FIRE AND RAIN
a novel by
The house glowed in the darkness. Thick smoke billowed from broken windows and jagged holes in the roof, forming black smudges against the eerie, orange-tinged sky. Carmen stepped out of the News Nine van, wincing from the sting of soot in the air and the blare of sirens. A weariness settled over her, an exhaustion more emotional than physical that she couldn’t allow to show in her face. In the past few days she had watched twelve houses burn. It had been exciting at first. Something for her to report. Something for her to do. But now she’d had enough.
Over breakfast that morning, she’d noticed that the scent of smoke still clung to her hair despite her shower. Her ears still rang from the nighttime howling of coyotes driven from the canyon by the fires, and outside her kitchen window, the sun beat hot and yellow on the sparse vegetation in her yard. The sun had become an enemy, a relentless killer of everything that had once been beautiful in Valle Rosa.
This house, like the others burned in the past few days, was set on the rim of Cinnamon Canyon, a beautiful pristine chasm that carved a wide, deep path through the sprawling reaches of Valle Rosa. The canyon was thick with crackling dry chaparral, so thick that in the shadows of dusk and dawn it looked as though someone had dropped a soft, nubby quilt over the earth. But Cinnamon Canyon was no longer beautiful, no longer unspoiled. These days the residents of Valle Rosa awakened with damp palms and racing hearts. They looked out their windows to see how the fires had changed the canyons overnight, to see how much of the earth had been blackened, how close the plume of smoke was to them now.
Carmen held Craig Morrow’s dampened handkerchief over her nose as she stood in front of the burning house. The camera crew was setting up, and Craig scrambled around, talking to fire fighters, ambulance drivers, gathering information for her. The ranch-style house, barely larger than a trailer, didn’t look well cared for, but that was hard to determine after what it had suffered tonight. It perched on a small plateau jutting up above the canyon. The side yard was barely large enough to hold a swing set and a sliding board, which looked like a strip of molten steel as it reflected the glow from the fire. A tricycle lay on its side near the swings, and toys were scattered across the narrow thread of dirt that served as a front yard. A few bulging black garbage bags lay in the middle of the short driveway. Behind the house, Cinnamon Canyon was an enormous bowl of fire. Carmen took a few steps toward the canyon, mesmerized, shuddering. If hell existed, it could be no worse than this.
A small plane buzzed above the conflagration, spewing its cargo of chemicals, and behind her, the fire fighters sprayed their precious water on the few other houses that rimmed this part of the canyon, struggling to hold off the flames. How small they seemed—the fire fighters, the planes. How insignificant.
Craig was suddenly beside her, rattling off the address of the house, the time the fire started, the gloomy prognosis for the surrounding homes. His thinning dark hair stood away from his scalp in crazy tufts and he was wild-eyed. He loves this, she thought as she jotted down the information on her pad.
“The dead kids were two, four, and five,” Craig said.
“Dead kids?” she asked, startled. Houses had been lost, true, but so far no one had died.
“Yeah.” Craig motioned toward the bags in the driveway, and Carmen realized with a jolt they were not garbage bags at all, but small body bags. Her knees turned to rubber, and she pressed the handkerchief to her face again.
“Hey!” Craig called out to the News Nine crew. “What’s the names on the three kids?”
Someone yelled back at him, “Joseph, Edward, and Hazel,” and Craig shook his head, actually chuckling to himself.
“Hazel,” he said. “Can you imagine naming a kid Hazel?” His voice seemed to come from very far away.
Carmen wrote down the names, the pad and her hands glowing like hot coals. She was trapped, by the fire, by Craig, by the smoky golden air. By what was expected of her in the next few minutes. Her mouth was dry, the air a hot poker in her throat. She glanced toward the camera crew. They were nearly ready for her.
“We’ll put you right about here, in front of the house,” Craig pointed with his pencil to a spot a few feet from where she stood. “We’ll cut to the dead kids there.” He whisked his pencil toward the driveway, where the orange light from the canyon licked at the smooth black vinyl of the bags, making Carmen think of Halloween, of children in costume, of candy corn. “Then you can have a word with the mother.”
Carmen followed Craig’s pencil as he pointed toward the ambulance. The broad rear doors were open and someone was wrapping gauze around the hand of a dazed-looking woman. A little girl—a delicate, dark-eyed cherub—clung to the woman’s leg, pressing her free hand against her ear as another fire truck, siren blasting, pulled into the cul-de-sac.
“You going to be able to talk over all this?” Craig asked.
“No problem.” She was perspiring. Her face, no doubt, glistened. She hoped Craig would think it was from the heat of the fire pit behind her, nothing more. She lifted her heavy dark hair and coiled it loosely at the back of her neck, securing it with a clip from the pocket of her skirt.
“Mother’s name is Janice Reisko.” Craig held out his own pad for her to copy. “You okay?” he asked as she wrote. “I mean, do you think you can handle this?”
“Why wouldn’t I be able to?” Had they told him to keep an eye on her? She didn’t look up at him. She wouldn’t let her eyes betray her. Surely he knew that in her two shaky months back at News Nine, nothing of this magnitude had happened.
She looked again at the mother, whose sooty pale face was streaked with tears, at the little girl who now had her thumb rooted firmly in her mouth, and she turned her eyes away, toward the sickly glowing sky above the canyon. Five years ago she would have hungered to know the story of this woman and her children, hungered to take the facts and embellish them, to feed them, inflated and sizzling, to her audience. She couldn’t let on to Craig that she had any doubts about her ability to get through this. One weak moment. That was all they’d need to get rid of her.
“Ready?” Craig held the microphone out to her.
She took the mike from his hand and stepped in front of the camera, remembering too late that her hair was still up. Damn. Between that and the ever-widening streak of silver on her crown, she would look like an old woman. Washed up.
The red light appeared on the camera. “This is Carmen Perez,” she said. “I’m in Valle Rosa, at the edge of Cinnamon Canyon, where the drought-spawned fires that have burned out of control all week tonight claimed their first young victims.” She glanced down at her notepad. “Fire fighters were able to rescue three-year-old Jennifer Reisko and her mother, Janice, from the flames that quickly engulfed their home, but they were unable to reach five-year-old Edward, four-year-old Joseph and two-year-old Hazel.”
The camera panned to the three small body bags in the driveway, then slipped to the open rear of the ambulance as Carmen approached Janice Reisko, too quickly, as though she could make this less painful by rushing through it. “Mrs. Reisko, can you tell us what happened here tonight?”
The off-camera flames from the canyon cast a yellow sheen on Janice Reisko’s damp skin. Her thin brown hair was unattractively cut to fall just below her ears, and her bangs were short and stubby.
“My babies,” she rasped into Carmen’s microphone. She turned her head slowly from side to side, her eyes dark and blank. “My babies.”
Carmen saw Craig out of camera range, signaling her wildly with his hands to ask the woman another question, but she pretended not to see him. She managed to make some insignificant closing statement into the microphone before lowering it to her side and stepping away from Janice Reisko and her one surviving child.
Once off camera, she slipped quietly into the empty van, taking a seat near the front to wait for the others. Craig was first to climb in after her.
“Why didn’t you ask the kid anything?” he asked as he sat down. “You know, ‘Were you scared?’ Shit like that.”
