Destination-travel for when mundane reality needs a time out

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Sneak Peek at Panda, a novel with Humor and Heart.

By Sandra Stenson   /     Apr 22, 2017  /     From Panda  /     , , , , , , , , , ,

 

Panda: Volume I

Winds of Change

S. C.  Stenson


Chapter 1

The Winds of Change Come Rolling In

– Julia –

“Start, damn it!”

A phone went flying across the room, landing on a pile of dirty clothes near an outlet. Julia’s primary lifeline to the outside world was dead as a doornail. Heck, why should it be any different?

Frustrated, Julia pulled the blankets over her head. But, sunrise comes early in the Tropics.

*

The day the winds of change came tearing into their favorite little cul-de-sac was shaping up to be another nauseatingly beautiful one. Julia was exhausted. She had not slept in day. Her brain just would not shut up. Prisoners of war got more consideration from their wardens than she did from her thoughts. To add insult to injury, birds started chirping at the crack of dawn – aka ‘in the middle of the night’, teenager time. Their happy cacophony made any attempt at sleep futile.

Defeated, Julia flopped out of bed.

It took some finesse to round the pile of clean clothes on the floor without toppling over adjacent piles of dirty and once-worn ones. Practiced as she was at this steeplechase, she alighted at her destination without mishap. She wanted to close the blinds and shut out the day. Julia was not in the mood for picture-perfect tropical sunrises. Lazy palm fronds swayed in the breeze, the sky looked like an impressionist painting, and, of course, the infernal birds buzzed about making cheerful ruckus. One more peep, Julia thought, and she was prepared to re-evaluate her hardnosed stance against animal cruelty.

A far more befitting scene for today would have been black: a boiling cauldron of destruction barreling down her street like a hurricane. At the very least, the world outside could have been dreary and bleak, like her insides.

To Julia, the jolly scene outside her window served as a stark reminder that no one and nothing in this universe cared the least little bit that her world had once again imploded. Five years ago, she had stood – numb – over a gaping hole in the ground. That hole had lain in wait to receive her mother and never give her back.

Now, the nightmare repeated. The worst of it had come a few days ago when had tried to brush her stepmother’s ashes out of shrieking baby-brother’s hair. What a fitting culmination to the most over the top, ill-conceived funeral ever. The gaudy pomp and circumstance had made her feel all the more out of place and alone. Also, what special kind of idiot makes kids scatter a loved one’s ashes off a breezy levy, well before any of them had had a chance to process their loss?

Julia shook her head, trying to dislodge anger – without much success. The extra benefit of living the same nightmare twice was that she had now reached the ripe, old age of being able to appreciate every painful nuance. Five years ago, Julia had, in the very least, still believed that her dad could fix everything. By now, she knew that ‘Papa’ was excellent at making grandiose plans and charming people into believing in them (especially female people and his own kids). But, he was terrible at carrying any of them through. Julia had fallen for too many fairy tales to believe in happily ever after anymore – or in happiness period. She loved her dad, but she realized that she had surpassed him in maturity about two developmental stages ago. That meant that the weight of worrying about her family rested squarely on her shoulders.

Of course, nobody tells a teenager anything. Not one person gave her straight answers to her questions. So, she had no way of discerning which of her fears were founded. As a result, she worried about everything. Would they have a home to live in? Would her father be able to hold down a job? Would she and her middle brother have to find work? Would she be forced to drop out of school? Could this really be happening?

Why not? The worst things always did happen to her family.

Julia needed a break. There had to be a mute button for her anxiety and thunderous thoughts about her dad’s cockeyed priorities and paternal failings. What did it help to rail against being abandoned to deal with her loss and her clueless brothers all by herself without any information as to what would happen next? Since the phone was dead, and she did not treasure cowering on the floor by an outlet, Julia attempted to wake her computer. This effort might have been more successful had the contraption actually been turned on.

Julia did not notice; her over-tired mind was elsewhere. She fretted. She grieved, and she questioned why she bothered to wake her computer in the first place: nobody ever mailed, chatted, tweeted, or wrote on her wall.

