eye of the storm ~ chapter five

For the record

Chapter Five 

Pensacola, Florida 

Jess awakened slowly to the delicious feeling of a warm tongue licking his neck, then his chin, then his chest, then his . . . “Angus! Stop that!” Jess laughed and shifted Harper’s Angus Blackvelvet, a 12-week-old black Labrador retriever pup, so that he was splayed out on his naked chest. He squinted through the white plantation shutters of his downtown loft apartment, and then looked at the lighted dial of his wristwatch. It was 5:50 a.m. Jess rubbed Angus’s soft ears and stretched lazily in the comfortable California King bed. 

Angus was a gift from his grandparents, Tom and Sally Harper. They had Angus’s sire and dam, Duke Blackvelvet and Spunky Darlin’, at the old home place on a Longleaf pine preserve in the midsection of the county. Jess’s brother, Grant, had a pup from the litter, too, and had named the poor dog Goober. Hate to go through life with a name like that. Thank God I’m just Jess to most folks and don’t have to go around with my full name: Jesperson Powell Harper. Now there’s a handle that would scare away almost any woman. 

“Hey, ouch, Angus, that smarts.” Angus peppered Jess’s fingers with his tiny puppy teeth. He wiggled and yipped, and his tail whipped from side to side. “Okay, I get the message, little guy. Let’s go for a short walk, then breakfast for you and I’ll hit the shower. Today’s the hurricane drill. I’ve got to head out to the beach.” 

An hour later, Jess was in the driver’s seat of his Jeep. Angus was at what Jess referred to as “doggy day care.” Mrs. Brinkley next door was his go-to puppy sitter. She thought she was too old to get another dog, but it was clear she missed the hell out of having one. She took care of Angus and got her “dog fix” and Jess could rest assured that his pup was well cared for in his absence. Once Angus graduated from obedience school, Jess planned to take the pup to his office at the bank and even to City Council meetings. He figured there was nothing as effective as a fine Labrador retriever to improve the image of a banker and politician. 

Jess fixed himself a thermos of coffee and a trail mix bar as a take-along for the ride out to the beach. When he turned on the ignition, the radio was already tuned to the local drive time favorite, C-ROCK, the country/rock station all the locals called CROCK. They served up a mix of music and talk from the CROCK Jocks. Everybody under 65 listened. Some even older, like his Grandma, Sally Harper. She loved it. As he headed for the beach bridges, a popular tenor crooned about how love was standing right in front of him. Yeah, right. Don’t I wish? Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. I must be getting old. 

It took Jess about 40 minutes to get to the drill site. He planned to keep a low profile during the drill itself, and just wander around with a clipboard checking on things. His speaking role as Mayor of Pensacola didn’t come until the end, when all the volunteers and government participants would gather and he would address them on behalf of the city. The County Commissioners and members of his own council would all be there electioneering, too, no doubt. 

The sight of the thin barrier island sandwiched between the placid sound and the unstoppable Gulf of Mexico never failed to provoke in Jess a nightmare image of a tsunami rolling over, drowning everything in its path. 

Jess swallowed the last sip of his coffee and eased his bright blue Jeep into a diagonal parking space next to a tomato-red Ford F-150 pick-up truck in the big lot nearest the beach. He reached over and picked up his clipboard from the passenger seat, got out and locked the Jeep. 

Fire trucks, ambulances, and several fleets of Gulf Power, telephone and cable trucks were set up around the fringes of the parking lot. Volunteers swarmed. He saw a school bus emptying a gaggle of excited kids and next to it several vans from local retirement centers disgorging their cargo of enthusiastic seniors who volunteered to help. He knew many of the senior folks lived through Hurricane Ivan that scored a direct hit on Pensacola Beach in 2004. Their wisdom would be helpful when the next big one came along. Glad to see a good turnout. I’ve got a bad feeling a big one may hit this season. 

Jess was about to walk to the big tent housing the Governor’s emergency training team when he saw a striking young woman jogging his way. 

She was a tall, angular girl with short copper-colored hair. She ran with a purple flip-flop in each hand and closed the distance between them fast. She wasn’t paying any attention to him, though. He watched as she took both flip-flops in one hand and fished for something in a pocket of her cargo shorts. Just as she reached the asphalt, she came out with a key ring sporting a pink plastic flamingo and veered slightly toward the red pick-up. 

“Jess! Hey, Jess, come on. We’re about to get started.” Ben Jones, his executive assistant, stood by the big tent, calling over to him. 

The young woman looked up at Jess and smiled. “Pretty morning for a Hurricane drill,” she said. The sibilance of her voice startled him. It was low-pitched, musical. 

“Pretty morning for just about anything,” Jess said. The girl took a water bottle out of her truck and walked toward him. 

“That’s why I got here early – to take a walk on the beach.” By this time, she was right beside him. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Grace. Grace Ann Ringer. You look like you’ve been to this rodeo before. I’m supposed to be a victim today. Can you tell me which way to go?” 

Jess stood there half tongue-tied for a few seconds, starting stupidly at Grace. He was vaguely aware of his Executive Assistant, Ben Jones, a few feet away waving his arms and shouting for him to come to the big tent. Jess wasn’t sure that this stranger was actually beautiful, but the whole package came together in a way that stunned him. The wild hair, high cheekbones, gold-flecked green eyes full of smarts and curiosity, and that mouth – nothing angular about that full, soft, peach-colored mouth. C’mon, Jess, stop staring. 

“Um, yes, ah, oh sure, you need to go over there to the small tent with the Red Cross symbol on it,” Jess said, pointing. “They’ll fix you right up.” He was about to introduce himself, when he saw Ben walking rapidly toward him. 

Shoot, damn his time anyway. “Guess I’d better go. Catch you later.” 

“You bet.” Grace flashed a smile that made Jess go weak in the knees. “Thanks for the help.” She took off toward the Red Cross tent at a relaxed trot. 

Ben caught up to him. “C’mon, Mr. Mayor,” Ben said. The Governor’s rep is here and the TV crew wants a quick shot of the two of you together.” 

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