Book Review: “Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz


Mysteries are different from other genres in that the author has a specific contract with the reader. This contract says, roughly:
1. Thou shalt provide the reader with the clues needed to solve the mystery, if the reader manages to look at the clues in the right way.
2. Thou shalt not conceal the one piece of information needed to identify the criminal.
3. Thou shalt not make the criminal easy to identify because that would be no fun at all.
4. Thou shalt not invent random crap like time travel to explain how the criminal managed to pull off the crime.

These restrictions can make mysteries rather formulaic, but great mystery writers rise above them. And occasionally, an author manages to pull off a tour de force that both respects the contract and rises above it. “Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz is just that kind of mystery.

But before we get into the novel, let’s talk about the two basic genres of murder mystery: cozy and hardboiled. It’s actually more like two separate genres, because cozy readers often don’t like hardboiled mysteries, and vice versa. Agatha Christie is, of course, the great-grandmother of the cozy mystery with her English villages, eccentric detectives, crumpets and tea. Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane epitomize the hardboiled mystery, with gritty, urban settings and down-at-heel, cynical detectives like Mike Hammer.

“Magpie Murders” is by definition a cozy and an English cozy at that. My favorite kind of mystery, in short. Don’t ask me why I am so enamored of vicars, fêtes and jumble sales—I just am. “But “Magpie Murders” is a cozy mystery within a cozy mystery, giving the happy reader not one but TWO mysteries to solve. The murders are unconnected except that the author of “Magpie Murders,” the book within the book, is also the victim in “Magpie Murders,” the novel.

Okay, that might have been a tad confusing so I’ll back up. The story opens with a book editor, Susan Ryeland, reading a manuscript. The manuscript, “Magpie Murders,” was written by Alan Conway, an enormously successful mystery writer and the mainstay of Susan’s employer, a small publishing firm. Susan warns the reader that the manuscript changed her life completely, and then we plunge into the story of “Magpie Murders.”

This story within a story is set in post-WWII England. An apparently accidental death occurs in Pie Hall, the residence of the local gentry, Sir Magnus Pie and his wife. But was it an accident? Small-town tongues are wagging. Then Sir Magnus is found dead in his front hall, decapitated by a sword from a nearby suit of armor. There are carloads of suspects, but nothing that makes any sense. Conway’s fictional detective, Atticus Pünt, is called in. Pünt appears to have solved the mystery—perhaps—by the time Susan Ryeland comes to the end of the manuscript. But the final chapters are missing. And then her boss gets a letter from Conway that sounds a great deal like a suicide note, and they discover he is dead, apparently having thrown himself off a high tower attached to his historic residence.

Susan begins investigating on her own because she needs to find the missing chapters—her publishing firm might not survive without bringing out Conway’s final book. She doesn’t find them, but does discover that someone has taken Conway’s notes and wiped all versions of the book on his computer. She begins to suspect that Conway was murdered. She also finds that there are several people who had excellent motives for murdering him, from his recently discarded lover to his next-door neighbor.

At this point, the reader is working on two murder mysteries, both taking place in English villages, and both involving assorted vicars, village residents, and mysterious visitors. Horowitz does a credible job of keeping the stories distinct. A lesser writer might have led the reader into an inextricable bog of confusion. I listened to the audiobook version, and splitting the narration between a man and a woman helped to keep the two stories straight. Samantha Bond narrated those portions told by Susan Ryeland, and Allan Cordune narrated the manuscript mystery. Both did an excellent job.

Eventually Susan solves the modern mystery and finds the missing pages. She nearly loses her life in the attempt, but then we get to read the end of the story-within-a-story. Both mysteries resolve satisfactorily and adhere strictly to the reader-author contract outlined above. I didn’t guess the solution to the manuscript mystery at all, and only sussed the modern mystery toward the end. Far from feeling frustrated by this, I am always happy when the author outsmarts me—as long as the author plays fair. “Magpie Murders” is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while, and I will look for more mysteries by Anthony Horowitz.

Book Review: “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline


Are you a gamer? Did you play video games obsessively as a teenager, and still sneak in a few games now and then? Are you conversant with pop culture in the 1980s and can name all the characters from “Family Ties”?

Even if you aren’t, you will probably enjoy “Ready Player One.” I can’t remember anything about the 1980s because I was raising small children and starting and running a company—and I still enjoyed it. Our hero is a teenaged boy named Wade. Wade’s life sucks. He lives in a not-too-distant dystopian future with his aunt because his parents are dead. They live with several other people in a house trailer on the top rack of “the stacks.” People have moved to the city hoping to find jobs and food, and space is at a premium. So house trailers are piled one on top of the other in racks that can be many trailers deep, like a rickety multi-story apartment building. Wade’s aunt takes his food rations and gives him nothing, so he has learned to scrounge and deal and make his own way in the world.

Wade’s great obsession in life is the Oasis. The Oasis is a massively complex, totally immersive artificial reality environment reminiscent of Second Life, but eons beyond. Playing is free, but users must have equipment to access the Oasis and create game avatars. All the things an avatar might use, such as magical objects or weapons, cost actual money, as does transportation within the Oasis. Half of humanity spends a significant percentage of their lives in the Oasis because reality has become so unpleasant.

