Read the opening scene from Walking in the Dark, coming to ebook readers everywhere in 2014.
The days she scrubbed the toilets were the days Cassie Davis liked the best. Not that she loved cleaning up after other people’s shit. She didn’t. But she’d rather be doing that than dealing with the guests at Tradewinds Bed and Breakfast. Making beds and picking up dirty towels had a rhythm, a serene silence, that front desk work did not, Cassie thought as she hauled her vacuum cleaner into Starfish Cottage.
Originally a stately Victorian located a few blocks from Duval Street, Tradewinds had undergone a transformation in the 1920s. The garden area was plowed under and replaced with a swimming pool surrounded by a set of six jewel-box cottages. These days lush birds-of-paradise and squatty sago palms filled in the gaps between the buildings, leaving guests with no question they were in the tropics. The original two-story home, with its ornate pineapple-shaped gingerbread, rose over the rest of the property, a turquoise-and-white mama hovering over her pastel candy-colored baby chicks. With only 10 suites, Tradewinds rarely had a vacancy. Even now, with the summer heat reaching into the 90s, the resort was fully booked with a mixture of Floridian families getting away from the even more oppressive heat at home and foreign travelers, for whom the Keys were an exotic destination.
Cassie worked methodically, wiping down the shower, the counter, the mirror in succession. She didn’t bother looking at her reflection. She knew the woman in the mirror well enough.
She cleaned the toilet, replaced the towels and the toiletries, then did a quick steam mop of the floor. Funny, she had once thought of housework as high drudgery. Now she loved how cleaning made order from chaos. For one brief shining moment, the world — in this case the bathroom — was beautiful and everything made sense. That moment would pass soon enough.
She stepped back into bedroom, taking stock of the messy bed and open suitcase. An easy 15 minutes and she would be done. Of all the cottages, she loved this one the best. Pastel aquamarine walls contrasted with the coral duvet on the queen-sized bed. A series of fist-sized ceramic sea stars, ranging in color from yellow to deep blue, sprayed across the wall in an arc. Anna had loved putting her tiny hands against them, the texture rubbing against her skin over and over again. She could see her little girl there, dark head bent as she traced the artful starfish.
The memory hit Cassie in the gut, and she stood still for a moment, trying to catch her breath. The ornate iron footboard chilled her fingers as she steadied herself. “In and out, in and out,” she chanted in a whisper, concentrating on the rise and fall of her lungs, trying to ease the bands that constricted her chest.
She’d forgotten that detail of their trip, Anna’s excitement over finding her favorite sea creature on the walls. Those days, everything had been her little girl’s “favorite”. How could she have forgotten after only two years? Two years. Had it been that long already? Half of Anna’s lifetime. She would have been six this coming October.
Familiar pain snaked its way through Cassie’s body as she willed back tears. Damn it, she hated crying. It was a stupid, useless thing to do. It didn’t change anything. It wouldn’t bring her little girl back from the dead. It wouldn’t reunite her with her ex-husband. It just showed how weak she was that she couldn’t move on.
Caught up in her thoughts, Cassie didn’t hear the occupant of the cottage return. “Hey, are you okay,” she heard as a hand lightly touched her shoulder. “No,” she whispered as the world whirled away.
Riding along with the wind at his back, he hadn’t ridden like this for years. Gosh, he loved this island with its seven-dollar-an-hour bike rentals and shady, tree-lined streets.
The images flashed through Cassie’s mind, unfolding in seconds what would take minutes when it happened.
The gingerbread on that house is fantastic. Look at all the swirls. Elizabeth Street. The blare of a horn. The sickening crunch of metal. I’m flying. Will you look at that. I’m flying.
“Miss, are you okay,” she heard the voice repeat as she came back to herself. Her fingers looked white against the metal. The vision of the man’s death, blood seeping from his lifeless body as it lay in front of a car, mangled bicycle by his side, had her fighting to keep from throwing up.
“Are you okay,” the man asked again, concerned. “I’ll be fine,” she ground out, gulping in deep breaths.
“You don’t look fine,” he said. “Why don’t you sit down for a minute.”
