Friday, December 4, 2020

Issue #70 -- December 2020



That is some serious badass work, right there. Brett Holder stood in the middle of the living room, studying with awe the arched ceiling and the beams made of cross-braced steel. Should withstand some powerful rocking when Ole Shakey comes a-knocking. Maybe up to a seven-point-two magnitude or even a seven-point-three. No rattletrap shack, this.

A series of rounded doorways led to the back area where Brett could just spy a concrete-form swimming pool through sliding doors reinforced with steel—naturally—in the kitchen. Yet another sign of the crapload of moolah spent on quake-proofing. The mayor of San Fran should have it so good.

He nodded to his companion. “Looks like you’ve thought of everything.”

“I don’t know, Brett, I don’t know.” Nelson Sanzo looked around with a frown. “I mean, the architect guaranteed this house would last through anything. Even an apocalypse of zombies. But what if he forgot something crucial?”

“Like what?”

“How the hell should I know since I’ve never been through this before? And that’s the problem, isn’t it?” Sanzo looked at Brett hopefully. “That’s why I want you to take a look around. Since you’re an expert on these things. And since you’ve been through quakes before.”

“I’ve been through a lot, that’s for sure.”

“Well, what do you think? Am I forgetting something? I mean, the architect’s good and all. But it’s not his life that’s at stake, is it?” Sanzo started pacing.

The guy had a point there. But Brett didn’t want to get into any conjectural discussions about people’s ethics and motives. He lived with that every moment of every day in his line of work. “I checked on that architect before I arrived. Has a stellar reputation. Lots of satisfied clients.”

Sanzo started to reply but stopped his pacing and stood as still as the Leaning Tower of Pisa—pretty apt since it looked he might topple at any moment. “Did you feel that? I thought I just felt something. There, right there. Is it a quake?” His eyes grew wide, and he bit his lip so hard, it bled.

“Well, I—”

“God. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.” Sanzo started paced around the room again, hardly listening to his companion. “I keep waiting to feel my first one. Hoping it’ll ease my nerves a little. To know what it’s like, you know?”

Brett waited for a moment to see if he felt anything. Hmm. Maybe if he squinted a bit. “Yeah, I think maybe I did feel a little movement. Not too bad, maybe a two or a two-point-one or so. But it could also be one of those early warning precursor types. You know, the ones that signal far worse bumps are on the way.”

“Early warning? I don’t like the sound of that.” Sanzo sat on the edge of a chair. “Blizzards, hail, flooding—I never had a problem with any of that back in Boston.” His voice ended with a squeak. “You’ve lived here a long time, haven’t you, Brett?”

“’Bout twenty years.”

“Do you ever get used to them? To the earthquakes? Even the baby ones?”

“Like you get used to walking around on a broken leg, maybe.” Brett eyed his new friend skeptically. The guy was jittery, might be unpredictable. “Why’d you move out here, anyway, if you’re so scared of the quakes?”

“My job, for one. I’m heading up the west coast branch of Olympic Macro. But it was mostly my ex-wife, Sarah. Tried to rob me blind during the divorce despite the prenup. All because I cheated on her a few times. Figured I needed to put as much distance from her as possible.”

Brett nodded. He knew a thing or two about exes. And putting distance between people.

Sanzo pointed to at a display case filled with unusual baseball-sized rocks dotted with red crystals. “She got the Beamer and the Jag and tried to get her hands on those but failed. Guess I had the better lawyer, didn’t I?”

Brett peered at the case and strode over to take a closer look. The rocks were even more impressive up close. “You know, glass might not be the best choice to display something like that. Or to display anything, for that matter. Not around here.”

“I made sure it was shatter-proof. Something else the architect did for me. And the Red Beryl gems are mounted so they won’t fall off.”

Even mounted so the bottoms were invisible, the five Red Beryl rocks were exquisite. The huge red crystals emerging out of the rocks resembled Superman’s ice fortress of solitude. Brett remembered hearing about items like those rocks selling for a bunch. Guess some people really liked pretty rocks.

Sanzo added, “My attorney wanted me to put them in a safe deposit box, but criminal-types steal from those boxes all the time. Just read about a case the other day. Some heirs went into a bank to rescue some estate jewelry, and it had all disappeared. My security system is much better.”

“And earthquake-proof?”

“It’s rated up to an eight or so. Don’t want every little bump triggering it.” Nelson’s face paled as his eyes grew wide again. “I know I felt one. There, right then. Didn’t you feel it? You must have felt it.”

Brett hadn’t, but most Californians shook off the teensy ones, didn’t they? He humored his companion. “I felt it.”

Beads of sweat broke out on Nelson’s forehead. “I remember all the news reports about Loma Prieta on TV back in 1989. The way those cars got squished on the double-decker Nimitz Freeway. Upper stories of houses pancaking down onto the lower floors. And the fires, Jesus, the fires.”

Brett nodded. “Now, those big ones like that six-point-nine, those are pretty scary. Even for us old-timers. Kind of like the floor turns to Jell-O, and you’re going to get sucked down into it.”

Sanzo frowned at him. “What?”

Brett chuckled. “My mom’s from the South. She likes to make these gelatin salads with pieces of fruit in them. Well, during Loma Prieta, I had a much greater sympathy for that fruit.”

Sanzo didn’t seem to appreciate his attempt at humor and said with a frown, “They need an early warning system. Why don’t they have one, Brett? We pay the government billions each year, and they can’t even come up with one fucking early warning system.”

“And what would you do then, eh? The quakes are going to happen, one way or the other. Any heads up might only give you less than a minute’s notice.”

“What would I do? I’ll tell you exactly what I’d do. Go to my bomb shelter, of course.”

Brett blinked at him. “Bomb shelter?”

