Challenger Seven Memorial Park, Houston, Texas, July 22, 2016
Hope was most treacherous when it concealed itself behind a cloak of optimism. From beneath the softly undulating veils of its gentle disguise, hope beguiled the unwary, seduced weak minds, rendered them incapable of distinguishing between the remotely possible and the distinctly probable. Hope lured unwarranted sanguinity from men too foolish to separate true optimism’s solidly logical foundations from hope’s airy, empty promises.
Fafner was not hopeful.
He was optimistic.
To have the Hostmen’s fate puppeteered for decades by a responsible businessman, even one so avaricious and ruthless as Michael Rivers in his prime, was one thing. After all, greed was a predictable thing, something that could be controlled and even exploited with the right touch.
But to have that same fate now in the decidedly unreliable hands of a doddering, drooling old man with a brain irreparably perforated by incurable dementia and delusion, that was something else altogether. No touch, now matter how delicate and precise, could wring predictable results from an enfeebled mind laden with a devastating secret. And Michael Rivers’ mind was growing more crippled by the day, his memories deserting him like stumbling drunks disappearing into a starless inky night after last call, as unsure of where they had been as where they were going.
Fortunately, not all of his memories had completely abandoned Michael Rivers yet. Not the most important one. Not the one the Hostmen coveted above all other things for more than forty years.
Fafner was not one to curse himself often. Even ending his own father’s life with a bullet caused him no anguish. But he cursed himself now. America. How could he not have seen? He shook his bald, round head. Sometimes nothing was so imperceptible as the obvious.
Fafner removed a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed sweat from his brow. The night air was thick and moist, and though it wasn’t raining, huge storm clouds lumbered across the sky overhead. He looked up to see the full moon slowly emerge from behind a massive obsidian cloud, like a winsome blond starlet uncoiling herself from inside a jet black limousine.
“Nice choice of meeting place, Fafner. The irony is magnificent.”
Fafner turned in the direction of the voice. As he regarded a pair of shadows quietly approaching him, he was framed in the moonlight by the three brick sides of the monument erected to memorialize the seven astronauts who died in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic just two minutes into its tenth mission.
“I thought you particularly would appreciate it, Mr. Martinez.”
Adela Watts and Rudy Martinez made no sounds as they traversed the brick walkway to join Fafner in front of the small granite monument. Both of their lithe athletic frames were clad in skintight black compression clothing, the smooth lines of their apparel disrupted only by the black holsters on their hips, and Martinez’ black backpack.
“You’ve heard from Willie?” Watts asked.
“Our long wait is almost over,” Fafner replied. “You remain confident the two of you alone can retrieve the object without assistance? I am concerned that perhaps I was hasty in so summarily dismissing the very capable Mr. Gish in Oklahoma before we attained our ultimate objective.”
Martinez adjusted his backpack on his wide shoulders. “Where is it?”
“It is located in a building three miles from where we stand. In a museum of sorts, that closed to the public for the night a few hours ago.” Fafner told Watts and Martinez what he had learned from Willie a night earlier.
“There’ll only be private security, minimum wage rent-a-cops,” Watts said. “We can handle it by ourselves.”
“In and out,” added Martinez, nodding. “A quickie.”
“Very well,” Fafner said. “I remind you, you have never embarked on a mission as important as this one, and you never will again. There is absolutely no room for failure.” He gripped a meaty hand on each of their shoulders, tilting his head between theirs. His voice became a low, hissing whisper, seething with unmistakable malice. “And if you fail, I assure you I will waste no time apportioning blame between you. I will kill you both.” Fafner’s thick lips slid back to form a broad, toothy smile, gruesome in the yellow moonglow. “Personally. Without hesitation. Without reservation.” He felt each of his minions shudder under his grasp as he spoke.
Fafner released his grip and straightened himself. “However,” he continued pleasantly, “I am confident it will not come to that. I esteem you both for your admirable competence in adverse and stressful situations. Now go. I will wait for you here.”
Watts and Martinez nodded, and turned to leave the monument site as noiselessly as they had entered it. Fafner grinned to himself as he watched them melt into the shadows.
He was optimistic.
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