by Robby Charters
© 2008 by the author
In a world of flying magnetic trains and floating cafés, he lives in an abandoned construction site with his sister, cleaning windscreens at a busy intersection while his sister begs. He doesn't know who he really is. That fact could cost him his life – or it could be the key to the future of Cardovia. The evil general and president-for-life, a paraplegic whose mobility depends on a neuro-computer system controlling an army of robots, wants him eliminated. The general's secrets are well-kept, except to a mysterious mystic old Japanese man who has hope, and a 13-year-old hacker who accidentally witness one of his heinous crimes. For Pepe, it's a “coming of age” as he discovers his past, and the dimmest images of his dreams begin to materialise. Before the end, we see things falling apart as hope plummets into oblivion, while all are perusing what might be a lost cause, when suddenly a forgotten fact pulls it all into a satisfying conclusion.
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Reviews for Pepe
Glenda Bixler at Book Readers Heaven -- 5 stars"While the author wrote this as scifi cyberpunk, which it is, I found myself reading it more as a Fairy Tale story. Readers may also get the feel of a story once told, because the background theme is ageless..."
Teresa at Fallen Angels Reviews -- 5 stars"Pepe ... is a young adult action/suspense story… Mr. Charters has created a futuristic society very much like our own. ... This is the first book by Mr. Charters I have, read and it won't be the last!"
Ezekiel Carsella at Books N Tech -- 4 stars (didn't like the cover)"Books this good usually don't show up on my radar... Excellent nerd sci fi totally deserving your money."
Paige Boggs at Effectively Paige -- 4 stars"Pepe was an action packed ride that I enjoyed from start to finish. Mr. Charters has a way of creating a near future in exquisite detail, and I felt like that really made the story."
Excerpt (first 3 chapters):
small boy with squeegee
The giant Flash Animation holograph rotated slowly above the intersection, depicting General Don Juan Clemente, president for life, flicking his eyelid, breaking into a toothy grin as though he were really looking at you. The caption said, '2020, Cardovia's year of vision'. It looked creepy at night.
But right now there were still many hours of daylight left -- too many for Pepe. He looked down the line-up now waiting for the next green, and groaned. The bucket was heavy and drivers were always in a bad mood this time of day.
He counted his takings again. 13 Dinarios. Not enough.
With a grunt, he lifted his bucket and walked down the island to the first sedan he saw -- a Mercedes. The windscreen wipers immediately went on.
'Okay, okay! Freakin tightwad!'
He had to side-step to avoid a motorbike. He could see Jose doing the next row, already at work on a Porsche.
The next was a vintage Honda Accord, petrol powered, but in very good shape.
Pepe's squeegee handle was long enough for a boy of his size to reach to the middle of the windscreen -- if he stood on tip-toe, and the car's body wasn't too wide.
Done. He went to the driver's window. The driver just sat there, looking straight ahead.
'Up yours then, Scumbag!' he shouted, showing the appropriate finger.
He'd heard of a kid keeping a baseball bat nearby for such occasions -- got him in trouble though.
Behind that, was a lorry -- too big. The next was too old for the driver to be interested. Both the body and the exhaust from the petrol engine showed it.
Ditto for the next three. Then a taxi.
A few intersections West was San Michele Square, adjoining Camino Real, La Fonta's financial district. There, the expensive makes outnumbered the cheap ones. The air was cleaner because they all had electric engines, and the takings were good.
But it was worked by a gang. They'd beat Pepe if they caught him anywhere near there. He sure wasn't joining no gang -- as good as being a slave!
Sometimes the gang tried to muscle in here as well, but the local boys wouldn't have it. Good thing the gang didn't think it was worth fighting over. It was close enough to the Dockyards slum community for the local boys to make hell for the gangsters, but far enough not to be clogged with lorries carrying goods into the docks.
Two more motorbikes came through. A Citroen switched on its wipers as soon as it saw him. The driver of a vintage Vios gave him a half Dinario to leave his alone.
A few more cars down was another Mercedes. He let Pepe wash his windscreen, and paid him two Dinarios for it.
Pepe's long blond hair and blue eyes sometimes worked for him. Some drivers liked cute little boys and gave him extra money.
Now he had to hurry. The light would change any moment.
The next car was an old blue Hyundai -- stank of petrol exhaust. He wouldn't bother.
The driver thought otherwise. 'Boy, boy! What about mine?'
Pepe obediently began running the squeegee across the windscreen.
He was an old skinny Asian man with a thin white beard who looked as though he belonged in a Chinese kung-fu film. He wore a grey felt hat and an old tweed jacket.
Just then, Jose ran past.
'Run, Pepe! Police!'
Pepe looked up. The policeman was walking slowly a few cars behind. If he ran now he'd be spotted. He ducked near the driver's window and poured the remaining water onto the pavement in case he had to run for it. He might have to now -- the light had changed.
'You live in the Dockyards Community, yes?' said the driver.
'Get in. I take you home.'
Pepe opened the rear passenger door and slipped in. The policeman walked past, eyeing them suspiciously.
The windscreen was still half covered with muddy water.
The traffic began to move. The Hyundai was already in the left turn lane, so that was handy.
* * *
If you approach from under the motorway and over the railway tracks, you'll see a grocer/newsagent to your right. Across from that, on your left, begins the street that goes down the middle of what's known as the Dockyards Community. Next to the shop is a plot of ground dominated by a wide shade tree, with grass growing wherever the ground isn't trampled too much. Nearby is a rusty slide, some swings, and a broken see-saw. In the shade, there are four stone tables with draughts boards tiled into their surfaces. The old men hang out here on clear evenings.
The old Asian man went and sat at one of the tables.
He told Pepe, 'Any time you need help, you find me here, okay?'
Pepe nodded a 'thank you', ran down the street, wondering if the old man lived under that tree. If so, why had he never seen him there before?
Past a row of shops, Pepe turned into a small alley. Here, he plunged into a tangled network of footpaths criss-crossing a vast jungle of dwellings made of every building material known to man. It was as much a jungle of people as it was of tiny dwellings. Every possible modification was made to each structure so as to fit more people. Any moderate sized building was subdivided; they were built behind each other, on top of one anther, going as many stories high as the residents dared. It was a different world from the rest of the city.
A couple of Romeo's boys were perched on stools at the little espresso stand on the corner near his home. One of them eyed him as he ran past. While this always made Pepe nervous, the look in that eye this time made his heart skip a beat. He hurried a bit more.
He turned the corner and slowed to a walk next to Po on her way home from school.
'Pepe! Why you never go to school?' She looked up at him.
'You know we need the money. Besides, my school trousers got a hole. Kids laugh at my bare bum!'
...why is the door just sitting open?
'But Grandma sewed them yesterday!'
...Grandma's got company -- but who?
'Er -- I'll go tomorrow,' he said hurriedly. That voice!
That has to be... Pepe stopped short, grabbing his sister’s arm, '...ROMEO!' he whispered.
Po stiffened. 'Wh-what shall we do?'
Pepe knew a short cut -- through Old Man Adriano's house, in by the front door and out through a hole in the back, into a corridor to the next alley. That one dead-ended into the same brick wall that cut off the end of their row, but here, there was a hole in the wall that the locals climbed through to get to their jobs at the docks.
