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The National Weather Service in Miami has issued the following update: Hurricane Arlene will strengthen over the next 24 hours. The storm is expected to turn northward and avoid making landfall. However, a hurricane watch remains in effect along the east coast of Florida.
Stephanie Arlene Bryant killed her rental car's ignition and emerged into the blanket of heat and humidity that passed for late summer in Cocoa Beach.
"Just my luck," she muttered, hefting her laptop from the backseat. "I've been in the state less than a week and they've already named a hurricane after me."
Her mom would be so pleased. She'd always claimed her youngest was the center of the universe. Having the U.S. government weigh in would make it official. Though there was a slim chance the folks back in Ohio hadn't heard about the storm, Mom was sure to keep one eye on CNN and one hand over her heart as long as her baby lived in the Sunshine State. And with a hurricane off the coast, spotty coverage was the only reason Stephanie's cell phone didn't bleat like a lost lamb.
The quiet wouldn't last.
A quick glance at her BlackBerry confirmed the plethora of installations—phone, cable and Internet—scheduled by noon. By midday she'd be back to proving she was tough enough to make hard decisions and see them through. Space Tech had mandated a reorganization and streamlining of the Florida office, and sent her to make sure the job was done right. In exchange she'd been promoted to director of human resources. Her new position put her on the stairway to the CEO's office, but the job had risks. The kind that wrinkled her brow and made her wonder how soon was too soon for Botox. One slip in her twelve-month schedule, and she would tumble all the way down to the copy room.
Stephanie tucked an errant curl into place and blew a breath through pursed lips. She would never get another chance like this. She wasn't going to blow it.
Heels of her strappy sandals tapping like firecrackers, she pulled a freshly minted key from the pocket of her capris on her way up the pebbled walkway. Once inside the house Space Tech had provided for the coming year, she fumbled for an unfamiliar light switch.
"A beach house is supposed to be light and airy," she had told Deb, Space Tech's local Realtor, during Friday's walk-through. While the office was on the mainland, her bosses thought she'd enjoy living a short walk from the ocean. All new wiring and stainless-steel appliances made the older home the ideal spot for a rising corporate executive—but not if the windows were shuttered.
"They're just a precaution," Deb had answered with a shrug. "Hurricanes never make landfall in Cocoa Beach. It has something to do with the way the land juts out into the Atlantic. Storms 'swoop' on up the coast and out of our hair."
The woman had practically guaranteed the house was in a hurricane-free zone, providing a slew of maps and colorful brochures that hailed Central Florida's east coast as America's gateway to the stars and home to the world's second-busiest cruise port. And, since Stephanie's five-feet-two-inches wouldn't stretch far enough to take the panels down, Deb had agreed to have them removed.
Until that happened, thank goodness for air-conditioning and electric lights. Stephanie set a cup of coffee from a neighborhood convenience store atop one of the boxes the movers had stacked against a wall and began to unpack. According to her schedule, she should be settled in before the servicemen came and went. That would give her the evening to study personnel folders, a necessary task since she meant to have the names and faces of every Space Tech employee down cold before she reported to work in the morning.
But no one had showed by the time packing debris littered the house.
Convinced the installers would pull up to the curb the minute she headed for the closest pay phone, she felt compelled to stay where she was. She shoved aside a frisson of self-doubt along with a handful of rebellious curls. How she hoped to turn things around at Space Tech when her hair wouldn't even follow orders was a question she refused to consider.
The chin-length black ringlets were so not what she'd envisioned when she'd agreed to a corporate-ordered makeover. Neither were the sculpted nails with their pink polish. Or the closet full of frilly designer clothes. But the home office had ordered a softening of her usual buttoned-down and laced-up look, saying it was necessary to fit in with Florida's more relaxed culture. And since end results were all that mattered, she had gone along with the plan.
A plan that a few tardy workmen threatened to derail.
