Leo spun to life in late July in the restless waters of the far eastern Atlantic, about two hundred miles west of Cape Verde. He was soon spotted from space, properly named, and classified as a mere tropical depression. Within hours he had been upgraded to a tropical storm. For a month, strong dry winds had swept across the Sahara and collided with the moist fronts along the equator, creating swirling masses that moved westward as if searching for land. When Leo began his journey, there were three named storms ahead of him, all in a menacing row that threatened the Caribbean. All three would eventually follow their expected routes and bring heavy rains to the islands but nothing more. From the beginning, though, it was apparent that Leo would go where no one predicted. He was far more erratic, and deadly. When he finally petered out from exhaustion over the Midwest, he was blamed for five billion in property damages and thirty-five deaths. But before that he wasted no time with his classifications, advancing swiftly from tropical depression to tropical storm to a full-blown hurricane. At Category 3, with winds of 120 miles per hour, he hit the Turks and Caicos head-on and blew away several hundred homes, killing ten. He skirted low beneath Crooked Island, took a slight left, and aimed for Cuba before stalling south of Andros. His eye weakened as he lost steam and limped across Cuba, once again as a lowly depression with plenty of rain but unimpressive winds. He turned south in time to flood Jamaica and the Caymans, then, in a startling twelve-hour period, he reorganized with a perfect eye and turned north toward the warm and inviting waters of the Gulf of Mexico. His trackers drew a line straight at Biloxi, the usual target, but by then they knew better than to make predictions.
Leo seemed to have a mind of his own and no use for their models. Once again he rapidly grew in size and speed, and in less than two days had his own news special on cable, and Vegas was posting odds on the landing site. Dozens of giddy camera crews raced into harm’s way. Warnings were posted from Galveston to Pensacola. Oil companies scurried to extract ten thousand rig workers from the Gulf, and, as always, jacked up their prices just for the hell of it. Evacuation plans in five states were activated. Governors held press conferences. Fleets of boats and airplanes scrambled to reposition inland. As a Category 4, and veering east and west along a steady northbound trek, Leo seemed destined for a historic and ugly landfall. And then he stalled again.
Three hundred miles south of Mobile, he faked to his left, began a slow turn to the east, and weakened considerably. For two days he chugged along with Tampa in his sights, then suddenly came to life again as a Category 1. For a change he maintained a straight course and his eye passed over St. Petersburg with winds at a hundred miles per hour. Flooding was heavy, electricity was knocked out, flimsier buildings were flattened, but there were no fatalities. He then followed Interstate 4 and dumped ten inches of rain on Orlando and eight on Daytona Beach before leaving land as yet another tropical depression. The weary forecasters said farewell as he limped into the Atlantic. Their models ran him out to sea where he would do little more than frighten some cargo ships. However, Leo had other plans. Two hundred miles due east of St.
Augustine, he turned north and picked up steam as his center spun together tightly for the third time. The models were reshuffled and new warnings were issued. For forty-eight hours he moved steadily along, gaining strength as he eyed the coast as if selecting his next target. 2. At Bay Books in the town of Santa Rosa on Camino Island, the chatter among the clerks and customers was of nothing but the storm. Indeed, across the island, as well as from Jacksonville to the south and Savannah to the north, everyone was watching Leo and talking about him nonstop. By now most folks were well informed and could say with authority that no Florida beach north of Daytona had taken a direct hit in decades. There had been plenty of glancing blows as the hurricanes hurried north toward the Carolinas. One theory was that the Gulf Stream sixty miles out acted as a barrier to protect the Florida beaches and it would do so again with pesky Leo. Another theory was that the luck had run out and it was time for the Big One.
The models were a hot topic. The hurricane center in Miami was now plotting a trajectory that sent Leo farther out to sea without landfall. But the Europeans had him coming ashore south of Savannah as a Category 4, with massive flooding in the low country. If Leo had proved anything, though, it was that he cared nothing for the models. Bruce Cable, the owner of Bay Books, kept one eye on the Weather Channel while he hustled customers and chided his staff to get about their business. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and Bruce bought into the legend that Camino Island was immune to dangerous hurricanes. He’d been there for twenty-four years and had not seen a destructive storm. His store hosted at least four readings a week, and a major appearance was on for tomorrow night. Surely Leo would not disrupt the pleasant homecoming Bruce had planned for one of his favorite authors. Mercer Mann was ending a two-month summer tour that had been wildly successful.