Maybe she would receive more feedback, if she updated her status to something catchy like “So guess what, my step-mom just died. Oh, and fun fact number two, we are now broke and likely homeless. Of course, the estate belongs to a kid who has been dead for six years. This is Panda after all, one prides oneself on being different.”

Although she doubted that an assortment of OMGs and WTFs from a number of familiar strangers would appreciably ameliorate her emotional state, Julia seriously considered posting something to that effect. Any human contact was better than none. So why wasn’t this darn computer responding?

Julia let her keyboard have a taste of her frustration. Surely, hammering on the space bar like a desperate woodpecker who had not eaten days could only improve performance.

Part of the problem might have been that her eyes were focused on a carriage outside her window, not on her computer. The carriage looked like a cab from the airport. This was not unusual. Taxis on Panda are horse-drawn, because cars are not allowed. Julia actually liked that about this crazy country. She always loved to watch the horses.

When the cab passed the Darcy Mansion next door, it had only one possible destination left. Her home. Suddenly, Julia’s heart was in her throat. The only person she could imagine driving up this early in the morning was her father. If he returned home this soon, and unannounced, it could only mean that he brought more bad news.

 

Chapter 2

The Ornery Antique

– Ric Suvorin –

The giant of a man, dressed only in boxer shorts and a shoulder holster, barreling down the stairs to the lobby startled the receptionist. He came to a stop by stemming his massive hands against the reception partition. The impact slid the heavy barrier towards the slight woman quite a frightening distance. That particular piece of furniture was not designed to move. She was so unnerved, she could not understand when he wanted when he asked her something in heavily accented Spanish.

Seeing the lack of comprehension on her face, he held a smartwatch to her face. It, and the rest of his torso, looked as though they had seen heavy combat recently. The screen was so scratched, she mechanically reached to twist it into clearer view. As she touched the watch, it started to squawk at her until the man tapped his ear. The voice went away. He said something in a foreign language, she assumed was addressed to the caller.

“So sorry, Senorita,” he turned his attention back to her, giving her the toothy grin of those who caught themselves having forgotten their manners. It helped that he was somewhat handsome – if in a rugged sort of way. He certainly was well-built. She felt the corners of her mouth twisting upwards.

“Do you happen to have a fax machine?” He asked. “This screen is terribly small – and also a bit worse for wear.”

She could understand him just fine, now that he had slowed down and presumably shut up the person talking into his ear.

“We have a computer. I could print it out, if you forward it,” she offered, despite herself.

He wrinkled his nose. “Not a secure computer,” he explained. “You know how IT are. If it were up them, we’d have to set fire to every computer, right after we use it – for cyber security.”

“Um. Okay. Well, we do still have a fax machine. It hasn’t been used in ages, but I suppose, I could see if it still works.”

Why had she said that? Normally, she could not care less about hotel guests and their little special-requests – especially not at this unchristian hour of the morning. For some reason, the rough-looking giant in front of her, who evidently slept in his gun holster, was hard to refuse. He had a certain je ne sais quoi, she thought. He was cute in the way polar bears are cute, when they lie on their backs with their paws up in the air: you want to rub their tummies, even though you know it would probably not be a very smart idea.

Not giving her the chance to backtrack, her customer asked for the fax number and transmitted to his caller. She was in for it now.

The battle with the ornery antique went about as well as she had expected. It took several tries just to put in new paper. Things did not improve from there. The darn thing did a lot of beeping, but not a lot of receiving.

Meanwhile, her customer immersed himself in his phone call. He had borrowed a pen and a pad of paper, on which he took notes in a chaotic pattern, as though he intended to cover the entire notebook. He paid her and her struggles no heed, until she let out a shriek of victory.

