An Excerpt from:
by Pamela Beason,
Daphne du Maurier Award Winning Author
When the first ripple of earth surged toward her, Elisa Langston stood up and stared, not trusting her eyes. The field around her was quiet; all she heard was the rasp of rubbing branches overhead. Even after the wave had lifted her and set her back down, then rolled on toward wherever it was going, she didn’t quite believe it. Was she hallucinating?
But then a second wave, this one more malevolent, roared through the ground, driving her to her knees. Ridge after ridge of earth rolled through her field like breakers surging toward the beach. Car alarms sounded in distant parking lots. Increasing in speed and size, undulations of soil rose and fell around her, tearing landscape fabric, noisily tossing her neat rows of potted plants into mangled piles. Overhead, branches cracked and popped as the taller trees around her shimmied and swayed like crazed hula dancers, showering her with red and gold leaves.
A streak of black-and-white fur flashed past.
“Simon!” she shouted, but the panicked cat was gone. She didn’t blame him. If she had four legs, she’d be running, too.
This was the biggest earthquake she’d ever experienced. And the weirdest. It felt as if the planet had suddenly returned to its ocean origins, and the whole world was liquid again. A large wave swelled up beneath her, toppling her backwards, and she was nearly buried by a sudden deluge of rainbow-colored foliage. A tremendous ripping sound came from the north, followed by a thundering crash that reverberated through the ground and rattled her teeth. The old homestead! Elisa dug her fingernails into the dirt, trying desperately to regain her feet and turn toward the noise. Snapping sounds erupted all around her. A sweet gum crash-landed a few feet away, its impact jolting every bone in her body. She flailed wildly, struggling to find purchase in the roiling soil. A rush of cold air blasted her face, and then she felt a crushing blow to her legs and chest. After a brief close-up of speckled bark, her world went black.
* * *
When Elisa opened her eyes again, it was dark. How long had she been lying here? Her eyes wouldn’t focus on the numbers on her wristwatch. The first stars were out, weak pinpoints of light barely visible among scattered clouds. A gust of wind blew leaves and dirt into her face. Rain would follow soon.
The uneven soil beneath her was cold, and its dampness had soaked through her clothing and hair. Waves of shivering rippled through her. Her head pounded so badly that she would have sworn a freight train rumbled somewhere nearby.
The tree trunk pinning her to the ground was no more than eight inches thick. She was strong, even if she was small. If she could get proper leverage, she should be able to shift it off her body. When her shivering subsided for a few seconds, she tried to move her legs. A lightning bolt of pain shot through her, white hot, then icy, leaving her breathless.
Giving up for the moment on her lower limbs, she fingered the wetness at the back of her head. She’d landed on a rock. When she stretched her hand in front of her face, it was dark with sticky fluid. Groaning, she managed to squeeze her fingers into her front jeans pocket and slide out the penlight she habitually carried. Its tiny beam confirmed the blood on her hand.
She wrapped her arms around the trunk again, pressing the stinging heat of her scratched cheek against the cool bark of the American sweet gum that had nearly killed her. The tree was one of the Festival variety, prized for its brilliant foliage in an area dominated by evergreens.
“I’m never forgiving you,” she hissed into a cluster of orange leaves. “I babied you for years, and this is how you pay me back?”
A thin wail drifted on the breeze. A cat crying? “Simon?” she whimpered. “Go for help, buddy. Run to the office. Get Gerald.”
Right. As if a cat could rescue her. Her business partner, Gerald, usually left the nursery promptly at five, and for all she knew, Simon needed to be rescued himself. It was an unbearable thought, that her pet might be lying nearby, in pain, waiting for her to make things right.
“Anyone! I’m out here!” She slashed her penlight through the air. “Hey!”
Sirens wailed, nearing, then receding. How bad was it out there? A fresh surge of shivers gripped her. She gritted her teeth, picturing buildings reduced to rubble, fires raging from broken gas lines, streets made impassable by wide crevasses and upthrust chunks of pavement.
Her stepmother worked thirty miles away, in Seattle. Had she been on the Evergreen Point floating bridge when the quake hit? Elisa shut her eyes, tried to blank out the sudden, unwanted vision of a giant wave sweeping Gail and hundreds of other hapless commuters into the frigid depths of Lake Washington.
