Acrid smoke from a fire wafted through the windows of Bobby Coldiron’s Jeep as he nosed it past other cars and around emergency vehicles. The distant, ghostly wail of sirens pervaded the air as he spoke with two policewomen, asking if he could skirt their barricade. They warned him of a possible gas leak in the area and instructed him to turn around.
Consistent detours took him out of his way and eventually, unable to drive any farther, he parked his rig and dropped the tailgate. Pulling on his backpack, he hoisted a case of bottled water onto his right shoulder and set out on foot.
The epicenter of the magnitude 6.5 earthquake was located several miles north and west of Stockton, shaking the city at 7:22 AM. Storefront window glass and bricks littered sidewalks. More than a few doors were crooked now and many structures succumbed when the ground trembled.
The phenomenon left one neighborhood in shambles, the next unscathed. He mused if he were a spiritual person, the chaos might be more easily interpreted through prophecy than by logic.
Sunlight glinted off the Still Woods Retirement Center parking lot, where water was a foot deep and ripples lapped against the doors. A few older folks stood staring out from inside.
A water main two blocks south had ruptured, and it had taken Stockton East Water District some time to get it shut off. Bobby could hear the maintenance man complaining to the Fire Fighters, who were temporarily preventing him from pumping it out, insisting the water could easily run into the condominiums one block below, adding insult to injury. The retirement community would have to wait until the water could be properly diverted.
Bobby checked out the seniors as he walked past. He waved to a bearded old man who promptly waved back.
The next few blocks appeared to be untouched by the quake, though Bobby imagined there would be broken furnishings and merchandise inside. He passed a small grocery store where the doors were propped open. Employees were using squeegees to push water through the doors and onto the pavement. Evidently the fire sprinklers were tripped. What a mess.
Messes were anathema to Bobby.
“Hey man,” a young guy dressed in khaki pants, a black tee shirt and heavy boots ran out of an alley to Bobby’s left, “could you help me?”
“I’m kind of on a mission.” Bobby checked behind himself, dipped and bounced to shift the weight of the sloshing water bottles. “What do you need?”
Three other guys stepped out from the alley to stand next to their accomplice. “Nothing but your money.”
Bobby smiled and set the case of water on the sidewalk. He took out his wallet and removed the four-hundred-eighty dollars from inside. He handed the cash to the mouthpiece and opened the billfold wide, so they could all see the void.
The leader wasn’t satisfied. “Credit cards too.”
“I’m not carrying any cards.”
“Everyone has cards.”
“I have them. I’m not carrying them. See?” He ran a fingertip along the empty card slots.
“Fine. You can go now. Leave the water.”
“The water’s not negotiable.” Bobby kept smiling.
“I’m not negotiating, dickhead.”
“Your exact words were, Nothing but your money. You have what you said you needed. If you wanted the water too, you should have included it in your original request.”
“Request?” The leader turned to his friends. “Can you believe this guy? Leave the water, asshole, and hit the road.”
The smile faded from Bobby’s lips, and he stepped in front of the water. “I won’t take the money back from you. It doesn’t matter to me, but this water does. How much do your tracheas matter to you?”
“Our what?” The young guy screwed up his face and looked to his friends again. They shook their heads. Sucking in some air, he puffed out his chest and raised his shoulders, “I’m not playing with you, man. Leave the water and go.”