Romeo's boys were determined this time. One was standing beside the hole and another, at the opposite end of the alley. They both began running towards them.
A narrow gap between two houses was just big enough for Pepe and Po's skinny bodies. Where the back wall of this house met that of the one beyond, they crawled under the floorboards to the next footpath.
Behind them, they heard cursing, and then footsteps hurrying to get to the mouth of the next alley. If they hurried, Pepe and Po could get there in time to disappear into yet another street.
They made it. There were more turns here and there, but they picked up another tail.
Pepe's and Po's advantage was, they knew where they were going, whereas their tail had to pause at each turn to see which way they went. They could also fit into smaller cracks.
But the tail had longer legs.
Finally, they found themselves approaching the shade tree by the newsagent, but from the opposite direction from where Pepe had left it.
A couple of Romeo's boys, Roberto and Antonio, were sitting at the far table by the parking lot. Nearer to Pepe and Po was the old man. He motioned to them.
'He said he'll help us,' whispered Pepe.
Pepe led Po forward; making sure the old man blocked them from the view of the two across the way, who were looking in the other direction anyway.
'It's okay,' said the old man. 'Walk with me. They won't harm you.'
How did he know they were gonna harm us?
The old man led the two children past the table where Romeo's boys were. Roberto glanced at them briefly, but went back to looking every which way, as though expecting Pepe and Po to be hiding in the bushes somewhere.
Pepe knew both Roberto and Antonio, and they knew him. He knew they were looking for him and Po. He knew exactly why. Why didn't Roberto notice them just now? Was he blind?
'Which way to your house?' asked the old man.
Pepe pointed to the street corner.
'And your visitor, what does he want?'
'Gonna take us away to work,' said Pepe.
'But you already work!'
'Only when I want to. But they make kids work all day and beat them 'n don't give them nothing.'
'Why does he think he can put you to work?' asked the man.
'Grandma owes him lots of money.'
'Grandma gambles too much,' retorted Po.
Two more of Romeo's men ran out of an alley. One was talking on a mobile as he went. They looked this way and that, and right at the old man with the two children, and then ran to look elsewhere.
Pepe and Po looked after them, mystified.
They turned into a footpath. At another turn, there was one of the men Pepe had seen at the espresso stand. The old Asian man tipped his hat as they passed. He nodded back and got on with watching everything that moved. His mate was at the end of the path joining their alley.
Pepe looked at the old man, and then at Po. She returned his gaze, looking as confused as he.
They arrived at a small hovel, and heard the unmistakable voice of Romeo finishing a phone call, snapping his mobile shut, and then saying to Grandma, 'You know we'll find them. They can lie down under the floorboards until they drown in their own crap, or we'll get them when they come up for air -- unless you deliver the cash...'
'Good evening, Mr. Romeo,' said the old man as he led the way through the door.
'Yes, a good evening, I'm sure. Who are you?' said Romeo.
'Atsuko is my name. I think I can offer you something of much more value to you than these two children.' Just then Pepe and Po emerged into the small plywood room.
'And what may that be?'
'Do sit down, sir,' said Grandma.
'Thank you, Madam,' said Atsuko. He sat down in the remaining armchair. The other was occupied by Romeo. The two children cowered behind Atsuko.
'Mr. Romeo,' he went on, 'I'm thinking about a picture of a horse in a pasture being led by a man wearing a blue overcoat. In the background is a farm house such as you will find in parts of Holland, and off in the distance, a windmill.'
'Er -- yes, I had a picture like that in my son's bedroom...' said Romeo.
'...and you've kept it in your storage closet since. But you're considering hanging it in your guest room, yes?'
Romeo was speechless.
Atsuko continued, 'An art dealer is visiting this week from Paris. His name is Jean-Pierre Raplinger. Go to the National Museum of Art to find him. If you take your painting for him to look at, I'm sure you will find it many times more valuable to you than these two children.'
There was a long silence. Romeo suddenly popped a grin.
'It's very nice of you, Sir, to point all this out to me. But what if I decide to sell the painting and keep the children?'
'Then, I assure you, you will find Monsieur Raplinger's mind clouded. He will fail to see the marks of the famous painter, and no one will discover it for 100 years.'
There was another long silence.
'Okay,' said Romeo, finally. 'I'll take the painting for Raplinger's appraisal. If you're wrong, I'll be back for the kids.'
With that, he was off.
Pepe and Po heaved a sigh of relief. Pepe collapsed on the floor between the two armchairs, while Po went to help Grandma fix a pot of tea.
The children were too shy to ask questions, so Grandma and Atsuko did all the talking.
'These two don't look like brother and sister,' commented Atsuko.
Indeed, Po's hair was dark, as were her eyes. Her face was round, where Pepe's was thinner and more pointed at the chin.
'They are not,' said Grandma. 'Po is my granddaughter. My daughter Olga left her with me when she was a newborn infant. She's gone somewhere to work -- abroad, I think. Eight years ago that was. She said she was bringing her for me to look after, so I thought she would only leave the one. I was out buying groceries when she came and I came home to find the little boy, must have been two years old, holding the baby. I had not heard of a boy -- no one in my family had a two-year-old boy, and he doesn't look like anyone I know -- but the neighbours told me she left me both children. We call her Po -- her mother never told me her real name -- and I named the boy Pepe. From the very first, he took such good care of Po that I've had no trouble treating him as a true grandson.'
'Have they no papers?' enquired Atsuko.
'I'm sure Po has a birth certificate somewhere. I don't know which hospital Olga gave birth in, nor who her boyfriend was at the time. She hasn't contacted me since. Pepe, of course, has no papers that I know of.'
'How many children do you have yourself?'
'Two daughters. Olga and Lucinda.'
'What would their surnames be?'
'Olga never married. Lucinda was for a while; to a Mr. Caliveris, but she went back to using her maiden name -- the same as mine -- Montegente.'
Atsuko looked thoughtful. 'Lucinda Montegente -- hmmmm.'
'No, Olga was the mother,' corrected Grandma. 'I haven't seen Lucinda for at least 15 years.'
'Oh, yes, certainly,' said Atsuko.
He finished his tea, and took his leave.
'Remember. When you need help, find me under the big tree by the playground.'
* * *
For about a year, they didn't need help. In fact, Pepe was a good boy and went to school every day. Grandma was a good girl and refrained from gambling. All the money she earned from washing and ironing people's clothes went to food, clothes and school supplies.
Things went well -- for about a year...
* * *
It was bath night. Grandma's giant wash-tub was on the floor in the main room. It was the kind of tub one never sees any more, with a tall back, meant for bathing in. Even Grandma could use it, which she usually did after Po and Pepe had had their turns. She'd closed the windows and door, then discreetly step in with her towel about her, and slip her body down into the warm water while holding the towel where it was. Sometimes Po would scrub her back.
Tonight, she didn't get the chance.
Po had had her bath -- she always went first while the water was clean -- and was putting on her nightshirt. Pepe had just stepped in. Since Po never got all that dirty, the water was still fairly clean for Pepe.
Pepe also preferred to keep the front door shut when he had his bath. The curtains on the two windows were also drawn.
Now, he was scrubbing himself.
Grandma was down the footpath towards the wall, talking to Marquitta about something.