“Hey!” Her shout sounded insignificant, even to her own ears. The sixty-five acres of Langston Green were hardly a wilderness, but they felt like one now. How many times had Gerald begged her to carry a cell phone? If she’d only given in, she could dial nine-one-one now. But instead, she lay here, trapped, only a fading penlight. Her pockets held nothing more than a pair of sharp-edged cutters and a small ball of twine. At best, she could snip twigs away from her face and entertain herself with string games until help arrived. If help arrived.
How long would it be before someone thought to look for her out here? They’d check her apartment first, then the office and greenhouse. When they didn’t find her, they’d probably think she’d walked the few blocks to the coffee shop or grocery store as she often did in the evenings. Only Timo knew her plans. She chewed on her lower lip, fretting. Did anyone know where he was? Was he all right?
Two fat raindrops spattered her cheek, warning her of what was to come. The nighttime temperatures now dipped into the low fifties. Odds were good that she’d expire from hypothermia before dawn. “Anyone out there? Help!”
She wasn’t prepared to die. What could anyone say about Elisa Maria Langston in an obituary? Hers was a pathetic life to review. Finding a lost kid on a mountain as a teenager had been her only accomplishment worth noting. She’d peaked at sixteen. How mortifying. No adventures. No great achievements.
Who would miss her? A stepmother and stepsister, an aunt, a handful of colleagues and friends. No Significant Other would cry at her graveside. She always imagined that by now she’d be married, have a child or two. What the heck had happened to that plan? Sure, she’d had dates and even a few torrid sexual liaisons. But embarrassingly few of them, now that she stopped to count. Most men were put off by an assertive Latina who drove a backhoe.
Over the years, she’d been proud of managing by herself. She was strong, self-reliant, and independent. But at the moment, she simply felt alone.
Clouds swirled in the dark skies overhead. Their movement made her nauseous. Closing her eyes, she clenched her jaw to silence her chattering teeth. She couldn’t feel her left foot anymore.
* * *
Twelve miles away, Jake Street held up one hand to halt traffic in the lane behind the accident, then motioned for the vehicles on the other side to come through. The drivers slowed as they passed, taking in the tragic spectacle of a minivan flattened by a fallen tree. While two firefighters wielded the jaws of life on a van door, another held a woman screaming for her baby. Jake swallowed hard and turned his gaze back to the traffic. A trickle of rain slid down his neck.
A squad car pulled onto the shoulder behind the minivan, and an overweight officer climbed out. He extracted an orange safety vest and hand-held stop sign from the trunk, then approached Jake. “You look like you’ve done this a few times.”
“Plenty.” More times than Jake cared to think about. But at least he was just directing traffic this time. The smashed vehicle, the EMTs, and the flashing lights brought back memories of another night that ended with a lot of blood and death and guilt.
“I’ll take it from here. Thank you, sir.”
“No problem.” Jake returned to his Land Rover. His cell rang just as he slid into the seat.
“Where are you, Jake? Are you okay?” It was the secretary at Atlas Security.
“I’m fine. I’m in Kirkland. I was on my way to Langston Green when the quake hit.”
“Oh yeah, Langston. Our latest scammer.”
Scammer? He flinched at the word, especially as applied to Elisa Langston. His heart had nearly stopped when he’d spotted her name on his list of possible fraud cases.
“Reports are coming in from all over,” the secretary said. “I guess it’s pretty bad down south. Bill’s working on getting the helicopter up. He’ll want you to ride along.”
Like many insurance companies, Atlas Security had emergency procedures in place to check on their clients and speed recovery in any way possible. It was good for the customers and good for Atlas’s bottom line. But if the situation in Seattle was as chaotic as it was here, it could take a while to get a chopper into the air.
“The floating bridges are closed, traffic lights are out all over, and trees are down everywhere. No way I can make it back to Seattle now,” he told her. “I’m going to continue on to Langston Green; I can at least see how that client is doing. Call on my cell when you need me.”
He stuck the phone in his pocket and pulled away from the accident scene, glad to be gone before the firemen extracted the infant. The only wails he’d heard had come from the mother.
* * *
Elisa closed her eyes against the rain and tried to marshal her thoughts. She had to figure a way out of this. She was a problem solver. The tree that pinned her was simply the biggest obstacle she’d had to tackle so far. Not to mention the heaviest.
She moved her legs just to feel the pain, to bring back some focus. It was becoming harder and harder to think. Hypothermia was taking over. With numb fingers, she dug the penlight into the soft dirt at her side, angled the bulb toward the old homestead building in the faint hope that someone might spot the dim glow.
