Monday, November 10, 2008

Cooling the Grill

The Book Roast will be cooling down its grill for the holidays, but will return in January!

No matter what the occasion, we hope you have lots of greasy food and fattening desserts!

Happy Holidays!!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

First Chapters: Clea Simon, Kim Baccellia, T.M. Hunter

For your reading enjoyment...

Cries and Whiskers by Clea Simon

She felt sick. Sick as a dog. Hot and feverish despite the icy rain, the thought made her laugh. She was here for the cats, after all. But the laugh had her doubling over in pain, her head bowed so that the whipping wind chilled the sweat on the back of her neck. She had to get home, get back to bed. This was no night to be out, and the cramps were getting worse. No more laughing, she told herself. No more distractions. Tonight, it was all about the cats.

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Earrings of Ixtumea by Kim Baccellia

“How often do you hear a girl saves the world?” The melodic hush of Abuela’s voice, downstairs in the kitchen, woke Lupe. Darkness filled her room. She peered over at her alarm clock. Six o’clock in the morning.
She pulled her pink blanket over her head and moaned. Oh, here we go again, she thought. Couldn’t Abuela let her sleep in, just once? The blanket might cover her, but she couldn’t escape the sounds of her grandmother reciting yet another fable about the girl who saves a world.

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Heroes Die Young by T.M. Hunter

I awoke to a seductive female voice. “Aston...”
Too bad for me, it belonged to Jeanie, my ship’s computer. A cruel joke, designed for mostly male pilots spending long periods of time alone. It was even worse when I ignored the fact she was simply a machine, programmed to think.

continue reading...

First Chapter: CRIES AND WHISPERS by Clea Simon



She felt sick. Sick as a dog. Hot and feverish despite the icy rain, the thought made her laugh. She was here for the cats, after all. But the laugh had her doubling over in pain, her head bowed so that the whipping wind chilled the sweat on the back of her neck. She had to get home, get back to bed. This was no night to be out, and the cramps were getting worse. No more laughing, she told herself. No more distractions. Tonight, it was all about the cats. She shone her flashlight under a pile of windblown trash. Hadn’t she seen a pair of yellow eyes here earlier? Nothing looked back at her now and she stumbled forward in pain. Where were the cats? She’d been sure the tabby would be back, and the orange spotted one, too, still searching for their lost kittens. A tremor shook her and she dropped the flashlight, tripping over the broken edge of the pavement as she tried to force her numb fingers around the cold metal. There! What was that? The flashlight had rolled and as she crawled forward to get it, she saw the two bright spots spark toward her. She knelt, unable to rise, and stared as they grew brighter. Another cramp, sudden and fierce, doubled her over and sent the flashlight into the gutter. No matter, she was unaware of the darkness now, lying in the road as the two lights glowed brighter still.

From the cover of a nearby holly, two yellow eyes watched as the lights bore down. Blinking once, they turned and disappeared into the night.

Chapter 1.

Day had broken, cold and gray. Exceedingly cold and gray, and I burrowed further into the snow for warmth. Sleep was the enemy, it meant death in this frozen world, but the desire to succumb was seductive. If I just let go, soon the cold would be gone, or at least I would no longer feel it. There would be stillness, a quiet drifting off. Peace.

But just then something damp touched my face, and I struggled to open my eyes. Round green eyes were close, too close, waiting for me to relax. To give in. Hypothermia had a gentle embrace, but I feared the fangs that went with those unblinking eyes. I opened my mouth to breathe, to call for help, and felt the touch of fur. The green eyes leaned in.

“Kitty!” My Jack London dream burst. I wasn’t on the Yukon trail, buried in a snowdrift with my sled dogs. I was in bed, with – I sputtered – cat hair on my lip. “Musetta!” I spit and reached out from under the covers to wipe who-knew-what from my mouth. The kitty in question – my black and white Musetta – drew back, but only to the edge of the fluffy white duvet we shared. The room was freezing, and those round eyes were indeed staring, full of accusation. She was furious, but I couldn’t help smiling. Puffed up against the cold, that offending paw now tucked beneath her white tuxedo front, my pet appeared even rounder than usual. Only the off-center white spot on her nose disrupted the symmetry, making her look ever so slightly cross-eyed and so adorable. But no less pissed. Those eyes were ruthless: I was the boss of our little pride, so such inclement weather was my fault, endangering us both. She’d been within her rights to wake me, with nose and paw or any means necessary. She was waiting.

“Hang on.” Dreading the shock of the bare wood floor, I swung my legs around her, out of bed, and pranced gingerly toward the window, slamming it shut as another blast of icy wind and, yes, some snow, blew into the room. At thirty-three, I still lived like a student, a result of budget as much as preference. But this one wasn’t my fault. I remembered opening that window, hours before. I’d come back from a show, the band’s bassist a friend of a friend, and while the music had been unremarkable, a lousy sound mix swamping whatever hooks there were in the mud of distortion, something had inspired me to take notes. And while I’d been trying to write, pecking away at my computer keyboard, the heat had kicked in full blast, turning my one-bedroom apartment into a sweat box. Musetta had been thrilled when I’d cracked the window then, jumping up on the sill to sniff at the night air.

But that had been hours ago. The radiator was cold now and silent, without the clanking that preceded the flood of steam into its antique pipes. Maybe the super had actually re-set a thermostat somewhere in this big ugly box of a building? Or could something have gone wrong? The giant furnace in the basement had a reputation as a temperamental monster, a creaking remnant from decades past, and it also had an entire brick apartment building to heat, six floors of renters. The whole place was falling apart, bit by bit, just out of neglect. Someday the management would kick us out, would sell the building for condos. A nasty thought crept into my sleepy mind.

“They wouldn’t let us go without heat in January, would they?” That illegal, but effective, move had been tried before elsewhere. “Think they’ll try to freeze us out, Musetta?” I always talk to cats. Who knows how much they understand? Besides, I wanted some sympathy in our mutual plight. But all I saw was her sleek black back. Although one ear shifted slightly, she didn’t deign to answer.

I peeked around the blind. Outside my Cambridge apartment, the streetlights were still on. In their glow, I could see the snow turning slick, shifting into the kind of freezing rain that would glaze the city I loved with a deadly beauty. Already, the tree out front sparkled with a coating of ice, and the road below glistened. New England in January: pretty, but treacherous for any poor creature stuck in the storm. And too cold for me. I grabbed the cat – who gave a small protesting “meh!” – and snuggled back under the comforter, trying to find the warmth I’d left. That was one of the pleasures of city living. Someone else in the building would deal with the heat, or the super if that was necessary. With any luck, by the time I was ready to get up, the radiator would be hot again, steaming my worries away. I curled around Musetta and she gave up a purr, grudging, maybe, but steady. I stroked her smooth head and nestled closer, my dark red hair falling over her black bulk. Her nose, still cold and wet, settled against my arm as her head dipped down and we slept.

