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Prologue & 1St Chapter

PROLOGUE

How in the hell did an article about a nursery school translate into me wading through pig slime while dodging bullets as I ruin the new shoes I haven’t even paid off yet?

Good question.

You know on TV when one cop says to his partner, “Cover me, I’m going in!”? That’s exactly what I need, but in reverse– someone else to shoot at these men while I get out, go home and have a shower.

I’m literally in the middle of an agricultural waste containment pond, surrounded by chemical sludge and sewage, ducking behind fat pig rumps to avoid being killed. A soft thud to my right tells me that one of these innocent hams just took a bullet for me and I squelch through the toxic quick-sand as fast as I can, each step sounding like an enormous plunger releasing a clog on steroids.

There is an outbuilding to my left, but the shots are coming from the right as my pursuers circle back to where I first blew my cover. This story must be even bigger than I thought, which won’t make any difference when my parents have to put this in my obituary: “Lissa Sanders, beloved daughter and journalist for What Matters magazine, died in pig slop. Donations to the FFA in lieu of flowers.”

There is no cover between me and that building. Dear God in heaven, I’ll have to dive into this poop-soup and swim to the other side.

Another bullet whizzes over my head, so close I swear it trimmed a split end.

My heart breaking, I release my new Proenza Schouler pumps into the quagmire and submerge myself beneath the surface, front-crawling away faster than my high school swim team ever knew I could. Not that I was on the swim team, but if I was, I still couldn’t have swum this fast.

Obviously, I must be cursed. Did Rachel Carson suffer this way? If I survive and don’t die of necrotizing fasciitis, I swear I’m going to become something safe and clean like someone who tends butterfly gardens. Or maybe I’ll become the person who weaves the cotton on Q-Tips. I’ll be the best cotton swab maker in America and win all sorts of awards like “Most Likely to Make Ear Swabs for The Royal Families of Europe.” Doesn’t that sound lovely? Nice, dry, and cozy, with hardly any loss of life. Or shoes.

Angry shouts reverberate over my head and it seems my pursuers have unlimited semi-automatic ammo judging by the multiple exploding plops of pink pestilence around me. If I can just get to my car, I have a chance of escaping.

I am a good person, I swear. I feed stray animals. Ok, not cats because I am allergic, but I never met a puppy I didn’t love. Even the drooly ones whose tongues hang out of their mouths like slabs of overcooked pastrami. I let all dogs kiss me on the face, which is more than I let my boyfriend do sometimes!

So, I do not deserve this horror show. I did not prepare to stumble on a crime today, so I could heroically sacrifice my person for the sake of a story and receive a posthumous publishing award. Even Al Gore wouldn’t expect that, right?

Poking my head above the surface, I see that I have almost reached the corrugated metal shed. No shots pepper the water around me as my head rises from the detritus like a curious gator after a rainfall. Brad’s men are nowhere to be seen, all of which bodes well for my continued survival.

Where did it all go wrong? Why couldn’t I have been content to embroider rugs or tell fortunes for a living?

Feeling the bottom of the pond scraping along my stomach, I drag my contaminated body from the sludge and sprint towards the shed. I say a quick prayer to Saint Francis because he’s the patron saint of animals and at this point, I consider myself one of them. “Saint Francis, if you will spare me, I swear never to eat meat again. Which includes pâté. And veal. My God, I will give up Red Hots if that’s what it takes!”

I hear voices yelling again. Shit! I start running in a zig-zag pattern because I read it’s harder to hit an irregularly moving target. That turns out to be complete bullshit because little tufts of grass and gravel are slapping my legs as the bullets land in the exact places I intended to zig and zag.

A hundred yards to go and I am home-free. No more ammunition is directed my way, but the silence is ominous too.

If my boss hadn’t insisted I cover a local story about daycare dysentery, I would probably be at a luncheon somewhere delicately patting my face dry with a crisp yellow linen napkin, after a course of lightly poached salmon over jasmine rice, and interviewing Elizabeth Warren. Or maybe being honored by my fellow reporters, in New York at a post-Pulitzer celebration fete at Le Coucou. Ok, maybe the Pulitzer and the Elizabeth Warren part is more like fantasizing, but the salmon part is definitely possible.

Fifty yards to go and I can barely breathe. Every second feels like a month, and I am already in December, but I keep running and collapse on the far side of the most beautiful big, fat shed ever made.

My back pressed to the shed wall, my heart is banging like a Japanese taiko drum, so loud I swear there are people in Houston covering their ears. I try not to choke on my own stench, gasping in fresh air (fresh being relative when you are covered in pig slime), and plot routes back to my car on the far side of the Stunning, Evisceration and Carcass Splitting building.

Of course, I suppose I brought some of this on myself. If I had been sharper at that last editorial meeting, I wouldn’t have ended up covering for Buzz, our local reporter, and my boss Marsha would not have assigned me to this nasty story in the first place.

In which case I would happily be drinking lemontinis at The Flamingo on Pearl with Buff, my best friend and a photographer at the same magazine I work for. Used to work for. If I get out of this alive, I have to quit. Because I cannot possibly harvest the organic cotton for my Q-Tips and write for a magazine at the same time, can I? I’m only human after all.

