Saturday, August 26, 2006

High School Fantasies

Like any Santa Monica High School boy sitting next to Maria Theresa, Norman debates his chances. Without looking at her short black skirt or the bra straps visible through U2 tee shirt, he knows her sandal dangles from a perfectly painted toe. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and consumes her sweet fragrance, not sure whether it comes from shampoo, cologne, or just her natural beauty.

Against all alphabetical probabilities, Norman O’Sullivan sat next to Maria Theresa Perez at the long black science desks for four years. Each morning he arrives first, dumps his backpack at his feet, opens a thick book and calculates his odds, figuring the shoes his mother buys at Goodwill and the hand-my-down clothes from his cousins in Oklahoma City. The odds aren’t good.

But after all the years, she knows recognizes him and as they shuffle out of class between the desks, she politely asks, “Norman, did you see Spiderman?” or “Are you going to the dance?” He mumbles “no,” trying not to knock over the chairs. Once out of class, he thinks, “She’s so much nice than the other popular girls,” and usually turns the wrong way. Another time, she might congratulate him, “Great science project!”

Each morning he brushes his teeth and takes a long shower, thinking maybe today she’ll turn those dark brown eyes towards me. Before her long hair settles back to her shoulders, I’ll say, “Yo neighbor, you want to walk home with me today?”

Each afternoon, Norman walks alone and settles at the kitchen table to do his homework. He watches out window waiting for Maria Theresa to pass. He waves at her from behind the curtains his mother made from old sheets.

Sometimes she asks for a homework assignment or help with a math problem. He closes his eyes and prays, “Let me answer without dropping my papers or laughing.” When he talks to her, he keeps his hand over his mouth and his elbows at his side, in case of bad breath or body odor.

Graduation is Friday. They sit listening to announcements about cap and gown pickup and Grad Night. Norman isn’t going to Grad Night. He holds his yearbook with both hands, “Maria Theresa?”

She immediately stops talking to the girl behind her and spins around. He hair flies across his hands and her knees touch his for a brief second, “Yes, Norman?”

“Will you sign my yearbook, please?” He pushes the book forward, but when he realizes it’s against her breasts, he drops it. He doesn’t say anything, or even breathe.

She just laughs and picks it up. Embarrassed, he puts the book in his backpack when she returns it.

“Aren’t you going to read it?” she asks with a little laugh.

He’s too afraid, but when he's safely home behind the bed-sheet curtains he reads, “You’re a cool guy. Too bad you’re going away to college and we didn’t spend more time together.”

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Are you a cell biologist?

I am writing a biotech thriller/mystery/SF novel and am looking for biology advisors, especially in the areas cell biology, immune function, immune system evolution, general cellular evolution, fetal immunology, and endosymbiosis.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Can’t remember what I forgot

Venice let the warm soy oil support him. The gentle waves and sage smudge clouded his vision. His voice, no longer strong like when he stood on the corner of Haight and Ashbury warning crowds about global warming and genetically modified food, was barely audible, “3.14159, 2.71828, 1.41428… Numbers, I remember numbers, but not my own dreams.”

Venice squinted at his NotePad, checking that he heard correctly, “Nothing to worry about. Short-term memory failures are common for people like you.”

Venice tensed, sinking and splashing the golden liquid. He wipes the rainbow splashes from his glasses, “No need to be so sensitive. I was talking about people in their second century, not whatever oppressed minority you might identify with today.”

Venice relaxed and floated back to the surface, “Not just my dreams. I can’t remember my first … love.”

A flatbed truck, with New York plates, loaded with Rome apples, picked me up in western Mass. The smell of ripe apples reminded me of my mother’s apple pie, apple sauce, apple cider, apfelstrudel. The apple cider I shared with my cousin when we were eleven and both so curious about everything.

The truck driver was a teenager wearing jeans, a jacket, and no shirt, he used broom sticks to control the pedals. Two grey googly-eyes glued to a walnut shell covered with grey fur looked at me. “I’m going as far as New York, come aboard.”

New York was only another fifteen miles, but I didn’t care. He dropped me off …

Monday, July 17, 2006

Sheltr Kitties Essay

“Should I just drown them in the rain barrel?”

A man in dirty overalls extended a cardboard box away from his belly as if it contained ripe compost. From the back of the greenhouse, I stared through the rows of Brandywine tomatoes and Anasazi beans. Each day after school, I helped mom. I loved the smells of moist soil and fresh vegetables, especially around Easter, still waiting for the first crocus to poke its bud through the frozen countryside.

My mom put her hands in the two big pockets of the white apron she always wore and looked at the carton. I thought about the big rain barrel as I walked slowly down a row yellow tomato flowers carrying the heavy watering can and giving each plant a drink. I was only in first grade and wondered what was in the box.

The traffic and the winter wind stopped. The only sound was trickling water.

THUD! I jumped.

The man dropped the box. The box squeaked and mewed. Suddenly, my little six-year old brain understood their grisly discussion. He was talking about drowning kittens, drowning kittens!

My tummy was sick; I couldn’t breath. I wanted to scream, “No! No!” I thought I was going to cry, and even today I don’t know where I got my strength for what happened next.

Tears rolled down my creeks as I walked towards the two grownups. My little hands were so tense I couldn’t let go of the water can. By the time I got to the front, my pretty dress was soaked, but my eyes were dry. I stood between the cardboard prison and the man, but I only looked at my mom, “I’ll take care of them.”

My mother wiped her face with the apron, let out a long sigh and smiled at me, “And I’m sure you’ll do a great job too.”

The next day my dad took me to Home Depot. We bought wood and wire to build cages in an empty space next to the squash boxes. We got dishes, toys and food at the PetSmart. Mom gave me a brush and I painted big letters, below Julie’s Organic Vegetable, “+ Jennys Kat Sheltr.”

I had so much to learn.

That first box contained twin black kittens with white bellies and white tips on their tails, plus a tabby with a black mask and a purr you could hear across the greenhouse, and a grey cat that would stick to any toy. I still remember catching her like a fish on a string using a toy mouse for bait.

It was the week before Easter and lots of people wanted to adopt my kittens, but mommy explained they needed to be bigger, and have their shots and operations first. Dr. Rodriguez did the operations for free and mom loaned me the money for the shots.

The twins were adopted by couple with a new baby visiting from the city. I was so scared, but I shook their hands, “Promise me you’ll give these kitties a good home and not to let them outside.”

“Of course we will,” the lady smiled at me,

They paid for the shots and made a donation to the Sheltr.

The white one was adopted by my kindergarten teacher, but I wouldn’t let anyone have the grey one. I named her Velcro and we stuck together.

Velcro lived in the greenhouse. It was her private jungle. Among the tomatoes and beans, parsley and chives, each day she stalked bugs and an occasional mouse. When I came home from school, she might be sleeping a sunny spot, crouching between plants or getting a drink from my watering can – her favorite place to drink; I filled it every day, twice during the hot summers.

