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    Synopsis

    *WINNER Texas Authors Book Award 2017 in Fiction/Suspense* Rules are set in stone – that is until someone shatters that rock and all hell breaks loose. A determined oil driller uses an illegal fracking method, causing a devastating earthquake and fire which destroys much of San Antonio. Cave explorers, Jesse and Jake, are trapped in the dark with a monster crocodile, long thought to be extinct – Aquasaurus – a forty-foot, 8-ton descendent of Carnufex – “The Butcher”. World-class rock climber, Rita, must overcome her lifelong fear of darkness to rescue her boyfriend Jesse. A state senator must juggle her fear losing a child, with the greater need of thousands of disaster survivors. A businessman must deal with the fear of losing a business his dying father spent a lifetime building. Why is Rita afraid of the dark? What happens when Aquasaurus escapes from the cave system and runs loose among disaster survivors? What will happen if the dangerous crocodile escapes into the Gulf of Mexico? Fear can cause people to react in unpredictable ways. Fear can distort judgment, and cause likeable people to commit irrational acts. Fear can masquerade as bravado. Fear can paralyze. Fear can provide a cover for the truth. The problem with fear, is we think fear is the problem. Everyone has a fear of something. What are you afraid of?

    Chapter 1 

    It is as dark as a tomb. It is so dark you cannot see your hand at the end of your arm.

    Dark is more than the absence of light, more than nothingness. Dark, in its final form, moves from perception to chilling reality. That indescribable, untouchable ‘thing’ you feel in the dark … is the dark. You cannot touch it; it touches you. It touches you with cold icy fingers as cold as the dark side of the moon. Not just black, it is blacker than black. It presses in all around you and steals your breath. It squeezes you into something microscopic. It sucks all awareness into a void that seems empty and lifeless. If you opened a light in this dark, it would appear as the gleaming blade of a razor-sharp knife that slowly turns edgewise until it shrinks into a tiny pixel on a vast cosmic plasma screen before disappearing in the voluminous overwhelming dark.

    Though it seems empty and lifeless, you know that it is not. You know with absolute certainty that you are not alone in this dark. You cannot see it, but it is there… stalking … waiting. This is not the certainty you felt when you knew something lived in your closet that did not know how to open doors. Nor is it the certainty when you knew something lived beneath your bed. Those childish, irrational, illogical certainties have paled and receded with youth and time. This certainty does not recede; it advances. It breathes in the impervious dark. It moves with slow, sucking sounds. It nears. It breathes your air.

    «

    She had left the light on again which irritated Jesse Perrine to no end. He padded across the room, barefoot, to the bathroom. He had been seeing Rita for a little over a year now, and he seriously could not understand the obsession she had of always leaving a light on. At first, it was sexy and refreshing. Most women want the lights off when they made love. Not Rita! Sometimes she even drifted to sleep without turning off the lamp next to her bed. Jesse would invariably wake up in the middle of the night, harsh light interrupting his peaceful dreams, and would have to go all the way around the bed to turn the damn light off. It was a minor irritant, but it was constant. Every night!

    And those sounds she made in her sleep! Almost like crying. Moans and sudden sharp breaths. One night it sounded like she had an air leak. She was huffing and puffing as if she were fighting to blow up a balloon, and was losing the battle. He half expected to wake up and find her flat as a pancake!

    Flat was one thing, Rita Martin was not. She had strong arms and legs of an athlete. She was toned and muscled except in places where she was supposed to be soft. All the good places.

    She was worth it, he decided. She was ‘the one’. He just was not sure if he was ‘the one’ for her. If that meant he had to spend a lifetime getting up in the middle of the night to turn a light off, he guessed he would adjust to it in time. Right now, they didn’t live together, so it didn’t matter much. From the lights-on thing and the restless dreams, he knew something was bothering her. Something bad. Something deep she did not – or could not – discuss. He also knew better than to ask. Every time he mentioned it, she either denied anything was wrong, or changed the subject by launching into her favorite diversion – trying to convince him to transfer from Texas State to UTSA.

    When he came out of the bathroom, she was sitting in the middle of the bed putting on her makeup. Music was playing on the clock radio; a recent hit song they both liked. Rita said “Morning, baby!” playfully leering at his half-zipped jeans. He looked down self-consciously and hiked them up. “Aw, you teaser!” she pouted. “You give me a little peek, and then cover up! Are you sure you aren’t a male stripper?” she asked. The song ‘I’m So Fancy’ was playing on the radio, so Jesse playfully grabbed the decorative poste at the end of her bed and used it like a stripper pole. Jesse was no stripper, though he had the body of one. His moves were clumsy and comical, and Rita delighted in his impulsive antics. He was still dancing to ‘Fancy’ when the song ended and ‘Shake It Off!’ came on. Jesse stopped dancing and pretended to be upset the song had changed. “Damn! Just when I was halfway to Tokyo!”