Her second novel, Tessa, was the talk of the trade and currently in the top ten on all the bestseller lists. Its reviews were glowing and it was selling faster than anyone had expected. Labeled literary fiction, as opposed to one of the more popular genres, it had seemed destined for the lower rungs of the lists, if it made it at all. Its publisher, along with its author, had dreamed of selling thirty thousand in hardcover and e-book combined, but the novel was already beyond that. Mercer had deep roots on the island, having summered there as a girl with her grandmother, Tessa, the inspiration for the novel. Three years earlier she had spent a month on the beach in the family cottage and managed to entangle herself in some local mischief. She had also had a quick fling with Bruce, just another in his long line of trysts. But Bruce wasn’t thinking about another fling, or at least he was trying to convince himself he wasn’t. He was busy running the store and drumming up a crowd for Mercer’s big event. Bay Books was a powerhouse on the national bookstore circuit because Bruce could always pull in a crowd and move the inventory.
The New York publishers clamored to get their writers to the island, and many of them were young ladies on the road and looking for a good time. Bruce loved writers and he wined and dined them, promoted their books, and partied with them. Mercer had been down that road and wasn’t going back, primarily because she was being escorted on her summer tour by a new boyfriend. Bruce didn’t care. He was just delighted she was on the island and riding high with a superb new novel. He had read the galleys six months earlier and had been promoting it ever since. As usual, when he loved a book, he had sent dozens of handwritten notes to friends and customers touting Tessa. He had called booksellers across the country and encouraged them to stock up. He had chatted with Mercer for hours on the phone and advised her on where to tour, what stores to avoid, which reviewers to ignore, and which journalists to spend time with. He had even passed along some unsolicited editorial comments, some of which she appreciated, some she ignored.
Tessa was her breakout novel, her golden moment to establish a career that Bruce had believed in since her first book, which had been largely neglected. She had never stopped adoring him, their little fling aside, along with a rather serious breach of confidence that surrounded it, for which he had forgiven her. Bruce was a lovable though roguish character and an undeniable force in the brutal world of bookselling. 3. They met for lunch the day before her appearance at a restaurant at the end of Main Street in Santa Rosa, six blocks from the bookstore. Lunch for Bruce was always in a downtown restaurant, with a bottle of wine or two, and usually with a sales rep or a visiting writer or one of the locals he supported. Business lunches, with receipts saved for the accountant. He arrived a few minutes early and went straight to his favorite table on the deck, with a view of the busy harbor. He flirted with the waitress and ordered a bottle of Sancerre. When Mercer swept in he stood and hugged her and offered a firm handshake to Thomas, her companion these days.
They took their seats and Bruce poured the wine. Leo had to be discussed because he was still out there, but Bruce quickly dismissed him as nothing but a distraction. “He’s headed to Nags Head,” he said confidently. Mercer was prettier than ever, her long dark hair cut shorter, her hazel eyes glowing with all the success that a bestseller could bring. She was tired of the tour, thrilled to be finished with it, but also savoring the moment. “Thirty-four stops in fifty-one days,” she said with a smile. “You’re lucky,” Bruce said. “As you well know, publishers don’t like to spend money these days. You’re killing it, Mercer. I’ve seen eighteen reviews, all but one positive.
” “Did you see Seattle?” “That jerk doesn’t like anything. I know him. I called him when I saw the review and said harsh things.” “Bruce, really?” “It’s my job. I protect my writers. I’ll punch him if I ever meet him.” Thomas laughed and said, “Hit him a lick for me.” Bruce raised his glass and said, “Come on, cheers to Tessa. Number five on the Times list and moving up.” They took a celebratory sip of wine.