The phone woke me what seemed like moments later. The phone, and Musetta kicking free in reaction. I followed her bouncing jodhpurs into the living room, rubbing my eyes. Yes, the room was warm. Time must have passed. My own dry mouth confirmed the functioning of the radiator.

“Nyah?” I needed coffee.

“Theda, you awake?” It was Violet. “Stupid question, sorry. It’s not even eight. But Theda, if you can wake up, I need you.”

Violet knew my hours – and my caffeine addiction – as well as anyone. She’s a musician, but we’d met when she’d been working as a barrista at my local coffee house, the Mug Shot, and I had just started freelancing. Now I write about music and by choice I write at night, Vi’s band gigs regularly, and we both share a social life that centers around the Boston-Cambridge club scene. This was way too early, and she knew it.

“Hang on.” I leaned into the tiny alcove the landlord called a kitchenette and filled a glass at the sink. Two gulps later and my tongue worked. “Okay.” I could hear Violet humming to herself, one of her own songs probably. “Okay, I’m awake now. What’s up?”


“Huh?” Since leaving the Mug Shot, Violet ran a small local shelter for her day job. Usually her charges kept the same hours she did.

“I’m not sure, but I think we’ve got a cat-trapping emergency. Caro’s working out in Amherst all week, and of course my drummer’s got our van. Can you help?”

I looked over at Musetta, who had settled onto my old sofa. With her feet tucked under and her eyes already starting to close again, she was the picture of a contented feline. But she’d been a shelter cat once, and, before that, a homeless kitten. I thought of last night’s storm.

“Give me twenty minutes to get dressed and pick up some coffee?”

“Thanks, Theda. I wouldn’t turn down a large French roast, and maybe a lemon poppyseed muffin if they’ve got ’em.”

When I pulled up at the old Victorian that housed both my friend and the Lillian Helmhold House for Wayward Cats a half hour later, bag of muffins propped between two travel mugs, Violet was waiting out front. Caro – Violet’s partner and a jill-of-all-trades carpenter-contractor – had reinforced the old house’s sagging gutters and replaced its missing shutters. She’d even painted the three-story building, home to Caro and Vi and more than two dozen felines, in a lively palette of greens and golds. But although it glowed in comparison to the brick block next door, the grand old dame was no match for the diminutive purple-haired punk on the sidewalk. In deference to the icy cold, Violet had a bright red ear-warmer wrapped around her head, one that made her spiked locks stand up straighter. In a day-glo orange parka she looked like an elf gone bad.
“Damn, I hate winter.” As she clambered into my old Toyota, I could see that her nose matched the ear-wrap. She grabbed a mug and took a swig. “Ah, thanks.” Popping a piece of muffin between chattering teeth, she looked back out at the street. “This is brutal.”

“Slick, too. I fishtailed when I turned onto Putnam. At least the sleet has stopped. Where to?”

“Down by the river. You know where the old bottling plant is?” I nodded. Punctuating our neighborhood of triple deckers and the occasional red brick box, the towering “Industrial Space To Let” sign was a local landmark, the last bit of working-class Cambridgeport as drivers crossed over to Boston. “Good, this might be nothing, but when it’s this cold out, I’ve got to check.”

“Check on what?” Violet was cupping her hands over the heating vent, hoping for warmth I knew wouldn’t start up for another ten minutes. I broke off a chunk of muffin, sour cream and poppy with a fresh, lemony tang, and pulled out, watching for the slick spots that indicated black ice.

“I got a call from Eva. You know, Luisa’s mother?” I nodded, chewing. I didn’t have a clear picture of the mother, but I remembered the shy, dark-haired girl who had adopted a huge, mellow tabby months before. “She’s a nurse in the ER at Cambridge City and she was working the lobster shift when they brought in our old buddy, Gail Womynfriend.”

I rolled my eyes. Gail was an animal rights activist, a cause I believed in – in principle. But Gail was so far out on the edge that she considered Violet’s shelter work to be collusion with the enemy, those who would keep free animals enslaved. “Psychotic break?” I reached for more muffin while Violet held the bag.

“No, she’d been hit by a car. Hurt pretty badly, Eva said.”

“Ticked-off breeder?” I was half serious. Gail didn’t believe in propagating domestic animals, and wasn’t averse to protesting. Loudly. “Someone at the university?” I remembered when the short, wiry-haired woman had “liberated” thirty lab rats and chained herself to their cages instead.

“Could be,” Violet’s voice turned quiet. At least her teeth were no longer chattering. “It was hit and run.”

Just then I came up to the traffic circle under the BU bridge. We’d caught the tail end of the commuter rush, and I had to wait before accelerating into the shaded roundabout. The pavement had a suspicious sheen, and I could feel my rear wheels spin a moment before catching.

“The weather was pretty foul last night.” My own near-skid reminded me. “It was probably an accident.”

“Yeah, but to drive away? That’s low.”

“Maybe whoever it was didn’t know they’d hit someone?” Violet looked over at me. I didn’t believe it either. “No, you’re right. That’s horrible. But what’s it got to do with cats?”

“Pull up here.” We were getting close to a long, low industrial building, a dozen of its windows knocked out and covered in plywood, backed up against the riverside Memorial Drive. Mostly brick, with a base of granite blocks the size of my work desk, it was an impressive landmark. It used to be more. When I’d first come to Cambridge as a college freshman, fifteen years ago, this had been a thriving bottling plant, employing dozens of my neighbors. Last I’d heard, maybe a quarter of the big brick factory was occupied – small-scale software outfits and the like – and I had my pick of parking along the side street that led to the main entrance. We got out and I cupped my gloved hands around my insulated mug, following Violet up a cracked cement walkway.

“You know they’re going to build condos here?” I didn’t, but considering how fast my little city was changing I wasn’t surprised. Cambridge, Boston’s “left bank,” was a realtor’s wet dream. “One of Sally’s friends was looking into renting the basement, turning it into practice spaces, when she got the word: no more rentals. So some of us started asking why. Gail was taking care of a colony of feral cats that live somewhere around here, and I think someone must have passed the news on. Last I heard, Gail was going to try to relocate them.”

“I didn’t realize she’d get that involved.” Gail was a member of Animals Now, which as far as I could tell focused on making human lives hell in retribution for all our sins. “I mean, wouldn’t she rather have killed the developer?”

