FEBRUARY 13, 2009
A small detail, something only a bartender would notice, triggered Kate’s first suspicion that nothing on Cedar Key was what it appeared to be.
It was a chilly night on the island, temps hovering in the mid-thirties. The weather boys predicted frost in Gainesville fifty miles inland, with a promise of snow flurries by Sunday. No snow out here, not on this punctuation point surrounded on three sides by the Gulf of Mexico and connected to the mainland by four bridges. But a heavy fog blanketed the island, great, swelling banks of the stuff, the likes of which Kate Davis had never seen in her forty years here.
The fog pressed up against the windows of the hotel bar with the persistence of a living thing. It eddied, flowed, constantly moved. Through the glass, she could see it drifting across the weathered brick in the courtyard, wisps of it caressing the leaves of the potted plants, and wrapping around the trunks of trees like strings of pale Christmas lights.
The strange fog looked dirty, greasy as kitchen smoke.
It gave her the creeps, even though she’d always been somebody who loved cozy days or romantic nights of fog. But this fog wasn’t cozy; it wasn’t sexy. The thought of entering into it when she left work made her stomach clutch, got her imagination working overtime, as if something malevolent might grab her from out of this nasty gray weather.
But that was ridiculous. This was an island of sunshine and benign, lazy days. There was nothing threatening about it, or hadn’t been until recently, and she hoped she was only imagining those changes in people she thought she knew.
Kate took a breath, braced her palms on the bar, and looked around to steady herself with what was bright, clear, and familiar.
The Island Hotel had stood on Second Street since it was built in 1859. It was small, like the town—something she loved about both of them—just three stories of wood and glass, thirteen guest rooms, the bar tucked like a postscript behind the lobby. The floor sloped in here and the ceiling sagged enough so that most people instinctively ducked when they walked in—and then laughed and looked around to see if anyone had noticed them doing it, embarrassed that they’d let the illusion fool them. It made them feel like old-timers when they spotted the next tourist doing it, too. The space between tables in the back room was barely wide enough to squeeze through. Kate had worked here for five years and had never been able to shake the claustrophobic feeling of these two cramped rooms. Tonight it was worse because the place was crowded. And because of the fog. The bar seemed more closed in—isolated—than she’d ever experienced before.
“Stop that,” she chided herself.
Locals filled the stools along the bar, the six tiny round tables that lined the walls, and occupied the larger tables in the back room. During the winter, the island’s population usually swelled from seven hundred and fifty to several thousand, but the season had been slow this year. It surprised and pleased her to see half a dozen tourists, folks in shorts, sandals, and lightweight sweaters who probably hailed from some Scandinavian country and thought this weather was balmy. Tourists tipped well, locals did not. Maybe tonight would be a prosperous night after all.
She hoped so. Her son, Rocky, wanted to take advanced placement courses in Gainesville this summer, as soon as he turned sixteen, so he could get into college earlier. He would need some sort of car or motorcycle to get to and from Gainesville. It didn’t have to be a new car, just something reliable that wouldn’t break down on that lonely fifty-mile stretch of road that ran from here to Gainesville.
Her old VW might work for a while, but it had more than a hundred thousand miles on it and the local mechanic had told her already that it was going to need new tires and a new clutch soon. She had a college fund for Rocky, but didn’t want to dip into it for a vehicle. So for the last several months, most of her tips had been going into his car fund. With what Rocky had saved from his job at the animal rescue center, the fund now had about $1,500. She hoped for another thousand before summer.
Her boss, Bean, had offered to loan her the difference she needed. Kate loved Bean like an older brother, appreciated his offer, but considered it a last resort. Bean told her she had too much pride; Kate preferred to call it self-reliance. All she had was herself and Rocky; they needed to be able to make it on their own; she wanted to set a good example for him.
Now and then, music blasted from the jukebox, an old Wurlitzer Bean had restored to pristine condition. Banjos twanged, fiddles screeched, country tunes that made her smile at their lyrics—“Baby, come back to me, or I’ll come back to haunt you, baby!” In between, the constant murmur of voices washed over her; she was used to it. She didn’t need to hear these voices to know the alcoholic preferences of her customers. She knew the regulars well enough to worry about them.