Mercer said, “It’s still hard to believe.” “And a new contract,” Thomas said, glancing furtively at her. “Can we break the news?” “It’s already broken,” Bruce said. “Let’s hear it. I want the details.” Mercer smiled again and said, “My agent called this morning. Viking is offering a nice sum for two more books.” Bruce raised his glass again and said, “Awesome. Those people aren’t stupid. Congratulations, Mercer.
Great news.” Of course, Bruce wanted all the details, especially the amount of the “nice sum,” but he had a general idea. Mercer’s agent was a tough old pro who knew the business and could now negotiate a new two-book deal for seven figures. After years of struggling, Ms. Mann was entering a new world. “And foreign rights?” Bruce asked. “We start selling them next week,” she said. Mercer’s first books had barely sold stateside. There were no foreign royalties. Bruce said, “The Brits and Germans will snap it up.
The French and Italians will love Tessa when it’s translated, it’s their kind of story, and they’ll be easy to deal with. You’ll be in twenty languages before you know it, Mercer. This is incredible.” She looked at Thomas and said, “See what I mean? He knows the business.” They clinked glasses again as the waitress approached. “This calls for champagne,” Bruce announced, then quickly ordered a bottle before anyone could object. He asked about the tour and wanted the scoop on all the stores she had visited. He knew virtually every serious bookseller in the country and visited as many as possible. For Bruce, a vacation was a week in Napa or Santa Fe for food and wine but also to scout out the best independent bookstores and network with their owners. He asked about Square Books in Oxford, one of his favorites.
Bay Books was modeled after it. These days Mercer was living in Oxford and teaching creative writing at Ole Miss, a two-year gig with one year to go and the hope of a permanent position. The success of Tessa would put her on a tenure track, at least in Bruce’s opinion, and he was scheming of ways to help. The waitress poured champagne and took their orders. They toasted the new contract again as the clock seemed to stop. Thomas, who had done little but listen, said, “Mercer warned me that you take your lunches seriously.” Bruce smiled and replied, “Indeed. I work from early to late, and at noon I have to get out of the store. That’s my excuse. I usually nap off the lunch midafternoon.
” Mercer had been coy about her new friend. She had made it clear that she was seeing someone and that he would have all of her attention. Bruce respected that and was truly pleased she had found a steady, and not a bad-looking one. Thomas appeared to be in his late twenties, a few years younger than Mercer. Bruce began chipping away. He said, “She tells me you’re a writer too.” Thomas smiled and said, “Yes, and quite unpublished. I’m one of her MFA students.” Bruce chuckled at this and said, “Ah, I see. Sleeping with the professor.
That’ll get you high marks.” “Come on, Bruce,” Mercer said, but she was smiling. “What’s your background?” Bruce asked. Thomas said, “Degree in American lit from Grinnell. Three years as a staff writer for The Atlantic. Freelance stuff for a couple of online magazines. About three dozen short stories and two dreadful novels, all fittingly unpublished. I’m hanging around Ole Miss doing the MFA thing and trying to figure out the future. For the past two months I’ve been carrying her luggage and having a grand time.” Mercer added, “Bodyguard, chauffeur, publicist, personal assistant.
And he’s a beautiful writer.” “I’d like to see some of your stuff,” Bruce said. Mercer looked at Thomas and said, “I told you. Bruce is always eager to help.” Thomas said, “Deal. When I have something worth reading I’ll let you know.” Mercer knew that before dinner Bruce would dig online and find every story Thomas had written for The Atlantic and every other publication and would have a fairly firm opinion about his talents. The crab salads arrived and Bruce poured more champagne. He noticed that his two guests were, so far, light drinkers. It was a habit he couldn’t shake.
At every lunch and dinner table, and at every bar, Bruce noticed. Most of the female writers he entertained hit the booze lightly. Most of the males were hard drinkers. A few were in recovery, and for those Bruce stuck strictly to iced tea. He looked at Mercer and said, “And your next novel?” “Come on, Bruce. I’m living the moment and writing nothing these days. We have two more weeks here before classes start and I’m determined not to write a single word.” “Smart, but don’t wait too long. That two-book contract will get heavier as the days go by. And you can’t wait three years before the next novel.