    “Shake it off, baby!” Rita encouraged. “Shake it off!”

    Jesse gamely picked up a hairbrush from the bed and danced around singing the lyrics to the song about cruising and not being able to stop moving. Jesse, with his long black hair flying looked to Rita like a big black sheep dog! Rita screamed and jumped out of bed laughing hard and running toward the bathroom. “Stop! You’re gonna make me pee!” Jesse was still singing and prancing around when she came out and stood in the doorway. She slowly shook her head and gave him a playful thumbs down. Jesse was unfazed, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate…” he sang. Rita joined in, “Fakers gonna fake, fake, fake.” They collapsed on the bed laughing. He wrapped her in his arms and kissed her. “You know I gotta go,” he moaned into her neck. It was a mistake. He knew it as soon as it left his mouth.

    “You don’t have to – you want to.” She wasn’t laughing anymore.

    “What do you mean? We talked about this over and over. It’s Spring Break. You know I’ve had plans to go into Honey Creek cave for over a year,” he reminded. “And, you have plans to go to Enchanted Rock! You’ve got to get Katie ready to go to Colorado this summer.”

    “I know. But I was holding out hope that you might give up the cave trip, and go with me. It’s alright – don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” she said quickly. Jesse knew when she said that, it was far from fine.

    Desperate that they not part on a bad note he offered, “Look. When I get back next week, maybe we can … talk about me transferring to UTSA next semester.”

    “Really? Baby!” She beamed and grabbed him; pulling him tight to her. Then she pushed him away with a suspicious look on her face. “You’re not just saying that are you? You’re serious?”

    “Sure,” he said. “But right now, I’ve got to go! I’ll be late. Professor Morrison has already threatened to lock the classroom door! I can’t be late again.”

    “If you moved to UTSA…” she began.

    “Yeah, yeah, I know! We could sleep in and not have to fight traffic to get to school. You’re right. But right now I’ve gotta go.” He slipped into his shoes, pulled on a t-shirt, “I’ll see you in a couple of days when we get back from the cave.” He headed toward the door, picking up his backpack along the way. He looked back over his shoulder and gave her his most dazzling smile and a wink. She blew him a kiss, and then he was gone.

    «

    Clint Marshall stood with his thumbs hooked in his belt. He was not pleased. Under a blistering Texas sun, the soaring skeleton of an oilrig shimmered and played in the reflection on the lenses of his dark aviator glasses. His foreman, Hugh Shipmann, stood nearby kicking a scuffed boot against a piece of flakey limestone.

    “Well, it ain’t good enough,” Clint barked.

    Hugh squinted at his boss, “We’re squeezing the lime for all it’s worth, Hoss. Crew is spent. We been pumping fluids 16-7 for two weeks straight. Mamma Earth just won’t give up the juice.”

    Clint unscrewed a bottle of water and took a drink, swishing the water around as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. He spat it out. “Well, we better figure out something. If the numbers don’t go up, we got big problems. The S-wave and SedLogs say the crude is down there. SpecA and mud logs both look good. Oil is in the hole. If we can’t pump it out, that’s on us. Where is Hootie?”

    “Called out sick.”

    “Called out sick? What the hell is that? You mean called ‘in’ sick?” Clint grumbled. “You Yankee boys drive me nuts! Sick from what? He better be bleeding, broke, or on fire!” Clint pulled a long draw on his water bottle.

    “Said he had anal glaucoma,” Hugh grinned.

    Clint interrupted his drink, tilting his head forward to avoid spilling on his starched shirt. The bottle made a popping sound as he pulled it way from his lips, and water dripped on his hand. “Anal what? What the hell is anal glaucoma?” he asked as he shook the water from his hand.

    “Said he couldn’t see his ass coming to work today!” Hugh clinched his jaw and tried hard not to laugh.

    Clint was not amused. “Well, you get his butt in here by 10 o’clock or he’s gonna see my boot fitting him for a monocle. I’m flyin’ down to Houston at two, and I better go with some answers; or a plan! We have to pull pipe on this job; we’re all out on the street.”

    Hugh’s browed wrinkled. In his best Texan voice he said, “Well, we keep on keeping on and hope we break up whatever is down there blocking the flow.”

    “Keepin’-on-keepin’-on ain’t getting it done! I’m thinking we need something extra,” Clint growled.

    “What have you got in mind, Hoss?”

