Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel


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A Greater Love

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2000 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

Miguel Silva darted through the crowd at the outdoor flea market, making the usual rounds to beg for his breakfast—or steal it, if necessary. The gypsies and other Portuguese vendors watched him with well-placed mistrust and kept a close eye on their wares. This would be a morning of brisk business and barter, and in the afternoon the makeshift marketplace would be gone without a trace, except for the garbage left behind.

Slipping around a stall packed with handwoven sweaters, Miguel crouched into his chosen position opposite a large fruit stand. Small for his nine years, he made himself even smaller against the colorful orange tarp that formed the side of the music booth. The latest American music CD blared into the crisp November air from two small speakers attached to the roof of the stall.

Wait, he told himself.

The olive-skinned fruit man turned his head to help a black-clad lady adorned with several layers of gold jewelry, and in that instant Miguel crept close and grabbed at the tin box holding the morning's proceeds. He had it!

But no! A strong, hairy fist closed around his wrist. "Gotcha!"

Miguel jerked his hand away. The fruit man made a shooing motion toward him, glaring at him with dark eyes, but Miguel snatched two green apples from one of the handwoven baskets before plunging into the crowd. "Thief! Thief!" the man yelled.

Miguel shot a glance behind him as the cries faded. He laughed. Stealing the apples was almost easy. Too bad he didn't get the money—that would have been better. For once Octávia would have been pleased, and that night they would have eaten a dinner fit for kings.

His attention on this fantasy, he barreled into the stocky figure of the uniformed policeman who patrolled the flea market. A black baton swung gently from a hook at his waist as his sharp eyes searched for potential troublemakers—like Miguel. "Get a move on, boy," he said, not unkindly.

"I ain't done nothin'," Miguel said, hitching up his oversized pants. Once they had been blue, but were now a dirty brown. He shivered and pulled his sweater down to cover the bread roll he had stolen earlier and tucked into the top of his pants near the broken snap in front.

"Oh, yeah? Then what's that you're hiding?" the policeman said, eyes narrowing. "And what's bulging in your pockets?" He pointed to where Miguel had stashed the apples.

Miguel bolted, fear making his feet fly as he dodged through the sea of somberly dressed people. Occasionally, he looked back to see if the policeman was following him.

I'd like to see him catch me now, he thought.

Even though it wasn't likely, that frightening idea made his stomach ache. Only once had he been careless enough to be caught. The police had taken him to a dingy orphanage whose matrons hadn't approved of his attitude, and he had spent most of his time there in trouble. Nothing he had known previously had been worse than those two long weeks before his Aunt Octávia had finally been found.

"I thought you'd run off," was all she said. But that night she had surprised him with candy and extra bread. Sara, his little sister, had hugged him hard and cried.

Now Miguel neared the edge of the flea market where Octávia awaited him, dressed in her usual black skirt and sweater. She watched with her tiny jet eyes, skinny arms folded over her drooping bosom, as little Sara asked people for money. Sara spotted him and smiled, and Miguel grinned back. When his sister smiled it was as if a light went on inside her, making him feel warm all over. Her eyes were another wonder—a deep brown, with tiny flecks of light gold dotting the dark pools, so large in her small face.

"Come, Miguel." Octávia's thin lips also twisted into a smile, revealing black spots on her yellow teeth. She held out her hand, beckoning. Reluctantly, Miguel approached, lowering his head and hunching slightly. He put the roll and one of the apples into her outstretched hand.

"What's this?" she screeched, tugging on her large beak of a nose. The familiar gesture caused Miguel's shoulders to shrink further and Sara's smile to vanish. Both waited in frozen terror. Talon-like fingers dug into Miguel's upper arm as Octávia's voice lowered threateningly. "I told ya I wanted money! Or something of value." Her voice sounded slurred from the alcohol she had already consumed that morning, but her meaning was clear. She drew back a thick-veined hand and slapped him hard across the cheek. Miguel's eyes filled with tears at the stinging pain, but he blinked, unwilling to let them fall.