Wade can access the Oasis because he has haptic gloves and a controller through the free school he attends within the Oasis. But he can’t explore the Oasis much because he can’t pay for magical tools and technology (both work within the Oasis) or pay for transportation, so his avatar has only made it to Level Three. This is a huge problem for Wade, because he wants to find the Easter Egg, which requires serious player chops.

The Easter Egg was the brainchild of the Oasis’ original creator, James Halliday. When Halliday died, his will specified that whoever won the treasure hunt he had set up within the Oasis would inherit the Oasis and his multi-multi-billion-dollar estate. Although it has been years since Halliday died, no one has yet found even the first key. Wade, like hundreds of thousands of other “gunters” (egg-hunters), desperately wants to find the egg and win the game. The trouble is, so does IOI Corporation, which has recruited hundreds of people to look for the egg and equipped their avatars with the top-of-the-line haptic equipment, tanks, guns, magic, etc., etc. far beyond the means of a mere gunter.

Wade has spent his entire life studying James Halliday and his obsession with 1980s video games and pop culture. He finally figures out where the first key can be found—and also figures out how to wangle free transportation to the location. He finds and uses the first key, and his life morphs out of all recognition. IOI makes him a generous offer to come work for them. But if Wade finds the Easter Egg, IOI gets the goodies, and Wade knows IOI will make the Oasis into a pay-for-play experience, so he refuses. IOI immediately detonates a bomb, blowing up the stacks where Wade’s aunt lives, killing her and many other people. Wade, who wasn’t home at the time, now has funds gained from solving the first puzzle, so he assumes a false identity and goes underground.

So the game-within-a-game has suddenly become literal mortal combat. Aided by the few friends he possesses, Aech, Art3mis, Shoto and Daito (none of whom he has met in reality), Wade continues the quest.

Wade’s encyclopedic knowledge of old video games and the 1980s assists him through the challenge until it comes to the third and final key. By this time, IOI employee avatars are ahead of him in the game. IOI hit men are searching for him and his friends in the real world. Wade sets up a sting operation. If it works, he and his friends have a good chance of making it to the egg. If it fails, he becomes a lifelong slave of IOI Corporation.

Cline has created a complex world, both within the Oasis and in the real world. It probably adds to your enjoyment if you are familiar with the video games that are mentioned in the story, but even without that knowledge, it’s a tightly plotted and well-paced tale. Also—and this is important—it’s a fun story. Great drama has its place. Tragedy has its place. Interpersonal relationships and their tangled webs have their place. But fun stories are important too, and I found my real-world burdens and anxieties dropping away as I followed Wade and his friends through their half-real, half-simulated adventures. I highly recommend “Ready Player One” as a respite—an Oasis if you will—from the all-too-angst-producing reality of our own world.

Raising Tad

First:
I love animals. I have always had pets, and never believed what I heard from others about how they don’t have the same emotions, or even the same ability to feel pain. Nonsense. Animals are more like us than not, but we have spent millennia trying to prove that we are better, finer, and superior. We have behaved accordingly, acting as though animals could not feel, or suffer. As if they didn’t matter.

So don’t read this piece if you are one of those individuals. You won’t like it.
* * * *

A few weeks ago, my daughter Kerry came home from her teaching job with a jar of water containing two tiny black commas of life: tadpoles. One of her middle-school students had given them to her so that Kerry’s two little girls could observe the miraculous transformation from tadpole to frog. The tadpoles were no bigger than my little fingernail.

Sadly, one of them did not survive. It was a rough journey from his home pond to middle school to our house. But one tiny scrap of life lived. We never named it, nor do we know its gender, but let’s call him Tad for convenience.

Tad took up residence in a plastic food container with purified water and two baby spinach leaves to eat. He swam around energetically enough for a few weeks, gorging on spinach. I marveled at him. He was so tiny that he couldn’t consume even one leaf before it started to go bad. I regularly changed his water and his spinach leaves as he worked on growing out his hind legs.

He became a bit sluggish and one morning, Kerry found him floating on his back on top of the water, apparently dead. But when she picked up the container, he flicked away, very much alive. Kerry consulted the oracle (the Internet) and found that once tadpoles get their hind legs, they also begin developing lungs, so he needed an easier way to breathe at the surface. I selected a rock for his container, one with gently sloping sides so he could almost swim right out of the water onto the top of the rock, which I left rising just a bit above the waterline. I added some sticks for good measure and topped it off with a couple of baby spinach leaves.

I swear he was way happier with the additions. (Go ahead and laugh. I don’t care.) Lethargy forgotten, he careened around his enclosure, now with far less water, dodging between twigs and hiding by the rock’s sloping sides. He did swim right up to the rock to rest in the water while he breathed. I was delighted, and I think that’s when I lost a little piece of my heart to him.

Tad’s forelegs seemed to pop out overnight, each the circumference of a thread. And one day, he climbed right out of the water and sat on top of the rock like a grown-up frog. The picture above is of this event. Terrible photo, but remember, he was teensy, and I was shooting through the plastic walls of a food container.

