Earthquake Weather – Snippet 34

The book is available now so this is the last snippet.

Earthquake Weather – Snippet 34

Angelica had walked up to him, and now put her hands on his shoulders and pushed down hard. His knees buckled, and he sat down abruptly on a chair that Diana had slid behind him a moment before.

“He is dead,” Angelica said to him clearly. “The only symptoms he doesn’t show are livor mortis, which is the discoloration caused by blood settling in the lowest areas of the body, and any evidence of decomposition. These may be signs that your girl can do something. Take a deep breath and let it out–would you like a drink?”

“No! I mean–hell yes.”

Cochran heard a clink behind him, and then Diana was pressing a glass of amber liquid into his shaking hand. It proved to be brandy.

“Do something?” he said breathlessly after he’d drunk most of it and helplessly splashed the rest onto the front of his T-shirt. “What you can do is call the–the coroner. All this supernatural talk is just–entertaining as hell, but it’s all crap, you’ve got–”

“This is all supernatural,” said Pete Sullivan loudly, overriding him. “From this undecaying body here all the way down to the TV in the other room. It’s all real, independent of whether you believe it or not.”

Pete smiled tiredly and went on in a quieter voice. “Hell, we had a–a piece of string!–here, that an old man in Mexico gave to Angelica; it couldn’t be severed. Just ordinary cotton string, and you could have cut it or burned it in two with a match, or just pulled it apart in your hands–if you could have got around to it! But somehow every time you’d try, something would interrupt–the phone would ring, or you’d cut yourself with the scissors and have to go get a Band-Aid, or the cat would start to throw up on some important papers, or you’d accidentally drop the string down behind the couch. I suppose if you really cornered it and forced it, you’d find that you’d suffered a stroke or a heart attack, or got knocked down by a random bullet through the window–and the piece of string would be on the floor somewhere, still whole.” He shook his head. “None of these things make logical sense, but they’re true anyway. If you insist on the world being logical at every turn, you’ll eventually be forced to retreat all the way into genuine insanity, I promise you.”

“Bring me the goddamn piece of string,” said Cochran loudly. “I’ll break the son of a bitch for you!”

Angelica stood back and crossed her arms. “We lost it.”

After a tense moment, Cochran let his shoulders slump; he sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. “I suppose he’s really a king, too. What’s he king of, what was he king of?”

“The land, for one thing,” said Kootie, who had followed them into the kitchen, “the American West. If he’s well, the land is well–right now he’s dead, and we’re in winter and having earthquakes all over. God knows what the spring will be like, or if there’ll even be one.”

Cochran raised his head and stared at the dead man’s strong, bearded face. It was pale, and the eyes were closed, but Cochran could see humor and sternness in the lines around the eyes and down the cheeks. “How could he have been . . . in ‘a weakened state’?” he asked softly.

Mavranos was frowning, and he passed the revolver from his right hand to his left and back again; Cochran could hear the bullets rattle faintly in the chambers. “We didn’t know how. He and Diana were having healthy babies–though this last couple of years the kids were getting bad fevers in the winter–and the land was yielding several crops a year! But there were signs–the phylloxera–”

“The phylloxera had nothing to do with anything,” snapped Diana angrily from behind Cochran.

“Okay,” Mavranos said. “Then I haven’t got a clue.”

“What the hell’s a phylloxera?” asked Plumtree.

“It’s not important,” Diana said. “Don’t talk about it.”

Cochran said nothing–but he knew what phylloxera was. It was a plant louse that in the 1830s had inadvertently been brought from America to Europe, where it had eventually nearly wiped out all the vineyards–the fabulous old growths in Germany, and Italy, and even France, even Bordeaux. The louse injected a toxin that killed the roots, six feet under, so that the vine and the grapes up on the surface withered away and died; the eventual desperate cure had been to graft the classic old European vitis vinifera grapevines, everything from Pinot Noir and Riesling to Malvasia and the Spanish Pedro Ximenez, onto phylloxera-resistant vitis riparia roots from America. But now, just since about 1990, a new breed of phylloxera had been devastating the California vineyards, which were mostly grown on a modern hybrid rootstock known as AXR#1. Most of Pace Vineyards’ vines were old Zinfandel and Pinot Noir on pre-war riparia rootstocks, so the subterranean plague hadn’t hit them, but Cochran knew personally a number of winemakers in San Mateo and Santa Clara and Alameda Counties who were facing bankruptcy because of the expense of tearing out the infested AXR#1 vines and replanting with new vines, which wouldn’t produce a commercial crop for three to five years.

He thought of what Kootie had said–If he’s well, the land is well. And he thought of the billions of minute phylloxera lice, busily working away six feet under. The land, Cochran thought, has not been truly well for several years.

“And he was always . . . less powerful, in winter,” Mavranos said, shrugging, “and stronger in summer. One of the tarot cards that represents him is Il Sole, the Sun card.”

“This really is Solville,” said Angelica quietly, “while he’s here.”

Kootie pointed at the withered bean sprouts in Angelica’s Gardens of Adonis pans on the counter by the door. “Solville in eclipse,” he said.

“Not runnin’ a carny peep-show here,” said Mavranos gruffly. “Back into the office, now.”

“Wait a minute,” mumbled old Spider Joe, who had been peering in blindly through the doorway. “I’ve got to . . . put in my two cents’ worth.” He pushed his way into the kitchen now, his projecting curb-feelers dragging noisily through the doorframe and then twanging free to wave and bob over the dead man’s bare feet. One of the metal filaments whipped across Plumtree’s cheek, and she whispered, “Shit, dude!” and batted it away.

The white-bearded old blind man dug two silver-dollar-size coins out of the pocket of his stained khaki windbreaker, and for a moment he held them out on his outstretched palm. They appeared to be dirty gold, and were only crudely round, with bunches of grapes stamped in high relief on their faces, along with the letters TPA.

“Trapezus, on the Black Sea,” exclaimed Kootie, “is where those are from. Those are about two thousand years old!”

Spider Joe closed his hand, and when he opened it again the coins were United States silver dollars. “These are what he paid me with, nearly five years ago, for the tarot-card reading that led him to the throne.”

“I remember,” said Mavranos quietly.

“Well, he’s gonna need them again, now, isn’t he?–to pay for passage across the Styx, and for the drink of surrender from the Lethe River, over on the far side of India.” In spite of being blind, the old man shuffled forward, reached out and accurately laid one of the coins on each of the dead man’s closed eyelids.

Mavranos’ face was stiff. “We okay now? Right, everybody out.”

They all began shuffling and elbowing their way through the doorway back into the office, while Mavranos hung back with the revolver; a couple of Spider Joe’s antennae hooked one of Angelica’s bean pans off the counter and flung it clattering to the floor, spilling dirt and withered bean sprouts across the linoleum.

 

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