Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel
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Copyright ©2008 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
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without permission in writing from the author
The first day of her new life was hotter and more humid than Tawnia McKnight had
believed possible. The weltering heat blasted inside her green Pontiac Grand
Prix as she peered through the open window at Portland in the distance, the city
rising high above the traffic. One of the ten Willamette River bridges was in
sight, and she was as impressed as the first time she had visited the city with
Bret, even though he wasn’t around to point out the unique structural features.
Thoughts of Bret came naturally since they had come here together last year—five
months after the funeral in Nevada. She’d felt the pull of the city on her then
and knew it was only a matter of time until she had to answer its call. The same
thing had happened when she’d moved from Kansas to Colorado and from there to
Utah and onto Nevada. Ten years and five different states. Her parents, who had
particularly hated this last move to Oregon, alternately blamed her restlessness
on a desire to annoy them and a fear of commitment.
She knew her decision to move again wasn’t a fear of commitment. She would have
committed with Bret.
There had come a time when she had not seen Bret’s resemblance to Christian
every time she looked into his face, but Bret could not seem to forget that she
had been the last one to see his brother alive. The one who cradled him at the
base of the tree as they waited for the ambulance.
Annoying her parents was not high on her list, either. They had been good to her
over the years, if smothering and strict. She knew they wanted the best for her.
As an only child, and adopted at that, she had felt a lot of pressure to
succeed. So she had. She had landed that coveted art director position at an
advertising firm in Nevada, and now she would be a creative director here in
Portland. A nice career move.
Yet she still couldn’t say why she’d felt so compelled to move to Portland or
how long she might stay. What magic did the city hold?
Why had her mother cried when she’d mentioned Portland?
Giving one last frustrated thump to the buttons on her broken air conditioner,
Tawnia laid her MapQuest directions on the passenger seat and edged back into
the thick traffic. Just her luck to be arriving at what appeared to be the
busiest time of late afternoon. After driving a good portion of the past two
days in the heat, with the wind and her shoulder-length hair beating at her
face, she was feeling more than a little irritated. According to her new
landlady’s instructions, she had to find the Hawthorne Bridge. Then she would be
in a perfect position to stop by her new job on her way to her rented bungalow.
“Where are you?” she muttered aloud. There was a bridge ahead, but it didn’t
look like the one she had seen on the Internet. About the right length, but not
the right shape.
A car behind her honked. “All right, already. I’m going.” She was on the bridge
now, and there wasn’t any choice. She thought she caught a glimpse of the right
bridge in the distance, but it was impossible to be sure. A glare came off the
water, punishing her tired eyes.
At least it’s green here, she thought. Nevada had its own austere beauty, of
course, but it wasn’t the greener Kansas where she’d grown up. Portland seemed
more lush than both of them.
She turned left off the bridge and looked for a place to pull over and study the
map. “Come on, people,” she fumed. “I’m going the wrong way. I think.”
At last she spied a place to pull out of traffic. “There we are.” As she rolled
to a stop, there was a deafening burst of sound, almost like an explosion. Her
car began shaking and a horrendous, grating noise filled the air. Metal grinding
against metal, a long, drawn-out sound.
“Not now,” she moaned. Up until this trip her Pontiac had always been reliable,
but first the air conditioning had gone and now this. Maybe she’d been wrong
about Portland being the place for her. How could it be right if getting there
was so hard? It wouldn’t be the first time she’d been mistaken. Nevada had ended
up being awful.
Yet would she have given up knowing Christian and Bret?
The grinding noise was louder now, but the car was stopped, so it wasn't coming
from the car at all. And a good thing because the battery on her cell phone was
completely run down.
Around her, other drivers were slowing, puzzlement on their faces, but almost
immediately the cacophony faded.
In its place a huge plume of smoke rose into the air several streets behind her
and to the right. With the absence of the grating noise, the simple rumble of
the traffic seemed muted.
“What on earth?” She craned her neck to get a better view, but there were too
many buildings in the way to get an idea of what might have happened.