For instance, Marion the librarian—not her real name, but what people called her—loved her Skip and Go Naked, a wicked mixture of ice, limeade, lemonade, Sprite, vodka, and beer. By the end of the night, with a few more of those in her skinny little body, she would be doing the cha-cha without music or a partner. In the past few weeks, she’d been in here every night, hitting on any man alone at the bar. Kate thought it was sad, but she also thought it was odd, because Marion hadn’t behaved like that until lately. Usually, she was nice, kind of shy.
Kate wondered if it was only the alcohol, or if Marion’s past had finally worn her down. She had been the librarian for only six or seven months. She was in her fifties, attractive except for the tragedy in her eyes. Kate had heard that her husband and two kids had died in a car accident in Gainesville a few years ago.
Maybe she had simply succumbed to the same thing that ailed so many of the locals: alcohol as a way of life. A lot of them drank too much, Kate thought, while she scooped their tips. They claimed at one point or another that they were on the wagon, and promptly fell off that elusive wagon five minutes later.
The fact that she cared about all of that—about all of them—meant she was getting strongly attached to the place again. She’d been born here, then left for thirteen years, and now was back again. She’d never intended to stay, but more and more, it felt like home to Rocky, as it did to her.
She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
She didn’t have time to puzzle through it. She was alone at the bar tonight, one of the waitresses had called in sick, and Richard, her lover and the other bartender, was visiting friends in Gainesville. Since the hotel kitchen had closed hours ago, the only available food was from the bar menu, sandwiches and soups, mostly, that she prepared in between making drinks.
Kate finished an order for a table in the back room, put everything on a tray, and set it down in front of her boss, Bean.
Ted “Bean” Dillon was a scarecrow of a man who owned the hotel, had renovated it and put it back on the tourist map. He was sixty years old, divorced, a teetotaler who took no guff from drunks.
She gave him an affectionate and tired smile.
“Hey, boss,” she said over the blare of conversation and music. “Can you give me a hand here and take this to table three?”
Bean was sitting on a stool at the bar next to Marion, the two of them howling with laughter. He didn’t acknowledge Kate’s presence, much less answer her question, so she slapped her hand on the bar, playfully, to get his attention. He stopped laughing and looked at her, bushy brows rising into little peaks.
“What?” he said irritably.
Kate pulled her chin in, not liking his tone, but then she realized that he was undoubtedly tired, too.
“I’ve got four more drinks to make, Bean. Could you deliver this to table three?”
“Oh, really,” Marion said with a roll of her pretty brown eyes. “That’s what he pays you to do, Kate.”
Taken aback by the patronizing tone, Kate still managed to joke about it. “And not nearly enough, right, Bean?”
“More like too fucking much,” he shot back at her, and it didn’t sound like a joke.
“Get us another round, Kate,” he ordered, in a most un-Bean-like way. “Make it a pitcher of Skip and Go Naked for both of us, and more tequila for me.”
He leaned in to whisper something in Marion’s ear, and whatever it was made her laugh raucously again.
Kate stepped back, confused by this change in both of them. But the bigger surprise was that Bean clearly meant for her to bring him a drink, too. It was then she noticed that he had an empty shot glass in front of him, the kind they served to the straight tequila drinkers.
“You’re drinking?” she asked him, dumbfounded.
Bean didn’t drink. Ever. He was nearly religious about it, having been raised by drunks. And then something strange happened to her boss’s face, something that made her draw in her breath and back off another step, so she felt as if she were about to fall off something high and deep. It was a little thing, subtle, and she might not have noticed it if Bean hadn’t leaned forward at that moment and glared right at her. She was accustomed to looking into drunks’ eyes to see if they were tracking, to check if they could still drive home. Bean’s eyes looked like nobody’s eyes she’d ever seen before, just as the fog was like no other: his eyes, his kind and sea-blue eyes, had turned cruel black and shiny, like smooth, damp stones.
A chill washed through her.
He gave her a hateful look that shocked her more than his drinking did.
He snorted. “You’re such a prude. I don’t know how Rich stands it.”
Her mouth dropped open.
“Our drinks, Kate?” he reminded her, with a mean sarcasm that made the librarian laugh again.
She turned her back on him, on them, hurt and angry, and a little scared, and glanced at the wall clock. Just past eleven.
