â€œHowâ€™s the world looking this morning,â€ 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. Heâ€™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. â€œGod damn it.â€
â€œWhen are you going to stop contributing to the extinction of whatâ€™s left of the planetâ€™s forest cover and get a tablet like the rest of the world,â€ 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. â€œIâ€™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.â€
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.
â€œDoodle,â€ Stan repeated, â€œas in free-form design, coloring outside the lines, unleashing the power of the unconscious mindâ€¦â€
â€œDoing science here,â€ Bette said in her soft South Carolina drawl. â€œFacts, figuresâ€”â€
â€œUh-huh. Forecasting, computer modeling.â€ Stan took a bite of doughnut and brushed crumbs from his red polo shirt with the NHC logo on the chest. â€œItâ€™s not all science. Thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re called predictions.â€
Anjou sat up straight, his thin shoulders rigid in his plain white T-shirt, indignation coloring his pale Scandinavian cheeks a jaunty rose. â€œWeâ€™re not witches, you know. Those forecasts are all based on billions of bytes of data and constantly refined, dynamic analyses.â€
â€œNo argument.â€ Stan propped a foot on the corner of the desk and sipped his coffee. The kid was a genius but could use a few yearsâ€™ seasoning to develop his instincts. Hurricane forecasting was more than just numbers and charts. â€œBut never discount that squirmy feeling in your gut when you see something that just doesnâ€™t look right.â€
Bette laughed. â€œThe udgies, you mean.â€
â€œExactly. Soâ€¦any squirmy udgies this a.m., you two?â€
Anjou shook his head with a mumbled, â€œI donâ€™t believe you guys.â€
â€œInez headed away from the coast an hour ago and wind speeds are dropping, just like we figured,â€ Bette said. â€œNew York will get some rain but not enough disturbance to cause any noticeable coastal surges.â€
â€œGood news for the UN meeting this week,â€ Stan muttered around the last of his doughnut. He knew Inez had stormed herself out already, having logged in remotely to the research centerâ€™s main tracking program at four a.m. as had been his habit for the last fifteen years, but his team didnâ€™t need to know that. He wasnâ€™t checking up on them, he was just starting his day with a clear picture of the winds and waters of the North Atlantic basinâ€”his territory. Officially for the next eight hours or so, and twenty-four seven as far as he was concerned. Weather didnâ€™t follow a clock, and neither did he. His job was to be here, tracking the storms when they traveled. â€œWater temps, Atom Boy?â€
â€œStill warm.â€ 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. â€œToo warm.â€
Stan grimaced. Hurricanes fed off the heat radiating from the oceanâ€™s surface. â€œHot spots?â€
â€œNothing showing,â€ Anjou replied.
Bette said, â€œWatch the coast of Africa today.â€
â€œWhy?â€ Anjou switched screens rapidly, scanning air temp, wind speeds, ocean current graphs. â€œCanâ€™t see anything unusual.â€
â€œGot a feeling, Bette?â€ Stan asked softly.
â€œMmm,â€ she murmured. â€œMight talk to the hunters in a bit.â€
â€œGood idea.â€ 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.
Landfall minus 10 days, 7:00 a.m.
Miami Memorial Hospital
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. â€œQuestions?â€
â€œI still donâ€™t see why we have to be able to identify poisonous snakes,â€ 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. â€œIâ€™m not going to be practicing in the Everglades.â€
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, hadnâ€™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.
â€œAll right, let me show you why.â€ Dara opened PowerPoint again, scrolled down to her ancillary slides, and selected one.
Kirk, the other male in the groupâ€”when had the gender ratio flipped and women begun to predominate in med schools across the country? Probably when men decided that medicine wasnâ€™t the prestigious career it used to be and definitely wasnâ€™t the most lucrativeâ€”grunted and said, â€œNasty.â€
â€œIndeed,â€ 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 whoâ€™d been half asleep during the lecture. â€œSuki, whatâ€™s the pathology here?â€
â€œUm.â€ Suki cast wide eyes at her colleagues, barely hiding her desperation as she grasped for an answer. â€œSnakebite?â€
â€œGood deduction, considering the topic for this morningâ€™s lecture was venomous bites. But thatâ€™s the etiology, not the pathology.â€
Suki frowned, and Dara sighed inwardly.
â€œAnybody? The difference?â€
â€œCause and effect,â€ Naomi, whoâ€™d graduated top of her class at Howard, answered quickly.
â€œCorrect. The clinical signs resulted from the snakebite. So, Suki, want to try again?â€
â€œCellulitis?â€ she said with a hopeful lift in her voice.
â€œCorrect. What else?â€ After a long silence, Suki had clearly exhausted her diagnostic acumen for the morning, and Dara shifted her focus to Consuela. â€œThoughts?â€
â€œThe discoloration of herâ€”or hisâ€”toes looks like ischemia. Early onset gangrene?â€
â€œGood. Anyone want to venture what the cause of that might be?â€
Six bodies shuffled in their seats.
â€œAll right. Letâ€™s go around the table and list the causes of reduced blood flow to the lower extremity.â€ Dara nodded to the resident on her left. â€œYouâ€™re up first.â€
When sheâ€™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.
â€œGood. Now, what antivenom should you use? Marco?â€
â€œThereâ€™s no way to know,â€ Kirk, who for some reason hid his intelligence behind a perpetually bored facade, replied as if the effort was an annoyance.