“Didn’t occur to me,” she said. The rest of the crew, three men and two women, squeezed into the van and quickly drew Craig into their conversation. They had little to say to her. Except for Craig, they were all younger than she, by a decade or more. They opened cans of soda and began passing a bag of popcorn between them, its buttery scent suffocating in the close air of the van. Carmen leaned her head against the back of the seat, trying to shut out their voices and the nearly rancid smell of the popcorn. She knew she was going to be sick.
“Hazel,” Craig said. “Can you picture it? Ten-to-one they’re on welfare, churning those kids out one after the other. Ran out of decent names.”
Carmen leaned forward and clutched the driver’s shoulder. “Stop for a second, Pete,” she said. “I thought I saw something on the road back there.”
Pete jerked the van over to the side of the road, and Carmen slid the door open.
“Where the hell are you going?” Craig asked her.
She didn’t answer. Her stomach churned. She stepped out of the van and walked as far behind it as she could before kneeling down by the shoulder to get sick. How clearly could they see her? Could they hear her? It was so quiet here above this dark, cool sweep of Cinnamon Canyon, this section as yet untouched by the fires.
“Hey, Carmen,” Craig called. “What is it?”
“Just my imagination,” she called back, fumbling in her purse for a mint. When she got to her feet, the muscles in her legs seemed barely able to hold her upright. She slipped off her heels for the walk back to the van.
“Call came while you were out there,” Craig said when she had taken her seat again. “Fire’s hit the north ridge of the canyon and is nipping at the rafters of guess whose house?”
“Whose?” she asked, not following.
“Your favorite ex-pitcher. You know, the one who has now brought his staggering credentials to Valle Rosa’s political quagmire.” There was some chuckling from the back of the van.
“Chris?” she asked stupidly. “Chris’s house is on fire? Is he okay?”
“Apparently Mr. Mayor is not at home.”
She leaned forward to pick up the cellular phone. “He’s probably still at his office,” she said. She had to call information for the number, and although it was after nine, she wasn’t surprised when he answered.
“The Cinnamon Canyon fire’s reached your house,” she said. “We’re headed over there now.”
There was a short silence on Chris’s end of the phone. The two female members of the crew broke into a poorly harmonized rendition of the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” and Carmen covered her ear with her hand to block them out.
“You’ll be there?” Chris asked. “You mean, with News Nine?”
Another beat of silence. “Okay,” he said, “I’m on my way.”
Ordinarily the drive from his office in the so-called heart of Valle Rosa to his home on the rim of Cinnamon Canyon took Chris fifteen minutes, but tonight he would make it in ten. He knew the hairpin curves and the way the road pitched and curled and clung to the side of the cliff. He’d learned to drive on this road, twenty-five years earlier, his father a patient teacher. Chris could
drive it without taking his eyes off the orange glow in the distance.
He had heard about the children. Don Eldrich had called him an hour earlier. Don worked for the fire department and sat on Valle Rosa’s board of supervisors. He’d been responsible for getting the rest of the board to shift Chris into the mayoral spot after George Heath’s death had left the position vacant. Chris had taken the job with great reluctance, acknowledging that, as a high school teacher with the summer off, he could take a leave from his work more easily than anyone else on the board. But Heath had left a mess behind him, and the mess was growing rapidly. It was out of control, and Chris had no idea what to do about it, which was becoming increasingly apparent to the people of Valle Rosa as their avocado and orange crops withered in the ceaseless drought. He had no idea how to take control of the thirsty monster that had sucked most of the life from Valle Rosa and now seemed poised to burn what little was left.
But it wasn’t Valle Rosa that absorbed him as he drove home. He thought only of Dustin. Dusty wasn’t there—he had never been to the house—but there were pictures. Photograph albums. Chris hadn’t realized how desperately he needed them until that moment. Even his guitar and his trophies seemed immaterial by comparison. He didn’t want to lose the only pictures he had of his son.
Camino Linda was so clotted with police cars and fire trucks and ambulances that he had to leave his car and run the last quarter-mile to his house.
At first he thought the fire had spared him, but he was only seeing the hulk of the News Nine van in front of the house. Behind it, flames shot out of the roof—the new roof he had put on himself in the spring. He stood in the street, trying to size up the situation, trying to keep his mind lucid. Right now the fire seemed contained in the southern half of the rambling house. The small family room, where his photograph albums, guitar and trophies were kept, was as yet unscathed. Could he slip in the French doors on the veranda?
Carmen suddenly appeared at his side. It had been a while since he’d seen her, although he had watched her news reports these past two months since she’d been back on News Nine‘s evening broadcast. They’d given her a few brief minutes of North County news, three times a week, something he was sure felt like a slap in the face to her given what she’d meant to them in the past.
“I’m so sorry, Chris,” she said, keeping her eyes on his house. .
“Do you think I could get into the family room?” he asked, as though she might somehow have the answer. “Take a few things out?”
She frowned at him. “Of course not. Look at it.” She nodded toward the smoking, crackling house. “Your trophies aren’t worth risking your life for.”
“It’s not the trophies,” he said, quietly. “It’s the pictures of Dustin.”
She turned away abruptly, and when one of her crew called to her, she left Chris’s side without another word.
Chris watched as she took the microphone from some guy’s hand and stepped in front of the camera. The throbbing whir of a helicopter above the canyon and the shouts of the fire fighters prevented him from hearing what she said, although he could imagine: “Fire tonight reached the home of Valle Rosa’s acting mayor, Christopher Garrett.”
After a moment, the red light on the camera went off and Chris heard the sharp tones of an argument between Carmen and a male member of the crew. She was shaking her head. “No,” she said. “Please.” They glanced toward Chris, and he suddenly understood what was happening. They wanted her to interview him, to shove that microphone in front of his face and tape his grief for all of southern California to witness. Carmen didn’t want to do it. That much was obvious, and he was grateful. Yet he knew she couldn’t win the debate. They would insist, and she would comply. She had to earn back the trust she’d lost these past few years. She had to earn back her reputation as the hard-nosed, tough, and confrontational reporter she had been before
her four-year leave of absence. She had to show them she was still strong, still had what it took to do her job.
And so he would spare her, spare both of them. He turned away from his smoldering house and lost himself in the crowd that had gathered. He found a safe spot some distance away, and from there he watched Carmen search the crowd for him. He could almost see the relief in her eyes at not being able to find him. She shrugged and said something to the man at her side. Then she turned back to the house just as the roof caved in above the family room. Chris wondered if she thought about what he’d said, about Dustin’s pictures being in there. Did she care? Did it make any difference to her at all?
Carmen looked back at the crowd. Her eyes moved in his direction, and he knew she could see him now. Maybe she’d been able to see him all along. He allowed himself to stare back at her, allowed their gazes to lock. If anyone should understand how he felt to lose Dustin’s pictures, it would be Carmen. After all, she was Dustin’s mother.
Mia typed the word, black and sharp, at the top of the page. Chris had asked her if she minded typing this list, this recitation of what had been done to his home, what he had lost, and she, of course, had agreed. But no matter what she typed below it, the word at the top of the page taunted her.
She was a halting, two-fingered typist, although she had improved greatly during her month and a half as Chris’s office manager. He didn’t complain, but then, he could hardly fault her; she’d been completely honest with him about her lack of secretarial skills. She’d told him she was twenty-eight years old and an artist, and that the only other skills she possessed were those she’d picked up over the years of caring for her invalid mother.
