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Search for the White Moon Chapter 1

Prologue

 

The rain beat down on the car, the wind blowing sheets of water against the windshield. She leaned forward, straining to see ahead in the darkness, the car’s headlights throwing a faint beam of light that barely illuminated the narrow winding road.

 

With her hands gripping the unfamiliar steering wheel, she cautiously slowed for the next curve. It had been years since she had driven and months since her last trip away from the farm. Long before they started living there it had been a real working farm, but now the closest it came to having live animals were the cats and dogs.

 

For a fleeting second she wondered if they had discovered that the car was missing and she was gone. All she wanted was to get to town and find a telephone. Ahead, the road descended steeply before curving to the left with a drop-off on the right side.

 

Her eyes tracked to the rearview mirror where two bright headlights were approaching rapidly. The closer the vehicle got the more blinding the glare became. She knew there was some way to adjust the mirror, but it would be too dangerous to take her hands from the steering wheel.

 

The car picked up speed on the rapid descent and a curve loomed ahead. The lights in the mirror were now so close they were blinding her, and when she looked back at the road, she realized that she was going too fast for the curve. She slammed hard on the brakes and knew something was wrong as the brake pedal sank slowly to the car’s floor. Unable to stop, the car picked up more speed going into the curve. The windshield wipers flapped back and forth, too slow to keep up with the driving rain, and she pulled at the steering wheel desperately, trying to keep the car on the road.

 

As the car left the road and sailed silently through the air. all she could think of was who would report the horrible plans she had overheard at the farm? Her vehicle hit the side of the hill, tumbled over, landed with a crashing grind of metal, and burst into flames. The truck behind her drove on.

 

Several motorists came upon the wreckage and leaped from their cars to gaze down the hill in speechless horror as flames soared upward. Someone yelled “Call 911” as the burning vehicle exploded. The wailing of sirens filled the rainy night, but by the time the fire trucks and rescue squad arrived, the car was only a crumpled, charred object with black smoke drifting toward the sky.

 

Chapter 1

 

I skipped down the sidewalk. Well, not literally. The sight of a thirty-two-year-old woman skipping down the street would have been unusual, even here in New York City. Emotionally I felt like skipping. It was my day off work and I had gone for a long run in the crisp, sunny, December morning. Now I was on my way to the agency that had summoned me the day before, wondering what job was awaiting me.

 

I arrived in the warehouse district and looked at a large, old building with a sooty brick exterior and peeling paint trim that had an air of neglect and abandonment. A faded sign in the window read Atlantic Employment Agency. I climbed the concrete stairs and opened the large glass-plated door. Inside, the waiting room consisted of five scuffed-vinyl chairs arranged along two walls, and a battered end table piled with tattered old magazines. The floor, covered with dirty worn linoleum in a dreary specked pattern, had definitely seen better days. I sat down and picked up a magazine that featured an article on the spring fashions of five years ago. Anyone coming here looking for a job would find only a few offerings, usually not matched to the applicant’s skills, and if pursued, never resulting in an offer of employment. No one ever recommended the agency and since it did not advertise, few people ventured here.

 

The receptionist, sitting behind the high counter and dressed in a plain white blouse and black skirt, with brown hair in a grown-out perm—the kind of person no one could later describe—nodded in my direction.

 

“You can go in now,” she said, without making eye contact.

 

 

 

I went through the door to the right of her desk and walked down the dimly lit hall that was painted an institutional green and had soiled brown carpeting covering the floor. When I came to another door I waited, knowing that cameras were watching me. With a click, the door unlocked and I walked inside.

 

Another world greeted me. Phones rang, printers clattered, and rows of computer terminals staffed with people intent on their duties were busy doing their jobs. It was 1995 and the agency had all the latest technology.

 

The young man at the desk just inside the door looked up from his terminal. He had a crewcut and the identification badge hanging around his neck read David.

 

“Kathryn Austin. I have a two o’clock appointment.”

 

David examined his clipboard. “Room one, down the hall and to the left,” he said, before turning his back on me and returning to his terminal.