Tad sat on his rock the entire day without moving. My hypothesis is that he was allowing his lungs to practice breathing, and perhaps this was an energy-intensive exercise. I was smitten. He was just SO cute sitting there like a real frog, and yet—still the size of my little fingernail.

It was time to let Tad return to nature. His tail was nothing but a nubbin and his legs were fully developed. He would need to eat tiny insects now, as spinach would no longer appeal to him.

We live near a large tract of wild woodland. I thought I would let him go in the stream that winds through the woods. Lower downstream where it meanders into the ocean, there is always a crowd of ducks and seagulls, it’s polluted, and the water is brackish.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach the forest stream. Although there are places where you can reach the stream easily, they are not near the park road. My husband and I had taken our youngest granddaughter to witness the release and we were also carrying Tad’s container. Jessamyn, age four, is definitely not Nature Girl and objects to long and difficult walks. I had safety-proofed Tad’s container as best I could by removing the sticks, emptying most of the water and replacing the rock with a mound of sodden paper towels so he would have a safe place to sit out of the water if he needed it. But I could tell the movement and jouncing were frightening to him.

So we drove closer to where the creek empties into the ocean. The banks became much less precipitous. I found a spot upstream from where the ducks and seabirds hang out, far enough from the sea that the water wouldn’t be brackish. It was a shallow stretch of streambed with a golden, sandy bottom. I clambered as far down the bank as I could and let Tad out of his container.

With a burst of speed that surprised us, Tad leaped downhill toward the water and disappeared into the weeds matting the stream bank. We lost sight of him within a second. He was such an infinitesimal scrap of a creature that any shadow, any shelter disguised him entirely. It made me wonder how many little animals I have unwittingly walked upon without ever knowing it.

I absolutely would be lying if I told you that were the end of it. No, I worried. Did he make it to the water? Did he live through his first day as a free frog? Did he become a light snack for a garter snake or a sparrow?

Was this silly of me? Yes. Tadpoles are spawned in the hundreds of thousands, and they are ready food for many animals. Frogs, too, are the prey of birds, toads, foxes, raccoons, fish…and so on. Hakuna matata, the great circle of life and all that.

But I still think a lot about that minute froglet, sitting so quietly and proudly on top of his rock. Although Tad’s chances of survival were slim, at least I gave him a safe and predator-free tadpolehood. That is probably the best we can do for our own children before we release them into the wild.

So You Don’t Like Fantasy

[This post was originally published at Megan Groom’s blog, https://bit.ly/2HVe5NU.]

I don’t like grenache single-varietal wines. There’s just something about the taste. Unless it’s a well made, carefully husbanded grenache that is bold and fruit-forward, and then I love it. I think the same concept applies to any genre of fiction. The genre doesn’t matter, as long as the writing is good, the characters compelling, and the story engaging.

I am, as you may have already discerned, a fantasy author (also a wine drinker). When people ask me what I do, I tell them I write fantasy novels. This will often result in a studied effort to avoid rolling their eyes, and a polite, “I don’t read fantasy. Sorry.”

My theory is that they just haven’t discovered the fantasy writer or the type of fantasy that they like. Many people were drawn to fantasy after reading “Lord of the Rings.” I think an equal number of people were turned off by it. (Hence the parody, “Bored of the Rings.”) But there are many different types of fantasy, often bearing no resemblance to other fantasies other than being pigeonholed in the fantasy genre. Let’s take a look at some of the fantasy out there that shatters expectations and stereotypes.

The “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. “Outlander” begins when a young Englishwoman, Claire, steps through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and is transported into the 18th century, where she falls in love with a braw young Scot who is not her husband. The series follows Claire and Jamie and their family through many years and adventures, switching back and forth between the present day and the historical past. Although clearly fantasy, “Outlander” is also romance, adventure, and well-researched historical fiction. It doesn’t easily fit any particular genre—but it’s labeled “fantasy.” The characters could be people you know—flawed in some ways, but worth knowing.

“In Pursuit of the Green Lion,” “A Vision of Light,” and other novels by Judith Merkle Riley. Riley’s fantasy novels are also historically based, and several reflect the author’s interest in alchemy and how it was practiced. I found these novels to be full of drama and adventure, but despite some nasty characters, they also left me feeling good in the end. Some of her stories are set in medieval times, some in the Renaissance, and the historical research is excellent. She has a lovely, subtle sense of humor as well.

Neil Gaiman is, of course, in a class by himself. Gaiman has the career I would have picked out for myself, had I been bolder and smarter. He writes short stories, poetry, novels, and screenplays as well as graphic novels. He travels all over the world dressed in a black leather jacket, black T-shirt, and black jeans, to the adoration of the masses. I could skip the all-black dude-clothes, but the rest would be nice. Gaiman’s work is extraordinarily varied. “American Gods” and “Anansi Boys” are both about Old World gods transplanted to America, and having to deal with powerful New World gods—such as Media. If you’ve been following the TV series of “American Gods,” it’s a good sample of what Gaiman does. One of my favorites in his oeuvre is a children’s book, “The Graveyard Book,” but I don’t recommend reading it to a young child. It’s about a boy who, as a toddler, escapes being murdered by a serial killer, though his family is massacred. He winds up in a graveyard, where he is cared for and raised by the ghosts that “live” there. The story gets pretty hairy at times, and I would recommend not giving it to anyone under, say, 12, and then only if they are not the nervous type. Gaiman’s other children’s books, like “Coraline” or “The Wolves in the Walls,” have a dark edge that many kids enjoy, but “The Graveyard Book” is much darker, though highly entertaining. Gaiman reads many of his own audiobooks, and he is great at it. I would listen to him reading the NYC telephone book, if it still exists.

