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
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 â€˜swoop' on up the coast and out of our
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
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
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
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
"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
"Got four too many already," came the reply.
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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