Sign of Foul Play: Chapter One

The jolt came out of nowhere.

       I sat up rigid in my sofabed 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 of 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 said, when I sensed it was over. At least for now.

     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 overturned Sierra Nevada beer bottle had hopped off an 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 Underdog sheets, then 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. “What was that?!” those scaredy-cats from the East Coast are always screaming every time there’s a little shiver. 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.” That’s how my old boyfriend always responded.

     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 turned to the window and watched the shimmering oak trees through the woven bedroom curtains my mother had given me when I’d moved to 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 sofabed, computer, TV, and 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. I checked the glowing numbers on the Shake-A-Wake 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 at 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 comes over to me and barks when there’s trouble. Even though I can’t hear the noise she makes, I can see her head snap and I know what it means.

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 experience, sound ghost 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 stuck buzzer on the washing machine, a low-flying plane overhead, or a country western singer on the 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 low-top athletic shoes - my favorite dress-for-success outfit. After a good fight with my hairbrush - the hairbrush won -  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. The Hotel is located in the center of town and once served as a brothel to the lonely miners who came to the gold country searching for riches. 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 office/home-away-from-home, Jeremiah Mercer’s “Fish Out of Water” comic book/surf/skateboard shop, and three empty offices.

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 had only been in Flat Skunk a few months, but we’d become good friends after investigating the disappearance of his half-brother, Boone.

I started to put the key in my lock, but the 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 mid-air.

“I didn’t know I had Myst on my computer. Amazing. And even more amazing - you’re in early!”

“I couldn’t sleep after that 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 draw the line at a twelve-year difference.

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. He’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, and recycled computer games, and skateboards - he’s teaching me to skateboard - he also works on his own inventions. He’s created a convenient 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 the 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.

“How big was earthquake?” 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 11:30 - 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? Okay?”

“It worked pretty well. Definitely showed signs of 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 hit the floor 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 propped and crooked against the wall. Unfortunately, my Venus Flytrap had met an untimely death, having tumbled to the floor from the window sill. 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 1800’s, would hold up through the next one. 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 stopped, shrugged, and signed, “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. Bruce Taylor’s pick-up 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 at 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 does he want?”

Miah interpreted the words into sign. “‘Connor. Better get over to the 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. He 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. Just said get over there 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 they call four-story buildings here in the gold country. I grabbed my camera and stuffed the rest of the phone messages into my backpack in case I needed to make other stops. On my way out the door, I gave Miah an assignment to research the Calaveras Fault that lay under the Mother Lode chain like a hot vein of gold. I knew he’d be free until school let out before he had to open up his shop.

I hopped on my bike and rode back to my diner to pick up my ‘57 Chevy Bel Air.

The ride 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 Thunder Camp. The construction site was on top of a small grade overlooking the moon-like volcanic rock and red paintbrush that dotted the countryside.

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 carpenters 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.

“They call me the Tool. Anything you need, I’ve probably got it right here.” His lips were easy to read. So was his body language, as he cupped a hand over his button fly and gave me a wink.

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 co-workers, 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. He tucked his unkempt long hair behind his ears, revealing a pair of small hoop earrings.

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 and 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 reached them.

“Hi Sheriff, Dan.” I nodded to the others. “What’s going on? Got some quake damage my newspaper might want to know--”

As the sheriff stepped back clearing my view, I stopped in mid-sentence and caught my breath.

A man lay awkwardly crumpled on the basement floor, his head smashed against the cold concrete, blood splattered like a starburst. A length of steel rebar jutted out from his blood-soaked back.

He’d been skewered to death.