If you think epic fantasy might appeal to you, there’s always “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin. GOT is more epic than most epic fantasy ever dreams of being. His story involves hundreds of characters, all of their stories revolving around a power clash between the various kingdoms of his invented world—and a more serious threat from the supernatural, which most in his world do not believe is real. If you enjoy long, involved stories with plenty of action, adventure, blood and guts, GOT might be your cup of tea. It literally has everything—wars, intrigue, treachery, incest, romance, bravery, murder, tragedy, family issues, war, politics, magic, comedy, and, of course, dragons.

Diana Wynn Jones is someone I need to read more of. She has written several children’s stories as well as adult fantasies. She wrote “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which was made into an anime movie that has quite a cult following. Her stories take place in invented worlds where magic is a natural phenomenon, like vision or touch, and treated as such. She makes these worlds seem real while we are visiting, which is the mark of a truly good writer. If there is such a thing as a “cozy” fantasy, Jones writes them.

Fantasy writers like to talk about “creating magical systems.” If you incorporate magic into a story, you can’t have your characters solving all their problems by waving a wand or reciting a spell—that would be boring. So you have to come up with a system that has rules and limitations. The maestro of magical systems is Brandon Sanderson. One of his more memorable series is the “Mistborn” trilogy. Set in a created world, certain individuals (the “mistborn”) are born with the power to ingest different metals, each of which gives the wielder specific supernatural powers. (I can’t remember what this ability is called at the moment.) The world is threatened with unexplained phenomena, people are dying, and those in power are helpless to combat the evil. It is the mistborn that discover the source of the threat and how to combat it. It’s epic fantasy, but the heroes aren’t the guys in the tin suits this time. Sanderson’s work is so well respected that he was selected to finish Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series when the author died.

For those who enjoy fast-paced action and intrigue, you might like the work of Ryan Attard, who writes adventure fantasies full of snark and martial arts. Both are equally enjoyable. Attard is an incredibly prolific young writer who lives on the island of Malta. In the time I have known him, Ryan has pumped out something like fifteen novels, while I have produced two and a half. He is a martial arts practitioner, and can take you out with his hands, feet, or katana—your choice—and he incorporates this expertise into his work. I haven’t read all his books, but he has a devoted following. Try the “Legacy” or “Nemesis” series.

There are even humorous fantasies. The British writers Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett come to mind. I think Pratchett uses his bizarre fantasy creation, the Discworld and its assorted improbable inhabitants, to make insightful observations of our world, right here and now. I have written about Sir Terry before, I think he’s beyond brilliant as well as funny, and I’ll leave it there—other than to say I think “Monstrous Regiment” is his best work.

Tom Holt sets his fantasies in modern-day London, where there are discrete firms run by vampires and goblins, and law firms headed by werewolves. His hapless hero finds himself working for one such firm in his first book in the J.W. Wells & Co. Series, “The Portable Door.” It’s a lovely combination of the fantastic bounded only by the restrictions of the utterly mundane.

I have to mention one more humorous fantasy, “The Scriptlings,” by Sorin Suciu. Suciu is a programmer, and he envisions a magic system based on the way computers are programmed. If you’re a bit engineerish, you will find the in-jokes delicious. I am not a programmer, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

So please. Don’t lump all fantasy novels into the bag labeled, “Books I Don’t Like.” Fantasy can be everything from high tragedy to low humor, family drama to twinkly comedy, with themes as broad and varied as any other genre. The really wonderful thing about fantasy is that there are no limits. Fantasy authors don’t have to conform to the laws of nature or science. They can go where their dreams take them, and it can be quite the journey.

So I think I’ll go read “A Natural History of Dragons,” by Marie Brennan. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll have a gorgeous glass of Denner grenache. Because Denner knows how to make great grenache. And some fantasy writers know how to craft excellent literature.

Death Comes for Zippy

This isn’t Zippy, but it looks just like her. (Not that I can tell one Barred Rock hen from another.) I love her smart stripes and contrasting red comb–very stylish.

About a year ago I wrote a blog piece about “bathroom chickens.” My daughter Kerry decided she wanted to keep chickens for the eggs. She and her husband Mike built a sturdy chicken run and coop, capable of deflecting the local predators, which include foxes, bobcats, coyotes, rats, weasels, raccoons, hawks, and eagles. We are less certain the coop would resist the dedicated efforts of the local mountain lion, but so far, the lion has stayed on the other side of our fence.

