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Beach Town

Chapter 1

Greer Hennessy needed palm trees. She needed Technicolor green fronds swaying in wind machine–enhanced breezes, with some Dolby- sound crashing waves. And was it too much to ask for a Panavision wide shot of a sun-kissed beach? Wasn’t this Florida?

Instead, the only trees she spied through the bug- spattered windshield of her rented Kia were part of an endless wall of tall spindly pines, underplanted with miles of palmetto clumps. She’d landed in Panama City three days earlier.

Before leaving L.A., she had browsed the Florida film and television commission website, which featured photos of every imaginable kind of scenery in the state, from the dark brown ribbon of the Suwannee River lazing through the northern edge of the state, to the green pastures of Ocala horse farms, all the way down to the funky conch cottages and banana palms of the Florida Keys.

Day one of her journey, she’d taken one look at the wall- to- wall high-rise hotels and condo towers lining Panama City Beach and headed west on US 98, and then over to 30A. She’d found palm trees, yes, but also an infestation of cuteness in planned beach communities with picturesque names like Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and Watercolor, which hugged both sides of the road on 30A and reeked of taste and money. The houses were as colorful as the community names and oozed magazine cover potential.

Pretty it was. Sleepy it wasn’t. The beach roads were clogged with BMWs and big SUVs, the highways crowded with outlet malls, convenience stores, and strip shopping centers.

The Gulf of Mexico, or what she could glimpse of it, was pretty enough, textbook turquoise, contrasted against sugar- white sand. Perfect for a chamber of commerce brochure but lousy for the kind of gritty location she was seeking.

At the overpriced condo she’d rented that second night in Destin, she asked around about nearby beach communities. Greer usually divulged her occupation and mission only when absolutely necessary.

“I’m looking for someplace quiet,” she’d said to the waitress at a pseudoquaint breakfast place called Eggs ’n’ Joe. “Maybe a place with old- timey mom- and- pop motels? And, like, shrimp boats maybe?”

“Mexico Beach,” the waitress said, presenting her with a fourteen- dollar check for a bagel sandwich.

But Mexico Beach wasn’t it.

Apalachicola was next. Plenty of shrimp boats and oyster boats. She parked and walked around a bustling marina that even had a pier, snapping photos with her cell phone.

Not what I had in mind, Bryce Levy texted back.

Greer got in the Kia and drove, following the coastal Florida highway as it headed south and east.

She had high hopes for a place called Saint George Island. There she found a general store, a couple of motels, and a few scattered T-shirt shops. Sandy roads traversed the island, and large multistory houses stood silhouetted against sea oats and sand dunes.

She shot photos of the beach, one of the motels, and the entrance to the state park and e-mailed them to the producer/director. Her phone dinged a moment later with his text.


She thought again about the one brief meeting she’d had, two weeks earlier, with Bryce Levy, the newly anointed boy won der of Hollywood.

Her best friend, CeeJay, was in the honeymoon phase of her fling with Bryce and had somehow managed to convince her new boyfriend that Greer was the only location manager experienced enough for his next big film project.

This despite the fact that Greer’s last location scouting job had literally ended up in highly publicized flames—with lawsuits and finger pointing and a near- fatal blot on her previously flourishing career.

CeeJay herself had driven Greer to the meeting with Bryce, which he’d insisted had to take place in total secrecy in his leased Brentwood mansion.

The producer wasn’t what she expected. CeeJay’s usual type was the hot, young starving artist, complete with black leather and body piercings.

Bryce Levy was none of these things. He was much older than CeeJay’s usual men. He was casually dressed, in an open-necked white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to expose muscled forearms. He had a high forehead and a full crop of wiry blond hair. Wire-rimmed glasses sat atop a generous nose. He had expressive blue eyes and was laughing explosively at something his caller was saying. She guessed his age as late forties to early fifties. Except for the nose, which looked like it had been broken a few times, he was matinee idol handsome.