She tried to convince herself that she hadn’t seen what she’d thought she’d seen.
That was the answer: it hadn’t happened.
Eyes couldn’t do that. Bean wouldn’t do that.
Could she make it for another two hours? If she left now, Bean might fire her, given the strange and awful mood he was in, and in spite of their long family history. She couldn’t afford to lose this job. Even though she worked at Annie’s Café three days a week, she doubted she would get more hours there. Business was too slow. The terrible truth was that she needed both jobs to support herself and Rocky. Without this job, there’d be no gas for her own car, much less wheels for him.
She’d been born and raised on Cedar Key. The island was in her blood, just as it had been for both of her parents. She’d left here once before, to attend Florida State in Tallahassee, but returned two years ago when her relationship with her son’s father fell apart. She was qualified to teach high school English, had applied for teaching jobs on the island and in Gainesville, but neither school system was hiring. She would make some calls tomorrow, she decided, get her name on the substitute list. She needed a backup plan. The fact that it made her heart hurt to think of leaving the island was going to have to be irrelevant.
Suddenly, Bean stood beside her, shoulders twitching as though his pullover sweater were too small for him. She nearly said, “What’s wrong with you?” But before she could, he set a bottle of tequila down hard on the counter. “I delivered the meal, now you make Marion and me another round of drinks.” He leaned toward her, his gaunt face so close to hers that she smelled his reeking breath. Air hissed out through his clenched teeth. “We clear, hon?”
WTF? Hon? What was that about? Before she could think of a snappy reply, he winked at her, patted her cheek as though she were a young child, and swung around the corner of the bar. He settled again on his stool, head tilted toward Marion, who giggled like an infatuated teen.
The jukebox came on again, and someone shouted, “Hey, Kate, where’re our drinks?”
The temptation to water down Bean’s order quickly gave way to making a pitcher of Skip and Go Naked. Kate set it and the bottle of tequila in front of them, without a word, and hoped they wouldn’t notice her hands trembling. It’s just the booze, she told herself. Bean wasn’t used to it; as for the librarian, Kate didn’t know what her excuse was for acting like a bitch.
Still feeling stung, she turned back to the blender to add more ice. It churned constantly for the next half hour. The music and noise got louder, the room grew warmer, her feet ached from standing so long.
Her cell vibrated and beeped, and she slipped it out of the back pocket of her jeans. A text message from Rocky read: Mom, you getting off at 1?
That’s the plan.
You need a ride home? I’m over at Jeff’s, got the cart. I can pick u up if u need a ride.
Kate had forgotten he was spending the night out. His friend lived on the other side of the island. Even though Cedar Key had practically no crime to speak of, she felt uneasy about Rocky being out and about by himself at one in the morning, driving the electric golf cart. It’s a short walk 2 the houseboat, I’ll be fine. Luv u
Text if u change yr mind. We’ll be up late :-). Luv u 2!
Her heart swelled at the affection in his text. “Love u 2!” That was pretty good for a fifteen-year-old boy, wasn’t it? He wouldn’t be caught dead saying it to her face or in public, but he could safely say it in a text.
Kate smiled down at her cell phone.
She wondered if his girlfriend, Amy, was part of the staying-up-late equation. Kate liked Amy, but worried about her and Rocky’s raging hormones. From the time her son was old enough to understand what sex was, Kate had been utterly frank about safe sex. He knew enough to use condoms. But. What if. Maybe.
As Kate slipped the cell back into her pocket, she caught sight of herself in the window, the pallor of her skin, the circles under her eyes. Strands of her blond hair had worked loose from the large clip that held it off her neck and clung to her damp cheeks. This job, she thought, was aging her quickly. She cracked open the window for some fresh air. Ribbons of fog slipped through the screen and curled quickly around her wrist and forearm like a snake seeking warmth. It felt damp, slimy, cold, deeply unpleasant. She shuddered at its touch and then frantically slapped at it. She was startled to see the ribbons break apart, like the mercury in a thermometer had done one time when she accidentally dropped it.
She knew it was an understatement even as she said it.
It wasn’t just weird. It was impossible.
Kate looked up, afraid of what she might see the fog do next.