Kerry obtained five chicks from our local organic farmer guru. These tiny, shrieking balls of fluff lived in the upstairs bathroom. As they grew larger, they became more difficult to care for. Also more annoying. I got tired of cleaning up chicken-foot-shaped shit prints. But the day dawned when our little flock moved into their new chicken palace in the back yard. In due time, they began laying eggs. We had two Easter Eggers that laid green, speckled eggs. The rest, a Barred Rock, an Australorpe, and a Rhode Island Red, laid brown eggs.

We named the chickens. I have a rule that I never eat anything that I have addressed by name. The Easter Eggers, both brownish-red, were named Henrietta and Ruby. The Australorpe, whose feathers are iridescent black, is Chix. The Rhode Island Red, a cheerful yellow, is Sunny. The Barred Rock, stylish in black and white stripes, was named Zippy.

I thought I would become more emotionally attached to the chickens. I love animals, and have had pets from cats to rats to a horse to seahorses. I wept over the deaths of my pet rats as much as over any dog or cat. But I haven’t gotten very attached to the chickens. They aren’t terribly fond of us, either. You would think that being handled every day as chicks, they would be used to us, but no. Clearly, they view us as annoying and intrusive at best—unless we have food, in which case, they prefer us to throw it in the coop and leave as quickly as possible.

I did develop a grudge against one of them, though. Chix proved to be the smartest and most aggressive of the young hens. The other girls huddled away from us when we entered the coop, but Chix came right up and crowded us. One day as I was putting fresh food down (this was before I learned to fling it and leave), Chix pecked both my wrists with lightening speed, raising two juicy blood blisters. I decided I would probably be okay with eating Chix cacciatore after all.

We originally thought Henrietta would be, as Kerry put it, “The boss bitch.” She was the largest of the baby chicks, and the most forward. Then Chix stepped up and flexed her drumsticks. But the one who ruled the roost in the end was Zippy, our Barred Rock. I think Zippy was, in her own way, an ideal leader. She was modest and unassuming, asserting her authority without pecking anyone’s eyes out or raising any blood blisters. While Chix continued to crowd us in the coop, perching on the watering bottles and knocking them over, dapper Zippy quietly went about her business, keeping her little flock on track. After Zippy assumed supremacy, we noticed that Chix wasn’t as aggressive as she had been. Which was a good thing.

As the hens grew older, the eggs got bigger and more plentiful. Once in a while we find no eggs, but usually there are three, four or five eggs waiting for us. I enjoy getting the eggs, sometimes needing to grope under a warm, sitting hen to find them. I always thought they would lay their eggs in separate nests, but all of the eggs go in one nest, and they take turns sitting on them. Sunny is our most dedicated sitter. She never pecks at my thieving fingers and even lets me pet her. (If she’s not on the nest, however, Sunny won’t let us near her.) If Chix is sitting (a rare occasion because Chix isn’t the motherly type), I shoo her away before gathering the eggs. I’m not giving that bitch another shot at me.

I enjoy their “egg song.” When a hen lays, she crows a bit as though to say, “Look what I just did!” I also quietly savor the idea that the descendants of Tyrannosaurus Rex are strutting around in my back yard, providing me with sustenance. Mammals rule, and all that.

Then tragedy struck. Kerry found Zippy’s still-warm corpse in the run without a mark on her. Zippy had laid an egg the day before, and she had also happily gobbled the table scraps I gave them. Although she was only a year old, Zippy’s sands had run out. The Queen was dead. The rest of the flock retreated in horror to the highest perch until the corpse was removed.

I had a rather odd reaction to Zippy’s death. As I said, we weren’t close. But it seemed sad that such a young bird had died. None of the other birds appear ill. Kerry’s research indicated that it wasn’t unusual for a youthful chicken to die unexpectedly, possibly of a heart attack. Just like people, some chickens are born with defective hearts. Still. She had shared my table (figuratively speaking). She was a creature under my care. I wasn’t grief-stricken, but I did feel that Zippy deserved some respect for her wise leadership and lovely brown eggs. So Zippy has been on my mind for a few days.

But not on my plate. As I said, we were on first-name terms.

Free Sneak Peek! Chapter 1 of “Fire in the Ocean”

Sierra glanced up from her inflight magazine and stared at her companion with concern. Chaco’s face, normally a warm, glowing brown, was a sickly gray with green undertones. Sierra scrabbled hastily in her seat pocket for the barf bag and handed it to him.

“If you feel like you’re going to be sick, use this,” she said. “I didn’t know you get motion sickness.” They had just taken off from San Jose International Airport—how could he be sick already?

Chaco waved away the bag with a weary gesture. “I don’t have motion sickness.”

“What’s the matter, then?” she asked. She hoped he would recover soon—and that he wasn’t contagious. But then she remembered; Chaco couldn’t get sick. He was an Avatar. He was thousands of years old, and had literally never been sick a day in his long life. If Chaco was sick, something was seriously awry.

“I dunno,” Chaco replied, closing his eyes. “Do you … do you suppose you could just leave me alone for a while?”

Sierra returned to her magazine, glancing at his tense, gray face every so often. When the stewards came by with trays of lunch, Chaco shook his head without opening his eyes.