Could Brad’s men have given up that easily? Or are they sneaking around the shed at this exact moment? I nearly vomit, and I don’t know if it’s from fear or just the pestilence oozing from my nostrils.

Still crouching behind the building, my knees protesting, I force myself to stay in place for fifteen minutes. Ok, still no signs of pursuit and no gunshots, so I make a run for my car, trailing phosphorescent green slime behind me as though Hansel and Gretel were dropping acid along with their cookie crumbs.

But then my evil fairy god-mother strikes again.

Chapter 1

“Guacamole with beetle bugs!”

“Is it lunchtime?” This editorial meeting is so boring I must have fallen asleep. At least I am not alone because Susan from the Tech Services department is slumped over and drooling on the conference table.

“I was thinking Carolina should cover entomophagy this month,” says Lavinia, our new-age health editor. “It’s sustainable, takes up less land than traditional farming, is on trend, and healthy! In fact, Tonio’s on Commerce Street serves awesome chili-lime chapuline tacos!”

Chapulines are grasshoppers, Lavinia, not beetles.”

Si, Carolina, I know this. I am from Guadalajara, remember? You, on the other hand, are from Waco. Less methane, less ammonia, and a more efficient protein,” continues Lavinia.

“Ok, Carolina, you are on bugs, “Marsha, our supreme leader, says, pointing at our food and beverage editor.

Gracias mi amiga, Lavinia. I’ll get you next month,” says Carolina. Then she turns to Marsha. “I wanted to do alchemical cocktails. It’s like molecular mixology for the STEM set. A scientific innovation with cultural significance that appeals to Texans everywhere and is actually digestible. Unlike insects.”

“Quit your whining. You just want the magazine to pay your bar bill, admit it,” says Lavinia.

“Well, it’s better than Julian Assange’s nutritional health. For that, you got a free trip to London last month, Lavinia!” pipes in Rosalita, who writes on health and beauty.

“No fighting girls, it’s Monday,” says Marsha.

I whisper to Buff, one of the magazine’s photographers and pretty much my best friend, “She probably braided Mr. Wikipedia’s hair with Ecuadorian tribal beads.”

“#Kumbaya,” says Buff.

“#Namaste.”

“What was that, Lissa?”

Crap!

“Nothing.”

“I heard her,” says Meghan from Legal who is always butting in and trying to screw up my stories. “She clearly said, “Donald Trump’s underwear.”

All faces swivel towards me.  Did Meghan really broken telephone my comment into a prurient interest in Trump’s underclothes? Or is she just trying to make me look like a lingerie fetishist? Which, I am actually.

“Well, I hear he wears nine-hundred-dollar underwear and people have to spray tan him daily without getting any orange on his boxers.”

“Not a good idea, Lissa. His lawyers are legion,” says Meghan.

“I think people want to know those sorts of details, Meghan,” I say, and I want to slap myself. As if I want anything to do with this drivel.

“She just wants a free trip to D.C.,” says Chuck our travel editor.

Damn right I do. Or Russia. Either or. “Shut up, Chuck,” I say. “Well, I also thought that maybe I should interview Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister–”

“Wait, isn’t he the hot one from Canada?” asks Buff. “You are going to need a photog on that for sure, Lissa.”

Buff would sell his mother for a hot guy, but it’s part of his charm.

“Forgive me if I am wrong, Marsha, but isn’t our readership primarily American? I don’t think focusing on Canada’s Prime Minister, no matter how good looking he is, qualifies as a viable story do you?” says Meghan in her court voice like she is making a closing statement in a trade infringement trial instead of removing any opportunity I have for earning frequent flyer miles. Does anyone jump to my defense? Not even Buff, who invited himself along on my story idea.

“Hmm. What do you have, Chuck?” asks Marsha, who today is wearing a drapey pale blush Stella McCartney dress with cream color blocking that makes her look like she has a waist size of fourteen. And should be on the cover of Vogue, instead of Kendall Jenner, who is just not that pretty.

No wonder Marsha liked the bug as food story; insects are high protein and low fat. She’s probably been secretly eating them for years! If I could force myself to eat nothing but tequila worms, could I ever have a waist like that? Of course, I would have to drink the whole bottle of tequila or mescal to get to the worm. Which would qualify as a liquid diet, which is like a cleanse, right? I’ve been meaning to get healthy.

“I was thinking staycation actually,” says Chuck.

O Dios Mio!” screams Carolina. I can’t blame her. Chuck is so lazy he once suggested he do a story on the best destinations to watch on TV.

“Explain, Chuck.”

“Given the current economy and the fact that most people can’t afford a vacation these days, I thought a piece on how to have a mini-vacation at home would be good. You know like having a country picnic in your living room. Umbrellas in your drinks. That sort of thing.”

“I’ll go to Milan for him,” I generously offer.

Marsha’s response is cut off as Diana Ross tells all she is coming out. Very loudly.

“Buff, turn off your phone,” I hiss as I poke him in the ribs. Instead, he dashes out of the conference room to take the call from The Supremes.