    “I don’t know – somethin’! Maybe we need a new method – maybe Pawson’s,” Clint mused, almost to himself.

    Hugh sucked his lips tight to his teeth to keep from smiling. It was no laughing matter. He fixed his boss’ eyes with a dead serious look and released the pressure on his lips with an audible snick. “Pawson’s hasn’t been approved,” he said, knowing Clint already knew.

    “Well, I can’t think of a better well to do some field-testing on. Can you?”

    “Yeah,” Hugh nodded. “One somewhere in South America!”

    Clint turned and walked back to his truck. “Well, we ain’t in South America!” He flung what was left of his water bottle against the light cart on his way past. Water dripped off the side of the yellow machine. “Anal glaucoma!” he muttered to himself.

    «

    Professor Tom Morrison took a sip from his coffee cup and looked out at his students. God he hated teaching! He wanted to anywhere else but in a classroom. He hated kids almost as much as he hated teaching! Zombies! Drugged-out, fogged-out, burned-out, boozed-out, zoned-out zombies! Moreover, eight o’clock classes were the absolute worst! Later, when they went into the field for research in 100 plus degree heat they’d be grateful for an early class. But right now all they wanted to do was sleep, except for one; and she wanted to go to bed. Better watch out for that one, Tom thought. Trouble. Anyway, this was the last class before Spring Break. He would be free for a whole week. He could not wait to get away to the out back in the Florida ‘Glades, and no students to bother with! They would all be on the beach partying like zombies.

    Tom launched into his Earth Sciences lesson plan. “Let’s talk today about something that threatens to have a lasting impact on global biological and environmental health, especially here in South Texas. The frickin’ oil business! Oops! I mean the fracking oil business.” He paused for their laughter.

    Tom launched into the lecture. “Due to world-wide uber-dependence on fossilized fuels, demand for petroleum has increased exponentially. Here in America, volatile prices and the cost of importing oil have spurred new processes for getting oil from shale deposits unreachable only a few years past. Hydraulic fracturing – or hydro fracking – or just plain fracking, is one way to get at those sources of natural gas and petroleum. It can even be used to produce water, but it makes for extremely expensive water.” Tom explained shale sediments can hold large amounts of gas, water, and oil in tiny pores of the rock deep underground. “So does Limestone, but it is much harder to crack than shale. Drilling deep within the earth, the drillers inject a fluid mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the well under high pressure. These chemicals and the pressure will weaken the shale rock and fracture it – thus the name. The fractures seep oil and gas into the well, which they pump to the surface. Old style oil wells were vertical, but fracking most often uses lines branching out horizontally through the field. Then gravity can help drain the loosened oil and gas into the well channel more efficiently.” Tom drew a picture on a white board illustrating his lecture as he talked.

    “More oil here at home equals higher profits, more jobs for workers, lower cost to us at the pump for gasoline, and less dependency on volatile political systems abroad. So, what’s the problem?” he asked.

    Tom explained over 600 chemicals go into the oil fracking fluid, all of them toxic; and some of them are potentially deadly. He went over the list which included formaldehyde, lead, mercury, hydrochloric acid, radium, uranium, to name a few – all hazardous, all pollutants, and some explosive. Tom talked about the carcinogens and toxic chemicals that, once released into the ground water, can become dangerous to large populations. Not only was there the huge human risk, but the risks to animals and the environment were tremendous. The fracking method uses an extraordinary amount of water, which they haul to the oil well site in tanker trucks, putting pressure on supply, increasing the risk to traffic and public safety, and causing great damage to area roads and bridges. Some small South Texas communities simply cannot keep up with it.

    In addition, a measurable increase of detectable tremors has occurred in recent years. Some suggest fracking might be contributing to the instability of underground geologic structures. Jesse’s eyes came up, as he stopped reading the text on his cell phone and listened closely. Tom continued, “There have been more tremors in Texas these last two years alone than the previous one hundred.” Tom interrupted his lecture and pointed his stir stick toward Jesse Perrine, the terminally late one, who had his hand in the air. “Mr. Perrine?” How refreshing. A zombie with a question.

    “Is that just a localized effect? I mean, only around the drilling sites?”

    “Only if you consider Texas and Oklahoma and every fracking state from here to Pennsylvania, local,” Morrison answered. “Everywhere the technique is used an increase in earth movement and subsidence, including cave-ins and sink holes, have been detected. The environmental impact has been immeasurable. Vital habitat is being irreparably damaged. We may not know the true cost for years to come.”

    Tom ended his lecture by stating the oil and gas industry has long been fully aware of the dangers and the risks. But big oil, and big profits mean huge political contributions.

