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When All Goes Bright by Jess Mowry: all rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. The Kindle edition, to date, is the only legally authorized ebook or web-accessible edition of this work. If you find this book being offered anywhere else, either as a download or to be read online, it is there without the author's permission and in violation of copyright law.



When All Goes Bright


Not quite in the center of Africa lies a tiny land called Kiwanja whose people have lived in untroubled peace for thousands of years. Though the French and British once colonized this land, it was never considered valuable enough to be brought into the 20th century, and was finally granted its independence... though most of its people were unaware they had ever "belonged" to anyone.

But, times have changed in the outside world: satellites spy on everyone because anything that isn't possessed is a threat to those who don't posses it. Flags are no longer planted on someone's beach to claim new lands for kings and queens, but other methods have been devised to make people slaves and steal their resources.

Thirteen-year-old Dakota is the son of Nathi, a Kiwanjian bush pilot who flys an ancient cargo plane. Dakota is already skilled in take-offs and landings from dirt airstrips in the dead of night, skimming hilltops to avoid radar, and dodging high-tech fighters. Dakota has only known war in his life; war in which children kill other children commanded by adult "generals."

One side wants to rule the land, the other claims to be fighting for freedom, but both bring only terror and death to the innocent people caught in the middle.

Who started this war? Who profits from it? Dakota doesn't know. He packs an AK-47 and, with his father, smuggles weapons by air to the freedom fighters.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Houston, Texas, Nicole Neale, a divorced single-parent with an almost-thirteen-year-old son named Zack, fights a more civilized kind of war to hold her executive job with a small corporation that manufactures many things from kids' action-figures to military uniforms... though much of the work is done by children in dirty, third-world sweatshops.

Except for encounters with road-rage on her daily commute, Nicole's enemies usually aren't violent, but they still lay mines in her road to success.

Will winning her war in corporate boardrooms save her son Zack from what seems like enslavement to video games, junk food, empty material values, the lure of money, and possibly drugs?

Except for two years in Africa as an idealistic teen in the Peace Corps, what can Nicole have in common with a Kiwanjian bush pilot and possible terrorist?

How could her son, chubby, web-surfing Zack, relate to a war-hardened child-soldier like Dakota?

And, why should an American corporation, subsidized by the U.S. Government, have any interest in a tiny African country?

The only thing Nicole knows about Kiwanja is that its people make beautiful boots.

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                                               When All Goes Bright
                                        © 2010 Jess Mowry



                                                Prologue



       It could have been called a not-quite land. It was not quite in the center of Africa. It was far enough south so it wasn't steamy, and yet it was not quite a desert. Although it was tiny in terms of a nation, its borders had never been quite defined; its people knew when enough was sufficient, and when more than they needed was really too much.
       The not-quite land wasn’t much of a prize when the Europeans came to claim it. It was too far away from a river or coast to be a convenient source of slaves, who inconveniently tended to die if marched for hundreds of miles in chains, and it didn’t have anything valuable such as diamonds, gold, or oil reserves so there was nothing much to steal.
       Since the land had nothing of value and its people couldn’t be used, it was merely taken because it was there and anything that wasn’t possessed was a threat to those who didn’t posses it.

       Some said the French had first stolen this land, but were never quite sure what to do with it. Then as a sort of colonial joke they had bargained it off to the British for someone else’s former home.
       The British loved to colonize -- at least they did at the time -- because even possessing a useless land meant one less threat to their empire.
       It was rather like moving into a house with a family who lived in the attic, and of never taking the time or trouble to climb up and make their acquaintance. Whoever they were, they made no demands and never complained if the roof might have leaked. And while it was true that they didn’t pay rent, they never asked for anything, like running water, electric lights, or telephones to call their friends so they weren’t really much of a bother.
       One might have imagined a retired British Major reading his paper in robe and slippers and hearing something go bump in the night. He might pause for a moment, puffing his pipe, and wonder about those people up there, but perhaps it was better to just let them be. It was, after all, a tiny place and couldn’t be used for anything.
       One day the Major passed away and left the house to his children. He hadn’t done much to keep it up, there were rumors the house was haunted, and repairs would have been expensive... including an exorcism. Besides, there was nothing of value and the neighborhood wasn’t desirable. No one else wanted the house, so it was returned to its free-living tenants.
       The not-quite land was forgotten again, and decades passed away in peace while the rest of the world made various wars that came in many sizes. But, far away was a powerful land that still believed in empires and that anything that wasn’t possessed was a threat to those who didn’t possess it. The people who lived in this powerful place had never understood the idea of when enough was sufficient. They were only five percent of the world, yet they gobbled up twenty-five percent of all the world possessed. The purpose of power was power (they said) and the more you possessed the more you should have because that was the natural order of things and the way their children were taught.
       The house of Earth could not be enlarged, but its wealthier  children demanded more room, or at least more possessions to put in their rooms, because that was the natural order of things and the way they had always been taught.
       So, they started to think of remodeling, and so began to measure their house to capitalize on its limited space and demand that everyone pay rent.



