Leo spun to life in late July in the restless waters of the far eastern Atlantic, about two hundred miles west of Cape Verde. He was soon spotted from space, properly named, and classified as a mere tropical depression. Within hours he had been upgraded to a tropical storm.
For a month, strong dry winds had swept across the Sahara and collided with the moist fronts along the equator, creating swirling masses that moved westward as if searching for land. When Leo began his journey, there were three named storms ahead of him, all in a menacing row that threatened the Caribbean. All three would eventually follow their expected routes and bring heavy rains to the islands but nothing more.
From the beginning, though, it was apparent that Leo would go where no one predicted. He was far more erratic, and deadly. When he finally petered out from exhaustion over the Midwest, he was blamed for five billion in property damages and thirty-five deaths.
But before that he wasted no time with his classifications, advancing swiftly from tropical depression to tropical storm to a full-blown hurricane. At Category 3, with winds of 120 miles per hour, he hit the Turks and Caicos head-on and blew away several hundred homes, killing ten. He skirted low beneath Crooked Island, took a slight left, and aimed for Cuba before stalling south of Andros. His eye weakened as he lost steam and limped across Cuba, once again as a lowly depression with plenty of rain but unimpressive winds. He turned south in time to flood Jamaica and the Caymans, then, in a startling twelve-hour period, he reorganized with a perfect eye and turned north toward the warm and inviting waters of the Gulf of Mexico. His trackers drew a line straight at Biloxi, the usual target, but by then they knew better than to make predictions. Leo seemed to have a mind of his own and no use for their models.
Once again he rapidly grew in size and speed, and in less than two days had his own news special on cable, and Vegas was posting odds on the landing site. Dozens of giddy camera crews raced into harm’s way. Warnings were posted from Galveston to Pensacola. Oil companies scurried to extract ten thousand rig workers from the Gulf, and, as always, jacked up their prices just for the hell of it. Evacuation plans in five states were activated. Governors held press conferences. Fleets of boats and airplanes scrambled to reposition inland. As a Category 4, and veering east and west along a steady northbound trek, Leo seemed destined for a historic and ugly landfall.
And then he stalled again. Three hundred miles south of Mobile, he faked to his left, began a slow turn to the east, and weakened considerably. For two days he chugged along with Tampa in his sights, then suddenly came to life again as a Category 1. For a change he maintained a straight course and his eye passed over St. Petersburg with winds at a hundred miles per hour. Flooding was heavy, electricity was knocked out, flimsier buildings were flattened, but there were no fatalities. He then followed Interstate 4 and dumped ten inches of rain on Orlando and eight on Daytona Beach before leaving land as yet another tropical depression.
The weary forecasters said farewell as he limped into the Atlantic. Their models ran him out to sea where he would do little more than frighten some cargo ships.
However, Leo had other plans. Two hundred miles due east of St. Augustine, he turned north and picked up steam as his eye spun together tightly for the third time. The models were reshuffled and new warnings were issued. For forty-eight hours he moved steadily along, gaining strength as he eyed the coast as if selecting his next target.
At Bay Books in the town of Santa Rosa on Camino Island, the chatter among the clerks and customers was of nothing but the storm. Indeed, across the island, as well as from Jacksonville to the south and Savannah to the north, everyone was watching Leo and talking about him nonstop. By now most folks were well informed and could say with authority that no Florida beach north of Daytona had taken a direct hit in decades. There had been plenty of glancing blows as the hurricanes hurried north toward the Carolinas. One theory was that the Gulf Stream sixty miles out acted as a barrier to protect the Florida beaches and it would do so again with pesky Leo. Another theory was that the luck had run out and it was time for the Big One. The models were a hot topic. The hurricane center in Miami was now plotting a trajectory that sent Leo farther out to sea without landfall. But the Europeans had him coming ashore south of Savannah as a Category 4, with massive flooding in the low country. If Leo had proved anything, though, it was that he cared nothing for the models.
Bruce Cable, the owner of Bay Books, kept one eye on the Weather Channel while he hustled customers and chided his staff to get about their business. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and Bruce bought into the legend that Camino Island was immune to dangerous hurricanes. He’d been there for twenty-four years and had not seen a destructive storm. His store hosted at least four readings a week, and a major appearance was on for tomorrow night. Surely Leo would not disrupt the pleasant homecoming Bruce had planned for one of his favorite authors.
Mercer Mann was ending a two-month summer tour that had been wildly successful. Her second novel, Tessa, was the talk of the trade and currently in the top ten on all the bestseller lists. Its reviews were glowing and it was selling faster than anyone had expected. Labeled literary fiction, as opposed to one of the more popular genres, it had seemed destined for the lower rungs of the lists, if it made it at all. Its publisher, along with its author, had dreamed of selling thirty thousand in hardcover and e-book, but the novel was already beyond that.
Mercer had deep roots on the island, having summered there as a girl with her grandmother, Tessa, the inspiration for the novel. Three years earlier she had spent a month on the beach in the family cottage and managed to entangle herself in some local mischief. She had also had a quick fling with Bruce, just another in his long line of trysts.
But Bruce wasn’t thinking about another fling, or at least he was trying to convince himself he wasn’t. He was busy running the store and drumming up a crowd for Mercer’s big event. Bay Books was a powerhouse on the national bookstore circuit because Bruce could always pull in a crowd and move the inventory. The New York publishers clamored to get their writers to the island, and many of them were young ladies on the road and looking for a good time. Bruce loved writers and he wined and dined them, promoted their books, and partied with them.
Mercer had been down that road and wasn’t going back, primarily because she was being escorted on her summer tour by a new boyfriend. Bruce didn’t care. He was just delighted she was on the island and riding high with a superb new novel. He had read the galleys six months earlier and had been promoting it ever since. As usual, when he loved a book, he had sent dozens of handwritten notes to friends and customers touting Tessa. He had called booksellers across the country and encouraged them to stock up. He had chatted with Mercer for hours on the phone and advised her on where to tour, what stores to avoid, which reviewers to ignore, and which journalists to spend time with. He had even passed along some unsolicited editorial comments, some of which she appreciated, some she ignored.