“I wouldn’t put it past her, if she had access to an ecologically sound weapon. But really, she wasn’t that bad.” Violet caught my look and shrugged. “I mean, we’re basically on the same side, trying to save the animals and all.” I bit back my response, taking a long swig of my swiftly cooling latté instead. Violet took in strays and often got them adopted as pets. She worked hard at teaching our Cambridgeport neighborhood about the need to spay and neuter. I’d heard Gail speak: She didn’t believe in pets, and only supported neutering because we’d “corrupted” cats by domesticating them and she wanted the species to die out. Given her druthers, the intense little activist would have euthanized half the human population for revenge, and turned

Cambridge into a sanctuary for the native possums, pigeons, and woodchucks.
Some of this must have shown on my face, despite the soft wool cap I’d pulled down over my eyebrows. “Whatever you think of her, she was doing good work,” said Violet, leading up a wide set of stairs. We reached a set of metal doors, secured with a chain and heavy padlock, and after tugging on the door, Violet started back down. “There was a big colony living here and she’d asked me for some help.”

I followed, draining the last of my coffee. “You? What about her coven?”

“I’m telling Bunny.” Our friend Bunny’s a Wiccan, but too softhearted for anyone outside of liberal-lefty Cambridge to call a witch. Violet walked along the building’s brick and granite front, stopping occasionally to peek under the sad yews that passed for foundation shrubbery. “Anyway, I think Gail had a falling out with the Animals Now guys. She called me to ask about humane trapping. I thought she wanted to do TNR. You know, trap, neuter, return? But she said something about moving the cats. I thought she meant fostering them, trying to turn them into pets, and I made some suggestions. She just lost it. Said I was trying to pervert nature. Screamed about letting them be. Then, when I heard about the condo plan, I realized she must have meant getting them out of here before the bulldozers come.”

Tagging along after, I wondered how long that would be. The sprawling factory complex took up almost an acre along the river. With that view and so close to the universities and Boston right across the Charles, condos here could go for a million easy.

“I can’t believe this old place has lasted so long.”

“Development rights. And some of us in the neighborhood have been lobbying for a park.” She smiled, and I wondered just how active that “lobbying” had been. Our Cambridgeport neighborhood, nestled into a bend of the river, served as a microcosm of the city: Students and professors shared blocks, and often buildings, with new immigrants from Asia and Africa, while older communities of Cape Verdeans and Haitians added their traditions to the mix. Usually, we all found some way to get along. With a population this tightly packed, we’d better. But these days the uniting factor tended to be resentment toward developers, the speculators and big-money investors who wanted to turn our little city by the Charles into the next Gold Coast.
Not that any realtors were going to stroll by on a subzero morning like this. I stamped my feet on the concrete; my toes were going numb. Whatever their prospects for the future, the old building’s remaining windows were blank today. My hopes of a hot caffeine refill faded.

“So, what are we looking for?” Violet was on her knees peering under a hedge.

“Oh yeah. Sorry. Cats. Cats and traps. Eva said she didn’t have a chance to breathe until her shift ended, but she called as soon as she could. Gail was in pretty bad shape when they brought her in, but I guess she recognized Eva. I don’t know, from the shelter, or just from around. Maybe she was delirious. Anyway, she reached up and grabbed Eva when they were taking her into surgery. ‘Cats,’ she said. ‘Get the cats out.’ Eva couldn’t get anything else out of her, not in the few seconds she had. Probably Gail was just out of it, but Eva called and asked if there was something going on that I should be aware of, something with the shelter. And that’s when I thought about the trapping. If Gail had been out here, maybe trying to move the cats before the storm, maybe she set some traps. Any cats out in this weather wouldn’t last another night. I mean, they can deal with a lot of cold, but not if their fur gets wet. So I told her we’d have a look around, see if we could find any traps and free any animals that might be inside. It’s a long shot, but even with a fur coat, this is no weather for any living creature.”

I couldn’t muster up a ton of sympathy for Gail, accident or no, but if she’d been hit trying to

save cats I figured I could at least help finish her work. Besides, the idea of terrified animals, freezing after a sleet storm was too much for me. For the next half hour, Violet and I poked around the old building’s front yard, looking under bushes and into every broken window big enough for the petite Gail to have crawled through. Violet was a few years younger than me, shorter and more lithe, but I did my best to keep up, peering under anything that looked like a possible hiding space.

Nobody would see my blue-jeaned butt up in the air anyway. The place was deserted, the empty grounds isolating the building from the neighborhood that began only a block away. It was Monday, well past nine, but any tenants who’d sublet space here either didn’t keep banker’s hours or had long ago given up the ghost. Even if they’d been evicted, there was no sign of any development. No flagged stakes squared off the frosted gray earth. Someone at some point had driven some heavy equipment here. Treads like the mark of giant claws dug into what had once been lawn. But these were frozen hard, the tracks of dinosaurs made back when the earth was moist and young. Beyond those marks and a few sad hedges, the grounds were as bare and hard as a moonscape.

The front covered, we walked around a silent corner. The plant, which had seemed liked a stone-and-brick monolith from the street, actually had two small courtyards on its river side, making a shape like a giant letter “E” that had fallen forward onto its face along Memorial Drive. The design hinted at better days, and I could imagine a time when owners valued fresh air and windows for their workers. But as we walked into the first courtyard everything looked lifeless, old chips bags the only color beside the faded brick.

“So I should be looking for cats?” I called over to Violet.

“Traps, actually. Big, boxy wire cages, like big Hav-A-Hearts,” she yelled back, already on her hands and knees, peering under a sickly yew. “Gail might have tried to camouflage them under branches or a blanket.”

Along the far wall, a gray tangle of twigs reaching to the windows suggested some variety in the long-dead landscaping. Rags and bleached newspaper plastered over the branches like postindustrial papier-mâché. Perfect place for a trap, but as I crossed the bare courtyard the dirt crumbled under my boots, brittle and dry from repeated freezes. No person had walked here, not recently, and true enough the dead shrub held nothing except ice and more garbage.

“It doesn’t look like anyone has been here since the first freeze.” Or the last Ice Age. “You sure the developers are coming here?”

“Yup.” Violet’s voice was muffled as she examined a pile of fallen branches. I picked one up and poked a hillock of leaves. I didn’t ask how she knew. Violet and I overlapped in a lot of areas, but not all of them.

We moved onto the next courtyard. Set back from the entrance, separated from Memorial Drive by a few sad-looking trees, stood a wooden outbuilding. Maybe it had once held gardening tools. At some point, it had been painted a cheery blue. Now the dominant color was gray, and it looked like a good wind would do for it. But I could see a heavy chain and bolted metal catch on the warped door. The tiny structure might seem abandoned, but somebody had once cared.

