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BLOOD OF THE MOONA Thriller
By RICHARD GAZALA
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Richard Gazala
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTurtle Creek Condominiums, Nassau Bay, Texas, July 12, 2016
The insistent knock on the thin apartment door thundered again. The locked door rattled against flimsy hinges, accompanied by a man's voice, deep and strong. Still, inside the apartment, the small black hole at the end of the gun barrel aimed between the old man's eyes remained utterly unperturbed, wavering not even an iota.
"Don?" The voice stabbed through the door. "It's David Rivers. Are you there? I came to take you to visit my father. You said you'd go with me tonight. Do you remember? Don?"
The old man glanced from the black hole up to the skintight, black mask of the silent figure standing in front of him. A gloved, vertical index finger intersected the outline of the masked figure's lips, cautioning the old man to remain quiet.
"Don?" Rivers called out from the other side of the door, exasperation evident in his tone. Another hard rap of knuckles against cheap wood. "Don?" A few moments later, the old man heard a heavy sigh drift through the door, quickly followed by the yelp of a cell phone and one side of an agitated conversation. "Yeah? He did what? Who? I don't have a sister. Oh, shit. Is he all right? Okay,Carlos, I'm on my way right now." Rivers' running footsteps pounded away down the hall.
The old astronaut tightened his grip on the arms of his hard wooden chair in the sparsely furnished living room of his little apartment and carefully drew a long, rattling breath deep into his lungs. Donald Page lowered his gaze from the mask and slowly closed his eyes, making the small, dark hole hovering steadily mere inches from his face disappear. Then they came as they always did, responding instantly to his summons, the memories and emotions rushing over him, washing him far from who and where he was now, to who and where he was then. The soft, uneven tinkling of the copper wind chimes in the humid evening breeze outside his open window was replaced by the hollow, rhythmic cadence of his breathing, echoing in his ears in the secure confines of his spacesuit. He felt again the hug of the suit's harness against his torso. Through the warm, golden tint of his helmet's visor, he gazed with profound wonder at the stars winking at him overhead, clear, clean, fresh, forever unobscured by earthly limits. Their silent, peaceful brilliance entranced him. He tilted at the waist, redirecting his gaze down to the fine orange and gray dust clinging to his big, white overshoes. His boots and thick-soled overshoes were heavy on earth, part of the 185-pound spacesuit that kept him alive on the moon's airless surface. Here, though, on the moon, the cumbersome spacesuit seemed almost weightless as he moved, bounced really, from the low, rocky slope on which he had been calibrating a seismometer, toward the lunar rover a couple dozen yards away. Page stayed silent as he moved, his eyes drinking in all they could, burning fantastic memories into his very soul. He was the only man in the universe. He had never before felt so vibrant, so utterly alive, and at that moment he was very sure he never would again.
Page opened his eyes. They watered. The wind chimes' erratic song returned, marking the end of a half-million mile, forty-three year journey that had taken barely a moment. News footage of the Portland gas riots raged on the wallscreen across the room, the sound muted. The small, dark hole was still there, just before his eyes, steadfast and firm. Though he was sweating, Page shivered in his thin, white shirt. He squeezed the chair arms more tightly, so hard one of his ancient, arthritic knuckles popped loudly. His eyes traveled from the small black hole, quickly up the length of the pistol's barrel glinting in wan lamplight, across the black-gloved hand pointing the weapon at his head, up the chest to the masked face staring at him. Page thought he saw the mask move near where the mouth would be. A grin?
Page's wide eyes returned to the black hole. He peered intently, almost curiously, into its cold, steely darkness, as if contemplating a journey inside it. As he had aged, further distanced in time from his glorious moon, Page often had wondered how he would die. Murdered in his own home by a masked assassin was an option he had never considered. Though he was truly scared, Page found himself smiling softly. He drew satisfaction in the knowledge that the time, place, and manner of his death were no longer a subject of mystery or imagination. This was a fine way for an adventurer to die. Much better than too old and infirm to move, passing away alone and lonely in stiff, sterile sheets in some anonymously antiseptic hospital. Page squinted down the pistol barrel. He thought he actually saw the bullet streaking toward him before it shattered into his forehead.
"Go back to the moon, old man," whispered the mouth behind the mask.
Through eye slits in the mask, the shooter regarded the body awkwardly slumped in the wooden chair. He flipped open a cell phone and punched a key. The call went through before the end of the first ring.
"It is done?" the voice on the phone asked.
"Yes." The shooter leaned down and looked at Page's open, lifeless eyes. Bright red blood trickled from the perfect, round bullet wound precisely in the middle of the old man's forehead. "One down, two to go."
"Perhaps," the voice on the phone cautioned. "I have no reason to believe he does yet, but one day David Rivers may know as much as his father."
