Erin Jeffries moved down the two-lane road that spanned the eighteen-mile length of Pine Island. Sheets of rain slapped across the windshield, the final fury of a storm that had pounded the area for most of the night.
Ahead of her, a metal post stood at the edge of the sidewalk, devoid of whatever sign it had held yesterday, and stubborn fronds clung to battered palm trees. A hodgepodge of limbs, metal, wood and plastic littered the roadside.
Florida had seen worse. This one was only a category three, but it still packed enough punch to be dangerous. If the report she’d gotten was accurate, someone was trapped in the rubble of a building that had collapsed. He would probably come out of the experience with a new respect for Mother Nature. If he came out of it at all.
At the northernmost tip of the island, Erin navigated a gentle left turn. Charlotte Harbor lay to the right, invisible behind the rivers that flowed down her windows. She glanced in her rearview mirror. The top of a crate peeked over the backseat of her RAV4. Her white German shepherd was inside.
“Almost there, Alcee.”
Maybe the current band of rain would move past them by the time they had to exit the vehicle. If not, she and Alcee would still do what they needed to. Emergency personnel ventured out as soon as conditions were safe, not necessarily comfortable.
Erin lifted her foot from the accelerator. Capt’n Con’s Fish House lay to the left, and the grassy area beyond offered boat trailer parking. Main Street continued farther, but public access ended there. A sheriff’s vehicle sat off the roadway, ensuring no one ventured past the no-trespassing sign. Erin could get through with her badge identifying her as a detective with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. But today she was acting in a different capacity.
As she drew to a stop, the deputy exited the vehicle, head tilted downward beneath the hood of his rain slicker. Erin cracked her window enough for conversation. The deputy had just started to give her a curt nod when a smile spread across his face.
She and Joe had started with Lee County a year ago, both in patrol. Nine months later she’d made detective, at least in part due to the glowing recommendation the department in Sunnyvale, California, had given her. Though their paths didn’t cross that often, they’d stayed on friendly terms, friendly enough for Joe to keep trying to match her up with his former neighbor.
Joe glanced at the dog in the back. “I take it you’re not on duty.”
“Not with Lee County. Alcee and I are volunteers with Peace River K-9 Search and Rescue. We’re looking for hurricane victims.” One, anyway. She’d gotten the call right after daybreak and had been ready to respond within ten minutes.
“Every mandatory evacuation, there are always people who think the mandatory part of that phrase doesn’t apply to them.” He shook his head and, after wishing her success, waved her through.
Erin raised the window and crept past him. Her destination was on the last small street branching off Main, a large older home that had been converted to apartments.
She made a left onto Boca Vista and drove past the first residence. When she stopped behind the sheriff’s vehicle sitting in the next drive, she released a low whistle. The building in front of her seemed to have tipped forward, the two upper stories falling onto the first. Rafters, joists and studs jutted outward from the jumble like broken bones.
Her hope that the rain would slack off by the time she arrived hadn’t materialized. She reached for the slicker in the seat beside her. Alcee’s search and rescue vest wouldn’t do anything to keep her dry, but at least the big, fat drops weren’t cold. Florida rain in August was just wet.
Erin shrugged into her raincoat. As she stepped from her car, a deputy rounded the corner of the house and called a greeting. She’d met him when she started with the department, but hadn’t seen him since. They worked different shifts in different parts of the county. She struggled to pull up a name. Hidden beneath the rain slicker, his nameplate was no help.
“You have a good memory.” She gave him a sheepish smile. “Better than mine.”
“I had just one name to learn. You had a whole department.” He extended a hand. “Alan Drummond.”
She accepted the handshake. “So what do we have?”
“I’ve only been here about fifteen minutes. We got the call from one of the residents in town who didn’t evacuate. He got out at the crack of dawn, during one of the lulls.” Drummond nodded toward a white Dodge Ram sitting next to the cruiser. “With the truck parked here, he’s afraid someone might have been inside when this came down.”
“Have you heard or seen anything?”
“Not a thing. I’ve circled the building, calling out, but haven’t gotten a response.”
“If anyone’s there, Alcee will find them.” She opened the back door of her SUV and unfastened the latch on the crate. “Come.”