Tessa was her breakout novel, her golden moment to establish a career that Bruce had believed in since her first book, which had been largely neglected. She had never stopped adoring him, their little fling aside, along with a rather serious breach of confidence that surrounded it, for which he had forgiven her. Bruce was a lovable though roguish character and an undeniable force in the brutal world of bookselling.
They met for lunch the day before her appearance at a restaurant at the end of Main Street in Santa Rosa, six blocks from the bookstore. Lunch for Bruce was always in a downtown restaurant, with a bottle of wine or two, and usually with a sales rep or a visiting writer or one of the locals he supported. Business lunches, with receipts saved for the accountant. He arrived a few minutes early and went straight to his favorite table on the deck, with a view of the busy harbor. He flirted with the waitress and ordered a bottle of Sancerre. When Mercer swept in he stood and hugged her and offered a firm handshake to Thomas, her companion these days.
They took their seats and Bruce poured the wine. Leo had to be discussed because he was still out there, but Bruce quickly dismissed him as nothing but a distraction. “He’s headed to Nags Head,” he said confidently.
Mercer was prettier than ever, her long dark hair cut shorter, her hazel eyes glowing with all the success that a bestseller could bring. She was tired of the tour, thrilled to be finished with it, but also savoring the moment. “Thirty-four stops in fifty-one days,” she said with a smile.
“You’re lucky,” Bruce said. “As you well know, publishers don’t like to spend money these days. You’re killing it, Mercer. I’ve seen eighteen reviews, all but one positive.”
“Did you see Seattle?”
“That jerk doesn’t like anything. I know him. I called him when I saw the review and said harsh things.”
“It’s my job. I protect my writers. I’ll punch him if I ever meet him.”
Thomas laughed and said, “Hit him a lick for me.”
Bruce raised his glass and said, “Come on, cheers to Tessa. Number five on the Times list and moving up.”
They took a celebratory sip of wine. Mercer said, “It’s still hard to believe.”
“And a new contract,” Thomas said, glancing furtively at her. “Can we break the news?”
“It’s already broken,” Bruce said. “Let’s hear it. I want the details.”
Mercer smiled again and said, “My agent called this morning. Viking is offering a nice sum for two more books.”
Bruce raised his glass again and said, “Awesome. Those people aren’t stupid. Congratulations, Mercer. Great news.” Of course, Bruce wanted all the details, especially the amount of the “nice sum,” but he had a general idea. Mercer’s agent was a tough old pro who knew the business and could now negotiate a new two-book deal for seven figures. After years of struggling, Ms. Mann was entering a new world.
“And foreign rights?” Bruce asked.
“We start selling them next week,” she said. Mercer’s first books had barely sold stateside. There were no foreign royalties.
Bruce said, “The Brits and Germans will snap it up. The French and Italians will love Tessa when it’s translated, it’s their kind of story, and they’ll be easy to deal with. You’ll be in twenty languages before you know it, Mercer. This is incredible.”
She looked at Thomas and said, “See what I mean? He knows the business.” They clinked glasses again as the waitress approached.
“This calls for champagne,” Bruce announced, then quickly ordered a bottle before anyone could object. He asked about the tour and wanted the scoop on all the stores she had visited. He knew virtually every serious bookseller in the country and visited as many as possible. For Bruce, a vacation was a week in Napa or Santa Fe for food and wine but also to scout out the best independent bookstores and network with their owners.
He asked about Square Books in Oxford, one of his favorites. Bay Books was modeled after it. These days Mercer was living in Oxford and teaching creative writing at Ole Miss, a two-year gig with one year to go and the hope of a permanent position. The success of Tessa would put her on a tenure track, at least in Bruce’s opinion, and he was scheming of ways to help.
The waitress poured champagne and took their orders. They toasted the new contract again as the clock seemed to stop.
Thomas, who had done little but listen, said, “Mercer warned me that you take your lunches seriously.”
Bruce smiled and replied, “Indeed. I work from early to late, and at noon I have to get out of the store. That’s my excuse. I usually nap off the lunch midafternoon.”
Mercer had been coy about her new friend. She had made it clear that she was seeing someone and that he would have all of her attention. Bruce respected that and was truly pleased she had found a steady, and not a bad-looking one. Thomas appeared to be in his late twenties, a few years younger than Mercer.
Bruce began chipping away. He said, “She tells me you’re a writer too.”
Thomas smiled and said, “Yes, and quite unpublished. I’m one of her MFA students.”
Bruce chuckled at this and said, “Ah, I see. Sleeping with the professor. That’ll get you high marks.”
“Come on, Bruce,” Mercer said, but she was smiling.
“What’s your background?” Bruce asked.
Thomas said, “Degree in American lit from Grinnell. Three years as a staff writer for The Atlantic. Freelance stuff for a couple of online magazines. About three dozen short stories and two dreadful novels, all fittingly unpublished. I’m hanging around Ole Miss doing the MFA thing and trying to figure out the future. For the past two months I’ve been carrying her luggage and having a grand time.”
Mercer added, “Bodyguard, chauffeur, publicist, personal assistant. And he’s a beautiful writer.”
“I’d like to see some of your stuff,” Bruce said.
Mercer looked at Thomas and said, “I told you. Bruce is always eager to help.”
Thomas said, “Deal. When I have something worth reading I’ll let you know.”
Mercer knew that before dinner Bruce would dig online and find every story Thomas had written for The Atlantic and every other publication and would have a fairly firm opinion about his talents.
The crab salads arrived and Bruce poured more champagne. He noticed that his two guests were, so far, light drinkers. It was a habit he couldn’t shake. At every lunch and dinner table, and at every bar, Bruce noticed. Most of the female writers he entertained hit the booze lightly. Most of the males were hard drinkers. A few were in recovery, and for those Bruce stuck strictly to iced tea.
He looked at Mercer and said, “And your next novel?”
“Come on, Bruce. I’m living the moment and writing nothing these days. We have two more weeks here before classes start and I’m determined not to write a single word.”
“Smart, but don’t wait too long. That two-book contract will get heavier as the days go by. And you can’t wait three years before the next novel.”
“Okay, okay,” she said. “But can I have just a few days off?”
“One week, that’s all. Look, dinner will be a blast tonight. Are you up for it?”
