Dangerous Waters By Radclyffe

“How’s the world looking this morning,” Stan Oliver said as he hipped the door to the control room closed while juggling a big blue Mickey mug of coffee, a powdered jelly doughnut spewing white sprinkles on the scuffed, stained, baby-poop brown carpet, and a sheaf of printouts under his left arm. He’d almost made it to the desk he shared with the other two shift supervisors when half the stack slipped and followed the doughnut to the floor. “God damn it.â€
Dangerous Waters
Dangerous Waters 

“When are you going to stop contributing to the extinction of what’s left of the planet’s forest cover and get a tablet like the rest of the world,” Bette Jones said without turning from her trio of thirty-two-inch monitors. The muted light from the screens erased the lines around her mouth and eyes and filled out the hollows in her cheeks, giving her profile the flat perfection of a face stamped on an ancient coin.

Stan edged his mug onto the corner of the gray metal desk set perpendicular to the long row of computer banks, monitors, and communication arrays and scooped up the papers and doughnut. Dumping the pile in the middle of the desk, he settled into the chair and leaned back. “I’ll start using one of those overpriced mini flat-screens as soon as someone figures out a way to scribble on one so it actually feels like writing. I think when I doodle.”

Anjou Beck snickered from the adjoining station and, when Stan shot him a look, quickly bent his head over his keyboard, blue-green dyed forelock dancing above delicately arched blond eyebrows.

“Doodle,” Stan repeated, “as in free-form design, coloring outside the lines, unleashing the power of the unconscious mind…”

“Doing science here,” Bette said in her soft South Carolina drawl. “Facts, figures—”

“Uh-huh. Forecasting, computer modeling.” Stan took a bite of doughnut and brushed crumbs from his red polo shirt with the NHC logo on the chest. “It’s not all science. That’s why they’re called predictions.”

Anjou sat up straight, his thin shoulders rigid in his plain white T-shirt, indignation coloring his pale Scandinavian cheeks a jaunty rose. “We’re not witches, you know. Those forecasts are all based on billions of bytes of data and constantly refined, dynamic analyses.”

“No argument.” Stan propped a foot on the corner of the desk and sipped his coffee. The kid was a genius but could use a few years’ seasoning to develop his instincts. Hurricane forecasting was more than just numbers and charts. “But never discount that squirmy feeling in your gut when you see something that just doesn’t look right.”

Bette laughed. “The udgies, you mean.”

“Exactly. So…any squirmy udgies this a.m., you two?”

Anjou shook his head with a mumbled, “I don’t believe you guys.”

“Inez headed away from the coast an hour ago and wind speeds are dropping, just like we figured,” Bette said. “New York will get some rain but not enough disturbance to cause any noticeable coastal surges.”

“Good news for the UN meeting this week,” Stan muttered around the last of his doughnut. He knew Inez had stormed herself out already, having logged in remotely to the research center’s main tracking program at four a.m. as had been his habit for the last fifteen years, but his team didn’t need to know that. He wasn’t checking up on them, he was just starting his day with a clear picture of the winds and waters of the North Atlantic basin—his territory. Officially for the next eight hours or so, and twenty-four seven as far as he was concerned. Weather didn’t follow a clock, and neither did he. His job was to be here, tracking the storms when they traveled. “Water temps, Atom Boy?”

“Still warm.” Anjou stroked a few keys and a steadily climbing graphic appeared on his big screen. Surface temps had been rising for the last twenty years, and this year was no exception. “Too warm.”

Stan grimaced. Hurricanes fed off the heat radiating from the ocean’s surface. “Hot spots?”

“Nothing showing,” Anjou replied.

Bette said, “Watch the coast of Africa today.”

“Why?” Anjou switched screens rapidly, scanning air temp, wind speeds, ocean current graphs. “Can’t see anything unusual.”

“Got a feeling, Bette?” Stan asked softly.

“Mmm,” she murmured. “Might talk to the hunters in a bit.”

“Good idea.” Stan noted the time and the key variables in their sector and programmed the satellite readouts for the far east Atlantic. Well out of range for anything likely to make it all the way to their side of the ocean, but he knew better than to ignore an udgie.

Chapter Two

Landfall minus 10 days, 7:00 a.m.

Miami Memorial Hospital

Miami, Florida

Dara closed the PowerPoint slides and flicked on the conference room lights. Four eager faces, a fifth one barely awake, and the sixth unapologetically bored gazed back at her from the length of the conference table. “Questions?”

“I still don’t see why we have to be able to identify poisonous snakes,” Marco said with a hint of a whine. He flicked his shock of jet-black hair out of his eyes with an impatient gesture, managing to look put out and put-upon at the same time. “I’m not going to be practicing in the Everglades.”

A couple of his colleagues grinned, and he laughed, enjoying the subtle applause.

Dara bit back her reflex reply: Because I expect you to.

Marco, who undoubtedly planned on working at one of the posh local private hospitals when he finished, was the oldest son of an influential Miami family and, like many of the sons and daughters of the privileged Dara had grown up with, hadn’t yet cultivated a tolerance for frustration. Hard to do when you were used to every whim being instantly satisfied. Not his fault, really, and her job was to help him, and the rest of his group, learn to exchange arrogance for confidence in their own judgment.

“All right, let me show you why.” Dara opened PowerPoint again, scrolled down to her ancillary slides, and selected one.

Kirk, the other male in the group—when had the gender ratio flipped and women begun to predominate in med schools across the country? Probably when men decided that medicine wasn’t the prestigious career it used to be and definitely wasn’t the most lucrative—grunted and said, “Nasty.”

“Indeed,” Dara said dryly. The foot in the middle of the slide was three times its normal size, fire-engine red with a hint of blue-black along the tips of all the toes, the skin peeling off in wet sheets. She picked out the resident who’d been half asleep during the lecture. “Suki, what’s the pathology here?”

“Um.” Suki cast wide eyes at her colleagues, barely hiding her desperation as she grasped for an answer. “Snakebite?”

“Good deduction, considering the topic for this morning’s lecture was venomous bites. But that’s the etiology, not the pathology.”

Suki frowned, and Dara sighed inwardly.

“Anybody? The difference?”

“Cause and effect,” Naomi, who’d graduated top of her class at Howard, answered quickly.

“Correct. The clinical signs resulted from the snakebite. So, Suki, want to try again?”

“Cellulitis?” she said with a hopeful lift in her voice.

“Correct. What else?” After a long silence, Suki had clearly exhausted her diagnostic acumen for the morning, and Dara shifted her focus to Consuela. “Thoughts?”

“The discoloration of her—or his—toes looks like ischemia. Early onset gangrene?”

“Good. Anyone want to venture what the cause of that might be?”

Six bodies shuffled in their seats.

“All right. Let’s go around the table and list the causes of reduced blood flow to the lower extremity.” Dara nodded to the resident on her left. “You’re up first.”

When she’d finally walked them through all the potential causes for toes falling off, they finally made their way to compartment syndrome, caused by swelling and inflammation from the poisonous snakebite.

“Good. Now, what antivenom should you use? Marco?”


“There’s no way to know,” Kirk, who for some reason hid his intelligence behind a perpetually bored facade, replied as if the effort was an annoyance.

“And why would that be?”

He met her gaze. “Because you don’t know what the snake is.”

Dara smiled. She’d been watching him since he’d first sauntered into the ER eight weeks earlier and hadn’t needed long to decide he had the potential to be one of the best residents she’d trained in a long time. He underplayed his book smarts but couldn’t conceal his innate clinical sensibility, something that couldn’t be taught. If he wanted to cover up his native intelligence, she’d let him, as long as his practice lived up to his potential. She understood the need to wear a different public face when the private one left you vulnerable.

“What if the patient told you it was red, black, and yellow striped.”