On the seventh try, the devil’s contraption had finally spat out something resembling intelligible print. In triumph, she held the fax up to her customer. He snatched it out of her hand and flew over the text. She had hoped for a little more appreciation, but he was completely absorbed. After reading, he squinted at a badly copied surveillance photo on the fax’s bottom. She used the opportunity to study him with nearly as much attention as he devoted to the photo. She fantasized about what heroic acts might have earned him the impressive collection of scrapes and bruises which covered his billboard-sized torso. She took a look at his holster and wondered, if he had ever used his gun. Also, was he a good guy or a bad guy?

She had several minutes to ponder the question. Her customer took that long studying his fax. Then, suddenly, as if set-upon by a giant tarantula, he raced up the stairs with nearly as much speed as he had come down them. The receptionist did not know this, but he was off to rouse a priest.

 

 

Chapter 3

Footsteps

Julia’s father was supposed to be in Austria. He had traveled ‘home’ immediately after his wife’s funeral, because nobody on Panda was lawyer enough to take on her first husband’s will. What do you expect from a country named for the resemblance between its island formation on a map and a cuddly bear?

Julia’s dad was hardly the first to find the Delapart will somewhat irksome. Legions of relatives had fought it ever since the Great Lord’s demise. To date, none of these lawsuits had borne even the tiniest fruit, despite the sole heir (Paetrick Delapart) being presumed dead. This track record somewhat diminished the enthusiasm of local law firms to take on Mr. Wirth’s case. As third husband to the deceased’s widow, he had absolutely no leg to stand on and had been told as much by no fewer than seven firms. As a result, he had gone to try his luck with more treatment-naïve solicitors in the old country. His return after only three days did not bode well.

*

The carriage, Julia had been watching, drove out of her line of sight. Moments later, she heard the front door opening. She did not hear any sounds of ‘hello’. Whoever entered the house made no attempt to announce himself. Julia expected as much. Her father would probably go straight to the master-bedroom and not greet his children, until it could no longer be avoided. What confused her was that it sounded as though footsteps approached the kids’s wing.

Julia could not suppress a flutter of hope. If her father came to see her brothers right away, he had to have good news. Julia’s heart started to pound fiercely despite her best efforts not to get her hopes up. Perhaps, the lawyers had found a loophole after all.

Harking every step, Julia could not suppress an “oh please, please, please” under her breath.

When the stair-climbing ended, she held it entirely.

To her utter astonishment, the footsteps soon passed the boys’s rooms and kept on going. Astonishment changed to anger, as Julia understood that this could only mean one thing: her father was coming to see her. Of course, he was! He would tell her the bad news first and expect her to relay it to her brothers, while ‘Papa’ acted the invalid in bed.

Fury grew hot under Julia’s collar with every step her father took towards her room. She was tempted to storm to her door and lock it out of sheer spite. Being the only mature adult in the family, she resisted the urge in favor of crossing her arms and putting on her most disapproving scowl.

She waited for the knock on her door, harking every single step with growing irritation.

The footsteps soon reached the height of her room. Then, they went past it.

Past it?!

That made so little sense, Julia doubted her ears. The only occupied bedroom left in this wing was Harry’s (the Lady Delapart’s stepson from her second marriage). Unless her dad sought to strangle the lad in his sleep, there was absolutely no reason he should go to see him.

For an instant, it occurred to Julia that her father might be drunk. She had experienced him inebriated once before and was likely never to forgive him for it. Still, her dad did not drink often, especially not this early in the morning. Curiosity got the better of her; she cracked open her door.

It took only a second for her to pull the door shut again and lean against it for good measure. In the hallway, roamed one of the most bone-chilling apparitions in any insecure teenage girl’s life: a teenage boy. Worse! An attractive teenage. Even a short glance from behind had told her as much.

Around here, pretty boys littered the place. Panda was quite overrun with gorgeous people; it constituted a real problem. The island chain was one of those places where the rich and fabulous moved to hide out – and, quite unfortunately, they reproduced. Julia’s home was no exception. Her stepmom liked her domestic staff ‘sexy’. As a result, the mansion teemed with wannabe models who spent their days doing the bare minimum, but looked ‘simply marvelous’ doing it. Given that the mansion was indisputably designed by the Minotaur’s interior architect, and that the staff also liked to invite their siblings, cousins, and beaus du jour, you never knew where the next stray Narcissus might pop up. Julia was not shocked to find one sauntering down her hallway in the wee hours of the morning. The only pity was that, with this false alarm, she was back to having absolutely no buffer against her merciless brain – other than posting transparently needy pleas for attention on her Facebook page.