“This is a really high-concept piece,” Bryce said, settling back in his chair. “Action, some romance, with thriller elements. And I’ve signed two great leads. Adelyn Davis, you know her work, of course. And the male lead? Off the chain! It’s the guy’s first fi lm, but he’s gonna be box office gold, I know.”

“You’ll die when you hear,” CeeJay said, eyes dancing with excitement.

“Ceej . . .” Bryce said, giving her a stern look.

“Okay, I’m not saying a word.”

“What can you tell me about the setting?” Greer asked.

“That part’s easy. It’s a beach town. A real sleepy, backwater kind of place. East Coast definitely. I need you to find me a place with a look that’s a cross between Body Heat and the town in Jaws.

Greer blinked. “You want a cross between Florida and Nantucket?”

He nodded rapidly. “Yeah. I see palm trees. Long stretches of deserted beaches, some dunes with those wavy wheat- looking things . . .”

“Sea oats,” CeeJay said.

“Yeah. Sea oats. And then there should be trees with that Spanish moss stuff hanging down, beat-up old fishing boats. Atmospheric, you know?”

Greer nodded, her mind racing. Dunes, palm trees, shrimp boats, Spanish moss? He was definitely talking about a Southern beach.

“It should have a real throwback feeling, like the kind of town the world forgot about. We’ll need an old-school motel. Not a movie set, but an honest-to-God fleabag motel. No high-rise condos, fast- food joints, nothing that would suggest it’s a tourist trap, or that Walt Disney even exists. And we’re also gonna need a cool old building that can be exploded during the movie’s climax.”

She was taking notes while Bryce described the project.

“Any specific kind of old building?”

“I can visualize it, but I can’t really describe it,” he said. “It needs to have this iconic look—say, like, the Parthenon, or the Alamo. Like that.”

“But the movie is set in contemporary time?” Greer asked.

“Of course. It’s just— like I said, this beach town, it’s like a total throwback. See, that’s where the conflict comes in. Our guy rides into town, kinda like a modern- day Shane. He’s back from active duty in Afghanistan, come home to his loving wife, only she’s not so loving, and nothing is the same. And did I mention he’s ex– Navy SEAL?”

“Got it,” Greer said. Although she wasn’t sure she actually did get it. Not without a script, or at least a treatment.

“Am I allowed to know the name of the project?”

Bryce and CeeJay exchanged knowing glances.

Beach Town,” Bryce said. “Dynamite, huh?”


The problem was that, for this project, Bryce wanted a look that was a cross between two movies that had been shot more than thirty- five years earlier. He didn’t know or care that the Florida of his imagination no longer existed—if it ever had. He just wanted palm trees and Spanish moss and rusty shrimp boats. And an Alamo that he could blow up.

She picked up her phone and sent another text:

Not finding the exact combination of sleepy fishing village/beach. Maybe do beach shoots at state park in Panhandle, and village exteriors someplace else?

Bryce’s reply was terse, as usual.

Keep looking.

As she was putting her phone back into the cup holder in the Kia’s console, she remembered the slip of paper Lise had pressed into her hand a lifetime ago, back in L.A. On a whim, she pulled the paper from her purse and stared at it.

Give him a call, her mother had urged. He’d get a kick out of hearing from you.

Greer wasn’t so sure.

Sitting at the departure gate back at LAX, she’d had an hour to kill. She was updating her Facebook page, flicking dispassionately through her feed, when she gave in to the urge she’d been fighting since packing up Lise’s apartment.

There were three Clint Hennessys on Facebook, but only one who lived in Florida, and only one whose profile picture showed an intensely tanned guy with a white handlebar mustache, grinning through the open window of an orange Charger emblazoned with a huge Confederate flag across the roof.

She found herself holding her breath as she stared down at the photo of her long- gone father. His eyes were the same blazing blue she remembered, the mustache drooping below thin lips stretched wide into a guileless smile. He wore the same kind of sleeveless “wife beater” T- shirt he’d always favored, and Greer was surprised to note his leathery, still muscular biceps.