“No way, there’s a trap in there.” Violet walked up to it anyway, rattled the door. I turned back toward the courtyard, kicking at leaves until a movement made me freeze.

There, underneath an evergreen bush, a flash of orange. Then another. I caught a brief glimpse of a long, lean shape, orange striped with white. I reached back to motion Violet, but she was already beside me. We craned toward the bush at the opening of the courtyard, but that small movement had been enough, and the cat backed into the dark olive leaves. What could have been a rustle was covered by the sound of the wind.

We inched forward, into the shelter of the courtyard, and crouched low, waiting. My hair blew into my mouth and I realized I was holding my breath.

“There!” My whisper was louder than I’d meant it to be, but the wind took it. I saw a head peek out, then an entire body, skinny to the point of scrawniness.

“She’s watching us.” We both fell silent. The marmalade head dipped to a half-frozen puddle and began lapping furiously. Beside me, Violet shifted. We’d been crouching for several minutes by then. The cat started – and ducked into the bushes.

“I’m surprised she’s even showing herself.” Violet knew more about feline behavior than I ever would. “She should be hiding from us.”

The cat peeked out again, her mouth opening in a silent mew. “What’s wrong with her? Do you think she’s hurt?”

Violet inched forward, but it was enough. The cat took off, this time for good. “Well, she’s healthy enough to run. Something was bothering her, though.” We both stood and stretched. Violet kicked the dirt with a frustration I shared, and we went to work on the second courtyard.

Once again, we split up, Violet tackling a low brambly-looking shrub against the far wall, while I found myself examining the evergreen that had sheltered the marmalade cat. The bush was half dead, broken brown branches hung off the glossier green ones. It looked like a good hiding place to me. An almost cozy home, but she was nowhere to be seen, even when I crawled along the low-hanging bush. I couldn’t find any signs of a trap, either, but the end of the long low bush revealed a basement bulkhead, partially caved in. More fallen branches, blown from the courtyard’s one surviving elm, almost covered the shattered wood of the doors.

I knelt and peered into the gloom of the bulkhead. Even in the frozen air, a whiff of ammonia came through. Eau de litterbox, descending into deep shadow. “Violet?” I wasn’t sure how a cornered feral would react.

“Theda! I got ‘em! Over here!” Getting stiffly to my feet I trotted over to the other side of the courtyard, where Violet’s orange parka was visible through the brambles. Crawling in behind her, I saw what had caught her attention: two traps, one sprung. Huddled in the back of one orange-crate-sized wire cage was a yellow-eyed tabby, hissing at us weakly. A bit of greasy bacon was still caught in a clothespin clipped to the side. That must have been the bait, but she’d been too freaked out to claim her prize. “Stand back.” Violet waved me away. I moved to the side, watching for thorns, and Violet lifted the door. No movement. She reached gingerly for the trap’s handle, expecting a swipe of claws, and gently shook the wire cage. Nothing – the cat was too scared, too cold, or too ill. She just huddled in the corner, dingy fur fluffed. Another weak hiss seemed to take all she had, and then she hung her head.

“Poor girl, she’s wiped out. I guess we’re taking her to the shelter.” Violet let the door back down, and the tabby roused enough for another round of hissing and spit. “At least she’s got some fight left in her.”

“Yeah, but she sure looks like she could use a meal, not to mention a dry, warm bed.”
Violet sighed. Her shelter, which didn’t euthanize, was nearly always full, and on principle she focused on strays and abandoned pets. Those already socialized animals not only got along with each other, they had the best chance of being placed – which meant, in turn, that Violet could take in the next litter or lost animal the neighborhood kids brought around. “Okay, kitty, you like us so much, you’re going to love a car ride.”

I used a stick to spring the other trap shut and pulled it from its covering of brush. We’d began the long walk back to the car when it hit me. “Violet, there was a bulkhead over by where we saw the other cat. It smelled like there might be some cat activity there.”

She looked at the terrified feline. Despite the movement of the cage, the cat remained pressed to the back corner. “We’ve got to get this little girl out of the cold.”

I handed her my car keys. “Here, go warm yourselves up. I’ll just be a minute.”

“Wait.” Putting the cage down, Violet rummaged in the pockets of her oversize parka, coming up with a small flashlight. “If it’s the feral, she’ll probably bolt. Let her. If there’s a cage...”

“I know, I’ll watch my fingers.” I took the flashlight and ran back to the bulkhead. Darkness. Through the broken door, I couldn’t see anything but splintered stairs and dead leaves. There didn’t even seem to be much snow or ice collected in the dark hollow. Taking a deep breath, I grabbed the broken door and pulled. It came open more easily than I’d expected, and I jumped back as it fell to the ground with a thud. Nothing moved, and I listened for a hiss. The wooden stairs before me didn’t look any sturdier with sunlight on them. But Violet knew where I was going. If I didn’t return...

This was silliness. I stepped in and caught my breath at the stench. Down three stairs, I felt a spider web on my cheek. Could this get any more gross? Thanking my foresight for wearing a hat, I brushed the offending web from my face and continued down to the concrete floor. Flicking on Violet’s flashlight, I peered under the stairs. No eyes reflected back, and I turned to open the bottom doors, also made of wooden planks. They gave ever so slightly, but then held firm. I shook them, hoping to free them from whatever ice or debris held them fast. Nothing. With the flashlight, I examined the bottom of the doors, kicking away the dead leaves gathered there to expose solid wood, no holes or broken boards. Then up the gap between the doors – all the way to the shiny new lock. Well, good. Either a renter or the property’s owner had the foresight to secure the basement. I thought of Violet’s contact and wondered if some band had been taking advantage of an open, empty building. No musician would want to leave equipment here, but before the latest deep freeze it might have been a good space for a party.

At any rate, I was off the hook. Even if a cat might still have found a way in, a cat trapper couldn’t. Ducking to avoid the remnants of the spider’s weavings, I trotted back to the light and lifted the rotten outer door back into place. Maybe that little entranceway would be shelter for some poor beast, stuck in the bitter cold of a New England winter. I gave the courtyard one last look. The marmalade cat was nowhere to be seen.

We were loading the cages into the backseat when I heard a rush of notes, the five-beat bass line to “Police and Thieves.”

“The Clash?”

“I know. Old school!” Violet reached into her parka as the reggae-punk riff repeated and opened a tiny purple cell phone.

“Chic!” She smiled, and then listened.