“Of course. All the gang?”
“They wouldn’t miss it. Noelle is in Europe and she sends her regards, but everybody else is quite eager to see you. They’ve all read the book and love it.”
“And how’s Andy?” she asked.
“Still sober, so he won’t be there. His last book was pretty good and sold well. He’s writing a lot. You’ll see him around.”
“I’ve thought about him a lot. Such a sweet guy.”
“He’s doing well, Mercer. The gang is still together and looking forward to a long dinner.”
Thomas excused himself to find the restroom, and as soon as he was gone Bruce leaned in and asked, “Does he know about us?”
“What about us?”
“You’ve forgotten already? Our little weekend together. It was delightful, as I recall.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Bruce. It never happened.”
“Okay. Fine with me. And nothing about the manuscripts?”
“What manuscripts? That’s a part of my past I’m trying to forget.”
“Wonderful. No one knows but you, me, Noelle, and of course the folks who paid the ransom.”
“Nothing from me.” She took a sip of wine, then leaned in low herself. “But where’s all that money, Bruce?”
“Buried offshore and drawing interest. I have no plans to touch it.”
“But it’s a fortune. Why are you still working so hard?”
A big smile, a big sip. “This is not work, Mercer. This is who I am. I love this business and would be lost without it.”
“Does the business still include dabbling in the black market?”
“Of course not. There are too many people watching right now, and, obviously, I don’t need that anymore.”
“So you’ve gone straight?”
“Clean as a whistle. I love the world of rare books and I’m buying even more these days, all legit. From time to time I get approached with something suspicious. There’s still a lot of thievery out there, and I confess that I’m tempted. But it’s too dicey.”
“At the moment.”
“At the moment.”
She shook her head and smiled. “You’re hopeless, Bruce. A hopeless flirt, philanderer, and book thief.”
“True, and I’ll also sell more copies of your book than anyone else. You gotta love me, Mercer.”
“I wouldn’t call it love.”
“Okay. How about adoration?”
“I’ll try that. Changing the subject, is there anything I should know about tonight?”
“I don’t think so. Everyone is excited to see you again. There were some questions when you disappeared three years ago, but I covered for you, said you had some family drama back home, wherever home might be. Then you got a couple of gigs teaching and just haven’t had the time to get back to the island.”
“Yes, minus Noelle, as I said. Andy will probably stop by for a glass of water and a hello. He asks about you. And there’s a new writer you might find interesting. Name’s Nelson Kerr, a former lawyer with a big firm in San Francisco. He ratted out a client, a defense contractor who was illegally selling high-tech military stuff to the Iranians and North Koreans, nice guys like that. It was big stink about ten years ago, now it’s long since forgotten.”
“Why would I follow that?”
“Right, anyway, his career flamed out but he collected a ton for blowing the whistle. Now he’s sort of hiding out. Early forties, divorced, no kids, keeps to himself.”
“This place attracts the misfits, doesn’t it?”
“Always has. He’s a nice guy but doesn’t say much. Bought a nice condo down by the Hilton. Travels a lot.”
“What about his books?”
“He writes what he knows, international arms smuggling, money laundering. Good thrillers.”
“Sounds awful. Does he sell?”
“So-so, but he has potential. You wouldn’t like it but you’ll probably like him.”
Thomas returned and the conversation switched to the latest publishing scandal.
Bruce lived in a Victorian home ten minutes by foot from Bay Books. After the obligatory post-lunch siesta in his office at the store, he left midafternoon and walked home to prepare for dinner. Even in the depths of summer, he preferred to have his fancy meals on the veranda, under a couple of creaky old fans and next to a gurgling fountain. His favorite cuisine came from south Louisiana, and for the evening he had hired Chef Claude, a bona-fide Cajun who’d been on the island for thirty years. He was already in the kitchen, whistling as he hovered over a large copper pot on the stove. They bantered for a moment but Bruce knew better than to hang around. The chef was a big talker and when fully engaged often forgot about his food.
The temperature was in the low nineties and Bruce went upstairs to change. He peeled out of his daily seersucker and bow tie and put on grungy shorts and a T-shirt, no shoes. Back in the kitchen, he opened two cold bottles of beer, gave one to the chef, and took the other one to the veranda to set the table.
At these moments he really missed Noelle. She imported antiques from the South of France and was a master at decorating. Her favorite chore was preparing a table for a dinner party. Her collection of vintage china, glasses, and flatware was astonishing and still growing. Some she bought to stock her store, but the rarest stuff, and the most beautiful, she kept for their private use. In Noelle’s book, a gorgeous table was a gift to their guests, and no one could do it like her. She often photographed them both before and during the dinners, and framed the best ones to hang for her customers to admire.
The table was twelve feet long and for centuries had been used in a winery in Languedoc. They had found it together a year earlier when they spent a month on a shopping spree. Flush with ill-gotten cash, they had virtually raided Provence and bought so much stuff that they rented space in a warehouse in Avignon.
On a sideboard in the dining room, Noelle had carefully laid out the perfect dishes. Twelve vintage porcelain plates that had been hand-painted for a minor count in the 1700s. Lots of silverware and cutlery, five pieces for each setting. And dozens of glasses for water and wine and digestifs.
The wineglasses were often problematic. Evidently Noelle’s French ancestors didn’t drink as much as Bruce’s American writers, and the old glasses held barely three ounces when fully loaded. At a rowdy dinner party years earlier, Bruce and his guests had become frustrated with the need to refill the dainty glasses every ten minutes or so. Since then, he insisted on more modern versions that held eight ounces of red, six for white. Noelle, who drank little, had acquiesced and found a collection of goblets from Burgundy that would impress an Irish rugby team.
Next to the dishes was a detailed diagram of the proper setting that she had prepared three days earlier when she left town. Bruce went about the business of arranging the linen placemats, the silk table runners, the candelabras, and then the dishes and glasses. The florist arrived and fussed over the table as she rearranged things and bickered with Bruce. When the table was perfect, according to her, Bruce took a photo and sent it to Noelle, who was somewhere in the Alps with her other companion. It was of magazine quality and ready for a dozen guests, though with their dinners the exact number was never certain until the food was served. Strays often materialized at the last moment and added to the fun.