                                           Chapter One


       The not-quite land was mostly flat, but here and there were huddles of hills, like scattered camps of sleeping camels. Much of the country was dusty and dry, and yet it was not without life; there were groves of golden acacia trees, African oak, and thorny bushes, though never quite abundant enough to really be called a forest. There were even some places of not-quite jungle surrounding occasional water holes, or lining the banks of slow-running streams, which were never quite rivers except when it rained. These meandered their way across the plains in lazy loops with ox-bow lagoons, adding sinuous stripes and shadings of green to an otherwise golden-brown palette.
       Some might have called the land barren in places, and yet it was never quite naked. There was hardy grass of amber hues that grew as high as a lion’s shoulder. ...Yes, there were lions in this tiny place, though not quite as large as in other lands, and therefore not as interesting to those who studied or captured such things. It had also been this way in the past for those who came to Africa to murder something noble... one wanted the true king of beasts for a trophy, a lion who looked like a worthy opponent when locked in the sights of a high-powered rifle.
       It was not quite the end of a long hot summer, but not quite time for the hard winter rains. One of the not-quite worthy lions had just downed a small antelope -- another species of life in this land that had never been worthy of notice -- and was dragging it into the shade of a tree when a distant droning invaded the peace. The lion paused to listen a moment, but then returned to his meal.
       The approaching sound was faint at first like a distant swarm of migrating bees. Then an airplane appeared in the southern sky, which today was as blue as a porcelain bowl and as clear as the eyes of a smiling child. The plane skimmed the hump of a slumbering camel, thereby crossing an ancient border and blatantly breaking a brand new law.
       The plane was a Douglas C-47 painted a tawny-golden shade very much like the coat of a lion. This wasn’t a color one might have imagined for something meant to fly in the sky, but it would have been almost invisible to another airplane flying above. At the moment there weren’t any other airplanes for hundreds miles in any direction, but far overhead, unseen up in space, the unsleeping eye of a spy satellite had spotted an unexplained shadow below and was frantically searching its memory files for a possible threat to its masters.
       The C-47 was flying so slowly that a hawk could have passed it with ease in a dive and laughed at the foolish pretentions of men who created such clumsy and noisy machines to go where they didn’t belong. About every three minutes the plane’s starboard engine would sputter and spew out puff of gray smoke. This would continue for several seconds and sometimes the engine would backfire, but at last it caught up with its portside brother to finally resume their droning duet.
       The airplane’s skin looked as crinkled and worn as the foil of an old cigarette pack. Riveted patches showed here and there, and the sides of the forward fuselage were dented and scarred in a thousand places by ice being thrown from the spinning propellers in higher, colder altitudes. The engine nacelles were lathered with oil, and carbon soot blackened the wings’ undersides, but there was a saying about these airplanes; they could possibly crash but would never wear out.
       Painted on either side of the nose was the faded face of a snarling lion above the words, SIMBA AIR FREIGHT. The cockpit was like a tin camp stove with the sun blazing down on the lion-colored roof, though the windows were open and wind rushing past with the soothing roar of a waterfall. Dust seemed to coat every surface inside, including the glass of the instruments, their needles twitching and quivering, while the air was a stew of leather and sweat, hot engine oil, and hydraulic fluid.
       A man lay asleep in the co-pilot’s seat, a fine-boned man of not quite thirty. He was shirtless in trousers of lionish brown, while his skin was a dusky, lusterless shade like the deep satin-black of the instrument panels. He seemed a bit taller than only six feet, partly because of the cramped surroundings, but mostly because of his cheetah-like build where every tight muscle was starkly defined like an artist’s anatomy model. His chest was a pair of proud oval shapes above a stomach like ripples of stone. His biceps were solid as river rocks even while resting relaxed. His face looked youthfully peaceful in sleep, with high rounded cheeks and a wide snubby nose. His lips were full and rested half open, revealing the gleam of shiny white teeth. His hair was bushy, indifferently kept, and powdered with dust to a lion’s-mane color. His feet, resting clear of the worn rudder pedals, were clad in what seemed to be native-made boots with antelope uppers and truck tire soles. Unlike most pilots he wore no watch, and a tuft of brown fur on a slim leather strip loosely encircled his neck. At his side was a heavy utility knife in a sheath decorated with beads.
       In the pilot’s seat was a boy of thirteen who was reading an anime magazine while a primitive, mindless, mechanical thing composed of gyros, gears and wires, with oil for blood and a pump for a heart attended the business of flying, mysteriously moving the twin steering yokes as if a ghost was guiding the plane. The boy, like the man, was deep dusky black, shirtless and shiny with sweat in the heat, which had muddied the leather beneath him. His hair, like the man’s, was bushy and wild, shaded by dust to a lion’s-mane brown and crowned with small yellow headphones. His face wasn’t quite the same as the man’s -- disregarding their difference in age -- but mostly due to its full rounded cheeks and the hint of a soft second chin. The boy, like the man, had long slender bones, but his body was rolly and soft. Sprawled in the narrow pilot's seat as only a boy of his age could sprawl, his belly spilled over his ragged blue-jeans and wobbled whenever he moved. His navel resembled a funnel-shaped cave, while his chest was a pair of melon-like shapes that bobbed to the bounce of the plane.
       The boy had youthfully large feet and hands, the former encased in boots like the man's with antelope uppers and truck-tire soles. The latter were chubby and possibly clever when not resting paw-like and loose. His nose was wide, basically bridges, and rather aggressively snubbed. His lips were at rest in a half-open pout, displaying a pair of startling teeth that might have opened bottle caps. His onyx eyes had long silky lashes and were slightly upturned at the corners. This gave him a sly and foxy look, though they couldn't be seen at the moment, concealed by a pair of pilot’s sunglasses designed for a far bigger face than his as well as a drastically different nose.
       Unlike the man, the boy wore a watch that was almost cartoonishly huge and complex. On his other wrist was souvenir bracelet that might have come from a carnival. It was silver-plated but now showing brass, and engraved with the name, Dakota. Around his neck was a slim leather strip, and a tufted lock of lion’s mane lay nestled between the orbs of his chest. He wore a headband of antelope skin, skillfully woven and beautifully beaded, which only partially tamed his hair but channeled the sweat from his eyes. A knife in a sheath, also handsomely-made, was secured to a loop on his jeans.
       Like all things cherished in this tiny land, the plane was protected by powerful charms: a lion’s fang dangled above the compass, along with a doll in the Akan tradition that smilingly swung and regarded the sky. Feathers, beads, and cowrie shells adorned the various levers and knobs. A souvenir photo was taped to the roof, looking down at the man and boy, the kind that were taken at carnivals. The boy was holding an ice-cream cone, his belly half bare in an underwear shirt that would have been tight on a much slimmer youth, while the man was clad in lionish brown and looked like a bumpkin come to a fair.
       Dakota’s headphones were plugged to a Diskman, and the volume was high with South African rock, yet Dakota glanced out about every three minutes whenever the starboard engine sputtered. Then he would lower his magazine and scan the dusty instrument panel. The airspeed was steady at 130 knots, but he’d fondle the starboard throttle a bit and tinker with the mix control. Then, his large and foxy eyes would roam the faces of other gauges... revolutions and temperatures, oil, fuel, and manifold pressures, altitude (about 1000 feet), flick to the compass (north by northwest), and then return to the starboard engine, which usually steadied and stopped spitting smoke as if sensing Dakota’s annoyance. Then Dakota would gaze ahead through the bug-spattered glass of the grimy windshield. Finally, he’d reach between his legs where a bottle of Coke was nestled upright and take a sip of the hot sugar water. He also munched on Simba Chips bought that morning in Johannesburg.
       The starboard engine sputtered again, belching a burst of gunmetal smoke as if sipping a beverage that didn’t agree. The sleeping man stirred whenever this happened, as if the malfunction invaded his dreams. But Dakota performed his ritual of fondling the throttle lever, pampering the mix control, giving the engine a glare of reproach, and the engines resumed their droning duet. Finally he drank the last of his Coke, tossed the bottle out the window, and gave the compass another glance. Then he studied the landscape ahead and a huddle of hills in the distance. He checked the altitude once more, then set his magazine aside, slipped the headphones off his ears and hung them next to an ancient pair, huge and heavy, Bakelite and steel, that served the airplane’s radio.
       Leaving his seat was a minor struggle of dynamic muscle against static mass, and complicated by ergonomics designed in the 1930s. Finally reaching an upright position, his body rearranged itself, obeying the law of gravity, his belly plunging over his jeans and rebounding a bit like a bungee jumper. Muddy sweat drained from his cave of a navel to spatter the worn metal floor, while more trickled down from under his arms, channeling various rolly curves through a tawny coating of dust. The soles of his boots made potato chip sounds in the gritty carpet of dust on the floor as he entered the sweltering cargo bay.
       Sunlight streamed in through the rows of small windows. Dust motes danced in the broiling beams to the clattering beat of the engines. The cylindrical space was crowded with things, cardboard boxes of various sizes, many displaying labels of food, flats of tinned milk, a pile of rice sacks, barrels of fuel and kerosene, and a 1943 Willys Jeep born the same year as the airplane. The freight included roofing tin, lengths of plastic water pipe, a restless roll of chicken-wire, a truck engine banded to rough wooden skids and bearing a tag from Israel, along with shovels, axes, hoes, and a dozen machetes bound in a bundle that looked like a primitive killing machine.
       There was also a coffin, classically-shaped in the old-fashioned British toe-pincher style. It gave off a rather ominous smell that suggested the plane had a passenger whose body should have been on earth... more properly below it. If scent had it color this would have been bronze, a dry, unpleasant, but tolerable smell.
       Dakota’s jeans were a little too small and more than not quite buttoned. The denim was thoroughly soaked with oil, which gave it the texture of leather. The pockets were ragged, and one knee ripped, but they might have been the only jeans for hundreds of miles in any direction. They rode comically low on his chubby-cheeked bottom, hiding all but the toes of his boots, and revealing more than concealing a lot in regard to his teenage anatomy. Their ribbon-like cuffs dragged over the floor, leaving a trail behind in the dust as he wiggled his way through the trembling cargo.
       Reaching the big double doors near the tail, he pushed the forward door open an inch and pissed in the rushing slipstream. After that was completed, he seemed to regard what he held in one hand, though he couldn't see much because of his belly. Latching the door, he sat down on a crate to satisfy his body's demand, but the starboard engine sputtered again.

