While the Evil Days Come Not

A Lexa Starr Story

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

Dedicated to Velvet Belle Tree

Free excerpt only

 

Prologue: Desert, Near Push, Nevada

It was dumb luck that Lexa Starr happened to be in the area, flying back to the Project base, when she spotted the burning car in the White River dry wash off Route 93.

But it wasn’t good luck, not for Art Tatum. Lexa weathered the flames, ripped the door off and pulled his body free, whispering something between a hope and a prayer. But it was too late; he was already dead, burned beyond recognition.

She was stoic about it. Doctors and firefighters couldn't save everyone. Neither could a superwoman. She had done the best she could. When the state police and the firemen arrived, she told them what she knew, which wasn't much, and continued on to base. There was important work to do there, work that was vital to the survival of the human race. She tried to put the burning car and its victim out of her mind.

***

“This is your lucky day,” the stranger told him. “Your parents came through for you.”

Art Tatum shielded his eyes from the sudden light that entered the enclosure. He was too groggy to say anything. He still didn’t know where he was, or even when he was. Most of all, he didn’t know why.

His parents weren’t rich. He was here on a student loan. And yet they’d grabbed him off the street on the way to register, held him for ransom as if he’d been the son of Bill Fucking Gates. He’d told them over and over that he wasn’t the son of Bill Fucking Gates, but they’d just laughed at him.

They had to be crazy. But they weren’t cruel. They had taken care of him, after their fashion. They brought him food and water; they even changed the bucket they gave him to relieve himself in. But no chance to bathe, no change of clothes. He was pretty rank by now, he knew. And now -- was it over, was it really over?

“Come on,” said the stranger. “Time to go now. Your folks are waiting at the motel.”

Art struggled to rise, couldn’t make it; the stranger offered him a hand, hauled him out of the hole.

They were in the middle of the desert somewhere. There were two cars. One of them was his own, the one he’d driven out here all the way from Knife River. The stranger threw him the keys, then got in the other car with another stranger and took off.

They’d left a card with the address of the motel on the dashboard. He was too weak to drive at first, but they’d also left an order of Chinese food on the front seat. He wolfed it down, gradually felt his strength returning. He got out of the car, did some stretching exercises, got back in, started  up the engine.

Cautiously at first, then with increasing confidence, he set off down the dirt road the strangers had taken. It led to a T-intersection with Route 93. He turned towards Las Vegas. Traffic was light, but he took it easy on the pedal. Several cars passed him; he kept towards the right, even riding the shoulder to make it easier for them.

Art didn't pay much attention to the truck. When the trucker began tailgating him and leaning on his horn, he pulled over to the right again. Understanding came to him when the truck bumped him, then terror.

 

Part One: Autumn 2003

1. Downtown Las Vegas: A Mystery

It had started as a garden variety bar room brawl. Somebody said something, somebody did something, and fists began to fly. It quickly escalated to bottles, chairs and even knives. The strange thing was, everybody ended up fighting everybody; there weren’t really any “sides” left. And nobody at the bar called  911.

It was after the cops showed up, alerted by a passing motorist, that things got really bad. Within seconds after entering Toomey’s Tavern, their guns were blazing. But as both the forensic evidence and testimony from the few survivors later established, the cops were shooting at each other as well as the brawlers, without rhyme or reason.

More police arrived, and cordoned off the building. By this time, a deathly quiet had settled over the tavern. A deputy chief got on the bullhorn, demanding that anyone inside come out immediately with his hands on his head. One of the patrons complied, and told the deputy chief that he was the only one who could, because the rest were either dead or wounded.

It was time for the ambulances and the meat wagons to do their job.

Then it was time for the CSI.

The Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigation unit was justly known as one of the best in the country. It quickly established that some of the drinks at the bar had been spiked with date rape drug. One of the survivors, a freshman biology student at UNLV, had been found with a packet in his jeans. It was obvious what he'd been after, although with his acne, bad breath and B.O. it was unlikely he'd have scored even with rohypnol.

Autopsies and blood tests showed various drugs in some the victims, but nothing to account for the violence. Certainly the cops had been clean. It was remarkable that the delusions experienced by the victims seemed too specific. One survivor insisted that one of the others had called him a nigger; another that the black patron had cursed him as a faggot.