Without looking at him, she edged around the side of the bed and sat, putting her head between her knees. God, it hadn’t been this bad since the first time, just after Anna died. She had woken up in the hospital to find that the gift she’d had all her life, visions of what was and what was to come, had turned. From that moment on, all she could see was upcoming death.
Her first death was that of a nurse who had tended her in those dark days. Susie Piper had been fixing her IV when Cassie had a vision of the pretty, smiling woman laughing at the beach just before being stung by a man-o-war and going into anaphylactic shock. Cassie tried to warn her, but her utterances were dismissed as the ramblings of a woman in pain, both emotional and physical. A week later, as Cassie was being released from the hospital, she learned of the woman’s fate. Susie had been 28.
The first few were the hardest, the mailman felled by an aneurysm, the neighbor killed by a heart attack. By number five, an East German tourist destined to crash his car speeding in the Glades, Luke left. Anna had been buried a month.
Her stomach roiled. “Should I call someone?” the man asked again.
“No,” she said, trying to paste on a smile. “I’ll be fine. Must have been something I had for breakfast.”
She stood up, not looking at the tourist whose death she had seen. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience. I’ll be done with your room in a few minutes if you want to wait.”
“It’s no problem,” he said. “I can help you make the bed, if you like, then we’ll call it done and you can take a break. Seems like you might need it.”
Damn. He was one of those. A nice guy. Why was it always the nice ones? She had to warn him. But first, there was a bed to make.
“Thanks,” she answered, trying to make her voice sound light. She grabbed hold of one side of the sheet. Waiting for him to grab the other side, she snuck a glance at the man she’d glimpsed in her vision. Alive, he was one of those guys her mother would have called a cutie pie. Though a bit on the short side, he was good-looking in a nebbishy way. Not her type, but then she no longer had types. Having a type would make it sound like she would ever get involved again.
Together they pulled up the sheet, straightening it out before going back in tandem for the comforter. She searched for something to say that would make sense, that would keep him from tragedy. All she could come up with was “Have you been on the island long?”
“Just got here,” he said, smiling at her. “I’d never been to the Keys and I thought I should finally go and do it. You only live once, you know.”
“Yeah,” she said, giving the bedspread a hard tug. “I do know.”
“Figure I’ll go snorkeling, hit Duval Street, see the square, that sort of thing. Hey, you live here… any suggestions on what I should do?”
“Stick with boats,” she said, willing him to listen to her. “And don’t rent a bicycle. I can’t tell you how many tourists on bicycles end up in the hospital. Or the morgue.”
He stopped pulling the comforter. “I didn’t know that.”
“Oh yeah,” she said, making things up as she went along, “we have the highest bicycle fatality rate in the state. It’s well known. Really, if you want to see the island, the best way to do it is by Conch Train anyway.”
He looked skeptical. “You mean that bright yellow kid-looking thing?”
“Yep, It’s a Keys tradition.” She fluffed a pillow before placing it at the head of the bed.
“I’ll try to remember that. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, stepping back and surveying the results of their work. Not too bad.
“I’m Rick, by the way,” he said.
“Nice to meet you.” She gathered up her cleaning supplies. There were still four more cottages needing her attention this morning.
“I don’t know your name.”
“Cassie,” she said, moving things outside to her cart.
“Cassie. Do you want to get dinner with me, Cassie?” he asked, following. “You’re the only person I know on this island.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” she said, adding a lie to ease the ego blow. “I’m seeing someone.”
“I understand,” he said. “A beautiful woman like you would be.” He shrugged and started to go back into the cottage.
“Rick,” she said, the urgency in her voice causing him to turn around. “Please stay away from bicycles while you’re here. I have a feeling you won’t be safe on one. I know that sounds strange, but please.”
“Okay,” he said, disappointed. “I will.”
Cassie watched as he closed the door. Of course he wouldn’t do what she asked. Not one of the 109 — now 110 — people she’d warned so far had. Sometime in the next 13 days, Rick would decide he wanted to ride a shiny green Schwinn and fate would have her way with him. It would be just like the others. Another death she failed to prevent. Just like Anna.
With that thought haunting her, she went back to her job.
2012 copyright J.K. Mahal