eye of the storm ~ chapter seven

For the record

Chapter 7 

Mary Alice Berringer sat with her friend, Aileen Smathers, on the porch of The Nutmeg Bakery Café in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. It was the first week of May, perfect weather to enjoy outdoor dining before the crush of Florida people hit the pretty valley seeking relief from hot summer temperatures. 

Aileen and Mary Alice had been friends almost their whole lives, and now they were enduring widowhood together, too. It had never mattered that Mary Alice had co-founded Berringer Software Company with her late husband, Troy, and one of the richest women in North Carolina, and Aileen hadn’t worked outside her and her husband’s modest home since their children were born. 

Physically, they couldn’t be more different, either. The white-haired Aileen was a quintessential “mama” type, medium height and huggably soft. Her figure suggested she was a fine home cook who enjoyed tasting her own cooking. Mary Alice was more like a stork, tall, all angles and planes, her hair chemically maintained in the natural copper red shade of her youth.  Despite her usual command presence, Mary Alice’s vibrant personality normally became girlish and totally spontaneous anytime she was with Aileen. 

“Oh, my, don’t that look good,” Aileen said as a nice-looking young man sat a Waldorf chicken salad with fresh fruit and poppy seed bread on the table in front of her. 

“I’m sure it is,” Mary Alice murmured as she picked at a fillet of perfectly seared tuna on spring greens. She put her fork back down, sighed, patted her mouth with her napkin, and took a sip of iced tea. 

Aileen’s wise eyes knew what the trouble was. She lost her husband more than five years ago, but for Mary Alice, the loss was fresh and still an open wound. 

Mary Alice looked up to see Aileen’s eyes on her, and tried to smile but her eyes filled with tears. Aileen’s hand reached out across the table to grasp Mary Alice’s. 

“I’m sorry, Aileen. I thought I was ready. Guess I’m not.” 

“You just take all the time you need, honey. Would you like to leave?” 

Mary Alice squeezed Aileen’s hand, then let go, twisted her neck around like an athlete, took in a deep breath and exhaled, then picked up her fork. 

“Hell, no, Aileen, Troy would be embarrassed to see me acting like some little school girl. Let’s eat this good food.” 

Aileen chuckled. “Well, in that case, I’m havin’ a big old piece of that coconut pie I saw in the case when we came in.” 

“It’s been so long since I’ve eaten a dessert, Aileen, my system would problem go into shock. But you have that pie, and I’ll at least have a cup of that fancy coffee The Nutmeg’s so proud of.” 

“Atta girl,” Aileen said. 

Troy Llewellyn Berringer died in a bizarre car crash on a narrow mountain road six months earlier. He had just turned 70 years old. The years of mountain hiking, running a business with the love of his life, Mary Ann, and a commitment to diet and exercise kept Troy looking and feeling at least ten years younger. Same for Mary Ann, who, at 68, looked no older than mid-fifties. 

They had been seriously thinking about selling the business and their home and becoming world-travelling nomads for a while. 

“Why not?” Troy had said. We’re fit. We feel great. We’re sure as hell not ready for the porch and slippers routine.” 

Their doctors told them that they were likely to live past one hundred, given the pristine state of their blood work and lifestyle. They laughed together about that and decided maybe it was time to sell the business and go play, especially since they didn’t have any heirs. 

Well, there was Mary Alice’s nephew, Rory, and he wanted in the worst way to inherit the business from them, but neither Troy nor Mary Alice could quite see their high tech baby in Rory’s rough hands. And since their only daughter disappeared 25 years earlier, they felt like they would rather sell it to a well-managed corporation who would continue to run the business responsibly and retain their long-time employees. Either that or offer the employees a chance to buy themselves out. 

The day of the accident, Troy called Mary Alice from his Rotary Club meeting in Waynesville to ask her to meet him at Patrick Condon’s office at 1:30 that afternoon. Pat was in his mid-nineties, but still came into the office almost every day to make sure the legal interests of his long-time clients like Berringer Software were taken care of. 

Mary Alice remembered how excited Troy was when he called. “Hey, woman, you’ve got to meet me over at Pat’s office today at 1:30. He’s got the papers on an offer from a buyer for the business!” 

“Really?” Mary Ann said. “Wow! How is this happening so fast? We haven’t even looked for a buyer.” 

“I know, I know, but apparently somebody whispered in somebody else’s ear and Pat got a call. Can you be there?” 

“Sure, Troy. You won’t have time to come back to the office first so we can go together?” 

“Wish I could, sugar. I got a call from somebody I need to see between Rotary and Pat. Probably nothing, but I got to go.” 

Mary Ann felt a familiar pain. Even after 25 years, every month or so they would get a call or letter from somebody saying they knew where Ann Mathis Berringer, their missing daughter, was. Sometimes the person making the contact was genuinely trying to be helpful, even though they were always mistaken, but most of the time it was some scurrilous scam artist out to make a buck on their suffering and loss. Either way, though, Troy would go to the ends of the earth to find the tiniest clue that might lead them to their daughter. 

“Of course, my love. I understand. I’ll see you at Pat’s at 1:30. 

And that’s the last time she ever heard her dear Troy’s voice. 

“Mary Alice, where’d you go?  Earth to Mary Alice.” 

“Oh, Aileen! I’m sorry. I swear, it doesn’t take anything for me to drift off into a cloud of memory. I guess you’ve been there, too?” 

“I sure have, darlin’. And to tell you the truth, sometimes I wish one of them clouds of mem’ry would just take me right on up to heaven so I could be with Jack again.” 

Going on without Troy is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, Aileen. At least you have your girls and the grandchildren. Does that help at all?” 

“Oh sure, and I’m thankful for them. Don’t know what I’d do without them. Still, when it comes time to shut the lights and turn back the covers, there’s no hand to pat mine and tell me, ‘Sweet dreams, Aileen.’” 

The two old friends sat and looked at one another. Finally, Mary Alice said, “Yes, well, I sure do need Troy’s wisdom right now to know how to handle selling the business and how to handle Rory. It’s delicate. He’s been a little too helpful ever since Troy died. Feels like he’s trying to take me over, and the business, too.” 

“I haven’t seen Rory in a long time. How old is he now?” 

“He turned 50 last month.” 

“Fifty! I can’t believe it. Did he ever get married?” 

“No, he never did.” 

“I don’t guess he’s likely to have any young ‘uns at this stage, then.” 

Mary Alice chuckled. “No, I can’t imagine Rory being a daddy. He’s like a kid himself, in a lot of ways. More interested in his toys than other people. He tries to keep it quiet, but I know he’s a regular over at Cherokee, and he goes down to Biloxi frequently, and even Las Vegas several times a year.” 

Aileen leaned forward and whispered. “He gambles?” 

“Oh, yes. And that’s not all.” 

Mary Alice signaled the server for the check. “He’s sneaky, Aileen. I shouldn’t be talking like this about family, but to tell you the truth, in my heart you’re the closest thing I’ve got to family, now, and I just have to tell somebody.” 

“My word, Mary Alice, what is it?” 

Mary Alice signed the check and waited until the server was out of earshot. “He’s pressuring me to make him CEO and give him 50% ownership of the company. He wants me to retire and let him run all the day-to-day operations of the business. Says I’ve ‘earned’ it.” 

“Well, you have. That’s true.” 

“That may be. But I don’t trust my nephew not to raid the company to pay for his fun, and run the business into the ground. I’m not going to stand by and watch that happen. I’d much rather sell the business to a reputable buyer like Troy and I planned; someone who will keep our employees and continue to grow the business.” 

“Does Rory own any of the stock now?” 

“No. Troy never felt comfortable with selling or giving away any of our stock. Rory’s always been on a salary with full benefits and a bonus schedule.” 

“Does he do good work?” 

“Well, okay,” Mary Alice sighed and reached for her purse, “but the hard truth is, if he wasn’t my late sister’s son, we would have run him off years ago. His job I more of a “make work” position than a necessary part of our operations.” She scraped her chair back and stood up. So did Aileen. “I need to get back to the office.” 

The friends walked out to the gravel parking lot. They were parked side by side under a spreading oak tree. “I’m so sorry you’re having this trouble,” Aileen said. 

Mary Alice smiled and hugged her. “This, too, shall pass. Thanks for listing. I promise to be more cheerful next time.” 

“You call me if there’s anything I can do.” 

“Will do. Say hi to those girls for me.” 

“I surely will. And let’s get together again soon.” 

eye of the storm ~ chapter six

For the record

Chapter Six 

Pensacola Beach, Florida 

Grace never imagined she would spend the Saturday after her second week of work at Brautigan, Hansen, and Lee flat on her back on a stretcher out at the beach with bandaged eyes and fake blood smeared on her cheeks, arms and legs. 

“Let’s get you into the ambulance, sugar,” a gruff male voice said. She felt dizzy as the stretcher lifted and she was awkwardly dropped. “Sorry about that, darlin’,” a whiskey and cigarettes female voice said. “We’re kinda new at this. Are you okay?” 

“Uh, sure. Is my part over yet?” 

“Not quite, sweetie. Not ‘til we get the all-clear from our team leader.” Grace felt a calloused hand pat her own hands which were clasped over her mid-section. “You just relax. Won’t be long, now.” 

Yikes. If they had dropped me in the parking lot, I really would need to go to the hospital. 