"I need more from ya. More! If ya can't beg for it, steal it, but get it!" She brought her face close to his, and Miguel could see how the skin sagged into deep wrinkles. "Or maybe next time you get picked up by the orphanage, I'll let you stay there."

Sweat broke out all over Miguel's body, despite the crisp winter air. Octávia's threats were worse than her wicked outbursts of temper. If he stayed in an orphanage, he would never see Sara again. And he couldn't imagine not being with Sara.

"I'll get ya more," he promised, his voice croaking like the frog he had found last year in the woods near their shack. "I always do, don't I?" He straightened, trying to fake a confidence he didn't feel.

Octávia's sharp face transformed, becoming almost friendly. "Yeah, you do at that, Miguel. You was always one to get us what we need. I taught ya right. Well, I'll be expectin' a load tonight."

Sara's smile returned at the sudden shift in their aunt's demeanor. Miguel felt a wave of relief. "You'll get it, so lay off." He dug into his pocket and held out the remaining apple to his sister, shooting a furtive glance in search of the policeman.

"Hurry along," Octávia said gruffly to Sara. "We got to get to the metro before the morning crowd is gone." As the old lady turned away, she took a quick bite of the roll Miguel had given her. His stomach growled at the sight, but he would find more to eat later.

Sara pushed her apple at him. "You keep it. I always get somethin' to eat in the train station. Don't worry 'bout me. Besides, I ate the last of the bread this mornin'." She paused, wringing her thin hands as she always did when she was thinking. "Miguel . . . you know—don't ya?—that Octávia don't mean it. About the orphanage. She just talks like that when she drinks."

"I know," he said diffidently. He did know. Sometimes Octávia was the nicest person he knew—until she drank, which was getting to be all the time now. When drunk, her quick anger came to the surface all too easily. Each time she would tug at her nose and then explode. Resentment simmered in Miguel's heart, but he wasn't mad at Octávia exactly; he just hated the heavy knot of fear in his stomach. He forced the fruit back into Sara's hand. "It won't always be like this. One day soon, we'll leave Portugal, maybe go to Switzerland and find a good job. People does it all the time."

Sara's lips curved upward in her angelic smile. "And then Octávia won't have to worry about buying us stuff, 'cause we'll have so much. She'll be happy always. And we'll go to church every Sunday, and sometimes ride in a big boat."

Her words pushed Miguel's fear into a tiny corner, almost out of his reach. It was nice to know Sara shared his dreams. One day they would be happy and free! She pressed his hand and flitted away, running to keep up with Octávia's retreating figure.

"I'll bring ya somethin' back tonight, too," he called after her. Ever since he could remember, he had kept a bit of the money he earned to buy something for Sara, risking Octávia's anger when there wasn't enough to pay for the liquor she craved.

When Sara reached the street corner, she turned and threw something at his feet before disappearing: the apple. Miguel scooped the bruised fruit from the pavement. The white flesh tasted sweet, but did little to sate the ache of hunger in his gut.

Nearby, he spotted a lady with two huge plastic grocery sacks filled to the brim with her day's purchases. A good place to start. Then he noticed the policeman watching him openly, and decided to move on; there would be no more success here today.

He left the noisy marketplace and traced his way along the cobblestone sidewalks, heading for the ferry that would take him across the River Tejo to Cacilhas. Once he finally boarded the ferry, it would take a good ten minutes to cross the river, and that meant hundreds of people sitting and waiting for him to ask them for money.

In the busy streets of Lisbon, shoppers and business people alike traversed the cobblestone sidewalks, some briskly, others lazily strolling. There were cars too, racing wildly about in the narrow cobbled streets in an ordered confusion that Miguel well understood. He had studied it as he did everything he encountered.

Someday soon he would have a car, the long sleek kind with a top that rolled back in the summer, and it would be bright red, Sara's favorite color. He smiled at the thought, and even his stomach seemed less empty.