Stephanie threw the front door wide. Bright sunshine and summer heat streamed in, creating such a difference in the darkened and air-conditioned house that she stepped outside to soak up the warmth. A quick scan of the street provided no sign of a repairman—or anyone else for that matter—though she was just in time to see a flash of brake lights as a police car turned onto the next street. It seemed odd that no one was about on such a pretty day, but who knew? By the time her year in Florida was up, she might grow as bored as her neighbors with the scent of orange blossoms floating on soft ocean breezes. She gave the idea a shrug of disbelief and, propping the front door open, began to haul the empty, flattened packing boxes to the curb.
Monday, according to one of the brochures the Realtor had provided, was recycling day.
The pulsing lights threw blue shadows across the hood of Brett Lincoln's cruiser as he drove past the boarded-up surf shops, bars and restaurants of Cocoa Beach. By now, most locals had fled the danger zone and only tourists lagged behind. But with the storm bearing down, even they were in a hurry to get out of town. The last thing Brett wanted was to get T-boned by some overanxious visitor so, even though it wasn't exactly regulation, he'd lit up the light bar.
Knowing the girls would love it was the extra bonus that put a smile on his face.
Brett gave the wheel a one-handed spin while letting Dispatch know where he could be found. Midway down Fifth Street, his smile turned into a full-fledged grin at the sight of a tall, wiry man trying to stuff an overweight chocolate Lab into the back of a minivan. It looked like a tight fit for a dog who obviously wanted no part of sitting among boxes of family treasures too precious to risk leaving behind.
"Need a hand?" Always eager to unfold his six-foot-four-inch frame from the confines of his police cruiser, Brett had the door open before the car finished rolling.
"Got four too many already," came the reply. "Here, Seminole."
All protests were instantly forgotten when Tom Jenkins pulled a rawhide strip from his pocket and let fly. The Lab executed a perfect midair catch, landing his tasty bribe in the van with the precision of an angler making the perfect cast. Tom gave the dog an affectionate ruffle before closing the hatch.
Brett crossed the postage-stamp yard in three long strides and shook the hand of the man he still considered his best friend, even if they didn't spend much time together anymore.
"Cutting it a little close, aren't you?" He pitched his voice low. Though the van's windows were up and the AC was running, the twins in the backseat had sharp ears.
"That's life for the self-employed." Tom shrugged. "Remember Dave Hartsong and Don Sinclair?"
"You mean Dan Hartsong and John Sinclair?" Brett asked with a smile. Tom could quote a boat's specifications down to the number of rod and cup holders, but he'd never get the owners' names right.
"Whatever. Those yahoos waited till the last minute to moor up. I'd have let them flounder, but they waved a fistful of money in my face."
Brett shrugged one shoulder in response. His friend would always be one of the last to cross the causeway linking Cocoa Beach to Merritt Island and the relative safety of the mainland beyond. To hurricane-proof businesses and homes took time and, if Hurricane Arlene hit them head-on, the exercise was apt to be futile. Yet everyone with any sense did it, and his pal was a smart guy. Brett's experienced gaze took in the heavy sheets of plywood covering the windows and all but one of the doors of the Jenkins' modest cement-block house.
"Where you headed?" he asked. Sturdy schools offered shelter in times of crisis, but none allowed pets. And it was too late to outrun the storm. Arlene would hit before sunrise.
"Finally found a kennel in Orlando to board Seminole. We'll stay nearby."
"The shelter on Lee Vista has openings," Brett offered. "I checked."
"Then that's where we'll be."
Brett would have said more, but at that moment a small woman wrestled two diaper bags through the still unprotected front door without stopping to catch the screen behind her. Wood slapped against wood. The noise echoed through the quiet neighborhood like a starting gun. In a sense, it was one. Tom bolted to his wife's side.
Brett didn't need to be all that intuitive to see that Mary was upset. The circumstances might warrant her tears, but hundreds of thousands of coastal residents were on the move, fleeing Hurricane Arlene's stubborn path and turning the sixty-mile asphalt ribbon to Orlando into a parking lot. Traffic would inch along for hours, and they all needed Mary to hold it together. He cleared his throat.
Tom shot him a warning look that made Brett reconsider the speech he'd planned. He nodded and spoke loud enough for all of them to hear.
"I'll check things out as soon as it's safe." Which meant the moment the wind stopped converting every loose palm frond into a lethal weapon. "She still has time to turn. Maybe the hurricane gods will smile on us this time."
