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Author Archives: Elizabeth K. Burton

About Elizabeth K. Burton

I spent my first half-century in various parts of Pennsylvania, and plan to spend the second one here in Austin. The third one is up for grabs—feel free to offer suggestions. I've been a welfare mom, a journalist, a newspaper editor, and an information and referral agent. I finally got to do what I'd dreamed of doing most of my life—write fiction—and have since had four novels (Dreams of Darkness, Shadow of the Scorpion, The Everdark Gate, and The Ugly Princess) and three novellas published.

Adversaries: The Color of Fear 3

CHAPTER 2

August 10

Cincinnati, OH, outside the former home of Tzu Shin

Late afternoon

Valery Paz’s lips twisted into a mocking pout. “Now what are we going to eat?”

Tzu Lin Kwan sat hunched in the passenger seat of Valery’s big red truck, belated guilt making her blush. Being here on the Cincinnati street where her father had lived, learning he was alive but had been transferred to a lab in St. Louis, had caught her off-guard. When the neighbor woman asked for the bag of groceries she’d bought to share a meal with Tzu Shin, Kwan had blindly given it to her.

That left Kwan and Valery with nothing.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t think.”

Valery laughed and punched her lightly on the arm.

“I’m totally kidding you. We have to stop for gas anyway, so we’ll pick up something. Come on, let’s go.” She started the truck, then drove toward downtown once again. “Since your dad’s already in St. Louis, we’ll just head on back. We can be in New St. Lou by noon tomorrow, if everything’s clear.”

St. Louis. The thought made Kwan smile. About her father. And San.

Her emotions welled up and bubbled over. So much she’d hoped for was so close now. The mission her father had given her, to bring the zi su ye herbs to America, would be completed soon. He would save the people, and make the world whole again.

She’d followed her defector father to San Francisco, then to Cincinnati, only to find him gone. But now, at least, she had a positive site where he could be found.

Her pride in the promise of completing this mission brought the memory of her now-dead mentor, Li Zhong. He had given up his quiet life in Hong Kong to chaperone her voyage. She, too, had put aside her own desires and wishes, perhaps the largest her own sacrifice in denying herself the right to love Xi San, when everything in her heart told her they belonged together.

Could she really have her father and San, along with a real life?

“Oh, no way. No way. Look!”

Valery slammed on the brakes, pulling over to the curb. Kwan clutched the dashboard, her breath half stolen by the sudden screech.

“What? What?” she gasped, heart pounding. She peered desperately around for a child in the road or some justification.

Mira! It’s a taco truck!”

Her face split by a huge smile, Valery bailed out. She ran to the open window of the large white panel truck, spewing a string of Spanish. Nodding and waving her hands, she exchanged words with someone inside, then called to Kwan.

“Come on, chica. I’m about to change your life.”

Still rattled by the sharp halt, and unsure if she could handle any more life changes at the moment, Kwan slid out of the cab. Keeping a watch around them, she walked slowly to the food truck. Inside, she discovered a young couple who spoke excitedly to Valery, hardly taking a breath as they laughed and conversed. Kwan hung back, feeling excluded.

“Oh, my God,” Valery said to Kwan. “These two are from back in King City! Their parents ran La Potranca, a place I used to practically live at, pozole to die for. I swear.”

Kwan glanced at the grinning couple, who piled food into some folded flatbread, and then into a white bag.

“They left town when the virus first hit, and brought all their mama’s recipes along. This is just a temp deal until there’s enough local resources and money to open a restaurant.” She accepted the bag from the young woman, reached inside and handed Kwan a greasy, paper-wrapped bundle. “Eat.”

It was Valery; no point in arguing.

Kwan peeled the paper back from the closest end of the handful, and was greeted by a wave of pungent scent. A bite brought her creamy cheese, spicy meat, a crunch of greens and smoky sauce. It was one of the best things she’d ever tasted.

“Mmm,” she sighed.

“Told ya.” Delighted, Valery devoured one, her eyes closed in overwhelming satisfaction. “Que bueno!

She asked the couple a question, and they quickly prepared another bag of treats for her. She paid them from the coins and bills Eddie had given them for the trip, still chattering, and then reluctantly dragged herself back to the truck.

“So unreal. I can’t believe I could find someone from home all the way out here. It made me feel…” She clutched the paper bags, her face working. Suddenly, she was in tears.

“Val?” Kwan reached out to smooth back her companion’s auburn locks, stunned at the strong woman’s disintegration. “What is wrong?”

“La Potranca was one of my mom’s favorite places, too,” she said between sobs. “We ate there just before…just before…” She couldn’t go on.

The walls that contained strong feelings only held so long. Kwan slid closer to Valery and slipped an arm around her shoulders. So often during their journey from San Francisco, Valery had been the pillar of strength that held up both of them. She’d come along on this jaunt to Cincinnati to find Kwan’s father only to support Kwan. The least Kwan could do was repay the debt.

When Val had cried herself out, with a few empathetic tears from Kwan, both sniffed and scrubbed their faces with brown napkins, then dug into the bags, toasting each other with tacos before starting the engine and heading down the road again.

Kwan checked the notes Eddie had prepared. “Route Fifty is only a few miles from here. We can get gas just before that.”

“Eddie typed his fingers off getting us ready to go.” Valery’s smile was wistful. Her eyes teared up again.

“You’ll see him soon,” Kwan reminded her. And I’ll see the men I love.

They filled up with gas at the station Eddie had told them was safe, and then Valery turned toward the interstate. Kwan caught the sign for the highway out of the corner of her eye.

“But we took US-Fifty out here. That road was approved by the team.”

Valery rolled her eyes. “Look, chica, it’s almost dark. It’ll take six hours or more to get back to New St. Lou. We’ll get there a lot faster on the interstate. Don’t you want to get there fast?”

So much waited for her there…

“Of course.”

