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"I am the administrator of Glory Community Church, gentlemen."
Ann Trask sat upright in her chair and spoke with determination. She hoped the rigid posture would make her look more formidable. "It is my responsibility to remain in the building in the event of an emergencyespecially when Pastor Hartman is out of town."
One of the two big men standing in front of Ann's desk grinned at her. Rafe Neilson, Glory's deputy police chief, was solidly in her corner. The other man scowled and made a disparaging gesture.
"We don't need false bravery today, Miss Trask. There's a major hurricane bearing down on our corner of North Carolina. Gilda is the proverbial 'really big one,' a mid-Sep-tember wind machine strong enough to be a killer. Her outer rain bands are flooding Glory's streets as we speak." Phil Meade's gaze locked onto Ann's face as he spoke directly to her. "The outer rain bands are on the periphery of the storm, but they sometimes spawn tornadoes along with the drenching rain. They're a taste of what's to come. You don't want to be here when the main storm arrives." He crossed his arms. "I say that as Glory's director of emergency management."
Ann took a deep breath and prayed that neither man could hear her heart thumping. She knew to the depths of her queasy stomach that Phil Meadea respected expert in disaster managementhad spoken the truth. He even looked the part: late forties, tall, wide, florid-faced and gray at the temples, with a powerful bass voice that commanded respect. But right as Phil was, she couldn't run away. Not again. This time, she would take control of her fears.
"What do you think, Rafe?" Ann said, as evenly as shecould. She noted that he had stopped grinning.
Please don't let Rafe side with Phil against me.
"Well, we all agree that Glory Community Church is one of the most solidly built structures in town. Moreover, it's located on the highest patch of ground we have. That's why we've designated it as an emergency shelter. If there's anyplace in Glory that can survive a major hurricane, this is it."
"Exactly" Ann began, but Rafe kept talking.
"However, I feel uneasy that you'll remain when virtually everyone else has evacuated Glory."
"Dozens of people are staying," she protested.
Phil Meade jumped back in. "Correct! Police officers, firefighters, a few medical professionals, the mayor, my staff, a handful of other essential personnel, and me." He pointed at Ann. "We don't need a twenty-four-year-old civilian putting her life at risk and making our work more difficult."
"I'm almost twenty-five, Mr. Meade. There are younger police officers patrolling Glory, and some of them have spouses and children to worry about. I'm singlefree as the proverbial bird. I don't even have my mother to take care of. She's across the state visiting my brother in Asheville." Ann took a swift breath. "Someone has to be on duty in Glory's emergency shelterI'm glad for the opportunity to be useful."
Phil turned to Rafe. "What are we going to do about this?"
"I'd have to put her in handcuffs to make her leave town." He clapped Phil on the shoulder. "Like she said, someone needs to be on duty inside the church."
"Pah! You deal with her. I have sensible people to worry about." Phil strode toward the door to Ann's office, and then spun around. "Miss Trask, make sure you give Rafe a phone number for your next of kin. Just in case."
Ann camouflaged the jolt of anxiety she felt with a hollow laugh while she listened to Phil's boot-shod feet clomp down the church's hallway. He had said the perfect thing to push her panic button.
Please don't make my mother deal with another visit from the police.
"Phil has a point," Rafe said. "This may not be the wisest decision you've made."
"Perhaps not." Ann swallowed hard to clear the alarm from her voice. "But I have an important job to do."
And this time people are going to see me do it properly.
"Well, if your mind is made up"
"Good!" Ann said quickly. "Now that that's settled, when will things get bad in Glory?"
Rafe's expression became grim. "Gilda's eye walland her strongest windswill reach Glory at five o'clock this afternoon."
"So the worst of the hurricane should be over before nightfall, right?"
"I'm afraid not. Gilda's a massive storm. Her remnants could be with us until the wee hours of tomorrow morning."
"Do you think the electricity will fail?"
Rafe nodded. "Everyone at the emergency command center expects the power to fail a few minutes after Gilda hits. The citizens of Glory should be prepared to spend Monday night in the dark." He smiled. "Correction! Most of us should. The church, however, has an emergency generator that will switch on automatically. You'll be a beacon of light for the rest of Glory."