By the time I was in high school the Sheltr (we kept that spelling) had grown; my dad built us a new home behind the greenhouse, but Velcro still lived in the greenhouse.

This winter when I came home from college, I noticed Velcro wasn’t eating much and she had lost weight. As I drove to Dr. Rodriguez, she stuck to me just like when she was a kitten. On the first visit, Dr. Rodriguez ran tests. On the next visit she told me Velcro had renal failure.

Velcro kept drinking more water and losing weight, even though Dr. Rodriguez changed her diet and we bought her a special kitty water fountain. Though she got weak, Velcro still stuck to me. She liked to hear my voice, so we talked: about the Sheltr, the kitties we had helped, hunting in her jungle, catching moths and mice, and the future.

I promised Velcro I would do something to help more kitties, especially those with kidney failure, so that is why I applying to your vet school and why I want to be a vet.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Chess Move

Georgy’s hands rested at the side of the chessboard. The dimples on his knuckles made his fingers appear even shorter than they were. Like two white clouds, they circulated over the board, now shadowing over a bishop, later visiting a knight. While his hands explored the battlefield of black and white warriors, his eyes stared straight ahead.

The atmosphere of the chess world totally consumed Georgy. The nine desks, the cabinets of puzzles, paints, papers, pictures and play things, the other eight students, and five teachers faded beyond his awareness. Two students typed on computers. Another strung beads. A boy, who could have been Georgy’s twin, shook a pair of maracas. Two students just walked in circles.

Without any segue, two round hands descended on a pawn and transported it across the board and placed it in his teacher’s lap.

“Good move.”

Petty Thief

Sayraa ran along the beach pushing each step deep into the sand trying to force the tension in her shoulders down to her legs and through them into the earth. She wanted to feel the sweat draw the poisons from her core to cleanse her soul and remove the fears from last night’s ordeal.

The harder she ran, the more vivid the memories of her fight. Harry had been so inconsiderate to talk of her parents, especially her mother. Why chastise her for things she couldn’t control?

“Sayraa, you’re just like your mother, so ignorant. Just be quiet if you don’t know what going on.”

She knew as well as he did that stealing was wrong, but she was quiet as they walked out of the hotel with the alarm clock and iron in their suitcases.

“Harry, we don’t even need these things.”

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Real Thing

I took out my Strathmore sketchpad and a Prang charcoal pencil. I made two sketches of the victim. Three triangular shards of glass pierced his face, one, right through his iris spread, his left eye unnaturally wide open, another barely held on to his lower lip like a stylized joint, and the third made his check, smooth and beardless, look like a torte glazed with chocolate, drizzled with cherry sauce and garnished with a crystal wafer. His feet were twisted into the bar stool holding his torso inches above where his head had hit the hard floor.

I sketched the bar counter, beaded rivulets of drink radiating from a circle of glass that was all that remained of his drink. The black granite still life included a stainless-steel iPod, a few dollar bills, a bowl of mixed nuts, surprisingly unaffected by the explosion, and a maraschino cherry. The iPod, impervious to the mayhem, still played, randomly selecting a new tune every three or four minutes.

Around me, the anti-terror squad gathered evidence: hi-def video, DNA samples, fluid samples, and recorded interviews.

“Slow down guys! Watch what you’re doing.”

“Give us a break. You know this isn’t the only crime scene.”

I knew. This was the second explosion in Boston, we’ve had probably a dozen across the country, and worse, more around the world - all similar, exploding drinks, varying only as to container. No container seemed safe, not glass, not plastic, not paper, not ceramic, not even aluminum cans.

“All the more reason to be careful here.”

In my years as a detective I’ve learned that in our chaotic, fractal world there is as much information in a corner as in a room, as much in the room as the entire house. As the black jacketed team packed their portable labs, computers, and cameras, I made a final sketch of the scene, ignoring the big picture, bar, stool, shelves of bottles, but concentrating on the details. Three glass darts stuck into a single lemon. A terminal moraine of crystal pieces rested where the large mirror met the back counter. One drop of dark liquid hugged a tin ceiling tile, perhaps waiting for the crowd to clear before it rained down.

I walked home sure that the answer was in my sketchbook. However, this was my second set of sketches for the drink bombs or whatever the press would call them when they decided. The answer came the following morning. The high-tech nerds figured it out and the Globe reported: “Coke® Bomb Strikes Again.”

That afternoon I was on a plane to Atlanta. The computer geeks discovered that every drink contained Coca-Cola®, not Pepsi®, not Dr. Pepper®.

Where is this going? Who are the bombers? Terrorists? Sure, but are they ideological or commercial terrorists? Is the famous “secret ingredient” to blame, or is the global icon also a victim? The answer is tied up with globalization, sonoluminescence and, possibly, cold fusion, leaving only the most pressing question of our time: Does technology make the world safer or more dangerous?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

School of the Future - The Future of School

The teacher’s assistant takes attendance for me: 84.3% of my 1,423 third graders on school today. After teaching for twenty years, I know when to increase parental emails, PEMs, to ramp attendance up in time for the year-end testing.

I still remember my first year, almost my last year, when I wanted 95% attendance every day. Whenever attendance dropped, I increased my PEMs and introduced new simulations. Unfortunately, by midterm I had used all the third-grade simulations and the parents were rejecting my PEMs as SPAM. I had only 47.6% attendance for the week of government testing. Bad, very bad.

Stage Crew Magic

The crew unloaded the trucks. First came the rolls chicken wire and long pine strips. Popcorn, all Johnny could think was popcorn and the Makitas snapped and popped and the frame of wood and wire expanded to fill the stage. Next came the tubs of flour and water. The children’s choir tore mountains of newspaper into long strips and dunked them in the paste. The crew setup the ladders and scaffolds. Johnny joined them as they scurried up and down covering the frame with paper and paste.

The truck pulled closer to the loading dock to unload the three-meter fans. Four of them blew a storm around the mountain peak still covered with election stories, baseball scores, and Memorial Day sales.

As the sun rose outside the theater, the paint team fired up the compressors and sprayed the slopes with grass and snow and ice crystals. As the transformation completed, the stage sagged from the weight of the granite and Johnny’s brow protruded as he huddles in his protected niche pulling a mastodon skin around this broad shoulders. He thought, “Winter, colder this cycle, more snow.”

The Man Who Finds Things

On his way to the office, Archimedes found a lost wallet, a diamond stud earring, a purple-footed goose, previously thought to be extinct, a fossil of a crustacean with seven legs from the Cambrian and three mismatched socks.

Population Maintenance Board

Benloh, a forensic geneticist, and his girlfriend, Concha, a neurosurgeon, have been engaged for year, but the population maintenance board continues to withhold approval until they can demonstrate reproductive compatibility.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Award Winning Story – After the War

See my award winning story about a boy growing up in the 1950s published in Palomar College's Literary Journal Bravura.

This is the excerpt I read at the award ceremony:

When we got to the pond, dad and I glided away while my mother was still lacing Jimmy’s skates by the fire.