He’d hired her as easily as if she’d said she’d graduated at the top of her class in secretarial school. Mia learned quickly that he did most things that way—easily, unhurried. Not much seemed to shake him, as though he expected little out of life, as though when she’d shown up to apply for the job, he’d fully expected her to be unqualified.
She had been the one to find the file. While cleaning out the previous mayor’s rickety oak file cabinet, her fingers caught on a folder tucked beneath the rest. It was unmarked, and something
about it—the way it had been hidden, perhaps, or the way it was held closed by three paper clips along its open end—made her take it to Chris without looking at it herself.
Chris sat on the corner of his desk, plucking the clips from the file and laying it open on his knee, and she remembered seeing the color drain from his face as he read its contents.
“Jesus.” He looked up at her, a flash of uncharacteristic anger in his pale blue eyes. “Heath sold our water,” he said. “He sold our water to a development on the other side of Cinnamon Canyon. Do you believe it? We’re in the middle of a drought! Everybody’s got plastic dams in their toilet tanks to save a couple of gallons a day, and he sells our water to a bunch of money-hungry vultures. No wonder the reservoir’s nearly dry.”
Mia knew Chris had grown up here, during a time when Valle Rosa was even smaller and sleepier, and that he took every infraction against the town as a personal affront. He had wondered aloud to her how George Heath had afforded his Mercedes, his sailboat. Or the private plane he’d chartered to fly him to Sacramento, where he was supposed to have met with other government officials to discuss the drought. Ironic that he’d used the profits from his water deal on the plane that had taken him to his death.
Mia was typing the last item on Chris’s inventory of his damaged possessions when the outside door opened. A man stepped into the office, a stranger, accompanied by a gust of hot, dry, Santa Ana wind that rustled the papers on her desk. One paper rose from the blotter, floating in the air for a second before slipping to the floor, and the stranger bent to pick it up.
“Sorry.” He placed the paper on her desk. He didn’t quite smile. He wore a brown-and-red Hawaiian print shirt, tan chinos. Tennis shoes without socks. He looked freshly showered, scrubbed clean. She could smell soap.
His eyes ran over the cheap walnut-colored paneling, the worn brown carpet. “Is this Chris Garrett’s office?” He looked down at her—through her—and she was struck by the symmetry in his face, by the angles of his jaw, his nose, his cheekbones. His eyes were a dark, opaque blue, but there was a light in them— something burning there.
“Yes,” she said.
“Is it possible for me to see him?” The near-smile again. He had to work at producing it. He was holding a map in his hand, and he waved it in the direction of Chris’s office. “My name is Jeff Cabrio. He doesn’t know me.”
She was staring, imagining how the angles of his face would transfer to her clay, and she dropped her gaze to the intercom on her desk. Punching the button, she called Chris. He sounded surprised to hear there was someone to see him. Since she’d been working for him, only a few people had come to the office—including a few of the kids Chris had coached in baseball who tried to convince him to “chuck this lame job and come back to Valle Rosa High School.” Chris had said there was nothing he would like better, but that right now his first responsibility was to all of Valle Rosa, not only the high school’s fledgling baseball team.
Mia hung up the phone and told Jeff Cabrio to have a seat, that Chris would be out shortly. He sat down, spreading the map open on his knees. As he traced routes with the tip of his finger, Mia slipped a piece of typing paper onto her desk top and began sketching him. Surreptitiously. Looking up, down. Growing more brazen as she realized he was absorbed in his map and unaware of her.
He was what Glen would have called an artist’s lure—someone an artist couldn’t resist, someone born to be painted, photographed, sculpted. Mia had been Glen’s student long before she was his lover, and he had taught her how to pick a lure from a crowd. “Not a classic beauty, necessarily,” he had said in his clipped London accent, “but someone whose features will transfer to the clay with an element of drama.”
Mia wished Glen could see Jeff Cabrio. Glen would have to exercise enormous self-control not to approach him, not to ask him if the planes of his face and arms and hands were reflected in the rest of his body. He would be too well-mannered to do that, of course, but not too polite to stare. Blatantly. More than once Glen had been propositioned by other men who had caught him staring unabashedly at their biceps, thighs, or buttocks.
Glen had told Mia she had the body of a lure, but not the face. “Your cheeks are too full,” he had said. “Your lips are too pouty.” At the time, she had been so convinced of his love for her that she hadn’t thought to take his words as an insult. “But your body, Sunny. Your body is a lure, pure and simple.”
She’d been twenty-four then, a born and bred southern California girl who didn’t fit the mold. She wasn’t tan. Her dishwater blond hair bore no sun streaks. She was slender, so slender in fact that every muscle, every tendon, was visible beneath her skin. The muscles hadn’t come from surfing or skating or a health club. They’d been earned over the years from lifting her mother, turning her, helping her into the bathtub.
It was the way her calf muscle shifted just below the skin that had intrigued Glen, the way her long, delicate fingers slipped over the clay that had made her a lure in his eyes. He had asked her into his office early that school year, where he told her that she was extraordinarily talented—”It’s frightening, really,” he’d said—and that when he watched her, when he saw the smile grow on her face as she lost herself in her work, he felt something “very deep” inside himself.
But Glen was ten years her senior and ever the gentleman. He would never have wanted to suggest impropriety. “You’re my student,” he had said, disappointing her, “and as long as you are, I won’t act on my feelings.”
After her graduation ceremony, he approached her, took her hands, leaned down to whisper in her ear. “I want to take you someplace wonderful for dinner,” he said. “I want to sculpt you. And I want to make love to you.”
“In that order?” she asked.
“In that order.”
She was only mildly taken aback by his desire to sculpt her, although she knew that he meant to sculpt her in the nude. She was accustomed to working with nude models in the classroom.
She had never, however, thought of being on the other side of the clay.
She undressed for him beneath the wash of sun pouring through the skylights of his studio. Although she had never before undressed in front of a man, she so completely trusted his integrity that her fingers hadn’t trembled, and she didn’t once lose her smile. Sunny, he’d called her, because her smile was constant, her cheeriness unflappable, despite all she was dealing with at home. He’d walked around her while she unbuttoned her blouse, while she unwrapped her long skirt from her hips and let it fall into the pool of light on the floor. She’d removed her underwear, her watch, the silver chain that had belonged to her grandmother, and her body glowed lean and hard as the sunlight shifted and swam in the air around her. She’d felt very brave.
“You’re exactly as I imagined,” Glen had said, circling her, the sun glittering on his own pale gold hair. “Exactly as I’d hoped. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
She nodded. He had trained her well.
“So sensuous, in an innocent sort of way. Ingenuous. You’re quite perfect, Mia.”
He paid her, and although she was uncomfortable with that part of the arrangement, she took the money. She needed it too desperately to refuse. For nearly two weeks, she sat amidst a pile of pillows on the dumpy sofa in his studio, wearing the wide-brimmed felt hat he’d perched on her head and the long narrow scarf he’d draped around her neck. She sat at an angle among the pillows, one knee drawn up, one end of the scarf held in her hand, the other falling between her breasts.
The resulting pose was cocky, coquettish. She shuddered now to think of how easily she had taken her body for granted. She’d had a couple of cocky years. There would never be another period in her life like it.
Not the first day of her posing, or the second, but perhaps by the third, she’d felt a change in herself as she sat there on the sofa. A warmth in her groin, a feeling so alien and inappropriate to the moment that she was annoyed with herself. You’re an artist; he’s an artist. When he touched her, when he shifted the pillows—slipping one beneath her knee, pressing her shoulder against another—she cursed herself for the traitorous tightening of her nipples.