â€œAnd why would that be?â€
He met her gaze. â€œBecause you donâ€™t know what the snake is.â€
Dara smiled. Sheâ€™d been watching him since heâ€™d first sauntered into the ER eight weeks earlier and hadnâ€™t needed long to decide he had the potential to be one of the best residents sheâ€™d trained in a long time. He underplayed his book smarts but couldnâ€™t conceal his innate clinical sensibility, something that couldnâ€™t be taught. If he wanted to cover up his native intelligence, sheâ€™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.
â€œWhat if the patient told you it was red, black, and yellow striped.â€
Suki shot up in her seat. â€œThatâ€™s a coral snake!â€ She blushed and looked around. â€œI grew up down here.â€
Dara pointed a finger at her. â€œExactly. And thatâ€™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.â€
â€œCanâ€™t you just get somebody from infectious disease to do that?â€ Marco said.
Dara narrowed her eyes. â€œAs long as youâ€™re in this residency program, you take care of the emergencies. If you need a consultant, it better be after youâ€™ve made the appropriate diagnosis to begin with. All clear on that?â€
Six heads nodded, even Kirkâ€™s.
Dara closed up her computer. â€œOkay, weâ€™re done, then. If you worked last night, get out of here. The rest of you, go grab charts.â€
As the residents filed out, the head ER nurse, and Daraâ€™s best friend, Penny slipped into the room.
â€œHow are they doing?â€ Penny asked.
Dara sighed. â€œThey seem to get younger and less prepared every year, but maybe thatâ€™s just because Iâ€™m older and getting more tired every year.â€
â€œYeah, like thirty-two is ancient.â€ Penny scoffed. â€œHavenâ€™t you set the record for being the youngest section head ever or something like that?â€
â€œAge is a state of mind,â€ Dara muttered.
â€œWell, Iâ€™m about to make your morning even better. Thereâ€™s a Gold Coaster in room seven who insists on seeing an attending, and youâ€™re the only one free.â€
Dara gritted her teeth. Gold Coaster. Back in her residency days, sheâ€™d heard the term applied to herself when people thought she wasnâ€™t listening, as if her familyâ€™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 fatherâ€™s alma mater, although sheâ€™d put her grades up against anyoneâ€™s. Being a bona fide heiressâ€”God, she hated that termâ€”sure hadnâ€™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 didnâ€™t surface was impossible. Good thing she was too damn busy most of the time to care.
â€œCan you see her?â€ Penny prompted.
As much as she worked to distance herself from her familyâ€™s reputation and the social network attached to it, she couldnâ€™t deny a patient the right to request an attending. Sheâ€™d just bring a resident with her and insist they be involved in the care. â€œWhat is it?â€
â€œA facial laceration, of course.â€
â€œAnd theyâ€™re not requesting plastic surgery right off the bat?â€
â€œWeâ€™re trying to ward that off.â€ Penny grinned sheepishly. â€œI might have suggested you were highly skilled with facial lacerations, could see her sooner, and wouldnâ€™t charge as much.â€
â€œOh, thank you.â€ Dara shook her head and tucked her computer under her arm. â€œAll right, Iâ€™ll be there in a couple of minutes.â€
â€œThanks, you saved me one headache.â€
â€œHow are you feeling?â€
Penny made a wry face and patted her stomach. â€œIâ€™m gonna have two in diapers when this one comes along. Of course Iâ€™m ecstatic.â€
Dara knew she meant it. Some people were born to be parents. â€œHow about Sampson? Is he ready for the double dose of daddyhood?â€
Penny rolled her deep-brown eyes in an expression of fond exasperation. â€œWe 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! Itâ€™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 heâ€™s the father of the year.â€
Dara laughed. â€œIf your BP gives you any problems this time, I want to know about it.â€
â€œBelieve me, youâ€™ll be the first to hear.â€ 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 sheâ€™d been quiet about her plans. Vincieâ€™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 sheâ€™d grown up helping to raise her sibs. If she wanted to take a job closer to her family, Dara could understand. Sheâ€™d ended up staying close too, although their stories couldnâ€™t be further apart. She shrugged the past away with the realities of the moment, a habit that was second nature now. â€œGot a minute to see a patient who might need sutures?â€
â€œSure.â€ Vincieâ€™s perennially smiling light-green eyes brightened, complementing her smooth, tawny complexion. With her boundless energy and effortless beautyâ€”if she wore any makeup it was too expertly applied for Dara to tellâ€”Vincie somehow always managed to look ready to take on anything.
If sheâ€™d ever been that optimistic, Dara couldnâ€™t remember when. Sometimes Vincieâ€™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 didnâ€™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.
â€œWho are you?â€ she demanded querulously.
â€œMs. Hastings?â€ Dara held out her hand. â€œIâ€™m Dr. Sims, and this is Dr.â€”â€
â€œFinally.â€ The woman dismissed Vincie with barely a glance and glared at Dara. â€œI asked for one of the attending physicians, and I donâ€™t want to see a resident.â€
Dara kept her smile in place. â€œI am one of the attendings, and this is Dr. Duval, one of our senior in-house physicians. Can you tell us what happened?â€
The woman plucked at the hem of her sweater and, after a second, waved a hand toward the tablet. â€œIâ€™m sure itâ€™s all in there. I already told several people.â€
â€œPerhaps you could tell me again,â€ Dara said.
