I, 8 year old Carlos Manoso, sighed as I sat Indian style in the shade of the big tree by the monkey bars and felt the indention of more gravel sticking to my legs. I watched my cousin, Lester, run around with a girl, and almost felt bad for him. Everyone knew girls had cooties. But this girl, with her wildly curly hair and eyes that were so big I could tell they were dark blue even from where I sat, seemed to be fast on her way to becoming best friends with my cousin, and they'd just met.

A darker shadow fell across me than the tree couldn't possibly make. I looked up and, sure enough, there were three boys from the fifth grade standing in a triangle around me. "Hey look! He's such a stupid little baby no one even wants to play with him!" The one right in front of me snorted. He leaned over me and taunted, "Isn't that right? You're so stupid!"

From my right, I heard another of the boys sneer, "Shut up, Drake! He's a dumb spic. He don't know English!"

I glanced past the boy in front of me, Drake, to see Lester and the girl watching us. Lester had his hands balled into fists, and the girl was biting her lip. Then a fist came crashing down into my face.

"Stupid toddler! Pay attention to me!" The kid to my left shouted. Then I heard it.

"Aye! Leave 'im alone!" The voice was too high pitched to be Lester's, and sure enough, when I opened his eyes, the girl was running toward us, Lester following close behind, a look of panic on his face.

Drake waited until she was right in front of him before snapping, "I'm not taking orders from a little girl!" The boy in front laughed. Then he pushed her down onto her back. She landed hard with a hiss from the gravel. Instantly Lester was helping her up. Drake had whirled around to face me again.

He pulled back his fist, aimed, and I heard, "Little this!" I never felt the second punch, because when I opened his eyes, the girl was standing in front of me, doubled over. She coughed, and then added, "Is that your mommy coming for you?" She pointed past the monkey bars to where there was, in fact, two mothers running up to us. Instantly the three boys were herded up, and dragged off the play ground kicking and screaming.

I stood, and looked at Lester, who seemed shell-shocked. Then I stared at the girl, who'd managed to stand straight. "I'm Carlos."

The girl replied, "Stephie." She watched me curiously.

"I didn't need help, chica, but thank you." She nodded.

Then she cocked her head to the side and said, "I know. But my daddy says, 'What you do for people you don't know from Adam is what makes you who you are.'" I was about to reply when a loud noise over head startled all three of us, me, my cousin, and Stephie. A shrieking sound that spilt the sky. We glanced up. It was an airplane. Stephie started talking again. "Someday I'm gonna fly, too. But I won't need an airplane. I'm just gonna spread my wings and take off!" I heard footsteps, but kept staring up at the sky for a long moment, wishing I could fly, too. Then I looked back at the girl. She was gone.

I heard her laughter, at the edge of the trees that hid a secret, tiny street that led out of the school's playground. She had her arms outstretched. She was already flying. I felt myself start to smile, and my palms grew damp. I thought, I hope I see Stephie again. I'd never had a crush before.

I stared at the ground, wondering why a giant hole never opened up at times when I wished it would. Times like now.

Oh, I know that graduation is supposed to be some big event, but all it meant to me was that I was gonna have to leave my mother and sisters alone with no protection, while I was off with my nose buried in a book. I think I actually shuddered at that.

My mother was demanding that I tell her, now, what I where I was planning to go. I'd had five weeks, so I should know by now, she thought. At that instant, one of those Go Army commercials came on. M eyes locked on it. And a memory from my past floated back to me. "My daddy says, 'What you do for people you don't know from Adam is what makes you who you are.'" I paused. None of those men would know me from Adam, I thought. My gaze went back to my mother's face.

"Me voy a alistar en el ejército, la mamá." I told her, and watched her eyes widen in shock. (I'm going to enlist in the army, mom.)

The phone rang. Sighing, I answered it, already knowing that I wouldn't like whatever was about to happen. "Yo."

"Hi, Ranger," It was Connie, the desk lady from the bonds office I worked at. "I need to cash in on that favor you owe me." She didn't need to elaborate. I knew she meant when she had taken a bullet in the arm for me in Vegas when an apprehension had gone south, saving my life, since that bullet would have otherwise hit me right in the heart.

"What do you need," I asked curtly. She was quiet for a moment.

Then she said, "I need you to train a new skip tracer."

"No." I almost hung up, but her next words floor me.

"Please! I know you don't know her from Adam, but she's a nice girl, and she's down on her luck. Just help her out a little."

God damn that little girl on the play ground, I thought, and stood. "On it," I told Connie. And this time, I did hang up. I stared heavenward for a minute, before heading out.

I waited in the diner for Stephanie Plum. I had not hope that she would be any good; hell, I figured she'd drop out of the biz after the first three days. But when someone pulled out the chair across from me, I looked up into a face that belonged to a girl who had driven me totally and completely for nearly my entire life. Good God! It's Stephie! My mind rejoiced.

We discussed why she wanted this job, and I promised to train her. I followed her out the door, not knowing that she would continue to drive me to succeed for the rest of my life, as well. The only thing I had on my mind was, "This time, Babe, I'll help you learn to fly."