Pepe thought he smelled smoke.
He sniffed a couple of times and decided maybe it was just a burning tire somewhere. He went back to scrubbing.
Someone started shouting something outside. Pepe couldn't quite hear what it was.
More people were shouting. People outside were running.
Po cried, 'Pepe! I think there's a fire!'
Pepe stood up. 'Get my clothes!'
'Where are they?'
Grandma had put them to soak in a basin.
'Anything!' shouted Pepe. 'There's some boys clothes hanging on the line in back!'
'Just freak'n get them!'
'Right.' She hurried out the back door.
Pepe opened the door a crack. A wall of flames was coming towards them.
Po returned with a shirt and a pair of trousers that Grandma had washed for someone else. They were still damp.
There wasn't even time to put them on.
'Let's just go!' Pepe said, grabbing her by the wrist.
'But -- where's Grandma?' cried Po, clutching the wet clothes as Pepe dragged her out the door. 'And you're not even -- oh my God!'
The flames were practically lapping Pepe's bare bottom as they ran.
Even at a safe distance, everyone was too preoccupied to take any notice of Pepe. There, he put on the slightly oversize jeans and tee shirt. Po had only her nightshirt.
From an even safer distance, they were able to stand around long enough for the reality of the situation to set in.
They walked about looking for Grandma. Then they sat down on some newspaper and leaned against a wall to wait for her to come and find them.
Po started to cry. Pepe put her arms around her to comfort her like a big brother should.
There was no one to put her arms around Pepe to comfort him as a Grandmother should. He didn't know until then how much he loved his grandmother.
He began to cry.
They sat there and waited for grandma.
He never thought until now about how nice it was to have a home to return to.
He cried some more, and still they waited.
He hadn't realised until now that one day, he might have to use some of the things he'd learned, such as cleaning windscreens, and keeping out of the way of bad blokes -- just to survive.
He stopped crying, but he held Po even tighter.
'I'm gonna take care o' ya, Po,' he said.
Soon, she stopped crying. It was as though she were thinking the same thing as he.
Through blurry eyes, they watched the tops of the flames until the residents managed to put them out.
Then the fire brigade arrived.
They never did find Grandma.
* * *
Franco Fabiano thought he smelled a story -- it wafted in through an open window from the direction of Dockyards. He left his family to the care of the nightly soaps, ran upstairs and opened a window. There it was.
This was no bonfire.
He grabbed his multimedia digital recorder, made sure his press pass was in his wallet, and was soon off on his motorbike.
He had to weave in and out of a traffic congestion, so he got there just after the fire brigade. The fire was out by then anyway.
There was still enough action going on to make a story. It might even make a corner of the front page. He walked around interviewing whomever he could, and pointing his digital recorder around, talking into it as he went. It would all be recorded in video, but whenever he saw material for a still shot, he'd press a small button, and it would dramatically increase the resolution. He'd edit the shots he needed later.
Social workers were also there assessing the damage. Some people from Mercy House were talking to community leaders about bringing in building materials. Franco knew some of them.
He recorded what he could, put it all together and uploaded it to the newspaper's server minutes before the deadline for late news. Then he went home to catch some sleep.
* * *
By the time the news hit the streets, Franco was already working on a follow up story; and a story, there was, indeed:
Before daybreak, a couple of bulldozers had crashed through the wall joining the burned out part of the neighbourhood with the docks. Before anyone was able to obtain building materials, a whole section was already fenced off, and the machines were hard at work digging a foundation for a building project that they had in the books for a long time, but never got around to telling the residents. They certainly weren't talking to Franco.
The construction workers weren't residents of the Dockyards Community. That was only natural, of course, as any cooperation from the residents would be considered an act of betrayal. That's also why there were heavily armed men guarding the perimeter of the new construction site.
As for the homeless residents, they were fortunate that there had just been an election for MP, so old campaign posters were in abundant supply for use as building material. At least one of the candidates pictured in the posters had promised housing for the poor. Though he lost his bid, at least he delivering on his promise.
'... Such is Cardovian politics,' was Franco's concluding comment for that sound byte.
It was late afternoon already. Franco grabbed a cup of coffee and a pastry from the newsagent and walked over to a stone table under the trees to review what he had captured in his recorder. He selected various segments of audio, ran them through the speech-to-text function and then edited that, using the writing pad surface. Once he had a story, he went through his visuals to select still shots. For these, he inserted links into the text.
One of his colleagues was chasing up various of the powers-that-be to collect statements. The copy editor would add those in later.
While Franco's bit was uploading to the server, he downed the last of his coffee.
Then, he noticed a familiar face at the next table. It was the old Japanese man he'd once met in the company of his friend, Father Antonio, from Mercy House.
'What brings you here?' he asked.
'I'm waiting for two children. Perhaps you've seen them -- a boy with blond hair, a girl, brunette?'
'I've seen hundreds. I'm afraid that won't help.'
'Yes, I'm sure you have,' the old man sighed. 'If they remembered, they would have come by now.'
'I don't suppose they could have perished in the fire?'
'No, they're not dead,' said the old man, getting up. 'At least I know that.'
He walked to an old blue Hyundai, got in, and drove away.
I find a curtain
We interrupt this program to bring you the following special: President Don Juan Clemente Addresses the Nation. We now take you to the Presidential Palace:
[Music: Cardovia, My Heart Doth Yearn For Thee]
[Scene: Front view of the Presidential Palace]
[Fade to: Presidential Desk; Republican flag in the background; The President enters and takes his seat]
President: My fellow Cardovians, it is with joy that I again sit before you and share with you the glorious success story, which is The Republic of Cardovia. Last year, we celebrated 2020, Cardovia's year of Vision. This year, we reap the abundant fruit of yours and my labour.
[Fade in: View of Camino Real Financial district and shopping centres; crowds milling around during lunch hour]
As you can readily see, we have been enjoying unprecedented prosperity on every level. We have made many technological advances, the quality of life has risen, and we are embracing new opportunities that we could never have dreamed possible under the monarchy.
These nine years have been arduous, but we can truthfully say they have certainly ... (blah-blah-blah)
* * *
Rosa Maria poured water from the kettle into the small teapot, and the steam wafted upward, bringing the fragrance of green tea with jasmine. She set the teapot on a tray along with a half-pint glass.
Atsuko preferred his tea out of a glass.
She brought it to him in his room where he was still reclining on his mattress on the floor.
'Good morning Papa.'
'Ahhh, good morning, good morning,' he answered, as he sat slowly up.
She set the tray on the floor beside him, filled his glass and handed it to him.
'So, daughter, what is the news of the morning?'
Rosa Maria sat down on some cushions beside her Papa.
'The General gave his speech last night. They're going to replay it on the news this morning.'
'Yes, the General. No doubt he said that the economy is improving, that advances are being made in all areas of concern, etcetera, etcetera,' yawned Atsuko.
'All lies, I'm sure, Papa.'
'Try not to be too cynical. He speaks the truth. Partly anyway. The middle class economy has improved tremendously, as well as his own lot, even if his health is deteriorating.'
'But he looks very healthy.'
'That, Rosa Maria, is not him you see.'
'No, a computer animation. He doesn't trust doubles.'
'But it looks so real!'