Grace relaxed and thought about what happened so far today. An astonishing array of people walked around with hard hats and clip boards. There were emergency medical vehicles, utility company ladder trucks, and volunteers including elementary school children who giggled and made faces at each other as they were painted with fake blood. Lively seniors wore “We’re Ready for Anything” tee-shirts. A convoy with National Guard troops stood by. The last thing she saw before her eyes were bandaged was a line of folding tables with folks typing away at laptop computers under a tent with the county logo on it. 

When Grace left the condo at Balconies on the Bay that morning at seven o’clock to drive to the beach, she felt like a teenager on Spring break. If this is work, I’m going to love it. Bill Hansen, one of the senior partners of her new law firm, assigned Grace and several other young lawyers to represent the firm as community service volunteers in Escambia County’s annual hurricane preparedness drill. It was serious business, of course, but she looked forward to a day of playing make believe on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. 

Surrounded by so much water, Grace felt like she was sailing by the time she was at the mid-point of the “Three-Mile Bridge.” The bridge traversed Escambia Bay to connect Pensacola with the chic bedroom community of Gulf Breeze, which she was told had the best schools and subdivisions in the area. Gulf Breeze was set on a finger of land in Santa Rosa County that insinuated itself between the mainland town of Pensacola and the barrier island of Pensacola Beach, both in Escambia County. The peninsula spanned more than 40 miles between Escambia Bay on one side and Santa Rosa Sound on the other. 

Grace was blown away by the beauty of the sparkling cobalt water. Her pick-up truck felt tiny on the long bridge and swayed slightly when convertibles and SUVs sped past her. 

She drove slowly through Gulf Breeze, taking it all in. The medians were lined with majestic Royal Palm trees. The restaurants, marinas, and shops all looked new. 

Just before hanging a right turn onto the short toll bridge that crossed Santa Rosa Sound to Pensacola Beach, Grace noticed a large hospital and medical offices complex on her left. She smiled at the huge, funky 1950’s style neon sign that sported a cartoon bill fish pointing the way to the beach. This bridge was only about a mile long. She pulled over into the break-down lane for a minute to take in the view. Just past the toll booths, there were tall hotels and condominiums that looked like tropical wedding cakes and a great-looking combination restaurant and marina called The Grand Marlin. Large water tanks beside a sound-side marina were painted bright blue with murals of leaping dolphins on them.  Now, this really feels like a beach should. Grace flipped down her visor to use the mirror to reapply a light peach lip glaze and was struck by how much she looked like a happy young kid. She laughed and stuck out her tongue at her reflection. 

Grace was eager to find the hurricane drill site. She left the condo early in hopes of having time for a quick look-around and maybe a short walk on the beach. Once through the toll place, she spotted a convenience store, parked and came out a few minutes later with coffee and a package of soft oatmeal cookies. 

She followed the curve of the main road to the left and saw a big parking lot where drill organizers were setting up tents, tables and signs. Grace pulled in to the far end of the parking closest to the beaconing Gulf of Mexico. She glanced at her watch, then grabbed her coffee and cookies, along with a lightweight cotton cardigan, locked up the truck and made a beeline for the sandy beach. She wore mid-thigh-length khaki cargo shorts and one of her usual black tee-shirts. It was almost the middle of May and the day would get hot later, but right now, at 7:30 in the morning with a breeze blowing off the water, the light cotton sweater tied around her shoulders felt good. 

Grace stepped out of her flip-flops as soon as she moved from asphalt to sugar white beach. Oh my God, I’m in love. She squiggled her toes in the damp, soft sand. She could feel her short hair curling in the windy, humid air, but she didn’t care. It felt great. She walked until a glance at her watch told her it was almost time for the drill to start. Better get a move on. She jogged back toward the asphalt and retrieved her flip-flops. 

She put her cardigan in the truck, grabbed a water bottle and started walking toward the crowd gathered around the tents. But she wasn’t sure where she ought to be, so when she saw a guy with a clip board and a name tag looking at her as she walked in his direction, she smiled and said, “Pretty morning for a hurricane drill.” 

“Pretty morning for just about anything,” the fellow said in a deep baritone voice. Great legs, good build, nice voice. Too bad that hard hat and mirrored sunglasses cover up his hair and eyes. Grace felt a pleasant buzz. 

She introduced herself and asked for directions. He pointed her in the right direction, but they got interrupted by some guy waving and hollering and walking in their direction before her almost new friend could tell her his name. Couldn’t that guy have waited another minute? 

 Grace thanked the fellow for his help and jogged off in the direction of the Red Cross tent. 

And now, here she was, laid out like a mackerel, name tag stuck to her black t-shirt. Grace was pretty comfortable in the ambulance with her flip-flopped feet and coral-colored toenails sticking out in the breeze. The crowd noise outside faded and she shook herself when she heard someone snore. Oops. That was me. Grace laughed at herself and hoped no one else heard. 

“Hey, you don’t need to wake up on account of me. I just have a couple of questions.” Grace jumped when she heard that vaguely familiar baritone. She peeked under her eye bandage to identify who it belonged to. 

The morning sun created a slight glare through the open ambulance doors, but she could make out a guy with a clipboard and a hard hat, wearing a pair of goofy, retro, mirrored sunglasses. It was the guy she met in the parking lot earlier. 

Grace tugged at the eye bandage and yanked it off, pulled in her legs and sat cross-legged. She squinted up at Mr. Hard Hat. “Hi there! We almost met earlier. Can you recognize me with all this fake blood?” 

He laughed. “Are you kidding? I’d know you anywhere. You’re the bright-red-pickup-truck girl.” 

“Yep, that’s me, all right. Did you say you have questions?” 

“Just a couple. It’s a survey for the drill.” 

“Okay. Does that mean I can come out now?”  Grace scooted toward the opening. There’s no graceful way to get out of an ambulance. 

He laughed and offered an arm. “Of course. May I be of assistance?” He slipped one hand under Grace’s elbow to steady her as she hopped out of the ambulance before she had a chance to answer. 

“Thank you, kind sir.” 

“You’re quite welcome, Miss Ringer.” 

“Grace, please, but who are you?” 

“I forgot we didn’t get that far earlier.” He pulled off the hard hat and stuck out his hand. Forgive me, I’m Jess. Jesperson Powell Harper, at your service.” 

Grace’s eyes widened. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Harper.” 

“Jess, please. Mr. Harper is my dad. Well, actually, he’s Dr. Harper, but my Granddad is Mr. Harper. Anyway, I’m a volunteer today, just like you. They’ve got me filling out these survey forms to assess how things went today.” 

Grace still couldn’t see his eyes or much of his face, but she enjoyed getting a closer look at Jess’s tanned, muscular legs, plus she was standing close enough to him to smell a subtle herbal scent, and then there was that voice. Nice time to be covered in fake blood and bandages, damn it. 

Jess asked his questions, putting check marks on the clipboard. “Are you new in town?” 

Grace cocked her head and gave him a crooked grin. “Is that question on your clipboard?” 

Jess smiled. “Nope, but I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen you before.” 

Oh, wow, my first come-on since I moved here. She was about to bat that ball back into his court, when someone shouted. “Jess! Jess! Miss Agnes fainted. Can you help?” 

Jess looked over and saw the perennial volunteer and well-known birdwatcher Miss Agnes slumped over. “On my way!” Jess hollered back. 

“Is she okay?” Grace asked. 

“I expect so. This happens every year. Too much excitement for her, I guess. Sorry, I’ve got to go.” He turned to go, but turned back to say, “Stick around for an early supper over there.” He motioned to a big yellow tent that looked like a beehive of activity. “It’s for all the volunteers.” He flashed a big grin. “I’ll find you.” 

Jess turned and sprinted over to the crowd surrounding the semi-conscious elderly woman who passed out. She thought about going over, too, but realized she would just be a gawker. She saw Jess with his arm around the lady helping her to sit up while an emergency medical technician listened to her chest with his stethoscope. 

Grace looked at the yellow food tent Jess had pointed out to her, and decided to find a public restroom where she could do some much-needed repair work on her face. Cargo shorts were great because of all the pockets. She had tucked in a few essentials before leaving the condo earlier: a couple of moist towelettes, tinted moisturizer with sunscreen, concealer, blush and lip gloss. She washed off the fake blood, threw away the bandages, and fixed her face. The hair’s hopeless, but at least I won’t frighten small children now. 

Even before she emerged from the restroom, Grace heard the unmistakable sound of live music. She joined the crowd as volunteers converged on the big yellow tent. A gaggle of rag-tag musicians played rough, happy music with a toe-tapping beat. It was like nothing she ever heard before, an odd mix of fiddles, accordions and rhythmic rasping sounds. It was infectious. Folks broke into impromptu jigs as they drifted toward curlicues of delicious-smelling smoke rising from cookers at either end of the tent. Drawing closer, she heard shouts of “Aiyee!” and lyrics that sounded half-French and half-English. 

Curious and hungry, Grace stepped inside the tent and could hardly believe her eyes. At least a dozen beach restaurants were set up to feed all the volunteers an early supper. Long tables festooned with banners identified each restaurant and were arranged so volunteers could walk through the line with a sturdy paper plate and graze to their heart’s content. She saw signs for Flounders “Better to have floundered and lost than never to have floundered at all,” Peg-Leg Pete’s, Crabs We Got ‘Em, Evangeline’s Beach Shack, and a bunch more. 

She ogled the food and moved to the irresistible beat of the Zydeco music. Someone took hold of her elbow. It was Jess Harper. 

“Hello again,” he said. 

