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"What on earth is that, Mel?" Maggie Canady asked, leaning over to stare at the cocktail napkin on which Melanie Regan had been doodling.
"What is what?" Melanie asked.
She hadn't paid the least attention to what she had been doing, and now she stared down at the napkin. She had flipped it over, so there was no logo to deter the free movement of her pen or mar the pictures she created.
Pictures. Real pictures. Recognizable.
There were four of them, and they were so well situated on the napkin, she might have marked off the corners with a ruler.
The top left corner was very evidently a sketch of a fire, so detailed that the flames almost seemed to move. Even more hypnotic was the sketch on the opposite corner.
It was of a waterfall, forceful, filling the air with spray as it fell to the pool below. There was something wild and even violent about it.
The bottom right corner showed a fiercely blowing wind, sweeping away the cloud cover.
She hadn't even known that the wind could actually be drawn. Not without showing something blowing in it. But what she had put on the paper was the wind. And like the fire and the waterfall, it seemed to have life, to be real and almost tangible.
The bottom left corner showed an earthquake, and it was amazingly realistic. It wasn't a sketch of buildings toppling or a bridge crumbling. It simply showed the ground, but the ground split asunder. Once again, it was almost as if it were happening as she looked at the napkin. Something violent and almost mobile seemed to be captured on the fragile paper.
She set the pen down.
"I didn't know you could draw like that," Maggie marveled.
Melanie clenched her hands in her lap. "Neither did I," she admitted.
Maggie looked at her as if she had just grown a third eye in the middle of her forehead. "Wow," she said.
Melanie waved a hand in the air and forced what sounded like an easy laugh. "I don't think it's such a big deal. They say that we only use about a tenth of our mental capacity at any time. We were talking, and I guess I was distracted, so part of my subconscious mind kicked in or some such thing. Who knows? Anyway, I'm sure I couldn't do it again if I tried."
And she meant that. She couldn't usually so much as draw a stick figure.
She grabbed the beer in front of her and took a long swallow. She realized that she was barely keeping her cool, and that, too, was strange. She had learned long ago how to hide her thoughts and emotions, to play it easy in any given situation.
After all, she'd been around. Los Angeles wasn't actually home for her. She'd spent a lot of time touring Europe, hung out in New York City for a while and lived for many years in New Orleans, which was really home for her. It was where she had found a sense of herself, and where she had made so many good friends. They called themselves the Allianceand even far apart, they remained close, always ready to help one another out. Maggie was one of those friends, and she couldn't believe she felt uneasy in front of Maggie, who knew everything there was to know about her. But she did feel ill at ease, and all because she could suddenly draw.
Maggie sat back, arched a brow and took a long sip of her own beer. "I would have thought, if you were magically going to become a great artist, youbeing youwould have drawn Lassie."
"Very funny," Melanie said.
"Well, you are a fabulous dog trainer."
"Because I know animals respond to positive reinforcement," Melanie said.
"So do people," Maggie said, and set a hand on Melanie's. "Seriously
those are great. Don't look so worried."
"But it's so
strange that I, of all people, could draw something so good," Melanie said.
"I agree," Maggie told her, and that was when Melanie realized her friend was as weirded-out as she was by the whole thing.
They both had their day jobs, but it sometimes seemed that the Alliance, which operated totally beneath the regular radar of humanity, was the most defining force in their lives, one that made them react to even seemingly innocuous events with immediate suspicion. They dealt with the curious, from the slightly uncommon to the absolutely bizarre, which made sense, most of the members being rather unusual themselves. Their titular head, Lucien DeVeau, lived in New Orleans, where it seemed they most often gathered, since New Orleans seemed to attract the peculiar and mysterious. Then again, Melanie reflected, Los Angeles, where she was now living, could be most unusual itself. Back home, most of her friends were in relationships married, for the most part. Lucien had a wife he adored, Jade, who of course was part of the Alliance, too. For Melanie, it was like having a big family, but she hated being a third wheel, and it did sometimes feel that way when she was back home.
California had become her place. She was used to standing on her own here, at least on a day-to-day basis.
Tonight was supposed to have been just a nice evening out. Maggie had a houseful of children and a boutique that was thriving. Melanie's life was much easier in one senseno childrenbut she was extremely proud to be considered one of the finest trainers in the country now, and she traveled extensively to train show dogs, working dogs and just plain pet dogs. She had an affinity for all animals, not just dogs, and she had always seemed to have a special gift for working with them, from hamsters to horses. Training the unruly German shepherds of an A-list movie star had first brought her out here, and she had been determined to carve out a life for herself.
So far, it had been a fine life. And now and then she got really lucky and her friends came out to see her.
She had found her niche. She had a great job. She loved the animals she worked with, and they loved her.
In her own mind, at least, she didn't do half so well with most human beings. She was lucky to have very good friends despite that, though she wasn't quite certain she considered all of them to be human beings. Maggie, however, was definitely very human.
Maggie's home had always been New Orleans, but at least four times a year she took a much-needed break and traveled out to L.A. to spend a few days with Melanie. Her husband, Sean, was a great guy, a police lieutenant working the French Quarter, and though he was very busy himself, he was also a great father. His day job was very important to the Alliance, but he enjoyed getting quality time to bond with his brood when Maggie headed west.
Sometimes a few of Melanie's other friends joined them when they got together, but tonight it was just the two of them, and Melanie was glad of that.
If she hadn't already felt completely unnerved by the drawings, her friend's reaction would have alerted her that something weird was going on. Maggie was taking the drawings very seriously; Melanie could tell by the way her face had drawn taut and her eyes had darkened.
And Maggie always knew these things.