Kwan looked away, startled to find San’s image in her mind instead of her father’s. No. Not yet. You’re still on your mission. You can’t indulge yourself until you’ve delivered the herbs.

“Well, then.” Valery floored the gas pedal, and they zoomed up the ramp onto I-71, headed south.

Unlike the highways of the West, this interstate was less cluttered with abandoned vehicles, and those were mostly pulled off to the right side of the road.

“We’re going to make great time,” Valery commented, fitting their truck into the sparse line of vehicles taking the middle route down the dividing line of the two lanes.

Kwan studied the bicycles, motorcycles, and to a lesser extent, other cars that shared the road. People here had committed to making a life for themselves again, using as many of the tools as they could keep working. Several drivers eyed the shiny red truck with hungry avarice as it passed them. Valery had proudly cared for and polished the vehicle every day since they’d liberated it from a garage outside Lake Tahoe on their journey east.

Surely, the theft can be forgiven if the family it belonged to wasn’t around to use it.

As many times as Kwan repeated Val’s justification for keeping the truck, the concept did not sit comfortably in her heart. Taking what wasn’t yours was stealing. This lesson had been drilled into her, black and white, since she could remember. Her aunt Ehuang, even in their hardest times, had insisted that they not fall to the common level of street thieves.

But there was no question that having a vehicle made life much easier. Without it, would they have encountered Xi San and his traveling group? Could they have come to St. Louis? Or ever made it to Cincinnati? Now the trip to find her father would take only hours instead of days or weeks walking. Perhaps it was possible that fate had brought their path together with that of the red truck, a gift from the gods to help them on their mission.

It still felt wrong.

Kwan shook the gnawing guilt from her mind. It served no purpose. She turned her attention instead to the impending sunset. A cornflower-blue sky spawned streaks of lavender-and-violet clouds. Vehicles on the road around them turned off, headlights shining, to the side roads. Once it was fully dark, it was miles between sightings of another car. The countryside was dotted with the occasional glow of generator-driven lights from homes in the distance, their randomness making them quite noticeable against the otherwise black landscape.

The monotony lulled Kwan into a state of drowsiness. She laid her head on the back of the seat and closed her eyes, letting her mind sink into memory.

Valery hummed one of her musical tunes. Kwan recognized it as a refrain Valery and Arik Logsdon had sung together in the community apartment building Eddie Garrick had established. Shortly after they’d arrived in St. Louis, the neighborhood had hosted a block party to meet the newcomers. Singing something about “Sisters,” Arik and Val had waylaid Kwan in the hallway and steered her into the room she shared with Val…

#

“Wait till you see what we’ve got for you, querida!” Valery giggled as she pulled her into their room. Arik closed the door behind them, beaming.

Her traveling companion had a certain look in her eyes, and Kwan recognized it as the one that always led to mischief. But unlike some of the other times, this one didn’t seem geared toward trouble.

“What are you up to?” she asked.

Her friends dug into the closet.

“Look at this!”

Valery whipped out a red silk jacket trimmed in black, with a mandarin collar. The short-sleeved jacket was delicately embroidered in gold. Kwan thought she’d never seen anything so beautiful.

Arik mock-swooned. “Oh, honey, it’s to die for. And size two. I’m jealous.”

After she slipped on the jacket and a pair of dress black slacks, Arik encouraged them both to sit at a table covered with makeup and hair doodads, and he dolled them both up. Valery enjoyed the attention, but Kwan had never experienced such fuss over how she looked. Certainly, she’d never worn such makeup and even false eyelashes. They pulled at her skin and tickled. But Arik waved away her protests.

“It’s about time someone looked glam around here!”

“You have enough to do,” Kwan interjected feebly.

“This isn’t stressful at all, love. Believe me, this is something that relaxes me. You’re the one doing me a favor.”

He finished and admired his work, then he clicked his tongue. “Oh lawd, lawd. I know two young ladies who are gonna get their bones jumped tonight. I’ll bet my sweet ass on it.”

Valery snorted. “Tease.”

“Shut up, sister woman. Artiste at work.” Arik chuckled. “Perfect. Go get your duds, Val.”

Kwan studied the unfamiliar face in the mirror, realizing she might well be a movie star with all this added to her skin. She’d never looked like this, ever. It was uncomfortable, but she had to admit she liked it.

Valery slipped into a black-beaded jacket Kwan knew she hadn’t brought with her.

“Isn’t this fabulous? I found it stuffed in a box in the attic. A huge pile of vintage clothing up there. I think we’re going to recycle it for the new community theatre.”

Valery finished dressing, topping off the outfit with a pair of black platform shoes that she wobbled on the first couple of times across the room. Arik offered Kwan a pair of high heels, but she shook her head. She knew her limits. She wore her usual black flats, the ones that looked like dancers’ shoes.

“Mmm-mmm,” Arik said. He pulled them both over to look in the recently acquired full-length mirror. Kwan saw not two girls who’d traveled through some of the roughest country in America, who’d survived a shootout in Kansas, but two grown-up women who’d found their place in life.

Arik and his partner Mark escorted them to the event, making sure no one saw them until their grand entrance, which caused even the garrulous Eddie Garrick to stop mid-punchline. He stumbled through the rest of his conversation, eyes on Valery.

San’s face when he saw Kwan walk into the banquet room reflected everything Arik and Val had promised. They’d sat together at dinner, and he kept reaching out to touch her, as if she were a dream. She’d felt part of that dream, too…

#

Now she could live it. She was on her way back to St. Louis and San.

A warm feeling of satisfaction coming over her, she sat up and opened her eyes.

“Should we try to contact them? Ask them to be waiting?”

Valery grinned in the way Kwan recognized as the expression that meant Val was throwing caution to the winds.

“Let’s hope they’re having a great time and letting go for a change. They’ve been so uptight about getting us where we needed to be. Nice that they can just be boys for once.” She smiled wider. “You know…that means we could be wild women on the way home. We could stop at a strip club or something—”

“Val!” Now that her path was clear, the last thing Kwan wanted to do was stop anywhere at all. “Can we please just drive?”