       “Bother!” he said in Swahili, which could have meant damn or probably worse, then half-buttoned his droopy jeans and crunched his way back to the cockpit.
       He paused to scan the instrument panel, then pulled another hot bottle of Coke from a rusty ice chest as dry as a desert. He settled into the seat once more, and was slipping the headphones back on his ears, when he noticed a rising column of smoke beyond the cluster of hills ahead. He squinted a bit in the savage sun-glare despite the deep green of his oversize glasses, and noted circling vulture shapes skirting the pillar of smoke. He frowned a little, leaning forward, his chest becoming roundly breasted, spilling over the steering yoke, and even his teeth seemed eager to see as his mouth slowly opened in wonder. Then he reached over the throttle quadrant and prodded the sleeping man’s shoulder, his fingertip leaving an ebony spot in the coating of golden-brown dust.
       “Nathi.”
       The man was awake in an instant. His eyes were as foxy and black as the boy’s, flicking first to the instrument panel, checking the compass and altitude before giving Dakota a questioning look. The boy only pointed ahead. The man also frowned, then said in Swahili, “Take her up a little more.” He reached for a pair of binoculars that had once belonged to the British Army.
       Dakota unlocked the auto-pilot and took control of the airplane, planting his boots on the rudder pedals and gripping the steering yoke. He set the mix on auto-rich and slowly advanced the throttles. The starboard engine faltered, but quickly recovered and roared again. The airplane’s nose tilted up. Clearing the hills by 500 feet, Dakota lowered the throttles once more while the man scanned ahead through the windshield.
       Some might have said it was not quite a village but only a scatter of mud-plastered huts surrounded by fields of native crops: millet, maize, beans, and yams. It looked even less like a village today: the huts were roofless and smoking within, while flames still flickered here and there like angry red eyes in soot-blackened faces.
       The vultures scattered away from the plane as it bored through the pillar of smoke. The smells of charred thatch and smoldering wood, of baking clay and burned possessions, blew into the cockpit then faded away as the plane burst out into sunlight.
       “Shall I circle around?” asked Dakota.
       “I don’t see anyone,” said Nathi, still intently scanning the ground. “No cattle, no goats. Not even a chicken.”
       Dakota scowled. “The Army would have taken them.”
       Nathi shifted the glasses. “They didn’t bother to burn the crops. ...Maybe the people escaped to the hills.” Then, his muscular body tensed. A long finger turned the binoculars’ focus. “Bring her around and come in low.”
       Again, Dakota reached for the throttles, but paused to point ahead. “That must be the Army trucks.”
       Nathi aimed the glasses northeast where a cloud of dust rose in the heat-shimmered distance. “Probably two,” he said. "Maybe fifteen kilometers. I doubt they can see us through all their own dust.” He glanced at the fuel level gauge. “Go ahead and bring her around.”
       A few minutes later, the C-47 swooped over the village at seventy knots, man and boy scanning the ground.
       “I see someone!” cried Dakota, half upright with his head out the window, his jeans slipping low on his bottom. “There in the shade by the chicken house. The one with still part of a roof.”
       The man only sighed. “A boy, and he’s dead.”
       “Are you sure?”
       Nathi lowered the powerful glasses. “Yes.”
       “Was he theirs, or ours?” asked Dakota.
       “It doesn’t matter to him anymore.”
       Dakota reached for the throttles again, about to pull up, then said, “They always welcomed us with a feast.”
       Nathi nodded. “Take her down.”
       There wasn’t an actual airstrip, but the ground was flat and fairly smooth. The boy brought the plane to 500 feet, gently banked to circle around while carefully losing more altitude and lowering the wing flaps. Then he lined up the nose with the faint wheel tracks that marked their previous landings.

       “Cross feed,” he called, his hand on the throttles.
       Nathi reached for the fuel selectors.
       “Cowl flaps open. Gear down,” said Dakota. He pulled back a bit on the steering yoke as the landing gear lowered with shuddering thumps and the airplane balked with the drag.

