Precious Cargo

All characters appearing in this story are mine of my own design.
This story is a work of fiction based upon nothing in particular.

Precious Cargo is copyright © The Silver Coyote

Smoke On The Horizon

Mike looked up from his guitar at the knock on the door.

He had been working on some new licks for a song he was writing for the high school worship group he led. Since getting home from church that afternoon he had been alternating between the licks and a couple of riffs he was experimenting with. His fingertips hurt, his brain was feeling fuzzy, several pages of scribble lay on the low coffee table in front of him. He needed a break from the concentration and welcomed the interruption. A wide smile split his muzzle when he heard her voice.

"Mike?" She stood impatiently on the porch. Jaclyn Manx had just concluded a meeting with the board members and staff of All Furs Christian Church, and the good news in her heart threatened to burst from her chest if contained there much longer. "Mike?" she called again, unconsciously tapping a paw against her thigh. Her tail swayed from side to side slowly as she waited, her excitement growing, for Mike to answer the door.

"Coming, Jazz." Mike leaned his guitar against the front of the sofa and almost leapt for the door. This particular Canadian Lynx had been occupying more and more of his attention lately, and he wasn't sure anymore whether that was because she was his boss at AFCC, or because of their unified vision for their work at AFCC, or for some other, more personal reason.

The vision that greeted his eyes upon opening the door made his heart skip a beat. She had obviously stopped at her place after leaving AFCC. Her normal business attire, which he had seen her in this morning, had been replaced by something much more casual. She was wearing an old "Promise" midriff top and faded jeans, her feet were in flip-flops. Her long tawny hair was tied back in a pony tail, the naturally frosted tips of her hair catching the illumination cast by the front porch light. But what really caught Mike's attention, and always had, were her eyes. Almond shaped and set wide apart, they were hazel colored, just like his own.

She smiled back at him. Jaclyn stood five foot four, just like Mike's mom, but her figure wasn't as broad shouldered. Jaclyn was a curvy 115 pounds and certainly filled even her oldest, most comfortable clothes well. Her tawny fur appeared frosted, each hair tipped in white as is typical of her species. "Well, aren't you going to ask me in?" she asked in a friendly voice.

Mike stepped back and swung his arm in a wide arc, indicating that she should enter. "Please..."

She stopped in the entryway and watched him as he shut the door. He was an interesting mix of Gray and Red Fox, having the general structure of a Red Fox but being a dark brownish gray color with black paws and a black tip on his long, bushy tail. Mike was quite a bit taller than her at six foot one, and while a slender 170 pounds he was a strong fur. His smile had broken into a grin as he turned to face her, his white teeth flashing as he spoke. "So, what brings you to Casa Canidae?"

She ignored his question. "Can we sit down?"

"Sure," he said as he backed up a step, motioning towards the sofa he had been sitting against earlier. He was mildly puzzled by her behavior, but made no assumptions. "Please, have a seat. You want something to drink?"

"No, thank you," she said, barely managing to conceal her excitement as she seated herself. She looked around. "Where is everybody?"

"David and Ben are at Glamis, trying to break Ben's new ATC, or kill themselves in the process." Mike seated himself indian style on the floor in front of her, forearms on his knees. "Roy is over at Maggie's parent's house for the day. I have a feeling he may not be with us much longer." Mike was referring to a possible marriage proposal in Maggie's near future.

"You're here alone?" She ignored his implied humor as she continued to glance about the room, avoiding his eyes.

"Does that seem strange?" He smiled slightly at her seeming nervousness.

"Well..." She stopped her scanning of the room and looked at him. "What have you been doing all afternoon?"

Mike indicated the papers on the table and then the guitar. "Just working on my song."

He watched her reach for the papers. She scanned several of the sheets, trying to decipher some of his scribbles. She scratched her ear in concentration, but it didn't help. After shuffling through three or four pages of his incomprehensible scrawl, she gave up and put them back on the coffee table with a smile. "Have you given it a name yet?"

Mike's voice softened a bit, his tail twitched once or twice. He gave every indication of being somewhat embarrassed by the subject matter. He glanced at the floor as he replied "I call it 'Soldier For God'."