'Ahh, you are thinking of those films you saw when you were younger. No, Rosa Maria. Animation has come a long long way since then. Most heads of state use it now. Some are long dead, and they still live on the TV screens of their adoring constituents. But Don Juan Clemente has a special reason...'
Rosa decided not to inform her father that she was already up on the state of the cinematographic art. Most of what passed for 'live action' films were really computer generated. Hardly anyone used actors any more. Only top stars from yesteryear ever made money these days, and that was by selling the rights to render their likeness as an animation. The stars' names appeared in the credits, though the computer animations were usually much better actors than their human namesakes ever were.
But the use of computer animations by heads of state was a new one on her.
'Papa, you knew King Lorenzo de la Fonta, didn't you?'
'Yes, Rosa Maria, I did. You were a little girl then. I would have presented you at the royal court but for the coup d'etat.'
'Things were different then, weren't they, Papa.'
'Yes, they were, though they weren't perfect by any means. There was certainly an excuse for a revolution. One can always find excuses.'
'Better ones now, I dare say.'
'Don't "dare say" it unless you know it for a fact. Cynicism will blind you, Rosa Maria. You must always see things as they really are,' said Atsuko. 'But yes, the lot of the poor has worsened. But the difference I am pointing to is, the Kingdom of Cardovia, then, was a semblance of what it was meant to be.'
'But it always was only a semblance wasn't it, Papa? Has Cardovia ever truly fulfilled its destiny?'
'It has come close. There were golden ages in history when the king was righteous and the Knights of Cardovia were valiant and the people happy. I feel the time will come again soon.'
'But Papa! How can you say that? There's not even a king any more!'
'One has only to look, Rosa Maria, but not with these eyes.'
They sat in silence, as Rosa Maria tried to 'look'. But, how? 'Looking' was a subject her degree at Oxford didn't cover. Maybe, now she was back home with Papa, she'd catch it.
'Today,' said her papa finally, 'we must visit your friend, Colonel Primavera.'
* * *
The section of the motorway that approached the La Fonta city centre was elevated, commanding a view of the Dockyards slum community, and the docks beyond. Only the new building, still under construction, dwarfed the masts of ships that towered over the hovels of the vast slum. It was already approaching 30 storeys.
The blue Hyundai was just now passing by.
'That, Rosa Maria, is the biggest headstone I have ever seen.'
* * *
Laurinda, answered the door and let them in. Margherita Primavera met them in the lounge, and sent Laurinda to fetch the colonel. As they waited, the two ladies dominated conversation.
After commenting on the nice decor, Rosa Maria said, 'Is Raul back to school yet?'
'Not yet. The International School doesn't start their new term until next month. The 15th, I think. He's in the computer room. You might go and pay a visit later if you want. He always enjoys your visits. It puts him in a better mood. Ever since you helped in his play group...'
'He's quite good on the computer, isn't he!'
'I say he is! He does nothing but surfing the Internet and playing those evil games they play these days!'
Atsuko broke in, 'His English is quite good, yes?'
'Yes. He has his American friends over, and his accent is exactly like theirs. We can't understand what he's saying most of the time! I only worry about his Cardovian. They treat it as a foreign language course, like French, or Japanese, the same way Cardovian schools teach English!'
Atsuko said, 'But there's so much rich culture to be gained from studying Cardovian literature.'
Carlo Primavera made his entry. Atsuko and Rosa Maria stood up to greet him.
'No, no, please, sit down!' said Carlo.
More small talk.
'So,' said Carlo, when the conversation got going, 'what did you think of the President's speech last night?'
'My daughter thinks his animated graphic looks quite charming,' said Atsuko.
After some polite laughter, Carlo said, 'Really, what do you think?'
'It could be wise for me to reserve comment until I hear what you think.'
'Well,' Carlo took a deep breath, 'He's certainly taken us into the modern age. New technologies are being used in communications, the economy is improving, people are happy, we're no longer a backward, old fashioned "banana state" ...'
'But we never grew bananas. We always imported them.'
'But now we are a net exporter of various commodities. And we're no longer a - er...'
'Monarchy?' suggested Atsuko.
'Exactly,' said Carlo, 'and it may interest you to know that there are moves in Great Britain towards becoming a republic.'
'So, my friend, it sounds like you are as supportive as ever of Don Juan Clemente's revolution. I would strongly suggest that some time, you stand away from his shadow for just a moment, take a good look around, and form an opinion of the way things are, independently of the General.'
'My opinions are my own,' retorted Carlo. 'Anyone can see that it was a right move. The monarchy had become evil, as all monarchies ultimately do. Why, even the Knights of Cardovia recognised that. They sanctioned the move. I'm sure you...'
'I was not present on the day they sanctioned the move.'
'But surely they must have informed you...?'
Margherita interrupted, 'What became of that boy, was it the adopted son of Simon Rodriguez...?'
'The one they claim is the prince?' answered Rosa Maria.
'Ha! The Rodriguez case!' retorted Carlo. 'The monarchy is gone forever. I don't know why anyone would think it worth while to advertise such a claim.'
'Then why has the General gone through so much trouble to verify it?' asked Atsuko.
Rosa Maria had already heard all the theories about what happened to the infant prince, and the various pretenders that had surfaced. She excused herself and went to find Raul.
The computer room was up the corridor. The numerous plaques had messages like, 'Danger Zone', 'Official Mafia Business', 'Beware of man-eating plants', etc.
This was where she had found him the first time Raul's mother invited her over, when the sign on the door said, 'Beware of Cookie Monster'.
She pushed the door open slowly and became aware that Raul was hurriedly minimising various windows from his computer's desktop while turning around to face her.
'Hello Raul,' she said innocently. 'What are you up to?'
'Oh, nothing - just fooling around with this.' He picked up a remote and a large metallic spider instantly came speeding across the room to Rosa Maria.
'Oh!' She jumped backwards through the door.
Raul laughed. 'Not afraid of spiders, are you? It's okay, it's friendly. Look!'
As Raul worked at the remote, it walked slowly up to Rosa Maria's foot and began tapping it with a protrusion from its front end.
'It's saying "Hello"!'
'That's cool! Did you just get it?'
'My uncle Rodrigo gave it to me. He's a robotics expert -- says its latest technology.'
Rosa Maria sat down across from Raul.
'I can interface it through my computer. Here, try these on.' He handed Rosa Maria a VR head set.
'You control it with this.'
He pointed to a contraption that included a couple of joysticks and some buttons.
After a few simple instructions, Rosa Maria was controlling the spider, looking through the lenses via the VR head set, which gave her full peripheral 3D vision. She could also listen through the ear phones. It was as though she, herself were the spider.
'I can spy on people with this can't I!' she said.
'Yeah, try spying on the folks in the lounge!'
She began walking the spider through the corridor, peeping into various rooms on the way.
'This is so cool!'
At the end of the corridor, she turned it right into the lounge area. She peeped around the corner. There were the older people still deep in conversation.
Ever since Rosa Maria had first introduced them back when Raul was a pre-schooler, their papas had become quite close friends, despite their contrary political opinions.
'...so, the General, his condition has become worse?' she heard her father say.
'Yes. Already, he's confined to a wheelchair,' said Carlo. 'He'll soon lose all control of his limbs.'