       “Green and latched,” called Nathi. “Tail wheel locked." He peered ahead at the oncoming earth. “Someone has been digging out there, but not enough for graves.”
       Dakota checked the airspeed again, noted the smoke still rising straight up, then lowered the flaps to full position, easing a bit on the trembling yoke as the airplane flared on ground-effect.
       But, Nathi’s eyes seemed troubled as he gazed ahead at the place of digging. Too small for graves...
       The main wheels touched with a a firm double-bump, spewing twin clouds of golden-brown dust that fanned away behind the tail. Dakota reached to lower the throttles.
       “Mines!” yelled Nathi.
       “Full throttle! Full rich!” Dakota shouted, straining back on the yoke. “Gear up!"
       Nathi considered for less than a second, then jerked the landing-gear lever, yanking the wheels from under the plane, which desperately fought to stay aloft... seeming to strain every creaking rivet, engines roaring at full RPM, gushing out solid black streamers of smoke, propeller blades pitched for maximum bite, frantically clawing the precious air so terribly close to the ground. Machine and boy battled together to fly, and then they were past the digging.
       “Gear down!” yelled Dakota.
       This time the thumps of the landing gear locking echoed the thuds of the wheels hitting dirt. “Green and latched,” called Nathi.
       “When all goes bright, don’t look,” puffed Dakota, shaking new sweat from his face.
       Dust billowed over the ground once more as the airplane rattled and jolted along, a thing from the sky now awkward on earth. Dakota gently toed the brakes. The tail wheel dropped with a lesser thump, tilting the cockpit skyward again so the boy had to stretch to see over the nose. Finally, the airplane creaked to a halt a few hundred feet from the side of a hill and the village’s ancient burying-ground. More tawny dust drifted in through the windows, furring the glass of the instrument panels and dimming the glare of the sun. The doll and lion’s fang swung to and fro. Dakota bowed his head to the doll and murmured a “thank you,” echoed by Nathi.
       Dakota retracted the wing flaps, lowered the engines to clattering idle, studied the oil pressure gauges a moment, then stretched to reach the ignition switches above the windshield frame. Silence settled around the plane, except for the ticking and clicks of hot metal. Dakota flashed a sudden smile, displaying his bottle-opener teeth.
       “How was that?”
       Nathi sighed, stirring dust in the air. “We were ten knots below stall speed, yet you flew."
       "Perhaps it was magic?"
       "Or ground-effect. Though it shouldn't have worked in this heat." Nathi also smiled. "I could not have done better... but please never do that again.”
       Then, both faces, youthful, mature, hardened into grimmer lines.
       “Do you think those mines were for us?” asked Dakota.
       “Now they are for anyone.”
       Dakota wiggled out of his seat. Secured to a bulkhead by rubber cords was a pair of AK-47s with most of the blackness worn off the metal, leaving a dull silver-gray. Their bolts and triggers were shiny from use, their wooden stocks darkened by oil and sweat. He took down one of the rifles while Nathi uncradled the other.
       Like Dakota’s dangerous jeans, Nathi’s trousers clung low on his hips as he slung his rifle over a shoulder and followed the boy down the now-slanted floor, their boots crunching dust in the sun-heated silence. He wrinkled his nose as they passed the coffin.
       Dakota cocked and readied his rifle, setting it to full-auto fire and crouching close to cover the man as Nathi opened the doors. The creak of hinges was loud. Nathi blinked in the sunlight, shading his eyes as he scanned the hills, while Dakota poised ready to shoot.
       “They would have known it was us,” said Nathi.
       “Should we wait?” asked Dakota. His own eyes behind their oversize glasses had turned to study the village.
       “They would have known,” said Nathi again. “And the trucks have been gone for at least an hour.”
       “Do you think the Army took the people?”
       “There were only two trucks.” Nathi unslung and cocked his weapon.
       It was in the boy’s nature to jump to the ground, but he comically landed and almost fell, his jeans slipping down to his knees. Nathi landed as light as a cat. Dakota recovered his jeans. then adjusted his glasses, which scorned his nose, while Nathi studied the port landing-gear where leaking oil was spattering dust like tiny atomic explosions.
       “Shall I put in the pins?” asked Dakota.
       “No,” said Nathi. “We may have to leave in a hurry.”
       Rifles held ready, man and boy moved cautiously off toward the smoke-shrouded village, pausing once to look back at the plane, well camouflaged by its lion-colored paint... though far up in space the dust had been noted and pictures of warning were being sent.
       The vultures, disturbed by the landing, were only now spiraling back to earth. They hadn’t quite reached the boy on the ground, who lay in the shade of a smoldering hen-house, the smoke casting rippling patterns around him. He was dusky-black and might have been twelve, naked and showing no body hair. He looked well-fed, even slightly round-tummied. His eyes, pure midnight and not yet sunken, gazed off in that strange and disturbing direction that no living eye can follow. His chest had been shattered by full-auto fire, though mercifully now it was covered with flies and the gleaming bones mostly concealed. One of his teeth was slightly chipped, which somehow made him look younger. Around his neck was a stainless-steel chain and a pair of shiny aluminum tags, the only things left to him in this world except his glossy, feasting shroud.
       Dakota’s eyes kept flicking around behind their lenses like emerald tears, scanning the scatter of smoking huts, the camel-like humps of the lion-colored hills, and the empty sun-shimmered plains. His chubby fingers roamed the gun, though seldom strayed far from the trigger. But the only sounds were the buzzing of flies, the croaking and caws of the impatient vultures, the campfire crackle of burning wood.
       “I thought they took one?” he said at last, his gaze coming back to the bright metal tags, which made the boy’s body look like a possession... left-luggage, perhaps, to be called for later, although it was clear than nobody would. “To give to his parents, at least.”
       “Only an army with honor,” said Nathi. “Which wouldn’t have stripped and left him like this.”
       “Maybe they need the uniforms. ...That might be useful information.”
       “Someone fought back,” said Nathi, kneeling to pick up a cartridge case. “This is from an AK.”
       One of the vultures, hungry or boldest, made a scuttling dart toward the body. Dakota swung his rifle, slamming the bird away. It retreated in fury, hissing, screaming, shitting itself. The others watching seemed to laugh.
       “We should bury him,” said Dakota.
        Nathi rasied an eyebrow. “But, he’s not one of ours.”
       “His spirit should not be left to wander.”
       Nathi nodded. “For now...” He handed his gun to Dakota, then pulled a sheet of rusty tin from what remained of the chicken house and arched it over the body. The vultures gave him angry glares. Then man and boy moved through the smoke-shrouded village, weapons ready, eyes alert, peering into each smoldering doorway, one always guarding the other’s back, tensing at every soft sputter of flame or the crack of a charred rafter falling. Hut after hut lay gutted and empty, except for the ashes of household things. Bullets had ripped the mud-plastered walls, and the Army had used incendiary grenades to set every dwelling afire. Nathi noted this, saying, ”They have more weapons than fuel.”
       Dakota nodded. “That is useful information.” He went to the well and looked down. “They had enough fuel to poison the water.”
       “A few liters would have been sufficient.”
       “Why didn’t they use grenades on the crops?”
       Nathi was scanning around again. “Perhaps they hoped to harvest them before the rains begin. But they seem to have left in a hurry. That’s probably why we saw the mines.” He aimed a finger here and there. “Most of these cases are M-16, though an AK or two fired back.”
       On the ground near the last of the burned-out huts, Dakota spotted an Army cap in a camouflage pattern of desert tans, which didn’t quite work in this lion-colored land.
       “Careful,” warned Nathi. “The General has many new toys.”
       Dakota studied the sun-baked dirt before lifting the cap with his AK muzzle and flipping it into his hand. A tag inside read BARRYMORE CORP. HOUSTON, TX, USA. Dakota flung it away, then pushed up his slipping glasses again. “Maybe the people crossed the border? Or, maybe Rashawn took them to safety.”
       Nathi studied the cartridge cases. “A few hundred rounds, and maybe two rifles. Short bursts to conserve ammunition. Then they ran... there...”
       Man and boy faced the last smoking hut. Then they approached it, weapons on point.
       Two boys lay inside, one maybe ten. The other was close to Dakota’s age, wearing a tuft of lion’s mane on a leather strip around his neck. Unlike the round-tummied soldier, these boys were as lean as cheetahs. Both wore tire-tread antelope boots, though their only clothes were loincloths in a camouflage pattern of ambers and golds randomly striped with shadings of black.
       Dakota’s hands clenched on the gun. “I should be fighting with them!”
       Nathi touched Dakota’s arm. “You just fought a battle to fly and won. A truly great general once said that the three things most useful in winning his war were bulldozers, trucks, and the C-47."