“Dad, at school…”

He leaned towards me as we made a big turn around the shallow end of the pond. The sun was bright, but we together made just a single shadow before the sun disappeared behind the pine trees.

“Dad, I don’t know what to do…”

He looked deep into my eyes as we skated along the line of trees. It smelled like Christmas.

“Do about what?”

“Everything; everybody; I’m so different; just lost.”

“Don’t worry; when the time comes, you’ll know what to do.”

He made a sharp turn in front of a “thin ice” sign, but when I tried, I fell and slid past it. He sprayed ice in the air and skated back to the sign.

The pond creaked. Tiny cracks and rising water surrounded me.

“Careful. Don’t get up,” my dad warned from the safe side of the sign.

The pond crackled and I felt the cold water against my bare skin. I looked at my dad, but the sun reflected off his glasses and I couldn’t see his eyes.

I stretched my wet legs and dug the tips of my skates into the soft ice and slid myself towards the reflected sunlight. When I reached the sign, he helped me up and we skated towards the fire.

“I know how you feel.”

My dad took my hand and spun me in a tight circle. Around and around I went. Water sprayed off me in all directions while my dad talked.

“During the war … in France … alone and scared … but when the charge came … I knew … I knew what to do … I became invisible.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Nachlässige Handschrift – Bad Handwriting – A Holocaust Story

My life is ruined; I have bad handwriting - nachlässige Handschrift.

It’s the end of the school year and the graduating class of Schweingart Gesamtschule files past the kindergarten playground, where our younger sisters and brothers play on the same steel teeter-totters and swings that we played on and our parents before us – gifts from the when there was money for children’s toys.

Mostly the kindergarten boys chase each and kick a ball, while the girls sit in small groups dreaming of new dresses and chocolates. The wear clothes our mothers have cleaned and patched for years, “Take that off. Right now! I want to sew up that hole before it gets any larger.”

We march across the ball field in straight lines, like two trains with the passengers all looking forward and not talking to each other. The field is pocked with puddles from last night’s rain, but we reach the other side without wetting our shoes.

We sneak glances back at out cement block village schoolhouse. In the distance, it looks clean and white, as it must have in our grandparents’ time, “We were all given new clothes and we marched to the new schoolhouse for Milch und Kuchen. The walls were so white and the desks clean and shiny.”

Into the woods, birch saplings, like starving soldiers crowd against our path. Maples and chestnuts block the sun like clouds of smoke and ash. Our steps are muffled by the dead leaves and the only sound is a single raven, “caw, caw, caw.”

Finally, we see the large oak – the only one to survive the bombings. Next to the oak are a box car and a short piece of track, also survivors from the war. The rusty tracks are hidden by weeds, but layers of paint peeling off the boxcar reveal SS lightening bolts and iron crosses – no longer hidden.

Herr Engel, our school janitor, unlocks the box car, “Let’s get setup for graduation.” The boys, one on each end, like pallbearers, carry long wooden planks. The girls wrap their arms around cold cinder blocks, like so many sacks of potatoes, or dead babies.

We are a trail of ants we stretched out from the boxcar to the kindergarten playground. Sweaty and proud, thirteen students, six boys, seven girls, we set up the stage and benches for graduation. Nadine will give the speech and all are going away to the city for Gesamtschule next September – all except me.

I have bad handwriting - nachlässige Handschrift, and my father died last February. As the oldest boy with no future in schule, I must help at home. Herr Engel wants to retire, so the school trustees agree to try me out. The teachers get some Hauptschule books and I study when things are slow, “Don’t waste your time Junge, clean, clean, study, study.”

On graduation day, dressed in our Sunday best, we stand on the plank stage and Nadine begins, “We will never forget Schweingart, even as we move to the city for Gesamtschule and beyond to Berufsschule and University. Nothing will weaken our bond to the land of our birth and our ancestors.”

I look around the audience, all uncomfortable in the hot sun, sitting on pillows or newspapers to protect their clothes from the rough planks. I search for the ones who graduated the year before, the others who affirmed their “bond to the land.” Where are they now?

I only see boys to young to shave, girls too young for lipstick, and folks with grey hair or no hair. I think, “Nothing in between.” My cousin Bertha who got pregnant in Gesamtschule didn’t return. Hans Teufel whose legs were shot off in Afghanistan didn’t return. No one stays. No one returns. Except me, I must stay; I have bad handwriting - nachlässige Handschrift.

After the ceremony, we eat Milch und Kuchen. The old folks talk pictures for their album to remember to departed. The graduates talk of their “bond to the land,” but more about their futures – Army, Nursing, Teaching, all away and never to return.

No one wants to talk to me, so I wander across the ball field, through the woods, to the old box car, empty, unlocked. I climb inside, lie down on the dusty floor and cry.

Long rays of sunlight illuminate the inside of the ancient boxcar. Through my tears I read the writing on the walls, “Please return me home,” and “My name is Isaac Hertz. I am 12 years old from ---,” and “Don’t forget me.”

As the sun sets, different parts of the death wagon reveal the prayers of many people, so long ago, who only wanted to stay home and stay alive. The sun falls behind the trees, but for a short instant, it shines through that narrow path and illuminated one last inscription, near to the floor, written in a child’s handwriting in a thick yellow crayon, “Ich habe nachlässige Handschrif. I promise to try harder, just let me go home.”

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Monte Nido Alta 2 – Murder mystery, first interview

The sign said, Antonio Rocco, Weapons of History. A man sat in front of the shop, wearing U. S. Army fatigues with the insignias of the 92nd Infantry Division. His grey wrinkled face blended in with the granite stones that covered the piazza in front of his store and continued inside. He reclined on a stone bench with one hand holding a pipe and the other scratching a sleeping dog. Both of them had salt-and-pepper whiskers, more salt than pepper.

Buon giorno, Segnora Lowsley.” The dog growled, probably from a bad dream.

Buon giorno, Segnor Rocco. How did you know my name?”

“Just like you, I can read signs. Not many visitors escorted by the Carabinieri with automatics in their packs, certainly not many so pretty.”

Sweat rolled down my face standing in hot sun. “So you know why I’m here?”

He might have smiled, “Hired by the sofubo, grandparents? Looking for the sniper in the campanile, bell tower? Just a guess.”

My hopes to avoid the village immune system gone, I took the direct approach, “How did you know about the sniper?”

He laughed, “Would you like to come in my store, it’s cooler, and,” he waved his hand around, “more private.”

I followed him through the open door, “Watch you step. This was the village abattoir. Those channels in the floor were to drain the blood.”

I stood between medieval torture devices, pokers to brand heretics and vises to crush fingers, and Samurai swords, “Where’d you learn Japanese?”

He sucked on his dead pipes. It made a bubbling sound. With a big smile, he studied me from hat to boots, pausing at my waist. “Signora, one question at a time,” he laughed.

“Do you sell Vintorez “special sniper” rifles?”