â€œWhat did you say your name was again?â€
â€œDr. Dara Sims.â€
â€œSims. Sims.â€ The elderly womanâ€”her intake form put her at seventy-fourâ€”frowned. â€œAny relationship to Barrister Sims?â€
An ache started at the back of Daraâ€™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. â€œPriscilla Sims is my mother.â€
â€œOh,â€ the woman said, her expression softening. â€œWell, then, I suppose itâ€™s all right.â€
Dara nodded, feeling her smile begin to slip. â€œCan you tell us what happened,â€ she asked again as she pulled on gloves and removed the gauze. The laceration was superficial, and she glanced over her shoulder at Vincie. â€œWhat do you think?â€
â€œI can clean it up and Steri-Strip it.â€
Dara nodded and replaced the gauze. â€œHow did this happen?â€
â€œIâ€¦Iâ€¦the maid or someone must have moved a footstool. Careless of them.â€
â€œI see.â€ Something in the womanâ€™s tone tugged at Daraâ€™s memory. The familiar oh, itâ€™s nothing, Iâ€™m just busy sheâ€™d heard from her grandmother so many times as her memory and awareness had begun to slip away. â€œDid you experience any dizziness or loss of balance before you fell?â€
The patientâ€™s gaze flickered away. â€œNo.â€
â€œLight-headedness, chest pain?â€
â€œNo, no.â€ Another hand wave. â€œOh, perhaps I was dizzy for a second.â€
Dara asked a few more questions as she examined her, noting how Ms. Hastingâ€™s answers changed when Dara repeated some of the same questions. She wasnâ€™t sure if the patient was being intentionally evasive or really couldnâ€™t remember.
â€œHow did you get here?â€ Dara asked.
â€œI had the doorman call a car.â€
â€œGood,â€ Dara said. â€œThe laceration isnâ€™t bad, and I donâ€™t think you need sutures. While we set up to put some Steri-Strips on that, Iâ€™d like to get an MRI.â€
â€œAll right,â€ she said, strangely acquiescent.
â€œWeâ€™ll be right back.â€ Dara motioned for Vincie to follow her into the hall. â€œWhat do you think?â€
â€œSheâ€™s definitely confused,â€ Vincie said. â€œMaybe as a result of the fall, but possibly something else is going on that caused it to begin with.â€
â€œI know. The MRI will rule out anything physical. Letâ€™s find out whoâ€™s with her from her family, and if thereâ€™s no one here, letâ€™s get someone. She shouldnâ€™t go home alone.â€
â€œIâ€™ll take care of it.â€
â€œCall me when you get the MRI results.â€
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.
â€œThereâ€™s a call for you, Dr. Sims,â€ he said. â€œI was just about to page you.â€
â€œWho is it?â€
â€œBrian from Shoreline Residential.â€
Daraâ€™s heart jumped and she held out her hand. â€œIâ€™ll take it, thanks. This is Dara, Brian. Is something wrong?â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry to bother you, Dara, but your grandmother is asking for you.â€
Dara checked her watch. â€œIâ€™ll be there as soon as I can. I just have to get things covered here.â€
â€œSure thing. Iâ€™ll be here.â€
Dara hung up and swung around. Penny was right behind her. â€œHey, I need to leave for a while.â€
â€œI heard.â€ Penny squeezed her arm. â€œGo. Everything here is under control. Iâ€™ll call if anything changes.â€
â€œI wonâ€™t be long,â€ Dara said.
If she was in time at all.
Landfall minus 10 days, 1:30 p.m.
Miami Beach, Florida
â€œMorning, Harry.â€ 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.
â€œThe usual?â€ 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 sheâ€™d left her shades. Bedside table, where she would have placed her weapon if sheâ€™d been on duty. Getting sloppy now that no one was likely to be shooting at her. â€œHold the vodka this morning. Just make it hot and spicy, though.â€
â€œLike your women, huh?â€ Harry the bartenderâ€™s sun-leathered skin crinkled around his watery blue eyes as he winked and reached for the Stoli. He waggled the bottle. â€œYou should take the hair of the dog. Start your day off right.â€
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 sheâ€™d been enough of a drinker to handle the vodka, she wouldnâ€™t have a hangover to begin with. â€œJust the juice, thanks, Harry.â€
â€œYou know best,â€ he said dubiously. â€œI saw your blondie friend come down for a swim this morning. You donâ€™t like the beach?â€
â€œI like it fine.â€ 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. â€œJust not before noon.â€
He laughed. â€œLate night.â€
â€œCatching up.â€ She was only two days into her fourteen-day leave, and last night had been the first night in a year sheâ€™d said more than ten words to a woman who wasnâ€™t her best friendâ€™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 doingâ€”at least not in her book, and sheâ€™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 hadnâ€™t even been sure she wanted and hadnâ€™t initiated, and a hasty apology when sheâ€™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, Sawyerâ€™d stretched out in the lounge on the postage-stamp-sized patio and finished her drink and one more she really didnâ€™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 mmâ€™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 wouldnâ€™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.
Landfall minus 10 days, 2:00 p.m.
Shoreline Residential Center
â€œHow is Priscilla?â€ 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 sheâ€™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 hadnâ€™t put it there. By then, sheâ€™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 couldnâ€™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.
â€œSheâ€™s fine, Grandmom. Busy,â€ Dara said, searching madly for something to say about her mother. â€œYou know, with so many of her humanitarian organizations.â€
Charity had lost its political correctness, even though Dara suspected thatâ€™s what her mother considered anything that truly benefited those beneath her social status.