By the end of the first week, she was deliberately mis-positioning herself so that he would have to approach her, have to touch her with his warm and practiced hands.
Despite her slender build, leaning on her side made her belly droop just a little. She would self-consciously pull it in, and he’d scold her, laughing.
“No, no, Sunny. It’s perfect. Your body looks so strong, that little bit of softness there gives you just the tenderness you need. Can’t you see it? I’m trying to express those different parts of you—the strength, the sensuality, the joy, the gentleness.”
And he’d touch her there—”Hold it in. Look at it. See? Quite unnatural. Now let it out. There that’s right. Oh, that’s splendid.” He’d stroke his fingers over her belly as though it were the clay he was touching, and she would feel the quick involuntary warming between her legs.
In the end, he made the nipples of her small, firm breasts slightly raised, just enough to “suggest alertness.” The sculpture was fifteen inches high, made in terra cotta, later to be cast in bronze. Eventually, it won Glen three awards.
She had always been a dreamer, always lived her life partly in fantasy. So it was no surprise to her that, during the two weeks of her posing, she had thought constantly of Glen, of his touch, of what might happen between them.
She began to wonder though, if after coming to know her body so intimately from his professional stance, he no longer felt the urge to possess her in any other way. He hadn’t touched her other than to shape her for the clay. He had never kissed her. He had given her no indication at all that he was drawn to her, as he had claimed weeks earlier. She felt of no more personal importance to him than the paid models in class.
When she was dressing in his studio for the last time, he said, “I think you’ve understood, Sunny, that I wanted what goes on here, at the studio, and what goes on in here”—he rested his
hand on his chest, over his heart—”to be completely separate. But now that the sculpture is finished, I can finally ask you to come home with me tonight.”
She let out her breath in grateful relief. “I want to, Glen,” she said, “but I can’t tonight. My mother.”
He scowled. “You’re bloody chained to her.”
“Come home with me,” she suggested. “She wants to meet you, and I’ll make you dinner. Then you can spend the night.” She hesitated, guiltily. “She won’t have to know.”
He helped her cook in the small, cozy kitchen of the house in which she’d grown up, and she found herself talking non-stop. She’d had so few people to talk with over the past few years. She had to slow herself down, not wanting to overwhelm him.
She told him about her father’s death in Viet Nam when she was five, about the few foggy memories she had of him. She told him about Laura, how beautiful she was, how she had already started college when their mother was first struck by cancer, how it had made more sense for Mia to take care of her than for Laura to come home. (“So where is she now?” Glen had asked, with the first hint of anger she had ever seen in him. “Where’s the beautiful sister while you’re stuck at home year after year?”) She brushed aside his questions, having long ago adjusted to life’s inequities.
They had dinner with her mother, who managed to sit at the table with them for a good hour before returning to the sofa with a fresh fit of coughing that obviously alarmed Glen. But he was drawn to her mother, the way most men were, despite the fact that Liz Tanner had grown reed thin and frail, that her once beautiful blond hair had been replaced by a blue paisley turban. Still, her smile was animated. She regaled them with several stories from her years as an elementary school teacher, and Mia was delighted to see Glen laugh.
He did the dishes while Mia got her mother into bed. Liz Tanner squeezed her hand. “He’s wonderful,” she said. “And you’re a grown woman. Don’t make him go home if you don’t want him to.” So Mia, astounded by her mother’s invitation, took Glen openly and guiltlessly into her bedroom, but not before she had told him she was a virgin. It seemed to be something he should know, something she doubted he would guess of a twenty-four-year-old woman. But he wasn’t surprised.
“I quite expected that, Sunny,” he said. “When have you had the freedom to be anything but?”
He undressed her as though he wasn’t already intimate with her body, as though every inch of her skin was a new discovery. She was so hungry for him, so eager, that he asked her, “Are you certain you’re a virgin? You have absolutely no inhibitions whatsoever.” Glen’s lovemaking was so exquisite that she thought, this is it, this is forever, this is all I’ll ever need. Only somehow, it hadn’t been enough for Glen. Not enough to let him overlook the damage.
Damage. Mia cast a glance at the word on the piece of paper in her typewriter, then at the drawing she had made of Jeff Cabrio. She had sketched as much of him as she could manage without asking him to turn his head, lift his chin. She had done a good job, but it wouldn’t be good enough. Maybe she would get another chance.
“Do you live around here?” she asked.
He looked up from his map, blankly at first, then shook his head just as Chris appeared at the door to the reception area.
Chris looked a little beaten this morning. Mia knew he’d spent the night on the couch in his office. He had on the same blue shirt and faded jeans he’d worn the day before, and as usual, his Birkenstock sandals.
He held out his hand. “Mr. Cabrio, is it?”
The stranger stood up, his smile finally breaking free. “The Christopher Garrett,” he said, and it took Mia a second to realize he was referring to Chris’s defunct baseball career. “It’s an honor to shake your hand. May I have a word with you?”
Mia watched the two men walk back to Chris’s office, realizing only then that the air had been charged with Jeff Cabrio in it and now seemed flat and still. She looked down at her drawing and immediately saw it—the damage. It was there in his downcast eyes, in the taut line of his jaw. She wondered what he had seen, what he had done, to put that pain and fear in his face.
Jeff Cabrio was unquestionably good-looking, the kind of man who always made Chris feel disheveled, short, and paunchy, although he was none of those things. He cleared a pile of folders from his office couch and offered a seat to his visitor, asking, “What can I do for you?”
“I saw the news last night,” Jeff answered as he sat down. “I was sorry to hear about your house. I didn’t know about all this”—his gaze swept the cluttered office—”about you being in politics. Though I knew a lot about you back when you were pitching. You were incredible.”
“Thanks. You’re a Padres fan?”
“Well, no. Not really. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Phillies. But it doesn’t matter when it comes to admiring a pitcher. Must have been hard to walk away from it.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly walk away. I was pushed, if you’ll remember.” Chris smiled, though a splinter of pain lodged in his chest. “As for the politics, I’m here by accident, really. Just trying to hold down the fort until the election in November when we can get someone in here who knows what they’re doing.” He grimaced, annoyed with himself for his self-deprecation. “Valle Rosa has some frightening problems.”
“The drought seems worse here,” Jeff agreed.
Chris was tempted to go into the reasons why that was true, but held his tongue.
Jeff continued, a hint of an apology in his voice. “That’s why I’m here,” he said, “and I know this is going to sound bizarre, but please hear me out.”
“I’m just passing through the area. I’m in a hotel in San Diego right now, where the water pressure’s so low you can barely get the shampoo out of your hair. I knew you folks were in the middle of a drought, but I never guessed how bad it was. Anyhow, last night I was packing so I could get an early start out of town this morning when I saw the news coverage of that canyon fire, and your house, and those kids who died.” He shuddered. “I wish I hadn’t seen it, but I did, and I can’t ignore it. I couldn’t sleep afterward. I kept seeing those body bags. And the face of that terrified little girl hanging onto her mother’s leg, while that bitch of a reporter stuck the microphone in the woman’s face.”
Chris held up his hand, smiling. “That ‘bitch’ is my ex-wife.”
