In the 18th novel of THE HOUSEWIFE ASSASSIN series: Donna Stone, her mission leader Jack, and their covert ops team must decipher horoscope tips that contain clues to the names of twelve US-born traitors whose individual acts are the catalyst to treason at highest level.
READ THE FOLLOWING EXCERPT, THEN ENTER THE HOUSEWIFE ASSASSIN'S HORRORSCOPE EXCERPT CONTEST for a chance to win a $100 GIFT CARD!
CHAPTER 1: WHAT'S YOUR SIGN?
If your first exposure to this question took place in some bar, you’re forgiven for rolling your eyes at this 1970s pick-up line.
However, if you are a serious student of astrology—the study of the movements and positions of stars and other celestial bodies—the question is relevant to the beginning and the end of your life’s journey!
The science of astrology divines an individual’s personality traits and foretells events in that person's life. Those who practice it believe we are each born under one of the twelve sun signs: Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn, Gemini, Libra, Aquarius, Cancer, Scorpio, or Pisces.
For example, if you’re a Cancer, your intuitive kindness means you hate any form of conflict. Ergo, when trapped by a player in a bar who insists on learning your zodiac sign, you’ll “accidentally” spill your drink on yourself as an excuse to go to the ladies room—but really, you’ll slip out the back door.
However, if you’re a Taurus, you are ALL about honesty. Completely. Totally. Without a doubt. So, when a guy asks about your sign but you’re not interested in him, don’t just tell him; show him! Your middle finger can make your point succinctly.
Finally, if you’re a Leo, you are dignified, self-confident, and fearless. When approached by a lounge lizard, your first answer will take the form of a raised brow and a withering glare. Hopefully, that will send him scurrying off. If he persists, you respond in a voice that means business and with a phrase can’t be misinterpreted. Perhaps, “You’re too ugly, and life’s too short.”
Finally, actions speak louder than words. One kick to the nutsack, and he’ll get the message.
Come to think of it, these methods work whatever your sign!
* * *
“IT’S ANOTHER SUNNY DAY IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA! HERE IN DOWNTOWN L.A., TEMPERATURES HAVE ALREADY REACHED RECORD HIGHS—”
“Dude, tell us something we don’t already know,” my husband, Jack Craig, mumbles under his breath, “And without yelling it in my ear!”
Jack may be taking out his angst on the radio but really he, like me and everyone else within a two-mile radius, is peeved at Los Angeles’s hellacious highway:
It’s been at a total standstill for the past hour, which means we’re late for a very important date with our boss, Ryan Clancy, of Acme Industries.
He summoned us with a cryptic message:
Special showing of THE TRUMAN SHOW.
Nope, the movie reference isn’t his way of announcing a Jim Carrey movie marathon at the black-op organization’s offices. It’s the code word for the U.S. National Defense Agency, our largest client.
The capped title in the text expresses the mission’s urgency.
Just a few hours before we’d just returned from our latest mission: in London, where we’d successfully bid on a designer pocketbook containing a coded missive listing the identities of Chinese spies in the United States. We were then ordered to hang around for a second assignment: rendezvous with a CIA asset with intel on arms dealers supplying Middle-Eastern terrorist groups. Sadly, the asset was murdered just minutes before I got to her. But, by finding her killer, we fended off a massive political upheaval in the Middle East.
This week, anyway.
It doesn’t help that our mission team’s tech operative, Arnie Locklear, is also bombarding our cellphones with emoticons depicting faces that are anything but smiling: his indication that Ryan is peeved at our tardiness. The first emoticon’s mouth was flatlined. The second one nursed an outright frown and eyebrows raised anxiously. The screen of Jack’s phone is just within his peripheral vision. He sighs when the seventh and most recent pops up. This time Smiley’s eyes are open wide and its tiny hands are slapping its cheeks in terror.
I text back:
The 405 is the Highway to Hell!
Will it appease Ryan? Doubtful, but it’ll have to do.