When the screaming began, Sierra nearly jumped out of her skin, and she wasn’t the only one. A female flight attendant was shrieking incoherently in the rear of the plane, where the galley and restrooms were located for economy class passengers. Other attendants crowded around her, and her shrieks stopped abruptly. But not before Sierra heard, “Green! Monster! I saw it…!”

“Oh, no,” Sierra moaned. “Oh, no, no, that’s just what we needed…!”

People were still craning in their seats, trying to see what was going on. The curtain had been drawn across the galley space, so there was nothing to be seen. Chaco had been roused from his lethargy by the commotion.

“What was that all that about?”

“It’s Fred,” Sierra whispered grimly. “It has to be Fred. The flight attendant was screaming about a green monster. Sound familiar?”

Chaco closed his eyes again. “Figures.” Sierra waited for more, but he remained silent.

“What are we going to do? Fred will be a disaster on this trip, which is why I told him—firmly!—that he couldn’t come with us.”

“I don’t know.”

“We have to do something.”

Chaco shifted his long body slightly to face her and opened his eyes. “Look, Sierra. I have no more idea than you do. In fact, I think I’m in real trouble here.”

Sierra looked at his pale face and anguished eyes. “Are you sick?”

“It’s worse than that,” he responded miserably. “I’m mortal.”

“Mortal? Mortally ill, you mean?”

“No. Mortal. As in not magic. As in, I’m just like you, now. I’m not an Avatar anymore. I can get sick. I can die.”

All thoughts of Fred forgotten, Sierra said, “How do you know? How is that even possible?”

Chaco shook his head. “Wouldn’t you know if all your blood left your body? I mean, just for an instant before you died? I’ve been severed from the numinous, the sphere in which we Avatars exist. The power source has been unplugged, if that makes more sense.”

Sierra absorbed this in silence. Finally, she said, “But you’re still alive. So cutting you off from the, um, numinous doesn’t kill you?”

Chaco rolled his eyes. “Apparently not. This is all new to me, too, you understand.”

“Okay. Why don’t you try to turn into a coyote? If you can do that, it proves you’re okay.” In addition to being an outwardly young and indisputably handsome young man, Chaco was Coyotl the Trickster, demi-god and culture hero of many Native American traditions. Sierra was so rattled that she didn’t consider what her fellow passengers’ response might be to a coyote lounging in a nearby window seat.

Chaco looked at her, his golden-amber eyes now dulled to hazel. Dark circles beneath his eyes made them appear sunken. “What do you think I’ve been trying to do for the past hour?”

“Oh.” Sierra sat quietly for a long time, thinking. Eventually, she asked, “How did you get separated from the, um, numinous, anyway? How could something like that happen?”

Chaco roused himself from his lethargy. “I don’t know. It’s never happened before. I could make an educated guess, though. I think it’s because I’m no longer connected to my land, the land that created me. I think my land is the source of my power. I’ve never been on an airplane before, so I didn’t know this would happen.”

“We’re thousands of feet in the air. When we get to Hawai‘i, we’ll be on land again—maybe you’ll get it back. Hawai‘i is part of the United States, after all.”

Chaco brightened a little at this, but his enthusiasm flickered and died. “I don’t know as much as I should about things like history and geography, but wasn’t Hawai‘i built by volcanoes in the middle of the ocean?”

Sierra nodded.

“And when did Hawai‘i become part of the United States?”

Sierra’s dark brows knit together as she tried to remember. She gave up. “I’m not sure, but it was probably about 60 years ago.”

Chaco groaned, almost inaudibly. “So Hawai‘i isn’t part of my land at all. It’s something different, not connected to my land. The people there are probably not even Native Americans.”

This Sierra did know. “They’re Polynesians. They came from Tahiti, I think. But we won’t even know until we land. Once you get your feet on the ground, maybe you’ll feel better.”

“Maybe,” was all that he said, directing a morose gaze out of the little window at the clouds. It was the last thing he said until they landed in Honolulu.

* * * *

It had started as a fun vacation with her fiancée, Clancy. At least, Sierra thought it would be fun, but as Clancy pointed out, his idea of an island vacation had more to do with drinking fruity tropical drinks on the beach than with counting albatross chicks. Nonetheless, he had gone along with her plans for a one-month stint on Midway Island. It was an eco-tourism gig that allowed some 20 volunteers at a time onto Midway to help biologists monitor the bird life. The island was a national wildlife refuge that provided breeding grounds for millions of sea birds, including several endangered species. The volunteers lived on Midway for a month, counting chicks and cleaning up plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch so that adult birds wouldn’t mistake the colorful bits of plastic for food and feed it to their nestlings—thereby killing them.

But Clancy’s boss had asked (demanded) that he cancel this scheduled vacation. Sierra was upset by this, but she understood. Clancy was head of security at a high tech Silicon Valley firm. The President of the United States scheduled a visit to the plant to highlight her support of American technology—and Clancy’s vacation was sacrificed amid promises of more vacation time in the future.

“I’m going anyway,” she had told Clancy. At his look of surprise, she added, “Remember? My employer is paying for it. I have to go so I can report on the wildlife conservation work on Midway.” Sierra worked for Clear Days Foundation as a communications executive.