The father of her memory was perpetually laughing down at her, tugging at one of her pigtails, teasing her about her missing front teeth, offering a stick of his ever-present Juicy Fruit gum. It was a funny thing about her memories of Clint. He was always grinning, laughing at some private joke. But Lise never seemed to find her stunt- driver father funny. Even as a five-year-old, Greer sensed the tension between her parents.

After he’d gone, Lise sold the two bedroom ranch house in the Valley and they’d moved in with her grandmother, sharing Dearie’s tiny one bedroom apartment until Lise got the part in Neighborhood Menace, and they’d moved into a house in Hancock Park.

“Give him a call,” Lise had urged, as they’d sat in the oncologist’s reception area, waiting for yet another set of test results. “We both know how this is going to end. After I’m gone, he’ll be all the family you have left.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Greer had insisted, wanting it to be true. “I’ll still have Dearie. And anyway, he’s not my family.”

Maybe that’s when it finally began to sink in for Greer—that Lise had resigned herself to dying, because she’d stopped holding grudges.

“Call your dad,” Lise repeated, propped up in bed at home. “He wants to see you. And you need to see him.”

“I don’t need a father.” Greer had inherited her mother’s stubborn streak.

Maybe she could have used a father when she was ten and had to take one of Lise’s boyfriends to the father–daughter dance at school. Maybe Clint could have helped her out when she was fifteen and learning to drive in Dearie’s yacht- sized Bonneville. Or maybe, yeah, he could have helped out by steering her away from the legions of wrong guys she’d dated over the years.

Maybe if Clint had any interest in his only child he would have taken the trouble to show up at Lise’s funeral.

He hadn’t done any of those things. And it was too late now. Greer crumpled the slip of paper, thought about tossing it in the trash, but at the last minute, as her fl ight was boarding, she’d tucked it back into her purse.


Somewhere south of Steinhatchee and west of Gainesville she pulled up to a restaurant she’d seen advertised on faded billboards for the past fifty miles.

Little Buddy’s BBQ was a low-slung wooden shack perched in the middle of a pothole-pitted crushed oyster shell parking lot crowded with pickup trucks and big American sedans. A thick hickory-scented cloud hovered over a huge black smoker off to the east side of the restaurant.

All good signs, Greer thought, as she pushed through the screen door to observe the crowded dining room. She’d done quite a bit of location scouting in the South in recent years, and one thing she’d learned early: if you wanted to do beta research there, the local barbecue joint was the best place to start.

Scouting thoughts were laid aside when a paper plate loaded with chopped pork, coleslaw, potato salad, and a single slice of garlic-toasted white bread was plopped down in front of her, along with a quart-size plastic tumbler of iced tea so sweet it could have been dessert.

She was using the bread to mop up the last drop of barbecue sauce when the counter guy slid her check across the counter. “Anything else? Some pie, maybe?”

“No pie,” Greer said with a groan. “I’m stuffed. But I could use some help.”

“How’s that?” He was a skinny, older man, in his late sixties, she thought, with thinning gray hair cut in a military-style flat-top crew cut.

“I’m looking for the perfect beach town.”

He shifted from one foot to the other. “Destin’s a few hours north of here.

Saint Pete’s a couple hours south.”

Greer shook her head. “Yeah, I know about both of them. But I’m looking for something quieter. Picturesque, but not touristy, if you get what I mean. An old- timey-looking beach. A small town with palm trees, white sand, fishing  boats.”

“Sounds a lot like Cypress Key,” the counter guy said. “I ain’t been in a few years, but the last time I was there it was pretty much like you just described.”

She tipped him ten bucks and headed out to find Cypress Key.


Chapter 2

“Proceed to the route.”

The disembodied voice on Greer’s GPS was maddeningly vague about which exact route she should take. Against her better judgment, she’d turned off US 98 and on to a county road that looked like it might lead her straight into The Blair Witch Project.

Since she didn’t have a road map, she’d have to rely on the magic of some mystical satellite high up in the blazing blue Florida sky. She only prayed it knew where she was supposed to go.