“Donna, stand up and tell me what you see,” Jack commands me.
Time to lighten the mood. “Aye, aye, Captain!” I raise my right hand to my brow in a mock salute before hoisting myself through our BMW i8 roadster’s already opened soft-top roof.
It’s January in Los Angeles, which means bikini weather. It’s sunny and hot enough that most of the automobiles’ windows are open. Music from the cars’ radios fill the air around us, like a gin-tipsy band tuning up before a concert. Considering the variety of riffs colliding mid-air, you’d think most of the musicians are tone deaf and came to the wrong venue.
I scan the road. The traffic going in the opposite direction—southbound—is at least crawling along steadily, whereas all four of the northbound lanes are at a total standstill.
There is an unusual haze in the air. It’s not the usual SoCal smog. This is verified when my nose catches a whiff of smoke.
“Do you smell that?” I ask.
Jack sticks his head out the window. “Yeah.” He looks off toward a hill specked with homes. “Over there—a fire!” Staring, he leans out. “It seems to be more than one house too.”
Because we’re not moving, our ears pick up the wails of sirens. Suddenly, in the opposite direction, a fire truck rolls by on the highway’s safety shoulder.
“Let’s find a news station to hear what’s happening,” I suggest.
As he punches the scan button on our car’s radio, our ears are bombarded by a whirlwind of sounds—classic rock riffs, country whines, mariachi, some sports commentators trying to impress each other with L.A. Dodgers stats from days of yore—until he finds KNX 1070, an all-news station. “—several dozen residential gas explosions in the Los Angeles Metroplex in the past few hours. Besides the Echo Park, Westwood, Glendale, and Monterrey Park neighborhoods, towns as far north as Santa Clarita, west to Pasadena, and Redondo Beach to the South have been affected as well. There are quite a few casualties because it’s a Saturday and many folks are at home. Los Angeles’s emergency services are being stretched thin. Burn victims are filling hospital emergency departments. Evacuations in those towns are taking place now with no word as to when residents will be allowed back into these areas. California Electric & Gas is at a loss as to the cause—”
All of a sudden the cars ahead of us inch forward. Jack, anxious to get going, follows suit—
And I totter backward.
But when he stops short to avoid hitting the car in front of us, I’m tossed forward—
And find myself doubled up over the windshield.
As I inch myself off the glass, Jack exclaims sheepishly, “Jeez! So sorry, babe.”
“Yeah, right,” I mutter. Since his hand is too late to steady me, I slap it off my thigh.
“I’m just trying to pull down your skirt,” he explains. “The truckers on our left are getting more than an eyeful!”
The draft on my backside is all the evidence I need that he’s right. My eyes are drawn to the moving van beside us. Two guys stare back at me with leers on their lips as wide as their aging truck.
In no time I’ve scrambled down into the passenger seat, only to find myself sitting on my pocketbook. Not comfortable, what with the tiny bulge in its front pocket.
It holds an envelope containing a thumb drive. Evan Martin, my ward, is home this weekend from his studies at Cal Berkeley. He received it mysteriously: after the hit-and-run death of Jonathan Presley, a vice president at BlackTech, one the companies Evan inherited.
BlackTech has numerous contracts with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Evan has asked us to see if anything on the drive is confidential. If so, it may have played a role in Jonathan’s demise. After we’ve been briefed on our current mission, I’ll hand it over to our tech operative, Arnie Locklear.
“Forward, Jeeves,” I sniff.
Jack takes the hint and hits the gas again.
At least now we’re moving faster than a crawl—
Until an eighteen-wheeler stops, angled across the two middle lanes.
The cars behind it—ours included—screech to a halt.
“Just our luck,” Jack mutters. He cranes his neck to see if he can inch into the lane closest to the shoulder. Unfortunately, the vehicles in front and behind us have the same idea.
Once again, we’re stuck.
Then, suddenly, a bigger sound fills the air. It's as if some jazz orchestra has somehow found its way inside the massive eighteen-wheeler…
Well, what do you know: IT HAS.
