From Book 2 of The O Line Mysteries:
The Disaster Relief Club
An O Line Mystery
M. Saylor Billings
This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, businesses, organizations, events, or locales is purely coincidental.
The Disaster Relief Club - An O Line Mystery
Copyright Ó 2011 by M. Saylor Billings
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2011961641
For all those who survive adversity,
and can still find laughter in their hearts.class=Section5>
Table of contents
For her help with this book the author is
particularly grateful to Raejean M. Battin,
otherwise known as “Reader of a thousand drafts”.
Lorna Tollison rocked gently with the swaying earth and sighed awake. She lulled over onto her back and opened her sleepy eyes just in time to see her partner, Sally Thompson, hovering mid-air just above her head. Sally came crashing down with a thud, muffling Lorna’s scream. The bed fell off its rail, tumbling them both onto the floor.
“Have you lost your fucking mind?” Lorna cried out.
“You didn’t wake up!” Sally said. “I was in the doorway.”
“There was an earthquake and you didn’t wake up. I had to come back from the doorway to cover you.”
“Ah, you were protecting me. Now get off. You’re crushing me.”
“I’m sorry.” Sally rolled the rest of the way off the mattress as Lorna struggled to untangle herself from the sheets.
“I can’t believe I didn’t wake up. What do we do now? I mean is there going to be another one, like an aftershock?”
Sally pulled on her robe. “I don’t know. We better turn on the news.”
The living room looked like it had been ransacked. Books and videos had fallen off the shelves and a lamp leaned precariously on the table. Fortitude, one of their blonde tabbies, came out of Lorna’s office meowing loudly.
“Where’s Patience?” Sally asked looking around.
“I know where he is.” Lorna announced walking into her office and lifting an old airline blanket from a basket. Patience looked up at her and meowed before leaping into her arms. “It’s okay, momma’s baby. Sshh. I got you.”
Sally rolled her eyes as she turned back into the living room and clicked on the television.
Lorna walked around the rented Victorian home accessing the damage with Patience mewing in her arms. They had moved from New York City and lived in this old Victorian home for a couple of years now but this was Lorna’s first earthquake experience. Lorna could hear the upstairs neighbors milling about as she crossed into the kitchen. The quake had opened some of the cabinets and spilled out their contents onto the counter and floor, but hadn’t broken anything. No glass shards at least. Lorna cocked her head to the side and looked at the sink that sat on the far outside wall, then rolled her head to the other side. She focused on the cabinets again and ran her eyes along the bottom. Were they always slanted like that?
“Where’s the flashlight?” Sally popped her head into the kitchen.
Lorna shrugged. “Come here. Are we sinking?”
Sally leaned to the side. “Oh. Yeah. Well, that’s not good.”
“There’s one on my key ring.”
“I know but don’t we have a big one? I want to check the car. Make sure that carport is still standing.”
“There might be one in the foyer cabinet, with the candles.”
Sally left Lorna staring at the kitchen sink. What if this had been a bad earthquake? Where would they go if half the house fell in? Patience jumped out of her arms onto the floor and let himself out the cat door.
“Four point eight by the way,” Sally said as she came back through the kitchen following the cat into the backyard.
Lorna looked at the clock. 4:15. What would have happened if Sally hadn’t thought to come back for her? How could I let myself be caught off guard? Why am I standing here like a melting popsicle, letting Sally do all the work? Am I in shock?
Lorna and Sally had survived the September 11th attacks in New York City. Although they hadn’t known each other at the time, both had been going to their respective offices, each a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Center that morning. And both had returned home to their respective apartments covered in white dust. A few hours after the buildings collapsed, Lorna had pulled herself together, showered, and thrown her laptop and few items in a backpack to make her escape from the city. Perez, her adopted older sister’s chauffeur and handy man, met her at her apartment door. A short man of Spanish European and Mayan decent, Perez was dressed in military fatigues, a leather bomber jacket, and a white scarf.
“I come to rescue Meeez. Lorna. Come with me.”
Lorna towered over him by four inches. “No. This is wrong. I’m staying. I’m a journalist. It’s what I do. Look at me Perez – I’m fine. Go back and tell my dad and Tessa I’m okay.”
