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The jolt came out of nowhere.
I sat up rigid in my sofa bed and felt the mattress tremble beneath me.
A second force hit. Casper, my signal dog, leaped onto the bed for safety but I was too frightened to comfort my shaking Siberian husky.
The sharp impact, followed by a rolling aftermath, lasted nearly a minute. Plenty of time to realize the ride wasn't part of my scandalous dream about the bare-chested pirate, who looked suspiciously like my new office neighbor, only with an eye patch. Plenty of time to take some kind of defensive action.
But I couldn't move. I sat squeezing my great-grandmother's patchwork quilt in one hand and gripping the side of the bed in the other as I watched the overhead crystal lamp sway gently in the early morning light.
"God, that was a big one!"
I surveyed the room for proof of devastation, expecting tumbled-down bookcases, fallen wall hangings, broken cosmetic bottles, even a crack in the wall. But my superficial scan revealed nothing seriously damaged. A few framed comic books leaned to one side, an empty Sierra Nevada beer bottle had hopped off the TV, my hearing aid, the one I sometimes wear in my left ear to pick up high and low noises, had danced a few inches from its spot on the end table, and a copy of my newspaper--the Eureka!,--had slipped from my bed to the floor.
I wiped my perspiring forehead with my coveted Underdog sheets, and patted Casper who refused to get off my lap. I lay back down, tentatively. Great reflexes, Connor, I told myself, remembering something about door frames from an article I had once written for the San Francisco Chronicle on earthquake preparedness. I ought to pay more attention to my own work.
I don't like earthquakes. That's unusual in a California native. We're supposed to be used to them--no big deal. We earthquake-raised kids are supposed to lift our heads from the rubble, glance around, and say, "What? Did you feel something? I didn't notice."
I should be used to them. We get quakes here in the gold country all the time, but most of them are too mild to be felt. The bigger ones are infrequent. But unlike most hearing people, I'm very visually oriented. I need to feel rooted to the ground or I get the strange sensation I've been cut loose from the planet. I have that feeling sometimes anyway, being deaf. But when the earth moves out of control, it has a way of shaking my very foundation.
I gazed out the window and watched the shimmering live oak trees through the woven bedroom curtains my mother had given me when I'd moved into this old diner-turned-home several months ago. Although it had taken a great deal of work to restore, the Claim Jump Diner suited me perfectly as living quarters. I spent most of my time in the large back room off the kitchen, which now housed my sofa bed, computer, TV, TTY, and treasured comic book collection.
I took a deep breath and inhaled the distinct smell that gives Flat Skunk its notorious name. Outside, it looked to be another sweltering August day in the Mother Lode, part of northern California's Sierra Mountains. I checked the glowing numbers on the Shake-Awake alarm clock--6:04--closed my eyes, and tried to get back on that pirate ship. Must have worked. The next I knew, my vibrating bed alarm was urgently shaking me awake and it was seven A.M.
"Idoo eeldeh erfcake assite?" I said to Casper, the friendly dog, as she wagged her tail in the excitement of watching me brush my teeth. I think she understood me when I asked her if she felt the earthquake, even with a mouthful of toothpaste. As I signed the word "earthquake" to her, she jumped back on the bed and put her nose under the covers.
We have a lot of conversations like this. She's a hearing-ear dog, trained in sign language and in techniques for alerting me to dangerous situations that are accompanied by warning sounds. We've been together for nearly a year, ever since I moved to the Mother Lode. She barks when there's trouble, and even though I can't hear the noise she makes, I can see her head snap. I know it means something is up.
I vaguely remember what a dog bark sounds like. I lost my hearing at age four from spinal meningitis and on occasion I experience "sound ghosts." Similar to the "phantom limb" that amputees perceive, sound ghosts are auditory memories that occur when a once-familiar sound is made. Casper fills in the gaps. She leads me to unusual noises she thinks I should know about, like a honking horn, a stuck buzzer on the washing machine, a low-flying plane overhead, or a country-western singer on TV.
Clean, full of cinnamon croissant and a homemade mocha, I dressed in a "Strip Mining Prevents Forest Fires" T-shirt, jeans, and black-and-white sneakers--my favorite dress-for-success outfit. After a good fight with my hairbrush, I hopped on my bike and rode the half mile into town.
