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A Brandy O’Bannon Mystery

Ann Turner Cook

Mystery and Suspense Press

New York Lincoln Shanghai


by the same author


The first Brandy O’Bannon mystery;


Trace Their Shadows



A Brandy O’Bannon Mystery


All Rights Reserved © 2003
by Ann Turner Cook


No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.


Mystery and Suspense Press an imprint of iUniverse, Inc.


For information address:

iUniverse, Inc.

2021 Pine Lake Road, Suite 100

Lincoln, NE 68512


ISBN: 0-595-27843-4

ISBN13: 978-1-469-73600-6 (ebook)


Printed in the United States of America





























To my husband, Jim, who is always patiently supportive,


and to our four children, Jan, Carol, Cliff, and
Kathy, who daily honor the bond between mother
and child


Once the center of commerce on the Gulf coast of Florida, the hamlet of Cedar Key still thrives—as it has since 1859—at the end of its isolated road, about 130 miles north of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Most of the time it goes about its quiet business of crab and oyster fishing, except for a lively seafood festival in October and another for art in April. Visitors have been tip-toeing in and out of this laid-back nineteenth century village for years, fearful that it might succumb to the tourist trade like most of old Florida.

But this pioneer community of about one thousand has survived almost intact. The Cedar Key Historical Society featured in the novel still maintains its museum, the walking tour, and its authentic old homes. The centerpiece and Grande Dame of the town remains the 145 year old Island Hotel.

A few miles to the north lies Shell Mound, brooding above the waters of the Gulf as it has for perhaps twenty-five centuries. According to reports in the local newspaper, the site is still haunted by a woman with a round light, the ghost story that intrigues our reporter. The best account of this specter appears in an October 31, 1982,
St. Petersburg Times
Halloween story by Mark Allan Ralls. Historic details about the Island Hotel come from “Island Hotel: Cedar Key’s Old Gray Lady,”
North Florida Living,
April 1986.

As depicted, Cedar Key was pummeled by the well-documented hurricanes of 1950 and 1972, the rogue Easy with much more deadly force than the later Agnes, although neither actually cost lives.

The plundering of the forests and the oyster beds during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were true disasters, which contemporary environmentalists now work to correct.

The characters, however, are all fictional. The hotel has never been owned by a Scotsman. Five generation families do exist in Cedar Key, but none to my knowledge by the names of Waters and Thompson. The golden retriever Meg, however, was real. She lay at my feet while many of these chapters were written and seemed gratified to have a key role.

Because the novel has a 1992 setting, the research was conducted then and reflects that time period. For example, the telephone company has plucked the quaint phone booth from the hotel lobby, a victim of the ubiquitous cell phone. Still, the hotel retains its historic charm.

I owe a special debt to Molly Brown, once a member of the Island Hotel staff, who first told me of the hotel basement and later gave me a tour of its dusty compartments. I also want to thank Harriet Smith, a local naturalist, for information about the area, and my newspaper friend Lenora Lake Guidry for her insights.

I am especially grateful for the cooperation of the Levy County Sheriff s Office of Florida and the Cedar Key Police Department.

Sheriff Walter C. Heinrich, Retired, of Hillsborough County, advised me on the crime scene and the potential oflaser fingerprinting. I also need to thank literary agent Lettie Lee of the Ann Elmo Agency in New York, who believed my books should be published, and most important, editor and Life Enrichment Center writing instructor Staci Backauskas, whose editorial assistance was invaluable.

The Island Hotel abounds in legends—some ghostly. The current owner will probably be glad to draw up a chair in the lobby, turn through the album of the hotel’s historic photographs, and explain to guests its sometimes eerie and always impressive past.


Allison did not think about death when she arrived in Cedar Key, only about the approaching storm. Tense and shaking, she carried her little girl from the car through the wind and rain and up the cabin steps. But the hurricane was not what she feared most.

The downpour stung the toddler’s cheeks and she whimpered. Allison made a shushing sound, immediately lost in the creak of tree trunks and the rush of water along the shore. Wind shrilled through the cabbage palms beside the road, where three other resort cottages stood dark and silent.

Behind her the car trunk slammed shut. Allison could see the sturdy stranger in a raincoat, her suitcase in one hand, splashing around beside the driver’s side. She pushed open the unlocked door and stepped into the bleak front room. Without this good Samaritan, they would still be stranded at the café near the bus stop, twenty-three miles from Cedar Key. She could find no taxi cab, no local bus service, only this friendly driver on the way home before the storm.

Her heavy bag landed with a thud beside a tattered day bed. “If the hurricane hits at all,” her rescuer said, “it’ll come ashore in the next two, three hours. If it gets bad, I’ll come back. Take you to the school house. Be ready in case.”

Allison had heard from her aunt about these occasional hurricanes. Cedar Key, linked by bridges to the Florida mainland, made a vulnerable target. Through a back window above the kitchen table she could see curling white spray, could hear the pounding of surf. The sky boiled with mammoth black shapes.

The stranger dropped the sodden newspaper she had bought on the table, snapped on a gas heater in one dim corner, and handed her a heavy flashlight from a shelf over the stove. “Electricity’s gone off. It’ll be dark soon.” From the musty smell, she knew no one had recently stayed here.