Valery laughed. “I’m just teasing you, querida. I wouldn’t keep you away from either of your men for a second longer.”

Distracting herself, Kwan concentrated on her father’s memory instead. The adrenaline of discovering his whereabouts had begun to wear off, and she rolled her shoulders to dispel the tension.

“I still can’t believe my father is so close.”

Her face ghostly pale in the reflection of the dashboard lights, Valery stared out the front windshield and chewed her lip.

“I’m praying he is,” she said, her tone fading to a serious one. “I don’t want you to get too crazy excited about this, sister mine. Remember, we had good word he was in Cincinnati.”

Kwan refused to allow doubt to cloud her hope. “He was in Cincinnati. That woman actually knew my father. She knew who I was. Somewhat.”

So she called me Kay Lynn. It was close enough.

“She’d seen him before he left here.” She nodded, more to reassure herself than Valery. “Once we get back, we just have to find him in St. Louis.”

“That might not be such a big issue. I know someone who’s a pretty big radio star in the city, you know. If he puts the word out, you’ll hear from your dad in no time.”

Those words were like a warm blanket for Kwan, who took them and held them close. They’d be back in St. Louis before the night was over; and first thing in the morning, she and Val could talk to Eddie about making an announcement over KMOX.

How much easier could it be?

“Do you think we could listen to KMOX now?” she asked.

“Probably.”

Valery poked at the dash, and the radio came to life.

“—children of the night,” came the sultry alto voice of Isis, as it had every night during their travels. “We have a whole pile of messages going out to those wandering our highways and byways this fine evening. I’ll get to those in a minute, but I wanted to let everyone know that, here in New St. Lou, we’re expecting a visit from representatives from Washington DC. Rumor has it they will bring presumptive President Eartha Osman. Perhaps then we will be able to help the city acquire some funding to help get things up and running again.”

Valery snorted. “Maybe.”

Kwan frowned at the cynicism in Val’s tone. “Is Washington not your former capital? Surely, they will be able to help.”

“Uncle Dave used to have a cartoon posted on the refrigerator saying ‘We’re your government, we’re here to help.’ Everyone was standing there holding a rifle on some poor little immigrant kid. It was scary as hell. He never trusted the government to do anything.”

Kwan thought back to some of the corrupt politicians she’d heard about in Hong Kong after the Second Holocaust, people who took bribes, people cowed by the military into cracking down hard on some of the poorest people in the city.

Zhong, too, had been with the government at one time, and he had often worried they’d come after him. The government couldn’t be trusted, he’d always said.

“My father thought that America was a better place, though. That the government was free and—”

A figure dressed in white waving its arms suddenly appeared in front of the car, standing in the middle of the road, captured in the headlights.

“Hold on!” Valery yelled. Brakes squealing, she swerved the truck toward the far side of the road. The wheels ground to a stop.

Kwan’s head hit the side window at the angle of the swerve, but she was otherwise unharmed. She unlatched her seatbelt, her gaze swiveling back to the dark in the center of the road, searching out the “ghost” they’d nearly run over.

“You okay?” Valery asked, leaning down to pull her gun out from under the seat.

“Yes.” Kwan checked to see that her long knife was in her boot, then slowly opened the door, trying not to make any noise. She caught a brief look at Valery’s face before the overhead light went out. Val’s jaw was set tight. Not the time to remind her this was not the chosen route home.

Valery scooted out her door, her movements large and friendly-appearing. “Hello? Can I help you?”

No one answered, but Kwan caught a hint of movement in the dark on the far side of the shadowed median. She kept to her place, hidden by the bulk of the truck’s bed. Valery’s advantage was the gun; Kwan’s would be surprise.

A querulous female voice came from the median.

“How far to Cincinnati?”

Kwan saw Valery’s outline in a pale sliver of moonlight that came through the clouds. She moved around the cab of the truck, keeping it between her and the voice.

“About twenty miles.”

“They’ve hospitals running, right?”

“As far as I know. What’s your situation?”

Kwan inched closer to the back of the truck, wishing the moonlight were bright enough to verify how many people waited for them in the night. This wasn’t what she had expected, certainly. Usually, there were a lot more threats, followed by even more shooting.

But that didn’t mean they weren’t in lethal danger.

“My granddaughter’s having a baby. She’s been in labor for two days. It’s breech.” The tears in the old woman’s voice sounded real. “She’s bleeding now. We come from Frankfurt, and we run out of gas. We just gotta get her there.”

Val didn’t answer right away. Kwan guessed she was weighing the odds it was a trap. Only one way to find out.

Kwan dashed to the left, taking cover behind another stalled car, then made her way silently across the two lanes of the highway. She hunkered down, making herself small. A faint light came from a parked car on the other side of the highway. A woman appeared to be lying down in the back seat and another leaning over from the front. From this vantage point, Kwan could dimly see the woman who’d been speaking. She wore a long dress or robe, no hat on her head. Her hands were empty.

“Kwan?”

“I think she’s all right.” Kwan stood up, placing the woman between herself and Valery. “She’s unarmed.”

The woman took several steps back, visibly alarmed at Kwan appearing so suddenly.

“Please, don’t hurt us! We’re just three women trying to save this little one comin’.”

Valery came out from behind the truck then, and dug in the cab for a flashlight. She shined it on the woman, who covered her eyes from the sudden brightness.

“You need a ride into town?”

“Oh, yes, miss, thank Jesus for you. Thank Jesus.”

The woman in the worn housedress beckoned for them to follow her. Kwan jogged across to meet Valery, still not totally reassured.

“They could have men…”

Valery nodded. “ I don’t think so. Let’s check it out.”

They crossed to the parked car, Valery keeping the light moving, showing them the ground as well as checking out the area around the car. Nothing untoward appeared.