Bruce went to the fridge for another beer.
Cocktails were scheduled for 6:00 p.m. However, the guests were a bunch of writers and none would dare arrive before seven. Myra Beckwith and Leigh Trane showed up first and entered without knocking. Bruce met them on the veranda and mixed a rum and soda for Leigh and poured a stout ale for Myra.
The ladies had been a couple for over thirty years. As writers, they had struggled to pay the bills until they discovered the genre of soft porn romance novels. They cranked out a hundred of them under a dozen pseudonyms and made enough money to retire to the island and live in a quaint old house just around the corner from Bruce. Now, in their mid-seventies, they wrote little. Leigh fancied herself a tortured literary artist but her writing was impenetrable and her novels, the few she got published, sold next to nothing. She was always working on a novel but never finishing one. She claimed to be embarrassed by the junk they’d published but enjoyed the money. Myra, on the other hand, was proud of their work and longed for the glory days creating steamy sex scenes with pirates and young virgins and such.
Myra was a large woman with a crew cut dyed lavender. In a lame effort to hide some of her bulk, she wore loud flowing robes that would work nicely as bedsheets for a queen-size. Leigh, on the other hand, was tiny with dark features and long black hair piled neatly into a bun. Both ladies adored Bruce and Noelle, and the four dined together often.
Myra gulped her brew and asked him, “Have you seen Mercer?”
“Yes, we had lunch today, along with Thomas, her bodyguard these days.”
“Is he cute?” Leigh asked.
“He’s a nice-looking guy, a few years younger. One of her students.”
“Go, girl,” Myra said. “Did you ever learn the real reason she left here so abruptly three years ago?”
“Not really. Some sort of family business.”
“Well, we’ll get to the bottom of it tonight, I can assure you of that.”
“Now Myra,” Leigh said softly. “We’ll not be prying.”
“Hell if we won’t. Prying is what I do best. I want the gossip. Is Andy coming by?”
“I’d like to see him. He was so much more fun when he was in the sauce.”
“Now Myra. That’s a touchy subject.”
“If you ask me, there’s nothing more boring than a sober writer.”
“He needs sobriety, Myra,” Bruce said. “We’ve had this conversation.”
“And what about this Nelson Kerr fellow? I find him boring even when he’s not sober.”
“Nelson will be here,” Bruce said. “I was thinking he might be a good match for Mercer, but she’s occupied at the moment.”
“Who made you a matchmaker?” Myra quipped as they noticed J. Andrew Cobb, or Bob Cobb as they called him, walking through the door. As usual, he was wearing pink shorts, sandals, and a gaudy floral print shirt. Without missing a beat Myra said, “Hello Bob. You shouldn’t have dressed up for the occasion.” She gave him a quick hug as Bruce stepped to the bar and mixed vodka and soda.
Cobb was an ex-con who’d served time in a federal pen for sins that were still vague. He wrote crime novels that sold well but had far too much prison violence, at least in Bruce’s opinion. He hugged Leigh, said, “Hello ladies. Always a pleasure.”
“A good day on the beach?” Myra asked, looking for trouble.
Cobb’s skin was a dark, leathery brown, a perpetual tan that he maintained with hours in the sun. His reputation was that of an aging beach bum who admired bikinis and was always on the prowl. He smiled at Myra and said, “Every day on the beach is a good one, my dear.”
“How old was she?” Myra asked.
“Now Myra,” Leigh cooed as Bruce handed him a drink.
“Old enough, barely,” Cobb said and laughed.
Amy Slater was the youngest of the group and was making more money than the others combined. She had struck gold with a series about young vampires, and there was even a movie in the works. She and her husband, Dan, arrived on the veranda along with Andy Adam. Jay Arklerood was right behind them and managed a rare smile as greetings were made. He was a brooding poet who often dodged the dinners. Myra, the Queen Bee, had no use for him. Bruce fetched drinks, an ice water for Andy, and listened to the banter. Amy went on about her movie, though there were problems with the script. Dan stood quietly by her side. He had retired from employment and took care of the kids so she could write full-time.
The party was buzzing when Mercer and Thomas made their entrance. She swapped hugs as she introduced her new fella. The gang was delighted to see her and gushed about her new book, which most had read. As they talked, Nelson Kerr eased onto the scene and fixed a drink at the bar. He joined the circle around Mercer, and Bruce made the introductions.
After a few minutes, the conversations spun off in different directions. Andy and Bruce discussed the storm. Myra cornered Thomas and began drilling into his past. Bob Cobb and Nelson had gone fishing the day before and needed to relive their catches. Leigh was going through Mercer’s novel chapter by chapter and couldn’t get enough of the story. Drinks were refilled and no one was in a hurry to sit down to dinner.
The last guest to join them was the youngest. Nick Sutton was a college boy who spent his summers on the island tending to a fine home owned by his grandparents. As was their annual ritual, they had fled the Florida heat and were roaming the country in a camper. Nick worked at the bookstore, and when he wasn’t on duty he surfed and sailed and looked for girls. He read at least one crime novel a day and dreamed of writing bestsellers. Bruce had read his short stories and thought the kid had talent. Nick had lobbied hard for the invitation to dinner and was almost overwhelmed to be included.
At 7:30, Chef Claude informed Bruce that it was time to eat. Andy whispered to his host and eased away without another word. Sobriety was difficult enough during dry evenings. He wasn’t tempted to drink, but the last thing he wanted was a three-hour dinner with wine flowing.
Bruce pointed to chairs and got them seated properly. He sat at one end and Mercer, the guest of honor, had the other, with Thomas to her right. There were eleven in all, the literary mafia of Camino Island plus Nick Sutton. Bruce passed along best wishes from Noelle, who hated to miss the fun but was with them in spirit. Everyone knew she was off in Europe with her steady French boyfriend and no one was surprised. They had long ago accepted the open marriage and no one cared. If Bruce and Noelle were happy, their friends were not about to question the arrangement.
Bruce had never liked by-the-hour servers buzzing around his table and eavesdropping on the conversations, so he didn’t use them. He and Claude poured the wine and water and served the first appetizer course, a small bowl of spicy gumbo.