    “The high price of oil makes it financially more attractive for oil companies to pump rather than work towards developing renewable sources of energy with less impact on the environment. Demand for wind and solar power energy has increased, but not enough to staunch the demand for petroleum produced energy. Texas now leads the nation in wind-produced electric energy, but it is not enough. Profits drive energy; and as long as the profit is in petroleum, the emphasis will remain on pumping. Despite the risks to public health, the damage to infrastructure and natural systems, the waste of already scarce water resources, the polluting spills, the huge number of industrial accidents, and injuries – including deaths, the oil drillers just shake it off!”

    “Class dismissed. Wake up and get out of here! Enjoy your fracking Spring Break. See you next week!” he laughed.

    «

    Texas State University campus in San Marcos is idyllic. It is an awesome paradise of crystal-clear water, warm weather, leafy green trees, and blue-eyed blondes adorning every rock ledge bordering the slow moving river. People have lived around the nearby springs for 12,000 years. Deep beneath the campus, the aquifer bubbles, drips, and flows through limestone caves and natural limestone caverns. The limestone rock naturally filters the pure, transparent water, which feeds San Marcos Springs, Comal Springs further south, and an immeasurable number of other springs, streams, and rivers around the edges bordering the Texas hill country. The underground system is teeming with life. It is the subterranean home of thousands of aquatic and terrestrial animals. Salamanders, blind catfish, crayfish, darters, snakes, and all types of swimming animals thrive in the constant eighty-two degree water. Many connecting caverns, alternately dry or wet depending upon the water table, are also home to birds, gigantic rats, shrews, spiders, beetles, and millions of bats.

    A connected system of underground pools, known as the Edwards Aquifer, wraps around the edge of the hill country. This vast aquifer runs some 250 miles from near Brackettville, through San Antonio, then northward toward Austin and Waco. It is unknown how large these subterranean systems are. Water monitors maintain test wells to measure the aquifer’s rise and fall, which have never gone dry – even during the worst drought conditions. Some might compare the aquifer to a large underground lake. If the aquifer were on the surface, it might be an inland sea some three hundred miles long. Some scientists estimate it would be so large that it would have tides and waves. At the least, it would be a Texas-sized great lake.

    Deep underground, wet walls glisten in the dampness, and water drips from the ceiling making unceasing echoes. There, in the deep, deep darkness – blacker than any night, a large alligator-like creature slides from a semi-dry ledge into the brackish water. The scaly reptile is slimy and moss colored, and reeks of fish and rotted meat. It is hungry. Hunting. Suspended, motionless in total darkness. Thousands of years of adaptation allow it to maneuver in the boundless darkness – much like the way night-vision technology works. It gathers and amplifies tiny fragments of ambient light and low spectrum infrared light. Combined with thermal imaging, like snakes use, the creature can “see” in total darkness. It floats with its eyes barely above the water line. The eyes and the bulla, which contain its sensory organs, are normally the only thing visible on the surface. Huge webbed, clawed feet provide balance and stability. The claws are long and as sharp as knives. A long, encrusted tail swings slowly from side to side giving it a slight forward motion, barely rippling the water. As it swims into the fresher water, hundreds of fish, detecting its presence, scurry away from the massive predator. The beast begins to emit a low purr. The sound is almost inaudible to humans. The animal becomes invisible to the fish. The reptile knows now only its movements can reveal its presence. The silvery fish swim back and surround the floating leviathan, unaware the creature is not a moss-covered rock. The small darters and minnows feed off its skin as they would on algae covered cave walls. It waits. The predator waits to feed – silently, motionless, undetectable – it waits to feed.

    A dark cloud of bats, fifty feet wide, is coming through the channel toward their roost, which lies beyond the creature. They swirl and swoop along the glossy cave walls, using sonar to avoid collisions. Conditioned by eons of time, they know they will be able to “see” any potential threat in time to avoid disaster. They do not know of the stealth capabilities of the submerged beast whose low-pitched humming disrupts their sonar signals. The bats fly nearer and nearer over the concealed, undetected predator. They swirl and flit along cliff walls a hundred feet high, then dive steeply to skim the surface of the dark water while snagging mosquitoes and water bugs as they zoom past, breaking formation, feeding, then reforming into their cloudlike swarm. Closer and closer they come.

