Jim Best lives in Kansas, where lately raging rain has caused rivers to rise and towns to be flooded in epic proportions. So perhaps his latest novel, Deluge, is prescient. Taking a break from his phenomenally successful Steve Dancy westerns, Deluge is set in the present, but its antecedents are in 1862, when a sixty-five-day downpour pummeled the western United States. California suffered the brunt of the storm. Almost a third of the state was under water, roads were impassible, telegraph lines down, rivers overflowed, hundreds of people died, and hundreds of thousands of animals drowned. Sacramento remained under water for six months, forcing the state government to move to San Francisco. Geological evidence shows that a flood of this magnitude hits the western United States every one to two hundred years. Well, it’s been a hundred and fifty-six years and as Jim says, “It will happen again.”
Deluge is already garnering great reviews on Goodreads and Amazon as well. Here’s Chapter 1, to whet your appetite for a modern western thriller.
Despite Rincon’s reputation as the best surf spot along the Santa Barbara coast, other surfers gave Greg Evarts a wide berth. He didn’t flaunt being a cop, but the locals knew his profession. The teens and young adults in the water were normally highly territorial, but they didn’t want trouble with the local gendarmerie. Evarts purposely acted standoffish. He had no desire to compete or socialize with this younger crowd, but they’d be surprised to learn why. He wanted to avoid arresting them for beach misdemeanors or inland petty crimes. He knew what was going on. He had grown up on this same beach but had left behind his own minor delinquencies. Most of these kids would as well. He wanted to give them a break, but he didn’t want to be taken advantage of because he was a fellow surfer. That would lead to sorrow—for them and for him.
Evarts seldom surfed in stormy weather. He didn’t fear lightning. Electrical storms almost never accompanied rain in Southern California. Here, it drizzled, often for days. Nebraska might get an inch of rain in less than an hour, but clouds over the Golden State politely sprinkled moisture so sparingly that a full-inch accumulation could take days. No, Evarts didn’t surf in the rain because he was getting old. Older, at any rate. He preferred to ignore having turned forty a couple of years before, but his aching joints reminded him daily. The young might surf during nasty weather, but Evarts preferred clear skies, no wind, and waves that didn’t block out the entire sky.
None of these desirable elements were present today. The sideshore wind caused choppy water, heavy clouds hung low overhead, and the waves were thick and ranged from six to ten feet, with occasional sets more than twice his height. Bigger than Evarts preferred. He had gone in the water because he had given up waiting for a calm, sunny day. An endless line of storms had battered California, and ominous clouds had hung over Santa Barbara for nearly three weeks. Inland areas of the state had become saturated with rainfall, but Santa Barbara had received only a constant drizzle that irritated locals addicted to sunshine.
Evarts examined the sky. He could discern not even a dull glow where the sun would be at this hour. He swiped water from his eyes. The rain was bad enough, but the wind made the ocean surface bumpy, and the nose of his board kept splashing salt water in his face as he paddled. He wanted to keep a clear eye out to sea, so it presented more than an annoyance. The larger, outside waves could be brutal, and he didn’t want to be caught inside in what surfers called the impact zone. People generally thought of water as benign. It watered gardens, you could drink it, bathe with it, freeze it to chill a drink or a sore back, swim in it, or laze on the surface in a boat or on a floater. Water was an essential element of life, useful and often great fun. But surfers knew water could also be a killer. No one who had been hit by a huge wave disrespected moving water. You couldn’t fight it. You couldn’t beat it. You could only get out of the way or let it throw you around like a rag doll in a Rottweiler’s grip.
He shook his head, scattering droplets of water in every direction. He was not having fun.
Evarts caught a head-high wave. After a bumpy, mediocre ride, he decided to call it a day.
No one yelled a greeting on the beach as he made the long trek to his vehicle. None of his aging surfing buddies felt desperate enough to challenge the cold for treacherous waves with little promise. Evarts cursed as he visualized them in their warm kitchens, sipping coffee, and reading the newspaper or computer screens. He used a metal manual key to unlock his Mercedes-Benz high-roof extended cargo van. Electronic keys didn’t fare well in water. The interior of his van had been customized as a twenty-first-century surf wagon, possessing every convenience known to wealthy surfers. He slid his board into its dedicated slot and used the portable shower system while standing in the street behind the van. He then climbed into the back and closed the door to change out of his wet suit. Most surfers wrapped a towel around them and removed their suit in the open, but it wouldn’t do for the chief of police to get arrested for indecent exposure on Pacific Coast Highway.