Both denied making any slurs, and both complained that somebody had stunk up the place with a farting Snooze the Wonder Dog just before it all went down. The toy couldn’t be found; one of the EMS workers had tossed it in the garbage, which was collected before the CSI showed up. Nobody thought it worth the trouble to schlep out to the Clark County landfill to look for Snooze. Not that it would have mattered by then.

The biology student, Terry Venters, was pretty much a loner. He hadn’t taken part in any extra-curricular activities, had never gone to parties, never had a girlfriend. He’d had a study partner, Art Tatum; but Tatum, by strange coincidence, had been killed the day of the massacre when his car had crashed and burned off Route 93.

The CSI threw up its collective hands and called in the Centers for Disease Control, which did their usual thing, sealed off the bar, sent in men in hazmat suits and ran every conceivable test. Intended to reassure the public, the CDC action had precisely the opposite effect. Headlines in the Sun had suggested the massacre must have been some sort of gang thing, although organized crime in Vegas wasn’t known for violence. Now people were talking bioterrorism.

The CDC didn’t get any further than the CSI, and called in the FBI. Somebody there tagged it as a blue rose case. That meant they couldn't make any sense of it either, but as the FBI was now obligated to share information with other agencies, the Toomey's Tavern case made its way to those other agencies -- including the National Intelligence Agency.

None of the other agencies knew it, but the case had already made its way to the NIA through another channel. But the NIA had to wait on official reports from those agencies before taking official action, because that other channel was Lexa Starr and Lexa couldn't afford to be openly involved in such an investigation. She was risking too much already. Like that operation she'd been dragooned into a few days before the incident in Vegas.

 

II. Kingdom of Qumar: A Mission

If Alexandra Starr had been an ordinary human, or even what the world thought she was, she'd have welcomed that operation and the resulting publicity. It didn't make sense to wear a fancy uniform and go around saving lives and fighting crime if people didn’t appreciate what you were doing.

But Lexa wasn’t an ordinary human, and she wasn't here just to save lives and fight crime. She’d rather have remained an urban legend, if that were possible -- which it wasn't. Her real business on Earth wasn't good deeds. If the world should find out about her real business, there would be mass panic, global chaos.

Yet the Project required not just the kind of secrecy the government alone could ensure, but the kind of funding that the government alone could procure. There were tradeoffs. There had to be. Like this oil field fire in Qumar. It would bring her appreciation, sure. But not the kind she wanted.

Some Al Qaeda types had set off a series of incendiary bombs, evidently in hopes of destabilizing an already shaky regime, not to mention creating yet another crisis for the U.S. administration -- the same administration she and the NIA relied on for continued support of the Project. The administration knew it. Action was called for. Favors were called in.

There were people who were paid to handle this kind of thing. People at companies like Kellogg Brown & Root. They’d done their job in Kuwait, and done it again 12 years later in Baraq, after the invasion and regime change. But this time, the administration wanted it done yesterday. They had leaned on the NIA, and the NIA had leaned on Lexa.

“You can make quick work of it,” they’d told her.

That was true.

“Think of the good will it will bring,” they’d added.

That wasn’t.

The Embassy handlers had wanted her to wear something more modest than the skin-tight white uniform that failed to offer even the minimal coverage of a skirt. She'd had to explain that only her uniform could survive the fire: did they want her to do the job naked?

Well, of course not, they’d quickly conceded. These people were so stupid! No wonder the country seemed to stumble from one diplomatic disaster to another. As for her mission, it wasn’t a disaster. But it wasn’t exactly a triumph, either.

She’d flown out to the oil field dressed the only way she could be, but as soon as she landed, another embassy handler had given her an abaya and instructed her to put it on immediately. She’d glared at him.

"Nothing was said about this," she said.

"The Crown Prince wants this," the handler insisted. "The foreign minister wants it. And the President wants it."

"I don't think you understand the situation," Lexa said.

"We're paid to understand the situation," the handler said. "You’re here at our request, and at our behest. We have been informed that there is a quid-pro-quo here, although we are not aware of the details."

The arrogance of the man!

Well, at least he'd kept the press at a safe distance. Nobody had any cameras. That was an inflexible rule: no close-ups, no pictures from which she might be identified.