“It’s too hot for gumbo,” Myra growled mid-table. “I’ll be soaked.”
“Cold wine always helps,” Bruce shot back.
“What’s the main course?” she asked.
Bob Cobb said, “So, Mercer, last stop on the tour, right? And I loved the book, by the way.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Yes, the last stop.”
“Coast to coast?”
“Yes, thirty-three stops. Tomorrow is thirty-four.”
“You’ll have a huge crowd tomorrow, Mercer,” Amy said. “A lot of the locals remember your grandmother and they’re very proud of you.”
“I knew Tessa,” Bruce said. “But, as I look around the table, I believe that no one here was living on the island when she died. What was it, Mercer, twelve years ago?”
Myra said, “We moved here thirteen years ago to get away from a bunch of writers. Look what’s happened. Everyone followed us here.”
Bob said, “And I believe I was next, about ten years ago, right after I got paroled.”
“Please, Bob,” Myra snapped. “No more prison stories. After your last book I felt like I’d been gang-raped.”
“So you liked it?” Bob asked.
“Anyway,” Bruce said loudly. “I’d like to propose a toast to, first of all, Mr. Leo. May he remain at sea and just go away. And, more importantly, to our dear friend Mercer and her wonderful new book, number five on the big list and rising. Cheers!”
They clinked glasses and took a drink.
“I have a question, Mercer,” Leigh said. “Did your grandmother, the real Tessa, really have a steamy romance with a younger man, here on the island?”
“That was the best part,” Myra interjected quickly. “That first seduction scene made my teeth sweat. Really well done, girl.”
“Thanks, Myra,” Mercer said. “Coming from you, that’s quite a compliment.”
“Don’t mention it. Of course I would’ve gone way overboard.”
“But yes, once I was old enough to realize what was going on, I suspected Tessa spent a lot of time with the younger man when I wasn’t around.”
“And that was Porter, in real life?” Leigh asked.
“Yes. Porter lived here for many years. Fourteen years ago they died together in a storm.”
“I remember Porter, and the storm,” Bruce said. “It was one of the worst we’ve seen on the island, short of a hurricane.”
“Who’s talking about hurricanes?” Amy asked.
“Sorry. We’ve had our share of glancing blows but nothing terrible. The storm that got Tessa and Porter was an old-fashioned summer heat cell that came from the north with no warning.”
“And where was Tessa?” Amy asked. “I’m sorry, Mercer, if you don’t want to talk about this.”
“No, it’s fine. Tessa and Porter were not far out, just a lazy summer’s day in his sailboat. Porter and the boat were never seen again. Tessa was found in the surf near the North Pier two days later.”
Myra said, “Well, thank God you didn’t kill her off in your novel. I certainly would have.”
“You killed everyone, Myra,” Leigh said. “After you ran them through the sex grinder.”
“Murder sells, Leigh, almost as much as sex. Remember that when those royalty checks arrive.”
“So what’s next, Mercer?” Bob Cobb asked.
She smiled at Thomas and said, “Rest for a couple of weeks, though I’m already being hounded by Thomas and Bruce to start another novel.”
“I need something to sell,” Bruce said.
“So do I,” added Leigh, for a laugh.
Jay, the brooding poet, said, “My last book sold twenty copies. No one reads poetry.” As always, it was an awkward effort at humor and got a sympathetic laugh or two.
Myra almost blurted something like: And no one can read the crap you write. But instead she said, “I’ve told you before, Jay, you should write some really raunchy fiction under a pen name, make some money, like Bob, and do your little poetry thing as the real you. Still won’t sell, though.”
Bruce had seen this conversation go off the rails before, and he quickly intervened with “Can we toast the new deal, Mercer?”
She smiled and said, “Oh why not? Secrets are hard to keep around here.”
Bruce said, “A new two-book deal with Viking, as of this morning.”
They cheered and took turns congratulating Mercer as Claude removed the bowls. He poured more wine, a cold Chablis, and began serving the next course, a small platter of smoked oysters. A breeze materialized from the east and gently ruffled the thick air.
On his trips to and from the kitchen, Claude kept one eye on the small television near the stove. Leo was still out there, drifting, churning, puzzling the experts, with no apparent destination.
Bruce preferred long dinners with gaps between courses for wine and conversation. After he and Claude cleared the oyster shells, they refilled the wineglasses and announced that the main dish would be blackened redfish, a delicacy that might take some time.
Claude went to the stove, where his cast-iron skillet was already warm. From the fridge he removed a tray of marinated filets and carefully placed two in the skillet. He covered them with his own recipe of Cajun seasoning—garlic, paprika, onion, salt and spices. The aroma was pungent, delicious.
He hummed as he cooked, happy as always to be at the stove, and he sipped wine and enjoyed the waves of laughter from the veranda. Dinner parties at Bruce’s were always an event. Great wines and food, interesting guests, no hurries, no worries.
The evening broke up at midnight when Mercer and Thomas finally said good night. Bruce and Claude cleared the table and stacked the dishes on the counter. Someone else would clean up tomorrow. Regardless of the late hour, Bruce was an early riser and walked to the bookstore each morning at seven. As soon as Michael was gone, he locked the house, climbed the stairs, stripped, and fell across his bed. Within minutes he was in a coma.
Around 1:00 a.m., Leo finally made his move.
Nick Sutton was a light sleeper, and once awake in the predawn hours he often read for an hour or two before returning to bed. Out of curiosity, he turned on the television to catch the news and presumed things were quiet. Things were not. The forecasters were alarmed because Leo had suddenly turned due west and its projected path was now aimed directly at Camino Island. It was a Category 3, gaining strength, two hundred miles out there and moving at them at ten miles an hour. Nick flipped channels and the panic was growing by the minute. He began calling and waking friends, some of whom were already glued to the Weather Channel.
At 5:00 a.m. he called Bruce and broke the news. He watched the weather for ten minutes and called Nick back with instructions to round up the troops and meet at the store as soon as possible.
By daybreak, the island was in a frenzy. As a barrier, it was designed to take the brunt of any storm and protect the mainland. It was surrounded by water, flat with a high altitude of only twenty-four feet, and susceptible to a major storm surge, though no one on the island had ever witnessed that kind of water.