Evarts had money but didn’t think of himself as rich. Habit, he supposed. He had grown up middle-class surrounded by rich people in this seaside town referred to as the American Riviera. When he had returned from military service and joined the local police force, he could only afford to live in the navy town of Oxnard, forty miles to the south. Everything had changed five years before. His best friend had been gruesomely murdered, and he discovered that Abe had bequeathed to him his Santa Barbara estate along with far more money than he would ever need to maintain it and pay property taxes. During the process of solving the murder, he had learned some hidden truths about his family and ended up marrying the woman who had helped him solve a related mystery with national implications. Evarts could hardly believe that he used to think he enjoyed living alone. Since marrying Patricia Baldwin, he had discovered that he hadn’t been content, just ignorant. At the time, four years ago, he had been head of detectives but had since been promoted by the city council to chief of police. His life was good—and if the rain would go away for a few days, everything would be perfect.
He hated rain. The worst duty for a police officer was going to a car crash. The carnage unsettled even the most jaded officer, no matter how many accidents witnessed. Unfortunately, rain made accidents a frequent affair. Cars dripped imperceptible amounts of oil on the roads, and when it eventually rained in uber-dry Southern California, the oil seeped to the surface to make it slipperier than a surfboard without wax. As chief, he seldom went to crash scenes, but they took a toll on his force that required careful management.
Evarts lived high up a secluded canyon in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. To get there, he had to drive State Street through the main part of town, which the city advertised as the most beautiful downtown in America. Despite the exaggeration, the Spanish architecture, abundant sidewalk cafés, curio shops, ﬁne restaurants, and countless coffeehouses exuded the charm and relaxed atmosphere of a Mediterranean coastal village. As he drove home, Evarts paid attention to happenings on the street. This was his hometown. His job was to keep it safe.
After leaving the city proper, Evarts drove into the foothills and followed a serpentine road to a gravel path in front of a wrought-iron gate. He pushed a combination on the security box, and the gate opened. After passing through, he drove a quarter mile on a private road that extended toward the sea. His house had been built on the apex of an outcropping that overlooked the coastline for miles in either direction. The white stucco house, with its ﬂat façade and red-tile roof, had been built in the hacienda tradition. The crushed rock driveway, minimalist landscaping, and unpretentious entrance gave an impression of ordinariness while disguising a rambling home of over eight thousand square feet.
The large square house surrounded a huge central courtyard. To take advantage of the expansive view of the Pacific coastline, the primary living quarters were located in a two-story section at the rear. Evarts could walk the perimeter indoors or cut through the exposed courtyard. The drizzle had turned to a light rain, so he walked the longer, indoor route. Passing through the kitchen, he grabbed a cold pork chop from the refrigerator, gnawing as he continued to the back of the house.
He found his wife on her cell phone, pacing the grand hall that spanned the rear of the hacienda as she talked. This was their favorite room. The prior owner had it built for charity events and it could easily accommodate a hundred people, with an additional hundred outside in good weather. In truth, being a police chief was more political than law enforcement, so he continued to host half a dozen charity events a year. Besides, the substantial sum his friend had left him, and his wife’s even larger family inheritance meant that they could afford to entertain extravagantly and make substantial donations to the community and national organizations.
While Evarts was growing up, his parents had never joined any organizations, donated to any charities, or fought for any causes. Beyond not having the wherewithal, his parents were insular. But now, his position and good fortune required him to meet the expectations of a well-to-do community, no matter how much he disliked showy events that cost twice what the charity received. In truth, he would rather make a substantial donation than host a house full of snobs.
He admired his wife’s athletic stride as she paced the room. She enjoyed lazing about on Saturdays and remained dressed in stylish flannel pajamas, a term he considered an oxymoron except when she wore them. She made the prosaic night wear look perfectly normal in this ostentatious room. In fact, all clothing looked appropriate on her. Her casual good looks, short light-brown hair, and engaging smile went well with jeans or a designer dress, and her lively green eyes, even behind her ever-present glasses, drew everyone’s attention.
He checked his watch, a Christmas gift from her. The black Mühle Glashütte titanium diving instrument had cost more than all his surfboards combined. It was almost ten o’clock in the morning. Surfing was a break-of-dawn sport that got him home with most of the day still ahead of him.