It had rained so hard the night before, Greer had awakened with a start in her cheap motel room, startled by the steady rattle on the roof and at the windows of the cinder block room. She’d been living in drought-stricken California for so long, she suddenly realized, she’d forgotten what rain sounded like.

She’d called Dearie before leaving the motel. There hadn’t been time to stop by to see her before leaving Los Angeles. Her eighty-seven-year-old grandmother kept bizarre hours, often sleeping during the day and watching television most of the night.

“Dearie? How are you?” “Who is this?” Dearie demanded.

“Who else calls you at five o’clock in the morning, Pacific time?”

“Sometimes the people at that Prayer Cathedral call. They seem nice.”

“You’re not still sending them money, right?”

“Not since you cut back on me,” Dearie said accusingly. “Say, where are you?”

“I told you, I’m down in Florida, scouting for a fi lm.”

“That’s right. Well, have a nice time. And don’t forget my money. We’re supposed to take a bus trip to Knott’s Berry Farm this week. Or maybe next week. Anyway, I’ll need a little extra for that.”

The sides of the pancake-flat blacktop road were still awash in puddles, and the air was syrupy thick with heat and humidity. Green walls of palmettos, stick-thin pine trees, and scrub oaks draped with Spanish moss were a blur as the Kia sped down the county road.

She glanced nervously at the GPS, which claimed she should arrive at Cypress Key in 14.2 miles, and again at the dashboard, where the needle of the fuel gauge hovered dangerously below the quarter-full mark. She’d had zero bars on her cell phone for the last forty miles. If she ran out of gas on this godforsaken edge of nowhere, she was certain she’d be eaten alive either by the swarms of mosquitoes or by one of the black bears whose silhouette was featured on ominous- looking BEAR CROSSING signs posted every few miles.

Finally, she began to see billboards. They urged her to eat at Tony’s—home of three-time world champion award-winning clam chowder. Or take a swamp boat ride. (As if! ) Or stay at a motel called the Silver Sands, which boasted forty-two modern rooms, air conditioning, tile baths, and free television.

Five minutes later she breathed a sigh of relief after spotting the CYPRESS KEY 5 MILES marker. The landscape changed suddenly. In the distance she sawthe gleam of water, a swath of sand, and a metal bridge.

Ahead, she saw a stretch of waterfront, with docks jutting out into what a sign told her was Choklawassee Bay. Fishing trawlers and sailboats bobbed in the calm water. Rooftops peeked above the tree line, and she spotted a handful of shrimp boats, far out on the horizon, in the Gulf.

Spanish moss. Shrimp boats, palm trees, and a beach. She felt the familiar serotonin buzz starting at the back of her skull, the one that told her she was onto something. Proceed to the route.


She pulled into the first gas station convenience store she found, filled up the Kia and, noting that she now had two bars on her phone, pulled up the Cypress Key Chamber of Commerce website. There were half a dozen motels in town, which came as a relief. Bryce’s assistant had e-mailed that she’d need to find housing for a cast and crew of at least sixty people.

The Buccaneer Bay Motel consisted of a cluster of faded A- frame cedar units gathered around a cracked and drained swimming pool. There were four beat-up cars in the parking lot and a faded VACANCY sign swinging from another faded billboard leading to the motel’s entrance. She drove on, past a couple of ramshackle seafood processing plants. Promising, she thought. Totally gritty and atmospheric.

A heavy chain- link fence with a NO TRESPASSING sign surrounded the Stephen Foster Memorial Elementary School, an Art Deco–era stucco building with a red tile roof and boarded-up windows. Rusting swings sat in a weed-covered playground.

Two blocks over, she hit pay dirt.

Cypress Key’s Main Street reminded her of a relic from an old Bogart movie. Was it Key Largo or To Have and Have Not? Two- story stucco and wood- framed buildings with rickety-looking balconies and front porches stretched for three blocks. There was a library, a barber shop, an old bank, and many vacant storefronts. But the Hometown Market lights were on and its plate glass windows promised fish bait, cold beer, milk, and Boar’s Head deli products. There was even a welcome center in the former movie house.