The shooter straightened, tugging off the mask and turning to leave apartment. "David Rivers was just here, outside Page's door. I had to wait for him to leave before I could finish. You don't want me to go after him?"
"He was? How interesting. But no, leave him for now. It would be imprudent to move against David Rivers unnecessarily. He is no threat to us until and unless his father shares with him the family secret."
The phone was silent a moment.
"Then it will be one down, three to go."
Chapter Two2.5 Miles Northeast of Palestine, Arkansas, July 12, 2016
The automatic onboard recording device beeped shrilly in Hank Henderson's ears, rudely interrupting his thoughts about the pneumatic blonde stripper who would be waiting for him in Memphis the next night. Henderson had just rejected the conclusion that he should have divorced several years ago, rather than only several months, when the so-called black box connected directly to his huge tanker truck's engine commanded him to find a spot to rest. It had been eleven hours since Henderson departed Houston with a full load of fifteen thousand gallons of gasoline, weighing forty-five tons, almost two hundred thousand dollars' worth, wholesale. Federal regulations prohibited long-haul truckers from driving more than eleven hours at a stretch. Now Henderson would have to rest ten hours before resuming his trip. He spit hard out the open driver's side window into the dark, hot night. He didn't feel tired at all. Meddling bureaucrats disgusted him.
Still, Henderson took solace in making good time since pulling away from his employer's refinery, 550 miles in eleven hours. He had been with Rivers Petrogas for almost twenty years and was one of the company's most respected drivers. Kept his nose squeaky clean. No trouble with the law, no trouble for the company. He hadn't even cheated his wife before the divorce, no matter how tasty the temptations. He had stuck out all the unpleasantness and tedium his once-happy marriage had devolved into, until the last of the kids were grown and out of college two Mays ago. Henderson took his responsibilities very seriously and was proud of that.
Henderson glanced in his side-view mirror. The moon, almost full in the inky, cloudless sky, dripped soft yellow light on the massive silvery Heil Super Heavy Duty metal tank he pulled through the Arkansas night. He liked the way the tank glowed in the moonlight, much prettier than in daylight. It was almost blonde, like his stripper. Hank smiled. Not really blonde at all, though, also like his stripper. He craned his neck a little further, and soon caught a glimpse of the heavy black Harley-Davidson motorcycle that had been following him since Houston. The red taillight of the other black Harley, the second escort accompanying him since Houston, was a few hundred feet in front of him. Rick in front, Dwayne bringing up the rear. Other than the three of them, Interstate 40 was deserted.
Henderson wasn't fond of being coddled, but he appreciated his employer's concern for his safety. After first dismissing the initiative as an unnecessary waste of company resources, Henderson had decided maybe it was a good idea to afford meaningful protection to the company's fleet and drivers. Urged on by senior management, especially the founder's son, David Rivers, Henderson spoke strongly and unwaveringly in support of the policy at a mandatory meeting of all the company's drivers. His senior status among Rivers Petrogas' drivers was largely responsible for the truckers' somewhat begrudging acceptance of armed company escorts for all RP's long-haulers. Truckers were a macho and independent breed, but against the backdrop of the brutal Oil Wars raging abroad and the increasingly violent gas riots at home-like the one tearing up Portland today-it made sense to exhibit more caution than balls.
Henderson had made the haul from Houston to Memphis many times. I-40 between Little Rock and Memphis was renowned among truckers as about the most poorly maintained stretch of interstate highway in the entire country, and Henderson knew its potholes well. He also knew there was a quiet rest stop a couple miles beyond the tiny town of Palestine, Arkansas, population 781. He rested there almost every time he made this run. The truck's large fat tires hissed across the hot blacktop as he headed past Palestine. The black box didn't care where he stopped, only that he did, and he knew he had a few more minutes before it started whining at him again in the high-pitched drone that reminded him of his ex-wife. Henderson radioed his escort and told them where they would be spending the next ten hours.
At the edge of thick foliage on a heavily forested hill immediately south of Hank Henderson's rest stop and one mile north of the Southern Pacific railroad, a tall burly man dressed entirely in tight black compression clothing squatted low against the rough bark of an ancient pine tree trunk. He studied the soft glow of the portable global positioning device in his gloved hands, standard issue from Rivers Petrogas, and watched a small green blip designated "HH" approach his position. The man raised his head and peered southwest through the eye slits in his mask. Just as the little machine had said he would, the man saw a motorcycle hi-beam emerge from the scant lights still burning in Palestine, Arkansas, then a moment later, the headlights of a lumbering tanker truck, slowing down as it approached the rest stop below. The man knew there would be another motorcycle behind the big tanker. He reached down and felt the black canvas bag resting on the pine needles and dried leaves beside him. He had found it exactly where Jackson Gish told him it would be and admired the efficiency behind such pinpoint preparedness.