” “Okay, okay,” she said. “But can I have just a few days off?” “One week, that’s all. Look, dinner will be a blast tonight. Are you up for it?” “Of course. All the gang?” “They wouldn’t miss it. Noelle is in Europe and she sends her regards, but everybody else is quite eager to see you. They’ve all read the book and love it.” “And how’s Andy?” she asked. “Still sober, so he won’t be there. His last book was pretty good and sold well.
He’s writing a lot. You’ll see him around.” “I’ve thought about him a lot. Such a sweet guy.” “He’s doing well, Mercer. The gang is still together and looking forward to a long dinner.” 4. Thomas excused himself to find the restroom, and as soon as he was gone Bruce leaned in and asked, “Does he know about us?” “What about us?” “You’ve forgotten already? Our little weekend together. It was delightful, as I recall.” “Don’t know what you’re talking about, Bruce.
It never happened.” “Okay. Fine with me. And nothing about the manuscripts?” “What manuscripts? That’s a part of my past I’m trying to forget.” “Wonderful. No one knows but you, me, Noelle, and of course the folks who paid the ransom.” “Nothing from me.” She took a sip of wine, then leaned in low herself. “But where’s all that money, Bruce?” “Buried offshore and drawing interest. I have no plans to touch it.
” “But it’s a fortune. Why are you still working so hard?” A big smile, a big sip. “This is not work, Mercer. This is who I am. I love this business and would be lost without it.” “Does the business still include dabbling in the black market?” “Of course not. There are too many people watching right now, and, obviously, I don’t need that anymore.” “So you’ve gone straight?” “Clean as a whistle. I love the world of rare books and I’m buying even more these days, all legit. From time to time I get approached with something suspicious.
There’s still a lot of thievery out there, and I confess that I’m tempted. But it’s too dicey.” “At the moment.” “At the moment.” She shook her head and smiled. “You’re hopeless, Bruce. A hopeless flirt, philanderer, and book thief.” “True, and I’ll also sell more copies of your book than anyone else. You gotta love me, Mercer.” “I wouldn’t call it love.
” “Okay. How about adoration?” “I’ll try that. Changing the subject, is there anything I should know about tonight?” “I don’t think so. Everyone is excited to see you again. There were some questions when you disappeared three years ago, but I covered for you, said you had some family drama back home, wherever home might be. Then you got a couple of gigs teaching and just haven’t had the time to get back to the island.” “Same characters?” “Yes, minus Noelle, as I said. Andy will probably stop by for a glass of water and a hello. He asks about you. And there’s a new writer you might find interesting.
Name’s Nelson Kerr, a former lawyer with a big firm in San Francisco. He ratted out a client, a defense contractor who was illegally selling high-tech military stuff to the Iranians and North Koreans, nice guys like that. It was a big stink about ten years ago, now it’s long since forgotten.” “Why would I follow that?” “Right, anyway, his career flamed out but he collected a ton for blowing the whistle. Now he’s sort of hiding out. Early forties, divorced, no kids, keeps to himself.” “This place attracts the misfits, doesn’t it?” “Always has. He’s a nice guy but doesn’t say much. Bought a nice condo down by the Hilton. Travels a lot.
” “What about his books?” “He writes what he knows, international arms smuggling, money laundering. Good thrillers.” “Sounds awful. Does he sell?” “So-so, but he has potential. You wouldn’t like his stuff but you’ll probably like him.” Thomas returned and the conversation switched to the latest publishing scandal. 5. Bruce lived in a Victorian home ten minutes by foot from Bay Books. After the obligatory post-lunch siesta in his office at the store, he left midafternoon and walked home to prepare for dinner. Even in the depths of summer, he preferred to have his fancy meals on the veranda, under a couple of creaky old fans and next to a gurgling fountain.
