Earthquake Weather – Snippet 29

“God help everybody,” said Strubie softly.

Strubie reached under the lapel of his midget’s jacket and slid out of an inner pocket a flat half-pint bottle of Four Roses whiskey; he unscrewed the cap and took a deep swig of the brown liquor; his long exhalation afterward was almost a whistle.

“The boy’s name is Koot Hoomie Parganas,” he said hoarsely. “His parents were murdered just before Halloween in ’92, because they were in the way. The Parganas boy had another person inside his head with him–you should be able to empathize–and a lot of ruthless people wanted that person, wanted to consume it into themselves. For them to do that, incidentally, would have involved killing the boy.”

He sat down on the credenza and lowered his face into his hands. “The last I heard of him,” came his muffled voice, “he was living in an apartment building in Long Beach. I don’t remember the address, but it’s a big old rambling three-story place on the northwest corner of Ocean and Twenty-First Place, run-down, with a dozen mailboxes out front, and he was living there with a man named Peter Sullivan and a woman named Angelica Elizalde.” He raised his head and pried off his bulbous red nose; his real nose was textured and scored with red capillaries. “The building used to belong to Nicholas Bradshaw, the man who played the Spooky character in the old ‘Ghost of a Chance’ TV show–he owned the building under the alias Solomon Shadroe–but it was quit-claimed to his common-law wife, who had some Mexican last name.”

“Valorie’s got all that,” said Plumtree. “Do you owe this Koot Hoomie any money?”

“Owe him–?” said Strubie, frowning. “I don’t think so. No. In fact, I got gypped out of a reward, when I led the bad people there; they were offering a reward to whoever could find Bradshaw, find the Spooky character, and I used to work for Bradshaw when he was a lawyer, after he quit being an actor, so I was able to track him down there. I never got–”

“It sounds like you made Koot Hoomie’s life harder, doing that,” said Plumtree. “Would you like me to take any money to him, from you, as a token of restitution?”

The clown put down his bottle and stared at her out of his red, watery eyes. “I couldn’t,” he said finally, stiffly, “give you more than a hundred dollars. I swear, that’s the absolute–”

“I think that’ll do,” said Plumtree.

The clown stared at her for another few seconds, then wearily got to his feet and shuffled out of the room in his blimp shoes. Cochran could hear him bumping down an uncarpeted hall, and then a door squeaked and clicked shut.

Cochran exhaled through clenched teeth. “This is very damned wrong, Cody,” he whispered. “This poor man can’t afford your . . . extortion, or protection, or whatever it is. Hell, I’m sure that lady in the bar couldn’t afford to lose her purse! I’m going to–first chance I get, I’m going to pay these people back–”

“Talk the virtuous talk, by all means,” Plumtree interrupted. “Janis can give you tips on it. I’ll make my own restitutions, like always. In the meantime, I don’t need to hear your estimates of how much cash is enough to finance the resurrection of a dead king.” Her lip curled in a smile. “No offense, pansy.”

Cochran shook his head. “Janis is right about you. Did you know she escaped to save your life?”

“Well sure. She needs me a whole lot more than I need her.”

The door down the hall creaked open again, and the clown soon reappeared with a sheaf of crumpled bills in his hand.

“I’m paying not to see you people again,” he said.

“We’ll see you get your money’s worth,” Plumtree told him, standing up and taking the bills. She even counted them–Cochran could see that it wasn’t all twenties, that there were at least a couple of fives in the handful.

Strubie crouched with an effortful grunt, and picked the latex bald wig up off the green carpet; and when he had straightened up again he tugged it back over his hair, and retrieved the rubber nose from where he had set it down on the credenza and planted it firmly on his face again. “You’ve stirred old ghosts tonight,” he said hoarsely. “I’ll sleep in my full mask.”

“Let’s for Christ’s sake go,” said Cochran, struggling back up onto his feet.

Plumtree pushed the bills into the newly acquired purse and strode to the door.