In the car, they found a very young woman, her face white and drawn, abdomen distended with child, barely conscious. Kwan didn’t know much about the birth process, but she had seen people die. This woman was about to leave the earth.

Valery ran back for the truck. She pumped it into gear and drove it over the lumpy median grass. Kwan helped the older women load the younger into the truck bed, the three of them holding her to try to cushion her from too many bumps and bruises on the ride. For a brief moment, Kwan was reminded of the day they’d found the Enforcer, after his encounter with the snake, and the ride that had allowed them to really speak to one another for the first time. Val’s driving, too fast and too furious, wasn’t too different, either.

The women spoke softly to the girl between swerves and bumps, half-shaken to bits themselves by the transit. If the breech baby didn’t kill this girl, Valery’s driving might.

Kwan didn’t know how Valery managed, but she found a hospital with a half-lit emergency room sign out back. She bailed out of the truck and ran inside, returning with several white-clad orderlies with a gurney. They made a quick business of transferring the girl and her womenfolk back inside, and suddenly, it was just the two of them again.

Chale!” Valery yelled. “Our good deed for the day. We should be, like, Boy Scouts. Out rescuing the injured of America…” She trailed off. “Like your man San.”

Kwan nodded. “I was reminded as well.” She couldn’t help but smile at the thought of San’s face. “So, we should get back on the road home, then?”

“The road. Yes.” Walking with a spring in her step, Valery went to jump back in the cab. “And I know what you’re going to say.”

Kwan, following her, sat demurely and fastened her seatbelt. “What am I going to say?”

Valery snorted. “You’re going to tell me that I should have taken the other road. And you’re right. That could have been a very different situation.” She sighed, then smiled. “But maybe we saved a life. Two lives.”

Kwan agreed. “Perhaps fate led us down that road on purpose. But all the same, couldn’t we take the interstate now?”

“Your wish, dear sister, is my command.”

Valery hit the CD player, and the rugged voice of Willie Nelson rolled out as they left the driveway and headed back toward St. Louis, on the road once again.


 
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Posted by on October 9, 2020 in Round Robin

 

What is The Color of Fear?

Adversaries, by Lyndi Alexander, the exciting climax to her YA series, coming soon from Zumaya Thresholds

Life after the devastating biological terrorist attack that decimated the White population in the US is beginning to recover as Tzu Lin Kwan is finally able to deliver her precious cargo of herbs to her scientist father. Or is it?

The virus may be mutating, spreading to infect those previously immune. Tzu Shin and his fellow scientists—and now Kwan—are literal prisoners of the US military. The White supremacist army of the demagogue Gabriel has invaded St. Louis. And the Chinese assassin Piao knows where to find his targets.

Kwan and her friends Valery, Eddie, and San are ready to fight to the death to defend their recovering world. The question is: Are courage and determination enough?


CHAPTER 1

August 10
The family house in Cherokee, St. Louis
Mid-morning

Jin Piao stretched lazily in the twin-sized bed, savoring the few minutes of quiet. Pale gray light came through the window, announcing the arrival of dawn. Weeks now since the arrival of his caravan, which had started as travelers from disparate areas of San Francisco before gradually uniting as they came cross-country, he’d begun to feel a part of this motley family. Certainly, they welcomed him, sharing meals, playing games in the evenings. He even enjoyed their late-night exchange of conversation in the family room.

No one knew the real reason he was here.

The Ministry of State Security had sent him after Lin Kwan with her packets of Chinese herbs. He’d left Hong Kong, traversed the Pacific Ocean, and come across the United States—what was left of it, anyway.

Kwan had traveled here to find her scientist father. Once they reunited, Piao would be in a position to complete his mission and end the hope of America recovering its former status as a world leader.

So his Chinese masters thought, but there was much they did not know about this land. They’d assumed that during the Second Holocaust, after Cambodian terrorists released the virus that killed White people—first in California, then across the States, then around the world—that the U.S. population would be decimated and therefore easy to conquer. While they hadn’t started the fight, they were certainly happy to finish it.

Piao, however, had discovered that not only had many Whites survived, thanks to mixed racial lines, but that the country had a solid base of citizens of Hispanic and African-American heritage, especially here in St. Louis. This new capital of the States served as a magnet, drawing more survivors every day, the vast majority being people of color. The America his masters had known might no longer exist, but the country was by no means a dead enemy—with or without the herbs.

Lin Kwan had been cagy of late, but he had seen her packing her meager belongings. He gathered she intended to leave for the East, to Ohio, wherever that was. He knew because her traveling companion Valery Paz had none of the privacy reservations of her friend. She told everyone everything. The departure was planned for this week. Once they left, Piao would follow and complete his mission.

He smiled at the thought of being able to return to his wife in China, and his newborn son Hu. They awaited him at the assignment’s end.

Lifting his head from the firm pillow, he listened for foot traffic outside his door. It was quiet. Quieter than it should be. A thrill of alarm zigzagging through his stomach, he twisted out of bed, then opened the door to get a better idea of what was happening.

A dozen people shared this house owned by Eddie Garrick, the radio personality and friend of Xi San. It should be noisier. Several voices came up the polished stairway from the kitchen, one floor below, none of them belonging to the two women.

He hurriedly pulled on the clothing he’d tossed on the floor the previous night, then slipped out into the hall. Kwan and Valery’s room was to the left of his, the door standing open. He peeked inside, finding their bags gone and beds made.

Damn. I’ve missed them. How had that happened?

Barefoot, he padded downstairs to the kitchen, arriving as Xi San and Eddie Garrick came in the back door. Marie Westbrook, their unofficial housemother, set out a fresh tray of biscuits. Her red hair was well-coiffed, and her face perfectly made up, as always, even at the crack of dawn.

“Did the girls get off all right?” she asked, eyes bright.

San nodded, his jaw tight.