With a loud screech, a car on the highway came to an abrupt stop in the road
near where Tawnia was parked, narrowly missing being hit by the person behind
him. Too many drivers gawking. Horns blared impatiently, and slowly the traffic
Sounded like a building collapsing, Tawnia thought. She’d seen on TV a building
blown up on purpose while she was living in Utah. The dust had radiated for
The dust from this event was quickly dispersing, though the cloud was still
noticeable over the city. Fortunately, the traffic was picking up as though
nothing had happened. Forcing her mind back to the problem at hand, Tawnia
studied her MapQuest directions, comparing the with her car map. with her car
map. Somehow, she’d actually managed to pass the Hawthorne District, so she was
closer to her new bungalow north of Burnside. Just as well, she thought. She was
later than she’d hoped to be arriving in the city, and if she didn’t find the
rental house soon, her new landlady might wonder if she'd changed her mind.
Besides, she was sweat-soaked and eexhausted from her drive, and she didn’t want
to run into any future co-workers looking like this.
She wasn’t due in to work until Monday, anyway, so she had two and half days to
find her bearings. After a good shower and a call to an auto repair shop, of
With a long sigh she pulled into traffic just as the wail of an ambulance siren
cut through the air. She glanced in the rearview mirror where the plume of dust
had become a silty sheen poised above the buildings. Someone must have gotten
too close, she thought. I hope they’re okay.
Shakily, she drove to her rented bungalow, making only three more wrong turns in
the process. She was directionally impaired, or so Bret had joked. Her father
said she became lost on purpose on a subconscious level, a helpless act that was
actually a bid for power over the male species.
Right, Dad. Glad he wasn’t around to see her now, she raked her fingers through
her lank hair, wishing she had an elastic band handy. The medium brown color was
dull with dirt from the beating it had taken from the air coming through the
open window. She looked decidedly worn. Worse, the contact in her left eye felt
gritty. Oh, well.
Slipping from the Pontiac, she started up the walk, comparing once more the
number on the bungalow to the paper in her hands. This was it. But where was the
landlady? She’d said something about doing some yard work that morning. If she
wasn’t still around, Tawnia would have to drive to another address to get the
What a day.
The bungalow was one in a row of close-set houses, similar in size, with sloping
roofs and front porches running across the narrow fronts. Hers had a tiny,
immaculate yard, with a line of bushes growing up against the red brick porch.
Potted plants lined the porch wall and a lounge chair and a rocking chair took
up most of the available space. The front of the house was white siding, framed
by more of the red brick, giving it a quaint appearance. A gable emerged in the
middle of the roof, but she saw it was not a real window to an upstairs but an
attic vent embedded in a lookalike window gable, much too small to be the real
thing. A tiny strip of grass separated the houses.
“Cozy,” she murmured, pleased with her choice. If the inside was half this neat,
she would love living here. Even the street exuded a sense of peace. Maybe she’d
finally discover what it was she was searching for. She took the three steps in
two leaps and rang the doorbell.
No answer. Instinctively her hand went to the knob to test it—after all, she’d
paid her deposit and first month’s rent—but as her hand brushed the metal, the
knob turned and the door flung open.
A robust woman with flushed face, an anxious smile, and short, tightly curled,
dishwater hair stood in the doorway, impressive in her purple muu-muu. She wore
bright, matching eyeshadow and a thick layer of face makeup. Her mascara was
apparently bought in bulk. “I thought I heard someone coming up the walk.”
“Are you Mrs. Gerbert?” Tawnia pulled her hand from the knob.
“That’s me. And you must be Tawnia!” Her gaze ran quickly over Tawnia’s cropped
jeans and fitted T-shirt. “You’re much younger than I imagined. You said
thirty-two, right? But never mind all that. Thank heavens you’re here!” With a
sigh, the woman pulled her into a rather exuberant embrace.