Tall cement apartment buildings flanked both sides of the narrow road, so high that he could only glimpse a slice of the clear blue sky above. Small businesses opened out on most of the ground floors—clothing stores, bread shops, shoe outlets, jewelry stores, and the cafés that sold those tantalizing pastries. He stopped for a moment, peering into the window of a pastry shop. Inside, the counter was lined with people, eating breakfast pastries with obvious relish.

"Want to buy a flower?" A woman with silvery-grey hair stood near the entrance to the pastry shop. She had a basket of fresh flowers and offered one to each passerby.

Miguel glanced one last time at the happy people inside the café, then turned away. "Hi, Senhora Ferreira," he called to the flower lady.

"Hi, Miguel. How are you today?"

He lifted his chin, stifling the deep cough that rose in his throat. "Okay. Need a hand with your flowers?" Sometimes she would pay him almost as much as he could earn begging on the ferry—especially now that he was getting older. People didn't give to him as readily as they did to Sara.

The woman shook her head ruefully. "Sorry. Not many buying today. Maybe in a month or so, closer to Christmas."

Miguel had expected as much. While winter was always his most hated of seasons, early November was particularly bad; he suffered from the cold nearly as much as he did in December, but the Christmas generosity hadn't yet hit the populace like it did near Christmas. In December people remembered the poor; in November they forgot.

He waved farewell and continued his trek. The towering stone arch of Rua Augusta signaled his approach to the wharf. In summer, the wide walkway before the arch would be brimming with people in yellow-roofed booths selling odd trinkets, pictures, or chalk drawings. Artists covered the cobblestones with bright paintings to display their talents and passersby gave them money. Once, Miguel had bought a small gold-painted metal ship under full sail. It measured as long as his middle finger and was so shiny and beautiful, he had been unable to resist spending the precious escudos it cost to own such a prize.

He touched his shirt pocket under the sweater, comforted to feel the bulge. Yes, it was still there with his only other treasure—one far more valuable to him.

The arch of Rua Augusta led into the spacious commerce square near the wharf. At the entrance to the square, a man with a vendor cart nodded hello and tossed him a rolled newspaper cup full of roasted chestnuts.

"Thanks a lot, Senhor Alferes!"

"Come back later on your way home. I'll give you some for little Sara."

"I will." Miguel saluted the old seaman awkwardly before continuing past the metal trolley cars, standing out in bright orange-yellow contrast to the black-and-white design of the cobblestones. He broke open the shells and began to eat the hot chestnuts quickly. They warmed him, and he almost didn't mind the cold breeze coming through the stretched parts of his dingy sweater.

He whistled as he passed the center of the open square, where a majestic metal statue of King Dom José on horseback rose high above the passersby on a massive stone pedestal. Beyond lay the wharf. Near the ferry station, a dark-haired, heavyset lady sold hot Belgian waffles. The smell wafted on the light breeze, calling to him. He tried not to look her way.

Getting aboard the ferry wasn't difficult as Miguel was practiced at finding someone to buy him the necessary ticket. Searching the row of faces waiting at the ticket stand, he targeted a young woman with soft features. Underneath her long gray winter coat, he glimpsed a brown wool skirt and matching blazer.

He sidled up to her. "Please, Senhora, do ya got some spare change? I need to get across the river." He tried to look hopeful and embarrassed.

She shook her dark head once and stared away from him, distaste written on her pretty face. Miguel waited a little longer; sometimes conscience attacks occurred after the initial refusal. The cold breeze whipping into the open end of the station brought the woman's shoulder-length hair forward into her face. She pushed it back impatiently and waved him on.

Miguel shrugged and walked away. It wasn't the first time he had erred in choosing a mark, and it wouldn't be the last. This time he targeted an older woman, very stout and dressed in mourning black. Strands of white softened the stark raven hair, pulled firmly into a tight bun. Some of these women dressed in black could be hard, but this one's eyes seemed to rest on him sympathetically.

"Can ya spare a ticket?" he asked in his most polite voice. "I lost mine, and I got to get home. Please?" The lie slipped off his tongue as easily as if he were telling the truth, but the cough and the shiver were real.

