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Robby gives an overview of the book:

The year is 2040. We have people living on Mars, but haven't sorted out life on earth yet. To the boy washing windscreens at the traffic signal, it could just as well be 1940. The boy is Pepe. He doesn't know who his real parents are. His 'grandma' dies in a slum fire, and he is left to fend for himself and his grandma's biological granddaughter, Po, whom he treats like a real sister. They live in an abandoned construction site with other homeless children. With help from a young computer hacker named Raul and a mystical old man named Atsuko, Pepe discovers his true identity. The villain: General Don Juan Clemente, who seized power from the king ten years ago, and installed himself as president for life. The General has a degenerative disease that is paralysing him. However, his brain has been linked to a computer network that enables him to control the country and...
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The year is 2040. We have people living on Mars, but haven't sorted out life on earth yet. To the boy washing windscreens at the traffic signal, it could just as well be 1940.

The boy is Pepe. He doesn't know who his real parents are. His 'grandma' dies in a slum fire, and he is left to fend for himself and his grandma's biological granddaughter, Po, whom he treats like a real sister. They live in an abandoned construction site with other homeless children. With help from a young computer hacker named Raul and a mystical old man named Atsuko, Pepe discovers his true identity.

The villain: General Don Juan Clemente, who seized power from the king ten years ago, and installed himself as president for life. The General has a degenerative disease that is paralysing him. However, his brain has been linked to a computer network that enables him to control the country and destroy any threat to his power. Right now, his biggest threat is the very existence of Pepe.

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Chapter 1

The Windscreen Washer The light changed. Pepe looked down the line-up now waiting for the next green. He 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 another expensive car.
    The next was a vintage Honda, 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 Street, La Fonta's financial district. There, the expensive makes outnumbered the cheap ones. The air was cleaner because they all had hydro-cell 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 on this intersection, 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. It had the giant Flash Animation holograph of the General doing nothing but flicking his eyelid now and then, and then grinning with his toothy smile as though he were really looking at you. The caption said, '2040, Cardovia's year of vision'. It rotated slowly in mid air, above the intersection. It looked creepy at night.
    Two more motorbikes came through. A French made car 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.
    The driver 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.
    Pepe nodded.
    '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. They were already in the left turn lane, so that was handy.
    * * *
    They took the way that went under the motorway and over the railway tracks. There was a grocer/newsagent on their right. Across from that, on the left, began the street that went down the middle of what was known as the Dockyards Community. Next to the shop was a plot of ground dominated by a wide shade tree, with grass growing wherever the ground wasn't trampled too much. Nearby was a rusty slide, some swings, and a broken see-saw. In the shade, there were four stone tables with draughts boards tiled into their surfaces. The old men hung 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, past a row of shops and 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.
    Who was that old man? Pepe wondered. How can he expect to be there just whenever I need help? Will he just do nothing but sit there?
    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. This always made Pepe nervous.
    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 butt!'
    'But Grandma sewed them yesterday!'
    'I'll go tomorrow.'
    Pepe stopped short, grabbing his sisters arm. 'Romeo's there!' 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 passed behind their house, 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 that 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. At the one nearest to Pepe and Po was the old man.
    He spotted them immediately.
    'He said he'll help us,' whispered Pepe.
    'Come! You two will be safe with me.'
    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. Their tail overtook them, but ran right past them to the two at the table.
    '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 only other armchair, which wasn't occupied by Romeo. The two children cowered behind him.
    '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 looked at Pepe. 'Remember. When you need help, find me under the big tree by the playground.' He finished his tea, and took his leave.
    * * *
    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 saw 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!'
    'B-but they're....
    '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 long 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.
    They waited.
    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 and waited for grandma.
    He had 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 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 was 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.

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Note from the author coming soon...

About Robby

I live with my family, sometimes in Thailand where I was born and my wife is from, sometimes in Ireland where my dad is from. In Thailand, I teach English at a bi-lingual school. In Ireland, I work with software. In both places, I write. At this moment, we're in N. Ireland....

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Published Reviews


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