                                           Chapter Two



       "Mom? I think Freddy’s dead.”
       "...Oh,” said Nicole after a moment and not quite knowing what to say. The words had awakened an old memory, though she couldn’t quite bring it to mind. She paused in her fight with a lipstick tube; she knew there was still quite a bit left inside, but the dammed thing wouldn’t unscrew anymore as if cunningly crafted to cheat and retreat. She turned from a mirror steamed from her bath to the near-naked boy in the doorway.
        Zackary was almost thirteen, with sandy blond hair in a spiky mop and the indigo eyes of his father. He’d always been rather charmingly chubby with chipmunk cheeks and a slight double-chin, but seeing him now clad only in shorts Nicole realized he had gotten quite fat. His stomach resembled a sack full of Jell-o that avalanced over his boxer shorts and wobbled in waves whenever he moved. His navel was like a funnel-shaped cave that tunneled away into shadowy depths, while his breasts were a pair of water-balloons that looked about ready to pop. His skin was as pale as vanilla ice cream, while his nipples, pink and disturbingly large, their tips inverted instead of protruding, didn’t do much to define his sex.
        Nor did the small silver ring in one ear, the spiked leather bracelet he wore on a wrist, or the chrome-plated necklace of bright metal beads that looked like an oversize bathtub chain... although they were currently “in” for boys. As well as green hair, which she’d promised tomorrow. He’d dropped out of soccer the summer before and now spent most of his time in his room, either sprawled on his bed and watching TV, surfing the web for God knew what, or playing violent video games that featured mass-murder and nuclear wars, with blood and guts in full Technicolor, including grisly sound-effects of ripping flesh and breaking bones. Nicole wasn’t sure how to deal with that -- or even if she should try -- any more than with Freddy’s apparent demise.
       She tossed the lipstick into the wastebasket, telling herself to remember the brand and never buy it again. ...Or, could its commercial chicanery be used to advantage somehow? Ours gives you all you deserve? But, her company didn’t make cosmetics, at least no division she knew of. And what was the crap anyhow, she thought; colored grease to smear on her mouth to make it look wet and inviting to males.
        “Er...” she said, feeling confused, a rather familiar sensation these days that made her think of "senior moments." “Are you sure, honey?”
        Zackary shrugged as if still half asleep, though he’d looked that way for most of this year, even engaged in genocide on faceless hordes of terrorist orcs... sub-human things motivated by hate that one only wanted to kill. Orcs never had any families, no cute little orclings to cry for their daddies, or wives to weep for their slaughtered breadwinners, so nobody felt the slightest remorse about bombing them all to hell. Nicole had suspected drugs for a while as the source of Zackary’s laziness, and had read somewhere that heavy dope-smoking in pubescent males could cause their breasts to become... well, breasts. But she’d never smelled any weed on Zack, so she’d settled for lack of motivation and probably too many carbs.
       “He’s all stiff, mom,” added Zack.
       Nicole glanced again at the misty mirror, patted her golden-brown hair into place, and wondered if it was getting too long... too late to worry about that now. She almost guiltily checked her watch. Freddy had picked a bad morning to die, and she hoped it wasn’t an omen. But, she made herself smile in a hopeful way. “Maybe he’s just sleeping late.”
       “He’s all stiff, mom,” repeated Zack, without the slightest degree of hope in a slightly squeaky pre-teen voice.
       Nicole took her son’s chubby hand, noting his sloppily wobbling walk as she tried to hurry him down the hall without seeming overly stressed. Her morning commute was looming ahead like its own kind of video game from hell... Road Rage X, perhaps.
       The house seemed depressingly dark and still, almost like a funeral home, as if Freddy’s passing had set the mood. The air conditioner murmured low, sounding a bit like organ music, combating the heat of a Houston June. Their feet were silent on deep pile carpet, Zackary’s bare, Nicole’s in new shoes that were stiff, unforgiving, and bought yesterday, along with another moderate suit. She caught sight of herself in a closet door mirror while passing the huge master bedroom; still rather attractive at thirty-four years, certainly not a Barbie doll but she’d never bought into the health-nazi hype that skinny was some kind of master race and fat was a terrorist threat.
       Her eyes were sky-blue, her cheekbones high, and her chin was determined and firm. Her complexion had always been clear and smooth, easily tanned with a touch of sunlight to the honey-bronze shade of a Malibu bunny; a look that Texans seemed to favor as much as the surfer-boys in L.A... even without blue eye-shadow. Her lips had a natural fullness and color, her lashes needed no lengthening, and her makeup was usually minimal.
       Zackary’s room was also immense and featured lots of free space, mostly thanks to Maria the maid, who shoveled it out three times a week in total indifference to Zackary’s rage, something usually felt more than heard that could curdle the air like a sulky cat and fill a whole house with pubescent distemper. A scatter of junk-food and candy bar wrappers defiled the floor and mocked Maria. The shelving system was sagging with things, comics, CDs, and model airplanes, almost a hundred little aircraft, the older of many different types, the newer all fighters or death-dealing bombers. There was a fifty-inch plasma TV, a new X-box, a million games, DVDs and assorted software, along with a massive stereo and a few old toys from Zackary's past... action-figures of muscle-bound males equipped with weapons of mass-destruction in every conceivable form.
       Several were sold by her own company; the Defenders Of Democracy series with “fully authentic uniforms,” though made in ironically Communist China. One Defender was African, stripped to the waist in camouflage pants with a feral pattern of amber and gold. Nicole had suggested a few less muscles, but had been overruled by Marketing... “boys want masculine mass,” they’d said.
      There was also a Barney, an old Tonka truck, and a well-worn Tickle-Me-Elmo. The walls were defaced with gothic posters, some almost seeming satanic, while others depicted bombers in flight with savage explosions erupting below.