Suki shot up in her seat. “That’s a coral snake!” She blushed and looked around. “I grew up down here.”

Dara pointed a finger at her. “Exactly. And that’s why all of you need to know what the indigenous poisonous species are in your area. With any luck, your patient will be able to describe for you what happened, and you can prescribe an antidote.”

“Can’t you just get somebody from infectious disease to do that?” Marco said.

Dara narrowed her eyes. “As long as you’re in this residency program, you take care of the emergencies. If you need a consultant, it better be after you’ve made the appropriate diagnosis to begin with. All clear on that?”

Six heads nodded, even Kirk’s.

Dara closed up her computer. “Okay, we’re done, then. If you worked last night, get out of here. The rest of you, go grab charts.”

As the residents filed out, the head ER nurse, and Dara’s best friend, Penny slipped into the room.

“How are they doing?” Penny asked.

Dara sighed. “They seem to get younger and less prepared every year, but maybe that’s just because I’m older and getting more tired every year.”

“Yeah, like thirty-two is ancient.” Penny scoffed. “Haven’t you set the record for being the youngest section head ever or something like that?”

“Age is a state of mind,” Dara muttered.

“Well, I’m about to make your morning even better. There’s a Gold Coaster in room seven who insists on seeing an attending, and you’re the only one free.”

Dara gritted her teeth. Gold Coaster. Back in her residency days, she’d heard the term applied to herself when people thought she wasn’t listening, as if her family’s money somehow bought her a pass. Maybe it had in terms of getting into the college she wanted, which unfortunately also happened to be her father’s alma mater, although she’d put her grades up against anyone’s. Being a bona fide heiress—God, she hated that term—sure hadn’t paved the way during her residency. If anything, training in Miami, where her family name showed up on buildings, parks, and even a road sign or two, made her life hellish. A couple of her attendings had obviously resented her presumed special status, and trying to have a personal life where her social connections didn’t surface was impossible. Good thing she was too damn busy most of the time to care.

“Can you see her?” Penny prompted.

As much as she worked to distance herself from her family’s reputation and the social network attached to it, she couldn’t deny a patient the right to request an attending. She’d just bring a resident with her and insist they be involved in the care. “What is it?”

“A facial laceration, of course.”

“And they’re not requesting plastic surgery right off the bat?”

“We’re trying to ward that off.” Penny grinned sheepishly. “I might have suggested you were highly skilled with facial lacerations, could see her sooner, and wouldn’t charge as much.”

“Oh, thank you.” Dara shook her head and tucked her computer under her arm. “All right, I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”

“Thanks, you saved me one headache.”

“How are you feeling?”

Penny made a wry face and patted her stomach. “I’m gonna have two in diapers when this one comes along. Of course I’m ecstatic.”

Dara knew she meant it. Some people were born to be parents. “How about Sampson? Is he ready for the double dose of daddyhood?”

Penny rolled her deep-brown eyes in an expression of fond exasperation. “We were really happy when Evie came along, kind of unexpectedly after, you know, six years of trying and a year of considering other options, and then poof! It’s like somehow we unlocked the fertility vault, and without even trying, number two is on the way. Sam has been marching around with a puffed-out chest like he’s the father of the year.”

Dara laughed. “If your BP gives you any problems this time, I want to know about it.”

“Believe me, you’ll be the first to hear.” Penny waved and hurried back to the central station.

Dara exchanged her computer for her tablet and joined Vincie Duval, the chief ER resident, who leaned against the counter entering notes into a laptop. Taller than Dara by a few inches and willowy where Dara was slender at best, Vincie was a top candidate to join the ER staff at the end of the residency year if she wanted. So far she’d been quiet about her plans. Vincie’s parents had immigrated from Guadeloupe when Vincie, the oldest of four, was only six. Her father had died on a fishing boat lost at sea, and she’d grown up helping to raise her sibs. If she wanted to take a job closer to her family, Dara could understand. She’d ended up staying close too, although their stories couldn’t be further apart. She shrugged the past away with the realities of the moment, a habit that was second nature now. “Got a minute to see a patient who might need sutures?”

“Sure.” Vincie’s perennially smiling light-green eyes brightened, complementing her smooth, tawny complexion. With her boundless energy and effortless beauty—if she wore any makeup it was too expertly applied for Dara to tell—Vincie somehow always managed to look ready to take on anything.

If she’d ever been that optimistic, Dara couldn’t remember when. Sometimes Vincie’s enthusiasm made her feel decades older than she was. Granted, her blond hair, naturally tanned coloring, and blue eyes gave her a perpetual south Florida beach glow even without trying, but inside she was weary. And she really didn’t have time for that, today or any other time. Dara pulled up the intake form on her tablet and held open the curtain enclosing cubicle seven for Vincie. Once inside, she stepped to the bedside of an elderly woman propped up on the stretcher, a small square of gauze taped to her forehead and a bruise purpling her left upper lid. She wore a red cardigan that looked like cashmere over a mismatched, incongruous stained yellow T-shirt along with an imperious expression.

“Who are you?” she demanded querulously.

“Ms. Hastings?” Dara held out her hand. “I’m Dr. Sims, and this is Dr.—”

“Finally.” The woman dismissed Vincie with barely a glance and glared at Dara. “I asked for one of the attending physicians, and I don’t want to see a resident.”

Dara kept her smile in place. “I am one of the attendings, and this is Dr. Duval, one of our senior in-house physicians. Can you tell us what happened?”

The woman plucked at the hem of her sweater and, after a second, waved a hand toward the tablet. “I’m sure it’s all in there. I already told several people.”

“Perhaps you could tell me again,” Dara said.

“What did you say your name was again?”

“Dr. Dara Sims.”

“Sims. Sims.” The elderly woman—her intake form put her at seventy-four—frowned. “Any relationship to Barrister Sims?”

An ache started at the back of Dara’s head. She could ignore the question or, in the interest of time, simply answer. She surrendered, at least partially. Barrister did not deserve a mention. “Priscilla Sims is my mother.”

“Oh,” the woman said, her expression softening. “Well, then, I suppose it’s all right.”

Dara nodded, feeling her smile begin to slip. “Can you tell us what happened,” she asked again as she pulled on gloves and removed the gauze. The laceration was superficial, and she glanced over her shoulder at Vincie. “What do you think?”

“I can clean it up and Steri-Strip it.”

Dara nodded and replaced the gauze. “How did this happen?”

“I…I…the maid or someone must have moved a footstool. Careless of them.”

“I see.” Something in the woman’s tone tugged at Dara’s memory. The familiar oh, it’s nothing, I’m just busy she’d heard from her grandmother so many times as her memory and awareness had begun to slip away. “Did you experience any dizziness or loss of balance before you fell?”

The patient’s gaze flickered away. “No.”

“Light-headedness, chest pain?”

“No, no.” Another hand wave. “Oh, perhaps I was dizzy for a second.”

Dara asked a few more questions as she examined her, noting how Ms. Hasting’s answers changed when Dara repeated some of the same questions. She wasn’t sure if the patient was being intentionally evasive or really couldn’t remember.

“How did you get here?” Dara asked.

“I had the doorman call a car.”

“Good,” Dara said. “The laceration isn’t bad, and I don’t think you need sutures. While we set up to put some Steri-Strips on that, I’d like to get an MRI.”

“All right,” she said, strangely acquiescent.

“We’ll be right back.” Dara motioned for Vincie to follow her into the hall. “What do you think?”

“She’s definitely confused,” Vincie said. “Maybe as a result of the fall, but possibly something else is going on that caused it to begin with.”

“I know. The MRI will rule out anything physical. Let’s find out who’s with her from her family, and if there’s no one here, let’s get someone. She shouldn’t go home alone.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Call me when you get the MRI results.”

“Got it.”