“Oh. Well, sure. I just thought …”

“I’d like to ask Chaco to go with me,” Sierra said. “That okay with you?”

There was a long silence. Clancy finally spoke. “Chaco? Isn’t he with Kaylee? Wouldn’t that be kind of awkward?”

“I thought you knew. Kaylee is dating someone named Guy now. She’s moved on. Kaylee always moves on.”

“Oh. Well, what about taking Kaylee with you? Or Rose? Or Mama Labadie?” Clancy listed off Sierra’s three closest female friends.

“All three of them are going to some animal spirit guide workshop in Sedona, so they’re not available. Look, please don’t worry about this. Chaco and I are just friends. We’ve never been anything else. And I’m going to be on a remote island in the middle of nowhere for a month with a bunch of people I don’t know. I’d like to have a friend with me.”

“I’m not worried. Well, maybe I am, a little. Just tell me you’re sorry that it won’t be me.”

“I’m really, really sorry that it won’t be you!”

He would have to be content with that.

* * * *

Discovering that Fred had decided to stow away on the airplane was unwelcome news. There could be no other explanation for the commotion among the flight attendants and that telling shriek of “Green! Monster!”

Fred was a mannegishi. When he was visible, Fred looked like a green melon with pipe-cleaner arms and legs, six flexible digits on each paw, and swiveling orange eyes that resembled traffic reflectors. He had the ability to disappear at will, which had been handy in Sierra’s earlier adventures, but he was a mischievous creature with little or no impulse control and an enormous appetite. In short, Fred was not Sierra’s first choice of companion for a visit to a delicate ecosystem populated by endangered birds.

Now she had to deal with an errant mannegishi as well as a mortal and extremely miserable Chaco. As they walked through the loading tunnel to the gate, Sierra whispered, “How are we going to find Fred?”

Chaco shrugged. “My guess is that Fred will find us. Don’t worry about him—he’s been around the block a few times in the past few thousand years.” He was still drawn and tired-looking, with none of his usual sexy saunter. Sierra guessed that returning to the earth had not restored his supernatural powers or immortality.

They made their way to baggage pickup. When Chaco hefted his suitcase, he nearly dropped it, then frowned.

“I think Fred found us,” he reported.

Sierra looked at him, puzzled.

“My suitcase.” He hefted it again. “It’s a lot heavier than it was when I dropped it off in San Jose. It’s either Fred or someone stuffed a bowling ball in here.”

Sierra was horrified. “Well, let him out! He must be smothered in there.”

“Not likely,” scoffed Chaco. He gave the suitcase a good shake. “Serves him right.”

“What if he’s lost his powers like you have?” she hissed, not wanting to be overheard.

“I don’t think so. He disappeared on the plane fast enough when the flight attendant started screaming. Otherwise, there would have been a lot more commotion.”

Acknowledging that Chaco was probably right, Sierra turned her attention to finding transportation to their hotel. It was located right on Waikiki Beach and wasn’t far from the airport.

On the bus ride to the hotel, Sierra took in the tropical plants, caught glimpses of turquoise ocean, and, cracking the window a trifle, breathed in the scent of many flowers—and the usual smells of any big city. The people walking on the streets all looked like tourists to her. Many were wearing shorts, flip-flops, and Hawai‘ian print shirts. Surely not everyone in the city could be a tourist, she thought. At one point, Chaco’s suitcase began to squirm, but he kicked it sharply and unobtrusively, and the suitcase subsided.

Their hotel was an enormous complex of tall buildings, and they had a room on the 17th floor overlooking the ocean. Sliding glass doors on a balcony opened to let in breezes, and the afternoon air smelled soft and sweet with an underlying sharper tang of salt. They dumped their suitcases on the floor—in Chaco’s case, none too gently. Chaco unzipped the bag and Fred rolled out onto the carpet.

“Ow ow ow ow,” he complained, rubbing his fat bottom and staring at them reproachfully.

“It’s your own fault,” Chaco said coldly. “I’m going to bed.” He commandeered one of the two queen-size beds and pulled the covers over his head.

“What’s his problem?” the little mannegishi asked. “He didn’t spend hours balled up in a suitcase.”

“He’s lost his powers,” Sierra explained. “He’s a mortal now, and it disagrees with him. Anyway, why’d you do it, Fred? I asked you not to come. Now I don’t know what to do.”

She felt as weary as Chaco. The trip had started with Clancy dropping out. Now Chaco had lost his powers and become mortal—and who knew what that would mean? She supposed it would be like a human losing the ability to see, or walk. And she had to deal with Fred, too. As fond as she was of him, Fred was a nuisance at the best of times.

“Lost his powers? How does that happen?” asked Fred, looking worried. He disappeared briefly then reappeared. He looked relieved but puzzled. “I haven’t lost my abilities. Why did Chaco lose his?”

“He thinks it’s because he’s no longer in contact with his birth land. He says he’s cut off from the numinous, whatever that is.”

“I dunno from numinous, but I’m still okay.”

“How nice for you!” came an irritated growl from under the humped covers on Chaco’s bed.

