From the critically acclaimed author of All That's Bright and Gone comes an atmospheric thriller that unearths a cache of age-old secrets--and a hidden danger--in the Florida Keys.
Magda Trudell is the present-day caretaker of Whimbrel Estate, the Key West home of the famous poet Isobel Reyes. Isobel's suicide at the residence in 1918 has nearly overshadowed her creative legacy--but Magda, a botanist and avid historian, is determined to protect it. Over the past decade, Magda has lovingly restored the house to the exact condition Isobel would have known. And even though a fierce October hurricane is headed straight for the Keys, she isn't about to abandon her life's work to evacuate.
As the mighty storm makes landfall, the dangers mount. First, a fire and flood threaten to destroy the house. Then the storm claims most of Magda's supplies. When part of the house collapses, she unearths an old steamer trunk in the rubble that contains a woman's remains. Is there more to Isobel's story than Magda knows?
The unexpected appearance of a teenage girl and her father seeking shelter from the storm poses unnerving new questions. Are they really who they seem? And could they have a connection to the house's shadowy past? As the storm rages, Magda desperately tries to solve the real mystery of Isobel's death--and keep the living in one piece.
Release date: December 7, 2021
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Print pages: 288
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Listen to a sample
The Bone Cay
Monday, October 7th
FROM THE EDGE of the shore Magda paused to look left, where the roots might catch on hair or clothing. The branches ticked against each other in the breeze, like tittering laughter. She bent down to get a better view to the right.
Sometimes the bodies got tangled in the mangroves.
The ocean seemed lower than usual, even for low tide, but despite the dire forecast the morning was mild. There was a rowboat about thirty yards out, fishing the drop-off for grouper.
She was running late to set up for the meeting, but Magda never opened Whimbrel House without checking the dock first. Not after the first time.
She straightened up and stepped out onto the dock. There were people who refused to set foot here—as if Isobel herself might reach up out of the water and grab them.
A radio blared suddenly offshore as the man in the rowboat cast about for a station.
Hurricane Myra continues to gain strength and size as it closes in 100 miles south of Havana. The storm’s final trajectory is still uncertain, and all of South Florida should be expecting evacuation orders within the next few hours.
The dial was switched over to merengue music.
Magda sighed. “Like being stalked by a turtle,” Bryce had called the threat of hurricanes. This one had been on the radar since it had formed a week ago. It was the twin of one they’d been tracking last week, which had died out in the Gulf. It had already been a long and tedious season of near misses, and Magda didn’t have time for the annual drama, not with having been unexpectedly obliged to close the garden for the whole weekend after the last suicide. The Cultural Landmark application wasn’t going to complete itself. This was the year for greater national recognition; Magda could feel it. Also, they needed the funds. Characteristically, the estate was just barely breaking even despite the two big donations she had brought in back in August. And wedding season, the most lucrative time of year, was over.
She walked all the way out to the end of the dock and then got down on her hands and knees to peer underneath it, her face inches from the water’s surface. She squinted, but there was nothing in the dim corners, nothing caught up against the pilings.
This was how she’d found the last one, three days prior.
Thank goodness she had found him, before a school group scheduled for that afternoon experienced a far more memorable tour than she’d planned. The high tide would have flushed him out just in time for the kids to be afforded the sight of his green and bloated face.
Back in Isobel’s day there had been deep water right at the end of the dock, with a strong current. Nowadays you had to get out almost ten feet before the trench dropped out below you, a much more difficult proposition. You would still drown with a weight belt and enough alcohol, but instead of being quickly swept out to sea, you’d be washed back in by the waves.
In her first year as caretaker of the estate, Magda had found bodies twice—one a naked torso the scavengers had gotten to, the other still immaculately dressed. They had reinforced the lock on the gate after that. The next one climbed down the kapok tree from the apartment side. Magda, trained as a botanist, had overseen the trimming of all the branches low enough to reach. The next one had apparently swum down from the hotel up the beach. The Foundation hired a night guard, who had stopped two more in the attempt, and missed one. There was at least one other suspected, based on a letter, but never found. Maybe, like Isobel, she had reached the current further out.
Then, on the hundred-year anniversary of Isobel’s death, there were three in a row, each two days apart.
A hotspot, they called it—like the bridge in San Francisco, or the forest in Japan. People were still drawn to the place Isobel Reyes had died. Magda couldn’t blame them for their fascination, but she wished they could find a way to express it that didn’t result in closing the Estate.