Perez hadn’t moved. He looked up at her defiantly, “No. Today jew are my sharsh, come with me.”
“I’m your what?”
“My sharsh. Get jew bag.”
“What’s a sharsh.”
“Sharsh, sharsh. My credit sharsh.”
“I’m your credit card?” Lorna knew exactly what Perez meant but stalled for time. “Perez, how did you even get here?”
As Perez grew more frustrated his dialect became thicker. “No. No fooling. Jew’er no shanging the subject on me. Rojo said to knock jew out, eef I had too. And jewer Papa said jez too. I am to knock jew on da head and carry jew eef I have to all the way to H-Atlantah.”
“Rojo” was Perez’s nickname for Tessa, due to her trademark wild curly red hair.
Despite being blind Tessa was a successful computer engineer who had invented, with her adopted father’s help, several voice-command computer aide devises for the blind. Her father then repurposed many of the devices for the use in security and secret services by the government. As a result, Tessa was an industry unto herself. Tessa was, if nothing else, a very determined woman.
Lorna looked down at his stubby index finger pointing up to her, and out the window at the dark plume in the sky, and gave up the battle. “Let me get a few more things. I want to be back here in two days, Perez!”
“Eef it is still here I will bring jew back myself.”
A boat ride, a motorcycle ride, a helicopter ride and a long car drive later, Lorna sat in her father’s kitchen with Tessa and Perez watching the television coverage.
Sally came back in and stared at Lorna for a moment. Lorna hadn’t moved. She was still staring at the bottom of the cabinets in the kitchen.
No, Lorna thought, this won’t do. I’m a go-getter. I’m proactive. This is not who I am. I am not a sitting duck. No one has to rescue me. I’m a survivor, with moxie! Lorna turned on Sally. “Where were you?”
“I was in the garage. Are you okay?”
“Of course I am. Get the boys. We have to get ready.”
“I don’t know.”
“Lorna, honey, go sit down for a minute. I’ll fix us some breakfast.”
“No, I’ll fix the breakfast. You go sit down.”
Sally paused and looked around. “Did something happen?”
“Just an earthquake. And what was I doing? Nothing. I was sleeping.”
“You’re a heavy sleeper.”
“Sally, I slept through an earthquake.”
“It was a light earthquake. Come on, let’s have a big breakfast and we’ll talk about it. Maybe I overacted. I shouldn’t have flown at you like that. What a horrible way to wake up.” Sally reached out for Lorna to embrace her.
A knock at the door interrupted them. Sally looked at the stove clock before opening the front door to their friend Tim.
“You guys alright?” Tim smiled.
Lorna popped out from behind Sally, “Of course we are –” but stopped herself when she got a good look at Tim. He wore a yellow reflector vest and a yellow safety helmet and a bright yellow backpack. “What are you wearing?”
“I’m a DERT member. I have a badge.”
Sally caught her laugh in her throat and choked a little. “Come in Tim. I was just about to make some coffee.”
“Thanks, I can’t. I need to check the rest of the houses on this street.”
Lorna reached a long arm out of the doorway and grabbed Tim by the vest. “They’re fine. Get in here. Where’s Annie?”
Annie, Tim’s wife, was Lorna’s best friend on Ohlone Island. They had met when Lorna had gotten lost on her first trip to San Francisco and wound up on Ohlone Island instead. As it turned out, Lorna had rented the apartment in the Victorian house that sat catty-corner to Tim and Annie’s house. As both women worked from home, they became fast friends.
“She slept through it too?” Lorna was delighted.
“No, she went back to bed after we calmed the dogs.”
“Oh,” Lorna nodded in disappointment. “So what is this dirt thing?”
“It’s Disaster Emergency Response Teams, or just DERT. It’s organized through the fire department and sectioned off by neighborhoods. We’re in the 8th section.”
“Ha!” Lorna cried out momentarily. “Sorry.”
Tim stared at her blankly.
Lorna explained her outburst. “Section 8? Mentally unfit for duty?”
“Oh, no. It’s the area section number.”
“So, okay, how does this work? What’s in your backpack there?”
“You sign up for the classes and then you do training. Anyone can join. Kids, the elderly, special needs, even you can join.” Tim pulled off his backpack. “This is my response pack. Flashlights, crowbar, water, first aid – stuff like that.”