Alcee jumped out, undeterred by the pouring rain. Beneath the vest, eagerness rippled through her sleek body as if she sensed the importance of what she was about to do. Erin bent to scratch her neck and cheeks. “You’re a good girl.”
As Erin moved toward the wreckage, Alcee pranced next to her. The dog would do her work off leash.
Deputy Drummond followed. “We’ve been in touch with the owner of the building and are working on contacting his tenants. I ran the tag on the Ram, and it came back registered to someone in Cape Coral. I don’t know why it’s parked here, unless he moved and didn’t update his address.”
Erin pointed at the pile of rubble. “Seek.”
The dog didn’t hesitate. As she gingerly made her way upward, boards shifted under her, but she maintained her footing.
Erin’s heart pounded. God, please help her. Working around collapsed buildings was dangerous, and dogs had been hurt. But it was more than that. She really wanted Alcee to succeed. Whoever might be trapped in that building needed Alcee to succeed.
The two of them had finished their search and rescue training a year and a half earlier, and although they’d participated in several searches for lost children and elderly people with dementia, the missing person had always been found in one of the other teams’ grids. This time she and Alcee were alone. But the dog was ready. She’d practiced this scenario dozens of times, with a trainer hiding in rubble. She’d passed every test and graduated from the program.
Except this wasn’t a simulation. It was the real thing, with a real life at stake.
Drummond watched the dog for several minutes, then returned to his vehicle. Erin stayed rooted to the spot, pleas for help circling through her mind. Her primary prayer was that there weren’t any victims. Her follow-up was that if there were, help would reach them in time.
As she waited, the rain abated, then stopped altogether. Steel-gray clouds blanketed the sky, a small patch of brightness barely visible at the eastern edge. She slipped out of her rain jacket and laid it over the hood of her vehicle to dry. Maybe that last band was the end of it.
A rumble broke the silence, the distant sound of helicopter rotors beating the air. The volume and pitch increased as it grew closer. It was likely one of the local news stations.
She joined Drummond at his vehicle. “Anything new?”
“So far all the tenants are accounted for except a single, older gentleman. The calls go straight to voice mail. The Ram belongs to his grandson.”
Erin nodded. “Maybe the grandson came to pick him up and they left in the grandfather’s vehicle.”
She returned her attention to her dog. Alcee’s movements had grown more animated. She was sniffing with new vigor, head down, nose tracing a jagged path. She’d locked on to a scent.
Erin’s pulse picked up speed, and her heart beat in her throat. Alcee’s first find. At least, her first find that involved a real injured person, not a trainer pretending to be trapped.
The dog pawed at a board, released three barks and sat. That was her indication—bark and sit.
Erin turned to Drummond, unable to keep the tremor from her voice. “Alcee’s found a survivor. We need debris-removal people.”
“Already done. A construction company’s on the way with a crane.”
As if in response, the deep roar of an engine drifted to them. A half minute later a truck turned the corner, a crane mounted in its bed. Turner-Peterson Contractors, according to the sign on the door. She met the driver at the road.
“Someone’s trapped, right up there.”
She pointed to Alcee sitting atop the debris like a furry sentinel. She’d stay until Erin released her.
A pickup truck bearing the same signage as the first arrived. It remained parked at the road while the other driver maneuvered the crane truck into position.
Erin retrieved a rope toy from her vehicle and held it up. “Alcee, come.”
The dog made her way down as carefully as she’d ascended. Erin couldn’t tone down her smile. Warmth swelled inside her—love for her dog and pride in what she’d accomplished.
Less than three years ago Alcee was training to be a companion dog for the blind but wasn’t getting it. They’d tried training her for narcotics detection, and that hadn’t gone much better. Fortunately, her trainers had recognized that, with her curiosity, endless energy and toy drive she was better suited to a search and rescue career.
Erin dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around the dog. “Good girl.” She held out the twisted rope with the ball affixed to the end and let Alcee play a game of tug-of-war. Then she relinquished the toy and put the dog in a down-stay. They’d both remain out of the way of those working to free whoever was trapped.