Piao studied the former Enforcer, a man who’d lost everything but his life before he’d decided to become a vigilante crime fighter on the streets of San Francisco. San was hard in every way possible—muscle, attitude, and heart. Or he had been, before he met Kwan.

“They’re gone?” Piao said, trying not to sound too alarmed. His mission could be totally lost.

Eddie studied him. “Didn’t know you were so interested in them, buddy.”

Piao realized he needed some excuse for his sudden concern.

“Kwan said Valery was staying here. I was to go with her.”

“Really?” Eddie grabbed a biscuit and took a bite, continuing with his mouth full. “Never said that to me.”

San’s dark eyes pierced the lie. “Or me.”

Marie looked from one to the other of them, eyes narrowed as she tried to suss out the cause of the tension.

“I’m sure we’ll hear from them soon. Kwan, at least, will follow up with news. She’s such a good girl. I just hope she finds her father.”

“We all do,” Piao said. He felt like he was still under scrutiny from San and Eddie, who’d gone to the beverage area of the kitchen, so he moved close to admire Marie’s baking. “Are these for anyone?” he asked.

“Absolutely. Help yourself. Water’s hot for tea.” She went to the doorway and called upstairs for her roommate. “Jack. Breakfast!”

Piao made a show of setting a plate with two biscuits on the nook table, piling them with sweet berry preserves. The other two men began talking about San’s job search and lack of success, and eventually, they wandered out to chat elsewhere. Piao hardly noticed, his mind already making plans.

If the girls had left just within the hour, he could likely catch up with them. The interstate highways were clear to the east; he’d heard people talking about it. A man alone could make good time.

He listened for the footsteps of the others, but no one came. The smell of the biscuits he hadn’t even wanted called to him, and he held one up to his nose, taking a long sniff. After that one moment of sheer enjoyment, he ate them down to the last crumb. The warm bread was flaky and delicious, a novelty to him. They didn’t have such things in China. The closest thing he could compare it to was a biscuit roll, a thin rolled pastry much more like a cookie than this bread.

The jam, too, was full-flavored and delectable.

Even though he’d tried to keep active, teaching martial arts to children at the neighborhood center, he’d gained more than eighteen jin, or twenty pounds, since he’d crossed the ocean on the huge tank ship. Fortunately, his activities had allowed some of it to remain strong muscle.

Marie returned with pudgy old man Jack on her heels. Jack poured them both coffee as she prepared a plate of biscuits; then they headed for the table where Piao sat. It was a perfect chance to escape without drawing attention.

“Please,” he said, giving up his seat, holding the chair for Marie as he’d seen Jack do.

“Oh, you don’t have to go, honey,” she said. “We’d be happy to join you.”

“Yes, Piao,” Jack chimed in. “We haven’t seen you nearly enough since you’ve been teaching.”

Piao bent in a slight bow. “So kind of you, but again I have an early class. Thank you for the breakfast, mou chan.” He turned and left the kitchen.

“Have a good class!” she called after him.

Piao slowed as soon as he was out of sight, wanting to see if anything more was said about the departure of Kwan and her friend, but all he heard was an affectionate, “He’s so sweet” from Marie before Jack launched into a discussion of the medicinal herbs they’d have to harvest that morning.

He bolted up the stairs, closing his door after he entered the room. He pulled on heavy black boots. His brown leather jacket would protect him from the wind while riding his motorcycle, even if it would be too warm by the late August afternoon. Sorting through his remaining belongings, he decided to abandon them. He’d learned to travel light.

Ha! On this trip you came with only the shirt on your back!

His ego still burned at the way Kwan’s sensei Li Zhong had bested him on the docks in Hong Kong. Piao could have killed him, and the girl, and disposed of the damned herbs over the side of the boat, and no one would have been the wiser. Who’d have guessed the old warrior still had a few tricks left in him?

The last thing he packed was a shiny silver-barreled gun he tucked into the side pocket of the pack for easy access. He’d scrounged it in one of the small towns the group had passed through on its way from California. He preferred hand-to-hand combat, but he had to assure the success of his mission.

Once he found Kwan, her traitor father, and the herbs all in the same place, he could destroy them all. He’d end this threat to his country at last, and go home to hold his son.

He grabbed his backpack, then closed the door as he went out, hoping to delay discovery of his departure as long as he could. His bike was parked in the rear of the house. He hopped on, started it with a single kick, and headed off to find the highway.


 
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Posted by on September 25, 2020 in Coming Soon, Zumaya Thresholds

 

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A Comedy Career Cut Short?

RUTHERFORD will be on sale this Friday, 11 September. Preorder now from Kindle and Barnes & Noble

Chapter 2

Down and Out


I was rudely awakened from a sound sleep by the shrieks of my little sister Daphne. She was standing in the open doorway of the barn.

“Rutherford,” she said, “wake up. There’s something going on.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look out there. See that car with the red light on top of it? What is that?”

I got up, walked over, and took a look. “That’s an ambulance,” I said.

“What’s that?” she said.

I remembered the only other time I could recall seeing an ambulance. It was when old Mr. Davis had suffered a heart attack. We were all really worried about him, but he managed to pull through, and was back on his feet in no time. That was about a year ago.

“An ambulance is a car that takes sick people to the hospital,” I said.

“What’s a hospital?” Daphne asked.

Here we go again. These puppies don’t know anything.

The ambulance had pulled right up to the front door of the house. The light on its roof was spinning, but the siren was off. Nothing else was going on.

“A hospital is a place where they take care of sick people,” I said.

“Who do you suppose is sick?” she asked.

“It’s gotta be Mr. Davis.”

Who else could it be? His wife had passed away before I was born. My mother used to talk about her sometimes. She really missed her. After that happened, everyone thought Mr. Davis might sell his breeding business, but in time, he decided to keep it running. I was sure glad about that.