â€œWell, your sister always did like helping others,â€ Caroline said.
â€œSheâ€™s my mom,â€ Dara said gently. Her grandmotherâ€™s social worker had suggested this was a safe correction when her grandmother was lucid but still a little confused.
Caroline frowned. â€œOf course, I know that. Barristerâ€™s wife.â€ She smiled. â€œAnd youâ€™re my favorite granddaughter.â€
Also, the only granddaughter, but Dara just reached out and took her grandmotherâ€™s hand, happy to have her nearby for a few minutes. â€œHave you been outside for a walk lately? Itâ€™s getting cool enough in the afternoons now, and I know how much you like the flowers.â€
Caroline nodded. â€œYes, thank you for reminding me. I must tell the gardener to trim the roses. Theyâ€™re getting so leggy.â€
â€œYou know,â€ Dara continued gamely, â€œthere are roses along the path. Iâ€™m sure Brian will be happy to walk with you.â€
â€œBrian. Oh, of course. He always was such an attentive son.â€
Dara couldnâ€™t bring herself to correct her, since thinking about her fatherâ€”correction, Barristerâ€”brought up too much anger. Anger she really shouldâ€™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, sheâ€™d told herself more than once. So what if heâ€™d walked out, left them, started another life and another family. In his eyes, heâ€™d always done his duty, being sure the family had everything money could buy.
â€œBrian is your nurse,â€ Dara said. â€œThe African American guy who helps you get to the dining room and your group sessions?â€
â€œOf course, Brian.â€ Carolineâ€™s face brightened. â€œBut I think youâ€™re confused, darling. Heâ€™s not the nurse. Iâ€™m quite sure heâ€™s the attorney.â€
â€œWould you like to go outside now?â€
Caroline was quiet for a long moment, her gaze slowly drawing away, pulling back from Daraâ€™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.
â€œI do so wish Barrister wasnâ€™t so busy,â€ Caroline whispered. â€œIâ€™m sure heâ€™d come by more often, if he could.â€
Dara swallowed hard. Barrister had stopped coming by the moment heâ€™d walked out the door. His checks and the dividends from the family businesses continued to flow into her trust and her motherâ€™s accounts, but his attentionâ€”the one commodity of his sheâ€™d truly longed for and never been able to captureâ€”had gone elsewhere. A new wife, eventually a new family. Half siblings she never knew.
â€œIâ€™m sure youâ€™re right,â€ Dara said around the silent screams choking her.
Her grandmother focused on her again. â€œIâ€™m so glad you decided to visit. You will come again, when Iâ€™m not so busy, wonâ€™t you?â€
â€œOf course I will.â€ Dara kissed her cheek. â€œIâ€™ll see you again soon.â€
Her grandmother smiled, the smile sheâ€™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.
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. Sheâ€™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 couldnâ€™t quite capture the dream flickering at the edges of memory, not that she wanted to. Sheâ€™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, sheâ€™d driven both away, and if the price was random stretches of near coma masquerading as sleep that didnâ€™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 haircutâ€”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 timeâ€”too much time. She looked at the clock. Three hours gone. Sheâ€™d only intended to stretch out for a few minutes after her shower, but her body had had other ideas. At least her head wasnâ€™t pounding any longer. Still a little fuzzy, but nothing she wasnâ€™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. Howâ€™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:
Waterâ€™s great, getting lots of sleep, having a great time. Congrats, whatâ€™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. Theyâ€™d gone through Guard ROTC in college together, ended up in the same battalion group, and deployed together. Theyâ€™d both gone active Guard together too, and now he was her counterpart in supplies and acquisitions. He kept troops fed and clothedâ€”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. Whyâ€™d she ever think a leave with nothing to do except not think about where sheâ€™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
â€œHey,â€ the tech at the big screen said to the room in general, â€œsomethingâ€™s cooking out there.â€
The evening supervisor walked over and scanned the readouts. â€œHuh. Wind speed above that wave formation has doubled in the last hour.â€
â€œYeah, and the water tempâ€™s still high.â€
â€œCould be something forming,â€ the supervisor said. â€œLetâ€™s send out a watch notice. Iâ€™ll pull up the list of names.â€
â€œPretty far out there,â€ the meteorologist said.
The supervisor nodded, still watching the patterns swirl and coalesce. â€œYeah, probably nothing to worry about.â€
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: 12Â°N 32Â°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, â€œLet the dog out,â€ and rolled over, sound asleep again before Stan could mutter hoarsely, â€œHello?â€
â€œSorry to wake you, Stan. You said you wanted to be notifiedâ€”â€
â€œNo problem.â€ 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 allâ€”at least all of them who paid any attentionâ€”of just how very insignificant they all were, and how much they owed the planet for tolerating their presence.
â€œJonas change course, did he?â€ Stan sat up on the side of the bed and cupped the phone in his palm, although Anna gave no sign of hearing him. Theyâ€™d been tracking Hurricane Jonas, a Cat 1, whoâ€™d been heading into open water in the Gulf as it lost power throughout the evening. Heâ€™d checked on him just before heâ€™d gone to bed a little before midnight, and heâ€™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.
â€œNot Jonasâ€”Leo. Heâ€™s showing rapid intensification. Speeds have increased twenty knots in the last four hours.â€ 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. â€œIs he looking like a Cape Verde event?â€
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 stormsâ€”the monster storms. The hurricanes that literally rained down death and destruction to hundreds.
