CHAPTER FIFTEEN

At first she thought she was dreaming. A boat was tossing her higher and higher as though on an uncontrollable rampage. Her ears roared with the sound of locomotives emitting the energy of ten million volts sucking her into its vortex.

       But it was no dream. Jolted awake, Jenny clung to her bed as it rocked and lurched like a giant teeter-totter. She was pitched to the floor and watched in dazed horror as an ornate, enormous glass framed picture crashed and splintered into a thousand fragments on the very spot where she'd been sleeping.

       Earthquake! Jenny struggles to her feet and staggered toward the door while the earth continued its unbridled dance. Her heart thumped at the sound of furniture crashing above her. The shuddering earth convulsed relentlessly throughout the west San Fernando Valley.

       Jenny huddled in a corner. Screams and shouts sounded all about her. Nature's awesome power was reducing the most imperturbable to quivering gelatin.

       Suddenly the shaking stopped. Pounding sounded at the door followed by a shout. "Jenny, are you OK?"

       Crawling to the door, Jenny reached for the knob. It was jammed. "Alex, I can't open the door."

       "Move as far from the door as possible, he called. "I'll break it down."

        Inch by inch, Jenny slid away from the door trying to avoid giant shards of splintered glass. Tiny drops of blood faintly splattered her blue negligee. Hugging her knees to her chest, she held her breath as

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Alex threw his full weight against the door, propelling himself into her room.

       He knelt beside her and touched her face. "We've gone through, one wild ride. Are you okay?"

       Jenny nodded, "I've heard about California earthquakes. But this... it's so..."

       "Unnerving?" Alex drew her to her feet and held her close. Her body was trembling.

       "Earthquake country, Jenny." Alex released her. "We must move out of here... now. Where's your luggage?"

       Her suitcase had been tossed from the rack scattering her clothes on the debris-laden floor. Alex gingerly picked his way toward it and dragged it toward Jenny.

       "First lesson while in California. Keep your shoes and clothes by your bed or shower. Find something to wear. Anything at all. We must leave the building."

        With trembling hands, Jenny pulled on a pair of straight-legged blue jeans, a sweatshirt and a lightweight jacket.

       Alex turned away while she dressed, a gesture that endeared him to her. His embrace was part of his job to protect her, she knew, but when the earth settled, she'd reflect on the warmth of his arms and tenderness in his eyes.

       She whispered. "I can't find my shoes."

       Alex gingerly stepped around fallen lamps and stooped to retrieve a blue tennis shoe. He continued his search until he found the matching one. She slipped them on and took Alex's hand as they slowly maneuvered down the stairs. Wailing children and staggering adults stumbled around them. Some were quietly dazed, some terror-stricken, and a few recounted tales of near misses. Most grumbled about the unpredictability of California.

       "Well," Alex said solemnly, winking at Jenny. "California does have its faults."

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       Someone groaned. Another threw him a hostile glare. Jenny giggled. Here was a man with a sense of humor in the midst of calamity.

       The lobby was jammed with frightened guests making their way for the exit. Stumbling onto the predawn morning, fearful children clung to their parents. A hotel employee stood at the door trying to calm the frightened guests.

       Alex took Jenny's elbow as they cautiously made their way around the curving entrance to the boulevard. Overhead, the moon, like a pale crescent, shimmered like a thin white wheel through a light gray haze, oblivious to the shattered earth below.

       "Let's hope there won't be too many aftershocks." Alex said.

       "Aftershocks?"

       He nodded, "You'll know soon enough."

       The second jolt elicited another terror. Trees were violently ripped from their roots. Fences toppled. The few automobiles roaming the streets in the early dawn abruptly stopped.

       Jenny's thoughts moved to her father's safety, "Alex, is there a way to contact your headquarters and find out if they've heard from my father?"

       "I assume all communications are down for now. But I'm sure he's fine, Jenny. Let's believe that he is."

       In spite of his spoken assurance, Alex wasn't so sure. He'd received a midnight telephone call from the U.S. Marshalls informing him that they'd missed Lansing at the Burbank Airport. They weren't certain whether or not he'd slipped away, or had been accosted by the Gavota mob. He wouldn't tell Jenny until he was absolutely sure.

       Now Alex glanced at Jenny's profile. Memories stirred of his mother's prayer that he'd know without a doubt when he met the right girl to share his life. Though he was compelled by duty to protect this girl, he couldn't deny his deepening feelings for her. It seemed, from the moment they'd made eye contact, he'd known something unusual was happening to him. Protecting Jenny Lansing was becoming far more than duty.