Greer pulled to the curb, which she happily noted was free of parking meters, jumped out of the Kia, and began snapping photos, stopping only to e-mail them off to Bryce Levy.

She pressed her face to the glass of what had most recently been the Smart Shoppe Women’s Boutique. The walls were bare and the floors littered with trash, but they were wooden, and if she stood back a ways, she saw that the high ceilings were made of pressed tin panels. She snapped a picture of the real estate sign in the window.


Her cell phone dinged and she smiled as she read the text message.



She walked back to the welcome center and tugged at the door. Locked. A sign on the door indicated that the center was only open Thursday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. But a wooden rack held an assortment of maps and brochures for local businesses. Greer helped herself and kept walking.

When she came to a street marker for Pier Street, she inhaled a lungful of salt air. She followed the street for two blocks, past pastel-painted wooden cottages and yards full of exotic greenery spilling from every corner. Ahead, she saw the bay. And sure enough, the street narrowed and then morphed into a wooden pier.

A handful of businesses, wooden huts, really, lined both sides of the pier. There was a kayak rental stand, a bait shack, a dock for Cypress Key boat tours, and another for golf cart rentals. She clicked off photos as she walked, pausing to e-mail them to Bryce and his art director.

She had only the sketchiest sort of treatment for this movie, and Bryce hadn’t bothered to give her a list of sets he wanted, but Greer’s location scout antennae were beeping away. Every instinct she possessed told her she’d found exactly what Bryce didn’t even know he was seeking.

The pier ended abruptly in yet another chain- link fence. But behind it she saw a hulking white elephant of a building, crouching at the water’s edge.

Built in the same stucco design as the old elementary school, this building was much bigger, shaped almost like a Quonset hut, with a red tile roof and creamy yellow stucco walls. Big picture windows looked out on the pier at the front of the building, barely shaded by red and white striped canvas awnings, the frayed fabric flapping in the breeze coming off the bay. A fanciful crenellated parapet jutted out from the building’s front, and a pair of raggedy but still towering palm trees grew from stucco planters on either side of the entry.

The red neon sign above the parapet was rusting, but the lettering was still readable. The sign said Cypress Key Casino, but Greer knew she’d found her director’s Alamo.

She snapped away, e-mailed, and did her own abbreviated version of the happy dance when Bryce texted back immediately.

Awesome! Send interiors!

It was close to six o’clock, but heat still shimmered off the concrete pier. Small groups of fishermen were knotted about, but they were concentrating on their quest for trout and redfish, not on her. She glanced back toward the waterfront. Children were playing along the narrow sand beach, splashing in the limpid waves while parents lolled on chairs.

Greer strolled casually to the far edge of the chain-link fence. It wasn’t terribly high, but it was high enough that she’d definitely attract attention if she attempted to scale it. She leaned as far over the edge of the wooden safety railing as she could, and for the first time noticed that a short dock jutted out from the side of the casino. A small aluminum fishing boat bobbed at its

mooring, alongside a weather-beaten sailboat.

Five minutes later she handed her credit card and driver’s license to the teenager who was running the kayak rental stand.

“Ever been in a kayak before?” the kid asked, looking her up and down.

She wasn’t exactly dressed for a boating expedition. She wore white capris, a black sleeveless T- shirt, and her red Keds. She tucked her credit card in her pocket and her cell phone in her bra.

“Lots of times,” she lied. He shrugged, handed her a neon orange life vest and an aluminum double-edged paddle. “We close at seven. If you’re not tied up here by ten of, I gotta charge another seventy-five bucks.”

“I just want to take a little spin around, get my bearings for the week.”

He hefted a kayak off the aluminum rack, dumped it in the water, and helped her climb down into what looked like nothing more than a pregnant blue banana.

The kayak wobbled wildly, and she had to clamp her lips together to keep from screeching. He stuck his foot onto the end of it, steadying it. “Lots of times, huh?”

“I’ve seen it done lots of times,” she said lamely.

He gave her the short course on balancing and paddling. Ten minutes later, she was making for the end of the pier, glancing over her shoulder, praying the water would stay calm and that she wouldn’t be seen.