“Wow. Okay, okay. We’ll be at the shelter soon. And Eva? Thanks.” She snapped it shut.

“What was that?” I tucked a blanket around the trapped cat’s cage and got hissed at for my troubles.

“Eva just had a visit from the cops. It seems someone saw Gail talking to her in the emergency room, and they’re asking questions.”

“Because it was a hit and run?” We pulled away, and my old car responded with a blast of almost warm air. “Can’t Gail tell them anything yet?”

“Gail’s dead, Theda. And the cops seem to think that the hit-and-run wasn’t an accident.”

First Chapter: EARRINGS OF IXTUMEA by Kim Baccellia


Chapter One

“How often do you hear a girl saves the world?” The melodic hush of Abuela’s voice, downstairs in the kitchen, woke Lupe. Darkness filled her room. She peered over at her alarm clock. Six o’clock in the morning.

She pulled her pink blanket over her head and moaned. Oh, here we go again, she thought. Couldn’t Abuela let her sleep in, just once? The blanket might cover her, but she couldn’t escape the sounds of her grandmother reciting yet another fable about the girl who saves a world. Wasn’t it bad enough she’d been forced to listen to that stupid tale last night? And even worse, downstairs in their kitchen, listening and encouraging were her abuelita’s amigas.

Lupe stumbled out of bed, kicking aside a collection of navy and white uniform clothes on the floor. Throwing on a faded flannel robe, she cracked her bedroom door open. The voices grew louder.

“Sí, tell us more.” The ting of spoons against the tiny tea cups sounded like a battle cry. Didn’t those women know it was way too early? Jeez, no way was I going to sleep. I might as well see if they made some Ubarra chocolate or tea. At least that way maybe I could stomach this whole nonsense of Ixtumea and Super-Girl before I go to school.

She had long outgrown the silly tales. Though she hated to admit it, the tale of the girl savior fascinated her. Never had she heard of a teen age Latina battling evil forces and saving a people like her own in a parallel world not unlike the land of her Mexican ancestors.

No, the only stories of teen heroes she’d heard starred thin beautiful blondes. Everything she wasn’t.

Still Abuela’s voice cast a spell on her. Lupe knew she shouldn’t eavesdrop on the chismes, but she couldn’t help herself.

She crept down the stairs past the pictures of the Virgin Guadalupe, Pope John Paul II, and one of the mysterious Mayan gods.

“Ay, too bad she couldn’t have come sooner,” Coco, their next door neighbor, sighed. “Too many cosas modernas in our world. Now who believes? No one but us.”

Who were they talking about? Lupe wondered.

“Now that’s one story I’d like to hear,” An unfamiliar gravely voice replied. “Not another about the pobrecita guera who steals the ranchero’s heart. How many poor blonds from Mexico do you ladies know?”

“You mean real ones or ones that appear with la magica of the bleach?” said Esperanza, the local gossip of the apartment building.

Laughter filled the small apartment. Lupe couldn’t help but smile. These ladies loved those telenovelas almost as much as Abuela’s tales. She thought it funny that her grandmother got on her case about her Anglo pop idols. Maybe the ladies weren’t that different from her after all.
Lupe crouched down and hid behind one of the banisters. Ixchel, the spider goddess, smiled down on her from a painting on the wall. Red gems sparkled from her ear lobes, similar to the earrings her grandmother had tried to give her last night.

From this position Lupe saw the usual group of amigas sitting around the Formica table, sipping café de leche or manzanilla--chamomile--tea in delicate small cups. Vivid crimson, yellow, and orange house coats brightened the kitchen. They sounded like a flock of colorful parrots.

Next to the stove, Abuela worked her magic. She pinched off a bit of dough, rolled the soft masa into the size of a golf ball, and flattened the dough between her earth-colored hands. Quickly she threw the pancake shaped masa into a sizzling black pan.

Other women helped. Esperanza scrambled eggs, the vivid red house dress she wore fluttering over her round figure. Esperanza’s large gold hoop earrings bounced with every movement.
Coco stood to the far corner, one large embroidered rose peeking out of her simple rebozo. She cut the tortillas into thin strips to mix in with the eggs, chorizo, and cheese. “Oye, espera un momento. I want to hear more about this niña who’ll save Ixtumea.”

“Here, let me finish.” The scrape of a metal chair dragged across the wooden floor and one of the women took over cooking the tortillas.

“Ay, where was I?” Lupe’s abuela asked as she settled down in one of the chairs. She wiped her hands on her apron, sealing in the roasted scent of tortillas that Lupe loved.

“The prophecy. How does it go, again?”

“Oh, yes.” Abuelita took a deep breath. Then she began.

“She will come,
Descending through the sacred web,
To vanquish the great deceiver.
Many will be her name:

“Cipriana, do we know this niña?”

Lupe leaned down closer to the stair, curious to find out if her grandmother would reveal the name of a person. Wouldn’t it be a real hoot if it was someone she knew?

“Let me guess.” Esperanza turned off the stove. “She’s tall, thin, and has blonde hair.”

“You sound as bad as my Lupita. Nadie está contento con su suerte. Always dreaming the other side is better.”

Her grandmother let out a deep sigh. “If only she’d listen and take the earrings....”

“So, she hasn’t taken them?” Coco asked. “Does she not know how importante they are?”

“If I was her, I’d be dying to use them... wait, maybe, your Lupita is this niña!” Esperanza laughed so hard she snorted. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

Startled at hearing her name, Lupe leaned back against the wall. An old picture of her mother wearing those same earrings tilted above her.

Lupe felt a strange foreboding. The tips of her ears burned. What was wrong with her?
She got up and went back to her room. Quietly she closed the door to block out the voices. A prickly sensation covered her body, along with a sick feeling that maybe Esperanza was right. She thought back to last night and her grandmother’s attempt to give her a pair of earrings, identical to the ones in all the pictures in their apartment. She’d started up again with the legend and refused to let Lupe leave the room. No, this is muy importante, she said. She talked about a web between the worlds fraying and the time of the fulfillment of the prophecy was now. And how, Lupe needed to be prepared.

As if jewelry would be a shield against any supernatural force. Lupe resisted the urge to cross herself.

But still...could the tales be true?

Lupe plopped back on her bed. All thoughts of joining the ladies had vanished.

No, they’re only fairy tales, she told herself.


“¡Lupita! ¡Vente! Come down before your breakfast gets cold!”
Lupe rolled over in bed. She glanced at her clock. Seven-thirty. She must have gone back to sleep. Then she remembered what she’d overhead from the amigas downstairs. The prophecy of Ixtumea and the magical earrings had been the talk of their early morning meeting.
Esperanza, the queen chismosa, even had joked Lupe might be the girl savior in the fairy tale.