Margherita said, 'My brother has been working on a mobility system to give him the control he needs through a computer.'
'Yes, Rodrigo is quite expert in that field.'
Atsuko looked at his watch. Then he turned and looked straight at the spider.
'Ah, Rosa Maria, there you are. It's time we must go home.'
Maria told Raul, 'I have to go now.'
'Here, push this key. It will make it trace its steps back again.'
Immediately the view through the VR mask showed she was turning around and moving back down the corridor at double speed, peeping again into all the same rooms on the way.
* * *
As soon as it emerged from Cariega Lane, the blue Hyundai found the ramp to the motorway. Again, they were passing the slum community.
'We had to leave when we did,' said Atsuko, 'or it will be too late for young Raul to make his shocking discovery.'
Rosa Maria had no idea what he meant. She knew that to pursue the subject would only lead to more cryptic statements.
'Does the Order of the Knights of Cardovia still exist?' she asked instead.
'As long as two or three righteous knights of the order are still alive, it exists, though it may be crippled for the time being. It's happened before in the history of Cardovia, since pre-Roman times, that the Knights have risen from the ashes to restore the Cardovian Way.'
'It's sort of like the society in The Last Crusade that protected the Holy Grail?'
'Yes, if you must compare it to the decadent American film industry.'
After a pause, Rosa Maria said, 'Are there still one or two others besides you?'
'I sense there are others righteous Knights still in hiding. It was the General and the Archbishop, in their capacity as Knights, who set the stage for the General's revolution. In the early days, if it were known that such a move were made without the Prophet present...'
'That would be you, of course.'
'... it would have led to a serious scandal. Such a move must be a unanimous agreement. How they accomplished that, I don't know.'
Rosa Maria was sure that he did know. She thought she knew herself.
'But,' continued her father, 'all things will some day be restored. Perhaps you will then fill the roll of the Prophet.'
'Me? A woman?'
'Nothing in the laws of Cardovia forbids it.'
* * *
Rosa Maria was a nice person. She always made Raul feel good about himself, especially when she got excited about one of his things, as she did just now. But she'd never understand hacking.
He heard the starter of the old petroleum-powered Hyundai whine a minute or two, until the engine managed to come to life. Raul went to the window and watched it leave the compound.
When will the old man ever go electric?
Back to the computer. He made sure the alarm system worked this time. It wouldn't be a good thing if Papa or even Laurinda walked in on him and saw what was on his screen. Not that they'd understand it -- just too many questions, and too many lies to keep track of.
At least Rosa Maria didn't ask a lot of questions.
Now, where was he?
He had started exploring this cool web site last week. One of his school friends had shown it to him, and gave him the password. It was some sort of access to a network of CCTVs in all sorts of places. He could touch this icon and suddenly get a view of, say, San Michele Square, touch there and see the Cardovian Stock Exchange, or maybe choose a different angle of the same place, or the Bank of Cardovia building -- all the important locations he knew of on Camino Real.
He could even see who was getting on and off the magnetic train at each of the stops. This was so cool!
When he tired of that, he looked at one more portal that he had noticed on the site. This required another password -- a chance to try the code breaking program off a CD his friends had been passing around.
The program had run all Thursday night, and Friday morning Raul had the password. He didn't want to steal anything, or get any advantage or anything. He just wanted to say he'd done it. At 13 years old, that means a lot.
He logged on to the security installation, or surveillance hub, whatever it was, using his friend's password. Then he tried the portal again, with the one provided by the code cracker, and got through. It went somewhere else altogether. At first, he couldn't figure out what it did. There were so many devices.
He read the script with his text editor. It was similar to the device that ran his VR mask. He tried plugging his VR mask in, but it didn't work.
Maybe he wasn't configured properly. He had spent all morning trying to work the program, redirecting this circuit, then that one and almost had it.
That was the moment Rosa Maria walked in, and she had fun with the robot and all that. He didn't realise until now how much his head needed a rest.
Now, he was making the last adjustment.
When he put on the VR mask, it showed him he was inside a building somewhere, and the the scene was moving about. It was smooth, like looking out of a robot on wheels. It took him into a room, and a robot arm went out and picked up a paper from a desk. It turned around and went into another room, where someone was sitting at another desk. He opened his mouth and spoke, but there was no sound.
Raul worked for the rest of the afternoon to get the sound configured right.
By supper time, the sound was working. After they had eaten, Raul took it for a spin. He tried it on a couple of different devices, and they all worked perfectly.
The last one was a much cooler robot than the rest, Raul could tell.
It could go fast if it needed to, but usually it was moving slowly down the corridors -- as though the one controlling it had style.
He was in a different building from where the other robot was. It was full of Victorian furniture, old paintings and fancy mirrors.
It entered a room. Raul got a shock.
There, sitting on a soft chair was Uncle Rodrigo!
Uncle Rodrigo immediately stood up. 'Hello Mr. President.'
Uncle Rodrigo liked to tell jokes, but he'd never addressed Raul as 'Mr. President' before.
But he wasn't addressing Raul.
'Mr. Portali,' came a more metallic sounding voice. 'Once again, it is good to see you. I wish to show you my gratitude for the valuable service you've given me.'
'I take it everything is in working order?'
'Yes, Mr. Portali. Everything is working as designed. The maintenance robots work perfectly. There is no longer any need for human interaction apart from my own.'
'So, Mr. President, we could say that the test phase of the project is complete.'
'Yes, your services have been of utmost value. Please follow me.'
'Yes, Sir, Mr. President.'
Immediately the view swung around, as though on a swivel, showing an exit through the door and into the corridor, down a ways, and then into another room. The new room was plain, no pictures on the walls, no furniture, a tile floor.
'Mr. Portali.' The view swivelled back, and Uncle Rodriguez was again in sight. 'Your service has been valuable, and I'm sure they would come in handy again some day, except -- unfortunately...'
A look of terror spread across Uncle Rodrigo's face.
'...you're just not good at maintaining secrecy.'
There was a click, click, click, as bullet holes appeared on Uncle Rodrigo's chest, and he slumped to the ground.
At first, Raul had the sensation of having shot an enemy in a game of Wolfenstien.
But this was no computer game!
He ripped off the VR mask, and hit the computer's power switch without bothering to log off. Then, he sat, breathing heavily.
Suddenly, he got up and ran out of the room and down the corridor to the toilet. There, he vomited.
Then he went upstairs to bed.
He was sick for a week.
* * *
A few days later, Raul began to recover. He actually came down for breakfast.
As soon as his mother wondered out loud why they hadn't heard from Uncle Rodrigo for many days now, he got sick again.
the smell of solvent
The floating holograph sign that used to say '2020, Cardovia's year of vision', now advertised Office2020, bundled free with that company's Linux Desktop for small businesses. As always, there was the picture of the white bearded founder -- rather reminiscent of the ones of the Kentucky Colonel that used to grace fried chicken adverts. The Flash Animation had him looking back and forth, making eye contact with the motorist and then beaming at the alternating screen shots on his right in which the number 2020 figured predominantly.
It wasn't 2020 any more, but everyone liked the number -- as though just saying it would put you up a peg or two. It seemed to do that for the General.
And as usual, Office2020 was released two years late.