Dara headed for the workstation to check on the charts of patients waiting to be seen. When the clerk saw her coming, he held up the phone.

“There’s a call for you, Dr. Sims,” he said. “I was just about to page you.”

“Who is it?”

“Brian from Shoreline Residential.”

Dara’s heart jumped and she held out her hand. “I’ll take it, thanks. This is Dara, Brian. Is something wrong?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, Dara, but your grandmother is asking for you.”

Dara checked her watch. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. I just have to get things covered here.”

“Sure thing. I’ll be here.”

Dara hung up and swung around. Penny was right behind her. “Hey, I need to leave for a while.”

“I heard.” Penny squeezed her arm. “Go. Everything here is under control. I’ll call if anything changes.”

“I won’t be long,” Dara said.

If she was in time at all.

Landfall minus 10 days, 1:30 p.m.

Roc Hotel

Miami Beach, Florida

“Morning, Harry.” Sawyer slid onto a stool at the thatch-topped cabana next to the pool outside her room. She braced herself against the hundredth round of Jimmy Buffett singing about the mythical Margaritaville of some long-ago endless summer.

“The usual?” Harry asked.

Man, had she really had enough to drink in two days to have developed a usual? She squinted in the glare from the water and tried to picture where she’d left her shades. Bedside table, where she would have placed her weapon if she’d been on duty. Getting sloppy now that no one was likely to be shooting at her. “Hold the vodka this morning. Just make it hot and spicy, though.”

“Like your women, huh?” Harry the bartender’s sun-leathered skin crinkled around his watery blue eyes as he winked and reached for the Stoli. He waggled the bottle. “You should take the hair of the dog. Start your day off right.”

Sawyer smothered a wince. Harry was wrong on several counts, but a lesson in PC-terminology was beyond her at the moment. She needed a headache remedy, true, but hair of the dog was definitely not on the menu. If she’d been enough of a drinker to handle the vodka, she wouldn’t have a hangover to begin with. “Just the juice, thanks, Harry.”

“You know best,” he said dubiously. “I saw your blondie friend come down for a swim this morning. You don’t like the beach?”

“I like it fine.” Sawyer passed him a ten and palmed the sweating glass. The celery fronds drooped over the top, looking about as lively as she felt. She pushed them aside, sipped the blood-red juice, and coughed when the horseradish hit the back of her throat. She blinked tears from her eyes. “Just not before noon.”

He laughed. “Late night.”

“Catching up.” She was only two days into her fourteen-day leave, and last night had been the first night in a year she’d said more than ten words to a woman who wasn’t her best friend’s wife, her CO, or her barista. Not for lack of poolside company, true, and Harry clearly had noticed the traffic to her table. But talking was not doing—at least not in her book, and she’d heard enough bragging on supposed sexcapades in mess halls and Humvees to know the difference. Last night had ended after a round of drinks in her room with Bridget from Brussels, an abbreviated make-out session she hadn’t even been sure she wanted and hadn’t initiated, and a hasty apology when she’d bowed out of anything more intimate. Bridget had taken the rebuff with a shrug and an air-kiss before sashaying back out to poolside. No doubt to have better company before too long.

Alone under a clear, star-studded sky, Sawyer’d stretched out in the lounge on the postage-stamp-sized patio and finished her drink and one more she really didn’t need. Thus explaining waking up at noon with a crick in her neck, a tracer barrage of too-bright sun lighting up the insides of her eyelids when she tried to open them, and a deuce of 50 mm’s pounding away at her cerebellum. In civilian terms, a mother of a hangover.

Stateside for less than a month and pathetically out of practice in more ways than one. Well, she had twelve more days to catch up on living in a non-war zone before the next round of reservists arrived for training on the HH-60s. Coordinating pararescue team maneuvers on the Pave Hawks wouldn’t leave her much time to think about what shape her future was going to take now that she was home. Of course, she might get deployed again, and that would solve all her problems. True.

Chapter Three

Landfall minus 10 days, 2:00 p.m.

Shoreline Residential Center

Miami, Florida

“How is Priscilla?” Caroline Sims asked as she carefully straightened the blanket over her lap. The typical September Miami day edged into the mid-eighties, but she wore a pale-rose crocheted shawl around her shoulders over a faded blue dress with small white pearl buttons down the center. Her white hair was recently permed in the nondescript style of so many women her age, a style Dara knew for certain her grandmother would have hated if she’d been aware of it. The dress was hopelessly out of date as well, but one of the few items her grandmother still recognized.

Dara remembered the day a decade before when she and the housekeeper had spent a frantic two hours searching for that dress while her grandmother verged on the brink of a full-blown anxiety attack, only to find it neatly folded in one of the boxes her grandmother had marked for the handyman to take to the Goodwill. No amount of explanation could convince Caroline that the housekeeper or some other member of the help staff hadn’t put it there. By then, she’d been forgetting more and more, and Dara had finally been forced to consider options for the future and what would be needed to keep her safe. The task fell to her, since her mother just couldn’t cope, and there was no one else, was there.

Now the dress, laundered dozens of times since, was a faded reminder of the woman Caroline used to be, even though right at this moment, her eyes were clear and focused outward.

“She’s fine, Grandmom. Busy,” Dara said, searching madly for something to say about her mother. “You know, with so many of her humanitarian organizations.”

Charity had lost its political correctness, even though Dara suspected that’s what her mother considered anything that truly benefited those beneath her social status.

“Well, your sister always did like helping others,” Caroline said.

“She’s my mom,” Dara said gently. Her grandmother’s social worker had suggested this was a safe correction when her grandmother was lucid but still a little confused.

Caroline frowned. “Of course, I know that. Barrister’s wife.” She smiled. “And you’re my favorite granddaughter.”

Also, the only granddaughter, but Dara just reached out and took her grandmother’s hand, happy to have her nearby for a few minutes. “Have you been outside for a walk lately? It’s getting cool enough in the afternoons now, and I know how much you like the flowers.”

Caroline nodded. “Yes, thank you for reminding me. I must tell the gardener to trim the roses. They’re getting so leggy.”

“You know,” Dara continued gamely, “there are roses along the path. I’m sure Brian will be happy to walk with you.”

“Brian. Oh, of course. He always was such an attentive son.”

Dara couldn’t bring herself to correct her, since thinking about her father—correction, Barrister—brought up too much anger. Anger she really should’ve let go of a long time ago and told herself she would every time the flush of old resentments rose within her. Twenty years was a long time to harbor feelings that were perfectly appropriate for a twelve-year-old, she’d told herself more than once. So what if he’d walked out, left them, started another life and another family. In his eyes, he’d always done his duty, being sure the family had everything money could buy.

“Brian is your nurse,” Dara said. “The African American guy who helps you get to the dining room and your group sessions?”

“Of course, Brian.” Caroline’s face brightened. “But I think you’re confused, darling. He’s not the nurse. I’m quite sure he’s the attorney.”

“Would you like to go outside now?”

Caroline was quiet for a long moment, her gaze slowly drawing away, pulling back from Dara’s. She shifted to glance out the window that looked onto the acres of lawn and gardens and trees behind the residence, the walkways carefully maintained so the elderly or the less than able could manage them on foot or in a wheelchair.

“I do so wish Barrister wasn’t so busy,” Caroline whispered. “I’m sure he’d come by more often, if he could.”

Dara swallowed hard. Barrister had stopped coming by the moment he’d walked out the door. His checks and the dividends from the family businesses continued to flow into her trust and her mother’s accounts, but his attention—the one commodity of his she’d truly longed for and never been able to capture—had gone elsewhere. A new wife, eventually a new family. Half siblings she never knew.

“I’m sure you’re right,” Dara said around the silent screams choking her.