 “Is Miss Agnes okay?” 

“Oh, yes. Poor thing lost her home to Hurricane Ivan back in 2004. She was already a widow when that happened. She comes out to help with the emergency drill every year, but I think it brings back a lot of bad memories, and at some point in the day, it’s just too much for her and she has to rest in the EMT tent for a while and chill out.” 

“She’s got some grit to come out and volunteer, given what she’s been through,” Grace said. 

“Her and a lot of other folks,” Jess said. 

Grace nodded over at the food set-up. “This is fantastic. What a spread!” 

Jess laughed. “The beach businesses throw this party every year. It’s the secret weapon that guarantees lots of people will participate in the drill.” 

“I can see why. I’m already thinking about next year.” 

“Hungry?” Jess asked. 

“Are you kidding? I’m starved!” 

“There’s one thing I need to do first. Would you grab a couple of plates and hold a place for me? This’ll only take a few minutes.” Jess turned and disappeared into the crowd. 

The music stopped with a flourish of high, sweet violins followed by enthusiastic applause. Grace looked up to see a tall woman with a crazy swirl of long black hair at the microphone. She looked somewhere between 40 and eternal, like a beautiful femme fatale from another century, a chic gypsy. 

The woman waded into the crowd with the band’s microphone in her right hand, her left hand coquettishly on her hip. Grace wondered what was coming next. 

“Bonjour à tous mes amis et bienvenue à la plage. Good afternoon, my friends,” she translated, “and welcome the beach. I’m Evangeline. I run a funky little bar and grill down the beach that some of you know all too well.” She laughed, a deep, rolling sound. She waggled a long red fingernail at several in the crowd. “For sure, I mean you, chere, and you. 

“Enjoy the party and bring your families and friends out to see all the great beach businesses. We need the money.” Evangeline spoke in a light Cajun accent with a husky voice that could charm a snake. 

The crowd clapped and hooted. She tamped them down, hands stretched out in a downward motion. “Chill now, all y’all. I’m supposed to introduce somebody important now, so listen up.” 

Knowing chuckles spread through the crowd. Much to Grace’s surprise, Jess Harper approached the microphone. “Put your hands together for the downtown guy, my stepson, Jess Harper, Mayor of the fair city of Pensacola!” 

Mayor! That cute hunk? Grace’s mind was officially blown. 

Evangeline threw back her head and laughed. Mayor Harper removed his sunglasses and blushed to the roots of his wavy black hair. He took a bow to the accompaniment of good-natured whistles and cat-calls. 

Finally, Jess cleared his throat, and spoke in a baritone honeyed bourbon voice. “Okay, okay, settle down, everybody. For all of you that don’t already know it, I’m Jess Harper, and I’m here to tell ya’ll that what we’ve done together today might save some lives when the big one hits. Lots of you were here when Ivan tore our home all to heck and gone. This beach looked like a bomb hit it. I got word a little bit ago that the weather service is predicting an ugly storm season. In fact, they’re keeping a close watch on the second named tropical storm of the season. It’s ‘Bart.’ Let’s hope and pray he doesn’t turn into big bad Hurricane Bart.” 

“Thanks for coming. And thanks to all the great beach folks who have, once again, thrown a heck of a free party for all the volunteers. Can I get an Amen?” 

The crowd erupted into a chorus of “Amens,” whoops and applause. 

“Oh, and one other thing. All this great music you’ll be boogieing to is provided free by several of our local bands, so be sure to go by and shake their hands.” He paused a beat for effect. “They probably wouldn’t be mad if there was a dollar in it.” Laughter from the crowd and a chorus of “Yeah!” from the musicians. “And after you’ve enjoyed this fabulous food, stick around if you can and stop by one of these fine establishments for an adult libation or a desert and coffee, or both.” Jess grinned, and everybody laughed and clapped some more. 

“Okay, then, laissez les bon temps rouler! For those of you new to our neck of the woods, that’s Gulf Coast-speak for ‘Let the good times roll!’” 

Grace gaped at Jess as he strode towards her and nonchalantly took a plate. “You didn’t tell me you’re the mayor,” she said. 

“You’ll still eat supper with me, won’t you?” 

Grace had an image of a town mayor as some cheesy politician with a bad comb-over, glad-handing voters and kissing babies. “Oh, sure,” she giggled. 

“Turn back around then and don’t hold up the line. I’m hungry as a bear.” 

Grace held out her plate as servers heaped it with sample-size portions of shrimp jambalaya, smoked mullet, cheese grits, grilled Cajun hot wings, a miniature crab cake, cole slaw, fried oysters, and shrimp etouffee with Louisiana long-grain rice. She kibitzed with the restaurant folks as they put delicacies on her plate. “Thank you. Thank you so much. Everything looks and smells great. Is that a copy of your menu? Can I take it with me? Ooh, thanks. Yum.” 

Jess laughed when he saw her plate. “Good God, girl, when’s the last time you ate?” He gestured over to a guy at a picnic table on the water near the tent. “Hey, there’s my buddy, P. J. He’s staked out a table for us. Follow me.” 

“Sure,” 

Hey, P.J. what’s up, man?” 

“Nothing much.” P. J. looked at Grace. “Eat that while it’s hot. His Lordship the Mayor will fetch you a glass of iced tea, right?” P. J. grinned at Jess, who bent low in a mock bow. 

“Absolutely. You two get acquainted and I’ll be right back. Right back. Got it, P. J.?” 

P. J. grinned wickedly and dismissed Jess with a wave of his hand. Jess put his plate down beside Grace. “Don’t worry. P. J.’s bark is worse than his bite. Besides, I’m pretty sure he’s had all his shots.” 

“Hey, big guy,” P. J. called after Jess. 

“Yeah?” 

“Corky made a vat of gumbo. Bring some.” 

“Will do,” Jess said. 

Grace had a shrimp halfway to her mouth. “Gumbo?” 

“Gumbo. Loaded with shrimp, crab, oysters, and Cajun soul. Not to be missed.” P. J. watched with amusement as Grace contentedly munched her way through the loaded plate. “Well, I know you’re beautiful and I know you’re hungry and I know if Jess likes you then I will, too, but one thing I don’t know, and that’s your name.” 

Grace grinned, put down her fork, and stuck out her hand. “Oh my goodness, where are my manners? I’m Grace. Grace Ann Ringer.” 

“Nice to meet you, Grace Ann. I hear the south in your voice, but I can’t quite pin down the neighborhood.” 

Grace started to speak. 

P. J. held up his right hand, palm out. “No, don’t tell me. Let me guess.” He put both hands on his temples in mock concentration. “Chapel Hill, North Carolina via Hillsborough County, Florida?” 

Grace was stunned. “Yes! How could you have possibly guessed that?” 

P. J looked very pleased with himself. “Saw you walk up to the red pick-up truck just before the drill started, talk to Jess, and head out to get bandaged and painted up for the drill. Saw you talking to my buddy, Jess. I could tell his ears were up, so I walked by and checked out your tag and your campus decal. 

Grace didn’t know whether to feel flattered or put out with this likable, impudent fellow. “What do you mean, Jess’s ears were up?” 

P. J. was about to answer when Jess threw a leg over the picnic table and sat down with a tray full of glasses filled with iced tea and Styrofoam cups of fragrant, hot seafood gumbo. 

The three of them ate in near silence for a few minutes. It was 5:30. The sun angled toward center stage almost due west over the silver blue Gulf waters. 

“Well, Grace Ann, Jess, I got to go. Minnie Pearl’s waitin’ for me at the boat.” 

Grace cocked her head. “Is Minnie Pearl your girlfriend?” 

The guys laughed. Grace asked, “What’s so funny?” 

Jess spoke first. Minnie Pearl is P. J.’s bloodhound. So ugly she’s cute. She supposedly guards the marina P. J. manages.” 

“You manage a marina?” Grace turned back to look at P. J., who was gathering up his plate, napkin, plastic fork and spoon, gumbo cup and iced tea glass to throw away. 

“Sure do. Love it.” 

“Sounds like a dream job.” 

“Yeah, mostly it is, except for a few drunk assholes, uh, I mean jerks, who come around on the weekends with their fancy boats and trophy wives and stink up the place.” 

He gave Jess a look. “You know who I mean.” 

Jess scowled. “Yeah, I do.” 

P. J. got up, threw away his debris in a nearby container, then came around to shake Grace’s hand. He took her small, long-fingered hand in his big rough paw. “Nice to meet you, Grace Ann. We didn’t get to talk much, yet, but I have a feeling I’ll be seeing a lot of you with this here dude.” He jerked his head in Jess’s direction. 

P. J. released Grace’s hand, took a step toward Jess and clapped him on the shoulder. “You be good, now. Don’t do nothin’ to run this gal off. Unless I miss my guess, she’s a keeper.” 

P. J. loped off and fired up his enormous black big Dooley crew cab truck. Jess grinned and shook his head. “That P. J. He’s a hot mess.” 

“I can tell. Have you known each other a long time?” 

“Oh, yeah, sure. We just about kicked out the sides of the cradle together. 

“Grace laughed. I swear. I thought the country folk in North Carolina had some funny expressions, but I do believe you’ve got them beat.” 

“Where did you say you come from?” 

“I’m not sure I did. I grew up in a nice little central Florida town called Brandon. It’s pretty much in the middle of the state. Got my undergraduate degree from Florida in Gainesville.” 

“Oh, no,” Jess said in feigned horror. “A Gator.” 