He swallowed a mouthful of pork chop and said, “Trish, who—”
Baldwin stopped him with a single uplifted finger. She could do that. In fact, she often gave instructions with one or two fingers.
Because of her renown as an author, historian, and speaker, she had kept her name after their marriage. They’d met during an investigation of a supposed trivial matter that had violently escalated into a dangerous race across the country to solve a century-old conspiracy. At first, he’d thought they couldn’t be more different. She was a college professor, and he was a cop. She came from wealth. At sixteen, he had worked sweeping out a surfboard shop. She grew up on the Upper West Side of New York. He grew up on the beaches of Southern California. She attended Berkeley and Stanford. He went to a state college. Her nonfiction books always hit the New York Times bestseller lists. The only thing he had ever published was a letter to the editor in the local newspaper.
Baldwin said into the phone, “Mr. Gleason, I understand. I’ll be in Sacramento first thing Tuesday morning.” After a pause, she added, “Of course, sir. Thank you.”
She tapped to end the call, turned off her phone, confirmed that it had gone dark, and then exclaimed, “Shit!”
“The lieutenant governor?” Evarts asked.
She lifted her eyeglasses slightly and let them fall back on her nose. “Yes, damn it. They’re in a panic over this damn rain. Rain, for Pete’s sake.”
“I take it they want you up there Tuesday?”
“I wish,” Baldwin answered. “The commission meets at 8:00 am on Tuesday, meaning I leave noonish Monday, and they want me to bring a week’s worth of clothes. Damn it, I have classes, committee meetings, office hours, and a speech in Los Angeles on Thursday night.” She threw her phone onto the couch. “Damn, I wish I had never accepted the governor’s appointment.”
The governor of California had appointed Baldwin to the Seismic Safety Commission, and she had been on the advisory council for less than a year. As a history professor, Baldwin had consulted for years with the Office of Historic Preservation while teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles and at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she had transferred after their marriage.
“I thought that commission dealt with earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.”
“Some idiot evidently believes a few days of rain can trigger one of those. I don’t need some volunteer work to destroy my career. This is stupid.”
“It may hamper your career, but it won’t ruin it. It’s Saturday. This storm will probably pass before you sit down for your meeting. You’ll be back in time to make your speech.”
Baldwin was scheduled to give the keynote address at the Abraham Lincoln Historical Society’s annual conference. Lincoln was her specialty, preservation of historic sites a hobby. Evarts felt a twinge of guilt. She had intended to turn down the appointment, but he had convinced her that it would take little of her time while helping him with state officials.
“What are you eating?” she asked.
He held up the chop by the bone. “Last night’s leftovers. I need protein.”
He ripped off a piece of meat with bared teeth like he was ravished, and she laughed at his antics.
“Don’t we make the couple,” she said. “You walk around chewing on a bone like a caveman, and I’ve been talking to the lieutenant governor in pajamas. I’m surprised they don’t deport us back to Oxnard with the riffraff.”
“We had fun there. Maybe I can buy back my old house.”
“No, I’m good. Just frustrated that this stupid commission can jump up and disrupt my life.” She smiled to show she wasn’t entirely serious and added, “It’s all your fault, you know. I wanted to decline the honor … if it can be called that.”
“You’ll be back soon. You know bureaucrats, always making a big thing out of nothing.”
She walked over to a sofa table and picked up her coffee. She took a sip while staring out to sea. “Perhaps not this time. I heard fear in Paul’s voice. They got seven inches of rain in the last week.”
“Seven inches? Our drizzles haven’t added up to squat.” He thought about the implications. “Did he say if any dams were in jeopardy?”
“Yes.” She didn’t turn away from the murky, cloud-enshrouded ocean. “All of them.”
James D. Best is the author of the bestselling Steve Dancy Tales: The Shopkeeper, Leadville, Murder at Thumb Butte, The Return, Jenny’s Revenge, and Crossing the Animas. His other novels include Tempest at Dawn, The Shut Mouth Society, and Deluge. Principled Action and The Digital Organization are his nonfiction books. James has ghost written three books, authored two regular magazine columns, and published numerous journal articles. As a conference speaker, he has made presentations throughout North America and Europe. He is a member of Western Writers of America, Western Literature Association, and the Pacific Beach Surf Club. James enjoys writing, film, surfing, skiing, and watching his grandchildren play sports and cavort.