Power had already been restored, for the most part. The beach looked clean and fresh, and the surf curled its toes in calm little foaming wavelets over the sand.
We drove about another fifteen minutes, and then John pointed off to the left.
Maria slowed the Lexus, and we passed a partially downed sign with construction information on it. PARADISE COVE, it proclaimed, presented by Paradise Kingdom LLP. With a whole bunch of subcontractors, like the special effects cast of a big-budget movie. The artist’s rendering on the sign was of a hotel about fifteen stories tall, avant-garde in shape.
It was a hell of a lot more avant-garde now, because what lay behind the sign was a mass of twisted metal and slumping lumber. Looked like a war zone.
Construction materials had been scattered around like Legos after playtime for the emotionally disturbed.
Maria put the Lexus in park.
All three of them looked at me.
“What?” I asked. I was honestly puzzled.
“Tell us what you know about this,” John said.
“Well, I’m no expert, but I’d have to say that between this and the Motel 6 down the road, I’d have to choose the Motel 6…”
“Hell, John, so am I! What do you want me to say? It looks trashed.” I suddenly had a flash. It wasn’t a pleasant one. “This is what they were talking about on the news. The freak damage from Tropical Storm Walter.”
“This is it.”
“Okay… and you think I know about it because… ?” They all exchanged looks, this time. Nobody spoke. I rolled my eyes and said it for them. “Because you think I did this. Grow up, guys. Why would I? The Wardens have made it really clear that if I screw around with the weather, somebody like good old Shirl here will come around and put me on Drool Patrol. I mean, I don’t really like the architectural styling, but I don’t feel that passionate about buildings.”
Predictably, it was John who jumped in. “Right at the present time, there are fewer than ten Wardens in Florida,” he said. “Somebody directed the storm. We recorded the shift.”
“Well, talk to the hand, because it wasn’t me.”
Another significant look that didn’t include me. John said, “Are you sure that’s your answer, Jo?”
“Hell yes, I’m sure. And you’re starting to piss me off with this crap, John. Why would I do a thing like this? Why would I risk it, first of all, and why would I pick on this particular section of coast?”
“It’s close to where Bob Biringanine’s home once stood,” Maria the French Ghost observed.
“So, what, I have a grudge against a dead man? Don’t be ridiculous.”
I was starting to sweat. I mean, this wasn’t usual behavior from Wardens. Suspected offenders got questioned, but usually by auditors, and rarely triple-teamed like this. I was starting to feel a little bit like some poor Mafioso taking a tour of the New Jersey dump, right before he joins the great cycle of composting.
“Look,” I said. “What can I do to convince you? I had nothing to do with this.”
After a few seconds of silence, I asked, “Was anybody hurt?”
“Three people were killed,” John said. “The night watchman had brought his two kids with him to work. The kids were asleep in the front when the tornado hit. He tried to get to them, but he’d lost a lot of blood. He died on the way to the hospital.”
Silence. Outside, the insects were droning, and the sky was that clear, scrubbed blue you only get after a vicious storm. The few palm fronds surviving nodded in a fresh ocean breeze.
Storms were natural. We—the Wardens—didn’t stop the cycle of nature, we just moderated it. Buffered it for the safety of the vulnerable people who lived in its path. But for a storm like this, we wouldn’t have bothered. It wasn’t that bad, and it was necessary to correct the ever-wobbling scales of Mother Earth.
If somebody had messed with it, it was criminal, and intentional.
“It wasn’t me,” I said. “I’ll take whatever oath you want, John. But I’m innocent.”
He nodded slowly, and turned back to face front. “Let’s get you back home,” he said.
“That’s it?” Shirl asked loudly. “Just like that? You buy it just because she says it?”
“No,” Maria the French Ghost said, and turned her head slightly toward me. She had odd eyes, not quite any color, and they looked a little empty. “Not just because she says it.”
Shirl opened her mouth, sensibly shut it, and scowled out the window. Maria started the car and reversed us back out to the highway.
It was a long, silent drive back, and I had a lot to think about.
I got home too late for any shopping, and way out of the mood anyway. I went home to my grubby little apartment, made chili from a can with some shredded cheese, and curled up on my secondhand couch with a warm blanket and a rented movie. The movie was one of those warmed-over schmaltzy romantic comedies with too much romance and not nearly enough comedy, but it didn’t matter; I was too distracted to watch it anyway.
If somebody had been messing with Tropical Storm Walter, I should have known it.
I’ve always been sensitive to those kinds of things. Of course, I could excuse it with the fact that John Foster’s spider sense hadn’t tingled, either, nor—apparently—had those of any of the eight other Wardens stationed in the state. So maybe I could forgive myself a little.
I couldn’t shake the image of that father bringing his kids to work on a boring, safe job, and facing the nightmare of his life. Struggling to save his family in the face of someone else’s malice.
Wardens screw up, that’s a fact of life. Weather is difficult and tricky and it doesn’t like to be tamed. It has a violence and vengeance all its own.
But this wasn’t a screwup, didn’t feel like a screwup, or a random event. It felt targeted, and it felt cold. No wonder the Wardens were sending out hit squads looking for an answer.
I did have to wonder why John Foster had accepted my word for my innocence. In his place, I’d have wanted proof. I wasn’t sure that the fact he let me off so lightly was a good sign.
I did some internet research, made some phone calls to neutral parties—i.e., not Wardens—and put together a rough picture of what had happened. Tropical Storm Walter had turned vicious at the last second, gathering strength as it roared up on the coastline. It made a last-minute turn to the north instead of the south, and waded ashore with near-hurricane-force winds and a complement of tornados.
So far as I knew, the only one that had touched down had leveled the hotel.
It might have been selfish, but I had to wonder why the investigation had focused on me. If they’d instantly focused suspicion on me, the obvious answer was that they didn’t trust me—which, hey, they didn’t—but there must have been some connection I wasn’t seeing. And not the hole in the ground that had once been Bad Bob Biringanine’s house on the beach, either. Even the Wardens weren’t shallow enough to buy the fact that I’d throw a meaningless tantrum and beat up a helpless coastline, unless they suspected me of going completely wacko.
Then again, I was dressing up like the Morton’s Salt Girl on TV and getting water dumped on my head for money.
Maybe they had a point.
I felt alone. More alone than I had in quite some time, actually. I missed my friends. I missed the Wardens.
Boy kissed girl, and the music came up and tried to tell me that love would make everything all right with the world.
I missed David, oh God I missed David.
I curled up with my warm blanket and watched the rest of the movie, and fell asleep to the cold blue flicker.