This was ridiculous. She had hidden out here to trap her vandal, her Gremlin; not to get trapped herself. She couldn’t die shivering in the mud, pinned under one of her own trees. Shoving the heels of her hands into the dirt, she pushed hard. A black wash of pain rolled through her, so strong that for a few seconds she thought it was an aftershock from the earthquake. After catching her breath, she tried again. This time a dark fog surged up from the agony in her leg to wrap around her head. Her vision dissolved into a swarm of buzzing gnats.
* * *
After nearly an hour of detours on back roads, Jake Street finally pulled his Land Rover into the parking lot of the Langston Green nursery. The property was pitch black. He drove slowly toward the remodeled farmhouse that served as the nursery’s headquarters. He stared in surprise as his headlights illuminated the enormous root ball of a Douglas fir. The tree’s equally massive trunk lay in the crevice it had plowed into the upper story of the building. From a nearby pole, a snapped power line swung in the wind, showering comet-tails of glowing sparks.
Switching on the overhead light, he quickly flipped through the property description attached to his clipboard and found what he was looking for. Gas. The place used natural gas for heat. Crap. He thumbed through the pages, scanning the information for the location of the shut-off valve. Offices downstairs, a one-bedroom apartment on top. Oh God. Resident: Elisa Langston. He knew she was the nursery manager, but she lived here, too? He hastily retrieved his all-in-one tool from the glove box, switched on his flashlight, and stuck one leg out into the rain.
His cell phone chirped. He impatiently shook it out of his pocket. “Street here.”
“The ‘copter’s warming up at Boeing Field,” the secretary told him. “Bill wants you with them to document damage and secure the sites. They could pick you up at three locations on the east side.” She rattled them off.
He chose the closest one. “Hayward Playfield. I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Bill said thirty minutes.”
“Tell Bill to go without me if he needs to. I’ve got to deal with a situation here first.” He disconnected before she could object, pulled up the hood of his windbreaker, and ran toward the ruins of Langston Green.
The front door of the old house was locked. The gate in the wooden fence was also locked, but thankfully it was only six feet high and had no barbed wire on top. He managed to climb over it with little difficulty. No guard dogs rushed him from the darkness beyond the sidewalk. He found the gas meter by the back door and turned off the flow.
The door was unlatched. He stepped in. “Hello? Anyone here? Elisa?”
He made a quick sweep through the first floor. Offices, a small kitchen and bath. This story was not too badly wrecked by the tree, but the floor was littered with debris. Rainwater steadily dripped in through the huge hole punched in the ceiling.
He played his flashlight beam on the steep, rain-slick stairs that rose to the second story. The groaning of the downed tree against the house’s splintered timbers was ominous. He gritted his teeth. Stable or not, he had no choice but to go up. He grabbed the railing and climbed the steps.
He knocked on the door at the top of the stairs. No answer. He pushed it open. “Elisa? “
The apartment was tiny. And ruined. The tree had taken out most of the roof. He had to crawl under the dripping limbs to shine his light into the kitchen. He quickly scrambled out, avoiding the ragged hole ripped into the floor, and headed for the bedroom. “Elisa?”
His flashlight illuminated the emptiness of the place. She lived alone, judging by the lack of male paraphernalia in the rooms. Her taste was uncluttered: no doodads littered the bookshelves or the dresser, but the bright quilt on the bed and the flamboyant art on the walls spoke of a passion for the exotic. Her open closet door revealed jeans, flannel shirts, boots, coats of varying weights. He measured a small jacket against his six-foot frame. Tiny and tough, that’s how he remembered her.
Where was she? He looked out her bedroom window. The wind gusted and tree limbs scraped the walls behind him, reminding him that he needed to get out of here. The file said Langston Green covered sixty-five acres. His gaze roamed the fields to the south. Pitch black out there, except for a dim yellow ember of light in a far corner. What the heck was that?
* * *
A voice penetrated the cold fog that claimed her. “Elisa?”
She opened her eyes to the harsh glare of the moon shining directly into her eyes. But then, in a startling maneuver, it retreated upward, its light forming a smoky halo around a man’s silhouette. It had been a flashlight, then. But who-?
The Gremlin! Her heart leapt into flight mode. Her fingers dug trenches in the dirt. The pepper spray she’d carried for just this moment lay out of reach somewhere near her right foot. She was a trembling bug on a pin, completely at his mercy.
~ END OF EXCERPT ~