       The cable box clock showed 7:32, sparing Nicole a glance at her watch as she went to the Hamster Habitat, a plastic mini-universe of pipe-like runs and transparent chambers that probably gave an illusion of freedom while keeping its occupant safely contained. There wasn’t much doubt that Freddy was dead, a very obese little ball of fur now sprawled beside his brimming food dish. But she opened the cage to make sure anyhow, forcing her finger to stroke, not prod, as Zack looked on with a sleepy expression. Rigor Mortis seemed to have passed, and the flabby furball was room temperature.
        “I guess he was getting old,“ said Nicole, though she wondered how old was old for a hamster. Could you overfeed them like goldfish? If so, that was probably cause of death, but at least he had passed looking happy. Or was that rictus sardonicus? She tried to recall if Roger had bought him before or after the nasty divorce, when Zack had dropped out of soccer.
       “I guess,” said Zack.
       “I’m sorry, honey,” murmured Nicole, giving her son a comforting hug and almost expecting a squeeze-toy squeak. He felt like Freddy without the fur. ”How do you feel about that?”

       “That's life, I guess. He was gettin’ old. ...Maybe I’ll get me a rat.”
       “...We’ll... talk about it,” said Nicole, who had never liked rodents in any disguise. Rats smelled, she had heard, but so did Zack; that sharp, bitter bite of young adolescence, which seemed to saturate the room. Zack also whacked-off constantly, casually and carelessly... maybe even obsessively. It was hard not to catch him at it, though his bed springs and computer chair usually sounded warnings and so far she had managed... which let her avoid any kind of discussion or having to let him know she knew. She pictured Maria crossing herself when changing Zackary’s crackly sheets or vacuuming the crusty carpet underneath his desk. She had done her own version of course at his age, but had concentrated on quality while Zack seemed to go for quantity and never had enough. The last time they had been at a mall, he'd excused himself to go to the bathroom but returned with flushed cheeks and panting a bit, and hadn't even washed his hands.
       He had obviously done it already this morning, no doubt before finding Freddy deceased, and his shorts revealed the evidence with a big wet stain below his belly. It suddenly occurred to her that boys of his age were savages, dirty, nasty, randy things who shouldn't have been allowed in a house.
       She noted with a bit of surprise the few wispy curls under Zackary’s arms, although it would likely be several more years until he'd start shaving his face. She supposed she would have to read up on that rite and be ready to offer advice.
        “I guess we should bury him, huh?” said Zack. “Like, before he starts to smell?”
       “We might have to do it this evening, honey. I have an important meeting, remember?”
       “Are they gonna give you more money?”
       “I guess it’s possible. ...But we’re not doing badly right now, are we?”
       Zack reached for a half-eaten Milky Way bar next to the clock on his beside table. “I guess we got enough.”
        That was certainly speaking the truth: the settlement terms had been quite sufficient, mostly due to Roger’s abuse... vicious and vile but thankfully verbal, as Zack had testified in court. Nicole’s job brought in more than enough, and the rest was invested securely offshore in the hands of a cunning accountant. “We could put him in the refrigerator. Like they do in a... morgue."
       Zackary’s sandy eyebrows arched below his messy mop. “With the food?” he asked, his mouth full of chocolate.
       Nicole took note of the slight “U” in food. Zack had asked for a “pin” last week, and after she had found him one he’d given her a baffled look and said he needed to write.
        “We’d put him in something,” Nicole improvised. A disposable Tupperware tub came to mind in lieu of a hamster casket. ...She wondered if anyone made such an item. Surely there were coffins for pets?
       Now, Zack’s accent was pure Thousand Oaks: “Mom, that’s gross!”
       Nicole glanced again at the fat ball of fluff and mentally wished it in animal hell for skewing her mind from important things. “We can bury him in the flower bed. There’s a shovel in the garage, I think. But we’ll have to hurry so you won’t be late. You don’t want to miss graduation practice.” Nicole realized with a flash of guilt that she hadn’t yet bought him a gift.
       Zack smiled a little, which seemed to prove that he didn’t hate her for losing the only man in his life. His teeth, she noted, were flawlessly straight, thanks to a year of retainers and braces, a nasty ordeal he had really hated. Fortunately, he’d excelled at soccer, becoming a schoolyard star for a while, which had tempered the trauma of grinning in tin.
       “I gots a box,” said Zack, seeming to wake up a little more. “The one my old G.I. Joe came in. ...I guess it’s okay to touch him all dead?”
       Nicole smiled, too, as much at Zackary’s innocence as the double-syllable he’d given to “day-ed." Like most Californians, she thought of herself as having no accent, regarding a drawl with amused reserve and a drawler as slightly inferior. Maybe more than slightly. Of course, she kept this under cover, dwelling here in drawler-land.
       She restrained herself from correcting his "gots." “I don’t see why not," she said instead. "He's still the same Freddy, just... not quite all there." She glanced around the raunchy room. The big new Dell PC was on, and she chose to ignore a soft-porn site. At least they were gothic girls. ...Or, were they called Emo these days?  She made a mental note to check his browsing history... assuming he hadn't deleted it. But, maybe like his masturbation, he just wouldn't care if she knew. “I’ll get breakfast started.”
       "Okay, mom," said Zack, licking chocolate from chubby fingers that obviously hadn't been washed.
        She hurried down the shadowy hall and into the cavernous kitchen, a ranch-style room with a Spanish tile floor and a huge island range in the center. The fridge was a monstrous stainless-steel box that might have served well in a morgue. It had huge double doors and a rabid ice maker she couldn’t quite seem to control. The kitchen faced out on a vast patio through a virtual wall of thermal-pane glass, overlooking an almost olympic-sized pool with a tall water slide and a huge Jacuzzi in which a hippo might comfortably wallow. The sun, still brassy and low in the east, struck glittering sparks off the turquoise water, reflecting from rows of bright copper pans that hung above the six-burner stove. Maria polished them every week, though Nicole had little time to cook and usually brought home take-out meals or texted  Zack to order his own.