Jeff sat back in his chair, a look of surprise on his face. “Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”
Chris thought briefly of defending Carmen, but it would take so many words, so much explaining, and the man was a stranger. “No problem,” he said.
“Anyway, I’m certain I can help you. Help Valle Rosa. Like I said, I’m only passing through, but I can’t walk away from a situation when I know I can make a difference.”
Chris looked at him skeptically. “What can you possibly do?”
An instant of silence passed before Jeff answered. “I can make rain fall over Valle Rosa.”
Chris felt the flame of hope the stranger had ignited in him disintegrate. “Right,” he said. “And someday I’ll pitch another no-hitter.”
“My background’s in environmental engineering, and I consult for a number of companies,” Jeff said. “They tell me their problems, and I come up with solutions. I’ve been working on a way to modify weather patterns, and I think I’ve finally perfected it. But I haven’t had a chance yet to try it out in the field. My work was interrupted.” He looked down at his hands for a full thirty seconds, long enough to raise the hair on the back of Chris’s neck, then lifted his gaze once more. “The children,” he said, referring again to the victims of the fire, or maybe to those children the fire would take today or tomorrow, and something rolled over in the pit of Chris’s stomach. “You’d be doing me a favor,” Jeff continued, “letting me help. All I ask for is a place to stay and grocery money, and the cost of the equipment I’ll need.”
Chris cleared his throat. “Are you talking about cloud seeding?”
The stranger shook his head. He began describing the technology he would use—something about altering sound waves to change the atmospheric pressure—and Chris was quickly lost, although he continued to listen with a skeptical smile. The man was a charlatan, no doubt, and yet something about him was convincing. The intensity of his eyes, the sincerity in his voice. He didn’t seem crazy. He didn’t seem delusional.
“How about some references?” Chris asked.
Jeff shook his head. “Can’t help you with that. There are certainly plenty of folks who could tell you how good my work is, but I’m afraid I’m in a position where I can’t contact them right now.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he stood up and leaned over Chris’s desk, writing his name and the name of his hotel on a notepad. “I can help you,” he said, straightening up again. “I don’t blame you for your doubts. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to stay in this area any longer than I have to. But when I see something like that fire …” He shook his head. “So, I’ve made my offer. I’ll be around another day or so. That’s it.”
Chris stood up as well and walked him to the door of his office. “Thanks for stopping in,” he said. “I’ll give it some thought.”
He watched Jeff walk down the hall toward the front door. Clearly, this was a man in trouble. With the law perhaps. Definitely with his own demons.
Jeff nodded at Mia as he walked past her desk, and Chris was surprised by the flush in Mia’s cheeks, by the way she followed the stranger with her eyes. He had come to think of Mia as quiet, bookish, sexless. Instantly, though, he knew he’d been wrong. Her response to Jeff Cabrio seemed nothing less than visceral.
“Oh,” she said, noticing Chris in the doorway. “Carmen Perez called while you were meeting with Mr. Cabrio.”
“Thanks,” he said, surprised.
He returned Carmen’s call from his office phone.
“I was thinking, Chris,” she said. “Two of the cottages are vacant. You’re welcome to stay in one of them while your house is unlivable.”
He thought of Sugarbush, Carmen’s sprawling eight acres that had once belonged to both of them. Eight acres surrounded on three sides by Cinnamon Canyon. He had loved that property from afar as a child and had proudly bought it with cash as an adult. He pictured the shaded patio where he and Carmen had relaxed in the evenings. He thought of the hot tub on the raised deck where they’d soak late at night, naked in the darkness, just the two of them and the stars and the distant howling of the coyotes.
Carmen now lived alone in the huge, 130-year-old adobe at the heart of the property. She had turned the three small outbuildings which rested along the edge of the canyon into rental cottages, and he knew she was renting one of them to Mia.
He hadn’t thought through where he would live, what he would do until his house was raised from its ruins. He supposed he’d been thinking in the back of his mind that he would stay here, as he had last night, spending his nights cramped on the couch. One night on the couch, though, had changed his mind about that. But Sugarbush? No matter how thoroughly those three outbuildings had been renovated, no matter how charming and comfortable they had become, he would never be able to think of them as anything other than shacks, suitable for little more than storage.
“I can find someplace else,” he said. “I mean, it could be quite a while before the house is ready. Wouldn’t it be hard for you, having me in your back yard?”
“Well, I’d pay rent of course.”
“Don’t insult me, Chris, all right?” She hesitated for a moment. “It’s true that money’s tight right now, but I don’t want yours. And there’s plenty of land between the cottage and the adobe. We’ll never even have to see each other.”
Money was tight? His alimony hadn’t amounted to much after his retirement, but he certainly didn’t think she had financial problems.
He told her he would think about it. Then he went home—to what was left of his home—with the list of losses Mia had typed up for him. The insurance representative was due to meet him there at two, but Chris wanted a chance to go through the rubble himself. He found some clothes he would need to have treated for smoke, but at least they were still in one piece. In the family room he collected his soot-covered trophies, his Martin guitar, nearly clean in its case, and the photograph albums, which had been somewhat protected by being in the hutch. He piled the things in the trunk of his Oldsmobile and then returned to the house.
After meeting with the insurance agent, he spent the rest of the afternoon driving around Valle Rosa, assessing the fire damage. Despite its small population, Valle Rosa covered a great deal of land dissected by hills and canyons and avocado groves. Isolated neighborhoods sprang from the hillsides, some of the homes old and ramshackle, others new and imposing, all of them at risk. The fire showed no favoritism.
At the relief center set up in the high school by the Red Cross, Chris visited some of the families who had lost their homes. Until last night, they’d been objects of his sympathy. Now, suddenly, these people were his fellow victims. Some of them were defeated and numb; others were angry, and they directed their anger at Chris for want of a better target. The woman who had lost three of her children had been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit, and he sat with her for half an hour while she stared past him. He wasn’t even certain she knew he was there, and it gave him time to think, time to feel his impotence, his helplessness over what was happening to Valle Rosa. He had never felt so alone. When Jeff Cabrio’s offer sifted back to him, it came in a new light.
It was ridiculous, of course. If it were possible to alleviate the drought by making rain, someone would have done it long before now. But there was something about Jeff, something Chris couldn’t put his finger on. He trusted the stranger. It made no sense, yet the feeling was as strong and deep as anything he had ever felt before, and he knew he was going to ask Jeff Cabrio to help him shoulder the burden of Valle Rosa.
Chris slept that night on borrowed linens in one of the small cottages at Carmen’s sprawling Sugarbush. It was long after sundown when he arrived, and the three cottages, including Mia’s, were dark. He was glad of the darkness, glad he couldn’t see Sugarbush in its sunlit beauty, glad he couldn’t see Carmen’s spectacular, award-winning rose garden, or the way the manzanita trees clung to the edge of the canyon. But he could smell Sugarbush, and that was nearly as bad. The musky scent of the ornamental eucalyptus enveloped him as he watched Carmen unlock the door to the easternmost cottage. There was nearly half an acre between Mia’s dark cottage and his, and the remaining cottage stood between them. Behind the cottages, the canyon was a dark abyss.
Carmen switched on the lamp in the living room. “What do you think of the new color?” she asked, dropping a pile of sheets and towels onto the sofa.
Chris looked at the walls. She’d painted them a soft mauve shade, a color he had long associated with her. “Very nice,” he said. “Did you do all three in the same color?”
“Mia’s is yellow, the middle one’s blue.”