Maggie was a beautiful woman, with deep auburn hair and green eyes; she was down-to-earth and one of the most socially conscious people Melanie had ever met. She adored her own four children and especially loved five-year-olds. They were perfect people then, she had told Melanie once. Old enough to go potty, dress themselves and eat fairly neatly, but too young to have learned hatred or prejudice, and still willing to believe in the word of the adults around them.
"What about six-year-olds?" Melanie had asked her once.
"By that age they start questioning everything you say," Maggie had warned her.
Dogs to Melanie were like five-year-olds to Maggie. They offered up unconditional love. Many were incredibly bright. Most wanted to learn.
Bad dogs, she believed, were like most bad children: created by those around them. But then, that was a personal opinion.
And she was very aware that she was thinking about dogs and children because she was so upset that she had suddenly become an artist.
"How curious," Maggie said suddenly.
"Well, yes, we've established that," Mel said.
Maggie flashed her a smile before growing somber once again. "Think about it. You drew a waterfall. Water. The wind. Blowing windor air. Fire. And what seems to be an earthquake. Earth, wind, fire and water."
"Remember Earth, Wind and Fire? Great group," Melanie said.
Maggie flashed her a concerned frown.
" she began, then paused.
"What the hell is that?" Maggie asked suddenly.
"What?" Melanie asked.
"Can't you feel it?" Maggie asked.
Melanie looked up. They were seated by a gold-fili-greed mirror, and she caught sight of her own reflection. She was surprised to see that she looked so wide-eyed, so lost. She wasn't normally uncertain of anything.
It was the drawings, she knew.
She studied her own reflection: wide blue eyes, hair so blond that her friends teased her about looking angelic. Fair skin. She was talleven sitting she still somehow looked talland that seemed important suddenly. She carried her five-eleven with assurance, and that usually outweighed any suggestion of fragility because of her china-doll coloring.
But at that moment
There was something in her reflection.
"Feel it?" Maggie repeated, and tapped a finger on the corner of the cocktail napkin where Mel had drawn an earthquake.
"It's happening now," Maggie said.
And then Melanie did feel it.
The earth was trembling.
It had started off subtly. Still, she should have felt it, but she hadn't, not until Maggie brought it up.
But it was true. It was happening, slowly at first, barely there.
And then it increased.
Suddenly everyone in the restaurant began to feel it.
People started to talk all at once, panic rising in their voices.
"What the hell is that?" a gruff, heavy-set man demanded.
"Look, the glasses are all shaking!" a woman cried.
A rumbling sound started to rise over the softness of the dinner music playing in the background.
Dishes suddenly crashed to the floor.
"Earthquake!" someone shouted. "Get under a doorframe
Maggie and Melanie just stared at one another.
Because it was true. The rumbling had risen to the decibel level of a freight train rushing through the night. The chandeliers were shaking, the tinkling a strange counterpoint to the roar that was continuing to rise.
A statue near the doorway fell over with a crash.
A young woman let out a terrified scream and jumped to her feet, her chair crashing to the floor. The man with her dove beneath the table.
The woman, in a blind panic, went running toward the entrance.
"Oh, my God!" Melanie said, horrified. "I've got to stop her!"
Maggie caught her arm and tried to stop her.
"Get under the table," Melanie told her, then repeated the warning at the top of her voice as she raced for the door and the young woman who had run right out into the danger of smashing glass and crashing cars.
Outside, it was mayhem. As was so often true with quakes, one side of the street, was a mess. Her side looked almost untouched. In the street itself, cars were crushed and piled everywhere, horns blaring. People were running blindly, shouting in panic. Melanie saw the woman who had raced from the restaurant. She was standing like a deer caught in headlights, right in the middle of the road. Melanie hurried after her just as a Volvo, trying to avoid the crashed car in front of it, nearly plowed into her.
Melanie grasped her by the arm and realized that she was in shock.
"Get back in the doorway
She dragged the woman back toward the restaurant, where a busboy, standing in amazement by a support beam, reached for them just as a massive planter started to tumble from the terrace above them.
"Help her, please!" Melanie shouted, shoving the woman into the busboy's arms, then turning to leave. He caught her arm, dark eyes concerned.
"Where are you going? Things are still falling. There could be aftershocks. Please, get back in here!" he shouted to Mel.
"I'm all right," she told him. "I'm
uh, emergency personnel," she lied. She should have felt bad. He was rising to the fore in the midst of disaster, concerned about others.
But she couldn't stay.
And she couldn't explain what was tearing at her.
She had drawn the earthquake. And then it had happened.
She felt responsible.
She told herself that earthquakes were common in California. This wasn't an anomaly.
But this time
She couldn't help it. She felt responsible.
Alarms were going off everywhere. Glass was shattering, sirens blaring.
Outside the restaurant, Santa Monica Boulevard, with its beautiful shops and quaint air of sophistication, was a disaster. The earth was still rumbling. And then it stopped. Everyone seemed to freeze for a split second, as if time stood still. Another rumble camealong with renewed screaming. A smaller rumble followed a second later, and then everything went silent, unmoving. Melanie had been through a few tremors before, and she knew this wasn't the "big one" scientists had been predicting for years, but it had been a strong shake, and it looked as if it had been centered south of them. Looking around, she could see that most lights in the vicinity were gone, but a glow just a few streets over told her that at least part of the city was probably up. She thought about how capricious quakes could be as they spread out from the epicenter, crushing one block and leaving another with crystal curios still standing in their places.
Here, glass and masonry and more lay strewn everywhere.
Some people were staggering around in a daze, others were down, some cut, some screaming. Then came another blast of breaking glass.
This time, it wasn't the earth taking vengeance.
It was a group of hoods.
How anyone had recovered quickly enough from an earthquake to start thinking of looting, Melanie didn't know.