       She took a breakfast out of the freezer and slid it into the microwave. The Mr. Coffee had already started, set to her usual schedule. She poured a cup of Colombian Blend, glasses of milk and juice for Zack, then switched on the wall-mounted flat-screen TV.
       The face of a government leader appeared, the red-white-and-blue at his back as always, as if required to prove his allegiance to something besides a dollar sign. Raised by disillusioned hippies -- a term her mother often used -- Nicole wasn’t very patriotic: a country was a concept and she hadn’t asked to be born in one.
       Still, she tried to keep up with the score; who the current terrorists were, why they threatened her way of life and had to be bombed off the face of the earth so she could have blue-jeans and Ronald McDonald. Not to mention plenty of gas at whatever price the traffic would bear.
       She tried not to think about things like that, though she understood them well enough... being in propaganda herself. She usually recognized liars and lies, but her terrorist threats were closer to home in the constant intrigues of the office. She daily dealt with the petty dictators who plotted and schemed to destroy what she’d built, dropping their bombs in the boardrooms and lounges, booby-trapping her office P.C. -- or trying to give it a virus -- and setting trip-wires in her various projects in hope they’d blow up in her face. Everyone mined her road to success in a savagely civilized way.
       She had once made a stab at “saving the world” and had found it rather ungrateful. In fact, it had booted her square in the butt and sent her running for home. Still, no one had given her anything, and she’d given back more than her share: it was time for her slice of American pie and she wanted it creamy and sweet.
       She pulled her notebook out of a pocket and typed "pet coffins, lying lipstick," and "graduation gift for Z."
       Zack waddled in wearing dangerous jeans that gave a new meaning to saggers. Their pockets were nearly down at his knees, while their cuffs dragged the floor and concealed his sneaks. Their rather ridiculous bagginess -- enough overpriced denim to cover three kids -- did manage to slim his appearance a little despite all the flab hanging over in front. I-pod headphones were plugged in his ears, and his feet were encased in expensive sport shoes, which seemed like a contradiction in terms, given the shape of his still-shirtless body. He set a small box on the counter top, then raided a cupboard for Pop-Tarts.
       “Er,” said Nicole. “Maybe you should put him out on the patio.”
       “It’s pretty hot, mom,” Zack wisely replied, locking and loading the four-slice toaster. He snagged a box of Mud And Bugs, then switched the TV to Cartoon Network where demons were more comprehensible, their evil motives transparent enough for even a child to understand. “I sealed him in plastic,” he added, while filling a Lion King cereal bowl.
       “I hope you washed your hands.”
       “...Yeah.”
       Nicole eyed the clock, a 1950s amber lion who twitched his tail and rolled his eyes to mark the relentless march of time... which seemed to be marching much faster these days. It had once belonged to Nicole’s grandmother back in the decade of Leave It To Beaver. Then it had hung in her parents’ kitchen, seeing Nicole through her Wonder Years from kindergarten to U.C.L.A. Her mom had been going to throw it away when it started having senior moments, but Nicole had had it cleaned and repaired... and at an astronomical cost by a jeweler who thought she was missing a marble for wanting to save such a stupid old thing.
        She hoped Freddy’s funeral wouldn’t take long: she normally left the house by eight, and the drive was at least forty minutes... assuming no wrecks or road-rage attacks. Her meeting was scheduled for ten, which gave her a margin of safety. Still, she decided to cover her butt, and took out her company-furnished phone as Zackary drowned his Bugs in milk.
       She got her boss’s receptionist, who always seemed to be at her post with a finger firmly on company pulse. Jenny knew where the bodies were buried, yet seemed content with what she had, never back-biting or playing for power, which often puzzled people.
       “Hi, Jenny,” said Nicole. “I’m having a problem... I know, it would  be today. ...No, not stuck in traffic again... not yet anyhow. ...It’s... a... death in the family. ...Thank you. But, I’ll be there in time for the meeting. I wanted to let Dwane know. ...Yes, it’s sad to lose a loved-one."
       She glanced at the box on the counter as Zackary crunched his muddy bugs and glassily gazed at the TV screen while dribbling milk from his chin to his... breasts. She noted another Amber Alert, the third in two weeks; and though kidnapping kids was a horrible thing it was starting to seem as commonplace as terrorist threats, school massacres, and all the anti-obesity hype.
        “But, we weren’t very close,” Nicole added. “Thanks, Jen.”
        The microwave beeped, and she took out Zackary’s plastic-sealed breakfast of eggs, sausage, and hash-brown potatoes -- “Made country-fresh on the farm every morning” -- as the toaster ejaculated the Tarts. She set out a fork and a napkin. “Come and eat, honey. I’ll go find the shovel.”
       Zack plopped down with his cereal bowl, his eyes intent on the TV screen, as Nicole went into the three-car garage. Her footsteps echoed hollowly across the spacious concrete floor. It was large enough for a Texas barn-dance with only her Chrysler Cruiser inside. The emptiness still surprised her without Roger’s Lexus and Hummer H-2, prudently bearing American flags, though the stickers were made in Taiwan.
       Her own car was unpatriotic, which had likely been noted by parking-lot cameras. Her yard was maintained by a weekly service -- a Mexican man and his two chubby sons who were democratically paid in cash -- and the big riding mower was shrouded in dust, along with her own garden tools. Nicole glanced down at her shiny new shoes as she picked up a cobwebby shovel. She wondered if she should change for this job, but how deep a grave did a hamster need? She found some old sneaks in a box of clothes that Roger had left for the Salvation Army... and which she kept forgetting to call. The well-worn Nikes felt good on her feet.
       The garage was still fairly cool from the night, but the outside air was a sauna from hell when she opened the door to the patio. She hoped her antiperspirant worked as well as its claims on TV. A six-foot wall of faux adobe defended her sprawling back yard from its neighbors, each big enough for a small soccer game, with turquoise pools and brown-skinned servants to tend yellow roses and emerald lawns.
       Nicole’s own grass was wet from the sprinklers, making her grateful for changing her shoes. Wisps of steam like infant ghosts rose up to haunt her ankles. She selected a spot in a flower bed, and found the earth was thankfully soft as her shovel clove deeply beneath Roger’s sneak.