Chapter 4

Homecoming

– The Apparition –

Julia’s bone-chilling apparition stopped in front of one of the doors further down her corridor. It was locked. That did not deter him. He knocked per forma, just in case. Then, he fumbled around the door molding until he found the implement to gain entry – only this time, he did not need to climb onto a chair to reach it.

He unlocked the door, and took a deep breath. He could not shake the feeling of walking into his own sarcophagus. He almost expected a whiff of dust-filled air to sting his lungs.

The air inside the room was quite normal, but something else took his breath away anyway: nothing had changed! A race-car shaped bed, which he remembered much bigger, was still covered with the same comforter with a big racing stripe down its middle. The same toys and trophies lined the shelves. The only thing that bespoke foreign intrusion was that these items were now neatly arranged, not a state in which he had often seen them.

When his eyes fell on the photographs over the bed, he felt a sharp pang and closed the door again. He did not have the heart to reopen it. Every time he reached for the doorknob, he heard a distinct NOPE inside his head. It took all his self-possession to fight the urge to flee. Once he had somewhat regained his composure, he put the key back in its hiding place and set out for quarters furnished with a bed that could accommodate his current length.

 

Chapter 5

Rousing the Priest

-Spencer Caproni-

“Are you out of your mind?!”

Father Spencer Caproni answered the banging on his hotel room door convinced Ric Suvorin had finally taken leave of his last good sense.

“The building had better be on fire,” he followed up his initial greeting.

The priest did not like interruptions during morning prayers. Ric knew that very well.

While Spencer glowered, Ric walked past him, shoving a piece of paper at his chest and said: “He might have just faxed you His answer.”

Spencer smote Ric with a punitive glare for the sacrilegious quip, which Ric ignored, as usual. When it became obvious that Ric had no intention of explaining himself, Spencer condescended to examine the document he had just been “handed” with a theatrically beleaguered look. His facial expression changed to pure befuddlement after he read the very first line. Spence’s eyes darted to Ric’s face, searching for confirmation that this was not merely a very bad joke.

He might as well have looked for expression of feeling in the day-glow picture of the Virgin and Child which decorated his hotel room. As usual, when it was most infuriating, Ric Suvorin was completely inscrutable.

Getting no reaction from Ric, Spencer returned to reading the fax. When he had finished, he spent some time holding the impossibly grainy photograph to his nose. The photo was supposed to be of a teenager who had passed Panda Immigration earlier this morning, carrying a missing boy’s ID. For all the resolution the fax machine had been able to muster, it could just as easily have been a picture of a stuffed bear.    

“You think it’s really him?” Spencer asked, when he had given up squinting.

“I should know?”

“Don’t give me that right now. This is really not the time for your pathological stinginess with details. Is it him or isn’t?”

Ric shrugged, professing ignorance. Spencer took a deep breath to summon his patience. Decades of friendship had provided Spencer a familiarity with the subject in question. Sometimes, it helped to be as insistent with Ric as he was stoic: Spencer glared. Ric remained unfazed. “Are you ready?” Ric asked after a moment.

“For what?” Spencer inquired with exaggerated patience.

“We are going to Numero cinco calle de la Cruz, it looks like.”

“What’s at numero cinco … ?”

“According to this,” Ric cut him off, pointing to the fax, “our lad’s ‘mother’”.

Father Caproni bristled at the word “mother” and had no desire to go see the woman to whom it presumably referred. He expressed as much by saying: “The only place I want to go, right now, is home. Meet this kid claiming to be Paetrick. Even if he is not, he might lead us to Paetrick. He had to get his ID from somewhere. Frankly, after all these years of searching, it wouldn’t hurt my feeling to do a little finding for a change.”