At 7:03, the sun peeked above the quiet ocean as if the day would be just another sunny one in paradise. Leo was by then a Category 4 and for the first time seemed determined to trek in one direction without veering left or right. At 7:15, the Governor activated full evacuation for the coastal areas north of Jacksonville. “Get out now,” was his message, and he hinted strongly that a mandatory evacuation order was forthcoming. “There is no time to prepare,” he said grimly. “Just get out now.”
Forty thousand people lived year-round on the island, with about half in Santa Rosa proper. There were no other towns to speak of. The city limits were not well defined and blurred with the rest of the island. Because it was early August, the tourist season was slower than June and July, but it was estimated that fifty thousand visitors were staying in oceanside hotels and condos. Early in the morning they were asked to leave, and quickly. Some fled immediately but most lingered and watched cable news with their coffee and breakfast. Only one four-lane bridge linked Camino Island to the mainland and by 8:00 a.m. its traffic was heavy. Each day a thousand employees crossed the bridge to work in the island’s hotels, but they were now being turned away. No one was allowed to cross. Everyone was encouraged to head west. Where? It didn’t matter. Just get off the island.
As the minutes passed, the forecasters remained unanimous with their projected paths. Leo’s eye was headed for downtown Santa Rosa.
At 8:15, the Governor ordered the mandatory evacuation and activated two National Guard units. The police began going door to door. By law, a resident could not be forced to leave. However, for those who chose to remain, the police took phone numbers of their next of kin and informed them that first responders would not try to save them. The two hospitals were evacuated and the critical patients were taken to Jacksonville. The six grocery stores on the island opened early and were flooded with panicked shoppers desperate for bottled water and nonperishables.
Those who planned to stay were warned that there would be little food and water and no electricity for days after the storm. And there would be almost no medical care.
The warnings were blunt and everywhere: Get off the island!
Bay Books had seven employees—three full-time and four by the hour. All hands were on deck as Bruce barked orders and helped them haul books upstairs to the second floor, where they were stacked on the floor. The tables and chairs in the small café were shoved to the side to make room. Two part-timers, both young men, were sent down to Noelle’s store to move her beloved antiques.
A fire marshal stopped by at 8:30 and said to Bruce, “You’re only four feet above sea level so you can expect some flooding.” The harbor was six blocks to the west, the beach a mile to the east.
“You know there’s a mandatory evacuation order,” he said.
“I’m not leaving,” Bruce said.
The fire marshal took his name, phone number, and Noelle’s contact information, then hurried to the store next door. At 9:00, Bruce gathered his employees and told them to grab their valuables and leave the island. Everyone vanished, except for Nick Sutton, who seemed to relish the idea of riding out a major hurricane. He was adamant in his refusal to evacuate.
The shelves of Bruce’s office on the first floor were lined with valuable first editions. Bruce told Nick to continue to box them and deliver them to his home four blocks away. Bruce left and drove to the home of Myra and Leigh, who were frantically throwing clothes and dogs into their old station wagon.
“Where should we go, Bruce?” Myra asked, soaked with sweat and visibly frightened.
“Get on Interstate 10 and head toward Pensacola. I’ll check on the house after the storm.”
“You’re not leaving?” Leigh asked.
“No, I can’t. I’m going to watch the store and check on things. I’ll be fine.”
“Then we’re staying too,” Myra said without conviction.
“No, you’re not. It could be ugly—lots of trees down, some flooding, no power for days. Y’all get out of here and find a hotel room somewhere. I’ll call as soon as the phones start working again.”
“You’re not worried?” Leigh asked.
“Of course I’m worried. But I’ll be okay.” He helped them load all the bottled water in the house, a box of liquor, three sacks of food, and ten pounds of dog food. He practically shoved them into the car and waved them goodbye. Both were in tears as they began their escape.
He called Amy, who was already on the road and over the bridge. Her husband had an aunt in Macon, Georgia, and that would be their first stop. Bruce promised to check on their home after the storm and call. He tried to drive to the beach but the police were blocking all eastbound traffic. Mercer was not answering her phone.
Tessa had built the beach cottage thirty years earlier. As a child, Mercer had spent her summers there, far away from her warring parents. Larry had always been around to tend to the cottage, and bicker with Tessa about the gardening, and bring fruits and vegetables from his garden. He was a native of the island and would never leave, not even for a threat like Leo.
He arrived early that morning with eight sheets of used plywood, drills, and hammers, and he and Thomas boarded the windows and doors as Mercer hurriedly packed the car. Larry was adamant that they leave as soon as possible. The ground floor of the cottage was eighteen feet above sea level and there were two hundred feet of dunes for protection. He was confident the surge wouldn’t reach the cottage but was worried about the wind.
Tessa had died in a storm, and Mercer wasn’t about to stay behind. At 11:00, she hugged Larry goodbye and left with Thomas at the wheel, his yellow Labrador perched between them on the console. It took an hour to get to the bridge, and as they inched across it and looked down at the choppy and forbidding waters of the Camino River, the sky darkened and the rains began.
With his rare books secured in a new walk-in vault next to his bedroom, Bruce tried to relax. If that could be possible. The storm hysteria on cable was impossible to ignore and it was frightening to watch Leo tighten his eye in real time and keep it locked on the island. Bruce and Nick Sutton ate sandwiches on the veranda and watched it rain. The housekeeper had been frightened away and had already called from Tallahassee.
Bruce’s collection was worth far more than the inventory at his store, or the art on his walls, or the pricey antiques Noelle peddled to her high-end clientele. With his prized editions secured, a chunk of his net worth was safe from any catastrophe—fire, flood, wind, theft. The biggest chunk was buried offshore and no one but Noelle knew about it.
Bay Books was closed and locked tight, as were all downtown stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. No one was interested in shopping or dining out. Main Street was deserted except for the police in yellow rain gear. There was little crime on the island during a normal day. Potential looters lived elsewhere. The biggest fears were rising waters and glass breakage.
Four blocks away, where the stately Victorians had been on display for a century, the fear was falling trees. Some of the oaks had been around for three hundred years, and every house was shaded by thick limbs draped with Spanish moss. The trees were stately, historic, a source of great pride, but in a few hours they would become dangerous.