 

I had never been in room one. My previous assignments took place in rooms with a lower number, usually eight or ten. I unbuttoned my coat, slipped it off, and put it over my arm with an uneasy feeling that something was going to be different about this assignment.

 

“Intervene,” the International Intervention Agency, was an obscure, little known office of the government. They dealt with unusual cases of theft, fraud, extortion, terrorism, or anything else that had international connections. I never really knew exactly how they operated beyond my limited, short-term assignments with them. A month earlier I had worked alongside more experienced agents on a team to capture a group of Russians selling imitation Coach Bags. I called it the “Coach Bag Caper.”

 

 

I knocked on the door, entered the room, looked around, and took a deep breath knowing this was not going to be a routine assignment. Seated to the left behind a large, polished, walnut desk was my contact at the agency, Michele, dressed as usual in a stylish, tailored, navy-blue suit. She had her dark brown hair pulled back and was wearing horn-rimmed glasses. I thought of this as her no-nonsense look. Seated next to her behind the desk, and obviously in command, was another woman. Michele motioned to a chair. I sat down.

 

“How are you today, Kathryn?” The artificial expression on Michele’s face suggested a smile.

 

“I’m fine, thank you.”

 

They both looked down to open folders in front of them and I waited in the silence that followed. If they were trying to intimidate me they were succeeding. As the woman I did not know examined her folder, I studied her. She was older, perhaps early sixties, tall, a short sensible hairstyle, thick bifocals, and a simple but expensive suit. I had never seen her before, but I had my suspicions.

 

Michele arranged her papers before looking up. “This is our Chief of Operations, Dr. Caldwell.”

 

“How do you do, Dr. Caldwell?” She nodded curtly in my direction.

 

“Do you like opera?” Michele asked brightly.

 

“Yes, somewhat. I guess I’m more involved with instrumental music.” I added, “You know I play with a recorder group.” Why did they suddenly care about my musical interests?

 

“You have the option of declining this assignment if you wish to.” Michele looked down at the papers in front of her. Her earlier expression meant to suggest a smile had disappeared..

 

I waited in silence until Michele continued. “We are concerned about a terrorist group that has been silent for several years, and we were under the impression they had disbanded. Several recent incidents lead us to believe they are still active, and an opera singer who possibly is their leader is linked to them.”

 

Michele turned over some pages of her folder. “They are known as the White Moon. They had a mixed political agenda that started with the Vietnam War. Then other causes came along. We think they are now networking in Europe with other terrorist groups. They have been responsible for bombings in areas with easy public access such as subways and crowded streets.” She turned another page. “There was an incident in London ten months ago, coincidentally at the time this woman was appearing there in an opera. We didn’t immediately suspect her, but one of the White Moon members apprehended after the London bombing claimed during interrogation that the leader was a woman, well-known in the opera world and currently in London. This description covered several singers and also a stage designer. Before the White Moon member could be questioned further she committed suicide in her cell.”

 

Dr. Caldwell tapped a finger on some papers in her file and adjusted her glasses. “Since that time, by various means, we believe we have eliminated every suspect except one woman.”

 

Michele withdrew a photograph from her folder, placed it on the desk facing me, and sat back in her chair, her eyes never leaving me.

 

I picked up a glamorous publicity photo of an attractive woman in an elaborate gown, her dark hair swept up, and wearing a heavy, jeweled necklace. She was evidently in costume for an operatic role. Her pose was sensual and yet her expression was innocent.

 

“Adriana Desi. We would like to know who her friends are, whom she meets and whom she calls. Everything you can find out about her.” Michele continued watching me.

 

I was puzzled because surveillance was not my area of expertise. “You want me to follow her?”

 

Dr. Caldwell and Michele exchanged a brief glance. Dr. Caldwell leaned forward in her chair and looked at me. “We want you to meet her, get to know her. Become intimate if necessary.”

 

I could feel myself blushing. Had I heard her right?

 

Michele reached over and took the photograph from me. “Before we go any further, we know you are not currently romantically involved with anyone and expect you to stay that way during this assignment. Is that understood?”