â€œHeâ€™s already as big as Hugo was, with half the time forming.â€ Claire paused. â€œIf he keeps moving this way and the currents stay hot, heâ€™s going to be bigger than anything weâ€™ve ever seen.â€
â€œIâ€™m coming in.â€
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.
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 surfaceâ€”bodies moving across the steaming patio tiles; turbulence to her leftâ€”a swimmer making a clumsy dive; a distant humâ€”music, not incoming. She wasnâ€™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 couldnâ€™t seem to burn off anywhere else. Werenâ€™t vacations supposed to be relaxing?
Maybe they were, for most people, but not for someone whoâ€™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 sheâ€™d done plenty of while deployed, was a trial.
â€œVery, very nice,â€ 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 Sawyerâ€™s direction. â€œI almost hate to cover up the scenery.â€
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 hadnâ€™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. Sheâ€™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 womanâ€™s gaze moved over her bare shoulders, down her nearly bare torso, lingering for a few seconds on her midsection, before slipping farther down.
â€œWhat is it exactly that you do to get a body like that?â€ the woman asked.
â€œNot a thing,â€ Sawyer said. â€œGood genes.â€
The woman laughed and lifted a martini glass with two olives rolling in the bottom. She gestured to a lounge chair beside her. â€œJoin me?â€
â€œThanks, but I gave it up.â€
â€œDrinking, or fucking?â€
Sawyer glanced around, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to them. She grinned. â€œThe first, although itâ€™s a little early in the day for the second too.â€
The woman tipped back her head and laughed. â€œNow I know youâ€™re lying.â€ Her lips lifted in slow invitation. â€œIâ€™m Catherine Winchell. Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ve never heard of me, which is just as well, considering the circumstances. And who might you be?â€
Sawyer strode closer, folded the towel, and set it on the chair next to Catherine. â€œSawyer Kincaid.â€
â€œAnd what are you doing here? You donâ€™t have the look of a beach bum, and I donâ€™t see the wife and kids anywhere.â€
â€œNone of the above. Just a somewhat reluctant vacationer.â€
â€œI can see that. Maybe you should learn to relax a little more. Sawyer.â€
Sawyer nodded. â€œYouâ€™re right, and I appreciate the advice.â€
Catherine sipped her drink. â€œIf you donâ€™t want to be propositioned, you probably should cover up those abs. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve ever seen a body like yours before.â€
Catherine laughed again. â€œIf you change your mind, Iâ€™m in 742.â€
Sawyer gave a slight nod. â€œIâ€™m a whole lot more than flatteredâ€”â€
â€œYou donâ€™t need to be flattered, you just need to be good.â€
Sawyer was searching for an answer to that one when one of the pool waitstaff came toward her holding out a portable phone. â€œColonel Kincaid?â€
Sawyer unintentionally straightened. â€œYes?â€
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.
â€œEmergency call for youâ€¦uhâ€¦Colonelâ€¦sir?â€
â€œThanks.â€ Sawyer held out her hand for the phone. â€œThis is Colonel Kincaid.â€
â€œSawyer, sorry to interrupt your leave,â€ General Jim Baker said.
â€œNo problem, General,â€ Sawyer said, turning her back and walking to the far side of the pool, out of hearing range of the few remaining people who hadnâ€™t gone inside to start preparing for the dinner hour. â€œHow can I help you, sir?â€
â€œNOAA 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.â€
â€œYes, sir. Iâ€™ll be there in four hours.â€
â€œYes, sir. From Miami Beach.â€
â€œWhy donâ€™t you head on out to MIA. Weâ€™ll send a bird for you.â€
â€œSee you at the briefing.â€
â€œYes, sir.â€ 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 Winchellâ€™s chair, the woman called out.
â€œColonel Kincaid, is it?â€
Sawyer looked back. â€œJust Sawyer at the moment.â€
â€œAnything you care to share?â€
â€œIâ€™m afraid not.â€
Catherine rose and walked beside her as Sawyer continued toward her room. â€œYou donâ€™t watch much television, do you?â€
â€œNot really.â€ Sawyer paused on her patio by the sliding glass doors. â€œIâ€™m sorry, Iâ€™m a little short on time.â€
â€œI can see that. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m curious.â€ Catherine dug in the colorful straw satchel sheâ€™d slung over her shoulder and held out a card. â€œChannel 10 News, Miami bureau.â€
Sawyer did not take the card. â€œNow Iâ€™m really short on time.â€
Catherine laughed and tucked the card delicately under the waistband of Sawyerâ€™s shorts. â€œI can be a good person to know.â€
â€œI donâ€™t doubt it. But Iâ€™m not the person you want to talk to you. We have a media representative, if and when thereâ€™s anything to talk about. Iâ€™m sure your station will have the number.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure one of these days weâ€™ll see each other again.â€
â€œIt was nice talking to you, Ms. Winchell.â€ Sawyer nodded and slid open the door.
â€œYou never mentioned what branch of the military,â€ 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 wasnâ€™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
Daraâ€™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. â€œHello?â€
Dara winced. Celebrated too soon. She vaguely recognized the voice but couldnâ€™t quite place it. â€œYes?â€
â€œSorry to bother you at home. This is Victor Sanchez.â€
â€œOf course, how can I help you, Mr. Sanchez.â€ Sheâ€™d heard the hospital CEO speak enough times at staff meetings, but she didnâ€™t really spend a lot of time with the administrators. They were budget and protocol people, and she mostly wasnâ€™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 didnâ€™t affect patient care, she left that to management to manage.
