Festival of Reading: An excerpt from 'Beachhead' by Jeffery Hess

Jeffery Hess
Jeffery Hess
Published Nov. 2, 2016

The Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading presents more than 50 authors, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 12 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Jeffery Hess will speak at 2:15 p.m. in USFSP Davis 105. Find more information here.

Beachhead is the first novel by Jeffery Hess. He lives in Tampa, where he leads the DD-214 Writers' Workshop for military veterans, and has edited two anthologies of stories by veterans. Beachhead is set on Florida's Gulf Coast in 1980, where Scotland Ross, recently paroled from a Navy prison, is trying to put his life back together and help his floundering sister. A gambling debt entangles Ross with Allan Kinsey, a corrupt developer whose ambition is to become Florida's governor, despite his tendency to mangle the language with phrases like "Don't put the car before the whores."

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

Scotland's second trip to Kinsey's apartment complex office had him on edge. The last time he'd driven there had been five weeks ago, when he went for the card game that landed him in Kinsey's crosshairs. He drove the same route he had that night.

The apartment complex was in Brandon, a bedroom community of Tampa where pine trees and palmetto scrub dotted cow pastures. It seemed hotter in the country than it did along the beaches or even in the city. The air blowing through the car's open windows kept the sweat away from his face, but his back was drenched in his seat. He passed the quiet time by squeezing his brain to come up with options. That was all he'd done since Dana left his place the other night, like a broken bird back into the wind. But as hard as he thought, he couldn't come up with a better way. He slapped the heel of his hand on the wheel and shouted "F---!" and drove on.

Overconfidence in his card skills had proved costly, but Scotland's biggest mistake the night of the card game had been showing up drunk. The game started at seven, and in the days since losing his job he'd been downing at least a couple of vodkas by the hour McDonald's stopped serving Egg McMuffins.

His plan had been to win a few hands and ding the room out of as much as he could, then fake some s--- about having to get up early, and split. Playing aboard ship in his Navy days had meant concealing his tells if he wanted to win anything. He'd made some decent money most nights at seas. Gambling was forbidden at Leavenworth, and the only time he'd played since was when he'd won the Pinto — all because he remembered to conceal his confidence.

The free bourbon had fueled him that night with Kinsey. By the end of the night, he'd racked up ten thousand in debt and Kinsey cut him off. "That's it," he'd said.

But as he drove back this second time, he tried to wipe that from his mind. His stomach wouldn't unclench because he was sober this time. He stopped at a couple of stop lights on Highway 60, in that part of the unincorporated county that had little more than a McDonald's and a few convenience stores. The sun hung low and beat down on his Pinto, cooked his arm where it hung out the open window as he drove.