The helicopter Erin had heard earlier passed overhead. She’d been right. Bold letters on the belly proclaimed it belonged to one of the local stations. It turned and made several slow passes. If they were looking for a story, they’d found one.
For the next half hour the workers used the crane to remove rafters, beams and joists from the pile, careful not to disturb the stability and cause further collapse. It was like a giant game of Pick-Up Sticks. Erin fought the urge to chew her nails, a habit she’d broken years ago but was tempted to start back up.
The simulations she and Alcee had done at the training facility near LA didn’t include removal. Watching the men’s painstaking work, praying they didn’t disturb a board that would cause the pile to come crashing down, was nerve-racking.
A news van turned onto Boca Vista and drew to a stop. Two people hopped out, a man with a video camera and a woman with a microphone. Erin stepped into the shade of a mango tree and pressed her back against its trunk. If she took off Alcee’s vest, maybe they’d assume she was a curious neighbor and leave her alone.
The reporters gave them a cursory glance then approached Drummond. Whatever the deputy told them was lost under the noise of the crane truck. When they moved toward her, she turned away and held up a hand. “No camera.” The last thing she wanted was to have her face plastered on national TV, for reasons that had nothing to do with shyness.
The woman extended her arm toward her associate, palm down, and he lowered the camera. She offered Erin a warm smile. “What a beautiful dog. I hear she’s the one who discovered the victims.”
Erin responded in the affirmative, then fielded several questions about search and rescue in general and Alcee in particular. Which was okay. She could talk about her dog forever, as long as there were no cameras. While she conversed with the reporters, Deputy Drummond summoned an ambulance and the men continued to work. Suddenly, one of them bent over and shouted something into the debris. Erin couldn’t make out the words over the sound of the equipment.
The rescuer straightened, hands cupped around his mouth. “I can’t see anything yet, but we’ve got someone. He’s alive and conscious.”
Erin released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Thank you, Lord.
The reporters moved in that direction and the camera clicked back on. Deputy Drummond approached the collapsed building. “Ask if he’s alone.”
The worker crouched to engage in a brief conversation and then rose. “His grandfather is with him, five or six feet away. He’s frantic about the old man. Says he stopped talking to him a few hours ago.”
Erin frowned. Two victims, one seriously hurt, maybe even dead.
The EMT who’d driven the ambulance joined the conversation. “Ask him if he’s injured.”
Several seconds passed with just the rumble of the truck’s engine and the whirr of the crane before the man straightened again.
“He says he’s fine, just get his grandpa out. But it sounds like he’s having trouble breathing.”
The EMT radioed for an additional team, and the men continued their tedious work, opening a larger path to the victims. The second ambulance arrived, and paramedics readied two stretchers.
Finally, the first of the victims was free. He struggled into an upright position, and the paramedics rushed to assist. When they reached the victim, he waved them away. Erin could guess where the conversation was going. The guy was worried about his grandfather and wanted all the attention focused on him.
Some words passed between him and the paramedics. Whatever they said must have penetrated the guy’s panic, because he finally allowed them to help him down.
Once on level ground, he looked up. His gaze locked with hers. Suddenly, the ground wasn’t level anymore. Her whole world tilted. His apparently did, too, because he froze midstride. His eyes widened and several emotions skittered across his face.
She took several stumbling steps toward him. Cody Elbourne hadn’t been her first love, but he’d been her deepest. Then she’d ended it. With that free spirit she’d inherited from her hippie grandparents and four years of college to look forward to, she’d wanted to keep her options wide open. So after one magical summer, she’d severed contact, a decision she’d questioned more than once over the past twelve years.
Just before she reached him, she jerked to a stop. Now wasn’t the time for a reunion. The man had just been pulled from a collapsed structure, and she had no idea what injuries he had.
He lifted a hand toward her, wincing with the motion. “Erin.”
Although he allowed the paramedics to ease him onto the stretcher, he remained in a seated position. His T-shirt was plastered to his skin, muscles outlined beneath as he gripped the edge of the gurney. The light brown hair she remembered as being soft and full of body hung in limp, wet strands. He’d likely had a miserable night, lying trapped while pounding rain seeped in through the debris.