But Antonio didn't care. The world of 2020 and Linux desktops had nothing to do with what he saw before him now. To the blond haired boy doing his windscreen, it might as well be 1920.
We have people living on Mars, but we haven't sorted out life on Earth yet!
Antonio gave the boy three Dinarios. He looked pleased.
'Hey -- you ever need help, you can find me at...'
'Bug off, old man.'
Antonio sighed. The car in front was moving. He shifted his Ford into first and moved slowly forward.
* * *
Pepe was now big enough to reach the middle of the windscreen with a shorter squeegee. He could also do more cars in a single red light.
But he still didn't get enough money.
Three Dinarios for the old man's windscreen was nice though. Maybe tonight they could eat 'til they were full for a change.
The cars were now whizzing past, as Pepe walked down the island towards the intersection. He wondered how Po was doing.
Po was better at begging than Pepe, so she would do the outdoor market where the tourists went to look for bargains.
But that was too far away. Anything could happen to her.
Every few hours Pepe would go to find her to make sure she was okay. If they had enough money between them, they'd get something to eat.
He would go more often, but it would take him away from doing windscreens, or polishing shoes in the barbershop on Clavente Street, so he'd make less money.
The shoe polishing was really Jose's job. There was more money in that than doing windscreens. Pepe only did it on days Jose didn't feel like working, which was usually when he had made enough the previous day to spend the next one sitting in the corner sniffing paint solvent. Sometimes Pepe did it the following day too, if the solvent made Jose too sick to work.
* * *
Jose was one of Pepe's oldest friends -- since school days. They played truant together; they'd stick up for each other; between them, they were a match for any school yard bully. Jose was one of those kids Pepe would do anything for.
Then, one day, Jose stopped coming to school.
Pepe went to look for him at his house. He didn't ask around -- he just looked.
All he saw was Jose's papa, pissed as a rain barrel, and carrying on like an animal, tearing into anyone that moved.
Pepe didn't move. He just looked. There was no sign of Jose.
He thought he knew why.
He never saw him again until after their first week on the street, after the Dockyards fire.
* * *
By the time Pepe reached the intersection, the light was red again. He started doing a Toyota Corolla.
Apart from never having enough to eat, and worrying about Po, life on the street wasn't so bad once you got used to it. He liked the independence.
The secret was knowing what to do, when to do it, whom to trust, when to call someone's bluff, when to play it cool, where to go when you need to be alone, to sleep, to crap.
The old man that gave him 3 Dinarios a while ago could be useful. If he kept giving out 3 Dinarios at a time, that is.
The driver of the Toyota gave him half a Dinario.
Maybe he shouldn't have been so bad to the old man. It's just that he came on -- well -- like a con man trying to get his confidence.
He didn't have the feel of a con man, though. But you can't be too careful.
The driver of the Mercedes not only started his windscreen wipers but started the squirter as well.
A taxi driver signalled for him to do his. He gave him one Dinario. Must have got a big tip.
Now, the street lights were starting to come on, so Pepe called it a day.
* * *
The best begging is done in the late evening, but not the windscreen washing. Pepe would hang about the market, and if he had any half Dinarios to spare, he'd play a video game. That wasn't often. At least he'd keep an eye on Po, because that's also when some bad blokes were about. But he enjoyed hanging out.
Later still, when it looked like the sober tourists had all gone in, Pepe and Po pooled what resources they had, bought sponge cake, pita bread and a chocolate bar for their supper, and started home.
* * *
At least they had somewhere to go home to.
For their first few days, before they found this place, life had been hell. Getting any sleep at night was next to impossible. All the good places were taken -- and by all the wrong people. Some were for members only -- you had to join a gang.
Other places seemed okay, but you never knew when someone would come along and -- you know...
They cried a lot in those days. They'd cry for Grandma. They'd cry because they worried about what to do next. It was really a lot harder living on the street than Pepe had thought.
Maybe there was no choice but to join a gang.
Then they bumped into Jose.
Jose was glad to see Pepe too. He showed them where he lived, and told the kids there that Pepe and Po were cool.
It was a rusted steel and concrete-slab affair about six stories tall. It had been a construction site once, but before they put in the walls, the contractor, or the owner, must have run out of cash and decided to call it quits.
Or maybe they had someone like Romeo breathing down their necks -- Whatever.
It wasn't a bad place if you didn't mind the walk. Even though the building was close to the shopping area where Po begged, you had to go back, almost to where Pepe did his windscreen washing, and go up a lane, past lots of houses and on to a dirt road that dead-ended right at a concrete wall.
The way in was through a hole in the wire fence that ran along the dirt road. It was hidden behind a bush, and only someone the size of Pepe and Po could get through it. Someone with heavy duty wire cutters could probably enter another way, but they hadn't done that yet.
There was also a pond across the dirt road from the hole -- a square one dug for a foundation, but filled with water from the rain. They'd sometimes take their baths there, or just go for a swim.
Living with Grandma, Pepe had started to get squeamish about taking off his clothes to take a bath, but not any more.
* * *
It was well past midnight when Pepe and Po crawled through the hole in the fence, and climbed the stairs that went up the middle of the building.
Most of the kids lived on the third floor. Pepe and Po preferred the fourth, as it was that much safer, and they enjoyed the view.
As they passed the third, they smelled paint solvent. The boys were in a circle not far from the stairs. Jose was with them, though he normally slept on the same floor as Pepe and Po.
Pepe had tried paint solvent once, but Grandma caught him at it -- came down real hard on him. So did Po. Then, at school they scared the crap out of him about what substance abuse would do to his brain.
He saw what it did to Jose. He knew if it did that to him, he wouldn't be able to take care of Po any more. If she got raped, or got taken away somewhere, he would never be able to live with himself.
Then he'd just waste the rest of his life sniffing solvent, wouldn't he!
Raquel also lived on their floor with her two young brothers, Pierre and Michele. The three of them begged at the same market as Po. The boys got bigger handouts. People like little boys with long curly hair -- especially if they're twins.
Their father was a Brazilian immigrant of African extraction, while their mama was born in Paris of a Laotian mother and a Guinean father. The kids looked part black, part something else. The twins were almost identical, except that the ringlets in Pierre's hair were tighter, more typical of an African. Michele's hair was more like Raquel's, loose and bouncy. Whenever Raquel did up their hair in tight braids, they were harder to tell apart.
They used to live in the western town of Florissa, where their papa worked in the hybrid electric motor factory until it went completely robotic, and didn't need human workers any more. Since the factory employed the whole town, there was nothing for it but to move to La Fonta to find work.
All the available jobs were quickly snapped up by Florissian ex-factory workers, so Papa had to try different ways to get money. He got arrested for robbing a shop.
One day, not long after that, Mama sent Raquel and her brothers out to play in the park with some money for lunch. When they got back to the flat, it was empty. The landlord threw them out, and a few days later, they found the hole in the fence.
Today Pierre and Michele were running about with a tube of toothpaste and a tooth brush each. Pierre held his up for them to see as he pranced by.
'Big deal!' scorned Pepe. 'So you got teeth clean'n stuff.'
'Bet you don't got any,' said Pierre.
'Don't want any.'
'Your teeth will rot and fall out then.'
'No they won't.'
'Yes they will.'
'No they won't! Bug off!'
'Pierre, quit be'n such a brat,' Racquel yelled.