"That's part of every church's job description."
Rafe uttered a soft grunt of agreement, then asked, "Are any volunteers still working in the church?"
"No,"Ann said. "They're all gone. They hung the storm shutters early this morning and finished installing the plywood panels over our stained-glass windows about a half hour ago." She made a vague gesture toward her own shuttered window. "It's as dark as a tomb inside the sanctuary."
"Tombs survive big hurricanes. Anyway, I'm glad the volunteers are finished."
"Me, too," Ann said, although she'd been sorry to see the eight men go. They hadn't even taken time to say goodbye. Seconds after the hammering stopped, Ann heard eight engines rev. She understood completely. The volunteers had to protect their own homes from the approaching storm and then evacuate their families further inland, at least to Rocky Mount, perhaps to Winston-Salem.
"I see you're wearing the miniature tactical police radio I gave you," Rafe said.
Ann tugged at the two lanyards around her neck. She felt the small lozenge-shaped gizmo bounce against her chest. "I keep the radio you gave me next to my high-in-tensity flashlight."
"Our emergency command center is part of police headquarters, less than three blocks from the church. Contact me if you need any help."
Ann bit her tongue. She wanted to say, You can count on it. Instead, she said, "I won't need any help. The church is fully battened down."
The building became astonishingly silent after Rafe said his goodbyes and left. Ann could hear the quartz clock on her desk counting off the seconds. The ticking sound seemed louder than it ever had before, and somehow threatening.
"The church is one of the most solidly built structures in Glory," she reminded herself again. "Gilda can huff, puff, and tear loose a few roof shingles, but the walls won't fall down. And the church's generator will keep the lights on all night.
You don't have anything to worry about. So stop worrying. This isn't going to be like last time. I'm much better prepared.
"We've got trouble," Sean Miller said to the person he thought was seated right behind him. "I can't find a safe place to park the broadcast van." When he received no response, he looked around and saw that Carlo Vaughn had moved to the back of the van and was rummaging through the closet.
Sean ignored the rush of exasperation that made him want to throw something. "Carlo, please pay attention. I said that we don't have a home for the van."
"I heard you, but I have a more pressing problem to solve. I don't know which of my waterproof rain suits to wear this afternoon. The yellow looks good on me, but I hate the oversized Storm Channel logo embroidered on the front and the back."
"Then put on your red suit."
"It pinches at the waist, and the hood is less flattering."
"What about the navy-blue slicker?"
"Blue is too dark during a heavy storm. My torso dis-appearsI end up looking like someone removed my head from my body."
"Don't give me any ideas," Sean muttered under his breath. Then he said, "Our only pressing problem right now is finding a parking place for the broadcast van. You're scheduled to go live in less than an hour. I can't set up the camera and the lights, start our generator, or get the satellite antenna working until we're safely parked."
Carlo returned to Sean's cramped workstation. "I thought you planned to park behind the high school."
Sean poked his index finger at the map of Glory he'd taped to the desktop. "That was okay before Gilda took direct aim at the town. The high school is located in a low spot that's likely to flood."
"You think so?"
"I know so."
Carlo frowned. "What about that other parking spot we scouted this morning?"
"The local cops called me five minutes ago. The parking structure at Glory Regional Hospital is no longer available because the town is going to use it as a staging area for emergency vehicles."
"It's your job to bed down the van. I'm confident that you'll find a solution," Carlo said, heading back to the closet.
"I see one remaining possibility on the mapthe parking lot next to Glory Community Church. It's sizable and not likely to flood."
"Problem solved! We'll park at the church. I don't understand why you're making such a big deal about a simple decision."
"The decision may be simple, but the church is private property and we don't have permission to operate from their parking lot."
"Then we'd better get over there and ask."
"Gee, why didn't I think of that?" Sean fought to keep his voice even. The cardinal rule of remote broadcasting was don't upset the "talent" an hour before an upcoming broadcast.
"I don't have any choice," Carlo said glumly. "I'll have to make do with the red jacket."
"Poor baby!" Sean muttered.