The back panel doors of the truck fly open, revealing rows of musicians, playing as if their lives depend on it.
Despite the orchestra’s loud, danceable ditty, I detect a slight buzzing sound coming from overhead. I look up to see four drones. Who knows where they came from? Each has a camera strapped to its underbelly.
By now, the cars in the two blocked lanes are at a standstill. Immediately, the drivers and passengers, six deep behind it, leap out of their vehicles. All are dressed in bright primary-colored hipster haute couture.
They begin dancing.
Alone. In pairs. In chorus lines. They shake, shimmy, and shuffle off to Buffalo. They do flips onto or off the hoods of their candy-colored cars, only to land in each other’s arms.
Jack’s expletive-laden exclamation is lost in the cacophony of music, now accompanied by the apparently mic’ed dancers’ singing.
Most of the drivers, held hostage on this hot blacktopped version of a Gene Kelly fantasy, are too stunned to even honk their horns. Others stagger out of their cars with bemused grins on their faces.
“It’s not often that one stumbles across a pop-up film shoot,” I declare.
“Unless you live in La La Land,” Jack retorts. “This is all because some movie director never got a permit.” He closes his eyes in disgust. “And during a public emergency, no less!”
“Even if he had applied, he’d never have gotten one,” I point out. “So, I guess, now the rest of us have to sit awhile and enjoy the show.”
“Like hell, we will.” Jack scans the other vehicles but then grimaces when one catches his eye.
I follow his gaze. In one of the blocked lanes, a cherry-red Marchi Mobile EleMMent Palazzo Superior motor coach sits behind one of the dancers’ cars.
Several people stand on top of the motor coach, under an expansive canopied roof. Only one of them is sitting: a man, wearing a baseball cap. He’s looking into a video monitor.
When he turns his head to look at the rows of cars behind him, we can see that he’s in his mid-thirties and has a scruffy beard. He wears a Dodgers baseball cap, rainbow-tinted aviator glasses, and a tight white tee shirt that clings to his well-defined pecs.
“That’s the Academy Award-winning director, Vance Melamed!” I exclaim.
“He’s also the cause of this mess.” Jack is out of the car in a flash.
He moves with lightning speed, zigzagging between vehicles until he reaches a portable ladder on the rear of the motor coach and climbs up. None of Vance’s minions look up as Jack saunters over to Vance. They’re too busy looking at their video monitors. But the moment Jack addresses Vance—with a placid smile on his face, but I’d bet his words are anything but that—two brawny, frowning guys go chest-to-chest with my husband.
At this point, Vance shouts loudly enough to drown out the orchestra. Phrases like “Who the hell do you think you are, telling me to stop my masterpiece…” and “My studio will sue you into the ground—” rolls trippingly off his tongue.
In Hollywood, Vance may be a Master of the Universe, but Jack isn’t buying it. He makes that quite clear to the director’s bodyguards when, with one swift move, he puts one in a choke-out and then slams him into the other one. Both topple to the floor.
Vance’s hissy fit only grows louder.
Somehow, I’ve got to get Jack’s attention. I’ve also got to get us out of this traffic jam.
With that in mind, I glance around the car for something that can be used as a diversionary tactic. Since the i8 is sexier than my Mommy mobile, it is preferred by our children for afternoon pickups. Although nothing is in its tiny back seat, there may be something in the trunk that might do the trick.
I pop it open and hop out—
Bingo. Stashed there is the archery gear of our oldest child. Mary, seventeen, is decent enough with her bow and arrows to have made her school team, which looks great on her college transcripts.
Here’s hoping my aim is as good as hers.
I take the bow in my left hand. After pulling an arrow from its quiver, I position its pronged rubber base against the bowstring’s nocking point. With my feet just as wide as my shoulders, I sight my target and take aim, slowly drawing the string back until it’s taut—
Then I release the arrow.