She looked curiously at him as he looked up to her, hazel eyes meeting hazel eyes. "What's it about?" she asked in the quiet of the room.

"My father." Mike whispered, looking her in the eye.

They sat there looking at each other for several silent seconds, the emotion thick between them, she not knowing why but intuitively understanding that this song meant a lot to him, whatever the reason. She knew he had been working on it steadily for days now, since returning from his vacation. All his free time had apparently been put into it.

After a few more moments passed she smiled at him again and said "I have some news for you."

His ears flicked forward as he said "Oh?" She loved his ears and secretly wondered how soft the fur of them would feel under her paws. She always chastised herself for these feelings every time they entered her mind, and silently did so now. Mike noticed the slight, momentary furrow of her brow. "What is it?" he asked, worry nibbling at the back of his mind.

She summoned a neutral expression to her face. "The board and staff met today." She let that hang in the air between them for a moment.

Mike nodded slowly. "I knew that...", he prompted.

She couldn't help herself and broke into a giggle. "You got it!" she managed to force out between bouts of giggling.

His expression turned hopeful. "I got it?"

She stopped giggling suddenly and gazed steadily at him. "You are the newest member of the permanent full time staff at AFCC." She held out her paw to shake his. "Welcome aboard…"

Mike rocketed to his feet, a clenched right paw at arms length above his head as he shouted "Yesss!" His wide grin, showing a bit of his fangs, was infectious. Jaclyn broke into a grin of her own as Mike bobbed around the room, repeating "yes" over and over as he hopped about.

Jaclyn Manx smiled and waited patiently, her heart full of joy.


Far to the southeast, at his home in the foothills, Joe was in almost exactly the same state of mind. Making a motion with his right arm and paw as if he were shifting an old fashioned Road-Ranger transmission from first to second over, he muttered "yesss" as the screen on his laptop changed to display the main diagnostic interface for the AC300AT.

He was sitting in the cab of the big truck, it's hood back in place and the diesel engine idling as it sat in his driveway. He had just completed the installation of the new FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Controller) and computer interface, and now could connect his computer directly to the internal computer systems of his truck by a simple USB interface cable. This would allow him to use the same troubleshooting tools that had previously been available only to factory service centers, and would give him the ability to monitor vehicle and engine statistics and parameters at any time while on the road.

Joe grinned to himself. Technology was a great thing, giving him all this access and information with which to work. He called a few screens to his TFT display and interrogated various systems and functions within the truck. After a few minutes he was satisfied that his work had paid off. The $1500 the new FADEC and interface had cost would pay for itself many times over in saved maintenance costs, he was certain. Again he pumped the air with a closed fist and muttered "yesss!"

A kali bark from below and to his left prompted him to reach for the spotlight handle above the left windshield post. Flicking the switch to on, he pivoted the spotlight around to shine it on the ground outside the driver's door. Mojave's eyes blazed blue as she stared up at him, tail wagging happily. She barked again at Joe.

Joe opened his door and spoke to her above the rumble of the idling diesel engine. "C'mon girl, c'mon!"

It was all the invitation she needed. Using the top step of the fuel tank as an intermediate launch point, she managed to sail over Joe's lap and computer and land on all fours on the front passenger seat. She turned and began to lick Joe's face affectionately.

"Slow down, girl. We hardly know each other!" Joe joked, scratching her behind the ears. She growled playfully at him.

"I know, you want to go for a ride. Maybe we ought to go over and see what Mike's up to." He powered down his laptop and began to pack his equipment away in a leather bag. "What do you think?" he asked, looking over at her.

She yipped at him, wagging her tail.

"OK, kid. Let me go put this stuff away and lock up the house, and we'll head over there." Joe finished packing his laptop and cables away and opened his door. As he stepped down from the truck Mojave jumped out after him, trailing him up the steps to the front porch. As Joe reached for the front door handle a warm breeze came up from the northeast, ruffling the fur on his face. Mojave whined, sniffing the breeze.


It had been an enjoyable evening for them all. Debbie was radiant, the perfect young female. Annie beamed with pride.