“I’ll be right back,” I told Daphne. I looked around for my mother. I found her in a corner of the barn nursing some of the other puppies.

“Good morning, Rutherford,” she said. “Why the long face?”

“What’s happening out there?” I asked. “Is it Mr. Davis?”

My mom nodded. “It’s his heart again. I’ve been worried about him lately. For the past couple of weeks, he’s been moving around more slowly. And he looked pale to me the other day.”

“You never said anything.”

“I didn’t want to worry you,” she said. “None of us wants to think about what this place would be like without him.”

She was right. I didn’t want to think about it. I decided to check things out for myself.

I left the barn and walked up to where the ambulance was parked. Just as I got there, the front door of the house swung open. Paramedics wheeled a cart out onto the porch. Mr. Davis was lying on the cart. His eyes were closed. There was a long skinny tube attached to his arm, and one of the people was holding a plastic mask over his nose and mouth.

Horace Davis followed them to the ambulance. He watched as they slid the cart into the back.

“I’ll follow you over there,” he said.

I stared at Horace. I couldn’t bear the thought of him taking over this place.

“What are you lookin’ at, freak?” he said to me. He sneered and walked to the garage.

I watched the ambulance race down the dirt driveway. It was the last time I ever saw Mr. Davis.

#

The funeral was held a few days later. The procession drove by the farm that morning. My mother insisted we all stand on the side of the road and bark as the cars drove by. It was our own personal tribute to the man who had raised us and cared for us.

That day was a long one. Horace hadn’t fed us. The puppies were fine. They still had mother’s milk. We wondered if there would be more days like this one.

But to our surprise, in the days that followed, Horace never forgot to feed us once. I hoped it meant he had turned over a new leaf, but my mother set me straight.

“He hasn’t changed a bit,” she said. “He knows you can’t sell a dog with its ribs sticking out.”

She was right. We were fed each day, but we didn’t get the attention dogs crave. He couldn’t have cared less about us. All we were to him were dollar signs.

The place was filthy most of the time. Horace would only clean it up when he knew a buyer was coming through. Spirits were getting low. It had become more important than ever for me to concentrate on producing some sensational new material—great jokes that would take our minds off of our new living conditions.

On a Saturday night about two weeks following the funeral, my mom, my brothers and sisters, and some of the other basset hound families gathered in a corner of the barn for my performance.

“Hey, did you hear the one about the dog who went to the flea circus? Wouldn’t you know it—he stole the show.”

It was followed by a timely rim shot. I had taught Daphne how to make that sound. She held a stick in her mouth and banged it on the bottom of a coffee can for the intended effect. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the trick.

Sometimes you have to remind your audience that you just delivered the punch line. That’s where Daphne came in. The older dogs always knew when to laugh. It was those darn puppies who were clueless. Every so often I thought it might be a good idea to install an applause sign just for them. They were that dense.

I ended the show with one of my favorites.

“Hey, here’s one for all you wranglers out there. Did you hear about the dog who limped into town one day? His foot was all bandaged up. The sheriff walked up to him and said, ‘Howdy, stranger, what brings you to Dodge?’ The dog held up his injured foot and said, ‘I’m looking for the man who shot my pa.’”

Rim shot. Thanks, Daphne.

Roars of laughter were followed by applause. It had been a good night.

Barney, one of the grown-up male dogs, slapped me on the back. “I gotta tell you, Rutherford, you never disappoint.” It was high praise coming from one of the veterans.

“Thanks, sir, I appreciate it,” I said.

“So, when’s your next performance?” he asked.

“I’m not really certain. I’ll have to get to work on some new material.”

“Well, you be sure to let me know, you hear?” he said.

“I will. I promise.”

Barney turned to rejoin the others, but then he stopped abruptly. He leaned in, as if he only wanted me to hear what he was about to say.

“Kid, let me give you a little advice.” He looked around to make sure we were still alone. “Things are different around here now. You gotta look over your shoulder at all times. Do you know what I’m trying to say?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. But I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Barney lowered his voice even more. “I don’t trust Horace. Nobody around here does. He could start cleaning house any time now. No one is safe. Heck, I’m getting up in years. He may have no use for me soon.” He had a serious look on his face. “Just be careful out there, okay?”

I nodded.

“Good boy,” Barney said. He winked and joined the other members of his family.

Daphne ran up smiling. “You were great tonight, Rutherford. The crowd loved you.”

“Thanks,” I said with a forced smile.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “You don’t look very happy. Did I make a mistake with the drum or something?”

“No, you did just great. And let me tell you—you have a real musical flair.”

She grinned.

“Listen,” I said, “I have to be somewhere. You better go back with Mom and the others. I’ll see you later.”

She scampered off.

I really had no place to be. I just wanted to be alone. I decided to walk around in the barnyard for a while to think things through.

I guess I wasn’t completely surprised to hear what Barney had said. I had known that if Horace was ever in charge my days around here would be numbered. To him, I was just another mouth to feed. And since no families seemed interested in taking me home with them anytime soon, he was getting nothing in return.

I wandered into the garage, pushed a stepstool up to the back of a pickup truck, and hopped up onto the bed. Horace had returned from town a few minutes earlier, so the back of the truck was still warm. It was time for bed, my favorite time of the day. There was nothing like settling down for the night and a few Zs. If you never noticed, we dogs do love our sleep.

I rolled over onto my side—my favorite position—stretched out my legs, and was soon in dreamland.

To Be Continued…


 
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Posted by on September 8, 2020 in Round Robin

 

The decision is made!

Basset pup with shades
Pre-order RUTHERFORD, CANINE COMIC at the Kindle and Barnes & Noble ebook stores

I went off by myself and tried to think of funny situations a dog might find himself in. Then, I worked them into a joke. I recalled when a family with a bunch of kids came by one time. The kids were chasing some of the dogs and teasing them. I thought of a good one.

Hey, what’s got four legs and an arm? Give up? A Rottweiler in a crowd.