Bits of the fog hung in the air the way smoke does on a windless night, and finally dissipated. Kate slammed the window down, disturbed that she could still feel the slimy cold on her skin. But when she looked out again, she saw the fog was back, pressing against the glass, looking as if it were trying to get in, to get at her.
Bean’s nuts, and now you’re losing it, too, she thought. She loaded a tray with drinks and sandwiches and carried it into the back room, to a table of four boisterous tourists, and looked at the clock again. Just an hour and fifteen minutes before she could close up. And go out in that horrible fog, her spooked mind said to her. Oh, shut up, she snapped back at it. Fog was fog. She was just nervous about losing her job and it was making her jumpy.
As she headed back into the main room, she had an unobstructed view of Bean and Marion. He was cupping her face in his hands, kissing her passionately, then his fingers roamed across her throat and breasts and slid through her hair. Marion responded like a young woman of twenty, head thrown back, exposing her throat, where Bean planted his mouth and sucked at her skin like a mosquito.
As Bean succumbed to whatever urge this was, his stool tipped back and he crashed to the floor and lay there, laughing. Marion got down on her hands and knees and leaned over him, kissing his cheeks, eyelids, nose, his mouth. His arms wrapped around her, their bodies pressed so closely together that his arms looked as if they were growing out of her back. Customers kept glancing at them; some laughed nervously, one of the locals called, “Hey, get a room, dude.”
“Bean,” Kate said, feeling deeply disturbed.
Her boss—her “older brother”—was making a fool of himself. She hurried over to see if she could distract him enough to get him outside and then get him home. He’d feel mortified in the morning, on top of being hungover.
But before she reached them, Bean ripped open Marion’s blouse. The buttons popped off one after another, his hands slipped over her breasts as she reared back, her face seized with ecstasy, her eyes rolling back in their sockets. She unzipped his jeans and fell on him again, both of them now grunting, groping, moaning, rolling. Most of their clothes vanished with their decorum, his butt the color of a full moon, her pendulous breasts bouncing, dancing.
It happened so fast that for an instant, Kate just stood there, gaping along with nearly everybody else in the bar.
It was like watching a porn movie come to life.
Bean thrust himself into Marion and they rolled across the sagging floor, faster and faster, crashing into tables and chairs. People shouted, scrambled out of their way, tried to get past them to the door. They were oblivious. Kate ran toward them, shouting at Bean to knock it off, and someone else hollered to call the cops. Bottles and glasses tumbled off the tables, shattered against the floor. Kate grabbed Bean’s shoulder, he shoved her away, and she stumbled back into the jukebox. The needle tore across the record, the old Wurlitzer went silent.
In desperation, Kate picked up the pitcher of Skip and Go Naked and hurled what remained of it over Bean and Marion. She squealed, he yelped, they fell away from each other. Kate snatched her bag off the counter, ushered the last two customers, inebriated locals, out of the bar. She killed the lights and slammed the door. Let Bean clean up the place. Let him sweep up the glass, clean the grill, restock the shelves, load and run the dishwasher. Let him explain to the cops what the hell happened and what had come over him.
All she wanted to be was out of there.
No one was at the front desk, but some of the customers milled around the small lobby. As soon as they saw her, they crowded around her, demanding refunds for the drinks they hadn’t finished. Some of them twitched and jerked, just as Bean had, and had eyes like Bean’s, dark and shiny. She fled from them.
“Talk to the management!” she yelled.
If you can get him off the customers . . .
As she burst from the hotel into the open air, she felt tears on her cheeks, tears of anger, confusion, and shock.
What a nightmare . . .
The chilly night air bit at her. She’d left her jacket in the bar, but wasn’t about to go back inside to get it. She wished she had ridden her bike or driven to work. It was a mile to the houseboat and the prospect of walking through the fog didn’t appeal to her in the least. But she heard the cop siren now and didn’t want to be here when the chief or one of his lackeys arrived. She loved Bean, and was sorry he’d fallen off the wagon, but she refused to run interference for him on this one.
A tendril of fog slipped around her shoulders.
“Leave me alone!” she shouted at it, and then stood in the street, feeling absurd. Yelling at fog? Throwing drinks on her boss? What would she do next, scream at the rain? Kick her lover out of her life?
Maybe she was the crazy one.
The fog seemed to back off from her, like something almost human.
