Fed knew his office like he knew the inside of his home, and he navigated around the lurking obstacles to reach the desk, lifting the receiver on the fifth ring.

It was a private line reserved for use by agents in the field. The SOG line, every bit as vital to Bolan as the other one that terminated in the Oval Office. Each line without the other formed a broken circuit. Brognola was the link between them, joining them into a working whole — and that meant he was constantly on call.

"I ran into a friend of ours out here tonight," the caller told him. He recognized the voice of Tommy Anders instantly. "Out here" was Vegas, naturally. "As for the rest of it..."

"We don't have any friends out there," he answered gruffly.

"Well, maybe one," the comic amended.

"I don't follow you, Joker." The big Fed felt a familiar sour burning in his stomach. Hell, he thought he had that cured. He was lying to the operative, sure... and to himself. He had been getting bulletins from Vegas through the day, and now Brognola knew exactly who the "friend out there" must be.

Mack Bolan, right.

The hellfire guy was out there, living on the edge as always, cutting through the bureaucratic bull in his search for essence. And Brognola could envy him that, his dramatic successes, even as he mourned a sense of loss inside himself.

The comic's voice demanded his attention, small and far away.

"Maybe you can follow this, then." Anders sounded irritated, shifting into flat-out anger. "Our boy's between a hammer and the anvil here. Could be two hammers, if his latest hunch pans out." A moment's hesitation, and the angry voice was somewhat softer when it spoke again. "He could use some help, man."

"Sorry, he's not our boy anymore."

There was something in Brognola's throat all of a sudden, threatening to choke him, and he put a hand across the mouthpiece, coughing hard to clear it.

"Dammit, Hal!"

"Dammit, nothing," Brognola snapped back. "Striker... made his choice. He'll have to live with it."

"Or die with it?"

"He knows the risks, Joker. Hell, he wrote the book."

"It could be someone's tacking on a whole new chapter while he isn't looking."

Brognola frowned. He did not want to hear this, but he could not shut the comic off without allowing him to finish his report. He would just have to take the information for whatever it was worth, divorce himself from Bolan's side of it entirely.

If he could.

If not.

"So, let me have it, Joker."

"The name of Bernstein ring a bell?

"You don't mean Leonard?"

"Let's try Abe, for starters."

"That's old business."

"Maybe... maybe not."

Brognola did not like the feeling that was creeping up his spine and sliding icy tendrils out along his scalp.

"What's the rumble?"

Anders cleared his throat and started fresh.

"Striker thinks the old-boy network may be working out some kind of end run on the families out here."

"Where does Tokyo come into it?" Brognola asked him.

"Could be a wild card, a diversion — take your pick. Whatever hassles Frank Spinoza and the rest of them is good for business, right? Our guy's not sure on that point yet."

"He's not..."

"Our guy," the comic finished for him. "Sure. All right, already. You can't blame a guy for trying."

"No, I can't at that."

"So how about it?"

"What?" Brognola knew what Anders wanted from him, but he stubbornly refused to openly acknowledge it.

"You know what. When can we expect the cavalry?"

"No cavalry on this one, Joker. I had too much explaining to do the last time I helped him. Not to mention the cost in personal suffering." Brognola grimaced as the burning pain lanced his stomach. "You're observing, and that's all. If anybody tries some independent action...."

"Then we leave him hanging out there on his own. That it?"

"That's it," Brognola told him leadenly. "He knew the game plan when he bought his ticket."

Stony silence on the other end and Hal Brognola lasted all of ninety seconds with the frostbite gnawing at his ear.

"Okay, I'll make some calls, goddammit. See what I can do. Don't count on anything."

"I never do. But thanks."

The line went dead and Brognola hung it up at his end. He pulled a cigar from the inside pocket of his coat and fired the stogie up, drawing acrid smoke deep down into his lungs.

The doctors had been telling him to cut down on his smokes, or give them up entirely, but sometimes they were the only thing that helped him to relax, to think a problem through.

Like now.

Mack Bolan was in Vegas. Naturally.

There was trouble in Nevada, with a Mob war brewing. And where else would the hellfire warrior be but right there in the middle of it all. Nowhere else.

Brognola missed the guy and grieved for him as if the Executioner was dead already. He had slipped beyond the pale when he bailed out of the official Phoenix program. When it came down to offering assistance to an outlaw. Like the old days. When Bolan was the world's most wanted fugitive with a price on his head from both sides of the law.

Small world, for damned sure, and it just kept turning, bringing everything around full circle in the end. Sometimes it seemed to Brognola that the past few years had never happened, that he was right back where he started from the first time that he heard Mack Bolan's name. But that was wrong, and when the momentary anger passed he realized the error in his thinking.

They were long miles down the road from where they had started out together, and they had scored some touchdowns for the right side on the way. The world might not be different to the naked eye, but if you strained your vision, underneath the smog bank were some clean spots, which Brognola and the Executioner had scrubbed free of their slime.

The cleanser they had used was every bit as old as man himself. Fire and blood, in equal mixture, with a lot of elbow grease thrown in to make it bite down hard and deep.

They had made changes and scored some victories that no one could deny — albeit largely classified and buried in some filing cabinet somewhere.

They had been good together and the remnants of the Phoenix Project stood as a memorial to their achievement.

Not that Hal was patting himself on the back, hell no. He did not have the interest or, at almost midnight on a Friday, the energy. He was convincing himself, applying the fine art of interior persuasion. Psyching himself up to do what he knew must be done in spite of all the orders and regulations to the contrary.

He meant to help Mack Bolan if he could.

And that was far from certain given his surroundings, the hour... a whole host of variables beyond his control.

But he would try.

Because he had to.

The Executioner was out there. Still living large. Still fighting. Their fight.

And so what if he was not "our guy" anymore?

He would be Hal Brognola's guy as long as the big Fed could draw breath and stand up on his own size thirteen's.

Brognola settled down behind his desk with weary resignation, dragged the telephone across to him and started making calls.

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