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       Growing crowds joined them. A sea of shattered glass covered the sidewalks as they carefully picked their way toward a nearby park. Some limped, some sobbed, all were stunned by the early morning jolt.

       Where there was ordinarily a traffic signal, a bearded man in shirt sleeves stood in the street directing transportation with a flashlight.

       Automobiles were snarled along Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Horns sounded, people shouted and dazed residents of the nearby Oakwood Apartments streamed into the street. Buildings had collapsed, water mains burst and land lines offered no service. The Northridge earthquake would bring a swift and unexpected disruption to many lives for the day, for the year and a permanent end for some.

       "Are you doing OK, Jenny?" Alex marveled at her dignity and grace in spite of the abrupt and devastating shock. If he had spoken his thoughts, Jenny would have laughed. Whatever her outward appearance, inwardly she was quivering.

       Alex led her to the expansive park. It was already filled with dazed people. "Let's sit under this tree and gather our thoughts. Are you sure you're okay?"

       "I'm worried about my father, Alex."

       "You mustn't think of that now. We're lucky we escaped with a few bruises. I was in such a rush to get to you, I left my cell phone in my room. I must find a working telephone."

       He jogged across the park to a telephone booth. Jenny watched as he picked up the receiver and quickly replaced it. She sighed. The lines were down. Alex leaned his head against the telephone for long moments, as if he were praying.

       He started toward her as a strong aftershock shook the earth. Jenny jumped to her feet and stumbled toward him. He reached for her and they swayed together.

       "Let's face it, Jenny. We're in a mess here. And there's nowhere to go. Unless..."

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       "Unless what?"

       "Unless we receive divine intervention."

       Jenny laughed. "You mean, like angels?"

       "Something like that, yes."

       "You're kidding, of course."

       "Kidding? No." His tone was solemn. "I could tell you unbelievable stories of times on the job when I thought I was about to meet my Maker. Suddenly and inexplicably, something or someone rescued me."

       Jenny looked around. "I don't see how..."

       "But that's just it. That's why it's miracle. Just when there's no hope of a rescue, the way becomes clear."

       "You don't sound like an FBI agent."

       "I'm an ordinary guy, Jenny, who just happens to work for the FBI. Everyone, most especially FBI agents, needs divine guidance."

       The earth remained temporarily still. Alex took Jenny's hand, guiding her as they walked along a littered sidewalk, unsure of the safest direction.

       Suddenly a green Taurus stopped on the curb beside them. An elderly man called out his open window. "Can I help, folks? Can I take you somewhere?"

       "Thank you, sir," Alex waved. "We have nowhere to go."

       "No problem." The man reached across and opened the passengers' door. "Thank God our home has suffered very little damage. Get in and I'll get my missus to stir up some breakfast for you."

       Alex smiled broadly as he helped Jenny into the back seat. "What did I tell you? Intervention comes from unexpected places."

       "My name is Harry. Harry Ferguson." Their benefactor half-turned toward them. "I just felt impressed that I should drive around to see if I could help someone. And here you are."

       His house, a one-story wooden ranch off Topanga Canyon boulevard, stood intact though adjacent houses had suffered severe

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damage. Along the street, fireplace chimneys had toppled into their neighbors' homes. Block wall fences lay haphazardly on the ground.

       Fay Ferguson greeted them warmly. "I have sliced fruit and break fast rolls ready to serve. Please make yourself at home." She held out chairs at their maple dining room table.

      Fay walked into the kitchen and in moments was back carrying mugs of steaming coffee and joined them at the table.

       "Fortunately," she said, "we didn't lose the electricity in our area."

       Harry turned to Alex. "They call this an act of God. What do you think, young man?"

       Alex set his mug down. "I believe ultimately that God is in control of everything."

       "Ah," Harry beamed, "see that, Fay? I knew I'd been sent on this rescue mission. You're a believer?'

       "Yes, sir."

       Jenny glanced sharply at Alex. Outside of her mother she'd never heard anyone openly discuss their faith and she didn't think this was the time and place for it.

        Alex turned to smile at her. "What did I tell you about divine intervention?"

       Before she could answer, everyone stiffened. The floor moved and the table vaulted forward. They stared upward at the swaying chandelier.

       I suppose these aftershocks will continue for some time." Harry said calmly.