Today there was nothing. The police still hadn’t given permission to reopen, but Magda had an important meeting with the application consultant in—she checked her watch—only ten minutes.
As she started to rise, one of the big snowy herons appeared behind her, silent as a ghost. Startled, she bit back a curse. How is it possible, she thought irritably, for such a big bird to move so quietly?
“Oh, you,” she scolded. “Sneaking up on me again?”
The bird watched her with bright, inquisitive eyes, moving closer. “You could show a little fear, you know,” she muttered, waving it off. Someone had probably been feeding it. “Shoo. I don’t have any frogs or whatever for you. Go.”
Whimbrel House had been declined as a Cultural Landmark the year prior, but the awards committee had been encouraging. Magda had been planning the new application for the past six months. This was her chance to prove that Isobel was not just a cultural icon here in South Florida—her poetry had truly changed the course of American literature.
Or wait, “truly altered the course”? That was more atmospheric, surely?
Still revising her opening, Magda followed the garden path up to the house and let herself in through the back door. As always, even her quiet footfalls seemed disrespectful in the waiting silence of the house. She made a quick circuit: everything was exactly where it should be, not a folded drapery out of place or a speck of sand on the hardwood floors. These were Magda’s favorite moments, when the house was peaceful and Isobel seemed just barely out of reach.
Her phone chirped. The consultant for the Cultural Landmark application had cancelled because of the threat of being caught on Route 1 during an evacuation.
Magda sighed, and offered three dates to reschedule.
The mansion, although right on the water, was built on an upwelling of rock that raised it above most of low-lying Key West. The houses inland were much closer to sea level and prone to flooding when the rainwater came in a torrent down the streets.
Still, it was a lot of work to brace for even a near miss. Magda decided she might as well start the preparations. There was a handyman from up the Keys who had agreed to drive over and look at the shutters on the ground floor, but she wasn’t sure he’d be willing to come out given the forecast. She shot him a quick text just in case.
She was sorting through the emergency supplies in the kitchen when she heard Starla’s old Camry grinding its way down the drive. Starla was a part-time employee who usually worked the gift shop and led the tours if Magda wasn’t available.
“I heard you came in today, Magda,” she said, leaning out the window. “You want the shop open?”
Of course she had heard; Key West was really just a small town.
“I doubt anyone else will come, with this forecast, but you can certainly help me get the house ready for wind. I’ve hardly done a thing since last time. That handyman was supposed to be coming today, but I’m sure he’s got plenty of other people needing him now.”
Starla popped her gum and rummaged around in her purse. “I think they’re going to call the evacuations early this time. They’re saying now it may be all the way up to the panhandle. Lord, that’s gonna be a mess.”
“I didn’t think it was even supposed to hit Cuba before tonight,” said Magda.
“Oh no, you haven’t heard! They moved up the timetable. This is already the outer edge of it, these clouds and rain. It’s getting real big.”
Magda glanced out the window. It was true that the sky had clouded over, but if this weather was the harbinger of things to come, it wasn’t much to write home about. Some mist, some gray clouds–a pretty common fall afternoon.
“I haven’t been checking my phone. Are they still saying it’ll hit here?”
“I guess we’ll see,” said Magda. “You seen the last pictures? Jee-sus, that thing looks like God’s own asshole, stretching halfway across the Atlantic.” Starla extracted her phone and flicked through a few screens before holding it out.
Magda studied the image. The storm looked like all of them did—like a galaxy, broad and flat, with its arms stretching out. It took her a moment to find the scale, and then she saw what Starla was saying: it had been big the last time she’d seen an update, but now it was huge, practically spanning the Gulf, and the little divot of Cuba was barely visible.
“Wow, that is massive,” she said. “Well, surely that just means it’ll overextend itself like the last one. It’s still only a category three, right?”
“Yep, just a three. I never think of leaving for less than a four, myself. And you know it’s gonna turn,” said Starla. “They always do. They keep you guessing and guessing, but then they hit this shallow water and they think, ‘Nope, I’m not doin’ it.’ And by then we’re all squatting up in Orlando for no reason.”
“I guess we’ll find out in the next day or so,” said Magda. In her eleven years in the Keys, with at least a few threatening storms every season, she had never actually had a hurricane hit Key West directly. The island was a tiny target in a huge ocean—plenty of room for them to miss.
“I figure I stayed through Wilma, I can stay through anything,” said Starla.
“Well, Jose didn’t hit, Katie blew herself out, Lawrence turned out over the ocean at the last minute …” There were so many storms already this season. Experts suspected climate change was a factor. “Hopefully Myra will follow her brothers and sisters gently into that good night.”