Allison remembered her aunt’s instructions when she left New York. “I should make a local call.”

“You’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Phones are out.” The door opened again to a blast of cold air, closed, and she could hear her benefactor sloshing back down the few steps.

Allison unwrapped the damp blanket from around her two-year old and carried her little girl down a short hall and into the only bedroom. She’d been able to buy milk and hamburgers at the café, but the child was tired. Her tiny arm drooped, fingers still clutching her blue terry cloth teddy bear. She’d had three days of smelly strangers, unfamiliar bus stations, her mother’s constant tension, then the last long drive in the fading light.

Allison pulled down the spread and laid her on the double bed. Brushing back her silky hair, she bent to kiss the pinched little face. “We’re finally here, Bee.” She pulled off the child’s slip-on shoes, decided to leave her in the pink bib overalls, and tucked a quilt around her. Rain beat against the window. “We may move again tonight. Right now you and bear have a nice sleep.”

For a minute Allison sat on the bed, hands clenched, a slim young figure in the shadowy room. She felt sure she had more than enough money to last until she found a job. She planned to hold a comfortable amount in reserve. When Allison had opened her thick billfold in the café, the cashier warned her about carrying so much cash, but she had no choice. Now she wouldn’t have the hotel bill she’d expected. Until the weather cleared, the helpful stranger said she could use the cottage rent free.

After the storm, she would telephone her aunt’s friend and open a bank account. The woman did not anticipate her call, but when she saw Allison’s letter of introduction, she would surely help her get settled. Allison had planned with care. She would wait tables, work in a gift shop, clean at the one hotel, anything. She would stay in Cedar Key, miles from the nearest highway, in an old town the rest of the world had forgotten. When the window pane rattled, she glanced up, dark hair glistening, olive skin almost white against the shadows. Rain drummed above her. At least her aunt would know they had arrived safely. She had mailed a postcard from the café at Otter Creek.

Rising, she looked again at the child snuggled against her blue bear, dark eyes closed. It was because of little Bee that she was here. She pulled the door partly closed behind her, and to the whine of the rising wind, the little girl slept.

In the chill of the front room, Allison tested the flashlight by sweeping a beam of light across the wooden floor before setting it on an end table. Then she opened the suitcase, pulled out a dry pair of jeans and a fresh shirt, and stepped into the cramped bathroom to strip off her wet blouse and slacks. After laying her rain slicker on a chair, she sank down on the day bed opposite the bedroom door, draped the chenille cover over her legs, and scanned the soggy newspaper. Below stories on the bombing in Viet Nam and the campaign of Senator McGovern, she found a bulletin about Hurricane Agnes. It was plowing up the west coast with winds of ninety-five miles an hour.

She could hear water lap against the pilings under the cottage and wind tear at the roof. Through threadbare curtains at the front window, she watched headlights flicker past through the heavy rain, moving away from the shore. While she wondered whether to dress, bundle Bee in blankets, and find her own way to the school, a car ground to a stop in the driveway and someone ran up the steps, rapped sharply at the door, and shouted, “Open the door! I’ve come for you. Hurry!”

With relief she leapt up and flung open the door.

* * * *

Loud sounds roused the sleeping child. Angry voices in the next room. A door slammed. Her eyes snapped open. Bee pushed the covers aside and drew the cloth bear closer. She heard her mother’s voice, first calm and insistent, then suddenly high and shrill. “No! No!” Something heavy fell with a creak and a grating of metal springs.

Then a scream swelled beyond the wall, and a terrible thumping began. The child’s heart jumped. Kicking off the sheet, she struggled with her bear to the edge of the bed, clung to the covers, slipped over the mattress edge to the floor, and crawled under the bed. In the other room she heard a gasp.

Trembling, Bee peered through the half open doorway. She could see the back of a dripping figure lean across the day bed, a long arm raised. For a split second the big flashlight gleamed, then fell again with a thud. Bee no longer heard her mother’s voice. Instead the figure turned. The feet strode across the floor toward the bedroom. As the door swung open wider, Bee shrank farther back against the wall. The shoes halted, paused for a minute, then retreated. Again the front door opened. For a moment she thought the person had gone. Then the figure hurried back. It pulled the hood closer around its head, bent, and shuffled backward, dragging a limp form in jeans to the outer door.

The red trail from the day bed to the door meant nothing to the little girl, but paralyzed with fear, she saw her mother’s matted hair moving across the threshold, saw her still, pale face. In a flash, the arms reached down from outside and lifted up her mother’s body. A car trunk banged shut. Bee crept out from under the bed. She heard splashing outside and an engine started up in the growing darkness. With a sob she tottered into the room.

Her mother was gone, everything she had carried into the room—her suitcase, her purse—was gone. Even the day bed cover. Rain splattered in through the open door, smearing the scarlet puddles on the floor.

She screamed, “Mama!” No answer. The car gone, too. Water swirled at the foot of the cement steps, giant shapes swayed up and down, and the air roared around her. She put one small foot down on the cold step and drew it back. Whimpering, she trotted back into the bedroom, dropped to the floor, and pushed her feet into her slip-ons, the way her mother had taught her. Beneath her, water washed against the planks of the floor.

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