“That’s three wishes, enough. The bambina was a low target in the middle of a crowd. The only position high enough was the church. I was a sniper during the war. My unit was sent to Okinawa. I took a Japanese wife, but she died, buried in a cave. Bet you didn’t know that.”

He walked over to close the heavy wooden door. It creaked and the store became very dark, only lit by the light of a case exhibiting different bullets from lead musket balls to huge 120 mm mortar rounds. In the middle of the display was the distinctive SP-5.

I reached my hand into my pack and flipped the safety off.

“I have two Vintorez, in the back room. Both have been here since the fall of the Berlin Wall and haven’t been fired in years. You’re welcome to test them. They’re not very popular for bird hunting.”

There was a scratch at the door. He flung it open, “The cane is hungry. It’s been nice talking with you.”

My eyes took a few minutes to adapt to the bright sun and by that time he was back at his post, smoking his pipe and scratching the dog, who evidently wasn’t really hungry.

I wandered across the piazza wondering what really happened that Sunday.

Signora.”

I turned around.

“Go talk to the priest.”

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Monte Nido Alta – The beginning of a murder mystery

Nine-hundred thirty-seven paces. Like Magellan circumnavigating the globe, I walked around Monte Nido Alta. When Magellan braved the uncharted seas in the sixteenth century, this small village was already over 500 years old.

To my right, rugged Tuscany valleys, terraced over the centuries, supported olives, grapes, and small plots for vegetables or grazing sheep and goats. I leaned against a low stone wall, wiped the sweat from my glasses and peered through my binoculars.

A small car, obviously a local, taking the hairpin curves without slowing, wound its way up the treacherous road across a roman bridge. I counted, one, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, three, one-thousand. Three seconds to cross the twenty-nine meter bridge; I quickly calculated a speed of about thirty-five clicks.

The minimum time to race a car up the hill and back to town would over three-quarters of an hour. The funicular went in a straight line, but it moved slower and was on a once an hour schedule during the time of the murder.

The changing breeze surrounded me with the sweet scent of wisteria and directed my attention to the left, where I hoped to find my culprit. This small village, wrapped around a steep peak, included a square with two open-air cafes, a grocery store, two souvenir shops, a tiny library and an antique weapons dealer.

Beyond the square was a maze a narrow alleys, all leading up to the Church of the Madonna, a wooden structure built by farmers in the eleventh century, a gothic stone structure built by summering nobles from Florence in the fifteenth century, and finally restored to it current form after being bombed by the allies in 1944.

Most of the town suffered a similar fate in 1944, but today with cats sleeping in garden courtyards and dogs sleeping on front doorsteps, it was hard to imagine anything happening here. Of course, I’ve never visit places where nothing happens.

In less than fifteen minutes, 937 paces, I returned to the bus stop, the end of the only road in or out of town of Monte Nido deep in the valley.

Carabiniere Calasso was exactly where I left him, in his stylish black uniform with red stripes down the pants, standing more like a fashion model than a solider, straight, balanced, elegant, relaxed, not stiff or tense. As the tourists rushed off the bus, the women glanced at him and whispered to each other.

On the other hand, I was dressed with a British emphasis on practicality, not the Italian preoccupation, obsession, with style. My sky blue blouse and lightweight travel pants allowed me to fade in with the tourists, while my fanny pack, worn in the front like all cautious tourists, was spacious enough for my makeup, wallet, binoculars, granola bars, tissues, and my 9mm automatic.

“Ms. Lowsley, I trust you enjoyed your little visit.” Pointing to the red funicular coming up the mountain, “Our coach has arrived; this would be a good time to return to town for an afternoon coffee.”

I looked up into his Mediterranean blue eyes, “Not so fast. I’d like to talk to a few people.”

Senor Calasso looked down; the brim of his cap covered his eyes, and frowned.

I held my ground, “Don’t let me keep you. I’m sure I can find my way back to town. There don’t seem to be many ways out of here.”

I paused, waiting for him to look up. I wanted to see his eyes. Finally, I added, “All roads lead back to town. Don’t they?” He didn’t blink.

He answered questions for the tourists as I walked back to the village square.

Last Sunday, during the feast for a local saint, when the local population of 536 was supplemented by, perhaps, thousands of visitors, a baby in a stroller was shot. Not just any baby, though all babies are precious and rare in modern Italy, but the baby of American movie star Clayton Charms and his millionaire bride Keiko Yamamura visiting Italy on their honeymoon.

For once, the Carabinieri were on the ball. Within twenty minutes Calasso had agents stationed at the funicular and the only road down the mountain. Thanks to this quick action, I had a list 323 suspects who came down the funicular and 527 suspects who drove down with an additional 1034 passengers. In my business, I’ve been hired by Keiko’s grandparents, we call this too much of a good thing.

Ballistics, a grisly job from the pictures I saw of the baby’s remains, put the shooter in the church bell tower. The SP-5 round was recovered, in excellent condition, from a package of baby wipes. The shooter probably used a Russian VSS Vintorez for which these bullets were specially designed. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, these exotic sniper rifles were readily available. I first stop was the weapons shop.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Lost at Sea – Michael and Sasha Discover Something (unfinished)

“Buon giorno.”

I struggle to shade my remaining good eye with my blistered hand. Through my swollen eyelid I see her, eclipsing the morning sun. It’s Sasha; dark cheeks, darker lips, and the whitest, straightest teeth. “By Poseidon, how can you smile?”

She laughs; her perfect white teeth dancing around her swollen, black tongue, “My momma says, If you can’t smile, you dead; if you ain’t dead, you better smile.”
Sasha’s arms cradle me as the yellow raft rocks back and forth. The salt spray tingles on my sunburned skin. I can’t smile; maybe I’m dead, “Better off dead.”

“It’s closer. Look, it’s closer.”

Since the pirates took our boat, we’ve been drifting east, like ancient Greek explorers. Each morning Sasha imagines mountains beneath the rising sun, but each evening we are just closer to death with no land in sight. “You crazy lady. There’s nothing.”

I close my sore eyes, “Nothing.”

Sasha leans over the edge, “Look no sharks today. Paddle. Today is a good day to paddle.”

I want to shout, but I can only whisper, “You win! You win! Your dark genes will survive and my light ones will crisp and turn to ash and float away, forever forgotten. My time is over, over. Buon giorno to you. You paddle.”

+ + +

“Welcome to Herculaneum. Here are a few rules to make our time together productive and enjoyable: Be tolerant of each other.”

As an anthropology graduate from Yale, this is my third dig, not counting my junior year abroad at the University of Athens where I became fluent in modern and classical Greek. My senior thesis was on the Greek influences at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the surrounding villas. I could give the welcome talk.

“Everything you touch is centuries old and unique, be very careful.”

I look around at the other interns. Most look like REI models with high-tech boots, lightweight travel shorts with more pockets than a mob of kangaroos, and an assortment of wide-brimmed hats. I examine their hands.

“No food near the antiquities.”