She was being good today. Sometimes she'd just let them get on Pepe's nerves until he punched up one of them, then she'd be onto Pepe like a bull terrier.
She'd always be cool again later on though. That's the way she was.
Pepe and Po sat down on the edge of the floor, where they had a view of the street below, and the giant globular Mañana Café and Nightclub floating in the air half a kilometre away. They ate their sponge cake and chocolate stuffed into the pita bread. Their feet dangled over the edge.
They ate in silence, and after that, sat there watching the lifts float up and down from the top of the Global Consumer Centre into the Mañana Nightclub hovering above. Why they didn't use that technology to build space ships, like in the movies, Pepe could never understand. It was cool to look at though, such a gigantic thing, up there all by itself.
Raquel came and sat next to Po.
Po asked, 'Where you get the toothpaste?'
'Lady from Mercy House.'
'Yeah, Father Antonio's place.'
'Didn't see no one from Mercy House.'
'They were over by the park gate.'
'What she say?'
'Said we gotta clean our teeth and stuff, or our teeth will fall out.'
'And eat fruit and vegies and less cake and candy.'
'Give you any money?'
'No, but said if we need help, go to Mercy House.'
Pepe broke in. 'A man said something like that to me. Give me three Dinarios.'
'What he look like?' asked Raquel.
'Bald, white hair around - like this, big nose, talks like a foreigner...'
'That's Father Antonio. They got a place for kids to stay.'
'No way!' retorted Pepe. 'Ain't gonna go live in no orphanage.'
'Ain't no orphanage. Said you can leave whenever you want.'
'They just say that.'
After a while, Raquel got up to leave.
* * *
Pepe and Po had snuggled up under their blanket against the stairwell wall.
'But they might take good care of us,' said Po, 'like Grandma did.'
'I can take care of you. Ain't let'n no Mercy House people take you away.'
After a long pause, he added, 'besides, you're mine. Noni gave you to me.'
'Used to take care of me.'
'Don't remember. She called me "Jaki" or something - anyway, she said, "Your Po, Jaki (or something), take care of her."'
'You never told me that.'
'Never told anyone before. Just faintly remember it - like the first thing that ever happen to me. I just know I gotta take care of you.'
'Wasn't my mama was it?'
'No,' Pepe said slowly, as though he were trying to remember. After a long pause, he said, 'I sort of think before that you were one of the Telletubbies.'
Po waited for a more sensible explanation.
After a while, she said, 'I still think it might be good in Mercy House.'
Pepe was asleep.
* * *
Though Father Antonio much preferred his jeans and tee shirt, today he wore his black shirt with the backwards collar. He was expecting a visitor.
He had just paid some visits himself earlier that day. Sean O'Healey had invited him to his trading room floor to give a short spiel on his work with homeless street children. Antonio had told a humorous anecdote about one of the kids, Sean passed a hat around and the brokers gave generously.
Antonio wasn't totally sure what kind of place it was -- if it was even a licensed brokerage. Boz, who used to work there, thought it traded genuine shares, but outside the limitations normally imposed on licensed firms.
Cardovia was the ideal place for that, as knowing the right people could avert what few restrictions did apply, especially since they didn't sell to Cardovians. They phoned to other countries.
Now, Father Antonio was back at the Home, sitting across from Boz.
Boz had become burned out with cold calling all day for three years. Knowing that Boz had done charity work in the past, Sean O'Healey donated his services to Father Antonio's Mercy House. Now Boz was in his own element, with his salary paid by his old boss. He was translating children's case histories for the sponsorship program, and Father Antonio was chatting him up between appointments.
'Expecting more visitors?' asked Boz.
'Yes. No less than His Holiness, Archbishop Felipe Monterosa.'
'Oh!' Boz sounded impressed.
'I'm not looking forward to it, that's for sure.'
'Not easy to get along with?'
'He gets along okay. No problem with that. He gets along a bit too well.'
'A bit of a sleaze, is he?'
Antonio laughed, 'Just remember, I didn't say it. That's an interesting choice of words, but I didn't say it!'
'Here comes Miss Rottenmeyer,' said Boz. That was the nickname of the lady who cracked the whip and kept all the office staff in line where Fr. Antonio would have been too lax to do so himself. She also kept Fr. Antonio's schedule firmly in hand, and unwanted callers away.
'It must be time. Good day Boz.'
He went out of the glass-enclosed office. Sure enough, it was time for him to go downstairs and strike his pose. On the way, he stuck his head into Mother Clara's office.
'Please say a prayer for me.'
'I will,' replied the elderly nun.
* * *
'Quite a place you have here, Antonio,' said the Archbishop.
'Thank you,' said Fr. Antonio.
They had just made their exit from 'Madam Zudu's' art room, having first looked at the computer room, the admin office, and the dormitories. The pre-school set had entertained the Archbishop with a song, which he pretended to enjoy.
'But not quite what I would have expected of a children's institution,' the Archbishop continued.
'You must remember, Your Holiness, that these aren't your typical children,' said Antonio.
'They look like normal children to me. How are these any different?'
'Take any normal child, such as you and I when we were young. They're terrified of the dark, they're afraid of being left alone, they're afraid of what they'll find on the streets at night. They value the security of home and that's what keeps them there. If you tell them, "Shape up or I'll throw you out," they'll shape up rather than face their ultimate fear. These kids have lived outside on the streets, and have decided it's not so bad. You name it, they've already seen it. If you made any such a threat to them, they'd say, "To hell with you," and go right back to living on the street.'
'That's where you must use good, old fashion force,' said the Archbishop.
'At present, they come to us of their own free will. The moment we start using force, word will get out, and they'll stay away by the droves, and we'd never gain that trust back.'
'If you had government cooperation, I'm sure you'd have no trouble filling your dorms.'
'Yes, and with the addition of bars on the windows and double steel doors, we'd be a match for any prison. I think we have enough of those in Cardovia already without my help.'
'Yes, indeed,' smiled the Archbishop. He looked around some more. 'Tell me, Antonio, with such potential manpower, what profitable use have you made of them?'
'Manpower, Your Holiness, requires adult men and women, which we have in short supply. As you see, we have mostly boys and girls. We make men and women out of them, by encouraging them to finish school and teaching them a trade. One of our ex-boys now has a lucrative business and is one of our most regular donors. Several more have returned as volunteers. I can take you to visit others who now earn an honest living.'
'Yes indeed, yes indeed. Now, what if I were to recommend some of your more able children for on-the-job training at one of our institutes?'
'I think I've heard about your "institutes". No thank you. I think I prefer the way we're doing it here.'
'What I am proposing would go a long way towards solving your financial problems. A long way, Antonio. In addition, your cooperation would help to facilitate a better relationship between you and the national diocese. I advise you to give it serious thought.'
After a pause, Antonio said, 'First off, how many graduates of your "institutes" have honest, good paying jobs, may I ask?'
'You don't get the point, do you!' said the Archbishop.
'On the contrary, Your Holiness, I get the point only too well.'
Indeed, Antonio had his news from sources that would turn a typical priest's face red.
The Archbishop hurriedly took his leave. Father Antonio saw him as far as the main door of the courtyard leading into the street.
When he reached his limo, the Archbishop turned for one last look. A grin spread across his face.