 

“Yes.” I nodded, resigned to the fact that nothing in my life was private.

 

There was a pause and I assumed that they accepted my answer since Michele said, “We have biographical information for you to read and a list of places in the city that she is known to frequent. Also, we are including more background on the White Moon.”

 

“I’m afraid I don’t understand why she is going to want to meet me. What do we have in common that would be of interest to her?” I asked in some confusion.

 

Michele withdrew another photograph from the folder and handed it to me. The compression of the street scene told me a long lens had taken it. I stared in disbelief. Everyone has a twin somewhere so they say and there, walking next to Adriana Desi, was another woman. “Do you see a resemblance?”

 

I looked up to see them both watching me and I detected a faint smile on Dr. Caldwell’s face. “Yes,” I faltered for a moment, “the other woman looks like me.”

 

 “Nicole Chapman, companion and lover of Adriana Desi.”

 

I thought I must be really slow today and shook my head. “But, if she has her, why would she want to meet me?”

 

Michele responded. “Nicole is dead…killed in a car accident seven months ago. Adriana was so devastated that she canceled all her appearances and has not performed since.”

 

I looked at the picture again. There was something in the other woman’s face. It was an intensity that I did not have. I put the picture down.

 

Michele picked up the photograph. “We know Nicole was a member of the White Moon and living on a farm upstate. After her death we located it but they had all fled, leaving behind some starving cats and dogs. We suspect that Adriana recruited Nicole Chapman into the White Moon. We want to know who the other members are, who else she might have recruited, what their plans are, and anything else you can learn about them.”

 

Dr. Caldwell picked up her folder and held it out to me. “Read this over and study it. Michele will give you a room to work in. Have some coffee, take your time. You will be reporting to Michele directly.” Focusing her penetrating gaze on me she added, “Kathryn, we are depending on you.”

 

I took the folder. They didn’t ask if I wanted to refuse the assignment. By accepting the folder I was accepting the assignment.

 

Michele stood to lead me to my room. “Don’t worry about work. Ask for vacation days, as you need them. I’m sure they will understand.”

 

My assignments with the agency were sporadic and short-term. My real job was working as a chemist at a drug-testing laboratory. When I returned from my tour with the Peace Corps, the lab had contacted me, offering me a job. I assumed it was because I was on a list of returned volunteers looking for work and had a graduate chemistry degree and laboratory experience. Shortly after that the agency had approached me. Looking back, I wondered if they worked together. Using my generous vacation days, I always had time off for the assignments  and the pay was unusually good.

 

Dr. Caldwell stood, nodded at me, and left the room, effectively dismissing me.

 

 

Michele and I walked silently down the hall to my room. I wondered if she was uneasy with my assignment, but the agency knew my background and lifestyle. I suspected they had probably asked others to do more.

 

As I sat at a table in the room with a cup of coffee and my folder of information, Michele pointed to my long blond hair. “Get your hair cut, not too much, just shoulder length.” She said nothing more, turned and left the room.

 

I read through the folder trying to memorize details about a woman I doubted I would be able to meet, much less gain any information from. When I finally picked up my cup the coffee was cold and I had gone through the folder three times. Chilled, exhausted, and overwhelmed by my assignment, I closed the folder.

 

 

Out in the parking lot my former joyful mood was gone. Dark gray clouds now covered the sky, the temperature had dropped, and the sun was setting. This time of year darkness came early and it reflected my mood. Hugging my coat around me I walked across the lot to my car. This was my only extravagance, a British racing green 1972 MGB, used only in decent weather on my occasional days off or on the weekends. I unlocked the door, got in, and started the engine.

 

It was rush hour and my plans for the afternoon had included a trip to the museum to see a new exhibit of Ming dynasty pottery and do some shopping, but those plans were now forgotten. The descriptions of the terrible acts of the White Moon contrasting with the glamorous photos of the opera singer crowded my mind. I pushed them aside to concentrate on getting home to the warmth of my small apartment.

 

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