Yeah, as if.
Jeez, why did the amigas have to come over on a school day? She hoped they’d left the apartment.

She got off her bed and made her way to her closet, and caught a glimpse of herself in the vanity mirror. Her figure might’ve been in style back before Cortez conquered Mexico, but not now. Everything about her was round—-including her butt. She was nothing like the willowy thin singers and actresses on the cover of Teen People magazine. Around the mirror pictures of Ashley Snow stared back at her. Ashley’s heavily-lined eyelids mocked her. Why couldn’t she be like Ashley?

She was tired of being brown-haired, brown-eyed and brown-skinned.

She kicked yesterday’s outfit under her bed, and took out a clean navy pleated skirt and white polo shirt. She put these on and then the white socks before she completed the look with a pair of white Oxford shoes.

She took a final peek at herself before she opened her bedroom door. Light filtered through a glass painting of the Virgin Guadalupe, filling the walkway with vivid greens, blues, and reds. Lupe stopped by the picture. Gazing into the saints’ eyes, she longed for her to whisk her away from the pagan discussions she’d eavesdropped on earlier. She’d make it a point to ask Father Michael for penance during confessional. Maybe that would help her avoid a trip to hell.

A loud snort downstairs broke the spell.

The muffled sounds of the amigas meant one thing: they hadn’t left.

Lupe clasped the wooden banister. Oh, please leave. She didn’t want to go downstairs and hear about her so-called ‘calling’ in Ixtumea. But she really had no choice. She’d left her backpack, which held her English essay paper, on the kitchen table. Without that forget about hell—-she’d rather die than spend any time in detention.

As Lupe made her way down the stairs, a few of the amigas strolled out of the kitchen. Esperanza followed. Her wide hips seemed to have a life of their own, dancing to a silent Salsa beat. Lupe stared in fascination at her nalgas. Though she hated her own, she knew Esperanza prided herself on her butt.

“Ay, look at our Lupita, not so little anymore.” Esperanza smiled.

Lupe flushed.

Esperanza grabbed a black reboza off the couch and flung the wrap around her shoulders. “Escúchala- listen to your Abuela. Don’t be so cabezona. And next time--”she added with a wink”--don’t be so afraid to come and join us.”

So she did know! Lupe’s heart dropped to her stomach. It figured she couldn’t hide anything from that chismosa.

But Lupe didn’t have a chance to comment. One by one the women left the kitchen and grabbed either their sweaters or wraps off the couch.

“Hasta luego, Lupita,” Coco said. “Tell your abuelita we’ll see her tomorrow.” She opened the door and all the women left.

Finally! Relief surged through Lupe. She hoped that all the foolishness of Ixtumea had departed with them. But somehow she doubted that.

She made her way down the staircase to the kitchen. The roasted scent of chorizo con huevos grew stronger. Her stomach gurgled. Lupe took a deep breath.

She strolled into the kitchen. Though small, a row of windows made the room seem larger. In a prominent space on the kitchen wall, a framed drawing of Santo Toribio, patron saint of guidance, seemed to bless the room. An assortment of herbs and spices grew in a window planter. A scattering of tiny coffee cups cluttered the sink.

“I’m glad you finally decided to wake from the dead, m’ija.” Abuela sat at the table, a cup of streaming café de leche in her hand. “A quien madruga Dios lo ayuda. Remember, God only helps those who rise early.”

Lupe rolled her eyes. Her grandmother seemed to have a Spanish dicho-saying for everything.

Lupe made her way to the old Formica table in the corner of the room. Nothing remained of the amigas on the tile counter except some tattered novelas with racy covers. Lupe hoped she could sneak a peek at them after school. She liked the romances too.

In her usual spot sat a plate filled with a mixture of eggs, chorizo-sausage, and cheese. Warm tortillas were wrapped inside a white kitchen cloth. A few slices of the shells were on her plate. Ubarra chocolate streamed in her favorite large mug. The picture of a calico cat seemed to purr, content with the sweet beverage inside.

Abuela lifted her own cup to her mouth and watched Lupe. Her intense gaze made Lupe uncomfortable.

Lupe glanced over to the end of the table where her books were scattered from the last night’s cram session. She could still see the notes she’d tried to study from peeping out of the red notebook. She slid over and crammed the books and notes back into her backpack.

Abuela took another sip of her café. “Did you think about what I said?”
Oh, here we go again. Lupe thought. Couldn’t she give this Ixtumea thing a rest?

“Ah, Abuela, I really got to go.” Lupe grabbed another warm tortilla from her plate. She shoved some chorizo and egg inside and wrapped it in a napkin. “I can’t miss my bus.”

Her grandmother watched with half veiled eyes. “M’ija, the bus can wait. But what is coming, can not.”

Lupe raised an eyebrow. “What is coming? What are you talking about?”

“The web grows weaker between our world and Ixtumea; soon you will be called on. You need to be ready.”

“Yeah, right.” Lupe picked up her mug. She took another sip. “Abuela, you’ve been reading too many--“she nodded to the romances--“novelas. And I really gotta go.”

Sadness covered her grandmother’s face. She put her mug down and reached inside her apron pocket. “Lupe, don’t forget these.” Abuela pushed her chair back. With a slight limp she walked over to Lupe, clutching something in her palms.

The earrings! The earlier prickly sensation, like ants crawling up her skin, returned.

What was it with those earrings?

Abuela opened her hand and the familiar red rubies glinted up at her. Fine strands of gold curved around the gems. Lupe squirmed in her chair. She wished she could tear her skin off, anything to stop the sensation.

Her grandmother’s large topaz eyes never left Lupe. “Here, you need these.”

“Come on, Abuela. I’m not from one of your dumb tales. Those earrings won’t whirl me into Ixtumea. This isn’t Disneyland.”

“Dios mio. Why don’t you listen?”

“Come on, Abuelita, they’re only jewelry. They don’t have any magica. That kind of stuff only happens in those novelas you all read.”

Abuela grabbed her hand. “No, child. These are important.” She firmly pressed the earrings into Lupe’s hands. “If you won’t listen, at least keep them with you.”

Lupe gritted her teeth in frustration. She wanted to throw the stones on the wooden floor. Did her grandmother think she was six or something? It was embarrassing enough she had to subject herself to Abuela’s blessings every morning, but now this?

But something bothered her. The urgency of Abuela’s words and the women’s discussion earlier scared her. Maybe she should take them. If nothing else it would stop her grandmother’s nagging. Or better yet, she would use her own dicho—-ojos que no ven, corazon que siente—-out of sight, out of mind.