So she made a show of compliance. The Qumari oilfield workers a few dozen yards away looked disappointed, as she covered herself in the Muslim garment, although they’d never have admitted it.

Lexa was also advised by the handler to leave the scene discreetly once her mission was accomplished. It had apparently sunk in, finally, that she would emerge from the flames as a brazenly-dressed infidel. The workers were evidently anticipating just that; they were taking up positions facing the fire -- some had binoculars out. Word had gotten out, somehow, that she was coming.

The closest fire was three hundred yards away. Lexa set out at a walking pace; had she run or flown, the abaya might have come loose. It was 100 degrees in the shade, even where she started, and there wasn’t any shade. The heat didn’t bother Lexa, but she felt sorry for the poor Qumari women who had to go around bundled up like this all the time.

There was little to see but a towering column of flame and black smoke; most of the wreckage consisted of the pump and its connections -- this was a long-established well, not a freshly-drilled one with the kind of tower people associate with oil wells. At the base of the column was the exploded wellhead that fueled the blaze. She used her X-ray vision to scan the details as she headed straight for it.

Lexa’s abaya burst into flames before she reached the inferno. Maybe her handler hadn’t thought of that. Tough. He certainly hadn’t advised her what to do about it. So she felt free to show him what she thought of the whole business by turning towards him and the workers for a few moments, hands on hips.

Even from this distance, she could tell that he had his own binoculars glued to his eyes as the rough black fabric of the abaya burned away to reveal her invulnerable body in all its glory, from her golden tresses to her magnificent breasts and legs that wouldn’t quit. Her blue cape, freed from the abaya, was caught in the blast of heat from the wellhead and billowed around her, contrasting with the pure white of the rest of her uniform.

Show over. Time for work. She turned around, jogged the rest of the way and plunged into the hellfire. Braving the fire itself wasn’t the hard part; the hard part was that the intense heat had weakened the steel structure, even beyond the damage caused by the bomb itself. It wasn’t enough to simply squeeze the shattered pipe shut; she had to mold a cap strong enough to withstand the pressure of the superheated oil -- that would hold up until the temperature came down.

Professional firefighters relied on technology. They had to bring huge bulldozers to the scene, with extension booms strong enough to lift caps weighing tons. They needed heavy duty hoses and pumps to play torrents of water on the fire: not to put it out, but to cool the surroundings barely enough to move the dozer in close, to keep the firefighters alive in their protective gear as they jockeyed the cap into position, then lowered it onto the wellhead to snuff out the blaze.

Lexa's only tools were her hands. Like a potter working soft clay, she molded the pliant metal, forcing it into the shape she could see in her mind’s eye, while keeping it thick enough to hold against the pressure of thick black oil that still surged from the depths of the Earth to feed the fire. It was the hardest work she had ever done; more than once, the angry oil burst again from a weak spot just when she thought she had it under control. But at last the cap held; the fire burned itself out.

Nine wells to go. But the work went easier; Lexa had experience now, and her skills improved as she moved from one to the next. Within hours, she had all the wells capped and all the fires were out. It would have taken the Kellogg Brown & Root people weeks. But she couldn’t savor her triumph, couldn’t greet the workers whose job it would be to make the permanent repairs and get the field back into production. She had her marching orders.

Lexa soared straight into the sky, too fast to give the distant workers and embassy people another thrill. The friction of the air was enough to cleanse her uniform of the soot and oil that remained from her labors. Not that it mattered. When she appeared that night at an embassy reception in Tissandir, she was as modestly attired as it was possible to be without violating Western fashion sense -- a taboo nearly as strong as the Muslim dress code.

 

III. Qumar, Tissandir: Diplomacy

The reception went well, as far as the hosts were concerned. Ambassador Daniel Evans himself stood next to her in the receiving line.

They'd exchanged pleasantries beforehand; that was expected. Nobody mentioned the little show she’d put on in front of the first well. It was as if it hadn’t happened. So Lexa was surprised when Evans took her aside for a moment.

"None of this was my idea," he told her.

Then it was back to making sure all the arrangements were in place, that everything was ready for the guests.

