This week's Hurricane Hermine, Florida's first hurricane in eleven years, reminded me of the opening chapter of my Shadowed Paradise, and that it was an excellent example of how to take a true incident and incorporate it into a work of fiction. Shadowed Paradise is chockfull of truths adapted to fiction. This week's Mosaic Moments features one of them.
The actual incident:
Way back - sometime in the late 80s or early 90s - when I was living in Venice, Florida, we were hit by a "no name" storm that dumped 29" of water over three days, isolating many homes and washing out the center of a bridge less than two miles from my house. When I heard the story on the news, I jumped in my car and went to take a look. I even walked part way out on the bridge to get a good view of the gap. The night before, in a blinding rainstorm, a nurse on her way home from her shift at the hospital had driven into the c. 18-24" gap in the in the center of the bridge cut by the rushing waters of Alligator Creek. Fortunately, those were the early days of cell phones (which I presume is what she used to call for help), and she was promptly rescued by local fire and police. That, of course, is the background to Chapter 1 of Shadowed Paradise. As you will see in the Author's Note, I also used a number of other actual incidents when writing my first Romantic Suspense. Below, please find that Note plus Chapter 1 of Shadowed Paradise.
A surprising amount of this book is true. After all, how could anyone make up such a bizarre incident as a snake climbing a typing stand after a terrified tree frog? It happened to me while I was writing this book. The bridge washout, the car trapped in the gap, occurred about a mile and a half from my house. Spiders the size of saucers, alligator attacks, jungle rivers the color of strong tea, a “city” with a thousand roads to nowhere—they all exist on Florida’s gulf coast. A great deal more of the story, including the serial killings, are based on fact, but, beyond that, I leave it to the reader to guess where truth ends and fiction begins.
Somewhere behind the waterfall there was a road. The Toyota’s wipers, valiantly slashing through the deluge, allowed Claire intermittent glimpses of gold reflectors crouched on the center line like an undulating row of one-eyed alley cats waiting to pounce. To the right was her other lifeline, the white stripe marking the edge of the pavement and the deep drainage ditch just beyond.
In the three miles since she turned off U.S. 41 Claire had seen only one other car. Obviously the natives had sense enough to stay home in a monsoon. Or perhaps no one was out there at all. No reassuring glimmers of light shone from the houses whose dark deserted shapes loomed behind the curtain of water, their snowbird owners flown safely north well in advance of the scalding heat and daily downpours of summer along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
A blue-white flash of lightning illuminated the scene in stark relief, revealing the looming shadows as nothing more sinister than modest ranch-style homes with neat lawns, swaying palms, massive live oaks. Thunder crashed down, enveloping the car in a reverberating roar of protest from the seared black clouds around them.
From Claire’s right came a small whimper, quickly choked short.
“It’s all right, Jamie,” she said brightly, eons more confidently than she felt. “We’re almost home. They have storms like this all the time in Florida. We just have to learn to get used to it.” If there was one thing her son didn’t need, it was more fear.
Claire gripped the wheel so tightly her knuckles ached. She allowed herself one tiny glance away from the road. Jamie’s frail shoulders were rigid, his eyes glued to the steady swish of the wipers struggling to part the waterfall on the windshield. His small hands clutched the shoulder strap in front of him.
Claire winced. Eight-year-olds should not have to suffer from white knuckles. What were they doing out here?
Simple. She had succumbed to the sight of Jamie’s chin sagging toward his small chest as he heard the TV weatherman announce the possibility of record rainfall. It had been raining for three days—not the area’s usual late afternoon thunderstorms, but solid, hour-after-hour driving rain. Claire went off to work each morning, leaving Jamie and his great-grandmother to endure the tedium of no sun, no beach, no walks along the Intracoastal Waterway. Smitten to the heart by her son’s silent endurance, Claire had proposed an excursion to the latest Harry Potter epic. And was amply rewarded by a wide-eyed, “You mean it, mom?” followed by a whoop of joy and a beatific smile.
Such a simple outing. Now, too late, Claire recognized her Florida newbie mistake. While she and Jamie sat enthralled by Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the storm had increased from downpour to torrent. And now they were fighting their way home through a nearly impenetrable wall of water.
Jagged lances of lightning stabbed the swirling clouds, exploding into great sheets of light. Thunder enveloped them. Claire heard Jamie draw a deep breath, that heart-rending gasping sound that said he was going to be brave, no matter what. Her visibility worsened in a sudden misting of her eyes. Guilt swept over her. Not even Harry Potter was worth the resurrection of Jamie’s terror.
Lightning continued to flicker like an erratic neon sign, illuminating the drenched world around them with eerie intensity, shimmering off the waving palms, the Brazilian peppers, the swaying Spanish moss dangling from gigantic oaks. Off the tangle of mangroves.