Her grandmother focused on her again. “I’m so glad you decided to visit. You will come again, when I’m not so busy, won’t you?”

“Of course I will.” Dara kissed her cheek. “I’ll see you again soon.”

Her grandmother smiled, the smile she’d cultivated over years in polite society, the one she aimed at those whose faces and names she would forget as soon as she turned away.

Landfall minus 10 days, 4:30 p.m.

Roc Hotel

Miami Beach, Florida

Sawyer jolted up in bed, the sheets a tangle around her bare feet, the room a dull yellow, the air a heavy coat of grit and sweat on her skin. She’d drawn the beige floor-to-ceiling curtains across the double sliding glass doors to block out the relentless sun, the glimmering white sands, the insistent bludgeoning brightness of the holiday beach.

She couldn’t quite capture the dream flickering at the edges of memory, not that she wanted to. She’d stopped dreaming somewhere in the middle of her last year in Africa. The heat, the blazing sun, the ever-present thump of ordnance in the dark had scorched the possibilities from her unconscious. Dreams were things that existed in the daylight, and only nightmares ruled the dark. Fortunately, she’d driven both away, and if the price was random stretches of near coma masquerading as sleep that didn’t haunt her while awake, she was willing to pay.

She rubbed both hands over her face and through her sweat-damp hair. She needed a haircut—the back was going to hit a good inch below her collar soon. She could probably get by until she headed back to base, though. She had plenty of time—too much time. She looked at the clock. Three hours gone. She’d only intended to stretch out for a few minutes after her shower, but her body had had other ideas. At least her head wasn’t pounding any longer. Still a little fuzzy, but nothing she wasn’t used to. Dehydration was a familiar companion. Absently grabbing the bottled water from the bedside table, she downed half of it and checked her phone with the other hand.

As she expected, all the messages were work related: internal memos from central command, updates on regs, squad movements, activation orders, changes in schedule. Halfway down, she saw a rare personal header.


How is the sun?

Smiling, she swiped to view.

Hey, Bones. How’s the beach? How are the babes??

Getting anything? I mean, relaxation wise :-) :-) :-)


PS 2 is on the way!

Grinning, Sawyer hit Reply and typed:

Water’s great, getting lots of sleep, having a great time. Congrats, what’s your hurry?


She hit Send and leaned back on the pillows. Rambo, aka Ralph Beauregard, was about the best friend she had in the world. They’d gone through Guard ROTC in college together, ended up in the same battalion group, and deployed together. They’d both gone active Guard together too, and now he was her counterpart in supplies and acquisitions. He kept troops fed and clothed—and armed when necessary. He also kept her search and rescue teams outfitted with the latest gear and medevac supplies.

Just seeing his name made her miss the squad. Why’d she ever think a leave with nothing to do except not think about where she’d been or what lay ahead was a good idea?

The twelve days in front of her stretched longer than twelve months in the field ever had.

Landfall minus 9.5 days, 6:15 p.m.

National Hurricane Center Atlantic Ops

Florida International University, Miami, Florida

“Hey,” the tech at the big screen said to the room in general, “something’s cooking out there.”

The evening supervisor walked over and scanned the readouts. “Huh. Wind speed above that wave formation has doubled in the last hour.”

“Yeah, and the water temp’s still high.”

“Could be something forming,” the supervisor said. “Let’s send out a watch notice. I’ll pull up the list of names.”

“Pretty far out there,” the meteorologist said.

The supervisor nodded, still watching the patterns swirl and coalesce. “Yeah, probably nothing to worry about.”

Chapter Four

Landfall minus 8 days, 3:05 a.m.

National Hurricane Center Atlantic Ops

Florida International University, Miami, Florida

NOAA Hurricane Advisory

Tropical Depression Leo

12:00 a.m. AST

Location: 12°N 32°W

Moving: NNW at 20 mph

Min pressure: 980 mb

Max sustained: 35 mph

Stan Oliver cleared his throat as he swiped his phone off the stand beside the bed, his thumb automatically repeating the action to take the call. Next to him, his wife mumbled, “Let the dog out,” and rolled over, sound asleep again before Stan could mutter hoarsely, “Hello?”

“Sorry to wake you, Stan. You said you wanted to be notified—”

“No problem.” Stan was operations chief at the NHC, and the only reason he still took shifts on the floor was because he liked it. He liked seeing his people at work, and he liked watching the patterns of wind and rain and life moving over the vast surface of the Earth, reminding them all—at least all of them who paid any attention—of just how very insignificant they all were, and how much they owed the planet for tolerating their presence.

“Jonas change course, did he?” Stan sat up on the side of the bed and cupped the phone in his palm, although Anna gave no sign of hearing him. They’d been tracking Hurricane Jonas, a Cat 1, who’d been heading into open water in the Gulf as it lost power throughout the evening. He’d checked on him just before he’d gone to bed a little before midnight, and he’d shown no signs of rebuilding, as sometimes happened when the speed dropped over warm waters. Inez had long since been downgraded to storm status and no longer threatened the East Coast. Unusual, to have two so close together. Ten named storms, with six progressing to hurricanes, was about average for the whole season, but it was peak week in peak season, and weather was changeable. That was a fact that never altered.

“Not Jonas—Leo. He’s showing rapid intensification. Speeds have increased twenty knots in the last four hours.” Claire Donahue was a seasoned meteorologist, and the faint rise in her voice hinted at excitement only someone who knew her well would pick up.

Stan heard it. An increase in speed that quickly was the hallmark of a powerful storm forming. “Is he looking like a Cape Verde event?”

Cape Verde storms formed just off the coast of Africa and the Cabo islands, and if they managed to track all the way across the Atlantic, often became the big storms—the monster storms. The hurricanes that literally rained down death and destruction to hundreds.

“He’s already as big as Hugo was, with half the time forming.” Claire paused. “If he keeps moving this way and the currents stay hot, he’s going to be bigger than anything we’ve ever seen.”

“I’m coming in.”

Landfall minus 7 days, 8:45 a.m.

NOAA Hurricane Advisory

Tropical Storm Leo has been upgraded to a Category 3 hurricane. Five-day, tropical-storm-force wind probabilities of 90 mph winds are projected over an area ranging from the Caribbean to the mid-Atlantic United States.

Landfall minus 7 days, 4:45 p.m.

Roc Hotel

Miami Beach, Florida

Sawyer stroked underwater, her lungs just starting to burn when she hit the far end of the fifty-foot pool. A hundred laps, all of it submerged except for a breath at each turn. After the first half mile her mind emptied, even as every other sense heightened. Shadows rippled on the surface—bodies moving across the steaming patio tiles; turbulence to her left—a swimmer making a clumsy dive; a distant hum—music, not incoming. She wasn’t alone anywhere, and she could never let down her guard.

When she surfaced in the deep end of the pool, she let her momentum carry her up and out, slapped both hands flat on the surround, and tucked her legs. She straight-armed into a push-up, knifed her body over the side onto the deck, and vaulted to her feet. Flinging water and tendrils of black hair from her eyes with a quick shake, she quickly focused to check her position. All clear.

She stretched, welcoming the subtle buzz of adrenaline and the undercurrent of restored control. No more alcohol, a reasonable five hours of sleep the night before, and two good meals a day put her back on an even keel. Two miles in the pool had even started to work off a lot of the nervous energy she couldn’t seem to burn off anywhere else. Weren’t vacations supposed to be relaxing?

Maybe they were, for most people, but not for someone who’d been in near-constant physical motion all her adult life, and the bulk of that time in mortal danger. Sitting still, even to read a book, which she’d done plenty of while deployed, was a trial.

“Very, very nice,” a deep sultry voice said from behind and to her right, accompanied by soft clapping.

Sawyer pulled up a mental snapshot of the terrain even as she turned. A lone sunbather, midforties, blond, bronzed, and toned, in a white two-piece that revealed a whole lot more than it covered up.