“Gizmo, please tell us you have a solid, professional lede, a well thought out nut graf, and even a first draft. Go ahead, make my day,” says Marsha.

“Air carbon.”

Buff returns and says, “Isn’t that when you hold a match under—?”

I poke him again. Harder.

“Air carbon is the term for a new plastic created from carbon emissions. It’s an environmental innovation for global warming that also produces a polymer that is much cheaper than conventional plastic, which by the way produces three times its weight in carbon dioxide and requires fossil fuels to manufacture.”

Gizmo makes us all look incompetent since he actually prepared for the editorial meeting and has spent time researching his topic. Clearly, he has no life. Of course, Gizmo is not his real name but he is the technology editor, and none of us can remember his real name because there are no vowels in it.

“Excellent. What sources do you have lined up?”

“I have a tentative appointment with the CEO of Newlight Technologies, the company that invented this prototype. They have also been awarded the EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award.”

“Go make it happen. Obviously, Gizmo has actually written for a magazine before,” says Marsha.

“Rosalita, you are covering the Uberization of beauty. Look at Glamsquad, Zeel, and other services that bring beauty to your door. Fast food 2.0 as it pertains to makeup.”

I bet Rosalita gets freebies from Mac and Sephora. I must be cursed.

“Carolina, you are still on bugs as food. Remember, they might be the protein of the future, so I want a scientific take on it.”

I move my coffee because it looks like Carolina may barf at any moment.

“Lavinia, I’ve been thinking about your idea on the health benefits of oil pulling, oil baths, and oil facials, but I am not convinced you have to actually walk through the olive groves to capture their essence.”

“But Marsha, the best oils are manually harvested from the highest tier of red Tuscan hills in moonlight for a lightly bitter, medium pungent, fruity taste with notes of cauliflower and a hint of chicory.”

“Oh please. Are they picked by a lost tribe of ancient dwarves who live under a mountain somewhere?” Carolina asks.

“Those are chocolate chip cookies, and it’s the Keebler Elves, not dwarves,” adds Buff, ever the gourmand.

“I’m sure there’s a first pressed, half-caf, single cup, cold brew, nitrogen-infused macchiato oil place nearby,” I say. “With delicate notes of unicorn and a rich tooth fairy aioli mousse topped by macerated roach scab. In fact, I think I passed one on the way in this morning!”

“Why doesn’t she ever cover any cheap health trends, like juicing or mindful breathing?” says Chuck.

“Good point. Ok, Lavinia, I want you on fraud within the olive oil industry, from health claims to mislabeling to pretentious EVOO’s. Contrast imported product against humbler brands available in grocery stores in Texas. And I don’t mean boutique blends, just plain old Mazola.”

Lavinia looks stunned. Either she is stumped by the word contrast, or she forgot what the hell EVOO is. I have always wondered exactly what extra virgin olive oil was anyhow. Can you be more virgin than a virgin? Virgin with an extra dash of virginity? Or can you be re-virginated? I bet Buff would be all over that.

Marsha, ever the optimist, tries to simplify things for Lavinia. “I mean compare expensive oils to cheap ones.”

“No way! That means she gets to go to Italy,” says Carolina. “And maybe Greece, too. And California!”

“Don’t forget HEB,” I add, mentioning our local grocery chain.

“You may need me along as well,” says Buff. “I take pictures and offer protection. Italy is very unsafe for a non-fashionable editor and luckily my passport is up-to-date.”

“Seriously, Buff? You traitor. I thought you wanted to go to Ottawa with me?”

Ti amo, Lissa, but of course, I must go where Marsha, needs me to go.”

“Shut up, Buff,” I say.

“Ditto,” says Marsha. “Please remember you work for What Matters magazine. A serious publication that deals with things that matter, not free trips and hot prime ministers. Buzz, what do you have going?”

Our local features editor is called Buzz, and he covers everything from criminals to book festivals as long as it’s in Texas.

“I have a lead on a conflict brewing between Alamo Heights City Council and CPS over smart meters.”

I perk up because I can smell politics, which should be my beat. “Aren’t those the ones catching fire and costing us more money each month? A disagreement between city council is more politics than local, don’t you think?”

“Nice try, Lissa. Get your own story.”

“Just saying, Buzz.”

“Ok, Buzz is on the meters and Lissa, you can cover local for this edition,” says Marsha.

“Chuck, look into Cuban cruises, and I mean people sailing to Cuba. Not watching I Love Lucy reruns.”

“Lavinia, use local talent for photos and everyone but Gizmo is fired unless they come prepared to the next editorial meeting. For God’s sake, someone give Susan a pillow and de-salivate the table. Meeting dismissed.”

Next month I want to cover Parisian politicians or Brexit or at least someplace with good food. I’m anticipating pure boredom starting tomorrow when I begin covering local news. As visions of bingo games at the civic center and Spurs injuries dance through my head I contemplate calling in sick for the next month. Then again, how hard could this assignment be? Buzz must be overpaid.

Luckily, I have the attention span of a gnat and ignore the sudden breeze that makes my arm break out in mountainous goosebumps that would rival an Olympic mogul course.

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