Lorna was keenly interested in his presentation and continued listening.
Tim paused before continuing. “It helps regular people who are generally first on the scene, you know, in disasters, learn what to do and what not to do. We have drills all the time down at the old base. And you can join whatever division you feel comfortable with. Like, there’s a ham radio section or a medical or haz-mat. It’s a way for people to help themselves in their communities instead of relying on the fire department who can’t be everywhere in a disaster. It’s really helped me learn to think on my feet.”
Lorna had heard enough. A weight had been lifted off her shoulders. There was a way to help herself, a place to go to learn what to do in these types of situations. She repeated the line to Tim, nodding, “learn to think on my feet.” She didn’t have to stand there like a melting popsicle – she would know what to do. She grabbed Tim’s arm gently, “Tim, I want to be DERT. Can you get me into the DERT?”
A tear ran down Lorna’s cheek as Sally walked back in with a coffee tray, “Oh God, what happened?”
Tim smiled at Sally. “Lorna’s joining DERT and Annie’s going with her.”
Lorna perked up. “She is?”
“Yes, she absolutely is. How about you Sally?”
Sally almost dropped the coffee tray and rushed over to the coffee table to put it down.
But Lorna jumped in, “Sally’s a runner, right, Sally?”
“Yes, I tend to get out of harm’s way.”
“She left me in the bed to be crushed just now.”
“I did. Before I went back for her.”
“And you already had aid training, when you went to Bosnia, didn’t you?”
Tim suddenly stopped repacking his response kit. “You were in Bosnia?”
Sally tensed up. “Briefly. Aid work. It was my Grandmother’s idea of an extra curricular activity to get into law school.” Sally shook her head. She wanted this conversation to end. “It was a bad experience and I don’t like to talk about it.”
Tim continued, “Yeah, but you were in 9-11 and did relief work in Bosnia? You’d be perfect for DERT.”
“No Tim, those experiences taught be that I’m not perfect for DERT.” Sally was done with this conversation.
“You must have been very young.”
“I was and impressionable. So, coffee or do you need to continue on your rounds?” Sally was already walking to the front door as she asked the question.
“I should go, make sure the block is at least structurally sound, nobody’s fallen and can’t get up,” Tim said, taking Sally’s cue.
“Wait, what do I do now?” Lorna asked.
“Go online for the DERT program for Ohlone Island. I think it’s DERT dot o-r-g and then put in your zip code. They have classes almost every week. FDMA gave them a bunch of money so they’re coupling up with the Red Cross. Start there.”
This caught Sally’s attention. “A federal agency is giving money to the Red Cross?”
“Yeah, see, the government mandates the Red Cross to exist but doesn’t provide them with funds, so I guess this coupling is just kind of a work around for some federal funds. Whatever, y’know, it all helps,” Tim shrugged.
Lorna bounced up and walked Tim to the door. “Thank you Tim.”
Tim gave a sheepish grin. “You’re welcome.” He heaved the backpack over his shoulder and said cheerfully, “All in a day’s work!”
Lorna was brimming with excitement as she shut the door behind him and turned to face Sally. “It’s like manna from the heavens. I recognize a need, I decide to take action, and the universe meets me half way.”
“Good. And you have a buddy to go with you. Breakfast?”
“Yeah, but first, I know we’ve talked about this before but I feel like I did all the talking.” Lorna followed Sally into the kitchen. “What happened to you that day?”
Sally did not need to know which day Lorna was referring to. Like thousands of survivors of the September 11th attacks, that day is always referred to as “that day”. Sally pulled out some eggs from the refrigerator. “Nothing, really. I mean our office was a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center and we were evacuated just before the second tower fell. It was utter chaos. So I ran. I ran all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge and walked for about an hour and a half back home. I got home, took a long hot shower and got whatever that, dust or ash, was off, poured a Scotch and turned on the television. And sat there for a week until they called and said come back to work. So I did.”
“That’s it? You never processed it with anyone?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like a therapist maybe?”
“No. I mean we talked about it a lot at work. They brought in a social worker or psychologist, whatever, for people who were really having a hard time with it. There was a lot of grieving and y’know funerals we went to. But no, there was no formal… uh…” Sally paused in breaking the eggs and looked up “…like debriefing. No.”