The woman smiled slowly, removing designer shades to reveal sharp green eyes. A shapely arm encircled with a pricey-looking gold link bracelet held out a snowy white towel in Sawyer’s direction. “I almost hate to cover up the scenery.”

Sawyer took the towel and riffled it over her hair, letting it dangle in her right hand when she was done. The blonde surveyed her with frank interest. Sawyer hadn’t worn a conventional bathing suit, just a sports top and tight black jogging shorts, which covered about as much as the cutoff T-shirts and shorts she was used to wearing in the desert for the endless days they waited for orders to move out. She’d gotten used to not being looked at. The brutal heat, constant stress, and insidious boredom went a long way toward dispelling physical interest. Her stomach tightened in a wholly unexpected way as the woman’s gaze moved over her bare shoulders, down her nearly bare torso, lingering for a few seconds on her midsection, before slipping farther down.

“What is it exactly that you do to get a body like that?” the woman asked.

“Not a thing,” Sawyer said. “Good genes.”

The woman laughed and lifted a martini glass with two olives rolling in the bottom. She gestured to a lounge chair beside her. “Join me?”

“Thanks, but I gave it up.”

“Drinking, or fucking?”

Sawyer glanced around, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to them. She grinned. “The first, although it’s a little early in the day for the second too.”

The woman tipped back her head and laughed. “Now I know you’re lying.” Her lips lifted in slow invitation. “I’m Catherine Winchell. I’m sure you’ve never heard of me, which is just as well, considering the circumstances. And who might you be?”

Sawyer strode closer, folded the towel, and set it on the chair next to Catherine. “Sawyer Kincaid.”

“And what are you doing here? You don’t have the look of a beach bum, and I don’t see the wife and kids anywhere.”

“None of the above. Just a somewhat reluctant vacationer.”

“I can see that. Maybe you should learn to relax a little more. Sawyer.”

Sawyer nodded. “You’re right, and I appreciate the advice.”

Catherine sipped her drink. “If you don’t want to be propositioned, you probably should cover up those abs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a body like yours before.”


Catherine laughed again. “If you change your mind, I’m in 742.”

Sawyer gave a slight nod. “I’m a whole lot more than flattered—”

“You don’t need to be flattered, you just need to be good.”

Sawyer was searching for an answer to that one when one of the pool waitstaff came toward her holding out a portable phone. “Colonel Kincaid?”

Sawyer unintentionally straightened. “Yes?”

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Catherine sit up a little, her expression turning hawk-like, avid, as if she suddenly sensed prey.

“Emergency call for you…uh…Colonel…sir?”

“Thanks.” Sawyer held out her hand for the phone. “This is Colonel Kincaid.”

“Sawyer, sorry to interrupt your leave,” General Jim Baker said.

“No problem, General,” Sawyer said, turning her back and walking to the far side of the pool, out of hearing range of the few remaining people who hadn’t gone inside to start preparing for the dinner hour. “How can I help you, sir?”

“NOAA just sent out another updated hurricane advisory. Big storm coming, and the governor has ordered us to mobilize. I want you to take ground command.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll be there in four hours.”


“Yes, sir. From Miami Beach.”

“Why don’t you head on out to MIA. We’ll send a bird for you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“See you at the briefing.”

“Yes, sir.” Sawyer blew out a breath and glanced out toward the ocean. The sky was a gorgeous aquamarine over water almost the same color blue, with playful gulls circling above lacy froth-tipped waves, and dozens of oblivious vacationers scattered along the immaculate beach in colorful cabanas. Unsuspecting, unwary, and possibly in mortal danger. In the Keys, on islands, in cities along the coast, the same picture unfolded. Battles came in many guises.

The boredom, the aimlessness, the uncertainty of purpose fell away and Sawyer knew exactly who she was and what she was about. She strode back around the pool, and as she passed Catherine Winchell’s chair, the woman called out.

“Colonel Kincaid, is it?”

Sawyer looked back. “Just Sawyer at the moment.”

“Anything you care to share?”

“I’m afraid not.”

Catherine rose and walked beside her as Sawyer continued toward her room. “You don’t watch much television, do you?”

“Not really.” Sawyer paused on her patio by the sliding glass doors. “I’m sorry, I’m a little short on time.”

“I can see that. That’s why I’m curious.” Catherine dug in the colorful straw satchel she’d slung over her shoulder and held out a card. “Channel 10 News, Miami bureau.”

Sawyer did not take the card. “Now I’m really short on time.”

Catherine laughed and tucked the card delicately under the waistband of Sawyer’s shorts. “I can be a good person to know.”

“I don’t doubt it. But I’m not the person you want to talk to you. We have a media representative, if and when there’s anything to talk about. I’m sure your station will have the number.”

“I’m sure one of these days we’ll see each other again.”

“It was nice talking to you, Ms. Winchell.” Sawyer nodded and slid open the door.

“You never mentioned what branch of the military,” Catherine called after her.

Sawyer smiled and shut the door, letting the heavy drapes fall closed behind her. Catherine Winchell was as persistent as she was beautiful and, if Sawyer wasn’t mistaken, used to getting what she wanted. The only safe play with a woman like that was no play at all. As she pulled her duffel from the closet, her stomach tightened with an undeniable twinge of regret.

Landfall minus 6.5 days, 7:45 p.m.

Ocean Drive, South Beach

Miami Beach, Florida

Dara’s cell rang as she let herself into her condo. From the door she could see across the open-floor living space to the balcony and the ocean beyond. She still had enough daylight left for a run if she hurried. She could be on the beach in two minutes once she hit Ocean Drive. Hurriedly she dug out her phone from her backpack and checked the readout. Private number. Her pent-up breath escaped. Not the hospital. “Hello?”

“Dr. Sims?”

Dara winced. Celebrated too soon. She vaguely recognized the voice but couldn’t quite place it. “Yes?”

“Sorry to bother you at home. This is Victor Sanchez.”

“Of course, how can I help you, Mr. Sanchez.” She’d heard the hospital CEO speak enough times at staff meetings, but she didn’t really spend a lot of time with the administrators. They were budget and protocol people, and she mostly wasn’t. Sure, she had to deal with the financial end of things to keep the ER running, but fortunately, the medical chief of staff bore the brunt of that. As to procedure and protocol, if it didn’t affect patient care, she left that to management to manage.

“You couldn’t be reached, so the call got handed up to me.” He chuckled. “And I am sending it back to you.”

Dara glanced at her phone and saw there was a missed call. “Sorry, I was driving. I put my phone on Do Not Disturb when I’m in the car.”

“Very wise of you. We’ve been alerted there is a statewide hurricane alert. Nothing critical at the moment, but since you’re the head of the hospital’s emergency response team, I thought you’d want to know sooner rather than later.”

“Of course. I’ll check my mail—I should automatically get an update from the state.”

“Well, it is the season for these things, and I’m sure it will turn out to be nothing much.”

Dara rolled her eyes. In her line of work, nothing was nothing to worry about until she was absolutely certain every possibility had been considered.

“Just be sure to keep me apprised,” he said, already sounding as if he’d dispensed with thinking about the potential problem.

“I certainly will,” Dara said. “Thanks. I’m sorry you were bothered.”

“No trouble at all, Doctor. You have a nice night.”

Dara switched to her mail program. The last message had come in just after she’d left work. An advisory from the state emergency response division alerting all level one trauma centers of an impending weather event. She scanned the details. A hurricane warning, apparently a big enough storm to warrant enhanced readiness, but still a good week away. She quickly typed a memo to the other members of the hospital emergency management team for a morning meeting and sent it out. She could already hear the complaints about a seven a.m. meeting, but that was the only way to get everyone together at such short notice. Maybe by morning, the threat level would’ve been downgraded, and she could cancel the meeting. These kinds of alerts were common this time of year.