“How’s Mia working out as a tenant?”
Carmen shrugged and sat down on the arm of the sofa. “I rarely see her,” she said. “She’s quiet. Comes home alone every night and locks herself in her cottage.”
Carmen had been the one to suggest that Mia talk to him about a job. He’d hired Mia for many reasons, none of which made good business sense. He’d liked the idea that Mia would be living at Sugarbush, as if that would somehow keep him closer to Carmen. And there’d been something about Mia, some desperate quirk in her smile, the way she bit her lip after telling him she had absolutely no experience doing any of the things required of the position. Well, so what, he’d thought. He was green, she was green. A perfect match.
Chris raised the window shade to look out at the canyon. He could see no lights other than the stars. “There’s someone I might hire,” he said, testing the words. “Someone to help out with the water problem. If I do, would you consider renting the third cottage to him?” He turned to see Carmen’s frown.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
He had invited Jeff Cabrio to meet the following day with Rick Smythe, one of the engineers working in Valle Rosa’s water conservation program. “A guy came to see me today. I’m going to meet with him again tomorrow and make a decision about hiring him.”
“Hiring him to do what?”
“Make it rain.”
There was a moment’s silence before she laughed. “I hope you’re kidding.”
He smiled. “Actually I’m not.”
“Remember that movie with Burt Lancaster? The Rainmaker? You’d better rent it, Chris. You can borrow my VCR. The guy was a con-artist.”
“I think this one’s for real.”
Carmen gave him that look of disdain only she could achieve. “Chris. The media’s going to eat you alive.”
“Me first and foremost. I think you’ve lost your marbles.”
“Maybe,” he said. “I’ve lost everything else.” He was referring to his house, his possessions, but as soon as he spoke, he knew Carmen thought he was referring to her. She stood up and walked into the kitchen, where he could hear her opening and closing the cupboards.
“I’d apologize for the mouse droppings,” she said, “but they’re everywhere, even in the adobe. The drought’s really driven the mice out of the canyon.”
“I know.” He walked to the doorway of the kitchen. “I’ve had them, too.”
“If this guy’s sane, he can rent the cottage,” she said. “Otherwise, spare me, all right?”
“Fine.” He leaned against the door jamb. “By the way, I wanted to thank you for not interviewing me last night at the fire.”
“I would have if you hadn’t disappeared.”
“It was good to see you working again. It must have been hard though, with all that was going on.”
She let out an exaggerated sigh. “Not you too,” she said. “The work’s a piece of cake, Chris, just as it always has been. But the way everyone’s treating me is pissing me off.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like I’m the new kid on the block. I’ve got to jump through all their goddamned hoops all over again.”
“I’m sorry, Carmen,” he said, as though he were to blame. In a way, he was. This close, he could see new lines across her forehead and at the corners of her mouth. She wore jeans and a long-sleeved blue silk blouse. Someone had told him she always wore long sleeves now, that the scars were too noticeable. Her hair was still thick and shimmering, but the trademark swath of gray had widened over the past few years. “You’re still very beautiful,” he said.
She waved the compliment away. “The makeup guy spends about an hour on my face before I go on for my puny little North County Report. Thank God for the fires. At least this week I’ve gotten a little more air time.” Her face darkened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
Chris shrugged away the apology. “My Martin survived. And the photograph albums.”
“Always were sentimental to a fault, weren’t you?” She closed a cupboard door and peered inside the oven.
He suddenly remembered all the anniversaries they’d spent at the seedy bar where they’d first met. She would insist they go there and sit in the same booth, eat the same greasy burgers they’d eaten that night many years earlier. If anything, she had been more sentimental than he was. The hardness she was projecting tonight was an act. In the past, though, it had been an act for the rest of the world, not for him.
She shut the oven door and leaned back against it.
“They treat me as though I’m going to fall apart any minute at work,” she said. “I’m absolutely fine, and they tiptoe around me like I’m some pathetic little porcelain doll. Have you seen the woman who took over San Diego Sunrise? If I can call her a woman. I swear, she must be no older than nineteen.”
He nodded. Of course he had. For a year or so after Carmen’s breakdown, Sunrise, the early morning show she had created and anchored, flew through a series of hosts, none of whom could begin to match Carmen’s combination of brains, brass and beauty. But then they hit on Terrell Gates and quickly knew they had a winner. Terrell’s style was much different than Carmen’s. Her scrubbed, girl-next-door looks made her sudden eruptions of bite and sass disarming to her guests and titillating to her audience.
“Do you think she’s any good?” Carmen asked him.
“She’s very young,” he answered carefully, “but I think she’s finding her niche.”
He saw the sheen of tears in her eyes as she turned away from him, and he wished he had found another way to answer. He wanted to touch her. He hadn’t touched her in so long.
She walked past him quickly, avoiding his eyes. “Mia didn’t want a phone,” she said, “but I suppose you will, so go ahead and arrange it.”
He opened the door for her, and she stepped out onto the small wooden porch. “Carmen,” he said, “if you ever want to talk. … You know, sometimes when you used to get upset at work, when you had to do something like interview that mother last night or whatever, and you’d come home and want to talk about it… ”
She cocked her head. “Look, Chris, I invited you to move in here because I felt sorry for you. I’d feel sorry for anyone who’d lost his home, okay? You need a place to live, and I’ve got a place you can have. That’s all there is to it. I am really sick of people treating me like I’m made of glass.”
“Don’t do that,” he said.
“This is me, Carmen. You don’t have to try so hard to act tough with me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She stepped off the porch, and didn’t bother to face him when she spoke again. “Let me know if there’s anything else you need, all right?”
He watched her walk across Sugarbush until she melted into the darkness. Behind him, the small, mouse-infested cottage waited. He was going from bad to worse, he thought, the continuing saga of his life the past five years.
The double bed took up nearly every inch of space in the cottage’s one bedroom, and a soft breeze blew in through the open window as he made the bed. He had nearly drifted off to sleep when the coyotes started their eerie howling. It sounded like a dozen or more of them, but he knew two or three could easily make that much noise. They sounded very near. He lay there, listening. He’d forgotten how close Sugarbush was to nowhere.
After a sleepless hour, he got up to bring the photograph albums back to the bed. He looked through the first one, the one he and Carmen had started more than a decade ago, with pictures of their two weddings. The first wedding had been held in San Diego, with all the hoopla and media attention. Augie was there, his broad, beaming smile focused in every picture on his son and new daughter-in-law. Chris’s other relatives had flown in from Arizona, but Carmen’s family was noticeably absent. The aunt and uncle who had raised her and the cousins she’d grown up with were no longer speaking to her by that time. Women were not supposed to flaunt themselves on television, they said, and she was so unfeminine on TV. So pushy. Cold. The qualities for which Carmen was rewarded professionally made her the object of disdain in her Latino family. He didn’t think she had ever quite recovered from the pain of their rejection.
The two women Carmen had considered her closest friends appeared in many of the pictures. Chris had heard separately from each of them in the last year. Carmen wouldn’t see them, they complained. They wanted to help, wanted to do whatever they could to get her on her feet again, but she ignored their phone calls and their invitations. Their children missed her, they said. Indeed, Carmen had always had a special relationship with any child who crossed her path. Chris tried to explain to her old friends as best he could his interpretation of the problem: Carmen couldn’t bear to see them or their children. She couldn’t bear to be reminded of what she’d longed for and what had been taken from her.