Tawnia tried not to stiffen, though the last thing she wanted was a hug from
Mrs. Gerbert or any other stranger. Her family had never been demonstrative, and
she had to work hard not to put people off with her craving for space.Even for
friendly people this display seemed over the top. What had she gotten herself
into? Mrs. Gerbert had sounded normal enough on the phone.
Mrs. Gerbert pulled away, dabbing at the sudden tears under her eyes. “Oh, I’ve
embarrassed you, haven’t I? I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve been so worried since
I heard the news about the collapse. After all, I told you to come that way, and
when you were late . . . Oh, I’d never have forgiven myself if something had
happened to you!”
Tawnia stared at her. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, my! You mean you haven’t heard?” Mrs. Gerbert’s hand went to her heart.
“Come on in,” the woman grabbed her arm with strong fingers,tugging Tawnia
through the door and into the living room of the bungalow. “It’s on TV right
now. I was just straightening the house and watching. You know, waiting for you,
and then it happened. Oh, I can’t believe it! They’re still pulling bodies from
the water. They have all kinds of boats out looking for people. So many cars
simply sank! And the people on the walkways fell with no protection from the
debris.” She closed her eyes as though to shut out the horror her words were
Tawnia dragged her gaze from Mrs. Gerbert’s tortured expression and stared at
the images on the TV. One moment there was the Hawthorne Bridge, the bridge she
had seen on the Internet, and in the next camera shot most of the bridge was
missing. Some distance away from the damage, a large boat floated sideways, the
top completely shorn off.
The dark surface of the water was covered with debris, including a bicycle
helmet, a coat, and a plastic bag. People were in the water, too, some waving
their arms, others swimming. A woman was floating on her back with a baby on her
stomach. Tawnia couldn’t tell if the child was moving and was relieved to see a
boat reaching her.
A man appeared on the screen, a grave expression on his face. “As you see, the
rescue efforts continue, and more and more people are being plucked out of the
water. Still no word on just how this happened, but for some reason either the
lift did not go up or the boat you see here was not in the correct position to
pass under it. Whatever the case, this boat hit the bridge, setting off this
terrible devastation. Five of the six spans have collapsed, including the span
with the vertical lift. For some time after the initial collapse, part of the
lift with the cabin and controls remained attached on the one side, but it
eventually did sheer off and fell into the water. We’ve confirmed that the
bridge operator was able to climb to safety before that happened, but we’ve had
unconfirmed reports of more than a dozen fatalities already—and there are sure
to be others trapped in their cars under the water. This is a sad, sad day for
Portland, and it’s hard to know what to say.”
He shook his head and brought a hand briefly to his left eye as he struggled to
keep his emotion in check. “Police are saying—as I’ve stated several times
already—that people should not go down to the waterfront unless you are uniquely
qualified in some way to help. The rescue personnel need space, and the crowd
down there is threatening to hinder rescue efforts. So stay home, please. We’ll
do our best to keep you informed. We hear police have located a security video
of the crash, and we hope to have access to that soon. Meanwhile, we’re going to
our reporter live at the scene. Julie, what can you tell us?”
A woman with short blonde hair appeared on the screen. “Well, Daniel,. it’s an
unreal scene we have before us. People swimming to shore; others going out and
trying to save them. People walking around with dazed expressions. Many are
wounded. Surprisingly, there has been little screaming and shouting here, just a
determination to do everything possible to save as many as we can. Divers are
here now, and hopefully they will be able to help those who may be stuck
underneath the water.” She shook her head. “But it doesn’t look promising. That
bridge is very heavy, and so are the cars. I fear this is going to be far more
serious than any of us think."
“Have you managed to talk to any of the victims?”
“Yes, we have a couple right here. Tom and Angie Stewart. They were the first
ones out of the water and have stayed to help others.” She turned to a
middle-aged couple beside her. “What can you tell us about the accident?”
“It just happened without any warning,” the woman said. She had a blanket around
her shoulders, and mascara ran down her face. “One moment we were driving, and
the next, we were falling toward the water. The car ahead of us—it was crushed
by the bridge. I know there was a child in the car. I—” She started crying, and
her husband put a comforting arm around her.