It whizzes through the air toward its target.
Not to worry: it’s not at Vance, but at one of his camera drones.
The force of my bullseye hit slams the drone into a billboard before it crashes onto the highway’s safety shoulder.
Hearing the racket, Vance exclaims, “What the…”
When he sees the smoking wreckage, he stumbles backward.
While he stares in shock, I put another drone out of its misery. This one dive-bombs onto the hood of the motor coach.
As Vance scrambles down the ladder, he finally finds his voice and yells, “CUT!”
Not that the cast and crew aren’t already clued into the realization that today’s shoot has already been canceled.
Vance screams, “Who the hell shot down my cameras?”
Jack takes a wild guess and looks over at me.
Seeing the bow in my hand and the smile on my face, he bows appreciatively. In a flash, he’s down the ladder and onto the street.
Not a moment too soon. A police cruiser, manned by two uniformed officers, crawls toward us via the highway’s shoulder. But Jack is lost in the crowd of angry, bored drivers who have also hopped out of their cars to take a gander at Vance’s hoopla.
While one of the cops tickets Vance for multiple traffic violations, the other policeman waves us through the bottleneck.
By the time we’re a few exits away from the office, the traffic is flowing at a swift pace. Every now and then an emergency vehicle will scream past us—
As does a couple of sports cars, which seem to be playing chicken in and out of all four lanes. When one cuts in front of the panel van two vehicles ahead of us, it stops short. The car behind it—a silver convertible Porsche Carrera S Cabriolet—slams into the truck’s rear bumper.
Thank goodness Jack screeches to a halt a mere a few inches from the Porsche.
Just then the van’s back doors fly open. Its cargo is people: six females, in their teens or twenties, who are bound, gagged and blindfolded.
A few stumble onto their bare feet and hop to light now coming into the van. When the first captive gets to the opening, she leaps, landing onto the Porsche’s hood with both feet.
Angered, Porsche Guy jumps out of his car door to berate the first captive and the others who, like clueless lemmings, have also plopped onto the car before scrambling off and onto the asphalt.
Whereas other vehicles moving around us slow down, one swerves instead, barely avoiding hitting one of the women.
“Call the police,” I command Jack. I’m out of the car in a flash, heading for the freed women.
By now many of the women have caught onto the fact that they are on a roadway. They tremble at the unknown dangers around them. As I reach them, I start to yank down their blindfolds and tear the electrical tape off their mouths before herding them toward the Porsche. By the time I fling open the passenger door, I’ve been blessed numerous times in Russian. The women don’t have to be asked twice to climb in.
Just then, a large, muscular, scowling man, his long light hair coiled tightly in a man bun, flies out the driver’s side of the van. His identical twin leaps out the passenger side. Man Bun grabs for one of the fleeing captives, grabbing her by the hair. Twin Bun cold-cocks another prisoner before grabbing a third.
Porsche Guy is still yelling at the top of his lungs about the damage to his precious roadster when Man Bun pulls out a gun and points it at him—
But my punch to Man Bun’s left kidney has him doubling over. With lightning speed, I wrench the arm holding the gun behind him and at the sort of angle that, when it cracks, Porsche Guy gasps.
Fearfully, his head turns in the direction of Man Bun’s twin. He’s relieved to see that Jack has grabbed Twin Bun from behind and slammed him into the van with such force that when his head hits it leaves a dent.
By the time he slides to the asphalt, he has passed out.
A half-mile away on the shoulder lane, two police cars, sirens blaring, are quickly moving toward us.
“Great! Just what we need,” Jack mutters. “I guess we should flip a coin as to who gets to call Ryan with the news that we’ll be at least another hour, explaining to the cops how we cold-cocked a couple of white slavers.”
I sigh. “Not if I can help it. Head toward the car. I’ll follow in a second.”
Jack nods, then heads back to the car, as if he doesn’t have a care in the world.