Chris turned the page of the album, and the setting of the photographs switched from San Diego to Mexico City, where the second wedding, an intimate affair in a small chapel, had been held for the benefit of Carmen’s elderly parents. Her parents, who had worked all their lives as migrant farmers, had sent Carmen north of the border when she was five years old to give her a better chance for a decent education. That she had received, but her excellent performance was rarely rewarded by her aunt and uncle, who had tried to groom her to be a good wife and mother and little more.
It had been a long time since he’d looked at those pictures. Carmen was so beautiful, so happy. She was twenty-seven and he was twenty-eight. They had met while she was working for News Nine, covering a baseball scandal in which he, thankfully, had no involvement. They began dating and made an attractive, high-visibility couple, both of them having solid reputations in San Diego and rising rapidly to the top of their respective careers. There was a good deal of speculation as to whether or not Chris Garrett would be able to settle down. He was known for a wild streak that seemed incompatible with marriage, but he surprised everyone, including himself, at his ability to give up the other women and the excessive drinking and the escapades. Only Carmen had believed him capable of being a good husband, and in her he discovered the joy of having a real friend. Before that, his friendships had been limited to those men with whom he played ball. Friendships which were intense and engrossing and playful, but in the final analysis, superficial. These days, though, he didn’t have even that. He’d lost his teammates the same time he’d lost his wife. Despite the few friends he’d made at the high school where he taught, it had been a very lonely five years.
Trying to shake off the melancholy that had suddenly settled over him, Chris turned another page in the album. And there was Sugarbush. He and Carmen had bought Sugarbush shortly after they were married, then had set about remodeling the beautiful old adobe for their home. It wasn’t long afterward that Carmen was given her own show, San Diego Sunrise, a half hour every morning during which she’d interview politicians, movie stars, whomever she chose. Her guests were always apprehensive, never knowing how kind Carmen Perez was feeling that day. She bent the rules of journalistic etiquette, but the staff of News Nine gave her free reign despite any fear they might have had of legal reprisal. Her ratings were simply too good. Carmen wasn’t yet thirty and had everything she’d wanted. Everything except a child.
Chris opened the second album. These pictures were far more familiar to him. He looked at them often. The first was a shot of the scoreboard taken during the Padres-Pirates game, the announcement reading, “It’s a Boy!!! Dustin Garrett, 6 pounds, 3 ounces!! Congratulations Chris and Carmen!!” Then followed a series of pictures of Dustin in the hospital, snuggling cheek to cheek with a radiant Carmen, his already thick, dark hair so much like hers. Chris remembered sleeping poorly after they brought Dustin home from the hospital, not so much because of Dustin’s own wakefulness, but because he couldn’t still his thoughts. He imagined teaching his son to ride a bike, coaching him in little league, all the things Augie had so enthusiastically done with him.
Once they brought Dustin home, Chris took so many pictures of him that the camera broke. (“You wore it out, man,” said the young clerk in the camera store.) And then the setting of the pictures switched back to the hospital again. He’d had to force himself to take those pictures. Dustin looked so small and gray, a painful array of tubes and needles invading his doll-like body. They’d told him Dustin was going to die, and he’d thought these pictures would be all he would have of his son. But the little boy hadn’t died. He’d surprised his doctors. Disappointed them, too, Chris had thought at the time. In their kind hearts, they had wanted this particular child to die. He was certainly blind, they told him, definitely deaf. The brain damage was severe. Profound was the word they used. Irreversible. He could still remember Carmen’s screams when they told her.
In the morning light, Chris was stunned by what had become of Sugarbush. Nothing short of the fires could have provided such graphic evidence of the changes wrought by the drought. He had seen his own yard and the dry chaparral of Cinnamon Canyon daily, and so he had barely noticed the slow and insidious changes there. But it had been several years since he’d gotten a good look at Sugarbush, and what he saw sent a chill through him. Every growing thing seemed to be withering, dying. Carmen’s once dazzling rose garden was nearly dead. There were only a few bushes near the middle of the garden that appeared to be hanging on, as though she had given up on it slowly, focusing her time and water on the center as the edges died away.
How had she tolerated it, watching the one thing she still treasured, the one thing in which she could still take pride, fade away? “Gardening’s excellent therapy for her,” one of the shrinks had told him. “Gives her a chance to nurture something.”
He walked over to the cottage Mia was renting and knocked on the door. She opened it and gasped her surprise at seeing him there. She was barefoot, wearing blue shorts and a baggy white T-shirt.
“Morning, Mia,” he said, and with a gesture toward his cottage, added, “I’m going to be staying out here while my house is being rebuilt.” He was certain she knew that he and Carmen had once been married. What she would make of him living in an outbuilding on Carmen’s property, he had no idea.
He peered past her into the living room. The walls were bare, and he could see no furniture whatsoever from where he stood. But there was sheet plastic on the floor.
“Wasn’t the cottage furnished when you moved in?” he asked.
She glanced behind her to see what he was seeing. “Oh, yes. I moved most of the furniture into the dining room so I could have a big space to work in.”
“Clay,” she said, shrugging, as though he should have known. “It gets messy.”
He was curious, but he had too much to do today to question her further. Obviously there was more to Mia than he had thought.
“I’m going to be in late today,” he said. “I have to buy some clothes and a few other things. Then I have a meeting with the guy who stopped by yesterday.”
Mia colored, and he knew he had mentioned Jeff only to see the reaction in her face.
“At the office?” she asked.
He smiled. “No, at a restaurant. Would you rather I invited him back to the office?”
She jutted her chin at him indignantly. “You’re misinterpreting my interest,” she said. “He has extraordinary bone structure in his face.”
“Right, Mia,” he said with a wink, then turned to step off her porch. “I’ll probably be in around two or so.”
“It’s like this,” Jeff Cabrio said, drawing invisible lines with the tip of his finger on the red Formica tabletop. “If you put the trans-hydrator here”—he lifted the salt shaker and set it on the edge of the table—”the rain will fall within these boundaries.” He moved his empty glass and the pepper shaker to form a triangle. “That’s on a small scale. For all of Valle Rosa, of course, we’d need something much grander. First thing we’d have to do is figure out how much land we want to cover.”
Chris was leaning back in his chair, arms folded across his chest as he watched Jeff explain his rainmaking technology to Rick Smythe, whose green eyes were wide, incredulous. Chris wasn’t quite sure about Rick. He was twenty-seven, nearly a decade younger than Jeff, but he looked closer to twenty. His hair was sun-bleached and long enough to cover the back of his shirt collar. He’d eaten an avocado and alfalfa sprout sandwich for lunch, while Chris and Jeff dined on the catfish that had earned this restaurant—one of three in Valle Rosa—a little fame over the years.
Rick told them he’d surfed before going into work that morning, that it was a necessary prerequisite to the start of his day. He had the look of a college kid who spent his afternoons on
the beach and his evenings partying. There was a density about him, a doltishness that worried Chris. He’d been told, though, that Rick was brighter than he seemed and the best engineer in Valle Rosa’s ineffectual water conservation program. But perhaps that wasn’t saying much.