"Let's hope so," Tom muttered. Shoulders slumping, he grabbed a hammer and moved away. Only two years before, a passing storm had all but destroyed his marina and his livelihood. Rebuilding had been both expensive and time-consuming. He couldn't afford to do it again.
"Hang on. I'll help," Brett said.
Even if he had known what else to say, words weren't necessary. Before he'd joined the force and his friend had met Mary, he and Tom had worked and played together so much they'd practically known each other's thoughts. It took only moments for them to wedge a precut slab of plywood over the front door. They hammered it and their frustrations into place with each nail.
"I'll call," Brett promised as he and Tom joined the rest of the family. "Let you know how it looks."
"Sounds like a plan," Tom answered. "Maybe it won't be so bad this time."
"Nah, couldn't be," Brett scoffed, keeping his thoughts to himself.
His pal had his priorities straight, and though Tom stood taller than before, Brett still detected the sour note of fear. Experience told him this was a good thing. Putting his family's safety first would keep his friend from doing something stupid—like staying on a barrier island through a Category 4 hurricane. Another handshake, this one lasting just a second or two longer than necessary, left Brett thankful they were both wearing dark sunglasses. He waited until Tom was behind the wheel to speak again.
"Stay right on my bumper till we get to the bridge. I'll peel off once you're in line to go across. Remember, that'll be the worst." In this traffic, crabs would make better time crossing the causeway than cars.
Tom, a veteran of more evacuations than anyone could remember, nodded. He knew the routine.
Mary's dark sunglasses were firmly anchored when she leaned forward. "You sure it's okay for you to do this?"
Getting a police escort from her husband's best friend was nothing new, but Mary always asked. Brett flashed a smile known to have an effect on women and got…nada. The expected response from his pal's wife left him feeling more unsettled than it usually did.
"Hey, we have to stick together." Brett shrugged. He took a long, careful look through the open driver's side window. Every required belt and buckle was securely snapped in place. He grinned at the identical two-year-olds in their matching car seats, one on either side of an enormous box of toys.
"Tell Mom who the good guys are," he said.
"We're the good guys!" shrill voices chorused in unison.
Brett gave the girls a thumbs-up and felt an unanticipated stab of envy when two chubby hands answered him in kind. Momentarily uncertain whether he was on the giving or receiving end of reassurance, he gripped Tom's shoulder in a final squeeze and was surprised to find his throat needed clearing before he was able to speak.
"Stay close," Brett growled before he headed across the sparse lawn to his patrol car where once more he hit the lights and siren. The girls—Tom's girls—loved it.
The brilliant summer sun had dropped several hand-spans and clouds gathered on the horizon before he saw his friends safely onto the causeway. Brett keyed his mike.
"Dispatch, this is Lincoln. Heading to Palm Royale to resume the search for stragglers and anyone too bullheaded to leave when they're told."
Static crackled and spit until a soothing voice cooed through his earpiece.
"Just you wait, darlin'. A little longer and we'll have the whole town to ourselves. Won't we have us a time then."
Tension slipped from his shoulders as Doris, known to the officers of Cocoa Beach as The Voice of Dispatch, continued her patter. This time, Brett didn't have to fake the smile that formed on his lips. Doris, with her wiry gray hair and homespun ways, knew exactly how to defuse her "boys," as she called them.
"Can't wait," he returned. "Just you, me and what's-her-name."
"Arlene? That shameless hussy? She's just a big ol' puff of wind. You go on, now. Finish gettin' our citizens out of harm's way. Me an' the rest of the boys'll meet you at the station house. We'll all wait it out here where it's safe."
"Ten-four, Dispatch," Brett said before the patrol car's big engine roared to life.
He sped through neighborhoods of fifty-year-old squat, cement-block homes. Each was deserted and boarded up, the way it should be, and with all the traffic streaming onto the causeway behind him, he reached the end of his six-mile drive through Cocoa Beach in just over eight minutes. He slowed his patrol car to make a final turn, automatically noting each detail of the scene the way he had learned in the Marines and practiced every day of his four years on the force.