â€œYou couldnâ€™t be reached, so the call got handed up to me.â€ He chuckled. â€œAnd I am sending it back to you.â€
Dara glanced at her phone and saw there was a missed call. â€œSorry, I was driving. I put my phone on Do Not Disturb when Iâ€™m in the car.â€
â€œVery wise of you. Weâ€™ve been alerted there is a statewide hurricane alert. Nothing critical at the moment, but since youâ€™re the head of the hospitalâ€™s emergency response team, I thought youâ€™d want to know sooner rather than later.â€
â€œOf course. Iâ€™ll check my mailâ€”I should automatically get an update from the state.â€
â€œWell, it is the season for these things, and Iâ€™m sure it will turn out to be nothing much.â€
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.
â€œJust be sure to keep me apprised,â€ he said, already sounding as if heâ€™d dispensed with thinking about the potential problem.
â€œI certainly will,â€ Dara said. â€œThanks. Iâ€™m sorry you were bothered.â€
â€œNo trouble at all, Doctor. You have a nice night.â€
Dara switched to her mail program. The last message had come in just after sheâ€™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 wouldâ€™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.
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.
â€œSorry about the vacation, Bones.â€ Ramboâ€™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, heâ€™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, heâ€™d been the one to stand with her at the graveside and watch her sisters and brothers begin to drift away on the wind. Heâ€™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.
â€œHowâ€™s Miko?â€ 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. â€œGorgeous as ever. She seems to get prettier every time sheâ€™s pregnant.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think you should mention that around her. It sounds a littleâ€”â€ She waggled her hand.
â€œThat might be one word for it.â€ She pushed the door to the briefing room open and let him pass by. â€œTell her hello from me.â€
â€œYouâ€™re overdue for barbecue.â€
He didnâ€™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.
â€œAttention!â€ 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 heâ€™d pushed her to go full-time active Guard, sheâ€™d found a home she could count on.
â€œAs you were,â€ 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. â€œThis the last location of Hurricane Leoâ€™s eyewall. Itâ€™s too early to tell for sure where heâ€™s headed from here.â€ The red light danced over the many paths headed for inhabited areas. â€œRight now, the computer models show these as the likely paths.â€
â€œThatâ€™s helpful,â€ Rambo muttered.
â€œWhat we can be sure of,â€ Baker continued, ignoring similar comments from around the room as he focused the pointer on Florida, â€œis heâ€™s going to hit land with a seriously big punch.â€
Baker handed the pointer to the officer by his side. â€œMajor Kim is with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squad and has just come back from a data-gathering mission. Iâ€™ll let her fill you in on the details.â€
â€œThank you, sir.â€ Kim stepped forward. â€œThe storm front is massive just in terms of sheer size. The biggest formation weâ€™ve ever tracked. Added to that, the water and wind conditions are optimal for an acceleration of wind speed, which weâ€™ve been seeing in the last twelve hours.â€ She circled the Florida Keys and moved north to the tip of the mainland. â€œNo 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.â€
â€œThank you, Major,â€ the general said. â€œThis could be the most devastating storm to hit this region since Andrew.â€
Sawyerâ€™s chest tightened and icy cold slithered through her gut. Anyone who lived in a hurricane region had weathered more than one episode of natureâ€™s fury, but there hadnâ€™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 everythingâ€”everyoneâ€”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. Sheâ€™d lived through it, lived through some things just as bad. Sheâ€™d been a kid then, and she hadnâ€™t been in charge. She would be now.
If the general noticed her reaction, he didnâ€™t show it. â€œThe governorâ€™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.â€ He looked to Rambo. â€œColonel Beauregard will command supply disbursement. Questions?â€
â€œWhatâ€™s the chance of a mass civilian evac?â€ Sawyer asked.
â€œThe governor is waiting for a clearer indication of the stormâ€™s direction.â€
â€œThank you, sir.â€ 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 sheâ€™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.
Bakerâ€™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 sheâ€™d need answered as quickly as possible.
Sawyer said to Rambo as they walked out, â€œLet me know where youâ€™ll be setting up your main supply center.â€
â€œIâ€™m thinking Orlando,â€ Rambo said. â€œYou heading south?â€
â€œYeah,â€ Sawyer said. â€œMiami seems the most reasonable central staging point until we know where we can safely set up relief centers.â€
â€œIâ€™ll copy you in on supply assessments by end of day.â€ He hesitated. â€œYou okay?â€
Sawyer frowned. â€œWhat? Why?â€
â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€”I thought for a second there you looked spooked.â€
â€œIâ€™m fine.â€ Her tone shut him down, and he nodded silently.
â€œYou planning to run the medical response from Miami Memorial?â€
Sawyer laughed. â€œI wish I could. Iâ€™ll have to let them think theyâ€™re in charge.â€
Rambo grinned. â€œTheyâ€™ll probably be happy to hand you the ball. And the paperwork.â€
Sawyer only wished it was going to be that simple.
Landfall minus 6 days, 7:00 a.m.
Miami Memorial Hospital
â€œI think everyoneâ€™s here,â€ Dara said, sitting down at the head of the table with the takeout cup of coffee sheâ€™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 sheâ€™d picked up in the drive-through coffee place on her way to work hadnâ€™t quite gotten her up to speed. The run sheâ€™d managed to squeeze in the night before hadnâ€™t helped de-stress her the way it usually did after a long day, and sheâ€™d awakened in the middle of the night thinking about all the things she needed to do thanks to Victorâ€™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 hadnâ€™t changed much from what sheâ€™d gotten last night. The predictions were still grave, but the situation was still developing and changing hour to hour.