A soft whine drew her attention downward. Alcee looked up at her with a question in her dark eyes. Her dog was used to providing emotional support—easing loneliness, calming fears, even settling Erin down after one of her frequent nightmares. But this was different. Alcee likely sensed something was off but didn’t understand what.
Erin placed a reassuring hand on the dog’s head, offering a smile to back it up. She was all right. At least, she would be, once she recovered. The problem was, the moment Cody’s eyes met hers, her universe had shifted, and it still hadn’t realigned. It probably wouldn’t for some time.
When she straightened, Cody was watching her. “What are you doing here?”
“Searching for survivors.” Of course, he already knew that. “I left California a year ago, settled in Fort Myers.”
Questions tumbled through her mind. What was he doing here? Had he come back permanently, like she had, or was he just visiting? And why Southwest Florida, where they’d both vacationed and fallen in love so many years ago?
Before she could voice any of those thoughts, one of the paramedics slipped a blood pressure cuff over Cody’s arm. Erin moved to the end of the stretcher, well out of their way as they did their assessments. The reporters observed from a distance. They’d probably stay until they got a complete story, which wouldn’t be until Cody’s Pops was free.
She hoped it would be soon. Although Cody cooperated with the paramedics, worry lined his face, and his gaze kept shifting to the crane and the men working on the wreckage.
She lightly touched the back of his hand. “They’ll get him out. They’re good at what they do.”
He gave her a weak smile. “I’m just worried about him. He hasn’t said anything for several hours. I’m hoping he’s unconscious and not…” His eyes dipped to his lap and his fists clenched. “I won’t let these guys take me until I know Pops is all right.”
“Your grandfather, is this the one I knew?” If she could keep him talking, it might help him keep his sanity while he waited.
Of course it would be. All he had was his maternal grandparents. His dad’s parents had been as absent in his life as his dad had been. His mom ran a close third.
He tilted his head toward Alcee. “I take it the dog is yours.”
“She is.” The sides of Erin’s mouth lifted. It was an involuntary reaction every time she thought of her sweet German shepherd. “Cody, meet Alcee.”
He grinned down at the dog. “I’m pleased to meet you, Alcee, especially since you saved my life.” Cody’s focus bounced back up to Erin, and his smile faded. “I’d fallen asleep, or maybe passed out, then heard a dog barking somewhere above me.”
“That was Alcee.” Erin patted the dog’s back then pressed the furry body against her leg in a one-armed hug. Almost an hour had passed, but the love and pride she’d felt when Alcee alerted hadn’t lessened one iota. “The authorities called us out to see if anyone was trapped.”
She resisted the temptation to add even though everyone was supposed to evacuate. The best thing Cody could have done for his grandfather was gotten him to safety. If anything happened to the older man because of Cody’s carelessness, he’d carry that burden the rest of his life. She wouldn’t wish that on anybody. She knew about regrets.
Cody shook his head. “For a while, I didn’t think either of us was going to make it. With those gas tanks blowing, I was afraid the whole place was going to catch fire.”
“Gas tanks?” Deputy Drummond stepped closer, brow creased. “There aren’t any gas tanks. The heating and appliances are electric.”
Cody’s face mirrored Drummond’s look of confusion. “But there were explosions, about five or six of them close together. Then groans and creaks and finally the pop of splitting wood. The floor tilted, and bits of plaster rained down. Next, the building collapsed.”
The deputy’s lips pressed together in a frown. He unclipped his radio from his shirt and called dispatch. “We need an investigator from the Bureau of Fire, Arson and Explosives. One of the victims reported hearing explosions just before the house came down.”
Erin shifted her gaze to the home next door. A couple of shutters were gone and a piece of fascia was dangling from the front porch. The roof had taken a hit, too, with patches a shade or two darker where shingles were missing. The home on the other side was in the same condition.
The contrast between those houses and the one where she was standing was startling. Until a few minutes ago, it hadn’t made sense.
But maybe there was a reason only one home out of hundreds had been destroyed. Maybe Mother Nature wasn’t to blame. Or maybe she’d had some help.
But why? Had someone set out to simply demolish the house?
Or had they been after the people inside?