She studied him. He hoped his face was dirty enough to work the miracle. In the summer, after playing in the pond at Entre Campos, Miguel would have to rub a little dirt on his face before he went begging. He didn't understand exactly what magic qualities the dirt held, but it always helped, especially with older ladies.

The amount of dirt must have been just right. "Yes, child," she said. "Let's go. I'll buy you a ticket."

He ducked his head. "Obrigado, Senhora." Thank you. But the fact that she would buy him a ticket instead of giving him the money to buy one himself didn't escape him. But since what he really needed at this point was a ticket, her prudence didn't bother him.

The ferry arrived, a happy three-level orange boat, decorated with large white-painted wooden rings along the side that resembled life preservers. Farther below, where the ferry hit the dock, huge black tires hung against its sides to soften the impact. A young man on the dock caught the thick anchor rope and expertly flipped it around a metal block, securing the ship. Miguel stared, fascinated as always by the worker's deftness and ease.

The boat disgorged its occupants in a brief, frenzied wave. The passengers were an odd assortment of white, brown, and black, dressed in everything from elegant business apparel to plain, homey dresses. Many of the women carried large woven shopping baskets or plastic sacks. A few had toddlers tied to their backs and balanced heavy baskets on their heads, reminiscent of days gone by. Miguel toyed with the idea of trying to steal a wallet, but the kind lady's eyes were on him. Maybe later.

On board, he allowed himself to be gradually separated from the lady. There was a rumbling sound of feet on the painted metal deck as people scrambled for seats. Miguel stood awhile at the edge of the boat, letting the gentle rocking sway through him. Without understanding why, he adored the sensation.

A fleeting memory came. Of his mother. A soft voice, the gentle caress, so much love. Miguel felt happy and sad and empty all at once. Oh, Mamãe!

Again he fingered his toy boat through his sweater. There was something about sailing, about being free from the hard confines of land, that always brought the memories. If he had a real boat, he could sail away, perhaps to America where everyone was rich.

The wind's icy fingers were stronger here, and he reluctantly forced himself away from the edge. Most of the passengers had headed for the hold or the main floor, protected from the cold breeze by metal walls and glass windows. Only the hardy made for the open half of the top floor.

When the men who sailed the ferry were nowhere in sight, Miguel plunged into the hold and started to work the crowd. He said nothing, simply stood in front of the seated people until they noticed him, his thin hand held out in a silent plea. Most people averted their eyes and pretended not to see, but several gave him small coins, and to them he nodded his thanks. The many ladies who had pulled out their knitting seemed particularly loath to stop to find him a coin.

After completing his rounds on the main deck, he made his way up the stairs to the open part of the ferry. Two women sat near the edge, talking and gazing out over the water, their faces red with cold. One had long blonde hair, white skin, and blue eyes; the other was dark-skinned and dark-haired, with brown eyes as dark as the chestnuts Senhor Alferes had given him. Both strangers were young and pretty. They reminded him of milk and chocolate, each as appealing as they were different. He walked up to the women and, holding out a cupped hand, stared soulfully into their faces.

"Oh," the blonde woman said, startled. Her warm blue eyes showed pity and confusion. The unusual yellow color of her hair was rare in Portugal, and Miguel stifled an urge to touch the locks. Her hair looked so clean and his hand was so dirty.

Glancing at the Bibles each held in their lap, he almost couldn't conceal a grin. The young women were church workers or nuns of some sort, though they were dressed in regular skirts and blouses. These types always made good targets. Last year one from France, a Sister Perrault, had taught a group of children living in the shacks, among them Miguel and Sara. There were others who had come and gone since then, but Sister Perrault remained his favorite. Not only had she taught him about Jesus, but about what kind of foods he and Sara should eat to stay healthy. Often, she had slipped him money. Octávia had let him listen to her when he told her about that.

"Do you have any change?" the dark woman asked her friend.

"No, nothing," the blonde said, in slightly accented Portuguese. "You?"

"No."