       Jenny's heart pummeled her chest. " How can you take this so... so lightly?"

       "We've lived here all our adult lives," Fay said with a soft smile. "It's part of the package."

       "Package?"

       Harry laughed. "California comes packaged with year around sunshine, towering mountains and the beautiful Pacific. Unfortunately in that package are earthquakes. Some parts of the country have snow and

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ice and tornados. We have earthquakes. It's a tradeoff you make when you move here."

       "I'd rather have snow and ice," Jenny said. She glanced at Alex hoping he wouldn't elaborate on his faith. It made her uncomfortable to speak so openly about such a private matter. Of course she believed in God and admired Jesus Christ. Most certainly she was aware of "angel" talk. It was possible, she supposed, that God could send an angel or two to help people in desperate need, but wasn't he much too busy running the universe to be concerned about every little jolt of nature?

       "We should do something," Jenny said, then added glibly. "God helps those who help themselves."

       Alex smiled. "Ah Jenny, you got it back wards. God helps those who can't help themselves."

       Jenny flushed. "Well, then, since we can't help ourselves, do you think he'll help us get a call through to your office?'

       Alex glance at Harry. "Phone working?"

       "Believe it or not, it is. It's on my desk right there in living room. Help yourself."

       "I'll try to get through to O'Reilly," Alex said to Jenny. "I'll let him know we're safe and see if he knows anything."

       "Where are you folks from?" Fay asked.

       "Chicago," Jenny said glancing at Alex, "at least I am."

       Alex dialed O'Reilly's number, and Jenny exhaled a relieved sigh when he turned and signaled thumbs up.

       "Yeah, sure, we're fine. It was quite a ride though. Jenny's doing great." He smiled across the room at her. "Have you heard anything about Lansing?"

       Jenny was aware that the Fergusons were intently watching them, but she couldn't take her eyes off Alex. She'd been amazed by his open confession of faith. Why, people just didn't talk about such things, did they? Well, perhaps some right-wing radicals who did all sorts of crazy things

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would talk about miracles and God's intervention. But an FBI Agent? A practical man like Alex Kendall?

       A sudden stab of nostalgia kindled the memory of her mother's quiet faith which she'd attributed to her painful past. She'd never heard her father mention God or Jesus except at Christmas or Easter when he'd attended holiday services at church with them.

       Alex walked back to the table. "He has no news of your father, Jenny. As soon as the aftermath of the quake settles, we'll find some answers."

       Jenny rested her forehead on her hand. In the corners of her eyes, tears began to glisten. Her throat was tense and her body ached. What had begun as an exciting trip to see her father had become a nightmare. She felt disconnected from these strange people who seemed to calmly accept calamities.

       She wanted to leave and search for her father. She'd find him if she had to walk from one end of the city to the other. Even the disappearance of her briefcase seemed of little importance.

       The day became a nightmare. The Fergusons invited Alex and Jenny to stay until it was safer to venture into the streets.

       When Alex saw Jenny's face turn to stone, he shook his head. "You've been very kind but we must be on our way. We're looking for Jenny's father."

       "How do you propose to do that?" Harry asked. His lined face broke into a gentle smile. "You'll need a car and I can help you with that. Our Taurus is used specifically for anyone in need. Don't worry about us. We have another car. Here's the key. Return it when you're done. Drive carefully," he said as he shook Alex's hand. "It's not a good day to be out and about, but you'll be in our prayers. May God guide you, son."

       God guide you, son. His mother's very words. Alex took the keys from Harry.

       "Where shall we begin, Alex?" Jenny asked as Alex maneuvered the Taurus into Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

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       "We'll call the airport, check on incoming flights and then, I suppose," he added quietly, "we'll ask at area hospitals?'

       "Do you think my father was injured?"

       "I don't think anything right now, Jenny. We'll follow a logical procedure."

       Jenny leaned her head back on the seat. "You must be an expert at logical procedures, being with the FBI and all."

       "What was that for?"

       "What?"

       "Sarcasm."

       Jenny turned her face to the window. She didn't know why those bitter words escaped her lips. Perhaps to cover threatening tears but she vowed not to cry or she might never stop. She wanted her daddy, wanted to know he was safe. Even though they'd been separated for a year, she knew he'd been protected. To lose him now would be unthinkable.

       Fear for the next aftershock, or her suitcase, or the lost briefcase was subjugated by fears for her missing father.

       Where was he and would they find him soon?

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