“Thanks. I think.” Lupe went back to the table and picked up her backpack. She pushed the earrings into her skirt pocket and rushed past Abuela towards the door, skipping her daily blessing. She figured the earrings were more than enough.

“Lupita?” The slam of the door behind her shut out her abuela’s voice. Lupe felt a tinge of guilt. She hated being disrespectful but the combination of the women’s gossip, the earrings, and a vigilant abuela was too much to deal with this early in the morning.

Lupe dashed down the staircase, fighting the strong urge to turn around and ask her abuela why the earrings were really important. Would they really protect her against evil that was destroying the web?

Come off it. Like there really is such a thing as a gigantic spider web hiding another world. One that no-one, except Abuela and her amigas, can see. Boy, maybe some of her grandmother’s herbs were starting to affect her mind.

Lupe stopped at the foot of the stairs for a moment and opened the backpack flap to look for her iPod. She took it out, scanning for Justin Summer’s latest songs before she put the earphones on. She turned up the volume not only to drown out the sounds of the passing traffic and loud neighbors but to quiet the fears bubbling inside. She walked around a collection of greasy hamburger wrappers and half empty Coke cans, lost in her music... and away from her embarrassing life.

First Chapter: HEROES DIE YOUNG by T.M. Hunter


I awoke to a seductive female voice. “Aston...”

Too bad for me, it belonged to Jeanie, my ship’s computer. A cruel joke, designed for mostly male pilots spending long periods of time alone. It was even worse when I ignored the fact she was simply a machine, programmed to think.


"We’re entering the Toris system.”
Our current destination was my gateway to temporary financial security. I sat up from the hard, low-lying bunk, stood and walked forward to the bridge. It was a short distance, nonetheless painful, as metallic floor panels clanked under my feet louder than normal.

As I walked onto my bridge, the hyperspeed engines disengaged and slowly wound down. I held onto my Captain’s chair to steady myself until the ship reached a constant velocity. I sat down in my chair, reached into the side pocket, and pulled out the same bottle of Vladirian liquor that put me down.

“How are we doing on time?”

"Far ahead of schedule,” responded Jeanie.
The second of my four cargo hatches held a cargo container full of blue organic crystals. When I picked it up, the seller told me to take it to Toris, the outer planet in the system of the same name. I didn’t know why, but I’d double my pay if I made it to Toris fast enough ahead of schedule. They didn’t have to tell me twice.

“Let me know when we reach the station.”

I took a small taste of the light yellow liquid in the bottle. The storekeeper peddling the stuff at my last stop had filled me in with the full story behind the drink. A small animal called a Roshtu secreted theliquid as a defensive measure when attacked. The sweet smell and taste caused the attacking predator to lap it up and become intoxicated, while the Roshtu escaped unharmed. I took another drink, this one longer.

“So, Jeanie, what would you like me to buy you once I get paid?”

“I am currently running at peak performance, and have no requirements.”

I smiled and leaned back in my chair. I usually found scuttled and abandoned cargo, then sold it for profit. Scavenging was a less aggressive form of piracy, and usually safer, since you didn’t have to carry out threats of violence. Unfortunately, such cargo tended to be scarce, and had been more so lately. So, when I’d stumbled into an opportunity to carry cargo, I jumped at the chance. An extra bonus for speedy delivery didn’t hurt matters. I took another sip of the Vladirian liquor and put it away. There needed to be something left to celebrate my fortune with.


Jeanie ignored my question. “I’m picking up a ship on medium range sensors.”

The hair on the back of my neck rose. “Show me.”

My viewscreen lit up along the front wall of my bridge. A couple kilpars in length, the lines of the ship were smooth, tapering from the nose to a constant rectangular cross-section around the first quarter of the hull. Near the back of the ship, I could see bell-shaped nozzles behind four embedded engines, darkened against the starfield. I recognized the configuration, but wanted some confirmation.

“Rulusian freighter?”

She gave the designation. “Green Three.”

I took another look at the sensor screen over my left armrest. “I don’t see any other ships out there.”

“There are none in the vicinity.”

A Rulusian freighter in an alien system, all by itself, made no sense. They often stuck together in vast convoys, to give themselves a better defensive position through sheer numbers. “Status of the freighter?”

“Engines and main power are down, backup systems are in effect. No shields, no weapons charged.” She paused a moment. “No life signs.”

With the condition of the ship, and no crew, I wondered what happened. Then a smile crossed my lips. I was a scavenger pirate at heart and wasn’t about to let a prime opportunity escape.

“Any cargo in the bays?”

Jeanie was hesitant. “Yes.”

“Well,” I chuckled, “what is it?”

“I’m picking up signs of cargo without accompanying records in the transport manifest.”


My smile grew. Rulusians were usually law-abiding. I had no idea why one of their ships would be hauling illegal cargo, but with three open bays on my ship, and plenty of time to spare, there was only one thing on my mind.

Jeanie was too smart for her own good. “The logic of this situation does not compute.”

“It’s nice you worry about me, Jeanie, but I’ll be fine.” I nearly laughed at the thought of a machine with feelings.

She remained silent.

“Access their computer, and drop their cargo.”

“Unable to comply.”

If she wasn’t programmed to obey, I would have been upset.

There had to be something wrong.


“The on-board systems were placed under a command-level lock-out by the Captain of the vessel. Only the Captain can remove it.”

I clasped my hands behind my head, and sighed, as Green Three grew larger in the viewscreen. Finding the freighter made me think my luck was turning for the better. Now, the situation was tougher than it first seemed. My thoughts drifted to the state of the ship.

“Looks like they didn’t want anyone else gaining control. Maybe they abandoned her.”

“That theory appears plausible.”

I ran my hands through my dark brown, wavy locks, then massaged the tension out of the back of my neck. “I guess I’ll just have to go over and drop it manually. Move us to the starboard
docking port.”
~ * ~

Soon, I stood inside the airlock compartment of the Rulusian freighter, my crude and stubby Mark II blaster in my right hand. It was small enough to hold with one hand, and a recoil guard was propped up against my elbow.

I lifted my left sleeve and spoke through the transmitter embedded in the black jacket. “Can you get me through the airlock hatch?”


Green indicator lights above the inner circular hatch told me the pressures had equalized. I stooped over to the left and looked at my reflection in a dark computer monitor mounted in the wall. My face was rugged, covered with a few lines and weathered by experience. My once bright blue eyes were dim from the passage of time. I quickly grew tired of looking at myself and pulled the screen out, as it dangled from a large jumble of wires. It was a mystery which ones controlled the locking mechanism, so to save time, I yanked all of them out amidst snapping sparks and
rancid fumes. The display dropped to the floor and smashed. The door popped loose, just enough where I could put my fingers around the edge. The muscles in my arms bulged slightly as I strained. Finally, the door hit a point where it rolled out of the way on its own. I ducked
through the entryway.