They smiled awkwardly at each other for a moment.
“Oh.” Lorna got up from the kitchen table as the phone rang. She loved Sally unconditionally, but honestly, sometimes Sally felt as foreign to her as a stranger. “That’ll be Tessa. I’ll get it.”
Sally closed her eyes and took a deep breath – in through the nose and out through her mouth, as the psychologist had taught her. The Bosnia aid story she had told to Tim and Lorna was true, for the most part. Her Grandmother had convinced her to go to Bosnia but it was under the guise of aid work. It was a story she stuck to so much she almost believed it herself.
But in truth, Sally’s Grandfather had been in the CIA – in the beginning when it was formed and became something of a war hero, not that anyone outside the CIA would ever know it. Her parents kept up this family tradition and followed in his footprints as covert agents within American Embassies around the world. Sally’s mother is of Chinese heritage and her father is Portuguese/English so Sally, in contrast, has an Eastern European look about her. No doubt Grandma Soucek had this in mind when she offered Sally up as next in line to the CIA for training. Sally had been raised by her Grandma Soucek to believe that her parents were embassy workers in foreign countries because they spoke so many foreign languages. And Sally really believed she was going to the Bosnian region as a foreign aid worker to help the people recover from the horrible war and genocide they had endured. Grandma Soucek had pulled strings and convinced the CIA to fast track her granddaughter, in light of the family tradition, and sent a very naïve Sally into the heart of a war without any formal training and without giving Sally any say as to her own future. In hindsight, it was an absolutely unconscionable thing to do in Sally’s mind.
Sally was slow to pick up what exactly she had been really doing there. It had made sense to her that her trainers gave her a gun and taught her to use it for her own protection, because unlike many of her fellow aid workers, Sally actually did look like she could have been from the region. She began as a runner. Running errands from one camp to the next, making stops along the way. But the language her trainers used was changing – errands became missions. Sally had not put together the actual word “intel” with what she had been doing, until she heard a trainer use the term off handedly.
Then reality came scorching down on her one night when she had been paired with a nurse from the medical group to do a “drop”. A word her parents had used during a visit when they were relating an embassy work story to her Grandma Soucek. Sally was being told how dangerous this drop might be and did she feel comfortable with the gun.
It will be a last measure of course, but all the same. Don’t worry – everyone has to go through it. The Nurse will be with you and she knows the ropes.
At that moment Sally wanted to run. All those years she believed her absentee parents to be Embassy workers – did she ever think to ask doing what? She assumed it meant that they translated documents, or ran the janitorial staff, processed passports or helped out wayward American tourists, things like that. It had all been a lie.
When Sally returned to the States, she promptly entered law school, never mentioning the Bosnia situation again. The CIA pursued her, as she expected, but she always politely declined. She cut her ties with the people with whom she had worked in Bosnia and kept her Grandma Soucek at arm’s length.
In 1999, her parents retired from “the service” by faking their own deaths. Sally saw an opportunity and changed her name and changed her job in hopes of putting as much distance between herself and her past as she could. The CIA had long since stopped trying to recruit Sally even after the September 11th attacks when she hid in her apartment shaken to her core by that day’s events. Only in the last couple of years she realized that perhaps her past was beginning to catch up with her. And she didn’t like it. She wanted to run again.
“So Tessa has an idea.”
Sally put the orange juice bottle down sat at the kitchen table with Lorna. “Tessa is an idea.”
“She wants to put together emergency kits for the blind and infirmed.”
“As a business venture?”
“No, as a charity.”
“Well, I mean you’d have to get pretty specific, according to the, uh.. specific capabilities.” Sally shook her head.
“You mean disabilities.”
“Hey, I used that word one time in front of your family and almost had my head handed to me. So no, I mean capabilities.”
Lorna giggled, “Yeah, Tessa can be kinda militant about those things.”
Sally lifted her eyebrows at Lorna.
Lorna nodded back at her agreeing, “I hear ya. Anyway, she said she had a break in her schedule coming up and was thinking about coming for a visit. What do you think of that?”
“Great. When’s she coming?”
“I don’t know. I’d guess in a few weeks?”