“The main reason I bought this place. Other than the views of the Pacific. It came with a shelter left over from the Cold War. I had it done up as an earthquake bunker.”

“Out back?”

“In the basement.”

“Hmm. Guess that would work.” Brett stroked his chin. “Although, seems like I recall one family getting trapped in their basement during a sixer.”

“But that won’t happen here, the architect assured me. The house was built to stay standing. I’ll be fine. And I’ve got it stacked with about a week’s worth of food and supplies.”

“That’s good, that’s good.” Brett nodded. “Get cellphone service down there?”


Brett waved a hand in the air. “Nah, it wouldn’t matter, anyway. A lot of the towers go offline in disasters.”


“Hard to call for help when that happens.”

“Surely there would be a few towers left that work?”

“The police tell people not to use the system. So that the remaining lines can be used for the emergency response.”

“Well, that’s just great.” Sanzo furrowed his sweaty brow. “And how much do we pay their salaries? Why don’t they get other fucking ways to do their business? So victims like us can use phones, too?”

“They do have some alternatives. But they’re pretty busy rescuing people from those crushed cars and pancaked buildings. They need all the resources they can get.”

This time, Brett didn’t have to humor Sanzo as the ground did a little quaky-dance. Brett said, “Might be another precursor. You know, the kind that sometimes builds up to a bigger one. And then that one builds up to an even bigger one. Then ... pow! Hits you with full force.”

Sanzo groaned. “Why couldn’t Olympic Macro send me to Arizona or Texas instead? Warm weather without the ground trying to kill you.”

“I hear you on that. Thought about moving someplace else, myself. Still might. There’s a lot of drug-running down there in Arizona. Might make things interesting.”

When the ground rumbled again, Sanzo shrieked. It was amazing how much a grown man could sound like a teenage girl when his courage turned to crap.

Brett said, “There’s your early warning system, right there. Those little ones, then the big one. One, two, three, boom!”

Sanzo hurried over to a door in the hallway, and Brett followed out of curiosity. Sanzo opened it and looked down. “Gotta reassure myself the earthquake bunker is still there. Just in case this really is the big one. Or the precursor, like you said.”

Brett could see the door at the bottom of the stairs, but not much else. Wondered how long those emergency cans of hash and beans would stay good. The thought of food made him hungry. “Tell you what—why don’t you go get a beer. Courage in a bottle can help a lot. Bring me one while you’re at it. We’ll toast to our good health and the architect’s genius.”

When Sanzo disappeared, Brett decided to look around the front room a bit more and stretch his legs. The sun angle at this time of day was just right to ping off those high wooden beams and back onto that display case of Red Beryl rocks. Made them look a little like stars. Shiny red stars. Or maybe it was more like those fires after Loma Prieta?

Sanzo returned with two bottles and handed one over. But he didn’t have time to open it when the ground started to shake twice as much as before. “Oh, my god, oh my god.” The man had an expression on his face like an agoraphobic in a stadium full of people, the beer all but forgotten. “The bunker, we should go to the bunker.”

“You head on down. I have to grab something from my car. And then I’ll be right behind you. Just don’t lock me out, ’kay?”

Sanzo scurried away and disappeared down the stairs as the rumbling continued for a few seconds. Brett gave the other man just enough time to get into his basement shelter, then grabbed a dining room chair and headed down the stairs. After wedging the chair under the doorknob nice and tight—you’d think the guy would have gotten an upgraded door, too—Nelson made his way back to the living room.

Spying a pillow with a purple-paisley sham cover, he eased the sham off and then made his way to the display case where he deactivated the alarm, grabbed the Red Beryl rocks, and placed them in the sham case. Made a pretty good sack for loot, it did. Just the right size.

Brett looked at his watch and chuckled to himself. The Southstone Zinc Mine was punctual, for sure. Every first Monday of the month at three, and off went the depth charges like clockwork. Boom, bang, boing. The locals had warned him it felt remarkably like an earthquake, and damn if they weren’t right. Too bad Sanzo hadn’t been there long enough to find that out for himself.

Good thing, too, the architect Sanzo hired developed a pretty loose tongue after a few whiskey sours. It had been all too easy to learn about that “bomb shelter” tidbit.

Brett went to his car and slid into the driver’s seat. They might find his fingerprints later on the chair and doorknob, but it wouldn’t matter because he wasn’t in the system. The invisible man. No fixed address, certainly not in California. Or anywhere, for that matter. Had to stay nimble and mobile in his business, ready to go wherever a new gig warranted it. Depending on the client, of course.

And this particular client, by the name of Sarah Sanzo—as in the ex-Mrs. Nelson Sanzo—had promised him ten percent of the black-market sales of these here Red Beryl rocks. He figured that would net him about fifty grand.

Oh, and he really would call the police at some point. Really. Poor Sanzo might have enough rations for a time, but possibly not enough for weeks or months. Brett might be a lot of things, but he wasn’t a murderer.

All that talk of rations made him hungry again, and Brett had a sudden craving for Jell-O salad. Maybe if he drove straight through with a couple quick shut-eye stops in rest areas, he’d make it to Mississippi by Wednesday. Bentley’s Diner there made a pretty good gelatin salad, heavy on the fruit. Fifty grand was going to buy him an awful lot of gelatin salad.

BV Lawson’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and honored by Derringer, Golden Fedora, and Gemini Magazine Awards, and she was also a contributor to the Anthony Award-winning Blood on the Bayou. BV’s Scott Drayco crime novels have also been named Best Mystery in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, chosen as a Featured Library Journal Pick, and been a finalist for Shamus, Silver Falchion, Daphne Award, and Foreword Reviews book awards. BV lives in Virginia with her husband and enjoys flying above the Chesapeake Bay in a little Cessna. Visit her website at No ticket required.

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