As Nick returned to the table with a Heineken, Bruce poured another glass of white wine and looked at his checklist. He said, “It might be a good idea if you stay here for the fun. I have no experience with hurricanes but it seems as though the buddy system will be safer. Wind, water, falling limbs, no power—it’ll be better to have two of us.”
Nick nodded but wasn’t convinced. “How much food do you have?”
“For two people, enough for a week. I have a small generator that will run the basics for a few days. I’ll fill the cans with gas. Are you on your bike?”
“Okay. Take my Tahoe to your grandparents’ home and load up all the food and water you can find. Fill the tank with gas. And hurry.”
“You got some beer?” Nick asked. The college boy.
“The wine cellar is stocked with plenty of beer, booze, and wine. We need to round up some water. Does your grandfather have a chain saw?”
“Yes. I’ll bring it back.”
“A plan. Let’s hustle.”
Nick left and Bruce finished the bottle of wine. He tried to nap in a hammock but the wind picked up and made too much noise. There were three bathtubs in the house and he ran them full. He moved the patio furniture inside and locked all windows and doors. His checklist included the names of thirty-one people—employees, friends, and, of course, his writers. Of the whole group, five were staying behind, including Bob Cobb and Nelson Kerr. Myra and Leigh were puttering along in heavy traffic on I-10, sipping rum, soothing their dogs, and listening to one of their raunchy romance novels on tape. They giggled like a couple of drunks. Amy and her family were already in Macon. Jay Arklerood, the poet, was headed to Miami. Andy Adam had fled early, partly out of fear that his fragile sobriety could not survive the chaos of a deadly hurricane. Bob Cobb was tucked into his condo with a woman. Nelson Kerr was sitting on a pier in a rain suit watching the waves churn and enjoying the excitement, for the moment. His condo was not far from Bob’s and they planned to keep in touch when Leo rolled in.
His winds were 155 miles an hour, on the verge of rising to a Category 5, with projections of catastrophic damage and loss of life. He was also moving faster, almost fifteen miles an hour due west, with landfall now predicted at 10:30 p.m. at the heart of the island. By 4:00 p.m. the rains were torrential as the outer bands settled in with gusts strong enough to snap branches. Debris flew and scattered across the streets. At 5:30 a policeman knocked on Bruce’s door and asked what the hell he was doing at home. Bruce explained that he had already checked with the authorities and was staying put. He asked about his neighbors and was told that everyone had left.
When Nick returned around 6:00, the island suddenly got very dark. The sky turned black as thick clouds swirled violently not far above them.
Bruce hooked up his small generator and switched off all circuits except for the outlets in the den and kitchen. No other electricity was in use. They had plenty of flashlights and batteries. Dinner was steaks on the grill and frozen French fries with a bottle of pinot noir.
At 7:00 p.m., with the winds howling at eighty miles an hour, Bruce called the gang for the last time. Myra and Leigh were in a motel in Pensacola with their five dogs, who were causing trouble because they were nervous and barking. Amy was high and dry in Macon. Joel was staying with a friend in Miami. Andy Adam was at his mother’s in Charlotte. All were worried about their homes and about Bruce’s safety. They were glued to their televisions, and the predictions grew more ominous by the hour. Bruce assured everyone that he and Nick were safe and well prepared. He promised to check on their property as soon as possible and call when cell service was restored. Good night and God bless.
According to the state disaster chief, the most vulnerable section of the island was a half-mile stretch of beach known as Pauley’s Sound. It was on the far north end, near the Hilton, and, like most of the oceanfront, had been heavily developed with clusters of condos, old and new cottages, mom-and-pop motels, beachside bars and cafés, and tall modern hotels. The Sound was only a few feet above sea level and there were no dunes to protect it from a surge. Both Bob Cobb and Nelson Kerr lived there in a gated development known as Marsh Grove. Bruce called them last. Bob and his lady were hunkered down for the night. He seemed nonchalant and had obviously been drinking. Nelson Kerr was sitting in the dark and wishing he had fled too. Bruce invited him to hustle over to his house where things would certainly be safer, but Nelson said the police had closed all the streets. Trees and power lines were already down and the rain was falling in sheets.
By 8:00 p.m., the sustained winds were over a hundred miles an hour and howled with a roar so loud and constant that Bruce and Nick had trouble sitting still. With flashlights, they roamed the downstairs, looking cautiously through windows to gauge the damage, to see if limbs had fallen, to see if rainwater was flooding the street. They would sit for a moment in the den and try to enjoy a taste of bourbon, then a gust would blow through and rattle the house. Or they’d hear a crack in the distance.
The cracking sounds were the worst. With the first two, neither Bruce nor Nick was certain what was happening. Then they realized that wind was snapping off thick limbs, which sounded like nearby shotgun blasts. With each one they flinched and eased carefully toward a window.
For the past fifteen years Bruce had owned the Marchbanks House, a 1890 Victorian built the old way and designed to withstand hurricanes. At the moment he wasn’t worried about losing a roof or a porch, but there were two ancient oaks on the property with limbs large enough to do serious damage.
In the midst of the storm, as if the howling, rattling, and cracking were not enough, an odd cadence emerged. The roar was constant and slowly rising, and every minute or so a band of even stronger gusts swept through, as if to warn that heavier action was still out there over the water and not far behind. The gusts passed, the storm returned to its steady noise and strength, and Bruce and Nick took a sip of bourbon and hoped there would be no more gusts. Then a limb cracked and they peeked out the windows.
Just after 9:00, the power lines gave way and began to snap. The island was pitch black as the storm grew louder.
After two hours of getting battered by winds over a hundred miles per hour, the boys had had enough. Bruce thought about an attempt at humor with something like “Well, I guess we should’ve left,” but why bother? The eye was still two hours away and the winds had not reached their peak. The street was solid water from the rain and the surge had yet to arrive. Bruce was certain the ground floor of Bay Books was taking water.
But for the moment he and Nick were dry and safe. There was little they could do until morning. At 10:30 p.m., the projected time for the arrival of the eye, Bruce was certain that the house was about to sheer off its foundation and crash into Dr. Bagwell’s across the street. Its floors and ceilings vibrated and the walls were literally shaking. The great fear was that a limb might crash through the den and open up the house to torrents of rain and more wind. They would be forced to flee and seek shelter, but where? There was no place to go.