She double-checked the rosterâ€”pharmacy, OR, trauma, ICU, and of course, the other side of the coin, legal and finance. All accounted for. â€œThis shouldnâ€™t take too long. Thank you all for getting here on such short notice and at such an early hour.â€
The trauma chief, Wen Haruke, shrugged. â€œItâ€™s late for me.â€
Dara was used to Wenâ€™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. â€œNot to worry, Wen. Weâ€™ll get you upstairs in plenty of time for your eight a.m. start.â€
â€œWhere do things stand with the governor?â€ asked Gretchen Baylor, the hospitalâ€™s lead attorney, before Dara could provide any background. â€œAre we officially instituting emergency protocols now, or is this just a heads-up?â€
â€œYes,â€ Anthony Elliott from finance, put in. â€œLetâ€™s not spend money we donâ€™t need to if this is all going to blow over in another day or two.â€ A few people groaned and Anthony grinned. â€œNo pun intended, of course.â€
â€œAs youâ€™re all aware from the email I sent last night, the latest weather advisory from NHC has upgraded Leo to a Cat 3,â€ Dara said. â€œThe predictive models put the Keys and possibly parts of southern Florida in the red zone. I think we have to assume weâ€™ll see transfers from hospitals in the storm track as well as acute storm-associated injuries.â€
Anthony winced. â€œIt costs money to bring in extra staff, pay overtime, and hold beds open for emergencies that might never arise.â€
â€œNot to mention stocking extra blood, drugs, and supplies,â€ the pharmacy chief added.
â€œWeâ€™ll have to scale back on our elective surgery schedule too,â€ Angela Murdoch, the OR supervisor, commented. â€œThatâ€™s going to piâ€”uh, tick off the surgeons and the patients.â€
Dara stifled a sigh. She understood that no one wanted to disrupt their routine, least of all her. Sheâ€™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.
â€œThe governor made the call,â€ Dara said, â€œand the ball is rolling.â€
â€œLet me talk to the adjutant general,â€ Gretchen said. â€œI should be able to get the inside track on this. Weâ€â€”she glanced at Daraâ€”â€œmight be overreacting.â€
â€œIâ€™m not sure what good that will do,â€ 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 hadnâ€™t gone to the same private girlsâ€™ school as Gretchen, but she might as well have. Sheâ€™d grown up with girlsâ€”women nowâ€”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.
â€œThe governor is the one who made the call, Gretch,â€ Dara repeated.
â€œThe governor has done the proper thing, erring on the side of caution. Weâ€™ve got time to safeguard our own interests.â€ Gretchen shrugged. â€œThere are many ways to interpret the word prepared.â€
Dara took a slow breath. She wasnâ€™t in the mood for sparring. â€œThen 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. Iâ€™ll be checking in later today with everyone to make sure there are no problems. Or delays.â€
Gretchenâ€™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.
â€œUntil we hear otherwise, weâ€™re going to emergency operations as of now.â€ Dara downed the last of her coffee. â€œThanks, everyone. You know how to reach me.â€
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 Pennyâ€™s name popped up on the screen.
Smiling, Dara answered. â€œHey, I was just thinking about you. Lunch?â€
â€œI think youâ€™re going to have to postpone that for a while.â€
Something about Pennyâ€™s tone had Daraâ€™s skin prickling. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong? I didnâ€™t hear a trauma alert. Do we have a level one on the way?â€
â€œNot the kind youâ€™re thinking of.â€ Oddly, Penny had lowered her voice. â€œI just escorted a soldier to the break room. I think you better get out here.â€
â€œA soldier? What do they want?â€
â€œShe said she was here to organize the emergency response operation.â€
â€œDid she now.â€ A muscle in Daraâ€™s jaw started twitching.
It looked like the storm had just arrived.
Landfall minus 6 days, 11:55 a.m.
National Hurricane Center Atlantic Ops
University of Florida Institute
â€œAre you seeing this?â€ 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 heâ€™d moved, how fast heâ€™d moved, and whereâ€”maybeâ€”he was going later today, and the next day, and the next.
Stan grinned wryly at the rhetorical question.
He hadnâ€™t been doing anything else for the last twelve hours, and wouldnâ€™t be doing anything else for the next week or two. Until Leo made landfallâ€”somewhereâ€”and ran out of steam, heâ€™d be in the weather room along with most of the other members of the watch team for the duration. Some people would take breaksâ€”heâ€™d make them, and the aerial reconnaissance squads were required to take downtime. But heâ€™d be right here, catnapping at his desk, drinking bitter coffee, living on doughnuts and pizza. Watching his opponentâ€™s every move. Because make no mistakeâ€”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 screenâ€”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 Leoâ€™s enormous size.
â€œWe need a better yardstick,â€ 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.
â€œWhat do you mean?â€ Bette asked.