The girl in the Mount Holyoke shirt has manicured French tips. The guy from NYU? Pink palms and black nail polish. The tanned couple sitting cross-legged on the table in the back wears fingerless gloves with tattoos on their fingers. I can only make out SURF and ROLL.

“No drugs anywhere.”

I noticed a black hand in the front row, with dirty fingernails no less. She’s wearing a faded orange tank top, old jeans, and worn out trainers. At first I think she’s on staff, but she’s an intern like the rest of us.

Well, I learn later, not really like the rest of us. She’s a scholarship student at University of Cape Town. Her father died in the diamond mines before the fall of apartheid. Her brothers just disappeared, and her two married sisters live on farms in Botswana.

“You’re a guest, be a good one.”

I realize I’m staring at her, so I quickly scanned the crowd, but am drawn back to her smile.

+ + +

Salt water splashed over me, “That burns!”

My eyes pop opened, “What happened?”

Sasha laughs holding another handful of water, ready to splash me again, “Michael, look! I said look!”

The salty water splashes in my face, “You crazy Setswana! Stop. Stop it!”

I wipe the water from my blistered eyelids. I make two fists and my right arm is cocked when I see it, “Land! There it is!”

I open my hands and lean over to paddle, but instead fall head first, overboard. I cough, “Help! Help!”

The cold water feels good. Buoyed up by my orange vest, I go limp and cry. All I can think it that my salty tears want to return to the sea, “Return to the sea. Return to the sea.”

Through the sound of the waves breaking on my shoulders, I hear Sasha laughing, “Not yet, not yet. First we paddle closer, than we swim.”

+ + +

“Herculaneum is excavated horizontally, so most of you will spend you days in tunnels removing ash from hallways and alleys.”

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Ally and Trypp (A plot outline) (Warning: This is a dark story.)

The barbarians move across the SatEye.

Momi’s soft palms hold my wet cheeks “Close your eyes. That’s little Threo’s dome.”

I shut my eyes as the dome bursts. She’s only in fifth grade, but we are in the same ballet class. Threo holds here legs so straight her knees just disappear. The barbs swarm. Through the smoke, I can see dolls and tutus burning, melting, and making more black smoke.

Momi looks at Trypp, sitting on the other side of me, “See they always separate the hundreds from the fifties. You must stay with Ally.”

Trypp holds my hand, tighter than usual, and nods silently. The distant flame bounce up and down on Trypp’s flat, silvery face.

“No matter what,” Momi seems to be in a dream, “No matter what.”

On the SatEye, two circles of barbs form outside the burning dome. One fills with hundreds, certainly only women and children, in the other, shiny gold and silver and metallic blues and green fifties. Trypp, who’s been with me since I was a tiny baby, is green. I love Trypp.

Fire sprays over the fifties. The circle around the hundreds shrinks. I can’t see what’s happening, but the SatEye picture gets redder and redder. My stomach feels sick. The air rumbles as the dome struggles to cancel the noise of the explosions outside.

The SatEye flickers. Momi swallows a handful of pills and kisses my forehead, “Stay with Trypp.” I’ve never seem her touch Trypp, but she holds his face and kisses his metallic face, “Now. Go. Remember, no matter what.”

Trypp picks me up and runs. I hear Momi’s slow, sleepy voice fade away, “I love you.”

Trypp’s sleek green body unfolds and he tucks me inside like a joey in a kangaroo’s pouch. He smells so good, warm and sweet, like fresh apple pie.

“Release the girl!”

The barbarian is covered in red armor. If he wasn’t so close, I might mistake him for a fifty, but I can see wet eyes and blood where he lost a hand. The other hand holds a large weapon pointing at Trypp.

Trypp raises his palms, as all fifties do to show obedience, but his palm show lasts too long, like an old fifty. Trypp was upgraded for my twelfth birthday, he must be weighing “Release the girl,” and “No matter what.”

Trypp covers my eyes. The weapon flashes. I smell sweat. The barbarian screams. I’m covered in blood. The weapon flies into the air and explodes. Trypp sets me on the ground. I’m okay. The barbarian’s wet eyes sit in a pool of blood.

Trypp puts on the red armor and we rush toward Threo’s dome.

“Stop, you’re going the wrong way.”

Trypp stops palms up. All around us I see black smoke and hear fighting. What should we do? Where can we find safety? I realize that Momi must be dead, maybe Dadi too. I crawl into Trypp’s pouch, “Whatever.”

Tripp drops his palms and dives into the smoking wreckage of Threo’s dome. He crawls past pink silky ballet shoes, their ribbons burnt away and soft gray koalas with singed ears and tails. He goes deeper and deeper into the ashes until we’re buried under her bed.

The air smells like the time the recycler exploded spraying poop all over the yard and a little like grilled steaks at a summer picnic. I hear Threo screaming, “No! No! No!” The grownup women are also screaming.

All night and the next day the screaming continues and we stay hidden in the ashes. The following day, it’s quiet, but we don’t move.

“I’m hungry.” Trypp extends a tube into my mouth and I swallow the sweet mixture. It tastes like strawberries and cream. I just love Trypp.

(Include a scene of the difficult and dangerous travels to the mountains?)

Each morning, Tripp’s face dilates and the screen lights up. “SATELLITE SCAN: ONE LOCATED. CARRIER DETECTED. SIGNAL ACQUIRED. NO BROADCAST CHANNELS. NO COMMUNICATION CHANNELS.”

Today is my birthday. I’m sixteen years old. I haven’t spoken to a hundred since the barbarian attacks three years ago. Trypp and I live in an ancient ruin, high up on the cliffs. During the summer we plant corn on desert floor.

“Trypp, time to water the crops.” Palms up, he fetches a ceramic jug. I rest in the shade as he climbs down the narrow path to the valley. All morning I watch the shiny green spec fetch water from the tiny stream and scurry across the valley to our tiny plots of corn and beans.

Each morning, palms up, I send Trypp to be the farmer, and each evening, palms up, he’s the hunter. In the fall, he harvests whatever was not found and stolen by the barbs. Each evening, he is the hunter catching an iguana or a snake for my dinner.

Most afternoons I sit Trypp in the hot sun to recharge his batteries with his face dilated so I can continue my studies. I think I’m ready to graduate high school, but I’m so lonely. High school graduation: no prom, no party, no ceremony. Momi and Dadi would be proud of me.

When my lesson is over, Trypp shuts his face and I can see tears streaking down my face.

Today is my eighteenth birthday. Trypp’s face dilates; no signals at all today. “Trypp, I’m so lonely. I wish there was even one person to talk to.”

The screen says, “WOULD YOU LIKE A BABY?”

“Baby? Are you serious? Can I? Can you? Baby?”

I curl up in a little ball and cry. Trypp’s upraised palms move towards me.
“Don’t touch me! Go tend the crops!”

It’s a full moon tonight and the owls circle high above our cliff. A bobcat leads her cub to the stream. The owl dives, his talons flashing and deadly mouth open, but the cub dives under the mother and a maternal claw swats the owl sending feathers into the air. I fall asleep thinking of Momi.