Shedding her clothes as she hurried to the bedroom, she put thoughts of hurricanes aside. If she was lucky, she could still get in a decent run.

Chapter Five

Landfall minus 6 days, 5:55 a.m.

Florida National Guard, Joint Training Center

Camp Blanding, Florida

Sawyer rounded the corner to the briefing room just as Rambo approached from the opposite direction.

“Sorry about the vacation, Bones.” Rambo’s mildly sarcastic tone told her he knew damn well she was happy to be back. Maybe he was being just a little bit critical too. He mostly gave her the space she demanded, even from a friend, but every now and then he slipped in a gibe that maybe she could do with a little more fun and less work.

She let his needling pass, because when it counted, he’d always been there for her. When her mom died, when her family scattered at last, as if the glue holding them all together had finally hardened to dust along with her, he’d been the one to stand with her at the graveside and watch her sisters and brothers begin to drift away on the wind. He’d been the one to invite her home for a meal, and to his wedding, and to the baptism of his first child. He never pushed, but he was always there.

“How’s Miko?” Sawyer asked, knowing exactly how to divert the conversation from herself.

His smile broadened, joy tingeing his creamy tan skin an unexpected and oddly beautiful rose. “Gorgeous as ever. She seems to get prettier every time she’s pregnant.”

“I don’t think you should mention that around her. It sounds a little—” She waggled her hand.


“That might be one word for it.” She pushed the door to the briefing room open and let him pass by. “Tell her hello from me.”

“You’re overdue for barbecue.”


He didn’t have a chance to bug her further. The rows of chairs facing the big screen at the far end of the long, narrow room were half full, and a dozen troops followed them in and shuffled to seats. She and Rambo settled in the first row, as was customary for the ranking officers.

She nodded to the wing commanders, who flew aerial surveillance, and her squad, the Pave Hawk helo pilots who flew combat search and rescue when deployed, and when at home, civil SAR, EVAC, and disaster relief.

“Attention!” a deep male voice commanded from the back of the room and everyone shot to their feet.

Brigadier General Jim Baker, commander of the Florida National Guard, strode to the front of the room at precisely 0600 accompanied by another officer. Sawyer had served under him for most of her ten years in the active Guard, at home and abroad. In his midfifties, he was still sandy haired and in fighting trim. He had the well-earned rep of being a boots on the ground leader. She respected and trusted him, and when he’d pushed her to go full-time active Guard, she’d found a home she could count on.

“As you were,” Baker said, and everyone sat.

The screen behind him lit up with a map of the eastern United States, the Caribbean, and a portion of the Atlantic Ocean. Red circles, stacked like poker chips spread across blue-green felt, trailed across the ocean toward the islands south of the continental US. As the circles closed in on land, streamers spread out like tails on a whip, fanning out into dozens of lines headed toward the islands scattered in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. Some drifted off into the Gulf of Mexico and others turned northeast away from the coast. The majority, however, ended up over land, stretching on a path from New Orleans to North Carolina. Baker fixed a laser pointer on one of the circles in the middle of the ocean marked with a time stamp. “This the last location of Hurricane Leo’s eyewall. It’s too early to tell for sure where he’s headed from here.” The red light danced over the many paths headed for inhabited areas. “Right now, the computer models show these as the likely paths.”

“That’s helpful,” Rambo muttered.

“What we can be sure of,” Baker continued, ignoring similar comments from around the room as he focused the pointer on Florida, “is he’s going to hit land with a seriously big punch.”

Baker handed the pointer to the officer by his side. “Major Kim is with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squad and has just come back from a data-gathering mission. I’ll let her fill you in on the details.”

“Thank you, sir.” Kim stepped forward. “The storm front is massive just in terms of sheer size. The biggest formation we’ve ever tracked. Added to that, the water and wind conditions are optimal for an acceleration of wind speed, which we’ve been seeing in the last twelve hours.” She circled the Florida Keys and moved north to the tip of the mainland. “No matter how Leo tracks in the next five to six days, the Keys are likely to get a shellacking. We can expect twelve- to fifteen-foot storm surge in addition to high winds there and, if Leo makes landfall over the state, along the coasts. Because of his size, both coasts will likely be affected.”

“Thank you, Major,” the general said. “This could be the most devastating storm to hit this region since Andrew.”

Sawyer’s chest tightened and icy cold slithered through her gut. Anyone who lived in a hurricane region had weathered more than one episode of nature’s fury, but there hadn’t been anything as lethal as Andrew in twenty-five years. Images of torn sheet metal flying through the air like deadly scimitars, trailer homes crushed like soda cans and impaled by uprooted trees honed to lethal spear points, raging rivers of muddy water carrying everything—everyone—in their paths away. Sweat soaked the back of her shirt, and she shivered.

Baker focused on Sawyer, and the effect was like a jolt of electricity, burning the haze from her brain. She shuddered, shaking off the memories. She’d lived through it, lived through some things just as bad. She’d been a kid then, and she hadn’t been in charge. She would be now.

If the general noticed her reaction, he didn’t show it. “The governor’s Emergency Management Division has designated Miami Memorial the medical op center. Colonel Kincaid will have overall operational command of SAR and relief preparedness, including coordinating the local emergency medical response and liaising with naval Fleet Command, which is moving a carrier into range.” He looked to Rambo. “Colonel Beauregard will command supply disbursement. Questions?”

“What’s the chance of a mass civilian evac?” Sawyer asked.

“The governor is waiting for a clearer indication of the storm’s direction.”

“Thank you, sir.” After dozens of briefings like this one, Sawyer was adept at reading the unspoken messages from her superiors. Baker was a master at hiding his opinion of civilian authority, but his tone suggested he would have made a decision by now.

With the Guard fully mobilized, Sawyer could disperse troops into high-risk areas quickly, but she’d seen firsthand how difficult moving civilians en masse could be. Delay could be deadly. She also knew the Guard served at the pleasure of the civilian authorities, and all she could do was her job. Part of that was anticipating the next crisis and averting casualties, and she intended to do that even if she had to side-step a little red tape or bruise a few civilian egos.

Baker’s adjutant dismissed the room and Sawyer rose with the others. Her second priority after evacuating threatened communities was ensuring medical response was at full capacity. Six days might be plenty of time to gear up emergency relief centers under Guard supervision, but the readiness of the civilian medical center was an open question. A question she’d need answered as quickly as possible.

Sawyer said to Rambo as they walked out, “Let me know where you’ll be setting up your main supply center.”

“I’m thinking Orlando,” Rambo said. “You heading south?”

“Yeah,” Sawyer said. “Miami seems the most reasonable central staging point until we know where we can safely set up relief centers.”

“I’ll copy you in on supply assessments by end of day.” He hesitated. “You okay?”

Sawyer frowned. “What? Why?”

“I don’t know—I thought for a second there you looked spooked.”

“I’m fine.” Her tone shut him down, and he nodded silently.

“You planning to run the medical response from Miami Memorial?”

Sawyer laughed. “I wish I could. I’ll have to let them think they’re in charge.”

Rambo grinned. “They’ll probably be happy to hand you the ball. And the paperwork.”

Sawyer only wished it was going to be that simple.

Landfall minus 6 days, 7:00 a.m.

Miami Memorial Hospital

“I think everyone’s here,” Dara said, sitting down at the head of the table with the takeout cup of coffee she’d grabbed from the kiosk down the block from the front entrance on her way in. She needed the extra caffeine this morning. The Cuban espresso she’d picked up in the drive-through coffee place on her way to work hadn’t quite gotten her up to speed. The run she’d managed to squeeze in the night before hadn’t helped de-stress her the way it usually did after a long day, and she’d awakened in the middle of the night thinking about all the things she needed to do thanks to Victor’s call. Waiting until morning to get started had seemed like a good idea the night before, but if she was going to lie awake all night planning, she probably should have contacted some of the key people personally. Fortunately, the NHC weather update hadn’t changed much from what she’d gotten last night. The predictions were still grave, but the situation was still developing and changing hour to hour.