Ric appeared not to be listening. He painted Spencer with a pointedly expectant look.

The Father had to dig deep into his very last reserve of patience. “If you know of any conceivable reason why driving all the way to the other side of this madhouse city to see some third party makes more sense than flying home to talk straight to this kid, now’s the time to share. Otherwise, I wish you a pleasant drive and see you at home.”

The only response Spencer got to this eloquent ultimatum was an impatient arching of Suvorinian eyebrows. Spencer was not quite ready to admit defeat just yet. If the great captain was not inclined to answer an open-ended question, the humble priest would ask simpler ones.

“Where’s the kid right now,” he demanded for starters.

“Last I heard, he was at Delapart Mansion.”

“Are your guys going to talk to him, or what?”

“All in due time.”

Spence’s jaw dropped. His mouth stood agape for some time, before he regained enough control to question the sanity of this approach out loud. “You wanna run that by me again?”

“No need to rush in,” Ric explained in that detached tone that made Spencer want to shake him by the neck. “The office is checking his fingerprints. They’ll take a blood sample, once they talk to him. In the interim, he is being watched. … If he is an imposter, we’d like to arrest him for something more than using a fake ID.”

“Are you for real?! Who cares about that right now?”

“We do. … Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get a move on.”

Ric was used to being charge, which made it a special treat to be his friend at times. In Ric’s professional life, conversations ended, as soon as he gave a direct order. Anyone with a trace of intelligence knew the futility of challenging him past that point. A single look was usually enough to teach uninitiated newbees this rule. Spencer did not work for Ric, however. Besides, they were both officially on “vacation”. What gave Ric the ludicrous delusion Spencer would hop-to …  again, this time?

It was a stupid question. People did not follow Ric Suvorin because he was in charge; they put him in charge because people naturally followed him. As foreseeable, it did not take long before Spencer bent down to put on his shoes, so he could drive halfway across a busy metropolis to see a woman whom he had not the faintest interest of meeting.

Once shoe-clad, he walked to the mirror, put on his collar, and made the off-handed inquiry if Ric intended to present himself to the lady in his underwear. “You plan to put on pants, at some point today?” he asked.

Ric looked down on himself.

“At the top of the stairs, in fifteen,” was all he said before leaving the room.

Normally, catching Ric out as too frazzled to realize he might have forgotten a little something like getting dressed would have presented a much-coveted opportunity to tease. But, at the moment, Spencer did not feel like gloating. He felt hopeful but wary of being too hopeful. Quite frankly, it was a comfort to see that Ric was not as immune as all that either.


Chapter 6

The Hallucination

– Harry Poetsch –

Back on Panda, yet another member of the Delapart household was uncharacteristically active during these early morning hours. Since his stepmother’s funeral, Harry, Julia’s semi-step-brother, had been at a friend’s house. Oddly, that very morning, he was gripped by such overwhelming homesickness that he got up before dawn to return home. It cannot entirely be ruled out that the pending return of his friend’s parents had something to do with it. Considerate as the sweet lamb was, Harry evidently wanted to make sure he was not in the way, while his friend and elder brother tried to return the home to a parentally acceptable state.

Once arrived home, our young hero entered his house the same way he had left the other: quiet, on tip-toes, and without turning on a light. One can only assume that the dear child did not want to disturb anybody at this early hour.

Stalking through the twilit foyer, on tip-toes, in a state that could not be described as entirely sober, Harry nearly jumped out of his skin, when he came across some idiot carrying a suitcase.

“What the fuck, you scared me half to death!” he greeted the guest. “Watch where you’re going, why don’t you? What the hell do you think you are doing here anyway?”

*

Normally, the visitor in question would have had a few words to say to such a lovely welcome, but, at the moment, he was far too taken aback. He was startled by recognition and by the fact that Harry looked like hell.

Harry also looked none too bright as he glowered, possibly experiencing a glimmer of recognition himself, but obviously still unable to place it.