       She heard a faint rumble of sliding glass and Zack waddled out on the patio, bearing the box and a Pop-Tart. He started to sweat almost instantly, and reached her all shiny and smelly. He had shown an increasing reluctance to bathe, though Jenny had said that was normal, having raised three sons of her own. The gardener’s boys were around Zack’s age, but seemed to possess no particular scent -- flowers and earth more than anything else -- whenever Nicole had offered them Cokes. She often felt guilty, seeing them sweating while skimming the pool and probably longing to go for a swim, but they were getting paid by the hour. Three shovelfuls later the grave was dug, and Zackary solemnly lowered the coffin. Amusingly -- or maybe not -- the box displayed an American flag.
       Here lies Freddy, thought Nicole, a patriotic American rodent who gave his all for consumerism.
       Zackary added a bit of Pop-Tart to see Freddy through on his journey beyond.
       “He was a nice hamster,” said Nicole, feeling a few words were needed.
       “Yeah,” said Zack and burped. “See ya, Freddy.”
       The wireless beeped in Nicole’s pocket.
       “I’ll do it, mom,” said Zack, as Nicole extracted and un-flipped her phone. Except for his toddler days at the beach, this might have been the first time in his life he’d ever used a shovel.
       Dwane Barrymore’s face appeared on the screen, Texas-tanned and steely-blue eyed, with just the right etchings of weathered crows feet to remind everyone of the Alamo. Naturally he “ran a few cows” and threw barbecues on his “acre or so."
       “Y’all havin’ some trouble this mornin'?” he asked. He wouldn’t have said “little missy," but it seemed to be rather implied.
       “No problem,” replied Nicole, while noting the digital time on the screen. “I’m just getting ready to leave.”
       “Jenny just told me you lost a relation. I’m sorry, Nicole. Are you all right?”
       “Thank you, Dwane, but I’m fine.” Nicole glanced at Zack, who panted and shoveled, his bitter sweat scenting the hot morning air. “We weren’t very close.”
       “When’s the service? I’ll send some flowers.”
       “...Er,” said Nicole. “He didn’t want one.”
       “Well, I don’t want you drivin’ all bereaved. I sent somebody to pick you up.”
       “...Oh,” said Nicole, as Zackary, puffing, completed the grave. His saggers were dragging the shorts off his bottom, now soaked and almost transparent with sweat, which had activated a seminal smell. Nicole didn’t envy his classmates today. “I’m really all right,” she insisted.
       “It’s already done, so you just never mind. Matter of fact, he should be there by now. We can’t have you missin' this meetin’.”
       “...Oh,” Nicole echoed, a little surprised and doing the math... an ambulance couldn’t have made it that fast. Then she heard an approaching drone, and the thrashing chop of propeller blades. Zack looked up, wiping sweat from his eyes, as the small silhouette of a helicopter appeared above the suburban horizon.
       “Woah, mom!" cried Zack. "Check it out!”
       “Y’all better wave,” chuckled Dwane on the phone. “Them houses out there pretty much look alike. Hope you don’t have any clothes on the line.”
       Zack was already waving, his boxers and jeans at an indecent level.
       “...Oh,” repeated Nicole once more. Her mother still hung out her clothes on a line, but in this neighborhood that was likely illegal and maybe a hangin’ offense. “This is really too much. You shouldn’t have, Dwane.”
       Dwane only chuckled again. “Enjoy the ride, Nicole. Might be a lot more in your future.”
       What did that mean, Nicole wondered? She took hold of Zack’s arm, mindful of the menacing blades as the aircraft settled itself on the lawn with the pompous grace of a fat bumblebee. Like all flying things Nicole had seen, it looked brand-new and hospital clean. BARRYMORE CORP. showed bright on its side, along with a gaudy American flag.
       “This is so cool!” exclaimed Zack, displaying more life than he’d shown in a year. “Hey, mom, you’re really important!"
       Nicole kept her grip on Zackary's arm, which felt like pudding contained by skin, until the rotors had slowed to a stop and she’d measured their circle of steel. She admitted to feeling a little important, knowing her neighbors were all taking notes. No one had actually said anything, but it seemed to have been assumed in these parts that she wouldn’t be able to keep the house without a man around. Even the director at Zackary’s school had tactfully mentioned “other academies," whose standards were almost as high as their own... though “assistance was sometimes available in certain deserving cases.”
       Zack had been scanning the aircraft. "It's only a Eurocopter, mom. An’ kinda old. But it's still cool."
       Well, thought Nicole, old or not -- and that was a relative term to Zack in a world where things were obsolete by the time one got them home from the store -- this was better than a roomful of puppies on curtains, something that Dwane often said. And all because Freddy was dead. She suddenly wished him in hamster heaven with brimming food dishes of rodent delights and effortless treadmills that powered themselves.
        The pilot looked like every pilot -- mostly from movies or striding through airports -- Caucasian, of course, and inspiring trust; a rather indefinite young middle-age, with closely-cropped hair and a lightly-tanned face. His eyes were concealed by shiny sunglasses, reflecting the world in bright mirror tears. He was clad in dark slacks and a sky-blue shirt. His narrow knit tie, of the type pilots wore, was pinned with a tiny American flag. His Rolex chronometer gleamed in the sun, as did his professionally pleasant smile as he opened the door and stepped down.
       “Miz Neale?” he asked in a southwestern voice above the idling whine of the engine, which left a kerosene scent in the air.
       “Yes,” said Nicole, stepping forward as if to receive a diploma. Then she glanced down at her ratty old shoes. “I’ll just be a minute...”
       “Mom!” yelped Zack, breaking loose.
       “You’re going to be late for school,” warned Nicole, restraining herself from making a grab that might have looked overprotective.
       The pilot smiled at Zack. “How far is your schoolhouse, son?”
       “I dunno,” said Zack, his eyes roaming over the flying machine. "The bus takes about ten minutes.”
       “They have a big playin’ field?” asked the pilot.
       Comprehension lit Zackary’s face. “Yeah! It’s for soccer. ...Cool!”
       “Is that all right?” asked Nicole. Maybe it was silly, but she wondered if she was being tested.
       “Oh sure,” said the pilot easily, as if he could do what he damn well pleased as free as a bird in the sky. He glanced at his watch, which had multiple dials. “We’ll have you there in no time. ...Name’s Ted Baxter.”
       “Nice to meet you, Mr. Baxter.” Nicole took his hand. He smelled like soap and aftershave... so civilized compared to Zack.
       “Ted.”
       “Ted.” Nicole felt cool air flowing out of the cockpit where Zack was raptly peering inside. It was good to see him excited again after months of virtual nothing. “I’ll change my shoes and get my things. ...Come on now, Zack. Go get a shirt and your books. Hurry up.”
       “Okay, mom.” Zackary lumbered back to the house as fast as he’d moved in his soccer days, though he had to hold onto his jeans with a hand and looked like an earthquake in flubber. Nicole hurried after him, leaving the shovel upright in the earth over Freddy’s sealed-in-plastic remains.



                            End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.