By way of a verbal resume Gina had started the business portion of their conversation by filling them in on her professional and educational background, going to considerable detail until Annie had finally laughed politely and said "I'm sold." After that the three had quickly become much more relaxed with each other, and as the main course of the meal was completed they had ironed out the basic framework of what was to come for Debbie.

It would be an apprenticeship program of sorts. Upon her graduation from high school, Debbie would begin by working in the offices and studio Gina operated, assisting Gina in casting and office work. As she gained knowledge of the industry, Gina would begin "grooming" her, teaching her about the professional beauty and fashion trades, and edging her into the photo shoots. The ambition was that by the time Debbie was 19, 20 at the latest, she would be knowledgeable enough to model on her own, should she choose to. Of course Gina would offer to manage her career for her, should Debbie so desire.

One condition that Gina put up in the process was the stipulation that Debbie carry a minimum of four but no more than nine units of classes at college while in the program. This was done to assuage Annie's concerns about Debbie's education, although Gina had stipulated this before Annie had said anyting about her concerns. Debbie was quite agreeable to this, and this condition laid to rest any fears Annie had about the entire undertaking. Seeing and hearing that Gina was serious about education scored big points with Annie.

To her credit, Debbie paid careful attention to all the detail of the discussion, and asked pertinent questions about her role and the expectations of her at various points in the process. Gina was quite impressed by Debbie's grasp of the project and her seeming ability to make long range plans. Annie, having already witnessed some fabulous examples of Debbie's practicality and planning recently, was yet again impressed with her daughter. Her pride redoubled.

As the evening progressed Gina found herself again and again looking at the pride and happiness she saw gleaming in Annie Latrans' blue eyes. She kept noticing the way Annie smiled, the way the barest tips of her fangs showed as she spoke, the way her ears stood up straight as she listened to the table conversation. Gina realized, suddenly and with mixed emotions, that she was paying less and less attention to Debbie and more and more attention to Annie. With this realization came a sudden shift inward of Gina's thought processes.

What are you doing? she scolded herself. This is not about you! This is about the young girl you offered to help. You must not use this situation, your church, for this purpose! Gina grimaced to herself.

"Is something wrong?" Annie asked politely. The look of sudden concern was evident on Annie's face. She and Debbie were both looking at her.

Damn! "No, no. I'm fine." Gina willed a smile to her muzzle and took a quick breath. Stop this, Gina! "I just remembered a phone call I was supposed to make today." The excuse was lame, she knew, but it seemed to mollify her guests. "Nothing that can't keep until tomorrow."

Annie smiled politely and turned to her daughter. "We're going to have a lot to tell your father about when we get home."

Debbie nodded, smiling herself. Annie turned back to Gina.

Hearing mention of Debbie's father reminded Gina of something. "I'd like to have dinner with you and Mr. Latrans some time soon to discuss this with the two of you," she said. Her composure fully regained, she smiled smoothly at the two foxes facing her.

Annie giggled, and then put a paw up to her muzzle as though embarrassed by her reaction. "I'm sorry," she giggled a bit more. "Nobody who knows Joe ever calls him 'Mr. Latrans'. His friends call him Joe, and so do my friends." Annie looked at Gina with a relaxed, friendly expression.

Gina grinned in spite of herself. "Joe it is, then. When do you think we could get together?" Gina reached into the purse hanging over the back of her chair for her PDA.

Annie held up her paw. "No." she said. As Gina began to raise an eyebrow, Annie explained. "You don't need to buy us a meal every time you want to discuss something with us. Come on over and let us treat you to a meal. Joe's a wizard with a grill, and I make a pretty mean lasagna." Annie winked at Gina. "And we have a pretty well stocked wine closet, too." She picked up her wine glass and held it up to Gina. "Deal?"

Gina picked up her tumbler and touched glasses with Annie. "I love Italian," she said with enthusiasm. "Deal!"

"Hey, I want in on this!" Debbie held up her glass of club soda and touched the glasses the fox and mink held up.

"To your new career," Annie said pleasantly, turning to her daughter.

"To my teacher," Debbie said looking at Gina.

"To Joe," Gina said, looking at Annie.