“Yep,” but after that I went to law school, and just graduated from UNC Chapel Hill.” 

Grace and Jess heard the roar of a big truck engine and saw that P. J. was headed back in their direction. He lowered the truck window and called over to Jess. 

“Are we still on for tomorrow morning out at your grandparents’ place?” 

“You bet. Ten o’clock good for you?” 

“Uh-huh. We’ll figure out how to throw a clod in the churn of those damned out-of-town developers that are trying to get the county to run a road through the farm.” 

“Thanks, P. J. We’ve got to stop those sons of bitches,” Jess glowered. “Bring Minnie Pearl when you come. We’ll see how she takes to my new pup. And come hungry. Granny said she’d have some lunch for us after we walk the woods.” 

Jess and P. J. didn’t notice Grace’s reaction. She sat up straight and drew in one corner of her lower lip, which she sucked on while she listened to words that felt like glass shards raining down on her. I have a file sitting in my new office with those “sons of bitches’” name on it. The law firm represents them, and I’ve been assigned to bird-dog this project. Grace felt nauseous. Here I am, enjoying a cozy supper on the beach with the Harper’s sexy grandson, like some spy. Damn. Sounds like the end of a perfect beginning. 

“Grace? Hey, Earth to Grace!” P. J. broke through her trance. “Where’d you go? 

Grace shook herself and smiled. “Sorry, P. J. Guess I must have zoned out for a minute. Nice meeting you. Catch you later.” 

“Right back at you. Later.” 

“That P. J.’s smart as a tree full of owls,” Jess said, and began to gather their plates. 

Grace’s hand made contact with Jess’s when he slid his right hand over the table top toward her to get her gumbo cup. “Jess?” He stopped in mid-air and looked straight into her eyes. 

“Yes?” 

She couldn’t get the words out. Just a few more minutes of heaven, then I’ll tell him. “Thanks for being so kind to me today.” Before she could withdraw her hand, his left one came over on top and sandwiched hers between his. 

“First time I’ve actually enjoyed one of these drills, thanks to you.” Jess squeezed her hand gently, and then released her. “Hey, look at that. Is this your first beach sunset?” 

“Yes, and it’s even more gorgeous than I imagined.” 

“There’s hardly anything better than a walk on the beach at sunset. Do you have time?” Jess asked. 

Grace gazed at the sandy beach as the sun dropped lower toward the water. A walk on the beach. I’ll tell him there. Maybe he’ll understand. Maybe he won’t get angry with me. Maybe this won’t end the way I think it will. 

Grace looked solemnly at Jess. “I can’t imagine anything I’d like better.” 

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.” 

eye of the storm ~ chapter four

for the record

Chapter Four 

Brandon, Florida 

As soon as Grace disappeared from sight, Claire walked slowly back into the house, locked the door and threw the dead bolt. Thank God she’s gone. If Grace knew the truth, she would want to stand and fight. But I never said a word. Claire lit a cigarette and drew the smoke in with a shaky breath. Then she looked around the living room as if she had an audience and shouted, “Hear that, you bastard! I never said a word.” 

She walked through the living room and down the short hall to Grace’s sunny yellow bedroom. It exuded her personality. The rest of the house was completely anonymous. On purpose. Grace had never known about her efforts to hide in plain sight. Not that it mattered anymore. She had been found ten years ago. Her efforts to be invisible all these years had failed. 

Claire sat down on Grace’s neatly made bed and put her face in her hands. Her cell phone chirped. Claire fished it out of her jeans pocket. Grace. She’s barely been gone a half hour. 

After their brief conversation, Claire stood up and smoothed the covers on Grace’s bed, then went back to her own bedroom. She didn’t pull back the covers, just lay down on her back and fell into a deep sleep, even though it was nearly mid-morning. She barely slept a wink the night before, fretting about everything. 

Claire slept straight through until dark, when she awoke with a start and grabbed for the cell phone on her bedside table. There was a message from Grace. “Hi Mom, it’s me. Just wanted to let you know I got here safe and sound. I’m at the apartment and in for the night. Talk to you later. Love you. Bye.” 

Claire showered, dressed for work, and microwaved a frozen dinner, which she washed down with hot coffee. She didn’t mind working the graveyard shift in the neonatal intensive care unit at Brandon Hospital. Nurse burn-out rate was high. Happy outcomes for the high-risk infants there were not assured, and it was considered a tough place to work. Not for Claire, though. She had been on the unit twenty years, ever since she arrived in Brandon as a young nurse with a toddler of her own. She understood more than most that once you’re born, it’s too late. Life itself is a high risk proposition. 

The NICU unit was Claire’s home. Her work there felt like a calling, a duty, maybe even a penance. She had spent many nights just like this one, where even with all the high-tech equipment, the low-tech remedy of holding a premature, sick infant in your arms in a rocking chair and humming “Hush Little Baby” was still the best medicine in the world. 

Claire left her station shortly after 11 for a quick break. She was in the nurse’s lounge with hot coffee and a cinnamon roll when her cell phone chirped to alert her to an incoming text message. “Love u. Wish u were here.” Claire pushed #1 to speed dial Grace’s cell. 

 “You won’t believe this, Mom. I am sitting out on the balcony of the condo watching a full moon over Escambia Bay. I can see three beautiful sailboats and a huge shrimp trawler that looks like something out of another century. It’s incredible.” Claire had never heard her daughter talk so fast. 

“It sounds amazing. Did you get some supper?” 

“Sure did. I picked up a frozen veggie pizza at Publix. There’s a little round glass-top patio table and a couple of chairs out here, so I sat in one, propped my feet in the other, and enjoyed my dinner while I watched pelicans dive-bombing the bay for their dinner.” 

“That’s wonderful, Grace. You’ve earned it. Makes me happy to know you’re happy. Enjoy the rest of your weekend before you start work Monday.” 

“I will, Mom.” 

“Well, time’s up. I’ve got to get back to work..” 

“Okay, Mom. Hope the rest of your shift goes well.” 

“Thanks, honey. Oh, and Grace?” 

“Yes ma’am?” 

“Don’t forget to keep an eye out for strangers.” 

“Well, Mom,” Grace laughed, “that’ll be pretty hard to do. Everybody here is a stranger to me right now.” 

“You know what I mean. There are friends you haven’t met yet, and then there are strangers.” 

“I know, Mom. Don’t worry. You raised me right. Besides, I’ve been pretty much on my own for quite a while, now, and I’m not a kid anymore. I’m always careful.” 

“Twenty-four years old and a lawyer. You really are almost a fully-grown bear, aren’t you?” 

“Just about.” 

“I’m glad we could talk, Grace. Sets my mind at ease, for now anyway. Love you, baby girl. Talk to you soon.” 

The rest of Claire’s shift was uneventful. She moved from the bright fluorescent lights of the hospital as the sliding front doors whooshed her into the cool morning air. She crossed the street to reach staff parking at the back of the lot, then slid behind the wheel of her small silver car, started the engine and turned onto the nearly deserted road. It was a few minutes after 6 a.m. 

Claire drove past the Waffle Shop. It was a brightly lit rectangle in the still-dark landscape and looked inviting. Half a dozen cars were in the parking lot. She could see people in booths and at the counter through the big plate glass windows. Memories of the seductive aroma of yeasty waffles, crisp bacon, butter pecan syrup and stand-you-up coffee seemed to invade her car. She almost stopped in for breakfast. She longed to immerse herself in the comfortable chatter of strangers who lived in a safe world, but she drove on by. 

She was still thinking about the sickest baby in NICU and murmuring a little prayer for him when she turned at her road, South Bryan Circle, and pulled up onto the concrete pad of her carport. She moved her small Lady Smith and Wesson 350 magnum pistol from her purse to her right hand, held her keys in her left hand and walked the short distance to her front door on the narrow sidewalk. She wasn’t expecting a problem, but it had become a habitual precaution. The sky was growing lighter by the minute, and she hoped to be in bed asleep before full sunrise. 

Claire smiled when she saw the neon pink flamingo stuck in the ground by the front door step. Even in the dim light of approaching morning, it was hard to miss. That was Grace’s doing, and it was the one touch of whimsy in the minimally landscaped yard. Grace brought the garish souvenir to Claire from Pensacola, when she went there to interview. 

Claire spent the last two decades trying to get Grace ready for the moment when she could launch out into the world, far away from Brandon, mostly far away from herself, from anything or anyone who might harm her. She would miss Grace, but she was glad 500 miles separated them now. 

Claire bent to unlock the front door, both key lock and dead bolt. She simultaneously opened the door and wiped her feet on the mat. Something hard and jiggly grabbed her. It rattled and moved as she screamed. “Let me go! Let me go!” She almost fell over backward as her right arm jerked when her pistol fired. Whatever it was that had hold of her let go and fell to the floor with a noisy clatter. Breathing hard, nearly hyperventilating, Claire flipped on a ceiling light with the butt of the pistol on the light switch just to the right of the front entry. 

A skeleton. Damn it. It’s a toy. The white plastic skeleton was a Halloween prop. It was suspended by the foyer light fixture with fishing line. Some of the hideous bones were still dangling from the light. Claire looked at the mess at her feet. She saw the skeleton’s bony hands were wired to hold a large rectangle of stiff white card stock which now had a bullet hole through the middle of it. Her shot hit the card a few inches below the message, which was printed in large black block print stick-on letters: 

IF YOU TELL HER, I WILL KNOW. THE GIRL WILL DIE. 