He got into the back seat and his driver glided the car down the main street of the Dockyards Community towards the entrance under the motorway.
* * *
Pepe was with his Noni again. She was giving him a piggyback ride somewhere -- some place beautiful. There was also a man with a pleasant face and blond hair. As soon as he saw him, he said, 'Papa!'
'Jaki!' answered the man.
Pepe rolled off Noni's back into his arms...
...but those weren't Papa's hands that were shaking him now.
'Pepe! Wake up!' The coarse whisper belonged to Jose.
Pepe opened his eyes and blinked. The sun was well above the office towers on the East side. For them, it was early. Po was still snoring.
'What do you want?' Pepe said grumpily.
Then he noticed Jose was stark naked.
'What the -- ! Have you lost it?'
'Pepe! You gotta help! I been ripped off!'
He also didn't look well.
'I-I don't know. I guess I was a bit high. I went for a swim in the hole. When I got out, I lay down for a while -- must'a fell asleep, and - and - someone took all my clothes.'
'You must'a been god-awful high!'
'Well, yeah - er - we tried the white stuff last night that Cicero gave us to try.'
Po stirred and woke up.
'What the -- !'
Jose was shivering, even though it really didn't seem all that cold.
'But - you gotta help me.'
'Help you what?'
'Get me some clothes - give me yours for the day - I'll do anything. You can polish shoes for a week.'
'I'll get you some clothes. You stay here. Come, Po.'
Jose immediately wrapped himself up in Po and Pepe's blanket.
* * *
The stalls in the outdoor market would have been easier pickings, but they weren't open yet. That's why Pepe and Po's working day didn't start till much later.
The Global Consumer Centre, down the street, was just opening its doors. They made for that.
The security guard at the door said, 'Hey you! No begging allowed in this building.'
'Er -- we're looking for school supplies, Sir,' said Pepe.
'That way then. Don't hang about!'
When they were out of sight, they made a beeline for the department store.
Children's clothes were on the second level.
The shoppers hadn't started to come yet. A few attendants were arranging things a bit.
Pepe knew this wasn't the right time of day for it, but he wanted to get it out of the way so they could make enough to eat, themselves.
A security guard noticed them and began keeping an eye on them. Pepe could tell, but he acted as though he didn't notice.
He pulled Po over to a glass display case full of scale models of the Mars space station, and the Mars shuttle. The case was locked anyway, so the security guard would think they were just kids gawking at the latest toys.
Soon he walked on.
Pepe looked around before making any more moves.
The ones in charge of the boy's clothing section were doing something around the till. If they went now, they could slip behind the rack with the boy's jeans and matching tee shirts without being seen.
Pepe grabbed Po's arm, and they were off.
They found something that would fit Jose.
Now, how to get it out?
Pepe put the clothes under his shirt, on his right side, and got Po to walk on that side of him.
Ahead, by the entrance, were the shoplifter detectors.
The clothes probably had those new high-tech thread size microchips sewn into the fabric. It would dissolve in the first wash but getting them past the detectors would be a problem.
Between one detector and the wall, there was just enough room for someone Po's size to fit comfortably through. Someone Pepe's size would look as though he were trying too hard. There was a watch display case right there.
Pepe pulled Po behind another rack.
They put the clothes under her skirt and tucked them into her knickers.
'Go look at those watches. I'll go through the door the normal way. Come to me when I call you.
Pepe went through the entrance of the department store, and off in the direction where Po could make it look natural to follow him through the gap.
He looked around. His heart stopped.
Po was surrounded by security men. One of them was lifting her skirt revealing the clothes for Jose.
Where did they all come from?
As they began taking her back into the department store, Pepe unfroze, and ran after them.
He had no idea what he was going to say. Maybe he'd grab her at the first chance and run. Maybe he'd do the 'big-brother-sent-by-mama-to-fetch-naughty-sister' thing.
'I said scram!'
The security guard lifted his bludgeon.
The men and Po were entering a side room.
Pepe scrammed, out through the entrance of the department store, into the middle of the main floor of the mall. There, he stopped.
Tears were filling his eyes. He was shaking all over.
He looked around - he didn't know what he was looking for - he was desperate.
At a table by a cappuccino bar he saw a familiar face.
Before he knew what he was doing, he went towards it. It was the old Asian man that had helped them once before.
'Ah - Pepe, what is bothering you?'
'Th-they've got Po!' sobbed Pepe. 'Th-they're gonna take her away!'
'Where is she?'
'Take me there,' said Atsuko.
He took Pepe by the hand, and Pepe led him back into the department store, and to the little door he'd seen them enter. Atsuko knocked.
'I understand there's been a problem with my daughter,' announced Atsuko, as soon as they answered the door.
There were a couple of security guards and another couple of men in business suits, and a policeman. In the middle was a very frightened Po.
'She's your daughter, is she?'
'Yes. If she has done any damage, I will compensate.'
After a bit of discussion, they agreed to let her go.
'Now, I wish to pay for these clothes,' Atsuko said. 'I know of someone who will need them.'
They let him pay, they put the cloths into a shopping bag, and they were off.
'Who are the clothes for?' asked Po.
'Your friend, of course. Isn't that who you wanted them for?'
'Are you really Po's papa?' asked Pepe.
'I have made myself Po's papa, and yours for the time being, until you find your own.'
They went towards the lifts, and took one down to the underground parking area. Not far was the blue Hyundai.
* * *
The children told Atsuko where to turn, so he parked the Hyundai next to the bush by the wire fence.
'Po, you take the clothes up to your friend. I wish to speak to Pepe. When you've given him the clothes, please come back. We'll have some more to discuss.'
She crawled under the bush with the bag.
'Pepe, you almost lost something very dear to your heart today.'
'She is a dear precious girl. You were given an important job when your Noni gave her to you.'
How did he know about Noni?
'But, you could still lose her. There won't always be help nearby. A 12 year old boy like you can only do so much.'
Pepe was silent.
'I have a good friend; one I think you've met. His name is Father Antonio. He could take good care of both of you. Po would be more secure there than you could ever make her.'
Pepe was silent. He knew Atsuko was right.
He'd move into the Mercy House -- for Po's sake.
'How do you know so much about people?' Pepe asked.
'When you know and love Truth, He lets you in on many secrets.'
'How do you get to know this -- er -- "Truth" bloke then?'
'You begin to love Truth when you hate lies.'
'But I do hate lies.'
'If you truly hated lies, you wouldn't need to cover up.'
'Jose's burn'n up with fever. We have to help him.'
Atsuko said, 'Pepe, you go up with Po now, and help him down the stairs. At the Mercy House they can care for him until he's better. If he wants he can stay there, or he can come back here to live.'
Pepe went up with Po, and together, they got him dressed and helped him down to the blue Hyundai.
* * *
They took the long way around and passed near the outdoor market. Po spotted Raquel.
Atsuko managed to stop for a moment at the side of the road, and Po yelled out the window to her. Raquel wanted to come too, but Pierre and Michele were out of earshot. They'd join them there later.
* * *
Pepe decided he liked it at the Mercy House. Po was happy, and so was he.
The next day, Raquel and her two little brothers moved in.
Jose got better in a few days. He stayed on a few more, and then moved back to the old construction site.
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