I’m not sure whether or not humans would appreciate it, but since they couldn’t understand me, I’ve never worried much about it. If I can get a fellow canine to laugh, I was in my glory. I’d forget about whatever was bothering me.
#
After that, when I wasn’t thinking up new jokes or telling them, I would play with my brothers and sisters. There weren’t any of them my age. When I was born, there were seven of us, but they’re all long gone now. We only had three or four months together before they went off to new homes. As hard as it was to see them go, I was happy for them. It was their destiny to become part of a loving family, and to compete proudly at dog shows. I tried not to think about it too much. It always made me kind of sad—not the dog show part, but the new-family part.

I was okay, though. New pups are fun to be around—most of the time. Humans think puppies are so darn cute, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that. But there’s one thing about puppies that isn’t particularly attractive. Have you ever noticed that it’s all about them?

I’m not saying they’re selfish. It’s just that their basic instincts early on are to be individuals, not team players. I don’t blame them. They can’t help themselves. They want everyone to do things for them. “Rutherford, get me this. Rutherford, I’m hungry. Rutherford, can you scratch my ear?” They haven’t figured out yet that their mission in life is to serve.

What really bugs me, though, sometimes, is that most of them are just too immature to appreciate my humor. I remember one time when I asked them, “Hey, how does your owner know if you’ve been drinking from the toilet?”

They just scratched their heads.

“’Cause your breath smells…better.”

A lot of the older dogs roar at that one, but not the puppies. I guess they haven’t had enough life experience.

But someday, they’ll think back to that joke, and out of nowhere, they’ll just start laughing. I probably won’t be there to see it, but that’s okay. I take comfort in the fact that, whenever or wherever it happens, they might think fondly of their big brother.

I still believed my dream of becoming a watchdog would come true someday, but in the meantime, I guess stand-up comic would have to do. And I was pretty certain I could make it work.

So, if I couldn’t offer protection, then I would become the best stand-up comedian I could be. Entertaining your fellow man—er, dog—might not seem like a noble effort. But, you know, you just can’t put a price on what a smile or a chuckle or a good belly laugh can do for a fellow canine. It can help them forget their troubles. I was happy to accept this new challenge.
From that point on, I held my head high, sat up on my hind legs, and was proud to call myself Rutherford—Canine Comic.


Rutherford, Canine Comic will be released in ebook on 11 September at Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play, and in trade paperback wherever good books are sold.

 
 

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Rutherford Discovers A Career

Mr. Davis is one of the best-known and most respected breeders in the state. He’s in his eighties, I think; all I know is that he’s been around for decades. At least, that’s what I hear folks say. Mr. Davis prides himself on top quality basset hounds. He tells anyone who will listen that he raises the best show dogs in the country. Lately, I’ve started to worry how long he’ll keep me here. If no one seems interested, will he eventually get tired of taking care of me?

What I needed was a skill—a real skill—some sort of talent to make me impossible to replace. I needed to prove to him and all the others I’m really good at something—and not just good, but the best. Then he’ll have to keep me. Right?

Well, it made perfect sense to me.

So, I asked my mom one day if she could name one thing I did better than any of the other dogs. It took her a minute to think of something. That made me a little nervous.

“Let me see, now,” she said. “It’s really hard to come up with just one thing. You’re so good at everything.” Spoken like a true mother.

“Mom, I’m not talking about being good at something. Is there anything I do better than anyone else?”

She turned her head and smiled. Then, as it sometimes does, her back leg started thumping, and it slowly began moving in the direction of her head. I knew exactly what she needed.

“Let me take care of that for you,” I said. “That’s what I’m here for.” I reached up with my front paw and began scratching her ear.

“Mmmmm.” She put her head back and closed her eyes. “Now, there’s something you’re really good at.”

“Anybody can scratch an itch,” I said. “There’s gotta be something better.”

My mother was now in deep thought. “Give me another minute.”

This wasn’t going well. If your own mother couldn’t think of something—anything—that set you apart from the pack, then you were in big trouble.

She looked at me with a nervous smile. I could tell she was struggling to come up with something. It was starting to get embarrassing—for both of us. It was time to change the subject.

“Hey, Mom, did you hear about the dog who got too close to an electric fan and lost his nose?”

“Oh, dear,” she said. “Without a nose, how does he smell?”

I grinned. “He smells like all dogs—awful!”

She shook her head and started laughing. “Oh, Rutherford, where do you come up with this stuff? You never seem to run out of…” She paused. “Wait a minute. That’s it.”

“What?” I said.

“You’re the best joke-teller on the farm—hands down.”

I smiled. You know, she was right. As much as I’ve always wanted to be someone’s watchdog, I kind of knew it might take time to get discovered. And so, just to keep my spirits up, and to make the others think I was okay with being passed over, I went out of my way to learn new jokes to tell everyone.

It always made me feel good to see the others laugh. It took some of the sting out of rejection. And when I stopped to think about it, no one knew more jokes than I did—and if I have to say so myself—no one could deliver a punchline any better than I can. It’s an art, I’ll have you know. And it all has to do with timing.

“I do like telling a good joke,” I said. “And all the others do seem to enjoy them.”

“They love your jokes,” my mother said. “You have a real talent, son.”

It was nice to hear her say that. So, I could do something better than the rest. That was great.

But the more I thought about this talent of mine, the more I wondered how it would help me in the long run. I was flattered that other dogs enjoyed my humor, but was it enough to convince Mr. Davis I was a valuable asset here on the farm?

“I like entertaining everyone,” I told my mother, “but what good is it, really?”

“What good is it?” she said. “Rutherford, you single-handedly keep the morale sky-high around here. Everyone is always so happy to see you. You’re never without a smile and a funny story. That’s priceless.”

“But Mr. Davis is a human. He can’t understand my jokes. He doesn’t know I have this talent. Someday, he’s going to get tired of taking care of me, and he’s just going to dump me somewhere.”