Claire slowed from a determined twenty miles an hour to less than fifteen. Although she was a new resident, she had visited the area all of her life. Mangroves grew in salt water or the brackish places where rivers met the sea. Their octopus-like roots anchored the soil and provided a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. Mangroves meant they were entering the causeway leading to the bridge over Heron Creek.
The narrow two-lane causeway, about the length of a football field, crossed the estuary where Heron Creek emptied into the bay. Usually, the creek was a placid band of water meandering through mud flats and mangroves. Tonight, each flash of lightning revealed roiling waters on both sides of the road. White caps swirled, splashing against the embankment. Suddenly, directly in front of them, the golden cat’s eyes winked out, drowned under a blanket of water. The white line disappeared.
Water over the bridge.
Fearful of braking on wet pavement, Claire took her foot off the gas. The lightning, capricious as always, moved out into the Gulf, leaving nothing to illumine the bridge but the Toyota’s headlights.
“Mom?” Jamie, clinging to being brave.
They were less than a mile from home. The only other bridge across Heron Creek meant a six mile detour. She drove this bridge daily. Knew it had survived hurricanes, as well as countless Florida rainy seasons. Water, only a few inches deep, covered less than twenty feet of road. Home was straight ahead. She could do this, she knew she could. Claire put her foot back on the gas and moved forward at a steady ten miles an hour.
She was almost on it before she saw it. Not a steady stream flowing over the bridge but rushing, roiling, white-capped water. Bubbling up. Not just over, but up. Through an ominous streak of black that ran the width of the road.
Oh, God! Claire pumped the brakes, shouting for Jamie to hang on, knowing it was too late. The car slid inexorably forward. They were going in. Claire slammed into the steering wheel. The front end tilted down, sagged into the black abyss. Came to an abrupt, teeth-jarring halt.
The crack was not wide enough to swallow them up.
A ragged gasping noise. Claire had not realized she was holding her breath until her agonized lungs forced her back to life. “Jamie! Are you all right?”
“I . . . think so.” Jamie sat stock still, instinctively aware of what the slightest movement might do.
The Toyota’s front end was angled down by thirty degrees, rocking ever so gently in the swift current which had eaten away the pavement at the center of the bridge. In the storm and darkness it was impossible to tell how fast the gap was widening. Only one thing was certain. There was no backing up. The front wheels were in a void, and any movement could peel back the pavement, sending them plunging into the raging river.
The car shuddered as something, possibly a large branch, bounced off the upstream tire and was swept on into the bay.
“Mo-om!” It was Jamie’s nightmare voice. The one Claire had hoped never to hear again. A tiny choking sound. A hiccup.
“Listen to me, Jamie.” Claire couldn’t believe the steady, mommy’s-got-everything-under-control tone that rolled off her tongue. “Sit very still while I shut off the engine and put us into Park.”
Claire unglued her right hand from the wheel, eased the gear into place. She was grateful it was too dark for Jamie to see the terrified grimace on her face as she pulled the hand brake upward. Except for the rocking of the current, the car did not move. With what she hoped was an inaudible sigh of relief Claire switched off the ignition. She left the headlights on, giving dim but definite comfort. And a warning to anyone approaching the bridge from the other side.
“Good boy, Jamie.” Mom’s bracing commendation for her son’s bravery. The need to hear the sound of a voice. Any sound but the incessant beat of the rain and the ominous roar of the flood below.
“Jamie, I want you to unhook your seat belt. That’s right. Good boy. Now, very slowly, open the door. Step down carefully.” Oh, God, what if there was a hole there too? “Jamie! Hang on to the car until you’re sure the road is solid. Okay?”
“Okay.” Thin but brave. Jamie Langdon was experienced at being brave.
Unfortunately, Jamie took her words so literally, moving with such extreme caution Claire had to clench her jaw to keep from shouting at him to get a move on. Who could tell how fast the pavement beneath them was crumbling?
“Mom?” Mom, the door won’t open.”
“Try it again.” Claire hissed, struggling to keep her voice calm.
“Mom, I think it’s locked.” Patient. Faintly superior. Even at a time like this, his father to the life.
Automatic door locks. Idiot! She should have remembered. In the dark all the buttons felt the same. Claire pushed each one until rewarded by a satisfying plop as all four doors unlocked. Sinking her teeth into her lower lip, Claire took a deep breath. They would survive this. They really would. “Okay, Jamie, try it now.”
As his small hand pulled at the handle, the world burst into a blaze of light. A blinding white light that turned night into day. Claire and Jamie gasped. The Toyota bucked in a sudden rush of current, then settled into a gentle rocking motion as the unrelenting light sparkled off the waters that had swallowed its front tires.
