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A stillness fell over the slumbering town of Milford-Haven, leaving a void of silence as sudden and eerie as the eye of a storm. Ground-dwelling creatures hunkered down and shook like early warning transmitters. Birds clung to branches as silent sentinels.
Twenty miles off the Central Coast the Hosgri fault lay in its long dormancy below the waves ten miles offshore. But it waited, a conduit ready to transmit a wave of seismic energy long pent below the ocean floor.
Like a crack of thunder, the first shock pulsed down the fault and rose into the air in audible form. In response, a perfect wave gathered volume from the ocean floor and rose to rush for the shore.
Shaken from its long support, the shoreline shuddered in resonance and groaned as if its bones were cracking, its sinews tearing loose.
The last notable earthquake struck this area in 1927-- beyond the memories of all but the most senior of its residents. Previous events must undoubtedly have oscillated through the local lithosphere. But they were accounted seismologically prehistoric since no seismographs were as yet in use in the California of such earlier years.
Though momentous by human standards, all such measurements were mere heartbeats to the science of geology. Like two time-keeping devices, man-logic and geologic measured out moments on two different scales, one counting nano-seconds while the other recorded centuries as micro units.
Like two currencies whose rate of exchange made either too much coin for one side, or a surfeit of paper on the other, the two realities existed side by side aware of each other only where deficits appeared on the balance books.
However the reckoning was done, the Central Coast was overdue, and today Nature was paying her debt.
Slumbering beneath the soil, the spirits of the first Americans expected these occasional rumblings and were usually undisturbed by them. Mother Earth had been good to them in their mortal incarnations and had made good use of their human forms when consciousness had moved on to the Spirit World.
But within the ancient geological strata, an abuse had disturbed their rest for many months, and now Mother Earth would no longer contain the unholy secret.
When it had first been entombed, the obedient body had followed tribal custom in yielding its soul to the surrounding soil. Had the body enjoyed a normal death, the Spirits would not have objected. But since it had met an untimely end, perhaps the Spirits themselves, angered and instigated to action, had caused the unholy upheaval.
Modern scientists would call it a shifting of the sands in the foundation in response to an underground tremor. But if someone was at fault, it was the Spirits of the Central Coast whose voices would be silent no longer.
Deputy Delmar Johnson leapt out of a deep sleep at full alert, springing from his bed in one fluid motion. Jerking his head from side to side in the dark, he looked for the slightest glint of the man who'd shaken his mattress— probably a perp tripping as he tried to exit the room.
Still struggling to determine who'd invaded his bedroom, Del's lightning reflexes brought his gun to hand even before he slapped his thigh to switch on the sound-activated light. The light didn't work. Staggering slightly, he ran into the empty living room. It was when he saw the dining room lamp swinging from the ceiling that he realized it wasn't an intruder who'd disturbed his sleep. It'd been a long time since an earthquake had thrown him out of bed.
The first image that sprang into his mind was that the looting would start as soon as it was light. As a beat cop, he'd soon be called in as reinforcement for crowd control. As quickly as these thoughts crowded into his mind, he arrested them, locking them in a cell with the other memories burned into him by his years in South Central Los Angeles.
This was the Central Coast, and things like looting and pilfering didn't happen here. Even so, he felt uncomfortably vulnerable fumbling for his flashlight and looking for some underwear.
Yanking on his uniform trousers and snapping his holster into place, he reminded himself he was now a member of the Special Project Unit. As such, his job was mostly to protect the good citizens among whom he now lived from crimes of a more subtle nature.
As his pulse slowed, Del stood, feeling the floor for the tell-tale vibrations of aftershocks. This had been a seismic event of medium magnitude. He'd been through bigger quakes in the South Central of his youth and early professional years. Generation upon generation of welfare, neighborhood gangs and blighted opportunity had created a society of lack. He'd sensed his people were angry even when they didn't know they were, and when some so-called act of God came along—anything from a hot- summer power brownout to the Rodney King verdict—that anger erupted with the sudden vehemence of pent up frustration and seething disappointment.
Where other segments of society might pull together in an emergency, there, every day was a crisis of its own, setting the stage for disaster as inexorably as drought sets the stage for forest fire. Only through an exquisite clarity of faith did people thrive in such a setting, and that accounted for the miraculous life his own mother had led.
For as long as he could remember, Ruby'd fed the neighborhood children and handed out oversized helpings of Christian virtue with every bite of delicious home cooking. There was no such thing as lack in Ruby's world: the Lord provided. During services at the AME Church at the end of their street, the congregation swayed and sang rousing hymns, all the while their mouths watering from the aromas wafting up from the basement kitchen where Ruby was cooking breakfast.
The memory brought him up short, and Del realized he was hungry. There'd be no stop at Sally's this morning for a homemade biscuit. Switching on his flashlight, he headed to his own kitchen in search of something to eat.
Opening the refrigerator door, he saw a carton of orange juice and a box of stale donuts—a law enforcement clich, but they'd do. Pulling out his kitchen chair, he sat and munched the donuts, chasing them with a few swigs from the half-empty carton. He'd situated the large, squared floodlamp of a flashlight so it bounced light across the room to a collection of books he'd borrowed from the local library. Here in the heart of California's coast land, the only histories he'd read so far were those of adventurers of one sort or another.
His current favorite was the colorful history of what was now the Lighthouse Museum and Restaurant. Like a historical novel, Piedras Blancas Light House—A History unfolded the heroics of sea captains who'd ventured here across the wide oceans, and of Coast Guard members who'd rescued those who'd run aground. That was one kind of adventurer.