It was almost 11:00 when the winds stopped and the night became perfectly still. Bruce and Nick stepped outside and waded to the street, where they looked at the sky and saw stars. A TV expert said that Leo’s eye would pass in about twenty minutes, and Bruce was tempted to take a look at downtown and check on his store. But again, why bother? He couldn’t stop the flooding. The cleanup would begin in the morning. He had plenty of insurance coverage.
They walked down the street, wading in ankle-deep water, and did not see another person, not another light. Evidently the policeman had been right—all of his neighbors had the good sense to leave. In the darkness it was impossible to see where all those limbs had landed, but there was debris everywhere.
The tranquility, along with the bourbon, settled their nerves, if only for a moment. As the minutes passed, a gentle wind arrived from the west and reminded them that the storm was only half over.
Leo’s two-week reign of terror climaxed officially at 10:57 p.m. Eastern Standard Time when the center of his eye came ashore along the northern tip of Camino Island. True to form, he wiggled a bit at the end, moved to the north, and stalled just long enough to maintain a Category 4 ranking, with top winds at 145 miles per hour, almost reaching the rare status as a Cat 5 at 156 miles an hour. Not that it really mattered. Eleven miles per hour mean little in such a powerful storm, and long before and long after the eye came and went its winds battered the island. Old cottages built decades earlier were blown off their stilts. Newer ones hung on but lost windows, doors, roofs, decks. The top storm surge around the eye was fifteen feet in some areas, enough to flood hundreds of cottages, homes, motels, and stores. Main Street was under four feet of water, and some of the older homes in the historic section took in water for the first time in history.
Along the ocean, all boardwalks and piers were gone. Inland, limbs and entire trees blocked streets and driveways. Parking lots were covered with roof shingles, garbage, more jagged tree limbs. In the docks and harbors, boats of all sizes were strewn about like scattered firewood.
Though virtually everyone had fled, some of the few who stayed behind did not survive. At sunrise, the first siren could be heard wailing across the island.
Bruce slept for two hours on a sofa in the den and awoke with cobwebs and a stiff back. The wind was gone, the house was quiet and dark, the storm was over. He walked to a window and saw the first hint of sunlight. He put on rubber boots and walked outside where he waded through six inches of water and looked at his house from across the street. A few squares of slate were missing from the roof and a third-floor gutter had been ripped off, but the house was in remarkable shape. All of the heavy oak limbs that he had worried about were still where they should have been. Four doors down to the west, the floodwaters had made it all the way to the Keegan home but had stopped at the front steps.
He reached into a pocket and removed a cigar. Why not have a smoke? He clipped and lit it, and for a long time stood in muddy water in the middle of Sixth Street as the sky lightened and morning arrived. The clouds were thinning, the sun was rising, the day would be hot and humid, and there was no electricity to cool things. There were no sounds and not another human in sight. He walked south along Sixth to Ash and the water disappeared. The asphalt on Ash was visible. A door opened and Mr. Chester Finley walked onto his porch and said good morning.
“Had a little wind, didn’t we?” he said with a smile. He was holding a bottle of water.
“Just a little. You guys okay?” Bruce asked.
“We’re fine. The Dodsons took a hit but they’re not here.”
“Smart folks. I’m around if you need some help.” Bruce walked around the corner and gawked at the Dodsons’ pretty Victorian. A huge limb had sheared off from an oak in their back yard and literally cut the house in half. He walked on and stopped in front of the Vicker House, 1867, purchased by Myra and Leigh thirteen years earlier. They had painted it pink with royal trim, and it had survived well enough. A limb had crashed through a front window and Bruce suspected there was substantial water damage. He and Nick could handle the cleanup with the chain saw. That might be their first project.
As he was returning to Sixth Street, he heard the unmistakable thumping of a helicopter. He stopped and listened as it grew closer, and soon enough a Navy Seahawk came into view, flying low to survey the aftermath. Rescuers in uniforms had arrived, and that was a welcome thought. The chopper flew away and minutes later another one buzzed downtown. It was smaller, with the gaudy paint job of a news station.
Mercer and Thomas sipped coffee in bed and waited for the first reports. They were in a motel near Dothan, Alabama, one that had waived the No Pets rule and allowed them and the dog to check in after dark. The traffic had been brutal and they had been forced to keep driving west to find a room. The cable stations had blacked out shortly after 10:00 p.m. when the winds became too strong, but by 6:00 a.m. they were up and running. Not long after sunrise a helicopter ran a live shot along the beach as an excited reporter on board tried to describe the damage. The storm surge had wiped out all the boardwalks and piers. A large condo building was gutted. Another had partially collapsed. Roofs were missing. Some of the smaller beach houses were almost flattened. The empty parking lots were littered with debris. Naval vessels were unloading near Main Beach, the busiest place on normal days. Mercer could not catch a glimpse of Tessa’s cottage, but there was little doubt it had been damaged. Inland, thousands of trees were down, with streets blocked by limbs and entire trees. A church steeple had been toppled.
Near the center of Santa Rosa, the streets were under water that appeared to be about knee deep. Rescue crews in boats were moving slowly about. One man waved at the helicopter. The screen cut to a reporter on the ground who quickly recapped his heroic efforts to remain outdoors all night as his crew grappled with their camera. He said that emergency management expected the island to be without electricity for at least a week. The National Guard had already arrived. The island was virtually deserted but they had just received the first report of a fatality up at Pauley’s Sound; more later. The bridge was closed and would be examined for damage.
It was obvious the island was a mess and would remain so for weeks or months. Mercer and Thomas had no desire to rush back into the rubble and they couldn’t get to the cottage anyway. Larry was there, she hoped, and he would do the best he could. Nor did they wish to hang around a motel when Mercer’s apartment in Oxford was only six hours away.
Thomas left to find breakfast and something for the dog. Mercer got in the shower, worried about Larry but happy not to be on the island, happy that the book tour was over, though the ending was not exactly what she had wanted, and happy most of all to be going home. She and Thomas had been living out of their luggage for two months.