“I opened the door and we got out,” he continued. “Started swimming. A man came
by in a boat and helped us.”
Tawnia felt a numbness spread through her heart. She had to get down to the
waterfront! Now. She was halfway to the door, when Mrs. Gerbert’s voice brought
her back to her senses.
“Thank heaven you weren’t on the bridge.”
Tawnia turned. What had she been thinking? Hadn’t the man on the TV just told
people to stay home? It wasn’t as though anyone she knew had been on that
bridge. “I think I turned off too late. I went over another bridge—I never could
follow directions very well. But I heard the sound. I saw the dust.”
Mrs. Gerbert’s round face wrinkled with concern. “I’m so sorry. What a terrible
welcome for you. But what’s important is that you’re safe.” She glanced back
toward the TV. “My daughter is a real estate agent. Goes across that bridge four
or more times a day. She’s safe, too, thank heavens. I couldn’t call her—the
cell phone lines all seem to be busy—but I know she had homes to show up north
today. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy. But thankfully, those we know are all
Tawnia nodded in agreement, as her eyes fixed once more on the TV announcer. By
whatever fates were in control, she had taken another route and was safe. Why
then did she feel as if someone close to her had died?
“Tawnia!” shouted Christian from the tree. “Come on up!”
“There’s a squirrel up here. He’s jumping from limb to limb. I have to get a
picture of this.”
“It’s really high.” Tawnia started to climb the tree. Her parents had never
approved of tree-climbing, but she had the right build for it, and physical
activities always came to her easily. “I’m coming.” A tremor of fear went
through her heart as a small branch plunged past her, nearly hitting her cheek.
“Sorry!” Christian shouted. “I needed a place to put my camera. Didn’t mean to
let that fall.”
“Good, because I’m hoping for a kiss at the end of this date!”
She smiled. Maybe he’d get one. He seemed to be a nice guy, not the player some
of her co-workers claimed he was.
There was silence as he snapped a few pictures. She was halfway up the tree now
and having second-thoughts. It was so high. Certainly not something she would
ordinarily do in her right mind. But Christian’s exuberance and vitality had a
way of rubbing off on people. When she’d been moved to his group at work, she
immediately recognized how opposite they were. Yet he brought out who she wanted
to be. Or maybe who she would have been in another life, raised by different
Maybe if she’d been raised by her birth mother.
Maybe if she’d been raised by her birth mother.
Or if she’d had a sibling.
Not that the person she was wasn’t enough. It was. She was proud of everything
There was a brief shout of surprise, and then something else was falling toward
her. Something large. Too far away to be a danger to her. Her heart started
pounding, recognizing the situation before her mind could fully comprehend.
“Christian!” she shouted.
She half-climbed, half-slid down the tree, tears running down her cheek,
unmindful of the bark and bits of tree that dug into her skin. “Christian!” she
called over and over. “Are you okay? Talk to me!”
She fell the last several feet, and the breath whooshed out of her. She crawled
to where her friend was lying on his back. “Christian?” His eyes were closed,
but he was breathing.
She reached for her cell phone but remembered she’d left it home. His phone was
in his back pocket, and she carefully slid her hand under him to get it so as
not to move him more than necessary.
She knelt by his inert body. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get help.”
He gave a weak moan, his eyes fluttering once.
“You hang on!” With a cry, she leapt to her feet and ran down the path. It was a
mile before she found anyone—a group of hikers who had a working phone. They’d
called for help while she ran back to Christian. She’d held his hand as they
waited for the rescue workers. But Christian died later that day during surgery
at the hospital.
The first time she’d met Bret, she’d had to tell him how his brother died.
Tawnia remembered how she’d felt that day.
It was how she felt now.
* * *
Bret Winn wondered what Tawnia was doing at that moment. She’d probably already
arrived in Portland by now, perhaps even days ago. Would she visit the
restaurant he’d taken her to last year? Or dance in the club where he’d begun to
think they might be falling in love?