Then there was William Randolph Hearst, a captain of political intrigue who wielded the power of his presses with an iron will, an enigma of a man seemingly torn between philanthropy and debauchery like an overfed Roman Emperor whose solution to every problem was purchase and ownership.
What of the common man and woman who'd moved here to the Central Coast? Their lineages were harder to trace, but it seemed beauty was the magnet, and artists were the people with enough iron in their souls to feel the pull. Sensing their psyches would be fed by the cooler weather, the rocky coastline and the absence of metropoli, painters and poets, dramatists and potters, sculptors and composers had created enclaves here, Milford-Haven being the most intensified version of the coastal artist-town.
Of course infrastructure had grown with businesses too. The towns had stayed small, each of them bubbling with entrepreneurial opportunity. Every kind of shop was needed—there was still no shoe store in either Milford-Haven or Cambria. Yet galleries and jewelry stores abounded.
And all this created little pockets into which the tourists flowed like river water into catch pools, spending money while they inhaled the sea air, ogled the local offerings and reconnected with their own latent artistic sensibilities.
When did the citizens of South Central L.A. ever have a chance to buy a piece of driftwood or kick smooth stones along the shore? When could they ever drop their guard? When could they allow their thoughts to run freely? Those who did generally found themselves following the crowd into one sort of crime or another.
The overhead lamp in Del's dining room was no longer swinging, and the earth seemed to have settled—for the moment. He'd never been through an earthquake in his still-new area. If looting wouldn't be the local reaction, what would be? Had there been serious damage somewhere? Was anyone hurt? Jumping to his feet, Del hastened to finish dressing and went to check in with base.
Though dawn wouldn't reach the Central Coast for another hour, Deputy Johnson had already completed a slow scrutiny of Touchstone Beach. Its row of charming motels stood with their signs eerily unlit. Seeing a group of people standing outside the main entrance of the Belhaven, he'd stopped in and chatted briefly with Mr. Connor. No damage to the motel, the owner'd said, reassuring the restless group of tousled guests. Those who hadn't already decided to pack up and leave the area were standing in their robes and slippers, shuffling against the chill air. With the gas burner in the motel office kitchen, Mrs. Connor had made a fresh pot of coffee. Thanking her, Del gratefully accepted a small Styrofoam cupful.
Now he sipped the hot liquid, edging his SUV across Highway 1, and turned down Main Street. Training the car's searchlight along the Southwest side of the street, he balanced his coffee in one hand and turned the wheel with the other. A severe bump sloshed coffee across his hand. "Damn!" he said to the dark, pulling the car over.
Licking the hot liquid from his skin, he turned to see what had caused the bump—a dead animal, perhaps, though he hoped not. He could see nothing but the double yellow line painted down the middle of the road. But the line seemed broken.
"Doesn't make sense," he muttered to himself, placing his cup in the holder and stepping outside. He remembered the paint had recently been redone. Clicking on his portable flashlight, he trained it on the median line. "Good Lord." His mother wouldn't appreciate Del's taking His name in vain, and he seldom did.
The once-solid double yellow line was now interrupted and continued on the other side of a fissure, offsetting the line by five or six inches. That fissure—paralleling the median line so closely he'd never have seen it in the dark—stretched as far as he could see down Main Street.
His heart thumping in his chest, Del stood and felt a wave of fear sweep over him. For the second time that morning, he was feeling vulnerable.
By 8 a.m., news of the fissure down Main Street had hit the town like an aftershock. Most had heard the broadcast from KMH, Milford-Haven's small local station. Their own "Radio Jones" had fired up his generator and was doing his best to keep everyone apprised of the latest emergency information.
Others heard the news from their neighbors, standing in huddles outside their homes. Along Main Street some stood in stunned silence, some in nervously chattering groups.
The fissure was clear enough now in the bright morning light. Large enough to swallow a small dog or a large cat, the crack had actually offset the center line by six inches at the Northwest end of town. Del had set up some barriers until CalTrans could get here and do the job properly.
Meanwhile, Del had other areas to inspect. Some of the signs of damage were obvious. Some were more subtle. On this preliminary drive-by he'd need to leave the assessment of cracks in plaster to building inspectors, stopping and searching for potential victims in only the most obviously damaged structures.
Having completed his initial sweep of the town and reported his findings, he now angled his car north on California 1 to check for highway damage. If any vehicles were traveling at high speed and encountered another fissure like the one in town, a serious accident could result. Keeping his own speed low, he squinted as he focused his eyes on the road and his ears on the police band radio. Reports of damage were being called in from Sam Simeon, Morro Bay and Atascadero. One of his concerns was the historic lighthouse...how had it fared in the quake? It seemed ironic he'd just been reading about it. He'd have to check Piedras Blancas later when he made his drive south.
Rounding a bend fifteen miles north of Milford-Haven, he had to stomp on the brakes and swerve to avoid a felled tree. Mud covered the road from one side to the other, mud and who knew what else concealed within—boulders, more trees—God willing, not a car.
Setting the emergency brake, he stepped out for a better look. The landslide was bad. An immense volume of earth had slid from its seemingly secure perch overhead. Glancing up above the east side of the highway, Del saw the remains of a high bluff overlooking the ocean, now collapsed across the road, sending tons of debris crashing into the ocean.
Standing at the edge of the rubble, Del tried to see past it to gauge its width, and couldn't. It would take CalTrans days to clear it. And there was no point in doing so till they'd stabilized the bluff.
No traffic would be getting through on Highway 1 today, nor any time soon.