    Exploding from the murky water, the predator’s crocodilian maw, gaping wide, engulfs the cloud of surprised bats. The jaws snare a huge segment of the moving cloud, fifteen feet wide, which disappears inside the creature’s massive mouth. Splashing back into the water the massive animal twists and turns, and churns the water, devouring hundreds of bats in huge snaps and chomps. The sounds of water roiling, wings flapping, and bones crunching fill the cavern. Gyrating and turning in the water, the creature scrapes against ancient jagged limestone outcroppings, tearing a length of skin from its side, which hangs loosely and trails behind the left rear leg. It is an unnoticed minor wound to the animal. Merely a nick. In the melee, the small flap of skin peels off then floats and bobs along with pieces of wings and dozens of dead or dying bats. Some bats escape, flying through the huge jagged teeth, as the huge beast continues to chew and grind prey with huge snaps of it toothy jaws. Foamy, red-flicked water sloshes against the cavern walls in huge waves, washing from one side across to the other like in a gruesome bathtub.

    The survivors regroup and fly onward to their roosts while the creature subsides into the deep, dark, unfathomable water. Resting now, an opaque flap of skin slowly slides down over the dead, yellow eyes. The low-pitched sonic hum ceases, and darter fish dash swim near in metallic flashes to peck at the bloody entrails hanging from the sides of the great smiling mouth. Echoes of dripping water are again the only sound. Fed now, it sleeps within the deep, dreadful, dark cavern.

    From Kirkus Reviews

    Texans inadvertently discover a 40-foot prehistoric, dinosaureating crocodile ready to escape its subterranean lair in this debut thriller. Jesse Perrine’s spelunking excursion with friends Jake Hew and Cody Hughes is cut short when an injury knocks Cody out cold. The two cohorts get Cody to safety using a tarp found in the cave and are in for a shock: the tarp’s actually a reptile hide. They show the pelt to Jesse’s Texas State professor Tom Morrison, who surmises that an enormous and (supposedly) extinct crocodile lives in the Texas aquifer. Or alligator, which Tom can verify when, at his suggestion, the trio returns to the cave for “the discovery of the century.” There’s definitely something down there, as well as a few human bodies, but trouble’s brewing aboveground. TJ Howlett, before his dad’s partner gets controlling interest of HNH Oil Company, hopes to strike oil on an HNH project in reality owned by TJ’s reputedly defunct business. Desperate to crack through the granite dome blocking the drilled hole, operator Clint Marshall opts for something faster, dangerous, and not exactly legal. What he does literally shakes central Texas. It also triggers a cave-in, trapping Jesse, Jake, and Tom inside with a gargantuan crocodile—and possibly creating a passage for the creature to squeeze through and wreak chaos in the city. The novel excels at what other giant-monster stories often skip: character development and suspense. Jesse’s girlfriend, Rita Martin, for example, is more than just his love interest. She and her friend Katie are experienced rock climbers and the men’s would-be rescuers. Relationships, too, are fascinating, like Katie’s with her father, whose reveal is a surprise. Readers will be more on edge than Jesse, et. al., since they are privy to the fact that Aquasaurus, which the narrative eventually calls the creature, is indeed in the cave. There’s astonishingly little violence, but then the monster, whose ferocity is unmistakable, is a topic of discussion more often than a physical presence. Lee ends with an all-around solid wrap-up, including comatose Cody and a character (or two) who doesn’t make it, with a wide opening for another book. The scaly beast is definitely the star, but pre-attack scenes are rife with genuine trepidation and multidimensional characters.

    About the Author

    Ernie Lee is a Texas award winning author, songwriter, and poet known as the Bard of the Blanco. He lives and writes in the scenic Texas hill country. Many of his works describe hill country scenes. His writing reflects the stories of his travels around the world. A twenty-two year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Ernie has written several pieces about the Viet Nam era. Ernie is a cancer survivor who also writes about facing destiny. Ernie’s style reflects his love of life, interesting places he has been, and people of all backgrounds. He resides in Canyon Lake, Texas, with his wife, Donna. He is semi-retired and enjoys presenting at schools, poetry festivals, and various events. Ernie began at an early age as a song writer, with some success. His songs are registered with BMI®. He is the producer of the “Indie Country Road Show” which can be downloaded from I-Tunes. His music can be heard on a website www.reverbnation.com and on MTV as a CMT Artist. In addition, he has written technical and academic text books for the University of Texas (Austin) and UT San Antonio. He has published a dozen professional training workbooks and training materials for professional public procurement officers. Ernie Lee won two awards from the New Braunfels Arts Council for poetry in 2000 and 2014. He is the 2014 holder of Lynne Eliot Award for Poetry. His work has appeared in print many times. He is a member of the Academy of American Poets, Austin Poets International, Hill Country Poets, Poetry Society of Texas, and the San Antonio Poets Association, and several others. Ernie currently writes a continuing column for the Hill Country Sun called The Bard of the Blanco and a quarterly newsletter entitled The True-badour.