By Mary Kay Andrews
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Whodunnit, Inc.
All rights reserved.
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 pseudo-quaint 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 wonder 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 film, 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.
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 flight 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.
"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 film."
"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 saw the 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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Beach Town by Mary Kay Andrews. Copyright © 2015 Whodunnit, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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