(Sample Chapters)

Chapter 1

Summer 1999

They called her La Coneja, the mother rabbit. She had once been a vibrant student at the Colleggio Santa Lucia. Skin pure as olive oil, matching that of her adoptive parents, complemented intelligence that flashed with intuition and wit. She had set her sights on a career in journalism. In fact, at the time of her disappearance, she had a firm job offer from the Italian daily, Il Mondo di Oggi. That had been long ago, in another place, during another life.

She squatted on the dirt floor in the corner of her thatched hut. The coarse coffee-sack shift that only a few months ago had hung loosely about her skinny frame now bulged at the belly. This was her third pregnancy since they picked her up in the heart of Santa Catalina and whisked her to the first of many makeshift prisons.

To distract herself from loneliness and the oppressive Caribbean heat, she recited the story of who she had been . . . before her abduction. Had it all been a dream? she wondered, as her ability to recall facts and images gradually weakened.

Each time, the same man had raped her. That wasn’t how he termed their couplings. At first, she had fought him off but he was too strong, too violent. Gradually, she gave up. With surrender, she lost all hope of returning to her former life as Lydia Vitale.

In this state of degradation, all she had to look forward to was being pregnant. Each new life that grew inside her affirmed that she was alive, if not loved.

For Lydia, knowing always that her keepers waited, ready to receive the newborn who bore her blood and likeness, was worse than labor pains. They won’t even tell me if it is a boy or girl! Her babies never heard the lyrical lullabies learned from her adoptive mother.

Left in solitude to recover from the pain of childbirth, the discomfort of breasts swollen and aching for her infant, Lydia could only speculate about its fate. There was no way to find out. Her captors had cut her off from the world. Even the matrons who guarded her and monitored her daily activities excluded her from their little world of social gossip.

During long nights when sleep refused to relieve the frightening nightmares, the residue of many beatings and humiliations, she queried whatever spirits might care to listen, Are my babies with the man who fathered them? Perhaps they have been adopted by wealthy Santo Sangríans. Or– The thought ripped her heart. Sold into slavery . . . even murdered? She prayed they hadn’t been put in the hands of filthy child molesters.

The greatest pain of all was knowing it would happen again . . . and again.

“As long as you can have babies,” her captors told her, “you will serve your country by replacing those stolen from us.”

By the time she realized she was pregnant for the third time, Lydia had stopped wondering about her offspring. She lived within herself, tapping into a diminishing store of happy memories, recreating scenes of her childhood home in the sunny hills of Tuscany.

Chapter 2

February 2000

A sudden bump jarred Analisa from sleep. Outside the Bonanza J35, the Central California sky had blackened. Crystal flakes clung to the Plexiglas windows.

“I’ve switched on the transponder,” her dad muttered. “That’ll get red lights flashing at the radar stations.”

“Where’d this storm come from?” Terror added an unnatural rasp to her mother’s words. “It wasn’t supposed to arrive till after we got back to Orange County.”

Suddenly alert, Analisa asked, “Where are we, Dad?”

“Can’t tell for sure. The VOR’s malfunctioning. Should be over Gorman. We’re drifting west.” He switched his communication radio to 121.5, the Mayday frequency. “That’ll alert Los Angeles Center.” With his usual composure, he pulled a cloth rag from under the seat and leaned forward to wipe the inside of the windshield. His left thumb pressed the radio button located at the top of the steering column. “Mayday. This is Bonanza 547 Bravo.” His cool, professional tone gave Analisa confidence that he had the problem under control.

“547 Bravo, this is Los Angeles Center. What is your problem?”

“I’m icing up and I’m–” He paused to clear his throat. “I’m losing control of the aircraft.”

Icing! Analisa knew what that meant. He had described the process to her in detail. Butterflies swarmed in her stomach. The Bonanza had no de-icing capability. She visualized super-cooled water hitting the wings and freezing instantaneously.

“Claire, see if you can find us on the En Route Low Altitude Chart.”

“Oh God!” she breathed. “Are we heading for Mount Pinos? John, that’s almost nine thousand feet!”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and find a road or an open space to set her down in,” he said. “One thing’s sure. Radar’s got a bead on us. Bells are ringing and red lights flashing all over the place. The emergency crews will probably be waiting for us wherever we set this baby down.”

“What are our chances?” she said, as the Marconi family’s long-faithful airplane surrendered the sky foot by precious foot.

“Do you believe in miracles?”

“Yes,” Claire whispered.

Analisa clenched her fists and prayed. The weekend with her parents at Lake Tahoe faded so far into the past, it was as if it never happened. They had celebrated her finishing graduate school and landing a plum job with a San Francisco-based international marketing firm. In a week she’d be moving permanently from Anaheim to the Bay Area.

“547 Bravo, we have your location radar fix.”

“See,” John said. “What did I tell you?”

Analisa sighed with relief. “Thanks, God.”

“You’re at 7,000 feet and heading into–“

A sickening crunch jarred the fuselage.

“Shit!” Analisa’s dad shouted over the noise. “Clipped a goddamn treetop! Hang on!”

“Oh my God, I am heartily sorry,” her mother prayed. “I detest all my sins . . . .”

It felt as if every snow-laden limb in the forest was taking a whack at them, upset that this alien aluminum dart  had intruded upon their peaceful winter day.

“I love you both!” she heard her dad say.

Analisa’s brain returned the message, “I love you too, Mom, Dad,” but in the millisecond it required, everything became a colorless blur. She couldn’t be sure the words ever came out of her mouth or that her parents had heard them.

The Bonanza emitted a death-agony roar as it ripped its way through snow-muted pines in search of a final resting place. Analisa had a vague awareness of wings ripping from the fuselage. She imagined irate branches lashing out and puncturing the gas tanks as the plane streaked by. “Please, Lord, no fire!”

Despite Analisa’s horror, some part of her brain kept processing. She felt a sense of anticipation.

What’s it like to die?

Will I be awake when it happens?

The questions came as flashes, pure, wordless consciousness, involving neither speech nor thought.

Is death the end of everything?

With a final, violent jolt, the plane came to a grinding stop. Analisa’s seat belt tore away from its anchors, hurtling her forward into the backs of the seats occupied by her parents.

With whatever conscious thought was left in her, she envisioned being consumed in a thunderous fireball, scorching her flesh before it killed her.

*   *   *