"But it's really too bad we don't have a green rain jacket. I look great in green."
Sean swallowed another sigh. "Let's go visit the church."
God, if you're listening, please turn Carlo into a frog. He does look great in green.
Ann couldn't see outside but she could hear the windblown rain drumming on the heavily shuttered windows and it was getting louder by the minute. She wished that she knew more about extreme weather. How could she estimate the amount of rain falling? How much wind did it take to peel shingles off the roof? What should she do if the lights failed inside the church?
Stop worrying about Gilda. Other people in Glory are in much greater danger than you are.
The sound of the church's doorbell promptly switched her thoughts. Maybe someone wants to take refuge inside the church? Ann raced to front door. She had to push the brass handle with all of her strength to keep the stout wooden door ajar against the force of the wind. A yellow hood poked around the edge of the door.
"May we come in?" said a male voice.
"Of course. But I don't dare let go of the door."
"We'll work the door. Stand back so you don't get soaked. It's like the bottom of Niagara Falls out here."
Ann stepped sideways. Mr. Yellow Suit and a taller man dressed in a red rain slicker and pants slipped into the narthex and pulled the door shut. Ann recognized the red-suited man straight away when he tugged back his hood. Carlo Vaughn was the Storm Channel's star weather reporter. She couldn't help staring at him. The man was drop-dead gorgeous: a classic chiseled face, perfect features, lovely chestnut-colored hair that framed his brow, glowing dark brown eyes, and a smile that lit up the narthex.
"Good afternoon," Mr. Yellow Suit said. "We're from the Storm Channel."
Ann responded to his greeting politely, then looked back at Carlo to take in more details: the powerful aura of self-assurance he projected his brilliant, dazzling smile the absence of a wedding ring on his third finger
"My name is Carlo Vaughn." Carlo's voice oozed like warm syrup over a buttered waffle. He gave his name a slightly European pronunciation, hitting the second syllable rather than the first.
"Welcome to Glory Community Church," she replied. "I've seen you on TV many times."
"I've come to Glory because there's a hurricane on the way."
" 'Storms come, storms go. We follow the storms,'" Ann said.
"You even know our slogan." He extended a hand. "And your name is?"
"Ann Trask," she managed, trying to conceal her excitement.
"Well, Ann Trask, I have a favor to ask of you. May we locate our broadcast van in your parking lot?" He pointed toward the rear of the building.
"Our van is completely self-contained," Mr. Yellow Suit barked.
"Thank you, Sean," Carlo said. "Ann, let me introduce Sean Miller. Sean is my associate, the man behind the camera."
Ann studied Sean. He'd pulled back his hood, revealing a plain face that currently overflowed with annoyed impatience. His lack of good looks compared to Carloplus his sour expressionworked together to create a bad impression. She found herself feeling annoyed at this boorish hanger-on.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am," Sean said perfunctorily. "The fact is, your parking lot may be the only dry ground in Glory when Gilda hits. We have a broadcast scheduled in less than forty-five minutes. May we park in your lot?"
Ann returned her gaze to Carlo. "How big is your van?"
"Imagine a bread delivery truck with a satellite dish on the roof. We'll find an out-of-the-way location in the backyou won't even know we're there."
"That won't be necessary, Mr. Vaughn."
"Please call me Carlo."
"Well, Carlo," Ann said, feeling a flush in her cheeks, "park as close to the church as you'd like. This is one of the most solidly built structures in Glory. We're set up as an emergency sheltercome inside whenever you need to. Our side entrance faces the parking lot."
"That's very kind of you."
Ann noticed that Sean rolled his eyes. She wondered how a gentleman like Carlo could spend his days traveling with an ill-mannered assistant who clearly lacked his boss's sophistication and polish.
"Ann, I have to get ready to go on the air," Carlo said. "I'll leave Sean here to work out the details. Let's chat later, after my broadcast."
"That would be great," Ann said, smiling.
She took a step backward as Sean eased the front door open for Carlo, allowing a whirlwind of raindrops to spray the narthex. Carlo gave a jaunty wave and marched into the downpour. Sean seemed to be shaking his head as he pulled the heavy door shut.