The Eureka! office, where I write and publish my weekly newspaper, is headquartered upstairs in the former Penzance Hotel, in Flat Skunk. Once a brothel to the lonely miners who came to the gold country searching for riches, the hotel houses boutiques and shops downstairs, with office space upstairs.
I climbed the outside stairs to the second story that I share with two other renters, and entered the hallway that led to my newspaper, Dan Smith's temporary home, and Jeremiah Mercer's Fish Out of Water comic book/surf/skateboard shop.
I stopped by Dan's to say good morning and check on the aftermath of the earthquake, but the door was locked and the room through the mottled glass window was dark. Dan has only been in Flat Skunk a few months, but we've become good friends after investigating the disappearance of his half brother.
I started to put the key in the lock when I noticed my door was ajar. I peeked in cautiously and studied the back of the young blond-haired man who sat at my computer playing a game of Myst.
"Winning?" I said, startling him nearly to death. The animated display on the screen disappeared in a poof. "Whoops! Didn't mean to get you blown up."
Miah smiled guiltily. "I was just..." he started to sign, but his fingers hung in midair.
"I didn't know I had Myst on my computer. Amazing. And even more amazing--you're in early!"
"I couldn't sleep after the earthquake this morning. What a major rush!"
Miah is so cute. I don't always understand his slang, even when he signs, but I love the lock of hair that falls in his face all the time. Too bad he's only twenty-five. At thirty-seven, I have to draw the line.
Miah helps me out with small office jobs, and I help pay the rent on his comic book/surf shop. Although I'm a fairly good lip-reader, I can always use a good interpreter. Miah's learned enough sign language to interpret for me when tight-lipped clients stop by.
"Anything happen to your shop?" I signed.
"Bunch of comics fell off the displays. Couple of skateboards and a longboard fell over. Nothing much."
Miah and I share a common love of old comic books and new computer software. In addition to running his shop, where he sells comics, used CDs, recycled computer games, and skateboards--he's teaching me to skateboard--he also works on his own inventions. He's created a program for the computer that allows me to use my TTY--my teletypewriter device for the deaf--via my computer keyboard. His latest project is an earthquake predictor, using two coffee cans, an old window screen, and a few cups of sand.
He's also the son of Flat Skunk's sheriff, which comes in handy for the newspaper police blotter, as exciting as it is in this old mining town. The days of gold rush fever are mostly spirits of the past. Today we get drunken brawls, loud noises, pretty vandalism, and minor drug busts.
"How big quake?" I signed with one hand and sifted through the mail with the other. I looked up to read his response.
"The radio guy said there were two. One last night, around eleven-thirty--it was a five-point-one something-- and another one this morning--four-point-six. Plus there's been a bunch of aftershocks."
"How did your cans hold up?" I signed. In American Sign Language it translated literally to, "Cans, what-do? Damage? Fine?"
"Pretty good. Definitely showed movement before the quake hit."
"That thing could be a gold mine, if you can figure out a way to market it."
I glanced around my office to check for evidence of the quake. Things were pretty much in the same mess they'd been in when I left last night. A few books had fallen from my bookshelf packed with computer texts, AP guides, and the occasional mystery novel for those slow news days at the Eureka! A poster of Spike and Mike's "Festival of Animation" had slid to the ground and now sat crooked against the wall. Unfortunately, my Venus's-flytrap had met an untimely death, having tumbled to the floor from the windowsill. It probably committed suicide, depressed because I always forgot to water it.
Other than that, there appeared to be no serious damage. I just hoped this rickety old building, erected shortly after the miners arrived in the late 1800s, would hold up through the next quake. They didn't know about faults and earthquake proofing when they built the place back then.
"What's this stack of 'while-you-were-outs'?" I asked Miah, who was twisting back and forth in his chair.
He shrugged, signing, "A bunch of people called this morning. Wanted to report their earthquake damage. See if you could send a photographer to take pictures for the paper. Mrs. Galentree's chimney fell down. Crushed her flower garden and scared her cat. She hasn't seen him since. John Douglas's pickup truck rolled down the hill and hit the side of the Nugget. No real damage to the coffee shop but it shook up Mama Cody. Said she had another one of her heart attacks while preparing the flapjack batter. The truck is pretty much bashed in. Oh, Sluice Jackson called to say he's afraid to use his outhouse."
"There's one picture that won't make it to the front page of the Eureka! Anything else?"