Claire grabbed Jamie’s hand, held on tight.
Dear God, surely nothing more . . . Please . . . nothing more!
A rush of raindrops, cool damp wind. Movement behind her. The car seemed to sigh, settling back on its haunches as something large and heavy slid into the rear seat. A voice spoke in a deep, rich baritone. “Everybody okay?”
“Just scared,” Claire managed, relief flooding through her. They weren’t alone. And the voice had all the reassurance of a true hero.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Okay, Jamie,” said the stranger without the least hint of urgency, “I don’t think this car’s going anywhere, but just in case, we’re going to take it real easy. It looks like I outweigh both of you together, wringing wet, so you could probably go out the front door, but to play it safe, you just crawl on back here with me and I’ll scoot you out the rear door. Okay?”
“Okay.” Jamie, small and agile, made short work of wiggling his way through the gap between the front seats.
“Go straight to my pickup,” the firm baritone instructed, “and climb in. Your mother doesn’t want to have to worry about you while she’s getting out of here. Right?”
“Right.” There was another rush of damp air, rain and rumbling river. No cry for help, no sound of a young body plunging into an abyss. Claire bit back a sob of relief.
Long moments of fearful silence. “He’s in the truck,” announced the disembodied voice from the back seat. “Now it’s your turn. Just do what Jamie did and you’ll be fine.”
Impossible. There was no way she could get out from behind the wheel, bump over the gear box, the raised hand brake, and crawl through a four-inch gap. “I can’t,” Claire protested hoarsely.
“Look, lady, in case you hadn’t noticed, your front tires are in the damned creek. Lucky for you the break’s not too wide—your front bumper’s on the far side and hanging on. But more pavement could go at any moment. So take those little fingers of yours off the wheel and move it!”
Miserable Florida redneck. If Jim had ever spoken to her like that . . .
Claire uncurled her fingers from the wheel and began to hitch herself across the central gear box. Hard, uncompromising pieces of metal and plastic bit into the most sensitive parts of her anatomy. Propelled as much by discomfort as by fear, she thrust herself backwards through the impossibly narrow opening between the seats. Large, none-too-gentle hands grabbed her in places she didn’t care to identify, and suddenly she was sprawled, breathless, in the Toyota’s rear seat, her back pressed up against a broad chest only slightly less firm than a boulder. The side of her breast was squashed into an equally hard knee cap as arms as strong as Mr. Clean’s steadied her against thighs of steel. She was also embarrassingly aware of being pressed tight against a more delicate portion of their rescuer’s anatomy.
The powerful arms that pinned her suddenly let go. “You okay?” The baritone had slipped to bass.
“Uh-huh..” The most articulate remark she could manage.
“Okay. Now get the hell out of here. Slowly.”
As their rescuer swung the door open, Claire crawled over the solid bulk of jean-encased legs and out into the lessening rainfall. Beneath water that sloshed up to her ankles the ground was solid. Beautifully, wonderfully solid . . .
Wrong. Beneath her feet was black, crumbling pavement. They were far from safe. They were still on the bridge, suspended over a relentless river. Claire leaned back through the car door. “What about you?” she asked, frowning.
“Move and I might be able to get out!”
Stung, Claire stepped sharply back. What if his considerable weight was all that was keeping the car from tumbling into the river? What if it started to sink while he was getting out? She planted herself firmly by the rear tire and waited. Did she actually have delusions of being able to hold on to that much male body hurtling into space? Who was she kidding?
A well-worn western boot topped by classic blue denim jeans poked through the open door, slid slowly down toward the water that flowed over the pavement. As a second boot followed, the Toyota shuddered. The boots froze as the car shimmied, then settled into a steeper angle. The gap in the bridge had widened. “Get out,” Claire shouted. “Now!”
Out of the depths of the car a body unfolded, gathering momentum as it moved toward the brilliant light behind them, carrying Claire with it as easily as a fullback with a football tucked against his chest. So much for her dramatic plan to be helpful.
They ended up well back from the ominous gushing black fissure, both breathing hard, Claire’s head pressed against the stranger’s chest, where the thump of his heart against her ear assured her that he wasn’t quite as unflappable as he appeared. Even soaking wet, the stranger’s chest was the most comforting resting place she’d experienced in a long, long time. Claire gasped out her thanks, well aware her words were ridiculously inadequate.