“I think that’s the wrong poet,” said Starla, taking off her ball cap to scratch her forehead.
“Very wrong,” said Magda, smiling. “I guess Isobel would have said, “Smooth Hands not waving off / but calling into safer Harbor.”Dylan Thomas was probably being born when that line was written.”
“Is that from the shark one?”
Sometimes Magda wondered about the quality of Starla’s tours. “That’s ‘Undine.’”
“I knew it was one of them watery jobs. Well, what do you want to start in on first?”
Each of the big double doors had fitted hurricane shutters that fastened over the glass. The upper floor still had the originals that took two people to bolt into place: both women had done it many times, and they started there.
The handyman, Hank, finally puttered up in a shiny pickup as Magda was dragging the big cement planters—which in a strong wind could become projectiles—up from the front steps.
“Whoa, hold up—that looks heavy,” he said, jogging over. Magda was stronger than she looked, but was grateful for his help, as any scuffing would damage the wood floors.
“They’re just going over here,” she said, lifting with a grunt as he took the other side. There was plastic sheeting set up in the hallway so that the dirt wouldn’t cause a stain. “Thanks.”
“Happy to help.” Hank was deeply tanned the way people who spent a lot of time on the water tended to be; Magda could make out the shape of sunglasses in the ruddy skin around his eyes.
“I’m glad you could make it out,” she said when they’d got the planters in place. “I’m sure a lot of people are calling today.”
“Should have seen it yesterday.” He turned back to his truck. “Haven’t had hardly a minute’s peace. Would have been here sooner today, but I had to borrow my buddy’s pickup.”
“Do you need help unloading?” she asked, surveying the stacks of plywood roped together and tied down to the bed of the pickup with jaunty blue rope.
“Oh, I think I can handle my own wood.” He winked; Magda rolled her eyes.
“Alright, well, all the windows on the ground floor still need to be covered. I’ll just be inside, packing up what’s fragile.”
“Remind me, what is this place again?” asked Hank, untangling the rope. “Some kind of museum?”
“It’s the family estate of Isobel Reyes. The poet?”
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of her, I think. Sorry, I’m docked in Key Largo—I don’t know all the sights down here. And I was never one for literary stuff.”
“She wrote a lot of famous poems,” said Magda. “‘Antigone,’ ‘Wake-Robin’? ‘Showman’s Rest’?”
“Like I said, not a big poetry guy,” said Hank. “My little girl probably knows her. I’ll ask when I get home.”
Magda decided not to debate the gendered nature of poetry right at that moment. “I’ll let you get to these windows.” she said. “All the ones on the ground floor could be reinforced, but the worst ones are near the front door.”
“On it. They’ll be good as new.”
Magda, who actually hoped they’d be as good as old, decided to head back inside and shoot a quick email to their intern, a student at University of Miami, about sending some tweets with their donation link. It wouldn’t do to miss out on the potential of a disaster.
The slam of a car door had her looking up next: a family of four made their way down the drive: mom, dad, and two little kids, maybe eight and twelve. Magda pushed open the wooden blinds so they would see her in the window, and waved.
“Are y’all closed?” asked the mother, coming up onto the porch. “They said in town you might be closed.”
Technically they were, but between the investigation and the forecast, there weren’t likely to be any other visitors. And tours paid some of the bills.
“I’d be happy to show you around,” she said, double-checking that her laptop and her notes were hidden under the tambour of the rolltop desk. It was a point of personal pride—and the result of a decade of labor—that not a single anachronism would break the spell of Whimbrel House. At least on the first floor, all was exactly as it would have appeared in Isobel’s day.
“So, what do you think of this forecast?” asked the father, stamping sand from his feet as he mounted the porch. “Do you think this one will hit?”
“Oh, it’s so hard to know,” said Magda. “They were all excited about that one last week, and now they’re fired up about this new one.” Like any resident, Magda knew to ignore the national coverage, which was prone to hysteria, and focus only on the local stations, which had no incentive to catastrophize.
“Our flight out is this afternoon. Think we’ll be alright?”
“You’ll be fine. It’s not supposed to start until tomorrow anyway,” called Starla.
“I want to see the monkeys,” said the girl, who was kicking rocks down the drive.
“Lemurs,” said the older boy. “They’re not monkeys, they’re lemurs.” He wiped his shiny nose with the cuff of his shirt, cheeks flush with what might be fever. Magda discretely stepped back.