In the meantime, I snap my fingers in front of Porsche Guy’s wide, wary eyes. “Apparently, these thugs kidnapped these women, possibly for slavery. So, here’s your chance to be a hero. Tell the police what happened: that you unarmed them and kicked their asses—all on your lonesome. Otherwise”—I make it a point to drop my eyes onto his front license plate—“we’ll find you.”
Porsche Guy nods numbly.
A moment later, Jack and I are another quarter-mile down the road—
But we’ve got a tail: one of the cop cruisers is heading down the road’s shoulder to overtake us.
“I guess the police didn’t buy Porsche Guy’s tale of derring-do,” I grouse.
“Hey, it was worth a try,” Jack consoles me as he guns the car.
One of the features of the BMW i8 is that it can do zero to sixty in under five seconds. Another eight seconds beyond this, Jack has somehow managed to zigzag two lanes over.
We’re on the far side of an eighteen-wheeler as the black-and-white rolls past.
Jack’s proud grin earns him an eye-roll.
“You’re welcome,” he retorts. “Now let’s get to the office.”
“We’re coming up to our exit, and we’re still in the far lane,” I warn Jack.
He accelerates, propelling our car too close to the bumper of the mommy van in front of us before veering through an opening between two monster trucks to our right, and then into the far-right lane, which is wide open, at least for six car lengths.
By now, the patrol car has stepped on the gas and is blaring its siren.
I look back. The police vehicle is dodging around the cars between us, but it’s also gaining on us.
“Hold on,” Jack declares.
I’m tempted to close my eyes but force myself to keep them open.
We fly up the off-ramp’s two lanes. To get to the office, we should be in the right one. There, the line of cars waiting to turn is six long. So, instead, Jack takes the left lane—
And so does our police escort, but behind two cars. The officer tweaks his siren to warn them that he’s got to jump the line.
By the time they realize he’s there, it’s too late. The light is now green, and Jack is off—
Turning right instead.
The car beside us, which legally owns the lane, veers to avoid sideswiping us. The driver’s face would be quite pretty if it weren’t contorted in angry indignation.
By the time the autos move out of the police cruiser’s way, we’ve sped off—
But his siren clears a path for him and keeps us in his sights.
Dismayed, I murmur, “He’s gaining on us.”
“Do you love me?” Jack asks.
“With all my heart,” I say warily.
His next question sends a chill up my spine: “Do you trust me?”
“Also with all my heart,” I vow. “So don’t do anything that makes me question my sanity.”
Jack shakes his head. “Sorry, doll. No promises.”
To prove it, he hits the gas.
We crest a hill—
And then Jack veers sharply to the right—
Landing us onto a narrow gap in a tall hedge.
We’re a few hundred feet from a tunnel. With a push of a button on our car’s dashboard, a radio signal emits the security code that opens its gate.
A half-mile later, the tunnel emerges inside Acme’s underground garage.
Our car purrs to a stop in front of Ryan.
Scowling, he waits against a wall, his arms folded at his chest. “You’d better have a hell of a great excuse,” he growls.
Jack and I exchange glances. Then, in unison, we offer: “Saturday traffic on the 405.”
Ryan accepts our explanation with a resigned nod and a smirk. “What? No bullshit tales of evildoer shenanigans or earthshaking calamities? I must say, your honesty is refreshing. You should try it more often.”
I frown. “Is that supposed to be a compliment? Are you saying you wouldn’t have believed us if we said that, say, houses were exploding all over town?”
“Or, if we’d told you that the highway was at a standstill because they were shooting a movie scene on two lanes?” Jack adds.
“Or, that when a sports car slammed into a van, a bunch of captive slaves jumped out and we stopped to round them up?” I ask.
“Mr. and Mrs. Craig, I’ve always admired your very active imaginations,” Ryan retorts. “And considering your new mission, the home explosion line is at least believable.” He nods towards the elevator. “Ready to hear about it? The rest of the team is already waiting upstairs.”
(c) 2018 Josie Brown. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher, Signal Press (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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