â€œWind speed doesnâ€™t begin to describe the power of this thing,â€ Stan said. â€œJust look at the diameterâ€”hell, itâ€™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.â€
â€œUh, boss,â€ Anjou said in a half-apologetic, half-enthusiastic voice, â€œwe just got the latest numbers from aerial recon.â€
â€œGive â€™em to us.â€
â€œTheyâ€™re recording speeds upward of 140 in the eyewall,â€ Anjou said, his wiry frame coiled as if he were about to spring from his chair. He swiveled and stared at Stan. â€œDo you think he can hold those speeds?â€
â€œWeâ€™re going to have to prepare as if he could and hope that he canâ€™t. Update the advisory to Cat 4.â€ 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 governorâ€™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, sheâ€™d expected more than one soldier, a show of force, but only one person waited. Maybe sheâ€™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.
â€œUnless youâ€™re desperate, I wouldnâ€™t recommend it,â€ Dara said.
â€œSix hours old?â€ the soldier asked in a husky alto.
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 Daraâ€™s. â€œThanks for the warning.â€
At first glance, the woman was pretty much what Dara expectedâ€”soldier always conjured up the impression of short-haired, suntanned, stone-faced men and fit, capable women whoâ€™d obviously worked hard to carve out a space in the very system that often rejected themâ€”sheâ€™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 motherâ€™s voice echoed unbidden. Really, darling, why do you need to work at all? Iâ€™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 menâ€™s locker rooms and country clubs and gentlemenâ€™s bars to make referrals and deals and alliances. The military had to be several magnitudes worseâ€”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. Sheâ€™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 didnâ€™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 couldnâ€™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. â€œWhat do you recommend for a refill?â€
â€œThereâ€™s a good kiosk half a block down from the ER entrance.â€ Dara held out her hand. â€œIâ€™m Dara Sims, the ER chief.â€
â€œColonel Sawyer Kincaid.â€
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 sheâ€™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 wasnâ€™t a casual encounter, more like two competitors each sizing up the other before the big game. Dara held Kincaidâ€™s gaze and let her look. She knew what sheâ€™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 sheâ€™d earned it.
Once Dara had decided Colonel Kincaid had discovered all she was likely to discover from her scrutiny, she said, â€œWhat can I do for you, Colonel?â€
â€œYouâ€™re aware of the situation with Leo?â€
â€œI am. We were alerted last night. I wasnâ€™t told to expect the Army.â€
â€œNational Guard.â€ Sawyer heard the annoyance in the ER chiefâ€™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 ifâ€”more likely whenâ€”the situation went critical, but as long as Dr. Simsâ€™s resistance was matched by her competence, Sawyer could handle it.
Dara shrugged. â€œMy apologies. Military, I should say.â€
â€œIâ€™m probably ahead of the memo,â€ Sawyer said, â€œbut weâ€™re going to need to get coordinated ASAP, which is why I decided to come down personally.â€
â€œMemos aside,â€ Dara said dryly, â€œI think youâ€™d better fill me in on where you fit in all of this and what I can help you with.â€
â€œIâ€™m in charge of the Guardâ€™s disaster preparedness planning. I donâ€™t know how much you know about how these things workâ€”â€
â€œItâ€™s not my first hurricane,â€ Dara said evenly, while reminding herself Kincaidâ€™s authoritativeâ€”actually, commandingâ€”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 wasnâ€™t one of the soldiers in Kincaidâ€™s command, and she sure as hell wasnâ€™t outranked. â€œI grew up down here. I know what weâ€™re facing.â€
â€œIâ€™m not sure you doâ€”not from a relief and recovery standpoint.â€ Something hot and wild flickered through Kincaidâ€™s eyes for an instant and then disappeared. â€œHow many times have you run search and rescue and emergency medical evac for a major disaster with mass casualties?â€
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 wasnâ€™t granite after all, more like molten lava simmering beneath the surface. â€œIâ€™ve got close to ten yearsâ€™ emergency medicine experience, Colonel. There isnâ€™t much I havenâ€™t seen.â€
â€œI donâ€™t doubt your medical ability, Dr. Sims, but weâ€™re talking mass casualtiesâ€”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.â€
â€œColonel,â€ Dara said, gathering all the restraint she could muster on a bad day rapidly getting worse, â€œI suggest youâ€”â€
Daraâ€™s cell phone emitted a long, loud, harsh sound that echoed instantly from somewhere on Kincaidâ€™s person. She pulled her phone from her lab coat pocket. â€œSorry.â€
Sawyer yanked her phone out of her uniform pocket. â€œExcuse me.â€
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. â€œYouâ€™re reading what Iâ€™m reading?â€
â€œYes.â€ Sawyerâ€™s jaw set. â€œThere are three hospitals in the Keys. If they evacuate, can you handle their patients here?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re all smaller regional places. It depends on the numbers and how many will need ICU beds,â€ Dara said. â€œWeâ€™ll need to coordinate with them if they decide to evacuate. We also need to reserve beds for later emergency admissions here as well.â€
â€œLetâ€™s get whoeverâ€™s in charge down there.â€
â€œIâ€™ll call them.â€ Dara pictured the chain of islands with the string of bridges and causeways connecting them. â€œHow will you transport? Thereâ€™s only one highway in and out of the Keys.â€
â€œC-130 transport planes can handle the critical patients. Ground vehicles for the others.â€
â€œWe could be talking about dozens of patients.â€
â€œAnd weâ€™re going to have to gear up the op now.â€ Sawyer hadnâ€™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. â€œI can make the calls to those hospitals if you need to organize your people here.â€
â€œNo. Iâ€™ll do it.â€ 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. Sheâ€™d just have to see that everyone else at the hospital was too. â€œIâ€™ll be better able to judge how many will need in-hospital transfers.â€
* * *