Claire turned on the porch light and looked around to see if any neighbors were reacting to the gun shot. She didn’t see anyone, so she came back inside, double-locked the door, and walked through the rest of the house, turning on lights as she went. 

He’ll never quit as long as I live. He’ll never believe I won’t tell Grace who she really is. By the time Claire completed her search and satisfied herself that no one was in the house, she knew what she had to do to stop this. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter 3

for the record

Chapter Three 

Brandon, Florida 

Something about the little red pickup truck out there on the used car lot with all the beige sedans tugged at her. “Me! Pick me!” 

She set the GPS for 702 Balconies on the Bay, Pensacola, Florida, her new home some 500 miles northwest, interstate all the way, and then went back in the house to get the rest of her stuff. 

After four years in nearby Gainesville at the University of Florida, where she came home about once a month, and another three years of law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, she had been nearly on her own for seven years. Chapel Hill was more than 700 miles from Brandon, a small town near the bulls-eye middle of Florida; much too far to come home often.  

Life in a small apartment near the campus there had felt like moving from darkness to sunlight. She loved her mom, and she knew Claire was devoted to her. God knows, she had sacrificed her life to see that Grace had everything she needed, from clothes and piano lessons, to the extras at college that scholarships didn’t offer. It’s just that her mom seemed so lonely, unhappy and anxious. Grace remembered awakening to the sounds of her mother crying even when she was in high school. But Claire resisted all of Grace’s efforts to learn why she was so sad and isolated. 

Grace looked around her bedroom one last time. The white chenille bedspread with yellow throw cushion, stuffed animals, books and other childhood mementoes arranged on a bookcase beside the bed.  Lots of memories here. It looks like the museum of child who will never return. Grace sighed and slipped out the door. 

“Mom?” I’m just about ready to go.” 

“I’m in the kitchen, honey.” 

Grace found Claire standing at the kitchen sink. She was holding a cereal bowl in one hand and a dish towel in the other. She stood with her slender left leg cocked and balanced against her right knee, unmoving, leaning in slightly and looking out the window as though she saw something far away. Grace wondered for the thousandth time why her mom had never married or even had a boyfriend. No dates. No friends. Not even church. All she did was work at the hospital and come home. 

She had been so pretty, too. Still was, except for frown lines that had developed on either side of her mouth, and the way her shoulders hunched, making Claire look shorter than she was. 

Suddenly, Grace didn’t want to go. 

“Come with me, Mom?” 

“Oh, Grace Ann, you know I can’t.” 

“But, Mom, Pensacola is a regional medical hub. You could get a great job there in a heartbeat. I’ll bet you would love the beach, maybe even have some fun for a change. Besides, you’ll be here all by yourself.” 

“Well, not exactly by myself. You found out I do have a life, after all, right?” 

Grace put up her hands in self-defense. “Okay, okay. You got me.” They both laughed. 

“Besides, those little babies in neonatal need me, plus I’ve got young nurses to train as they come along. I’m old school. You know that. Anyway, hey, my life is almost done. Yours is just beginning. You’ve got to go find your life.” 

Almost done? At 42? She almost had me convinced until she said that. Grace tried to fathom who this secretive person really was. 

“Well, at least promise me that now I’m off your payroll, you’ll make some friends and learn how to play and have some dreams of your own. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.” 

Claire’s sad-eyed smile reminded Grace of the paintings she had seen in books and on the internet of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It was equally enigmatic. “Come on, now, and give me a big hug before you go.” 

Grace figured she was too much of a loner to ever marry or have children, but she sure didn’t plan to live like her mother did. No way. She planned to make her own money, travel the world and play with some gorgeous men, but never fall in love. 

Big talk for a little girl. Here she was, headed off for her first job with her newly minted law degree. She hadn’t even passed the Florida Bar yet. 

“Okay, Mom. Are my sandwiches in the fridge?” 

“I stuck them on top of your little cooler. It’s right here,” Claire said. “I’ll take it out to the car.” 

“Great. Thanks.” 

They finished loading the hatchback together, then shared one last hug. 

Claire stood straight, shoulders back, and looked intently at Grace. “I’m so proud of you, daughter. You’ve worked hard for this. You’re going to make a fine lawyer, my beautiful girl.” She ruffled Grace’s short, copper-colored hair in a gesture of affectionate dismissal. Claire folded her arms over her chest. “You have a long drive and a lot of work ahead of you, sweet-pea. Better get going.” 

“Come see me soon?” 

“Soon,” Claire said. She threw her arms around Grace and held on tight. “Don’t you ever forget I love you,” she said, her voice suddenly thick. She squeezed Grace hard, then took a deep breath and stepped away. Her face closed like a heavy, hardback book. She laughed and gave Grace a little push and a pat on her bottom. “Now off with you.” 

Grace turned the key in the ignition and lowered the driver’s side window. 

“One more thing.” Claire’s voice had turned sharp, her demeanor tense. “Look in the console.” 

Grace cocked her head at Claire, then turned away from the window and opened the console. She touched the hard surface of a black hand-gun and jerked her hand back. “What the hell, Mom?” 

“It’s a nine millimeter Beretta. Loaded. Point and shoot. Soon as you get situated in Pensacola, sign up for classes and get yourself a concealed carry permit.” 

“Good grief, Mom, don’t you think this is a little over the top?” 

“Just do it, Grace. Indulge a crazy old woman, okay? And that canister beside the gun is pepper spray. Steer clear of strangers, stay awake and aware, and call me when you get in. I’ve got the night shift, so I’ll sleep from about 2 this afternoon ’til around 8, but I’ll have my cell phone close by.” 

 She looked again at the pistol, and then closed the console, making sure it clicked securely. She wondered what demons ran around in her mom’s paranoid brain. Time to get out of Dodge, all right. 

“Okay, Mom, will do. Thanks for everything. I’m gone. Love you.” 

Claire stepped away from the truck and gave Grace a thumbs-up that turned into a wave. “Bye! Drive careful!” 

Grace backed up, pulled out of the driveway of the white concrete block house and watched as the waving figure of her mother grew ever smaller in the rearview mirror. 

“My life is almost done.” What on earth was she talking about? Sometimes her mother drove her crazy. She was so full of contradictions. Every time Grace tried to ask her questions about her background, Claire just gave her a song and dance about being an orphan herself and that that’s why she had adopted her. As for no husband or friends, Claire insisted she was married to her job and had just never found the right guy. 

Claire had never been a real drinker, but sometimes she would drink Tennessee bourbon and get a little weepy. Grace found her this way once when she came home a day early from Gainesville. By the time she was away at law school in North Carolina and didn’t come home nearly as often, every time she came home, she noticed that bourbon and rocks was Claire’s constant companion, and a new cigarette was lit from the end of an old one. The straight vodka was a new wrinkle. She remembered reading somewhere that vodka was the drink of choice for alcoholics. 

Grace asked her to see somebody she could talk to, but Claire just blew her off. It scared Grace and made her angry, too. And then this thing with Randy, or whatever his name was. 

Grace suddenly realized her hands had such a death grip on the steering wheel her knuckles were white.  Turn around. Go back. Turn around. Go back. She felt hot tears stinging the back of her eyelids. 

A huge 18-wheeler right on Grace’s tail shook her awake and she realized she was going several miles per hour under the speed limit. The truck zigzagged dangerously around her. 

Grace pulled off onto the next exit. She pulled into a parking space at a gas station supercenter and pushed a speed dial number on her cell phone. 

“Grace, is everything okay?” 

“Sure, Mom, I just wanted to hear your voice.” 

Claire laughed. “You’ve only been gone a half hour.” 

“I know. I stopped to get gas and some coffee and a cookie for the road and, well, I guess it dawned on me that I really am going off to make my own home, now. This isn’t like going away to college.” 

“You’re going to have a good life, Grace. Now get after it.” 

“Yes ma’am. I’m on my way. Love you, Mom.” 

“Love you, too. Drive careful.” 

She said “Bye,” but Claire had already broken the connection. 

She topped off her gas tank and got a big black coffee for the road a few blocks from her house. When she returned to the car, she chuckled at Elisha Walter buckled into the passenger seat, looking straight ahead like a docile pet. 

Grace shook her head and laughed. Mom, again. Elisha Walter was a big teddy bear made from the flour sacks of a long-closed fabric mill somewhere in North Carolina. “E.W.” had been around as long as she could remember. A gun and a stuffed bear. Maybe Mom really is nuts. Grace smiled over at the bear, accelerated onto the interstate ramp and cranked up the radio volume on an oldies station. Beach music. Perfect. 

It was late afternoon when Grace exited I-10 onto the I-110 spur to downtown Pensacola. She stopped off at the Publix grocery store on 9th Avenue for a few items for supper and breakfast, and then drove on to her new home at Balconies on the Bay. 

She had really lucked out with the condo. It belonged to one of the partners at her new employers, the Hansen, Brautigan and Lee law firm. Opal Lee had inherited the condo from her late mother, and she had been trying to sell it for months. She made Grace an offer she couldn’t refuse. If Grace would agree to keep the nicely furnished, waterfront condo in “show” condition and let realtors continue to show it, then Opal would rent it to her for much less than market price. Then, if it sold while Grace was living there, she would have 90 days to find a new place, plus Opal would pay her a $500 bonus on the way out. When her friend Ariel got word she’d been hired by the University, she and Grace made a deal to split the rent on the condo. 