“No problem.” As if cued by the laconic response, the deluge shut off, dwindling into a light drizzle. An onslaught of civilization broke the dark loneliness of the night. Flashing blue lights stabbed the darkness on the far side of the bridge as a county patrol car pulled up and parked sideways across the road to block traffic from the south. A cacophony of sirens sounded from the long winding stretch of road Claire had driven from the theater. Wails, aa-oo-gahs, and banshee screams marked the arrival of two more sets of flashing blue lights, the red and white pulse of an ambulance, and the long bulk of a fire engine.
“I called 911 before I left the truck,” admitted the voice above her on an almost apologetic note.
Truck. Jamie. Oh, dear God, Jamie! Claire broke away from her safe haven and ran toward the white light she could now see was nothing more than the awesome power of four floodlights mounted on a rack atop a bright blue pickup. Standard equipment in Florida for those who liked to go where few had gone before.
Claire flung open the truck’s door. Halfway up onto the high leather seat, she saw that it was empty. Her voice rose to a wail. “Jamie!”
“Damn it, I saw him get in!” Rough hands thrust her aside.
Brad Blue peered between the front bucket seats into the narrow space behind. Crouched on the floor in the extension behind the passenger seat was a forlorn figure, his wet blond head bent between his knees, hands pressed to his ears.
“He’s here,” Brad called over his shoulder, ignoring the woman’s frantic efforts to get past him. Odd. It had been thirty years since he was this kid’s age, but to the best of his recollection, most boys would be having the time of their lives, noses pressed to the glass, awed or smugly satisfied at their own part in an adventure that had turned out three patrol cars, two ambulances and a fire engine.
And yet, the boy had been rock steady when abandoning a car precariously balanced over a flooding river.
Brad instinctively reached out to give comfort, but paused a scant inch from the glistening thatch of hair. Slowly, he pulled back, his fingers moving instead toward the floodlight switch, snapping it off. He backed out of the pickup, gave the woman a boost up, then shut mother and son inside the privacy of the cab. With a shout he headed off the rescue workers who were inching their way toward the Toyota. No need to have to rescue the rescuers.
Funny about the kid, though.
Brad fielded a barrage of questions, tossed back a few terse replies. One of the deputies played his flashlight over the crazily canted car, where water surged up and around front wheels still wedged into the ominous black crack that split the bridge in two. “Hey, Brad,” he called, ambling toward the pickup, “what happened just now? That was one hell of a scream.” Twenty years earlier Deputy Pat Farrell had caught passes from Brad Blue during their years at Golden Beach High.
“Woman thought her kid was missing. Tow truck on the way?”
“Lucky that’s all we need. Damnedst thing I ever saw. Don’t think there’s been trouble with this bridge since it was built.”
“Never had this much rain before.”
“Sure didn’t.” Deputy Farrell glanced at the pickup, then eyed the phalanx of emergency vehicles. “Think we’re gonna need the medics?”
Brad cracked open the cab door. “Everything okay in there? Need a medic?” The woman’s pale face appeared in the opening between the front bucket seats. Somehow she had gotten into the small space where the boy was crouched.
“No. Send them home.” Claire bit her tongue. What a stupid, ungracious remark. “I’m sorry,” she gasped. “Please tell everyone thank you. But lights, sirens, people asking questions would only make things worse. We just need to go home.”
Her rescuer didn’t question her judgment. He simply fished a notebook out of the glove compartment and a pen, dripping wet, from his shirt pocket. “Name, address, phone. Twice. I’ll have Pat—the deputy—give one to the tow truck driver. Then we can go. Pat can wind up his report tomorrow.”
To the hypnotic accompaniment of flashes of red, white and blue, the glow of gold from the fire engine, Claire printed out the requested information, scrawled her signature across the EMS release form; then, sick at heart, she turned back to her son’s bent head. Jamie’s chin was sunk between his knees, shoulders hunched forward in utter dejection. Had he relapsed into memories of terror, or did he think he’d disgraced himself by hiding from the flashing lights? Other than a steady murmur of inane reassurances, words failed her. Either way, her son was suffering agonies of the soul, and there wasn’t even room enough in this miserable sliver of a cab extension to scoop him up and hold him tight.
The voices outside died away. Cab doors banged. Through the pickup’s rear window Claire watched the two ambulances and the fire engine back off the causeway, reverse into a side street, and head back up the road toward town, red taillights casting a glow on the glistening pavement.
Jamie didn’t see them. He never raised his head.
~ * ~
Grace Note: The lesson from today's Mosaic Moments: Look around you. It's amazing how many real-life events you can adapt for use in your books.
SAD NOTE: Below is a link to the explosion of the Space X rocket that was scheduled for launch on Saturday, September 3. The oxygen tank at the top blew up, followed by the explosion of the rocket and the payload (a satellite that would have brought the Internet to much of Africa). A $250,000,000 loss. For video of the explosion, click here.