Miguel heard the sincerity in their words and started to lower his hand, not hiding his disappointment. There were two flaws he had found with most religious people like these—either they didn't have any money to spare, or they would try to convert him to Jesus. Sometimes he went along with it, especially at Christmas time, just to eat a good meal. But it never lasted. They always wanted him to go to church or school, which interfered with Octávia's need for him to earn money.

"Oh, wait!" The blonde woman's eyes lit up, and Miguel watched warily as she plunged her hand into the large leather handbag leaning against her leg. She pulled out a tube-like package of cookies wrapped in plastic. "Here."

He took them carefully, almost afraid they weren't meant for him. Then he stepped back out of her reach, in case she changed her mind. Ducking his head to them, he uttered a sincere thank you, not bothering to hide his excitement. His stomach, only partially satiated by the chestnuts,rowled.

The ladies smiled as he left. Miguel forgot them as he rounded the corner near the stairs. He sank to the floor, ripping the package open greedily. Never did he refuse or throw away food except for the rare occasions when he was given more than he could hoard, but cookies were a special treat. There were ten all together, as round as his palm and thick and sugary. He shoved one into his mouth, chewing and swallowing quickly. Then he forced himself to eat more slowly, savoring the taste. After he had eaten four of the ten cookies, he refolded the cellophane around the remaining six and stored them carefully in the sleeve of his sweater to share later with Sara. Already his stomach felt more comfortable.

After working the ferry for another three runs, he found an isolated spot in the commerce square on the stairs under the huge statue of the horse and its kingly rider where he could count his money. Nine hundred and twenty escudos in all, plus ten thousand from a wallet he had managed to steal from a well-dressed man who had ignored him completely. Nearly eleven contos! Octávia would be pleased.

Miguel fingered the rich black leather of the wallet. When he had caught a glimpse of the man's sorrowful black eyes, like deep pits, he had surprised himself by feeling a little remorseful about stealing the wallet, but quickly buried the qualms. The man would never miss the money, but to Miguel it was life.

"That's the child!" A woman's shout burst through his reverie.

He looked up and saw a woman tugging on the arm of a policeman. Her finger pointed directly at Miguel.

"He was begging on the ferry. You have to do something about it." She licked her tongue. "Such a disgrace."

The policeman approached, but Miguel jumped to his feet and tossed a mocking grin at the pair before disappearing into the crowd. The streets were his element; no one could catch him now.

Chapter Two

"I'll have to get another identity card," Daniel Andrade said to his wife. "There was a boy begging on the ferry this morning. He must have taken it."

"You could have lost it," Cristina said mildly. The breeze from the water had died but her cheeks and nose were red from the cold. She retreated from the edge of their small passenger boat and walked into the cabin, rubbing her gloved hands together. Daniel finished tying down the sail and followed her. Winter wasn't the best time for boating, but they had to come down to the wharf at least once a month to make sure No Name was all right. Besides, a brisk sail always raised his spirits. Cristina seemed to enjoy it too.

"Why must you always take their side?" Daniel picked up their conversation with a snort. "I tell you, children like that are born to steal. They'll do anything to take what we've earned by our hard work. It's in their genes." In the rough cabin, the cold was less biting, and once they lit the old stove it would grow almost warm.

"Maybe they're just hungry."

"Well, I won't dispute that. Their parents refuse to work and yet they keep producing children who are nothing more than a burden to the country."

"It's good someone is having children," Cristina said, settling on the sturdy wooden bench opposite the stove. She pulled her knees to her chest and circled her arms around them. "Portugal's becoming an old country with everyone having only one or two children." She paused before adding more quietly, "Or none at all."

"And those children that are born have to go to other countries to work," Daniel said angrily. "Where is the justice in that? And why? Because we're so busy supporting the poor children that there's no room for growth for those who really deserve it."

"But people like us are different. We can take care of our children and prepare them to be productive here. We have money for food and shelter, college, music lessons, and anything else they may need. And didn't the Lord say He wanted us to be fruitful and to multiply and replenish the earth? If we had children—"

"I see the pain in the world, Cristina, and I won't inflict it upon any of our children. Or them upon the world, if they go berserk and become drug addicts or killers. No, the responsible thing to do is to not have children. It was okay back in the old days, but not now."