“Look, Fred, I could really use a drink right now. Disappear yourself and we can talk somewhere. There’s got to be a bar in this hotel somewhere.”

As it turned out, the hotel had many, many bars. Sierra picked one with an outdoor seating area on the beach and ordered something unfamiliar with rum in it. The drink arrived, bedecked with chunks of fresh fruit, small umbrellas, and plastic hula girls and accompanied by a bowl of peanuts. She cleared away the ornamentation, ate the fruit and began working slowly on the remaining fluid. It was cold, tart, and sweet. She still felt grubby from the trip, but at least she was near a beach—she could see surfers from where she was sitting—with a fruity tropical drink. And an invisible mannegishi. She could see the imprint of Fred’s bottom on the chair cushion next to hers, and the peanuts were disappearing at a rapid pace. She picked up her phone and pretended to tap in a number, then said, “Hi, Fred. We can talk now.” Anyone observing would see a trim woman with tanned skin and long, dark hair, sitting alone and talking on the phone.

“So what happened to Chaco?” Fred asked.

“As soon as the plane took off, he started to look kind of green around the gills. Then he slumped down and acted like he was sick. He says he’s mortal now. He can die.”

“That’s not good,” Fred observed.

“Tell me about it,” said Sierra. “I’ve been mortal my whole life.”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”

“It’s all right. I’m used to it. Chaco isn’t. Do you know if he can ever regain his connection to the numinous? Whatever that is?”

“Dunno.”

“And why didn’t you lose your powers?” Sierra demanded. The mannegishi was quiet for a few minutes.

“Chaco and I aren’t exactly the same sort of thing, you know,” he said finally.

“How do you mean?”

“Chaco is—was—an Avatar. Much more powerful than a mannegishi. I’m just a, ah, kind of an … well, I don’t know exactly. I have certain powers, but what I can do is born inside me. Like bees can make honey? I can do what I do. That’s all I know.” Sierra could tell by the sounds next to her that the mannegishi was sucking his digits—a nervous habit.

“Stop that!” The sucking sounds ceased and the peanuts began to disappear again. Sierra flagged a passing waiter and asked for more peanuts and another round of whatever she was drinking.

She couldn’t do anything about the situation today. Right now, she was sitting in the Hawai‘ian sun on a Hawai‘ian beach, drinking a Hawai‘ian drink, and watching the Hawai‘ian waves. Almost against her will, she began to relax. The waiter brought her a fresh drink and another bowl of peanuts. She thanked him, took a long swallow, and closed her eyes. She began to think about Clancy and Chaco and Fred. Not relaxing. She opened them again, only to find the rest of her drink gone as well as all the fruit.

“Fred!!!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, I Marched for Our Lives

The two sides of my waterproof sign.

I live in a tiny town on the Central Coast of California. Usually, protest marches are organized in Santa Cruz, marching through the downtown shopping district. Santa Cruz is pretty flaming liberal, and the community is usually enthusiastic and supportive of protests. But this time the March for Our Lives was cancelled—I don’t know why. So other people picked up the slack and organized a march through our tiny town.

I had purchased foam board for my sign. I tried to find clever sign suggestions for this march, but I have to say I was disappointed by the general blandness of the offerings, so I came up with my own. It was supposed to be pouring rain, and I couldn’t see slogging through the rain with a huge, double-sided sign that was running ink, so I came up with a rain-proof plan. I printed my signs out on 8×10 paper and slid them into a plastic sheet protector with a piece of cardboard to stiffen it. Then I taped the opening closed—voila! A waterproof sign, not as large as I usually carry, but clearly readable. (It did not rain, by the way.)

My husband Tom volunteered to go with me. I donned my trusty pussy hat (which I now view as an all-purpose protest symbol, and thanks again, Bernardita, for knitting it for me). We set off for the park where we were to gather, arriving at 9:00 am. I was astounded—there were hundreds of people, many with their kids. I’m no good at estimating crowd size, but I would say easily 1500 people turned out in my little town. Many had signs, many wore pussy hats. It was a peaceful, cheerful assembly of people who care deeply about the safety of children in their schools. Not to mention the safety of citizens in public spaces. I think everyone there was aware of the (hopefully remote) possibility that some gun nut would decide that this was his big moment. Thankfully, nothing of the sort occurred, at least not here.

We marched through the teensy downtown area for perhaps thee-quarters of a mile to a bridge over the freeway. People going by in cars mostly honked enthusiastically and gave the thumbs-up. A couple of people gave us a thumbs-down, and one person yelled, “Guns for everyone!” But by far, the majority of passing drivers were supportive. At the bridge, we waited for a while and waved our signs at the traffic, then turned around and marched back to the park entrance. On the way back, the line of marchers heading toward the bridge was about as long as the line of marchers heading back, and we set up a cool call-and-response on different sides of the main street:

“Enough is enough!”

“Never again!”

I found myself close to tears as we marched. My grandchildren go to school in this town. I fear for them every day. That’s just wrong. We should be able to send our children to school secure in the knowledge that no insane, violent extremist is going to murder them in their classrooms.

They are too precious to me. Not just my grandchildren–all of them. Now is the time. Now.