“We can see the lemurs after we walk through the house,” said the mom, clearly anticipating this argument. “This nice lady is going to tell us all about it.”
Magda stood up. “Welcome to the Isobel Reyes Estate and Museum!” she said. “My name is Magda Trudell, and I’m the caretaker of Whimbrel House. Have you had heard of Isobel Reyes?”
The older boy nodded dully.
“Who can tell me something about her?”
“She was a witch!” yelled the little girl.
Magda sighed internally. Ten years she had been leading tours, and that was still the most common answer. “That’s certainly something people say about her. What else?”
The boy thought. “She wrote poems.”
“That’s right, she was a famous poet. Have you read any of her poems?”
“One. We had to for class.”
“Which one did you read?” Magda could guess.
The boy had long bangs that seemed to hang into his eyes. “It was called ‘Showman’s Rest.’”
“That’s one of my very favorite poems!” said Magda. Not true: her favorite was “Antigone,” but “Showman’s Rest” was included on the sixth-grade curriculum, and this was called “building rapport.”
“Well, this is the house that Isobel lived in,” she continued, “and we’ve tried to restore it to look exactly the way it did during her time.”
“It’s … nice,” said the boy flatly, glancing around.
“Thank you! Isobel’s grandfather, Howard Reyes, gained his wealth as a salvage wrecker. He built this house sometime in the 1850s, and it was among the earliest mansions in the southern Keys and the most elegant at the time. Isobel was born here in 1895 and died here in 1918 at the age of twenty-three. And today people come from all over the world to enjoy her poetry and learn a little more about her life.”
“I hear she killed herself,” said the older boy.
“I hear she’s a ghost,” said the girl.
“There are lots of stories about Isobel,” said Magda, who was used to handling complicated questions. “Why don’t we all go see if we can find any here in the house.”
She led them through the double doors, through the hallway, and into the main seating area.
The house had been built in the Spanish colonial style, with floor-to-ceiling rounded windows that doubled as doors to the two balconies. Charles Reyes had been a man of simple but eclectic taste, and Magda had tried to select all the furnishings in keeping with his preferences, as described in letters of the time. Therefore most of the decorations reflected either the adventures of his younger years of travel—curios and relics from the far corners of the globe—or the Caribbean influence of the location. Bright walls with heavy, dark furniture; bare wood floors covered with woven sisal rugs. Sunlight and fresh air everywhere.
“Do you think there’s a new forecast yet?” asked the mother. “How often do they send updates?”
“There’s always a new update,” said Magda. If she knew anything about hurricanes, it was that nobody really knew what they would do.
“Seems like the predictions are all over the place. One day it’s a category two, the next day a four.”
“Those are eyewall replacement cycles,” said Magda mildly.
“Is the house really haunted?” asked the girl, who was keeping close to Magda’s legs.
“Well, some people say it is,” said Magda, which was true. “But I’ve been working here for a long time, and I’ve never seen anything suspicious, even when I’m here all alone late at night.”
“I think there could be ghosts,” said the boy.
“Now, here on the left wall is a painting that Isobel herself painted as a birthday gift for her father,” said Magda, waving to the heavy oil painting hanging over the side table. It was a stormy sea, with moody clouds low on the horizon, but there was a crack of light in the center and what might have been a seagull or an osprey suggested by a shadow of wingspan. “Isobel loved the ocean, which you’ll see in most of her poetry. In fact, out of the three hundred collected poems that are considered finished today, almost two hundred and fifty of them are about the landscape right here on Key West: the beach, the animals, and the weather. This painting looks a little bit like the forecast for today, don’t you think?”
“It looks like it’s going to rain,” observed the girl solemnly, studying the painting. “It looks sad.”
“The amazing thing about this painting is that, as far as we know, Isobel never had any formal training in art. She created this piece after reading a book in her father’s library about the Hudson River School of painting. In fact, Isobel never went to school, like you do. Do you know why?”
“Because she went to a magical school instead?” suggested the little girl.
“What? No, dummy,” said the brother.
“Matthew Curtis that is not how you talk to your sister and you know it,” said their mother, not looking up from her phone.
“Ah, well, Isobel certainly was different from other children, and that’s part of the reason she didn’t go to school,” said Magda, redirecting their attention as best she could. “Do you know what distinguished her from other kids?”
“She didn’t talk,” said Mathew.
Magda nodded her head. “That’s right. In adulthood Isobel was never heard to speak out loud. Also, ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...