Cristina flushed as she always did when she was even the tiniest bit upset, and her lips clamped together tightly as if she struggled to hold something inside.

"Take that poor child on the ferry, for instance," he said more gently. "What kind of a world is this for him? Appalling is the word that comes to my mind. A world where children have to beg for a living, instead of learning in school and being cared for by responsible parents. I curse those thoughtless people! I see the way these throw-away children live. Do you know how many of these cases come to my desk each week? Where is God in their lives?"

Cristina still said nothing. Daniel was the top assistant to the president of the city of Cova da Piedade, and had more power than anyone in that community except the president himself. By his command, businesses failed or succeeded, changes were made or initiated. He had a promising political career, yet he was the first to admit that his very prominence had added to his disillusionment with life. He had seen the ugliness behind the scenes. Wars, famines, abuse—there was an unending surge of evil in the world. In Portugal, flanked by richer countries, the uneven scale particularly cried out for justice.

"I hear you, Daniel," Cristina said finally. "Maybe you're right." He recognized the defeat in her voice and moved to sit on the bench beside her. She let her feet drop to the deck and tilted her head onto his shoulder, spilling gentle curls over his chest. He pressed his cheek against her head, enjoying the soft touch of the brown locks on his face.

"I love you," he said.

"Oh, yeah?" Her voice was teasing. "Well, you sure have a funny way of showing it—taking a woman out sailing on a day like this!" She gave an exaggerated shiver.

He grinned. "This is the best time. Why, Manuel and I used to say that this was the only season to sail. An open sea with only us and the most hardy fishermen."

Nostalgia fell over him like clear blue waves. Manuel had helped him build No Name that last summer, on the days they had off from the fishing boat. During the long hours of work, Daniel would teach Manuel things he had learned in college. Manuel had an agile mind and continually amazed Daniel with how fast he could learn. Often on the calm nights on the fishing boat, they would read old classics far into the night. Manuel no longer used the uneducated Portuguese that most of the fishing hands spoke, but copied Daniel's speech. Several times Daniel had suggested that his friend go to college himself, but Manuel wouldn't hear of leaving the sea—except to spend time with his family. Life had been good in those days, full of laughter and discovery. But that was before Daniel had learned that the promises the future held were mostly lies.

"You haven't talked about him for a long time," Cristina said. "When we were first married, I loved to listen to your stories. Remember? We would sleep out on the deck at night and you'd tell how together you and Manuel could catch more fish than any other mates on board your ship. I used to wonder why you didn't go into the fishing industry. With your brains and Manuel's knowledge of the sea, I bet you could have made it a success."

"Politics is safer," he said. "If not cleaner. But those were good days. I miss them."

"It's too bad he died. I'd like to hear his side of all the stories you tell. Did you really invent a new kind of net?"

"Yes," Daniel replied shortly. It always surprised him that the memory brought back so much pain. "Just before Manuel was killed. Why he had to die instead of that ungrateful fool he saved from drowning, I'll never know."

Cristina put an arm around him. "I'm sorry."

He let out a long sigh. "So am I. But it's in the past. It has nothing to do with us now." He arose and strode to the entrance of the cabin, grabbing the fishing pole from a hook by the door. "What do you say we go catch some fish?"

She laughed. "I thought you'd never ask. But you go on. I'm going start the stove so the coals are ready by the time we catch one. I'm starved."

"You just want to stay out of the cold."

A grin lit her striking face. "Hey, it's your boat. You do the work."

Daniel dropped the pole and returned to his wife's side, taking her into his arms. "The smartest thing I ever did was to marry you," he murmured into her hair. "I'll do anything to make you happy."

"I wonder," she said. The words held a haunting melancholy that made Daniel feel uneasy. He looked at her closely but her smile was bright; when he hugged her, she didn't pull away. Daniel gave her a quick kiss and put the incident from his mind. Their lunch was out there swimming somewhere in that wide, icy expanse, and he was going to find it.

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