Nevertheless, in the last hour Chris had watched the younger engineer’s amused skepticism turn to intrigue as he slipped under Jeff Cabrio’s spell. Chris himself had tried to resist it today, tried to keep his thinking clear, but in the small window of time between placing their order and receiving their food, Jeff had cured Rick’s hiccups by guiding him through an intricate set of finger exercises, had helped their gangly young waitress pick up pieces of broken glass with a slice of bread, and had the other diners in the cramped restaurant generally staring at him with open curiosity. Chris had simply given in. Given up. Let him help you, he thought to himself. What can it hurt?
Rick lifted his third glass of orange juice to his lips while studying the triangle Jeff had formed on the table. “How exact can you be with the rainfall?” he asked.
“With the right equipment, very,” Jeff said. “If I do it at all, I’ll do it with precision.”
Rick seemed unable to shift his gaze from Jeff’s, and Chris knew how he felt. Jeff had a way of holding you to him with his eyes, of not letting you go until he was ready.
Rick finally broke the stare, letting out his breath in a laugh. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “I feel like we’re having a conversation about Santa Claus, you know? Like, what he eats for dinner, how he works out his delivery schedule, how we could build chimneys to make it easier on the old dude.” He looked at Chris with a plea in his eyes. Save me, he said. Tell me this is all a joke before I make a fool out of myself believing this guy.
Chris leaned forward. “So, tell me, Rick. With your background and your training, does what he’s saying make sense?”
Rick’s tan took on a grayish hue. “Don’t base your decision on me, man,” he said, a shiver in his voice. “I mean, yes, in theory it makes sense, at least the way he’s explaining it. But in practice? Why wouldn’t anyone have thought of it before?” He looked back at Jeff, who shrugged, not stating the obvious: Because no one is as smart as I am.
“It just sounds too damn simple,” Rick said.
Jeff offered his shadowy half-smile. “I could make it sound more complicated if you like.”
Chris knew there were questions he should ask, but he no longer cared about the answers. Six more houses had burned last night, a two-year-old child was missing, and across from him sat a stranger who promised relief. Still, he didn’t want Rick to think he was a complete fool. He’d already told him that Jeff could offer nothing in the way of references.
He pressed his hands flat on the table top and looked at Jeff. “If I could speak to your previous employers, what would they tell me?” he asked.
Jeff stared at him for a few painfully long seconds and Chris felt his face go hot.
“Give me two months,” he said finally. “If I don’t produce rain by then, I’ll leave. And I’ll find some way to pay you back for the equipment and whatever else you’ve shelled out for my expenses.”
Chris lowered his hands to his thighs. His palms were damp. “We don’t have the money for this. Rainmaking isn’t in the budget. I’ll have to shift things around.” This would be tough; there was little slack in the city coffers. “I’d like to have Rick work with you, all right?”
Rick froze, his juice glass halfway to his lips as he waited out Jeff Cabrio’s verdict.
“Fine,” Jeff said.
“Is that all right with you, Rick? I’ll arrange to move you over.”
“Great.” Rick grinned. “There’s not much to do at the reservoir these days except panic.”
The young, dark-haired waitress cleared their plates away, her eyes on Jeff the whole time. He had won her over when he’d helped her clean up the glass she’d dropped and when he’d shot a curdling look at the older waitress who chastised her for her clumsiness. But he paid no attention to her now, and as she walked away from the table, he leaned toward Rick and Chris. “There’s something I have to get straight with both of you, or the deal’s off.”
He was speaking very quietly. Chris had to pull his chair closer to the table to hear him.
“I don’t want to be asked questions about myself,” Jeff said. “My private business will remain my private business.”
Chris felt Rick’s eyes on him. “All right,” he said.
“All right,” Rick echoed.
“I have no intention of socializing or of being part of the community or of making friends. I’d rather not talk to anyone except the two of you. I’ll give you one hundred percent of my waking hours. The sooner I’m done, the sooner I can leave.”
An ultimatum. Jeff Cabrio was going to call the shots, that was clear.
“Agreed,” Chris said. He turned to Rick.
“Hey,” Rick said, grinning again, “whatever. I’ll be happy just to—”
A shriek from the kitchen interrupted him. Their waitress backed out of the open kitchen door, crashing into their table, knocking over the one empty chair.
“Oh, God, I’m sorry.” She glanced down at them, then back to the kitchen. Every eye in the restaurant was on her, and she hugged her large round tray to her chest like a shield. She pointed toward the kitchen. “There’s a mouse in there.”
The burly older waitress appeared at the door, hands on her hips, scowling. “Why don’t you announce it to the entire county?” she asked. “Get back in here. You’ve got a job to do.”
The younger waitress shook her head. “I’m terrified of mice. I know it’s ridiculous, but…”
Jeff Cabrio stood up. He touched her shoulder. “Do you have an umbrella?” he asked.
She looked too stunned by the question to answer him, and the older waitress snorted. “An umbrella? It hasn’t rained here in five years, mister.”
“I think I have one in the trunk of my car,” Chris said.
“What color is it?” Jeff asked.
The other diners were staring at them, forkfuls of catfish hanging forgotten in the air.
“Black,” Chris said.
Chris walked out to the parking lot. Out of a habit formed over the last few days, he looked in the direction of Cinnamon Canyon and saw the all-too-familiar plume of smoke against the hazy sky. It was farther east now, headed toward the homes on the eastern ridge of the canyon.
He opened the trunk of his car and dug through baseball mitts and bats and smoke-damaged clothes until he found the old umbrella. Feeling foolish, he carried it back into the restaurant.
Jeff took the umbrella from him and walked into the kitchen, while Chris, Rick, the two waitresses and the chef watched from the doorway, and the hushed diners held their breath.
“It’s over there.” The young waitress pointed toward the floor near the broad refrigerator.
A small gray mouse scurried a couple of feet along the baseboard, then stopped. Jeff took a step toward it, then slowly opened the umbrella and held it on the floor; curved edge toward the mouse. “Chase it into the umbrella, Rick,” he said.
“What? How the hell am I supposed to do that?” Rick asked, but before he had even finished his sentence, the mouse darted of its own accord into the umbrella, which Jeff snapped shut.
“Done,” he said, handing the umbrella to Chris.
Chris took the umbrella from him, dumbfounded. Some of the diners broke into applause, which he encouraged by raising the umbrella in the air like a trophy.
Jeff, though, wasn’t smiling. “I’m getting out of here,” he said quietly. Heads turned to follow him as, with a few long strides, he walked out of the restaurant.
Chris watched him go. Jeff was crazy to think he could keep a low profile in Valle Rosa. The town was far too small to absorb him unnoticed. The people in this restaurant would be talking about him over dinner tonight.
He left enough money with Rick to cover their bill and then went out to the parking lot. Jeff was still there, sitting in his black Saab. Chris walked over and set a hand on the open window.
“You’re on, Jeff,” he said. “But this is a very close community. I’m not sure how long you’ll be able to remain anonymous.”
Jeff squinted in the direction of the smoke. “Have they found that kid yet?” he asked. “The one who was missing after the fire last night?”
“Not that I’ve heard.”
Jeff glanced down at the umbrella. Chris was leaning on it like a cane. “Mice are attracted to black,” he said.
“What?” Chris looked down at the umbrella himself. “Oh.”
“You can free him over there.” Jeff pointed to the chaparral at the side of the parking lot. “And then you’d better wash out the umbrella. It’ll have mouse excrement in it.”
Chris shrugged. “It’s not worth the bother. I never use it.”
Jeff turned the key in the ignition, then smiled up at him, a full-blown smile. “You will,” he said. “You will.”