His favorite cuisine came from south Louisiana, and for the evening he had hired Chef Claude, a bona-fide Cajun who’d been on the island for thirty years. He was already in the kitchen, whistling as he hovered over a large copper pot on the stove. They bantered for a moment but Bruce knew better than to hang around. The chef was a big talker and when fully engaged often forgot about his food. The temperature was in the low nineties and Bruce went upstairs to change. He peeled out of his daily seersucker and bow tie and put on grungy shorts and a T-shirt, no shoes. Back in the kitchen, he opened two cold bottles of beer, gave one to the chef, and took the other one to the veranda to set the table. At these moments he really missed Noelle. She imported antiques from the South of France and was a master at decorating. Her favorite chore was preparing a table for a dinner party.
Her collection of vintage china, glasses, and flatware was astonishing and still growing. Some she bought to stock her store, but the rarest stuff, and the most beautiful, she kept for their private use. In Noelle’s book, a gorgeous table was a gift to their guests, and no one could do it like her. She often photographed them both before and during the dinners, and framed the best ones to hang for her customers to admire. The table was twelve feet long and for centuries had been used in a winery in Languedoc. They had found it together a year earlier when they spent a month on a shopping spree. Flush with ill-gotten cash, they had virtually raided Provence and bought so much stuff that they rented space in a warehouse in Avignon. On a sideboard in the dining room, Noelle had carefully laid out the perfect dishes. Twelve vintage porcelain plates that had been hand-painted for a minor count in the 1700s. Lots of silverware, six pieces for each setting.
And dozens of glasses for water and wine and digestifs. The wineglasses were often problematic. Evidently Noelle’s French ancestors didn’t drink as much as Bruce’s American writers, and the old glasses held barely three ounces when fully loaded. At a rowdy dinner party years earlier, Bruce and his guests had become frustrated with the need to refill the dainty glasses every ten minutes or so. Since then, he insisted on more modern versions that held eight ounces of red, six for white. Noelle, who drank little, had acquiesced and found a collection of goblets from Burgundy that would impress an Irish rugby team. Next to the dishes was a detailed diagram of the proper setting that she had prepared three days earlier when she left town. Bruce went about the business of arranging the linen placemats, the silk table runners, the candelabras, and then the dishes and glasses. The florist arrived and fussed over the table as she rearranged things and bickered with Bruce. When the table was perfect, according to her, Bruce took a photo and sent it to Noelle, who was somewhere in the Alps with her other companion.
It was of magazine quality and ready for a dozen guests, though with their dinners the exact number was never certain until the food was served. Strays often materialized at the last moment and added to the fun. Bruce went to the fridge for another beer. 6. Cocktails were scheduled for 6:00 p.m. However, the guests were a bunch of writers and none would dare arrive before seven. Myra Beckwith and Leigh Trane showed up first and entered without knocking. Bruce met them on the veranda and mixed a rum and soda for Leigh and poured a stout ale for Myra. The ladies had been a couple for over thirty years.
As writers, they had struggled to pay the bills until they discovered the genre of soft porn romance novels. They cranked out a hundred of them under a dozen pseudonyms and made enough money to retire to the island and live in a quaint old house just around the corner from Bruce. Now, in their mid-seventies, they wrote little. Leigh fancied herself a tortured literary artist but her writing was impenetrable and her novels, the few she got published, sold next to nothing. She was always working on a novel but never finishing one. She claimed to be embarrassed by the junk they’d published but enjoyed the money. Myra, on the other hand, was proud of their work and longed for the glory days creating steamy sex scenes with pirates and young virgins and such. Myra was a large woman with a crew cut dyed lavender. In a lame effort to hide some of her bulk, she wore loud flowing robes that would work nicely as bedsheets for a queen-size. Leigh, on the other hand, was tiny with dark features and long black hair piled neatly into a bun.
Both ladies adored Bruce and Noelle, and the four dined together often. Myra gulped her brew and asked him, “Have you seen Mercer?” “Yes, we had lunch today, along with Thomas, her bodyguard these days.” “Is he cute?” Leigh asked. “He’s a nice-looking guy, a few years younger. One of her students.” “Go, girl,” Myra said. “Did you ever learn the real reason she left here so abruptly three years ago?” “Not really. Some sort of family business.”