She double-checked the roster—pharmacy, OR, trauma, ICU, and of course, the other side of the coin, legal and finance. All accounted for. “This shouldn’t take too long. Thank you all for getting here on such short notice and at such an early hour.”

The trauma chief, Wen Haruke, shrugged. “It’s late for me.”

Dara was used to Wen’s cavalier attitude, and compared to some of the trauma jocks she worked with, he was on the mild-mannered side and more affable than most. “Not to worry, Wen. We’ll get you upstairs in plenty of time for your eight a.m. start.”

“Where do things stand with the governor?” asked Gretchen Baylor, the hospital’s lead attorney, before Dara could provide any background. “Are we officially instituting emergency protocols now, or is this just a heads-up?”

“Yes,” Anthony Elliott from finance, put in. “Let’s not spend money we don’t need to if this is all going to blow over in another day or two.” A few people groaned and Anthony grinned. “No pun intended, of course.”

“As you’re all aware from the email I sent last night, the latest weather advisory from NHC has upgraded Leo to a Cat 3,” Dara said. “The predictive models put the Keys and possibly parts of southern Florida in the red zone. I think we have to assume we’ll see transfers from hospitals in the storm track as well as acute storm-associated injuries.”

Anthony winced. “It costs money to bring in extra staff, pay overtime, and hold beds open for emergencies that might never arise.”

“Not to mention stocking extra blood, drugs, and supplies,” the pharmacy chief added.

“We’ll have to scale back on our elective surgery schedule too,” Angela Murdoch, the OR supervisor, commented. “That’s going to pi—uh, tick off the surgeons and the patients.”

Dara stifled a sigh. She understood that no one wanted to disrupt their routine, least of all her. She’d have to schedule extra physicians, make everyone work twelve-hour shifts, and reduce the work rotations from four days on and three days off to no days off until the situation clarified itself. No one was going to be happy. And no one could do anything about it.

“The governor made the call,” Dara said, “and the ball is rolling.”

“Let me talk to the adjutant general,” Gretchen said. “I should be able to get the inside track on this. We”—she glanced at Dara—“might be overreacting.”

“I’m not sure what good that will do,” Dara said as diplomatically as she could. Gretchen prided herself on her contacts in high places and made no secret of her political aspirations. Some rumors suggested she was going to make a run for the state senate. Good for her, and irrelevant at the moment.

Gretchen gave her a smile Dara recognized well. She hadn’t gone to the same private girls’ school as Gretchen, but she might as well have. She’d grown up with girls—women now—who had never doubted their ability to manipulate the system and the people in it by virtue of their name, their money, or their family influence.

“The governor is the one who made the call, Gretch,” Dara repeated.

“The governor has done the proper thing, erring on the side of caution. We’ve got time to safeguard our own interests.” Gretchen shrugged. “There are many ways to interpret the word prepared.”

Dara took a slow breath. She wasn’t in the mood for sparring. “Then I think we should clarify the definition. In this situation, prepared means full readiness. We are not waiting until it starts raining to institute the emergency protocols we already have in place. Everyone knows what they are. I’ll be checking in later today with everyone to make sure there are no problems. Or delays.”

Gretchen’s eyes glittered with irritation, but she was wise enough not to argue in a public forum. She could make all the phone calls she wanted. If Dara received word from the governor through proper channels that the situation had changed, then she would alter her directives.

“Until we hear otherwise, we’re going to emergency operations as of now.” Dara downed the last of her coffee. “Thanks, everyone. You know how to reach me.”

She dropped the takeout container in the wastebasket next to the stairwell and took the stairs down to the ground floor where the ER and trauma bay occupied one full wing. She went straight to her office to clear her emails and start wrestling with the call schedule. A lot of people were going to lose their days off. Once done, she pulled up the latest purchase orders and reviewed the stock on hand. Sighing, she emailed the ER manager and asked him to prepare an urgent order to restock half their inventory. That was going to shoot her budget all to hell. By the time she looked up, it was nearly noon, and she was famished. Miraculously, no one had interrupted her. Penny must have had everything out on the floor under control. For the thousandth time, she gave thanks for her friend.

Her cell rang, and Penny’s name popped up on the screen.

Smiling, Dara answered. “Hey, I was just thinking about you. Lunch?”

“I think you’re going to have to postpone that for a while.”

Something about Penny’s tone had Dara’s skin prickling. “What’s wrong? I didn’t hear a trauma alert. Do we have a level one on the way?”

“Not the kind you’re thinking of.” Oddly, Penny had lowered her voice. “I just escorted a soldier to the break room. I think you better get out here.”

“A soldier? What do they want?”

“She said she was here to organize the emergency response operation.”

“Did she now.” A muscle in Dara’s jaw started twitching.

It looked like the storm had just arrived.

Chapter Six

Landfall minus 6 days, 11:55 a.m.

National Hurricane Center Atlantic Ops

University of Florida Institute

“Are you seeing this?” Bette said with a tinge of awe in her voice.

Four multicolored screens, each ten feet wide, took up one wall of the control room, and each was filled with images of Leo. Where he’d moved, how fast he’d moved, and where—maybe—he was going later today, and the next day, and the next.

Stan grinned wryly at the rhetorical question.

He hadn’t been doing anything else for the last twelve hours, and wouldn’t be doing anything else for the next week or two. Until Leo made landfall—somewhere—and ran out of steam, he’d be in the weather room along with most of the other members of the watch team for the duration. Some people would take breaks—he’d make them, and the aerial reconnaissance squads were required to take downtime. But he’d be right here, catnapping at his desk, drinking bitter coffee, living on doughnuts and pizza. Watching his opponent’s every move. Because make no mistake—this was war, and despite all their sophisticated advances in predictions and forecasting, he and the other weather watch groups around the world were still running to catch up.

For a weatherman, this was the storm of a lifetime. Every eye in the control room was fixed on those images. Data scrolled across the bottom of the screen—storm center size and location, maximum sustained wind speed, directional movement, track, and time. Data they all absorbed by second nature. What none of them could absorb yet, or even totally comprehend, was Leo’s enormous size.

“We need a better yardstick,” Stan muttered. A contradictory mix of dread and excitement curled through his chest as he tracked the massive tropical cyclone moving inexorably closer to the vulnerable populations in its path.

“What do you mean?” Bette asked.

“Wind speed doesn’t begin to describe the power of this thing,” Stan said. “Just look at the diameter—hell, it’s as big as the state of Massachusetts. Even if the eye skirts land, the rainfall and storm surge will flood areas hundreds of miles away.”

“Uh, boss,” Anjou said in a half-apologetic, half-enthusiastic voice, “we just got the latest numbers from aerial recon.”

“Give ’em to us.”

“They’re recording speeds upward of 140 in the eyewall,” Anjou said, his wiry frame coiled as if he were about to spring from his chair. He swiveled and stared at Stan. “Do you think he can hold those speeds?”

“We’re going to have to prepare as if he could and hope that he can’t. Update the advisory to Cat 4.” He strode to his desk to run new simulations of potential storm tracks, pulling data from their logs and feeds from the European and World Weather Watch systems. He sat back after mapping, adjusting, and adding a little bit of intuition, and studied the most likely storm path over the next five days. The surrounding cone of uncertainty covered damn near the whole southern US. Then he picked up the phone to call the governor’s office.

Landfall minus 6 days, 12:04 p.m.