The next night a yowl and a hiss wakes me up. I look to the sky. The cub wasn’t so lucky tonight.

“Tyrpp, I want a baby.”

His upraised palms gently hold my waist. I close me eyes and think of the dome and Momi and Dadi. He palms are so warm and my belly relaxes. Now my belly is so warm I fall asleep and dream of dolls and dancers.

(Include a scene of the birth and/or infant care.)

Agrinine is talking! I’m so happy to have someone to talk to. We talk all day. I’m teaching him the names of everything, saguaro, adobe, rattlesnake, moon, water, lichen, fifty, nose, sandstone, trail, and owl, just everything.

He loves to talk. He even talks to Trypp. “Get me a drink of water,” “Catch me a rabbit,” “Bake me some bread.” It’s so cute, when the palms go up and Argi sits there and laughs. I love Argi.

In the mornings Argi and I go for walks. His feet are tough and he can run up and down the rough trails. He’s getting taller and reminds me of Dadi. In the afternoon, I teach him lessons, numbers, and letters. We draw in the sand with sticks.

Argi sleeps in my arms. I just love Argi.

“Trypp, Argi is so wonderful, I’m going to have another baby!” I can see his palms, but not as quickly or high as they used to go. I better start the next baby as soon as possible, before his batteries die.

“Tonight, do it tonight.” His arms shake, but finally I see his palms.

I go to sleep early, “Wake my when the full moon is at the top of the sky.”

I dream of oceans and children running along the beach. A big wave roars towards the beach. I scream and the children run, but the wave grabs them and washes them away.

The next morning I’m alone. Drops of blood lead down the trail to the valley and I can see a circle of vulture far across the desert.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Rainbo Streeter – A Foster Child in High School – Part 2

"Duck, where have you been?”

“I’m dropping out. My mom doesn’t like cops parked outside every night.”

Sophie laughs, “And since when do you care about your foster mom?”

Duck grabs a shopping cart from behind Mrs. Jackson’s blackberries. The cart is full of rags, a yellow plastic bucket, an orange sponge mop and boxes of cleaner. “See, I’m a business person. I have my own houses to clean.”

“You stupid, stupid, stupid …”

Sophie kicks the cart and everything spills into the street. A car runs over a box of cleanser filling the air with a white cloud. Duck scrambles to retrieve her bucket and mop, “I thought you were my friend. Why’d you do that?”

“I thought you were so smart! You should be in school. Mr. Gardner looks so stupid. We have a calculus teacher and no calculus student. We have a dance this Friday. Come to the dance, please.” Sophie helps pick up the rest of the boxes.

Duck kicks over the cart and shuffles away, “Dance? Dance? I can’t dance.”

Christmas morning, Sophie walks between two poinsettia plants in terra cotta pots and enters the stucco house, “Merry Christmas Duck. I brought you some tamales.”

Duck wears an embroidered blouse and a long fringed skirt in purples and yellows. Sophie put her hands on Duck’s waist, “Girl, you’re looking good! Come back to school.”

Duck spins around, “Yes, look at me. I’ve got lots of houses. I’m doing well. Did you see my flowers on the porch? I’m moving to my own place next year.”

The two girls walk to church. “Duck, everyone wants you to come back. If you don’t come back we won’t get more money. They’ll fire the new teachers; the boys will drop out and …”

Duck looks at her oversized feet, “I’m in the right place. Just leave me alone.”

Duck buys an old Chrysler, blue, ten miles to the gallon, four bald tires, two broken windows, and no muffler, but it’s her car. Duck parks on the tree-lined street and walks up the circular driveway carrying her bucket full of cleaners, her mop, and pulling a new vacuum cleaner behind her. For a moment, she imagines she lives in this brick house with beds of petunias and four white columns framing the front door. She straightens out her starched uniform and rings the door.

“Come in. My wife said to expect you.”

Sophie looks at this man dressed in a black silk robe with manicured fingernails and smelling of unfamiliar cologne. He put his hands on her waist and lifts her up, “You’re even prettier than she said.”

Duck lets go of the vacuum cleaner, “Put me down!”

He brings his face to hers and kisses her on the lips, “You girls are never virgins and always need extra money. How about cleaning the bedroom first?”

Duck swings her size ten foot between his legs, grabs her vacuum cleaner and runs out of the house. She drives away with tears running down her face until she gets a flat tire in front of the school, “Wrong place!”

As soon as she steps out of the car, three boys spot her, “Woo!” “Duck’s grown up.” “Go girl!”

They run over to her, “You got a spare?”

They open the trunk, no spare. They all talk at once, “Duck, come back.” “School’s cool.” “Geometry’s fun.” “We’re putting on a play.” “I’m in the science fair.”

No one mentions the prom. Sophie told them Duck doesn’t like dances.”

“Car’s not going anywhere. Lead me in.”

The bell rings as the three guys escort her to the office. The students pour out in the hall and everyone cheers.

Duck sits next to a guy in jeans and a t-shirt, can’t be more than twenty-two, twenty-three. He opens a brand new calculus book between them, “Rainbo, this is just for you. It too late to do it all this year, but by next year you’ll know it all.”

Mr. Gonzales has tattoos on his fingers, “T U F F” and “K I L L.” Duck traces her fingers across the first page of chapter 1, Real Numbers and Equations, “You can call me Duck, and I know all this stuff.”

In May Duck takes the Algebra II exam and Colonel Black comes back to Love Canal, “You sneaking cheat! My agents told me you dropped out, and now I see you scored number one in Algebra II. From now on we follow you everyday. If you’re in school, we’re in school. If you clean houses, we clean houses.”

Duck looks at the colonel, who seems shorter than last year, “I’ll make it easy for you. I’m going to be in school!”

He leaves another envelope on Mr. Gardner’s desk, “The fraud this year was worse. Some students passed Geometry and reading scores are up 20%.”

After the door slams, Mr. Gardner laughs, “The New York Times editorial today, You Gotta Love Love High, says we showed that bigger budgets improve education performance. Of course, the conservative still say it’s a waste of money to support failing schools.”

“Next year."

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Rainbo Streeter – A Foster Child in High School – Part 1

Like two nocturnal animals, Duck and Sophie, press their fifteen-year old bodies against the cold dirt, deep inside Mrs. Jackson’s blackberry patch. The girls hold each other as a rare police car races down the street driving a cold breeze into their lair.

With a cardboard box scavenged from All Night Liquors to protect her curly hair and broad shoulders, the first girl crawls through briars. She leans against Mrs. Jackson’s old oak tree and brushes the dirt off her second-hand clothes, “Duck, you’re so lucky. You’re so smart. You’re so getting out of here.”

Duck, who is often mistaken for a ten-year old boy, slips through the tunnel of stickers untouched, “Forget it. I’m a foster kid. Nothing good ever happens to foster kids.”

“Closing time at the drive thru, let’s go.” Sophie runs down the deserted street towards a busy stream of traffic in the distance.