“That’s fine. Should I put in for a couple of days off?”
“If you can, maybe. But ya’ know, don’t cut yourself short on Tessa’s account.”
“No, I’ve got some use or lose time accrued so it’s fine. Just let me know when.”
“Okay,” Lorna mumbled over a mouthful of toast and jam.
Sally had worked as an attorney for the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD for short, since 1999. In those eight years, she had taken only four sick days.
Sally glanced at the clock. 5:30. “I’m just going to shower and go in I think. What are you doing today?”
“Well,” Lorna started. “First I have to fix the bed.”
“Oh, I’ll help you with that before I go.”
“Good, then I’m going to take a nap. Then I need to finish that article for publication and I’m signing up for the DERT classes and reading some material about—”
The house shook beneath them suddenly and Sally snapped up her orange juice glass as Lorna held on to the kitchen table.
“DUDE!” Lorna cried out.
Sally grabbed Lorna’s hand. “It’s just an aftershock, it’s okay.”
“You know we’re going to have to move now.”
“Look at this kitchen – it’s leaning. And the in living room, in the front, that’s leaning too. There’s a crack where the window sill meets the window.”
“Sweetheart, this house stood through the 1906 quake and the Loma Prieta in 89 and it was retrofitted, I don’t think a small tumbler is going to take it down.”
“You don’t know that. May I remind you about the straw that breaks the camel’s back?”
Sally could see she would not win this one no matter what and quickly changed her tactics.
“Okay, that’s true. Who really knows what could happen?” She took another bite of eggs. “Do you want the rest of the eggs?”
Lorna’s eyes jutted about nervously. “No, I have things to do.”
Sally saw the distress in Lorna’s eyes and scooted her chair around to face Lorna. “Come here. Listen to me.” Lorna swiveled her chair around to face Sally.
“Are you going to talk to me like a child?”
“No. But I am going to try to reason with you. I think I know what you are feeling.”
“I’m scared as shit dude!”
“Yes, not knowing when the earth is going to open up and swallow hard is unnerving if you dwell on it. So I’m glad you are going to take the DERT class. At least one of us will know what to do. But,” Sally took a deep breath, “over the past year or so I’ve noticed a change in your work habits.”
Lorna bristled. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, when we were in New York you were doing two and three articles a week and then restructuring them under various pseudonyms and sending them out to three or four different publications. You were busy, busy, busy all the time.”
“There’s not a lot happening on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, Sally. This place isn’t exactly world renowned for its couture and museums and whatever.”
“No, it’s not. Which is why I was thinking maybe it’s time you really start writing some longer – what do you call it – long form fiction, or non-fiction. Maybe take another stab at your satire book you were always going on about.”
“Nobody, really, likes you.”
Lorna sighed. “Where is this coming from?”
“It’s just that I’ve noticed, I mean, I think you’re getting bored with the articles. Maybe? A little?”
“Yeah. But it’s my job. It’s what I do.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to do it forever. Where’s the rule that says Lorna Tollison, or Rebecca Charles, or Robert Cook – that Drugstore Publishing only does magazine articles. I’m just saying maybe branch out a little?”
“But I keep busy. Are you saying I need to pull in more money? Is that what this is about?”
“No.” Sally continued, “Lorna, you are always getting distracted always getting involved with that Detective Keeling on some weird island thing. Had this happened in New York, you’d be out on the street interviewing people for an article by now, not worrying about a leaning kitchen. You need a change.”
Lorna shook her head.
Sally shook her head back, smiling. “Take the chance, honey.”
“I’ll think about it.” Lorna got up and put her plate in the sink. “But don’t think you are distracting me from what just happened.”
“Damn, I just played my last ace too.” Sally followed Lorna to the sink. “Look I do have a small emergency kit. Something to get us started.”
“Of course, I put it away when we moved here to earthquake country.”
“Where is it?” Lorna asked.
Sally walked into the bedroom and came back promptly with a wad of cash and held it out.
Lorna looked at it. “That’s our emergency kit?”
Lorna blinked at her partner. “You are so weird.”
Sally shuffled off several large bills. “Here. We’ll probably need some water too. Or something.”
Lorna shook her head and smiled. “Thank you,” she said and kissed Sally.