As if on cue, the telephone light flashed. Miah picked it up and began to interpret both his side of the conversation as well as the caller's.
"It's Dan," he signed.
I nodded. I guessed he was using a car phone from the Truax building site, where he'd taken a temporary construction job since arriving in Flat Skunk. He probably wanted me to feed his cat or something. Cujo didn't like me, and the feeling was mutual. Dan said it was probably just a misunderstanding. "What he want?" I signed.
Miah interpreted Dan's words into sign. "'Connor. Better get over to Truax construction site. I think you're going to want to see this.'"
I gave Miah the sign for "what for?" by twisting my index finger from my temple outward a couple of times. Miah said something into the phone, then nodded and pulled the receiver away from his ear as if it hurt.
"What's up?" I turned my hands palm up in front of me, my middle fingers protruding.
Miah replaced the receiver. "He wouldn't say, but he sounded upset. Said to hurry if you want a story for your paper. The Truax building is that high-rise they're putting up over off Highway 49, right? Probably something to do with the quake."
High-rise. That's what John Cross, reporter for the Mother Lode Monitor, had been calling the four-story construction in his weekly articles. I grabbed my camera and stuffed the rest of the phone messages into my backpack. On my way out the door, I asked Miah to research the Calaveras Fault that lay under the Mother Lode chain like a hot vein of gold.
I hopped on my bike and rode back to my diner to pick up my '57 Chevy Bel Air. The ride to the Truax site was too far and too hilly for pedaling. I drove to the end of Main Street where it connects with Highway 49, about three miles from the center of town, then continued down the winding road another five miles, where the highway meets the junction for the town of Thunder Camp.
There were several official cars in the dirt driveway leading to the skeletal building, including an ambulance, a fire truck, and Sheriff Elvis Mercer's patrol car. The area had been cordoned off with yellow DO NOT CROSS tape. While several construction workers pointed and shook their heads at the sidelines, the construction site itself was oddly still and deserted.
"Hey, baby." A short, tanned, muscular man stepped forward from a pack of workers who were outfitted in their orange glow-in-the-dark vests, red-dirt-encrusted jeans, and yellow hard hats. His T-shirt was stretched tight across his chest. It read, "Beer--It's So Much More Than A Breakfast Drink."
I gave him a tight smile and took another step. I've often found that if I treat a person with respect, I usually get the same thing back. With this guy, I was on shaky ground. "I'm looking for someone in charge."
"I can give you a charge, baby." The man, encouraged by the grins of his nearby coworkers, clearly needed a consciousness-raising experience. It would be a tough job, considering the lack of material to work with.
I got out my clipboard, the one I keep handy when I need an official-looking accessory. "I'm from...OSHA--Occupational Safety and Health Administration. We've had a complaint about construction workers sexually harassing women in the area. My supervisor mentioned someone named..." I read the name stenciled on the front pocket of the man's state-issued vest. "Jake Passage. Oh! That must be you."
He backed up. I raised my eyebrows, but that's as far as I took it. I was there for another purpose. He abruptly pointed to the interior of the construction site. "Over there. Take the stairs to the basement. You'll find what you're looking for." I glanced in the direction he was pointing and spotted the concrete steps at the far end of the room.
"Thanks," I said, flashing a smile. I started over.
Passage grabbed my arm before I could take two steps.
"Aren't you listening? I said, you can't go in there without a hard hat." He was looking at me strangely. I knew that look. He had already said something when my back was turned and was wondering why I hadn't responded.
I nodded and he tossed his yellow hat at me like a Frisbee, a little more forcefully than necessary.
I caught the hat, but I dropped the clipboard. It landed face up in the dirt, revealing my grocery list to all who cared to read it. I snatched it up and put the stylish protector on my head. In addition to being too big, too heavy, and extremely awkward to wear, it didn't come close to matching my outfit.
I ducked under the police line and climbed down the stairs, spotting Sheriff Mercer among a small group of official-looking people. They watched me approach, pausing in the middle of what looked like an intense discussion. Besides Flat Skunk's sheriff and my office neighbor, Dan Smith, I recognized Harlan Truax, my competitor, owner of the daily-except-weekends Mother Lode Monitor. The building under construction was to be the future home of his newspaper. The tight pack parted slightly as I readied them.
"Hi, Sheriff, Dan." I
From the Paperback edition.