As she nudged the kayak up to the landing, a huge pelican squawked and took off, landing a few yards away, giving her a malevolent stare. She paddled close to the pier, stood up, and the kayak began to wobble crazily.

She dove desperately for the concrete pier, and somehow made an imperfect landing.

Greer sat on the pier for a moment, gathering her wits and her courage. She checked her tied line to make sure it was secure, then dashed toward the casino building. A rope was stretched across the stairs leading up to the casino deck, and a faded NO TRESPASSING sign was fastened to it.

She stepped nimbly over the rope and scampered up the steps. She was on the side of the building, in a sort of open-air pavilion. Round concrete picnic tables and concrete benches were spattered with bird droppings, and another faded red and white awning shaded what was left of a refreshment stand. But the windows were boarded up now. A plate glass door to the left of the stand had sheets of plywood nailed across it. She stood on tiptoes but couldn’t see inside.

A narrow wooden catwalk ran across the back side of the casino, with large bay windows overlooking the water. Two windows had been broken out and ineffectively patched over with peeling strips of silver duct tape. She pulled at a strip and it came off in her hand.

The window jamb was a good four feet up from the floor of the catwalk. The stucco walls offered no hint of a handhold, and it was definitely too high to jump. She walked a few yards down the catwalk, to a service door. Two galvanized steel trash cans were bolted to the wall, and a collection of old wooden milk crates was haphazardly stacked in the alcove that sheltered the door.

She grabbed two crates. Using them as a step stool, she vaulted over the windowsill without looking, and promptly fell flat on her ass on the wooden floor, a good five feet below.

If Greer hadn’t already had the breath knocked out by her fall, the interior of the Cypress Key Casino would have done the trick. She crawled to her hands and knees, and stood slowly. The late afternoon sunlight streamed through salt-streaked windows, casting a moody golden glow on the cracked plaster walls.

This had once been a grand old place, Greer realized. The high, vaulted ceiling was set off by heavily carved wooden beams, and dust-covered ceiling fans hung from long metal rods. The floors beneath her feet were scarred and littered with what looked like more bird droppings, but at one time this had been a highly polished maple dance floor.

On the south side of the cavernous room was a raised bandstand, with a threadbare fringed and swagged red velvet curtain pushed to one side. Behind the bandstand was an impressionistic painted pastel mural of jazz musicians, reminiscent of pre-Castro Havana.

On the north wall, opposite the bandstand, stood a varnished dark wooden bar. Yellowing signs tacked to the wall behind it advertised snacks, sandwiches, beer, and something called setups. Nothing on the menu board cost more than fifty cents.

Greer pulled her phone from her bra and began clicking photos, mindful of the time and the waning light. At first, she concentrated on the bandstand and its mural, and then the bar.

When she rotated around to capture the rest of the ballroom, she noticed a large illuminated sign hanging by chains from the ceiling on the north end of the building—a sign for bingo. Thus explaining why this was called a casino.

Rows of round wooden tabletops with fold-up legs, and wooden folding chairs, were stacked against the wall beneath the bingo sign.

On the opposite side of the room she spotted a door with an inset glass window. Crossing to it, she peered inside and glimpsed what must have been the casino’s office. A large metal desk stood on one wall, and in the middle of the room stood a rolling metal cart holding a huge, old- school movie projector. She spun around and saw that, mounted on the wall high above the bandstand mural, was what looked like a pull-down movie screen. At one time, this must have been the epicenter of culture for the community of Cypress Key.

For a moment, she stood in the empty old building, imagining it in its heyday, picturing couples who looked suspiciously like Bogie and Bacall, or even Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, dancing cheek to cheek as an orchestra played big band tunes of the era.

The light in the room changed, flaring orange. Alarmed, Greer glanced down at her phone. She had ten minutes to get back to the dock. She clicked off a few more photos on her phone and then, regretfully, pulled a folding chair up to the window to make her escape.

Beach Town
by by Mary Kay Andrews

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 125006595X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250065957