When she and Cochran had stepped out onto the devastated dark porch, and then made their unsteady way down the driveway to the halo of streetlight radiance at the curb, Cochran squinted back at the house, and in spite of everything that had gone before, he jumped in surprise to see five–or was it six?–thin  little girls in tattered white dresses perched like sickly cockatoos on the street edge of the roof, their skinny arms clasped around their raised knees. They seemed to be staring toward Plumtree and him, but they didn’t nod or wave.

“Look at me!” said Plumtree in an urgent whisper. When Cochran had jerked his head around toward her, she went on, “Don’t look them in the eyes, you idiot. You want to be bringing a bunch of dead kids along with us? And you’re not even masked! You’d just flop down dead, right here. Those are Strubie’s concerns, whoever they might once have been, not ours.”

Cochran’s head was ringing in incredulous protest, but he didn’t look back at the girls on the roof.

Plumtree had started scuffling along the street in the direction of the gas station and liquor store lights of Bellflower Boulevard, and he followed, shivering and pushing his hands into the pockets of his corduroy pants.

Cochran forced himself to forget about the ragged little girls and to focus on Plumtree and himself. “We’ve got plenty enough money for a motel,” he said. “To sleep in,” he added.

“Maybe it’s a motel we’ll wind up at tonight,” Plumtree allowed, “but it’ll be in Long Beach, I think. We need to find another cab.”

Cochran sighed, but broadened his stride to keep up with her. Perhaps because of Long John Beach’s upsettingly wrong lyrics to “Puff the Magic Dragon,” misunderstood rock lyrics were now spinning through Cochran’s head, and it was all he could do not to sing out loud:

Had a gold haddock,

Seemed the thing to do,

Let that be a lesson,

Get a cockatoo,

Wooly bully. . .

Plumtree called for a taxi from a pay phone at an all-night Texaco station on Atlantic, and when the yellow sedan rocked and squeaked into the shadowed area of the lot where the phone was, out by the air and water hoses, Cochran and Plumtree shuffled across the asphalt and climbed into the backseat. The driver had shifted into neutral when he had stopped, but even so the car’s engine was laboring, and it stalled as Plumtree was pulling the door closed; the driver switched off the lights, cranked at the starter until the engine roared into tortured life again, and then snapped the lights back on and clanked it into gear and pulled out onto the boulevard before either of his passengers had even spoken.

“Long Beach,” said Plumtree flatly. “Ocean and Twenty-First Place.” She was gingerly rubbing the corners of her jaw with both hands.

“It’ll be costly,” observed the driver in a cheerful voice. Cochran saw that the man had a full, curly beard. “That’s a lo-o-ong way.”

“She can afford it,” muttered Cochran, feeling quarrelsome. He was breathing deeply; the interior of the car smelled strongly of roses, and he was afraid he might get sick again.

“Oh,” laughed the driver, “I wasn’t doubting your reserves. I was doubting mine.” The man’s voice was oddly hoarse and blurred, and over the reek of roses Cochran caught a whiff of the wet-streets-and-iodine smell of very dry red wine. Their driver was apparently drunk.

“What,” Cochran asked irritably, “are you low on gas?”

“What gas would that be?” the man asked in a rhetorical, philosophical tone. “Hydrogen, methane? Not nitrous oxide, at least. An alternative fuel? But this is an electric car–I’m running on a sort of induction coil, here.”

“Swell,” said Cochran. He looked at Plumtree, who was sitting directly behind the driver, but she was holding a paper napkin to her nose and staring out the window. She’s missing some scope for her sarcasm here, Cochran thought. “You can find Long Beach, though, right?”

“Easy as falling off a log, believe me.”

Plumtree was still sitting up rigidly on the seat and staring out at the dark palm trees and apartment buildings as if desperate to memorize the route, and Cochran slumped back in the seat and closed his eyes. The tires were thumping in an irregular drumming tempo, and he muttered sleepily, “Your tires are low on air.”

The driver laughed. “These are experimental tires, India rubber. Hard with hard vacuum. Has to be a very hard vacuum, or I’d combust.”

The driver’s nonsense reminded Cochran of Long John Beach’s remark this afternoon: Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl. Cochran frowned without opening his eyes, and didn’t make any further comments. In seconds, he had fallen asleep.