When Harry did put his finger on it, the guest was treated to some more colorful expletives.

“Holy, fucking shit! Don’t tell me, you are fucking alive.”

How charming that the first words of spoken Panda Paetrick heard after all these years were as melodious as the gutter-French he had been forced to endure, when he was younger.

“Looks that way,” was all Paetrick could think to reply. Had he been in a more serene emotional state, he might have thought of an appropriate response. He was not a fan of gratuitous profanity, especially not from younger siblings. Even if, at this moment, some swearing might have been marginally justified. Had he remembered that cursing was supposed to increase pain threshold, he might even have given it a try. For the time being, however, Paetrick was far from serenity, or the ability to exercise his higher mental functions.

*

Harry, for his part, was baffled to the point of being speechless – not a very common occurrence to say the least. It dawned on him that he had to be hallucinating, which was not entirely out of the question, given the types of substances he had consumed only a few hours prior. Still, seeing dead brothers walking through the foyer, carrying ridiculously undersized suitcases, was unusual. It was far more likely that he was simply mistaken in the identification. It would have helped, though, if that damn idiot did not look so much like his dead brother, did not carry himself the same way, and did not talk to him in the same way – you know the way big brothers do, with that sanctimonious air of superiority.

While Harry was deep in these considerations, he squinted at Paetrick, half expecting him to disappear or, in the very least, turn colors, sprout additional heads – behave like a well-bred hallucination should.

*

Paetrick was not thus accommodating. Instead, he grew a little weary of being studied like an circus exhibit and mumbled something to the effect of putting his stuff in the yellow room because his room upstairs was “a bit much” at the moment.

“No, kidding! A fucking mausoleum.” Harry agreed, still gaping at his hallucination as though he expected him to dissolve into thin air at any moment.

Paetrick did not say anything in response. The conversation had already lasted far longer than was remotely comfortable. After another awkward moment of silent gawking, Paetrick decided to end this stalemate with a ‘see ya’-nod and to walk away toward his original destination.

 

Chapter 7

Brotherly Love

Harry was too baffled at that moment to object or intervene. He glared after his receding mirage, until Paetrick rounded the corner. Harry’s head felt far too fuzzy to be of any real use. Thus, after Harry had watched the empty foyer for a uselessly long time, he came to the conclusion that he needed a long shower and a serious jug of coffee, before he could really ‘deal with this’. How exactly he envisioned this ‘dealing with’ to be performed was still a work in progress. All he knew, for the moment, was that it had to be postponed.

This resolution having been felled, Harry plodded up the stairs to his room, where, just to round out his happiness, he found himself intercepted by one of the very family members he so dearly wished not to ‘disturb’. His semi-stepsister, Julia, lay in wait. Presumably, she had eavesdropped on the conversation downstairs and was now bursting with enough curiosity to deviate from their long-standing mutual-avoidance policy.

“You know that guy?” she asked without preamble, evidently desirous not to let him slip by her with just a few unpleasantries, as would have been his wont.

“Yea I know him,” Harry growled, trying to initiate the pre-empted maneuver.

“Who is he?”

“Who do you think he is? He’s the guy who owns this place and, with any luck, the guy who’s gonna put your asses out in the street. Now, if you don’t mind.”

 

Chapter 8

Gearing up for Battle

Julia did mind, but she let Harry pass. The information he had given her was as good as she was likely to receive from this source. Whether it was true or not, remained to be seen.

It should be noted that, although polite chit-chat was not her forte, when it came to battle, the good lass was fearless. The more she thought about it, the less likely it seemed that the guy who had just slinked into the house like a stray alley-cat was really the long lost Dellapart heir. Thus, heartthrob or not, if that boy thought he could barge into her home to cash in on her family’s misfortune, he had another thought coming. She was about to give that chump a piece of her mind, he would not soon forget – as soon as she had taken a shower and gotten dressed, that was. One could not, after all, smite one’s foe dressed in an oversized T-shirt and knee-high socks.

 

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