Kate walked briskly, shoulders hunched, past gift shops, a restaurant, the town’s only bookstore, a consignment shop, all closed down for the night. Even on Friday nights, the town turned in early, except at the hotel and over on Dock Street where most of the restaurants and bars were. But tonight the emptiness was eerie, the silence pervasive, the fog snaking across the ground, creeping in between houses and trees, rolling steadily inland from the gulf. She felt as if she moved through a black-and-white photograph, everything frozen in time, even the echo of the siren.
At the intersection, the fog caught the glow of the blinking caution light and turned it a sickly yellow. She headed right onto the shoulder of State Road 24, the only route on and off the island, in the hopes that she would see cars, people. But it was devoid of humanity. Even Island Market was locked up for the night. She felt a sudden, ridiculous urge to just keep walking, to cross the four bridges that connected Cedar Key to the mainland, and to keep right on going all the way to Gainesville.
Is that idea really so ridiculous . . . ?
Sure. Like she would do that and leave Rocky behind. Like she would walk fifty miles through a dense pine forest by herself at night.
Take him with you, go get Rocky, and run . . .
She texted him that she had closed up early and was on her way home. It was one of their oldest traditions, texting each other when they were en route to and from anywhere. She had bought him his first cell phone six years ago, when he was just nine, so they could always be in touch. For a single mother who worked erratic hours, the arrangement worked well.
Kate felt anxious until he texted a reply moments later: You ok? I heard something went down at the bar.
News on the island grapevine traveled at the speed of light. I’m fine. Ignore whatever u hear.
You sure? Jeff and I can hop in the cart and pick u up. We were listening to the police radio, mom.
Thanks, but stay put. Nearly home. Call me in the morning. Luv u
You sweetie, Kate thought. You’re a good son.
No need to worry him. But was it a mistake not to take him up on his offer to come get her, so she wouldn’t have to walk this isolated route by herself? No, she decided, if there was risk, she certainly wasn’t involving Rocky or his friends in it.
Almost there. Almost home.
Kate picked up her pace, anxious to get inside her houseboat, turn on the lights, and lock the doors.
Just before the first bridge, she turned right off SR 24, the road that shot straight toward Gainesville. Richard’s place stood at the end of the street, with the back bayou stretching out behind it, nearly invisible in the fog. The stuff was thicker and higher here, but thanks to the starlight, she could see the corner of the house. One bedroom, one bath, tiny kitchen. She and Rocky had lived there with Richard for a while, until the cramped quarters had gotten on everyone’s nerves. Their present arrangement worked better, the houseboat tied up at the dock behind Rich’s house. The three of them often had dinner together, but they had their respective privacy; she didn’t have to pay tie-up fees, and she and Richard split utilities.
Kate knew Rich wasn’t the love of her life—or vice versa—but she liked him. Appreciated him. And he got along well with Rocky. Buddies, not father-son.
Her cell vibrated and buzzed. She slipped it from her jacket pocket, glanced at the ID window. Bean. Was he calling to fire her? If she didn’t answer, he couldn’t fire her. She was grateful that Rocky wasn’t home, that she could just crawl into bed and listen to the soft caress of the water against the houseboat.
Images of Bean and Marion replayed in her head. She didn’t understand any of what had happened tonight. But in her gut, she knew something was seriously wrong on the island and had been for weeks. If she were honest with herself—and how could she lie to herself any more after the scene in the bar tonight?—it wasn’t just what happened there.
In late January, two bodies had washed in with the tide and been discovered under a pier on Dock Street. Both victims had died of massive loss of blood. Total loss was more like it. She’d heard it called “bleed-out,” because that was literally what had happened to them—all the blood in their bodies had rushed from every orifice.
Kate shuddered to think of it.
“Murder, right here in River City,” some wag had joked, but it wasn’t funny.
The newspaper barely covered the mysterious deaths; it might be bad for tourism. The police department hadn’t investigated too deeply, either, at least not that she’d heard, and she wasn’t sure what had happened to the bodies. Were they still in the coroner’s office in Gainesville? Had they been identified?
Then there were the rumors whispered in the bar at night, locals remarking on the changes in their partners, neighbors. She hadn’t thought much about that until tonight. Or about how more and more homes were for sale. Even a lot of the weekender places on the salt marsh off Gulf Boulevard were for sale. She’d blamed the economy. Now she wasn’t at all sure.