“Wait for me!” No matter how tightly Duck ties her size ten high-tops to her frail ankles, a clumsy waddle is to best she can manage. “Save some for me. I’m hungry!”

Sophie reaches out of the dumpster, “Here.”

Duck grabs the four drink cups – full of cold French fries, stale lettuce and half-eaten ribs. With one cup for each hand they walk home, pouring food into their mouths. Sophie tilts her head back to empty her first cup. She stares at the full moon, “Where do you think all the stars went?”

“They’re there.” Duck repeats, “They’re there,” like it’s some private joke. “They’re there.”

“There, there Sophie, don’t worry. The moon and the city lights are too bright. Like us, the stars are too dim to see.”

Duck empties her second cup, “Actually, not too dim, too far away.”

She corrects herself, “Like us, in the wrong place.”

They stop in front of a one bedroom stucco house on a street lined with old cars and pickup trucks, “Good night girl.”

“Night, night.”

Duck walks past a pile of used bricks, between two large terra cotta pots hosting dead plants, and opens the front door. The lock doesn’t work. No matter, someone is home and there’s nothing worth stealing, except drugs and they’re well hidden.

Duck surveys the living room. Sheets hang over the windows, but moonlight comes in through two bullet holes from a drive-by shooting. Tamales, the yellow hound dog, sleeps on the green stuffed chair. Duck doesn’t recognize the man sleeping on the black vinyl sofa. She picks up a couple of pillows and an old blanket and curls up behind the TV.

In the few minutes before she falls asleep, she wonders, “Am I too dim? Am I in the wrong place?”

The next morning, she puts on clean clothes from the cardboard carton she stores behind the TV. She grabs her purse and a beer for breakfast. She fixes her make-up in the bathroom at school. First period is English. She sits in the back of the class and sleeps.

“Rainbo!”

Her name, given to her by her third set of foster parents, disturbs her nap, but she doesn’t open her eyes and doesn’t move.”

“Mr. Gardner wants to see you in his office.”

The class turns to the back of the room. Everyone shouts and whistles, “Woo!” “Duck’s in trouble.” “Go girl!”

Like a feral cat, she opens her dark eyes, outlined with silver eyeliner, frozen within black eye sockets. Deliberately, she closes her note book. The cover matches the tattoos on her fingers, “D U C K.”

As her silver lips open, the class gets quiet, “Now?”

“Yes, now.”

Duck, almost five feet tall, maybe ninety pounds, walks to the front of the room. Just before she reaches the door, she spins back towards the class. The room is silent while her long black skirt sways back and forth and finally hangs down to her size ten shoes. She purses her silver lips like she’s going to blow a kiss to the teacher, but turns to the class and says, “Quack!”

By the time order is restored, she’s gone.

Mr. Gardner sits in his office with Colonel Black, “She’ll be here in a few minutes.”

Colonel Black, dressed in the dark orange of Homeland Security, paces back and forth in the small office.

Mr. Gardner stands at attention, “Colonel Black, would you like to sit down? We’ve never had a visitor from Homeland Security. What’s this all about?”

The colonel looks at his cuff and pulls out his handkerchief to polish his brass buttons. “Of course, no one has ever visited you. What a sorry excuse for a school. This glorified detention center is a nationally-certified failing school. The U. S. taxpayers are only interested in the schools with track records. Why should I ever visit at Love Canal High School?”

Mr. Gardner tucks his shirt into his blue jeans and straightens the piles of papers on his desk.

“Tell me about this Rainbo Streeter. What kind of name is Rainbo Streeter?”

Mr. Gardner walks over to a row of grey steel file cabinets. After hitting one a couple of times, the bottom drawer opens and he pulls out a file. “Rainbo Streeter, ninth grade, fifteen years old. In foster care for fourteen years, been abused, abandoned, moves every couple of years. Language skills sixth grade. Math at grade level.”

He closes the file and extends it towards the colonel. After a few moments, he drops it on a stack of similar files on his small oak desk. “Math at grade level! No one else at Love Canal is at grade level. She’s a smart girl. I bet she’d be an honor student with a real family.”

“Oh you bleeping liberals are all the same. She’s drug-damaged and lazy, just like the rest of your illegals and illiterates. But she’s why I’m here.”

The door opens and Duck walks in the room. She looks around the principal’s office. Two chairs in the middle of the room face the black desk and the principal’s leather chair. They are usually occupied by a trouble maker and a parent. A third chair is pushed in the corner under the picture of Martin Luther King. This chair is for the parole officer. Lincoln hangs behind the desk and Washington is over the row of file cabinets.

All the chairs are empty. The big clock over the door ticks, “Tick, tick, tick.” Duck sits in the parole officer’s char and fold her arms across her chest making sure her tattoos are clearly visible.

The strange man in the orange uniform points his finger at Duck, “Are you Rainbo Streeter?”

Mr. Gardner backs away, against the file cabinet, but Duck looks straight at the Colonel, “I guess so. That’s what they call me.”

Colonel Black moved towards Duck until his finger almost touches her nose, “Listen you to me insolent bitch! You’re in big trouble!”

Duck has been yelled at by drunks, beaten with belts and coat hangers and brooms. She’s been molested and abused. She doesn’t flinch as this man, adorned in brass buttons and dressed like a jack-o-lantern, approaches her.

“You scored the highest score in New York State on the Geometry test. No one at this school even passes that test. I doubt your teacher could even pass it.”

“So? So what?”

He looks at Mr. Gardner and slams his palm on the file cabinet. The principal jumps. “Do you know the penalty for cheaters? Teachers can be fined, fired, sent to prison. Student scholarships can be taken away and Rainbo here can be sent to jail, up to ten years for the first offense.”

Rainbo stands up and shuffles her oversized shoes towards the file cabinets, “I didn’t cheat, as for your scholarships, look at me! I’m a foster child going nowhere. We never go to college. You can keep your scholarship; I’m never going to use anyway.”

“Bull turkey! I’m sure you and Mr. Garner here are guilty cheats, but we can’t figure it out, so you get ten thousand dollars for your scholarship account and the school gets the legislated performance bonus of ten million.” He drops an envelope on top of the Rainbo Streeter file and heads for the door.

Duck holds her two fists up to his face, “If you’re coming back, my name is Duck.”

“I hope to never be back here. For next year’s testing, we’ll have FBI and NSA surveillance for the entire process. National Education Performance Testing is too important, too much is at stake. We can’t let a school like this make a mockery of NEPT. You can bet I won’t be back.”

The door slams. Mt Gardner collapses into his chair. The big clock over the door ticks. A bell rings. “That’s second period. Can I go to my math class?”

During the summer Sophie helps her mother clean houses. Duck’s foster mother gets a new boyfriend and he wants her on the street, Duck too. He laughs, “Streeter on the street.”

“No, never, I’ll run away,” she looks at the laughing boyfriend dressed in a black Raider exercise suit, with a black eye and a bandage on his thumb. “If I run away, no one gets paid by Social Services.”