My mother shook her head. “What are you talking about? Mr. Davis loves you. He knows that you’re…” She glanced at my short leg, “…special. He would never get rid of you. You’re one of his favorites.” She smiled weakly. “Of course, I wish I could say the same thing about his son.”

His son—now, that was another subject. Horace Davis was nothing like his father. He always seemed to be in a foul mood. He never played with any of us. I don’t think he even liked us. He treated us like—well, dogs. And he never smiled.

Wait a minute—I take that back. Whenever someone pulled out his wallet to pay for one of us—then, and only then, would he smile.

I, for one, didn’t trust him. And I’m sure my mother felt the same way. More than once she warned us about staying away from him. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t want to find out.

He always made me feel uncomfortable. Whenever he saw me, he would shake his head and make this grunting sound. For the longest time, I’ve had a feeling that if Horace is ever running this place, there’ll be no room around here for me.

I decided that if I concentrated on my joke-telling and helped keep spirits high around the place, I could survive anything.

To be continued…

(Enjoying Rutherford’s story? The ebook is now available for pre-order both in the Kindle Store and at Barnes & Noble.)

 
 

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What’s more fun than a basset hound?

Cute sitting tricolor basset hound puppy wearing yellow and orange sunglasses on a white background
A basset hound who’s a stand-up comic. Meet Rutherford, coming soon from Zumaya Thresholds, NOW AVAILABLE WHEREVER GOOD BOOKS ARE SOLD

Chapter 1

Canine Comic


For as long as I can remember, there was only one thing I ever wanted in life. One thing that would have made me happy and content.

All I’ve ever wanted was a chance to be a watchdog. A real watchdog. One who would stand guard and protect his owners from harm. One who would alert them in the event of danger. One who would save his family from a raging fire, from unwanted intruders, or from pesky squirrels and raccoons.

That’s been my dream for the longest time. And someday I’ll realize that goal. I just know it. You wait and see.

As each day passes, I wait for the call. Will it be today, I wonder? Or maybe tomorrow? There’s nothing holding me back. I have all of the necessary qualifications—I’m fearless, hard-working, and loyal. I even meet the age requirement. In a few months, I’ll be celebrating my second birthday—in people years, that is. I haven’t quite figured out exactly how old that is in dog years, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s nearly grown up. I like to think I’m mature enough to handle the job.

But sometimes I think I’m the only one who seems to think so. If people would just give me a chance, I could be a great watchdog.

I was telling my mother the other day about my ultimate goal in life. I can tell her anything. My mother Iris, a proud basset hound, was busy cleaning up after the puppies when I found her.

“Mom, you know what I want to be when I grow up?”

“What’s that?”

“A watchdog,” I said proudly.

I’ll never forget her reaction. She chuckled. She actually chuckled.

“Oh, Rutherford, be serious,” she said. “What do you really want to be?”

“I am serious. I want to be a watchdog.”

She pulled me closer and licked my face. I love it when she does that. It’s always so warm and cozy to lie next to her.

“Sweetheart, you’re a basset hound. You’re not a Doberman or a German shepherd. People don’t get basset hounds for protection.”

“Why not?”

She smiled weakly. “Well, we’re just not built that way. Look at us—we have long bodies and short legs. We’re not very strong, and we can’t run fast. We just wouldn’t be effective as watchdogs.”

I sighed. I was hoping for a different answer.

“Rutherford, you have to accept the fact that we’re here for a different reason. Mr. Davis breeds us to become the best show dogs in the state. People don’t come here looking for watchdogs. They come here looking for dogs they can enter in competitions who’ll someday become Best in Show.”

“I know all that,” I said. “But it’s not good enough. I want more out of life than beauty pageants. I want to make a difference. And I just figured that becoming a watchdog would do that.”

My mother nuzzled my cheek. “Son, if that’s what you truly want, I’m not going to stand in your way. But it’s going to be difficult to convince others that you’re watchdog material.”

I appreciated her support. She was trying to let me down easy—just like a mother. But I’m determined, and nothing will stop me from reaching my ultimate goal. I’m well aware it will be an uphill battle. For nearly two years, I’ve been passed over by people looking for a show winner, and I knew exactly why. My mother would never say it to my face, but both she and I know I’ll never be Best in Show.

Not that I even wanted to.

See, I was born with a little handicap that seems to scare people away. I’m not as fast as some of the others. Big deal. How important is speed, anyway? When you’re a watchdog, you don’t run away. You hold your ground—and I can do that just fine. So, the fact I have one hind leg an inch shorter than the other three shouldn’t mean a thing. I’ve learned to live with it. Why couldn’t they?

Heck, I’ve met plenty of three-legged dogs in my time, and they do just fine. I have all four of mine. That should count for something.

But whenever families show up here and see me limp around the yard, I know what they’re thinking. I can see it on their faces. They know a defect like mine would never win them a dog show. So, they want nothing to do with me.

And that’s fine. I’ve learned to handle rejection. The ones that really bug me are the folks who feel sorry for me.

“Aw, see that poor dog over there?” they say. “He’s cute, but let’s keep looking.”

I hate that. I don’t need their pity. I need a chance to show them what I can do. I’m not dog show material, but I can do other stuff—like being a watchdog—if they’d just give me the chance.

So, at the end of each day, I’m still here, and that worries me a little.

(To be continued…)


RUTHERFORD, CANINE COMIC, by John Madormo, illus. by Brad Foster, coming September 2020 from Zumaya Thresholds; Trade paperback, ISBN  978-1-61271-353-3, Ebook, ISBN 978-1-61271-354-0 (Kindle), 978-1-61271-355-7 (epub)

Available from the Zumaya eBookstore, Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes & Noble, B&N Press, Kobo, and Google Play Books, and via special order at your favorite independent bookseller. Have a library card? Ask your library to get the ebook from Overstock.

 

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