The familiar cry of the hawk echoed through the air. Liberty swept down until she was just above Kate’s head, her wings flapping softly. Rocky had rescued the hawk last year, when he’d found her on the beach, a hook caught in her wing. Now she practically lived with them, perched either on the roof or the balcony railing. She flew with Rocky to school, to the animal rescue facility where he worked, and rarely strayed too far from them. She knew not to touch down on Kate’s shoulder unless it was padded but stayed close all the way to the houseboat.
As she was unlocking the door, Liberty screeched and shot away from her, flying fast at a tall man hurrying along the side of the house, through the low fog, toward her. Liberty dived at him, the man threw his arms up to cover his head, but she drove him to his knees. He yelled, “Get this goddamn bird away from me.”
Bean, it was Bean. Kate whistled for the hawk to back off and Liberty flew to the edge of the roof and perched there, ready to dive at Bean again. He got to his feet, brushing off his jeans. “You didn’t answer your cell, Kate.”
“It’s not on. I figured you’d be passed out on the floor in the bar, Bean.” The starlight was bright enough for her to see his face, those dark, shiny eyes glaring at her. You’re not Bean. She wanted to say it, but didn’t. To voice such a thing out loud might make it true.
His frown thrust his eyes closer together. “What’re you talking about?”
“Tequila straight up? Marion and her Skip and Go Nakeds?”
“I don’t drink,” he said. “You know that. You left me a big mess to clean up, Kate.”
What the hell. Were they living in different realities? And given all that tequila he’d consumed, how could he even be standing, much less speaking? He appeared to be completely sober. Had she imagined everything? “You made the mess, you clean it up.”
“I pay you to clean up.”
“No, actually you pay me to tend bar and serve the customers, Bean.”
He combed his fingers back through his thick gray hair. “You’re putting me in an untenable position.”
“Me?” Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside her. “You’re the one who screwed the librarian on the barroom floor, in front of several dozen people.”
Now he looked completely confused, like some little kid who had robbed a candy store but didn’t remember doing it. Was that possible? That he didn’t remember? As incredible as that seemed, it was the only explanation. He blinked and his eyes returned to their normal color, a soft blue. The transformation shocked her. Kate stepped back, fear shuddering through her, the skin at the back of her neck tightening. Bean squeezed the bridge of his nose, shoulders twitching.
“I . . . well, that was a big mistake.”
A mistake. She could think of better words. Gross, disgusting, sordid.
“I suppose I, uh, have some apologies that are forthcoming for my behavior. You don’t know how lonely I’ve been since the divorce.”
Kate didn’t know what to say. But she suddenly wanted to put her arms around him, to console him as she had the night his divorce had become final, when he’d knocked at the door of her houseboat, bereft and inconsolable.
Bean jammed his hands into the pockets of his jacket. A muscle ticked under his eye, and his mouth moved out of synch when he spoke again. “I came here to fire you, Kate. But I . . . can’t do it.” Those words came out as a gasp, almost a plea. “Too much history with our families.”
Now he sounded like the Bean she’d known for years. “I’ll come in early tomorrow and help you clean up. I’m going to bed, Bean. I suggest you do the same.”
It seemed that his face collapsed, caved in, gave way to some sort of excessive gravity that caused the corners of his mouth to plunge, that made his eyes water. His arms jerked upward, as if to embrace her. The hawk didn’t like it and dived at him, shrieking with alarm. But she didn’t attack. She was just warning him. Bean’s eyes held Kate’s, and for the briefest moment, she slipped an arm around his shoulders and in a gentle voice said, “The loneliness gets easier to deal with as time goes on, Bean.”
“I hope so.”
Then he backed away, his head jerking to the right, the left, as though his neck were screwed crookedly on his shoulders and he was struggling to adjust it.
Kate watched him, shaken by the change in him, by what had happened, by what he’d said, the way his eyes changed colors, by all of it. Liberty pursued him back toward the front of the house and didn’t return until he’d driven away. The hawk took up her position on the houseboat roof and Kate unlocked the door and slipped quickly inside.
She locked the door, leaned against it. Then she pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and slid to the floor, a sob rising in her throat as she struggled against a terror she couldn’t define.