“I’m in,” I announced to Jeanie.

“Be careful.”

Inside, I broke into a sweat, from both the physical exertion and the climate controls on-board the freighter. Rulusians were from an extremely warm and humid jungle planet, and liked to make their ships feel like home. My heavy jacket didn’t help matters. Lines of sweat made their way down my face, as I stepped away from the airlock hatch.

I turned my gaze down the entry corridor and saw carnage I wouldn’t soon forget. Rulusian bodies lay on either side of the hallway, burn marks from energy weapons as black patches on a background of dark green skin. The putrid scent of scorched flesh was in the air. I passed an open doorway on my left, and looked inside at crew quarters. More Rulusian corpses lay amidst sparks and clouds of smoke.

I lifted my sleeve again. “You’re sure there isn’t anyone on this ship?”

“Affirmative. All scans show nothing but yourself.”

“This damage is far too recent for my liking.”

“Did the crew abandon ship?”

I grimaced. “Doesn’t look like it.”

I continued toward the bridge. Dark blast marks lined the floor and frame around a blown access hatch. Smoke particles lingered in the air and I detected a faint chemical odor as my eyes watered. I took slow, cautious steps through the opening and became witness to even more carnage. Ten more Rulusians were collapsed against the wall or slumped over consoles, all roasted by weapons fire. I definitely didn’t need to meet up with the people who had done this. I didn’t get into the scavenging business to be a hero. Everyone loves heroes, but
heroes have a tendency to die young.

I glanced at displays as I stepped around the short end of an oval-shaped outer wall. All of them flickered with minimal power from backup systems, while I stepped over a pair of corpses. I stopped at a console and attempted to bypass the lockout. The sweat dripped from my face onto the screens, and formed little pools that slowly worked up enough courage to slide down the panel. I realized my attempts were useless and walked to an access hatch at the back of the bridge.

“Jeanie, which bays contain contraband?”

“All of them.”

A huge smile spanned my face. It was a dream come true. Unfortunately, I only had three bays open and there was no way I was dumping the crystals. Perfect opportunities like this were the
exception and after these weapons were sold, I’d likely have to run more regular cargo. Even in such a huge galaxy, it wouldn’t take long for word to spread that I couldn’t be trusted to complete a delivery.

“Get ready to pull three containers in. The winches should be adequate.” I had a mechanical claw installed, and even though it was more accurate, it was slow and cumbersome. There was still a bonus to keep in mind.


The hatch into the cargo hold opened easily, which I found odd, and I walked inside. The air was stale and dry in my lungs, as the floor panels clanged and echoed with each step. The door closed behind me and I glanced down the corridor at six bays on either side. The best plan would be to drop the first three bays and ignore the possibility of a better catch in the rest. A computer console inset next to the bay door monitored the ambient conditions inside, while a marked service panel underneath drew my attention. I shoved my Mark II into its holster and knelt down next to the panel. The cover came off in no time and I set it aside. A lever on the right, and two dimmed lights next to it looked like what I needed. Even though I’d never jettisoned cargo manually from a Rulusian freighter before, there were plenty of bays to find the proper
technique. After I pulled the lever, the lights flashed in sequence a few moments. Then a miniature explosion sounded off inside the bay.

Just to make sure I hadn’t destroyed a perfectly good cargo container, I spoke into my transmitter. “Do you see it, Jeanie?”

“Pulling in the cargo now.”

“Two more on the way.”

I moved on to other bays, going through the same process. As the third bay jettisoned, I heard another floor panel echo farther down the hold. Every hair on my body stood on end.
I yanked my Mark II out from inside my jacket and jumped up, as a floor panel at the very end of the hold flew up. A woman with bronze skin and black hair burst out from the crawlspace underneath, then pointed a disintegrator cannon right at me. I fell to the floor just before her first shot hit the bridge door behind me and showered sparks down onto the grill. I fired a three-shot burst and she dove down in the crawlspace again, while minimal damage was done to the
aft bulkhead. It also gave me the opportunity to run toward the bridge door, where the impact mark from her first shot still glowed. Eager for cover, I ducked around the corner into a small alcove as another shot hit nearby. Sparks fell at my feet while I shoved my back against the
cold hard metal. My heart beat faster than it had in quite a while.

I yelled out. “You can have the rest. I’ve got all I can carry.” I had no idea how this person evaded Jeanie’s scans, but my main concern now was to get out of this alive.

“This is my ship, idiot.” Her footsteps drew closer.

“Funny, you don’t look Rulusian.” I eased my head out and jerked back as another shot hit the corner. More sparks showered the grating at my feet.

“Come on out. You can’t escape.”

“And get myself shot? No thanks.” The blaster felt loose in my hand, my palms both damp.

“Slide your weapon out first.”

I had no choice. Disintegrator cannons were outlawed for civilian use almost everywhere, and for good reason. “Okay, okay. I’m coming out.” I slid the blaster along the grill and walked out to face her.

She taunted me. “You board ships, and arm yourself with a toy?”

I didn’t care for her insults, but wasn’t in a position to complain.

“I didn’t expect visitors.”

She smirked. “Glad to see some old tricks still work.”

Jeanie’s voice was frantic over my transmitter. “Aston, Aston!”

A little late, I thought. I looked at my captor with an edge to my voice. “Mind if I take this?”

She scowled and grabbed her weapon a little tighter.

“My ship’s computer.”

She gave a stern nod and I held my wrist to my mouth. “What is it, Jeanie?”

"Attack cruisers are on an intercept course from Toris.”
My captor relaxed her grip. “You’re not part of a boarding crew?”

“I’m just a scavenger pirate.” I reached down to pick up my blaster. “We need to go.”

She was loud and abrupt. “Hold it.”

I looked up. The barrel was still in my face.

Faced with the choice between disintegration and being blown to bits, I wasn’t as afraid of this woman’s weapon as I once had been.

"Come on. We don’t have time for this!”

“How can I trust you? You’re a thief.”

I let the insult slide. “Right now, it doesn’t look like you have a choice. You can stay here and wait for those attack cruisers to show up if you want. Me personally, I plan to be on a ship that can run.” I grabbed my blaster and stood.
The reality of her situation finally sunk in. “Okay, let’s go.”

“Finally,” I muttered as we ran back toward the docking port.