The boyfriend stops laughing. Duck smiles, “I’ll pay you one hundred dollars a week. Just leave me alone.”

He punches her with his good hand, but she ducks, “Cash, every Friday.”

Later, outside the drive thru, she tells Sophie. “No problem, my mother has plenty of houses to clean. You can clean houses.”

Duck hugs Sophie, “Thanks. Have you seen the school?”

‘Wow! Yes! Every day there are trucks – painters, plumbers, carpenters. My father even got a job there. He says the school got some money and they’re fixing it up and even hiring new teachers.”

“They even cleaned up the trash from the park next to the school.”

“My older brother says that some of his friends are curious about the clean up …”

“and new teachers!”

“He says his friends are not going to drop out this year.”

“It’s a good thing they’re getting more teachers.”

The two girls spend the summer cleaning houses, sleeping under the blackberries, eating cold french fries, and dreaming about next school year.

“Do you think we can have dances?”

“I wonder if we’ll get new textbooks.”

“Maybe we can have a real prom!”

“I want a Calculus teacher.”

“I want a dance teacher.”

The last week in August, the Salvation Army and Goodwill is crowded as everyone shops for school clothes. Duck gets a black shawl with beads and a short black skirt to show off her hips that suddenly grew over the summer. Sophie buys red, green and white outfits – three of them. On the first day of school everyone gathers in the park an hour before school opens. Duck stands at the edge of the crowd wondering, “Could this be the right place?”

Monday, January 02, 2006

1052 Words – Love Canal – Scene 1 – Jorge Martinez

I watched my video feeds, waiting for our visitor. We had darn few visitors. I checked his ID record again. Special Investigator, Dr. Robert Horowitz, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant to the Secretary of Education. Wow! Most our visitors were cops, parole officers, or junior reporters.

Ten o’clock, right on time, he walked to the gate. I listened, “Welcome to Martin Luther King High School, Dr. Horowitz. Please put you bag on the conveyer and walk slowly through the detector.”

After he dropped his bag, his hand started to rise, as if he intended to salute. Even in his conservative yellow and blue plaid suit with gold piping to accommodate the electronics, his stiff posture and mechanical gait gave away his military connections. The scanner screen surprised me; he was unarmed – unusual for a first time visitor. All our teachers carried weapons – non-lethal, of course – usually brain wave disruptors or sonic disablers.

He didn’t knock, just walked through my open door, “Ms. Njormo?”

I stood up, straightening my campus supervisor uniform. I checked my holster as I reached out my hand, “Dr. Horowitz, welcome to MLK High.”

His hand shake was firm, but I grew up on the streets – we were on my turf – after a few seconds he let go, “What brings you to Niagara Falls? We’re not NYC or even Albany.”

He places his PO on the table – obviously a high-end model, probably capable of recording and projecting holos, “Jorge Martinez.”

My screen confirmed my suspicions. We have lots of Jorge Martinezes, “Which Jorge?”

He rubbed his eyes as if the meeting was already taking too long, “The one with highest score on the high school physics exam – the highest score in New York State. Surely, someone in this glorified detention center must have noticed.”

I stood up, “He graduated last June. He’s gone.”

“Yes, I know. Sorry about my tone. I apologize,” he leaned back and unbuttoned his jacket, “Do you have a cafeteria? Let me buy you a fruit juice.”

I may not’ve gone to college, but I graduated the streets of Love Canal. I can hold my own, “No cafeteria, there’s a clean taqueria just outside the gate.”

Old Jesus whistles and winks at me when I enter his storefront with Dr. Horowitz. He stands behind the wooden counter, “Hola, what’ll be?”

I direct Dr. Horowitz to the one chair that doesn’t wobble, “Dos limon.”

I grabbed the two plastic cups and sit down at a small wooden table. Most of the graffiti was en Espanol, but I’m sure he understood the gang tags meant he was a visitor, probably an unwelcome visitor.

The shop was empty, but I still whispered, “What’s so important about this Jorge?”

He leaned back on his chair, crossed his fingers across his chest, took a big drink and began, “These are high stakes tests. District budgets, teacher bonuses, student scholarships, all depend on these scores.”

I sipped my lemonade, “So why are you here?”

He smiled, that “you people don’t know anything” smile, “A lot of money is involved here. Cheating is very serious. If we allowed people to cheat, our whole system would collapse.”

“Huh?”

“Trillions of dollars are given to educate our citizens. Students who study hard and get good scores are rewarded, as are their teachers and school districts. On the other hand, the lazy students who get low scores are penalized. A school like yours gets nothing, … until Jorge. Last year millions of dollars went to this school. What do you think would happen to the education budget if we sent money to the thousands of districts like this who don’t deserve it?”

I put my cup on the table with a solid clunk, “Are you saying Jorge cheated?”

“What else? Maybe not Jorge – someone may have taken the test for him. Someone may have broken into the test computers and stolen the questions or just changed the scores. You’d be surprised at the scams I’ve uncovered.”

He wanted to interview our Physics teacher, “Let me talk to Mr. O’Simpson, though from his record, I doubt he could pass the physics exam himself.”

We met Harry in the break room sitting on a secondhand sofa, playing a game on his screen and drinking from a bottle. Dr. Horowitz sat on a wobbly chair, “Tell me about Jorge Martinez.”

“Which one?”

Dr. Horowitz, flashed his ID and smacked his PO on the floor. “Be careful. You can be looking at ten to twenty. The Jorge who got the unbelievable test score.”

Harry didn’t look up from his game, “What you want to know?”

The agent grabbed the screen and threw it across the room, “Now I have your attention.

Harry looked up, “If you damaged that, you’ll hear from the union.”

“What kind of student was he?”

Harry folded his arms across above his large belly, “Good. He was a good student.”

The agent’s knuckles turned white and he took a deep breath through his nose.

“Everyday after I showed the film, he answered the homework questions. When he took the quiz on Friday, the computer always gave him a perfect score. I’ve already spent my bonus, two weeks in Las Vegas, shows, suites, gambling and girls, you can’t get it back.”

“I don’t care about your bonus. I want to know how you guys cheated.”

“No idea. I just run the films and coach football … and basketballs … and track. I don’t even watch the films. If they have questions, they email the Hopkins and Wolff Curriculum Publishers.”

Dr. Horowitz looks at me and points his thumb to the door. He doesn’t even say goodbye. The next stop is the Principal, Mrs. Romapolous.

She’s very polite, but the result is the same. She doesn’t know anything.

Back in my office, “Can you contact Jorge for me?”

I glance back to my screen, “Sorry, like most of our boys, he joined the Marines.”

“I don’t believe you people. He could have had a full scholarship, but he joined the Marines?”

He glanced at his PO and kicked a chair across the room, “Merde, the fool got himself killed in the Middle East. This case is closed. Tell your crooked friends that it better never happen again.”

He slammed the door. I never wanted to see him again either.