The man removed a minuscule flashlight from his left sleeve, and flashed it twice, quickly, in the direction of the battered white 1987 Oldsmobile Delta 88 parked two hundred yards away in the rest stop beneath him. The Oldsmobile's hood was open, but it was otherwise except for its obvious age and wear. A slamming car door was the only response to the flashlight, but it was enough. The man had never met the woman with the car. He knew nothing about her, other than her name was Adela Watts, and that Gish thought very highly of her.
As Henderson downshifted and braked, slowing the tanker, the trailing motorcycle sped past him and joined the lead Harley, banking right into the rest stop. Henderson pulled into the rest stop moments later and maneuvered the truck to a halt midway between the stop's off-and on-ramps, parking parallel to I-40, just behind the motorcycles. The rest stop had few features: a half dozen streetlights, two sputtering audibly and another two not working at all; a small, square, brown brick building housing restrooms; a payphone with no handset; and an empty vending machine with a cracked display window. Not even a water fountain. Thirsty travelers had to hope the bathroom sink faucets were intact. The lack of amenities didn't disturb Henderson at all. His cab was a fully stocked sleeper, and he had decent food and drink, enough for himself and his escort. Sure, as Rick and Dwayne traded watch duty, they would have to alternate dozing upright in the cab's passenger seat while Henderson slept on the comfortable bed in the cab's rear section, but it was better than sleeping in the open air on a muggy night, feasted on by ravenous mosquitoes.
It was not until he jumped to the ground to join Rick and Dwayne that he noticed the woman next to the white Oldsmobile, parked with the hood raised at the eastern end of the rest stop off-ramp, a couple hundred yards away. Rick and Dwayne had seen her first, and were now walking toward her. Henderson hurried a few steps to catch up as she came rushing toward the men. He saw the two men tense as she approached, and noticed Rick smoothly slide his right hand inside his jacket toward the pistol in his shoulder holster.
The woman was tall, athletically built with large breasts, and appeared to be in her early thirties. She wore a tight white tank top and tan cargo shorts. No jewelry, only a sports watch on a Velcro strap around her right wrist. Her expensive brown hiking boots were scuffed from hard use. Her hair was straight and flaming red, cut just below her jaw line. As they came within a few feet of one another, Henderson saw her eyes were bright emerald green and her skin was tanned, a deep glowing bronze.
"Thank God!" the woman exclaimed in a thick Southern lilt. "I was sure I was gonna be stuck here in this hellhole all night. I'm so glad to see y'all." She smiled broadly, swiping a lock of bright red hair from her eyes, and extended her right hand to Dwayne. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude, I'm just so happy y'all stopped. I'm Donna Hall, and my car just sucks."
The men relaxed and chuckled as they introduced themselves to Hall. Rick removed his hand from his jacket as smoothly as he had inserted it, and shook the woman's hand warmly. The group walked toward the Oldsmobile. Hall explained that she had pulled into the rest stop to use the bathroom, and when she returned to her car, "... the damn fool thing turned over once and then just up and died, totally died all of a sudden, and now it won't start or do anything at all. I've had this car a real long time, y'all, and it's never done me like this. Ever. And I don't know what to do." They had reached the front of the Oldsmobile, fortuitously parked under one of the functioning streetlights. Hall stood in front of the car, hands on her hips, glaring at the silent engine. "Do any of y'all know anything about cars?"
The burly man on the hill couldn't hear any of the conversation. He didn't need to. He needed only to wait for the right moment, and he sensed it was near. He sat next to the canvas bag, opened it, and extracted a drab green metal tube. The tube was about twenty-five inches long and weighed around eight pounds. The man ran through the extension procedure in his head, picturing his actions over the of the next few minutes. Nodding to himself, he returned his attention to the Oldsmobile.
The pungent smell of warm motor oil wafted up lazily from the Oldsmobile's engine block. "How long you been here, ma'am?" Dwayne asked as he leaned over the disabled car's radiator.
Hall checked her watch. "Almost two and a half hours now," she drawled. "Too damn long," she added, swatting a mosquito away from her muscular thigh.
"Where are the keys?" Dwayne muttered as he moved his head further toward the engine.
"I left them in the ignition."
"Rick, you got a flashlight?" Dwayne called from under the hood. "I can't see shit."
"I've got one in the trunk," Hall said. "I'll get it."
Dwayne straightened, and the three men watched Hall move to the opened driver's side window, reach in and pop the trunk release, and walk to the rear of the car.
Excerpted from BLOOD OF THE MOON by RICHARD GAZALA Copyright © 2009 by Richard Gazala. Excerpted by permission.
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