Joe was on his way to Mike's place in Fullerton when he first noticed the ruddy orange glow to the east. He was traveling northbound down the toll road towards the 91 freeway, maybe three miles south of the interchange, when the light caught his attention off to the right. Although it was dark, he knew that area well, it was the western slopes of Mount Stockton, maybe the upper reaches of Icehouse Canyon. Nothing was supposed to be out there.

The glow flickered in intensity and grew in size as he glanced repeatedly out the right side window at it. Finally he went to maximum dynamic brake and pulled over to the side of the highway about a mile above the interchange. Setting the air brakes he turned his full attention to the view out the window.

Mojave looked at him from her position standing on the passenger seat and whined quietly, a curious look on her face. She then turned to the window.

"I know, girl, I see it. That's called a brush fire, and that's bad news."

Reaching down below the dash of his truck, Joe turned on the high band radio and turned the channel select knob until CESRS LUKENS appeared in the display. He picked up the microphone and pressed the push to talk switch.

"OES Los Alamitos, fifty one nine twenty six, tone one." Joe was making his initial call to the regional headquarters of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services in the city of Los Alamitos.

Joe waited patiently in the idling truck for a reply, absently scratching Mojave behind the ears as she continued to stare out the window at the glow on the horizon, whining quietly.

"Fifty one nine twenty six, OES Los Alamitos, tone one."

"Los Al, have you had any reports of a fire in the Santa Ana mountains this evening?"

There was a few seconds of silence, and then "Fifty one nine twenty six, that's negative. Nothing in our logs, nor those of the Warning Center. Do you have something to report?"

"Los Al, fifty one nine twenty six, I'm just west of Mount Stockton on the two seventy one toll road, and see a small fire burning on the western slopes of Mount Stockton. Can you contact the Cleveland and apprise them?"

"Will do, nine twenty six, thanks for the report. Will you be available for further contact?"

Joe nodded as he replied. "If you can't reach me by radio, my mobile phone is always on. Fifty one nine twenty six, kay gee thirty three ten."

"Thanks again, nine twenty six. OES Los Alamitos."

Joe patted Mojave on her shoulders reassuringly. They could not tell it in the cab of the truck, but as he released the air brakes and selected low, a hot breeze stirred up the brush along the side of the roadway. The breeze increased in intensity as he pulled up off the shoulder and accelerated into the down grade.


"I knew you wanted this, but really, Mike!" Jaclyn giggled as Mike continued to sing and strum his guitar. He had been playing and singing for over half an hour. As he had hopped happily about he had suddenly grabbed his old Taylor guitar and started playing, and began to sing for her after a minute or two. He was just now finishing the last refrain of "Shout to the Lord", and as he stopped singing he looked at her.

She smiled sweetly back at him and said not a word.

He stopped playing and sat there, the guitar in his arms, looking at her. The silence confounded her momentarily.

"Jazz," he spoke softly and quietly. "I've wanted this all my life. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to lead and counsel a group of kids at church, to be a ministry and worship leader, to bring up the next generation for our church." He looked at the floor for a moment, then back up to her hazel eyes. His ears hooked forward a bit, as though he were tired. "My only reason for going to college was to learn more about counseling, to facilitate that goal. All the work I've done all these years at AFCC has been in the hopes of doing just that. You have helped me achieve one of my life's ambitions." He paused, mouth open slightly, at a loss for further words.

When she made no reply he continued. "I don't know how to thank you," He sat motionless, his eyes boring into hers.

It was her turn to look at the floor for a moment as she gathered her thoughts. "Mike, you belong at AFCC. The kids love you. The staff respects and loves you." I love you. The words formed in her mind, but her brain clipped them before they could pass her lips. They had suddenly been there, on the tip of her tongue, unbidden, unexpected, perfectly natural. And true, she thought.

She looked up at him, the professional taking over. "You have built up AFCC and the congregation. The children's ministry wouldn't be as effective and as large as it is without your presence. I proposed to the board that we retain your services on a permanent basis before some other church lured you away from us. We could not afford that loss."