Miami Memorial Hospital

Dara stopped in the entrance to the break room to assess what she was walking into. For some reason, she’d expected more than one soldier, a show of force, but only one person waited. Maybe she’d been hasty in suspecting a hostile takeover, and she cautiously relaxed. The rangy soldier leaning against the counter contemplating a Styrofoam cup glanced up, her swift, intense return appraisal belying her relaxed pose.

“Unless you’re desperate, I wouldn’t recommend it,” Dara said.

“Six hours old?” the soldier asked in a husky alto.

“Try ten.”

A quick grimace, a flick of the wrist, and the sludge masquerading as coffee hit the sink.

Dark eyes, more black than brown from this distance, settled on Dara’s. “Thanks for the warning.”

At first glance, the woman was pretty much what Dara expected—soldier always conjured up the impression of short-haired, suntanned, stone-faced men and fit, capable women who’d obviously worked hard to carve out a space in the very system that often rejected them—she’d experienced similar skepticism and casual dismissal of her career by friends and family as well as thinly veiled suspicion and barely concealed ostracism from colleagues. Her mother’s voice echoed unbidden. Really, darling, why do you need to work at all? I’m sure your father would be happy to have you in the business, in some suitable area. And if you must have a job, why on earth choose something so plebian? Medicine, after all, is not exactly a prestigious profession these days. And then there were the so-called colleagues, who still congregated in the men’s locker rooms and country clubs and gentlemen’s bars to make referrals and deals and alliances. The military had to be several magnitudes worse—after all, the very fabric of the organizations was built on power and prowess.

Dara had learned very quickly, personally and professionally, not to rely on first glances. She’d been wrong enough times to learn. Friends turned out to be opportunists, lovers had agendas, and parents abandoned their offspring without a backward glance.

Though she didn’t even need a second look to know this woman had nothing to prove. The soldier looked completely comfortable in her tan camo BDUs and sand-colored leather boots laced above the ankle. Dara couldn’t decipher the significance of the patches sewn on both sleeves, but the name and rank stenciled in block letters above her left breast were clear enough. Her jet-black hair was longer than Dara expected, curling ever so little on her collar. Her face bore the requisite tan, with fine squint lines around her inquisitive eyes and faint creases resembling parentheses bracketing her full mouth. This was no desk jockey. She spent a lot of time in the sun. Her skin, though, was unblemished and smooth. Probably good genes. The rest of her body certainly suggested that. Muscled broad shoulders, trim waist, long legs.

The soldier tossed the cup in the trash. “What do you recommend for a refill?”

“There’s a good kiosk half a block down from the ER entrance.” Dara held out her hand. “I’m Dara Sims, the ER chief.”

“Colonel Sawyer Kincaid.”

Firm, warm grip to go along with the confident demeanor, just as Dara expected. Dara had had her measure taken enough times to recognize Colonel Kincaid was assessing her in the same way she’d just done. Her gaze was unapologetically appraising, direct and intense enough to be palpable. Neither confrontational or congenial. Under other circumstances she might be intrigued or interested by the attention. Kincaid was good-looking, actually very good-looking, and her confident easy charm was just as attractive. But this wasn’t a casual encounter, more like two competitors each sizing up the other before the big game. Dara held Kincaid’s gaze and let her look. She knew what she’d see. A woman in navy-blue scrubs and a white lab coat, average height, average build, shoulder-length wavy blond hair, blue eyes, a body that said she worked at staying fit, and an attitude that announced she was in charge because she’d earned it.

Once Dara had decided Colonel Kincaid had discovered all she was likely to discover from her scrutiny, she said, “What can I do for you, Colonel?”

“You’re aware of the situation with Leo?”

“I am. We were alerted last night. I wasn’t told to expect the Army.”

“National Guard.” Sawyer heard the annoyance in the ER chief’s voice and registered the undercurrent of irritation that went along with the wary posture. This woman did not like being taken off guard and was used to being in charge. Not that much of a surprise, considering her position. Might be a problem if—more likely when—the situation went critical, but as long as Dr. Sims’s resistance was matched by her competence, Sawyer could handle it.

Dara shrugged. “My apologies. Military, I should say.”

“I’m probably ahead of the memo,” Sawyer said, “but we’re going to need to get coordinated ASAP, which is why I decided to come down personally.”

“Memos aside,” Dara said dryly, “I think you’d better fill me in on where you fit in all of this and what I can help you with.”

“I’m in charge of the Guard’s disaster preparedness planning. I don’t know how much you know about how these things work—”

“It’s not my first hurricane,” Dara said evenly, while reminding herself Kincaid’s authoritative—actually, commanding—tone was just habitual. Probably everyone in the military talked that way, as if they alone understood the intricacies of the situation, especially to those they outranked. Well, she wasn’t one of the soldiers in Kincaid’s command, and she sure as hell wasn’t outranked. “I grew up down here. I know what we’re facing.”

“I’m not sure you do—not from a relief and recovery standpoint.” Something hot and wild flickered through Kincaid’s eyes for an instant and then disappeared. “How many times have you run search and rescue and emergency medical evac for a major disaster with mass casualties?”

Her voice was just as cool and even as it had been before, that brief spark of fire extinguished as if it had never existed. But Dara had seen the flame, and the rage that fueled it. Interesting. The colonel wasn’t granite after all, more like molten lava simmering beneath the surface. “I’ve got close to ten years’ emergency medicine experience, Colonel. There isn’t much I haven’t seen.”

“I don’t doubt your medical ability, Dr. Sims, but we’re talking mass casualties—the possibility of dozens, even hundreds of displaced people, many of them injured, ending up right here or in whatever aid facilities we can establish before things go south.”

“Colonel,” Dara said, gathering all the restraint she could muster on a bad day rapidly getting worse, “I suggest you—”

Dara’s cell phone emitted a long, loud, harsh sound that echoed instantly from somewhere on Kincaid’s person. She pulled her phone from her lab coat pocket. “Sorry.”

Sawyer yanked her phone out of her uniform pocket. “Excuse me.”

NOAA Alert

Hurricane Leo has been upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane. Predictions indicate a northwesterly track toward Barbuda, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and south Florida. Florida Governor Phillip Valez has mobilized 6000 National Guard troops and issued a state of emergency, including mandatory evacuation of the Florida Keys.

Dara looked up. “You’re reading what I’m reading?”

“Yes.” Sawyer’s jaw set. “There are three hospitals in the Keys. If they evacuate, can you handle their patients here?”

“They’re all smaller regional places. It depends on the numbers and how many will need ICU beds,” Dara said. “We’ll need to coordinate with them if they decide to evacuate. We also need to reserve beds for later emergency admissions here as well.”

“Let’s get whoever’s in charge down there.”

“I’ll call them.” Dara pictured the chain of islands with the string of bridges and causeways connecting them. “How will you transport? There’s only one highway in and out of the Keys.”

“C-130 transport planes can handle the critical patients. Ground vehicles for the others.”

“We could be talking about dozens of patients.”

“And we’re going to have to gear up the op now.” Sawyer hadn’t expected the first test of the situation to escalate so quickly, but that was the way of war. Endless waiting exploding into the chaos of flame and fire in an instant, demanding every sense, every instinct, every skill be at peak efficiency before the mind even registered the assault. React or die. But she was a soldier, and Dara and most of the others dealing with the crisis were civilians. For now, at least, she could wait and watch and hope they were prepared. “I can make the calls to those hospitals if you need to organize your people here.”

“No. I’ll do it.” Dara let out a breath. The evacuation changed everything in the blink of an eye, but that was no different than a dozen situations she faced every day in the ER. She was conditioned to go from readiness into action in a heartbeat. She’d just have to see that everyone else at the hospital was too. “I’ll be better able to judge how many will need in-hospital transfers.”

* * *


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