Grace pulled into the condo entrance and tapped in the key code for the gate. It rose slowly and she drove through to her designated parking space. Opal had sent Grace keys plus a packet of written details on the condo. Grace filled her arms with her store purchases and entered the lobby. Beautiful. She took the polished-brass elevator to the seventh floor, and found No. 703, a waterfront end unit.  

She opened the door to the two-bedroom unit that exceeded her dreams of the perfect waterfront apartment. It was decorated in colors and textures that stylistically evoked the beach and tropical warmth. Ocean blue and sea grass tones were punctuated with splashes of the corals and reds of a Gulf sunset. Wow. Feels like I tripped and fell into somebody else’s life. 

Grace found the kitchen and quickly stashed her purchases, then ran all seven floors down the stairs to the lobby, where she found a cart and used it to make several trips unloading the Escape.  She checked out the bedrooms and picked the master for herself. It had a set of sliding glass doors onto the balcony and a nice set of windows looking out over the bay. 

With the last load, it dawned on Grace that she hadn’t even opened the drapes to check out the view. When she did, the sight of a sailboat drifting in the bay, gulls and pelicans wheeling, and a gorgeous sunset greeted her. Incredible. I hope this place never sells and I get to stay here forever. Ariel’s gonna love it. 

Grace turned on the oven to pre-heat, and then changed into a pair of comfy old jeans and a black t-shirt she pulled from her suitcase. She pulled the cork on a glass of Mark West Pinot Noir, an inexpensive, but mellow and tasty red wine, and took it out to the balcony to sip on while her veggie pizza cooked. She remembered seeing a fat candle in a glass hurricane shade in the kitchen, and went back inside to get it and some matches. 

Grace put the candle on the small round patio table, lit it, and said a silent prayer of thanks for her new home and job. Even a law degree from a prestigious school didn’t guarantee a good job these days, and the chance to live in solitude in paradise was icing on the cake. Grace was humble enough to know she was living under a lucky star. 

Grace ate her pizza slowly, and raised her glass in a toast to the moon shimmering on the water over the placid bay. She stepped inside for a couple of Dove dark chocolates and her cell phone. She just had to call her mom and share the moment. 

eye of the storm ~ chapter two

for the record

Chapter Two

Brandon, Florida

The last thing Grace Ann Ringer expected to see when she turned the key at her childhood home was a half-naked young guy in surfer shorts, toweling his white-blond hair dry.

“Hey, you must be Grace. Your mom’s at work. You’ve been away in Italy on some archaeology thing, huh?”

“Who the hell are you?” Grace stared.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and closed the front door in her face.

Oh sure. It’s only my house. Take your time. Grace sat her suitcase down on the porch, and started to fish around in her purse for her cell phone to call Claire. The guy was back before she could dial. His bare chest was covered now in an egg-yolk yellow T-shirt. He put on a pair of wraparound sunglasses and stepped out onto the porch.

“Sorry about that.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Randy.”

Grace did not remove her own glasses or shake his hand. Instead, her hands closed around her cell phone, pulled it out of her purse and started to punch her mom’s work number.

“Randy” held up his hands in mock surrender and grinned. “Gotta run!”

He jogged off to a Harley parked across the street that Grace hadn’t noticed when the taxi dropped her off. The back of his T-shirt had a graphic of a beer mug overflowing with suds and “Spread Some Cheer Grab Me A Beer” printed beneath it. The motorcycle fired up and the boy toy was gone.

Had Claire moved? Grace saw the pink plastic flamingo she had given her mom stuck in a low shrub by the porch steps. Nope. This is the right house, all right. Maybe menopause has changed mom’s personality. Whoa, there’s a thought. Grace couldn’t remember anyone ever being in the house when she was growing up, except for a walk-through by an exterminator or an appliance repairman. Not family. Not friends. Never a boyfriend.

“Wow…” Grace shook her head and laughed, picked up her bag and went in. The flight from Rome to Tampa via Madrid and Miami was grueling. She was eager to shuck the clothes she’d been in for more than a day, take a hot shower and crash for a few hours. She had a pile of laundry to do, mostly jeans and tees, her “dig” uniform, but that could wait.

Damn, mom. Can’t believe you’re a nurse and still smoking. Grace found a can of air freshener and walked through the small house spraying as she went. The central Florida spring morning was still cool enough to open the windows and let in some fresh air, which she did in her bedroom and the bathroom.

On her way back to lock the deadbolt on the front door, she picked up several full ash trays and dumped them into a plastic grocery bag, tied off the end, and put them in the kitchen trash can. A nearly empty glass caught her eye in the living room. Grace picked it up. Sniffed. Booze. Great. It’s not the drinking, it’s leaving it messy like that. Knowing I’m coming home. Grace herself was fastidious to a fault, and she knew it. She sighed. Just let it go. She picked up the glass and put it in the dishwasher.

Grace went back to her room, took off her travel clothes and sat cross-legged on the bed to call Claire.

“Grace! Are you home? Did you have a good flight?”

“Hi, mom. Yes, I’m home. Long flight, but no problems. I can’t wait to see you and tell you all about Italy. When we you get in?”

“My shift ends at two, so I should be home in a couple of hours.”

“Great. I’m going to take a hot shower and crash. Wake me up when you come in.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, and mom?”

“Yes?”

“Why didn’t you warn me about Randy?”

“Who?”

“You know. Randy. Your boyfriend.”

“Sweetheart, I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. I’ve got to go. One of the preemie’s alarms is beeping.”

“Okay,” Grace said, but the phone had already gone dead.

~ ~ ~

“Sorry, boss. I screwed up.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The girl almost caught me.”

“Skeet, I ain’t gettin’ what you’re telling me. Slow down. What exactly happened?”

“Sorry. Okay. I got the cameras in place on the assignment, and was just about to leave when I saw a taxi cab pull up and the subject’s daughter got out with a suitcase and headed straight for the front door, keys in her hand.”

“Shit.”

“Tell me about it. I had to think quick. So I pulled off my shirt, threw some water on my head to make it look like I just got out of the shower, and was toweling off when I answered the door.”

“You what?”

“Well, on short notice, all I could think of was to pretend I was the mom’s boyfriend.”

“Of all the dumb . . .”

“Hang on, now. I was caught. What should I have done? Anyway, look, it worked out okay. I pulled my shirt back on, said hi, and was out of there in less than a minute. How surprised will she be when her mom lies to her about having a boyfriend?”

“Huh. You say you got the cameras in place?”

“Yes, sir. And I checked to be sure the phone bugs are still there.”

“Well, shit, Skeet, this couldn’t have worked out better if we’d planned it.”

“What? Does that mean I’m not fired?”

“Hell, no, you’re not fired. Not this time, anyway. Look, this way, the girl figures her mother’s lying, but the mother will know it’s a message from whoever’s been warning her to keep quiet. She’ll be scared shitless.”

“What should I do now?”

“Go to the pad and make sure the cameras and microphones and recorders are working. Stock up on food, so you don’t have to leave. Monitor and report. I want to hear every damn word those two women say until the daughter leaves for her new job in Pensacola next week.”

“Got it, Mr. Perlis.”

~ ~ ~

Grace almost fell asleep standing in the fine spray of the shower in the hall bath. Say what you will about the romance of the Italian countryside – and it was considerable – there was nothing like good old American plumbing. She luxuriated in the plentiful hot water, and after drying off and slathering on lotion, pulled on an old cotton sleep shirt and crawled under the covers in her bright yellow bedroom. When you’re travel-tired and jet-lagged, sleep either comes heavy like a near coma, or eludes you entirely. Grace was lucky.

She didn’t even dream, and when she woke up, the late afternoon sun leaking through the wooden shades of her room made a striped pattern of light and dark. She pulled both arms out from under the covers and stretched them up behind her head. Had it been nine months since she had been home? It felt like only a few days, and yet she knew it would take weeks to process all that had happened in Italy. Leaving Carlo had not been easy. It was probably for the best that she would be plunging into a new town, a new job, and a new life in less than a week. Besides, travelling light was her signature, and while the lithe Carlo was charming and fun, she had never thought of him as the love of her life. Truth was, she couldn’t wait to start her first professional job as a staff attorney with Brautigan, Hansen and Lee in Pensacola.

Grace heard the “thwack” sound of the aluminum-frame of the shower door down the hall, threw back the covers and slid her feet into the fuzzy old bunny slippers that were right where she had left them the last time she was home.

“Mom?” Grace called, walking down the hall.

“In here. Come on in.”

Claire’s thin frame was swallowed by a large bath towel wrapped around her and tucked at the top. Her wet brown hair was swaddled in a towel turban, and she was squeezing a line of toothpaste onto a blue toothbrush when Grace pushed open the door.

Without makeup, the new lines on Claire’s face and dark shadows under her eyes were shocking. She seemed to have aged ten years in the past nine months. What on earth’s been going on since I left? Grace recovered herself and put on a bland smile.

“Hi mom.” She learned over and gave Claire a peck on the cheek.   “Throw on some jeans and let’s go over to the hibachi grill.”

“Sounds good. I’ll be ready in fifteen.”

~ ~ ~

The neighborhood hibachi grill restaurant was a little run down, but comfortable. It didn’t matter how empty or full the tables were, Mr. Nota, the owner, insisted that customers wait at the bar for the stars to align themselves for the requisite number of diners at one of the hibachi tables. Grace and Claire perched on rickety stools at the small bar counter. A young man who looked like a younger version of Mr. Nota handed them a laminated sushi menu and asked what they wanted to drink. “Two for one Happy Hour,” he said.

