Earthquake Weather – Snippet 31

Tonight, the coffee smell had a sharper edge to it, like hot, vapory Kahlua.

Kootie ignored the smell for now and stared at the television on the desk. For the past ten days the set had been left on, with the brightness control turned down far enough to dim the screen to black. Now, though, a steady horizontal white streak bisected the black screen.

“Well,” Kootie said slowly, “it’s a ghost, somewhere nearby. According to Sol Shadroe, disembodied personalities are an electromagnetic commotion in the fifty-five-megahertz range–which is roughly the frequency of Channel Two, which this set is tuned to.” He breathed a shallow, hitching sigh and ran his fingers through his hair, then glanced nervously at the bookshelves on the back wall, where the weather-beaten stuffed-toy pig sat on the top shelf. “Has the line got brighter since you first saw it?”

“Yes,” said Diana’s son Scat, who was Kootie’s age, and who liked to sit in front of the TV even though the screen was generally blank. “Uh . . . twice as bright already, in this minute or so since it first showed up.”

“Then it’s getting closer.”

Diana’s first son, Oliver, was a year older than the other two boys, but the eyes in his tanned face were wet as he looked up at Kootie. “Our dad,” he said, “our stepfather, I mean, he took all the ghosts with him, when somebody . . . killed him. The ghosts are gone.” He said it proudly, as though Scott Crane had gone down under an onslaught of ghosts, and only after heroically decimating their ranks.

“The local ones, yeah,” Kootie agreed gently. “Whatever ‘local’ means, exactly, in this business.” He sighed, and went on, almost to himself, “It’s hard to judge their distance, just from their apparent brightness here, like trying to figure the absolute magnitude of stars. This here ghost could be one that was insulated–clathrated–when the king died, or it could be a visitor from outside the local area. Or of course it could be the ghost of somebody that died in this week-and-a-half since.”

For several moments, no one spoke, and the only noise in the room was the steady plink and splash of water from the leaking ceiling falling into the pots and buckets around the couch, though it was not raining outside. Then Kootie heard a clatter and footsteps from the kitchen, and at the same instant a loud, mechanical burping started up behind and above him. He looked toward the kitchen doorway, though he did dart a glance down at Oliver, who was crouched on the floor, and say, “That’s the pig, right?”

“The toy one on the shelf,” said Oliver steadily, “right. Burping.”

“There’s an old man out front,” snapped Angelica, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. “He’s caught in the pyrocantha bushes.” She glared across the office at the bookshelf. “Of course, this would be when the pig decides to put in its two cents’ worth.”

” ‘Two cents’ worth . . .” echoed Kootie, catching an urgent thought from outside the building’s walls; then it was gone. “Get Arky Mavranos, will you, Oliver?”

“Right.” Oliver straightened up lithely and sprinted out toward the back parking lot.

Diana, the pregnant wife of the dead man in the kitchen, said, “Is this a ghost, out front?”

She was standing beside Angelica; Kootie was getting used to her appearance–all the hair on her scalp had fallen out during the first night the dead king’s company had spent in Solville, the first night after the king’s murder. Probably her sudden baldness was an extreme reaction to grief and loss, but at times Kootie had uneasily wondered if it was instead somehow a consequence of his having asked the wrong question, when their party had driven up in the red truck ten days ago.

Why is your truck the color of blood? he had asked, instead of, Who does it serve? Damn all this magical minefield, he thought.

“Probably,” he answered her. “Tangled in the bushes–he sounds like one of what Johanna calls the ‘beasties’–the old ghosts that don’t dissipate, and accumulate substance from bugs and spit and cigarette butts and stuff, and then walk around panhandling money for liquor. Snips and snails and puppy dog tails. He doesn’t sound like being . . . whoever it is we’ve been waiting for.”

“The Three Kings,” said Scat. “With gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

Arky Mavranos had stepped into the office from the backyard, followed by Oliver. “And they’re supposed to show up on Epiphany,” Mavranos said gruffly, “to venerate the new king. They’re five days late already.” He took a sip from the can of Coors beer in his hand, leaving foam on his salt-and-pepper mustache. “You got a line on the TV and a ghost out in the bushes by the driveway, is how I hear it.” He glanced disapprovingly at the stuffed pig on the bookshelf, which was still noisily retching. “Ollie, take the batteries out of that suffering beast, will you? Kootie, let’s you and I go out and talk to this ghost, see if he’s got any news for us.”

“Do you want to bring him anything?” asked Diana, who was still holding the ladle from the pot of bouillabaisse.

“Keep a plate of rocks ready,” said Kootie, “in case he hasn’t had dinner yet.”

Mavranos was laughing at that as he and Kootie walked down the hall to the front door; by unspoken agreement they had avoided the quicker route, through the kitchen and the presence of the dead, bearded king.

The dogs were still howling, and the breeze off the ocean was colder, when Kootie undid the chain and opened the door; and when the two of them had trudged around to the driveway, Kootie jumped back with an involuntary yelp at the sight of the old man who was thrashing in the pyrocantha bushes.

In the fragmentary yellow light from the kitchen window, the old man appeared to have a lot of long insect legs or antennae waving in the air around him, as if he were a gigantic daddy-longlegs spider. Then Kootie got a clearer look at the white-bearded figure in the middle of the tangle, and he saw with relief that the waving, flexing filaments were metal, and were attached to the old man’s belt.

“Shit, I know this guy,” said Mavranos, striding forward. “And he’s still wearing his silly damn curb-feelers. Easy, there, Joe,” he said to the old man. “You’re just making it worse. Hold still.” Mavranos pulled the old man out of the bushes and began yanking the metal filaments free of the branches. Twigs and leaves spun across the driveway pavement. “This guy ain’t a ghost. I don’t think–you didn’t, like, die, did you, Joe?”

“Fuck you,” sputtered the old man, thrashing his hands against the bushes as if to help free himself. “No, I’m not dead. Are you dead? If you know me, then I must have found the right place, so there’s a dead guy here somewhere, right?”

“Yeah, but inside, we don’t keep him out here in the shrubbery. Where’s Booger?”

The old man was panting but standing still now, letting Mavranos pull him free. “She died,” he said harshly. “She walked out into the desert, the day after your Easter of 1990. I went after her, calling–but I’m blind, and she was mute. Somebody found her body, after a while.”

“I’m truly sorry to hear that,” Mavranos said. He tugged the last filament free, and now old Joe was swaying on the driveway in the middle of his cluster of bobbing antennae, like, thought Kootie, a sea urchin left here by a high tide, or a big old dandelion seed carried here by the night wind.

From the dark street at Kootie’s back came a shrill whisper: “You ask them.”

Kootie spun toward the voice, peripherally aware that Mavranos had quickly turned that way too.

A lanky, dark-haired man in a T-shirt was shuffling up the driveway, visibly shivering in the breeze. “Excuse me,” he said, “but–” His gaze fell on the old man, and he took a quick step backward. Then, after peering more closely, he exhaled hard, took another breath, and went on: “Sorry. Why not? ‘Specially tonight, huh? We’re–” He barked a nervous, mirthless laugh and spread his hands “–looking for a boy named Koot Hoomie Parganas. He lived here, at one time.”