Lexa greeted and was greeted by a number of senior and junior princes, some of them oil executives -- it seemed as if the princes ran everything here, although the guest roster included a number of non-royals.

It was all very correct, all very polite. On the surface.

Beneath the surface, it was far different.

Even the embassy people didn’t know that she could understand Arabic, and she wasn’t about to enlighten them, let alone the Qumaris. Out of what they presumed was earshot, their remarks were often so crude that they would have embarrassed the worst pigs she’d encountered back in the States.

Despite her long-sleeved, high-necked dress, some of them stared at her as if they, rather than she possessed X-ray vision. She had read that even the native abayas offered women no protection against gropers. The women usually knew better than to complain to the religious police.

“Did you enjoy your flight?” one of the junior princes leered, perhaps imagining that her uniform was still concealed beneath her dress rather than secured in the embassy safe.

“Actually, I’d rather have driven,” she responded coolly. “But my license doesn’t seem to be valid here.”

 Past the junior prince, she could hear more. One of the oil princes was regaling another of the oil princes about how they’d taken in the Americans and saved a bundle they’d otherwise have had to spend on professional firefighters. Not to mention restored the flow of dinars into their pockets far more quickly.

“Again they humiliate us,” an older prince was whispering to another older prince on the other side of the hall, while glancing towards her. “May Allah reveal to us some weakness in this obscene creature.”

“A creature of the Jews, no doubt,” whispered the other. “Soon they will send her to slaughter our brethren in Palestine.”

“Are you a djinn?” asked a small voice nearby.

It was a princeling, perhaps ten years old, who had momentarily escaped his father’s tow.

“Something of the sort,” she responded warmly.

“Could you grant me a wish?”

“Perhaps.”

But before the boy could give voice to his wish, his father intervened and hustled him off, telling him that the foreigner was not a djinn, and that if she were it would be a bad thing because djinn were condemned in the Qur’an.

The only other friendly Arab voice came from a reporter for Al Ammal, who apologized for the rudeness of some of his countrymen.

“I will publish an article about you,” he promised. “The workers are grateful to you, and many of the common people as well. Please do not judge us all by the words of our fanatics."

And, lowering his voice, "Or our rulers."

It all came to nothing. In the days and weeks that followed, there was no sign that the Qumari government would be any more cooperative now than it had been before -- in the war on terror, or sticky international issues. The sympathetic article never appeared in Al Ammal; she heard later that the journalist had lost his job. To top it all off, some cleric had issued a fatwa against her.

She had expected as much. Even her handlers had expected it, she thought. Only the State Department was surprised.

Lexa had been eager to return to Area 51 in any case. That was where her real work lay. Besides, the fire she had fought had generated another kind of fire within her, and there was nobody at the reception she would have dared approach to help her put it out. Certainly none worthy of Conversion.

Well, that was what the Project was about. One of the things, anyway. She’d have plenty of chances there. It wouldn't be just fun and games, either. Every Conversion would better Earth’s chances -- when the time came.

Free excerpt only. You can buy the complete book at Fictionwise.com.

Review by Jolie Howard (Lisa J. Binkley), author of highly-rated and best-selling ebooks like As Pretty Girls Do, The Secrets of Katie Zurin and The White Lady.

"Real Life, Kinda"

Using situations that resemble headlines from the evening news, Brantley creates a storyline that feels real. Too real, maybe. During a conversation, recently, I started to mention some factoid about a volcanic eruption before remembering where I had gleaned it, which was in this novel.

But it isn't a bad thing at all that the author has drawn such a solidly believable world in which to debut his completely unworldly and decidedly unconventional heroine, Lexa Starr. Her reactions to 'our' society and diverse cultures, though tolerant and benign, are refreshingly non-PC.

Brantley has a way of setting the stage for remarkably familiar events while adding little tidbits of dialogue, characterizations, and interactions that are fresh and memorable (I particularly liked the Barney bashing).

There's enough spice to keep the plot fun but not bog down the action.

Having read the manuscript in the (supposedly) beta stages, I am confident that the final galley is a work of superb craftsmanship and admirable literary construction. The reader won't be tripping over typos or wondering where 'that' came from.

This is a story that invites the reader to drown in make-believe and then, covertly, start watching the sky - hoping to be Lexa's next Convert.