Claire spoke first. “Dirty martini, vodka, dry, two olives.”

“Up or rocks?” the young bartender asked.

“Rocks.”

The bartender looked at Grace, one black eyebrow raised.

“Uhm, ah, I think I’ll have cold sake, please.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sushi?”

“Yes, thanks. You guys still do those crunchy shrimp rolls?”

“Sure do.”

“Great. Bring us an order to share.” Grace looked at Claire, who expressed her assent with a non-committal thumbs-up. Sharing a sushi appetizer at the little restaurant had been a ritual for them all during Grace’s high school years, then later when she would come home from college in Gainesville, law school at Chapel Hill, and now Italy.

Her mom looked smaller than she remembered, and her skin had the sallow tones of a smoker. When had she started biting her fingernails? Claire drank the first of her two-for-one martinis like she was very thirsty and it was a glass of water. She had only eaten one of the crunchy shrimp rolls. Grace was ravenous and had eaten her share and drunk down a glass of water before she had even taken a sip of her cold sake.

She didn’t mean to be evaluating Claire like she was a specimen, but hanging around Ariel for six months volunteering on an archaeological dig had given her a scientist’s eye that had learned to draw conclusions from physical clues of the long dead. A living subject practically screamed. It was clear her mother was unhappy, worried about something, fearful or all of the above. Was Claire ill?

When Mr. Nota gave the signal, they moved from the bar to a nearly full hibachi table. A couple with two young kids in the four to six range were on one side, a moon-eyed pair who looked like they might have just invented sex anchored one end, and Grace and Claire the other. The hackneyed show provided a foil for quickly delivered egg-drop soup and cucumber salad, followed in rapid succession by shrimp and chicken with veggies and fried rice.

By this time, the small restaurant had filled, and the din of clanging knives, the whoosh of sudden columns of fire from the middle of the grills, and shrieks of delighted or terrified children created a hurry-up-and-eat-so-we-can-get-out-of-here feeling in Grace. She had grown accustomed to the laid-back ambiance of the Italian countryside, and this noise and culinary hucksterism jangled her nerves.

She sipped the bitter green tea and dipped bites of shrimp into the ubiquitous ginger soy sauce in a small octagonal white bowl set in front of her plate while she made a mental list of the things she had to do before leaving for her new job in Pensacola next week. Number one on the list was buying a vehicle. She sold her beat-up old Honda that had carried her from her senior year of high school all the way through college at the University of Florida in Gainesville and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. Her new office was only a few blocks away from the condo she and Ariel had rented, and she imagined she would walk to work. Still,  she needed reliable, gas-efficient transportation. She hoped to spend a lot of time at the beach, and that was about six miles away, across two bridges.

Next on her shopping list was a new wardrobe. How in the heck does a young lawyer in a small coastal town dress? Had she missed the graduate school course on that little nugget? Her current wardrobe consisted of running and hiking gear, black tees and jeans, a couple of pencil skirts and strappy high heels.  She figured a trip to J. Crew, Express, and Ann Taylor would handle the basics to look professional at a reasonable price. Lucky for her, she was going to a beach town, where shorts and t-shirts were acceptable nearly everywhere. On the weekends, she planned to live in her running gear.

“Grace?”

“Sorry, Mom. I was just thinking about how much I’ve got to get done before I leave. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but it’s probably just jet lag catching up with me. Let’s stop by the grocery on the way home and pick up some coffee ice cream and eat it in our jammies like we used to.”

“Sounds good. I haven’t done anything that fattening since the last time you were home.”

“You’re way overdue, then, and so am I.”

They paid the tab, picked up two pints of ice cream at the neighborhood store. At home, they changed into their soft clothes and met back up in the living room for ice cream and talk.

The two women chit-chatted about Grace’s trip to Italy. Grace showed Claire photos on her laptop of the villa where she and her best friend, Ariel Lopresti, stayed.  Ariel would be Dr. Lopresti soon, now that she had completed the archaeological project work in Italy that was the final step in the research for her dissertation. She angled for, and got, a job with the University of West Florida’s Anthropology Department, and she and Grace would be sharing a rented condo on the bay in downtown Pensacola where they would both begin new jobs. Grace could hardly wait.

Claire didn’t have a lot to say. Grace tried to pry something more out of her. “Have you been feeling okay, mom?”

“Sure, why do you ask?”

“I don’t know. You just seem a little tired, or something. I just worry you’re not taking good care of yourself.” Truth is, you look miserable.

“Don’t be silly. I’m fine. It’s just this shift work. I’ve been doing it since you were a kid, and you know I love my job, but those revolving shifts can mess with your sleep cycles and make it hard to get enough deep sleep. Plus, you know, I can’t help but fret about those sick little babies in NICU. “ She reached over and patted Grace’s knee. “I’m fine, sweetie. Really.”

“Well, okay,” Grace said. “But Mom, have you considered joining a gym and maybe getting into a smoking cessation program? You’re still young enough to get fit so you can go run with me on the beach when you come to see me in Pensacola.”

Claire laughed and shook her head. “Nice try, kiddo, but that’s just not me.”

“But Mom. . . “

“Hey, I almost forgot to ask you what you meant today when you said I should have warned you about my “boyfriend.” What the heck were you talking about?”

Smooth way to change the subject, Mom. “You really don’t know? Bleached blond boy toy? Kinda cute, kinda young. Rides a Harley.”

Claire sat up straight and turned the three-way lamp on the end table a notch brighter, and leaned in toward Grace. “Grace Ann, what on earth are you talking about? Where did you see this guy?”

Grace could see from her mother’s expression that she was serious. “Here, Mom. He was in the house when the taxi delivered me from the airport this morning.”

Claire looked like she could jump out of her skin. She said, “Tell me exactly what happened. Every word.”

So she did, and as she spoke, Claire seemed to grow increasingly distraught.  “Mom, should we see if anything’s missing? Should we call the police?”

That seemed to get through to Claire. She leaned back in her chair and looked at Grace without saying anything.

“Mom? Are you okay? What about the police?”

Claire ran her right hand up and over her forehead through her hair, then stroked her nose with an index finger for a moment. Grace knew that familiar gesture.

“No, Grace, we don’t need to call anyone.” Claire’s mouth formed a smile. “The truth is, I have been seeing. . . ah. . . Randy, but I felt a little foolish about it and hadn’t planned to tell you. He shouldn’t have still been in the house when you got home.”

“Really?”

Claire looked sheepish and shrugged her shoulders.

“Way to go, Mom!” Grace said. “Far out! Are you serious about him? How did you meet? How long have you been together?”

Claire stood. “Down, girl! I’m way too tired to wade into that swamp tonight. I’m going to bed.” She reached over and squeezed Grace’s right hand, then picked up her pack of cigarettes and lighter and headed toward her bedroom. “Goodnight, Sherlock!”

“Night, Mom.” Grace double-checked to be sure all the doors were locked, then fixed herself a glass of water and turned out the lights as she walked to her bedroom.

A few minutes later she stood at the sink in the hall bathroom brushing her teeth. Mom’s a crappy liar. She doesn’t know that guy from Adam’s house cat.  Why would she lie about that? What the hell? Maybe she does and just wants to shut me down. Who knows?

Grace was still rolling the mystery around in her mind after she had gone to bed. She lay there in the dark, pondering, when she saw a light go on in the hall and listened as Claire went into the kitchen. She heard the unmistakable tinkle of ice cubes, then her mother’s footfalls returning to her room. The lights went off.

Grace turned her thoughts to Carlo and wished he were here under the covers with her. That was her last conscious thought of the night.

 

eye of the storm – chapter one

for the record

Chapter One 

Biloxi, Mississippi 

Rory Mathis was a Swiss Army knife, a whirligig of moving parts and an inveterate thrower of dice. He corkscrewed into the hard crust of the world and scooped out the earth’s warm heart. A blunt instrument, he was coarse by temperament, silky smooth by devious intent. It cost him to put a lid on it. Rory raged in the night, then filed his teeth, cleaned his nails and folded himself up into a well-tailored pocket square for the corporate board room. 

Rory liked to get away from his Aunt Mary Alice and her loyal spies at Berringer Software at the home office in Asheville, North Carolina and go to Biloxi as often as he could. He liked to hop a big bird and fly to Vegas, too, but Biloxi was best. He was a big fish in a small pond there, and they treated him like some minor potentate. Or at least they had until Boots Manero started getting on his case for overdue markers. So far, Boots had only rattled privately. The staff still had orders to comp him on everything, even the big suite. He needed to wrap up this Berringer mess to be sure the joy ride continued. 

Anytime Rory got the urge, it took him less than an hour to call the Beau Rivage, throw a bag into his big black 2008 Lincoln Town Car, and head for the coast. Lincoln stopped making Town Cars in 2008 and so he pampered and petted his and planned to keep it forever. He stored a brand new 2008 clone of this one with zero mileage in an air-conditioned garage. He figured the two of them would last the duration. 

It was just breaking dawn when he left Waynesville. He cruised nearly straight south, a nine-hour slide from the Smoky Mountains down through the urban core of Atlanta, the sprawl of Montgomery and Mobile, to Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

He liked having time alone on a long drive to figure out his next move in the game he called “shark chess.” The goal: remove any and all remaining obstacles that might keep him from owning every single share of Berringer Software. 