Not that it was any of his business. Not anymore. But he wished her a good life.
Opening the drawer of his desk, he brought out the strip of pictures he and
Tawnia had taken in a booth together one day at the mall. They were sticking out
their tongues at the camera, rolling their eyes, and pulling each other’s hair.
He smiled. The memories were good. It surprised him how good. Sighing, he shut
the photos back inside, focusing again on his work.
“Come quick!” His co-worker John Thompkins came into Bret’s office at a run.
“You have to see this.”
Bret reluctantly tore his eyes away from the calculations on his computer
screen. “Now? I’m busy.” He didn’t try to keep the annoyance from his voice.
Bret didn’t enjoy the pranks or humorous internet sites that seemed to be the
base of John’s existence.
“The Hawthorne Bridge in Portland has just collapsed,” John blurted. “Or most of
it. People are in the water. A dozen dead already.”
Bret sprinted down the hall to the break room, where a half-dozen engineers were
gathered around the wide-screen TV. They stared in horrified fascination as the
camera showed the rescue efforts.
The Hawthorne Bridge demolished! The oldest vertical lift bridge in operation in
the United States had been his favorite of all the over-water bridges he’d seen
in Portland. That it was gone, according to witnesses, in what appeared to be a
matter of seconds was impossible to believe. The nightmare of every engineer who
had ever designed a bridge.
“There’ll be an inquiry,” someone commented. “Wonder if they’ll call here.” Bret
didn’t take his eyes from the screen to see who spoke, but he could feel eyes on
him. He’d been on the committee of independent enjineers who reviewed the tragic
bridge disaster in Minneapolis some time back, volunteering for the job when no
one else here had wanted it and even becoming spokesman for the group. The
experience had been both horrifying and educational.
“You’ve been to see that bridge, haven’t you?” John asked Bret.
Bret nodded. He’d seen every over-water bridge of importance in the United
States and many out of the country. Over-water bridges were a particular hobby
for him, which was ironic because he worked in Nevada where most bridges were
nowhere near water. But it did have advantages. Nevada had one of the best
reputations for safe bridge operation.
Bret watched with the others for half an hour hour before a thought came to him:
Tawnia was is in Portland. Had she been near the bridge?
Worry ate his insides. No, she couldn’t have been. This time of day, when many
would be on their way home from work, she would likely still be at the office.
Like him, she was serious about her job, and because hers was a new one, she’d
be even more inclined to work overtime.
Unless her job hadn’t started yet. He tried to remember the details of their
last conversation, but all he remembered was the sinking feeling and the
realization that this was good-bye for good.
He had to know. He reached for his phone and dialed, but her voice mail picked
There, she was on the phone. Safe.
Unless the phone was in the water.
Bret was beginning to feel a little idiotic. Tawnia was out of his life, and he
shouldn’t be worrying about her. The likelihood that she’d been on the bridge
when it collapsed was almost nil.
“Bret, can I see you for a moment?”
Bret tore his gaze away from the television to see his boss, James Griffin,
motioning to him. “What’s up?” Bret asked as he reached Griffin’s side.
“You know a man named Clyde Hanks?”
“Sounds familiar.” Bret shrugged. “Can’t place it, though.”
“He’s the manager of the Bridge Section at Multnomah County.”
Which meant, of course, that Clyde Hanks was the man responsible for the
maintenance—and therefore the collapse—of the Hawthorne Bridge.
Bret nodded. “That’s right. I met him last year. Nice guy.” He and Tawnia had
shared a lively conversation with Hanks about over-water bridges and the
collapse in Minneapolis. Yet despite Hanks’s knowledge on the fascinating topic,
Tawnia had captured most of Bret’s attention that day.
I miss her, he thought. The realization didn’t change the facts of their
relationship, but it did make the situation more sorrowful. Somewhere out there,
Tawnia was living her life without him. It was the way it had to be.
“I just got off the phone with Hanks,” Griffin was saying, bringing Bret’s
thoughts back to the present. “Come into my office. We need to talk.”
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