Mike stared at her. "Those are very kind words," he said finally, a little self-consciously. Silence stretched between them again as they continued to gaze at each other. "We work to the glory of the Lord," Mike said after a moment. He didn't know what else to say. He was a tiny bit afraid of her at just this moment. He'd seen the emotions flicker across her face, and thought he knew what he'd seen there. Yet he wasn't sure enough to pursue it at this time, he was hobbled by uncertainty. He still waited for that one moment, the one sign, which would tell him beyond doubt that she felt about him the same way he felt about her.

They both stared at each other for a few moments more. Finally Jaclyn took a breath and, looking away from him towards the coffee table, asked "When can I hear your new song?"

Mike visibly struggled to change gears. "Umm..." He looked at the papers still laying on the coffee table where Jaclyn had put them. "The lyrics aren't complete. I think I've got the melody down, but I still have some work to do with the lyrics."

"Play it for me?" she asked sweetly.

In Mike's ears her request was a command that he was only too happy to fulfill. As he chorded the Taylor a small smile appeared on his muzzle.


"OES Los Alamitos to fifty one nine twenty six, tone one."

Uh-oh, Joe thought as he reached for the microphone. Here it comes. "OES Los Alamitos, this is fifty one nine twenty six, tone one, go ahead."

"Nine twenty six, Los Al. Cleveland advises that their initial strike team is thirty minutes out from the eastern gate, no air support available. Are you in a position to recon the area and report within an hour?"

Damn, thought Joe. He debated for a few moments whether he wanted to get involved with this little fire. As he mulled it over his GSM phone rang.

"Los Al, stand by, I've got a call coming in." Joe dropped the mic on the center console and removed his GSM phone from his pocket. Flipping it open he said "This is Joe Latrans."

"Joseph," the cold, disembodied voice of the IPF director greeted him.

Joe's ears laid back against his head slightly, the tips of his fangs appeared in recognition. Shit, he thought, sensing a mandatory and abrupt change to his evening's plans. "Good evening sir. How can I help you?"

As was his custom, the director didn't waste any time with small talk. "We have reason to believe the fire you've just reported is not an example of spontaneous combustion. Weather monitoring stations across southern California are showing that we are on the leading edge of a significant Santa Ana wind condition, and we feel this fire may have been set to exploit that knowledge. If current extrapolations come to pass that fire will engulf the Anaheim Hills by mid morning tomorrow." The voice paused. "Joseph, we'd like you to look into the origins of the fire and recon the area for any... insurgents."

Joe did not respond immediately. He'd need to call Annie and Mike, both of whom would be expecting to see him this evening.


"Yes, sir?"

"Your employer has communications systems at Mount Stockton. I think it would be in SCWD's best interest if you would consider this an emergency response on their behalf."

Translation, Joe thought to himself, you've just been ordered to do it. "Yes sir. I'll head that way immediately and report upon my arrival."

The director's inhaled breath sounded mechanical. "We don't need to bother OES with this matter any further, Joseph. We will take care of them from this end. Your reinforcements will arrive with the RCF and CDF strike crews. They will make their presence known."

"Yes sir." Joe replied in a clipped tone of voice.

"Thank you, Joseph." The circuit went dead.



"That has a very 'AC/DC' feel to it, doesn't it?" Jaclyn looked at Mike for clarification.

Mike grinned sheepishly as he leaned the guitar against the arm of the sofa. "They're one of his favorite groups. The lyrics will make the song acceptable. You'll see."

"'Soldier for God', huh? Where did you get the idea from?"

Mike took a deep breath. "Well Jazz, that's kind of a long story." He looked hopefully at her.

She leaned back into the sofa cushions and crossed her paws in her lap. "I've got time..." she smiled and winked at him.

Mike leaned back into the cushions himself and turned slightly to face her better. "Well, it all started in Page, Arizona about a week ago."


"Oh my God, mom. Look at that dessert tray!" Debbie almost drooled as the waiter approached with Raphael's famous dessert tray.

"Oh, none of that for me," Annie said flatly. "Not good for the figure, you know." She glanced at Gina and winked.

"Indeed," Gina agreed with a smile. "Desserts and models are very distant acquaintances."

Hmmph. "I think I'm being told in complex language that I can't have any." Debbie grumbled.

"Oh, you can. You just have to share." Gina's smile had turned into something approximating a wolfish grin.

To Chapter Thirty Two: Red Flag.

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