He arrived at 3:30 and was pleased to see that the twenty-nine story Beau Rivage was looking impeccable as ever. He slowed to take in the huge bubbling fountain surrounded by gorgeous gardens designed with trimmed boxwoods, cone-shaped evergreens and thousands of hot pink pansies. A state-of-the-art computerized slideshow marquee assured him that he had indeed arrived at one of the major temples of the Good Life. 

He didn’t care that just across the street there was a closed, rusting out gas station, the roof over the pumps hanging at a crazy angle, a souvenir courtesy of Hurricane Ivan nearly twenty years ago. Or that next to it was a derelict apartment building, windblown trash collecting along one wall, the windows boarded up and a crooked for sale sign out front. 

Literature for the Beau Rivage Casino and Hotel boasted that it was where the “spirit and excitement of the French Riviera blend with the traditional elegance and comfort of the American South.” 

My ass, Rory thought as he pulled in under the wide portico. 

“Good afternoon, Mr. Mathis.” 

Rory got out of his car holding a slim attaché case.  “Do you have an envelope for me?” 

“Yes sir.” 

He took the envelope from the kid, gave him ten dollars and stepped toward the entrance. “Park it and bring my bags up right away.” 

“Yes sir, Mr. Mathis.” 

Rory approached the lobby threshold. Enormous glass doors silently slid open as he approached. He felt a whoosh of refrigerated, nicotine-scented air. Off to the right, he saw a growing throng of people standing stoically at a bank of check-in counters. 

He chuckled, glad to have the key to a penthouse suite in the envelope in his hand. The waiting crowd looked like a bunch of refugees from Central Casting. Rory had seen some version of them all before: a group of pudgy, middle-aged nurses checking in for a convention and some guys in polo shirts he immediately typecast as “golfers.” One fellow wore a bright tropical shirt, straw hat, and clenched an unlit cigar in his mouth. His nose was red, bulbous, his eyes bleary. And there were elderly folks, lots of them, grimly leaning on walkers and listing heavily to one side as they lurched slowly forward. 

He never went into the faux opulent shops, but derived a certain satisfaction from the subliminal messaging they delivered. The glitz of Bally, DKNY, The Jewel Box and Tommy Bahama sibilantly whispered, “This can all be yours. Step right up, my friends, step right up.” 

Guests were invited to patronize a gourmet coffee shop where any adult could amend their morning coffee with a shot or two, or three, of whiskey. The bonhomie streamed out like molasses, laid on thick with a feel-good trowel. 

The hotel elevators seamlessly linked the shops and the beating, smoking heart that drew him in: the casino itself. Before going up to his room, Rory passed through a gauntlet of purple-jacketed security officers who expertly checked him out, and nodded him into the casino. The dark lighting and edgy mood was an intravenous drug straight into his bloodstream. 

Rory took a lung-filling breath. He inhaled heady aromas of whiskey, cigarette smoke and sweat, emitting the distinctive pheromones of fear, excitement, and desperation. He was at home in the cavernous chamber filled with electronic slot machines, a twenty-first century version of the old one-armed bandit. Women and men sat trance-like, a thick stack of dollar bills in one hand, cigarette or glass of booze in the other, grimly punching buttons. Their fluorescent casino pallor labeled them as regulars. 

The constant weird noise was standard background in casinos everywhere. It was famed at the top by piped-in oldies soft rock, and underpinned by bubbling up layers of electronic game sounds. Rory cut figure eights through the slots and game tables, picking up on the loser smell. Feels like I’m on the set of a Star Trek the Next Generation set, one where The Borg have gotten people into pods for assimilation. 

Everywhere he looked, someone was looking back. The observers were equipped with headsets, wireless microphones and at least two cell phone/radio devices hooked onto belts and nestled in the small of their back. Are we having fun yet? 

The hive-like humming sound and the overabundance of glassy-eyed, road-kill faded blondes and old people dragging portable oxygen tanks around eventually made Rory claustrophobic, eager for the cool, quiet, intense atmosphere of the private, high-stakes glass-in room set into the walls at a higher level than the electronic pit. 

It was early, though, and the games and players he was interested in wouldn’t be gathering until later in the evening. Besides, he had some work to do first. 

Rory left the casino and took an elevator to his penthouse suite to plan his next move. He walked to the first phone in the opulent suite and dialed room service. 

“Yes, Mr. Mathis?” The server’s unctuous tone was gratifying. 

“My usual.” 

“Yes sir. On its way. Will there be anything else this evening?” 

“No. That’s it.” 

“Yes sir.” 

Rory closed the heavy drapes that opened onto a magnificent view of the Gulf of Mexico and sat back in a black leather club chair in the dark room to think about his strategy and wait for room service. 

Shark chess is a three-dimensional game. As sharks go, Rory was mid-size. His man, Bo Perlis, was small, but fast and lethal. Boots Manero, enforcer for the mob, was a Great White. Missteps were costly. 

He ticked items off one by one on the four fingers of his left hand. One: Uncle Troy’s out of the picture. Two: Aunt Mary Alice is almost in my pocket and has one foot on a banana peel, the old bitch. Three: My pathetic niece, Claire. She’s on the edge and about to topple over. Four: her daughter, Grace. That one could be trouble, but Perlis is on it. 

how will we know?

Packing up the novel draft that I’ve decided to abandon, I found draft copy for a Prologue I had once considered. It was one of the darlings that got killed off early, but I never stopped loving it anyway.

A major event in the book concept was a category-five hurricane hitting the Gulf coast of Florida. The prologue was a warning about the calm eye and how it can lull you.

In the post-Covid-19 world, how will we know when it’s safe to gather at weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies, sports events, the theater, and extended family suppers again? How will this pandemic change us?

For the record, here’s the prologue (written and discarded) for Eye of the Storm:

Anyone who has ever lived through a major hurricane knows about the eye of the storm. The eye is beautiful, alluring and extremely dangerous. If you don’t understand where you are, the eye will fool you. You will think the preternatural calm signals that the storm is over, that you are safe.

And then, with no time to escape, a wall of wind and water from the back side of the storm will rise up like hell and death itself. You will run, swim, cling to a roof top, scream and go made for a time. If you survive the roar, the wave, the snakes in the water, the smell of decay, and the fear of your own death, a morning will come when you will imagine a dove on your shoulder bearing an olive branch in his mouth.

That dove is your life handed back to you, your fresh start.

elizabeth j. westmark

ashes

Write about ashes.

Buck and I have attended the funerals of too many people we loved: both of our parents, his adult son (my stepson, the gray sheep), beloved aunts and uncles, and too many friends to count, not to mention the joy of loving and heartbreak of losing our Labrador retriever companions over the past forty years.

Ashes are what’s left when everything else is gone. And even they blow off into the wind, float for awhile on the sea, or are buried in the garden. Buck’s first wife’s sister scattered her husband’s ashes under azalea bushes in their front yard. Her next husband reportedly admired the robustly blooming hedge.

I never smoked, so ashtrays don’t enter my thoughts when I consider ashes. Bonfires, either. No. It’s all about death and how very little is left. What a small pile we make.

Ash Wednesday services in my Episcopalian tradition admonish congregants to remember that we are mortal, that our lives are short. As the ashes are smeared onto my forehead, the priest intones, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Ash Wednesday liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer is satisfyingly grim. My favorite Ash Wednesday service was at the grand old church downtown during a crashing thunder and lightning storm, a perfect prop for the event.

Old-style funerals like I grew up with, viewing the body, “he’s in a happier place,” all that, are sufficiently macabre that both Buck and I eschew attending unless we absolutely must. And the new fashions which feature a large multimedia production complete with music are equally repulsive. Cremation is our stop-gap plan, although we both prefer to simply live forever.

I think when I I die I would be grateful if some kind soul would place me to be left undisturbed in a blooming pitcher plant flat like the one we have on our hundred acre wood at Longleaf and let me be a perpetual meal for the carnivorous flowers, to bloom and bloom again.

Dreaming a New Mountain Dream

Tom and I both woke up this morning with the conviction that we’ll be returning to our beloved western North Carolina mountains. That’s why I changed the name of this blog from Kicked By a Mule to Writing to the Sunrise.  While we did indeed feel “kicked by a mule”  after getting a mantle cell lymphoma diagnosis and going through all the changes the past two months have wrought, optimism is deeply rooted in both our natures. Plus, with an indolent and localized strain of MCL, caught early, and one of the best medical teams in the world at Mayo Clinic Florida, there’s ample justification for optimism. So we’ve begun to dream again. And if history is any guide, when the Harpers start to dream, the earth moves. I should probably start stockpiling packing boxes!

Our home near Asheville, NC from 1997-2004.
Our home, (designed by Tom), near Asheville, NC from 1997-2004.

We spent all day yesterday surfing real estate for sale in Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Hendersonville, Arden, and Fletcher. All we have to do now is finish two more cycles of R-Benda and roughly a month of external radiation. If the docs are right, and Tom continues to do well, we could be back on the ridge tops by late spring of 2015.

We were only weeks away from putting “the mansion” — our fond name for our home here near Pensacola, Florida — on the market when Tom was diagnosed, so the house is polished and ready for listing whenever we are in a position to pull the trigger. Right now, however, the “biosphere” — one of the nicknames given to the mansion by the grand-kids — is a place of clean, quiet serenity in the middle of a hundred acres of pine woods, where whitetail deer and wild turkeys are regular visitors. Can you imagine a more wonderful place to heal and dream a new dream?