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Walker's Key - a historical mystery based on actual events

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Walker's Key [Copyright (c) 2018 by Frank B. Haddleton]

[Walker's Key is undergoing final revisions and I hope to begin submitting it to agents soon.  Any advice about this process is more than welcome.]

Monday, July 23, 1900

St. Petersburg was a small but vibrant town of about 1600 residents. It had been established only about a dozen years earlier but it was rapidly expanding, participating fully in Southwest Florida’s unprecedented and explosive growth that came with the extension of the rail lines, the growth of the citrus and cattle industries, the recent discovery of large quantities of phosphate in the area, and the creation of tourist destinations for wealthy northerners. 

Two piers extended eastward into Tampa Bay from the shore of St. Petersburg. The largest and southern-most pier was the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Pier, which was at the foot of First Avenue South. On this pier, trains could pull right up to the large vessels alongside the pier to load and unload shipments in and out of the area.  Three blocks to the north of the A.C.L. Pier, a shorter pier extended out into the water at the foot of Second Avenue North. This was the Electric Pier. It served several smaller businesses and vessels.

A small, square shed stood two-thirds of the way out on the Electric Pier. A wooden sign was mounted to the side of the shed. The plain letters painted on the sign said “Walker’s Ferry Service.” Below this sign was a large piece of cardboard on which somebody had hastily painted “Closed this week due to a family emergency. Please come back soon.” A few other sheds stood on the pier, and a couple of dozen other vessels of various kinds and sizes were tied to the pier at various points, including several small sailboats associated with a boat livery.

The sun had just begun to rise over the eastern shore of the bay. The Shooting Star, Darby Walker’s 40-foot steam-powered launch, floated impatiently on the water just below the Walker’s Ferry Service shed. She bobbed in the choppy water, the strong southerly wind causing her to push at the bumpers hanging down between her port side and the pilings of the pier. Darby, a handsome, lean, bearded man in his mid-thirties, was aboard the Shooting Star loading wood into the fire box.


At this early hour, Darby was the only person on the pier or aboard any of the boats secured to it. Then Darby noticed that a man was starting to make his way out the Electric Pier towards Walker’s shed. Even from a distance, Darby quickly observed the man’s most visually distinguishing features, a generous belly and a clerical collar. “Right on time,” thought Darby. “William Dyer is the perfect person to see me off.”

“Darby”, Reverend William Dyer shouted, as he approached the Shooting Star. “Good morning, my friend!” 

“Reverend Dyer. Good morning.”


In a few more paces, Will stood directly above the Shooting Star. Shouting was no longer necessary. “Darby, with all the time we just spent together working on the service, surely we’re beyond formalities. Please call me Will. You may call me Reverend Dyer at church services, if you must.”

“Okay Will. Of course that means I will probably never again call you Reverend.” 

Darby smiled up at Will, who smiled back.

“I know, Darby. You’ve made it clear. The god you worship is the sea. I understand that. Your daily swim is more church than any of my parishioners get.” Will paused. “But what on earth are you doing out here at this hour, Darby? You’re not really thinking of leaving the pier now, are you?”

“Yes, I’m planning to set out as soon as I get the steam up in the boiler.”

“Isn’t it a bit rough out on the bay?”

“It does look a bit rough, I agree. But I know the bay, Will, and I know the weather here. We had a system pass through last night, but it’s now all but gone. In the time it takes to get the Shooting Star’s steam up, the wind will be wrapping up, and the surface of the water will be starting to smooth out.”

Darby could tell that Will was not convinced. “How long will it take to get the steam up?” Will asked.

“About twenty minutes.”

“I see,” said Will. “But it’s hardly past six o’clock! I don’t suppose you have any deliveries or special passengers at this hour. Surely nobody is headed out to Egmont Key yet. Are you going on some sort of adventure?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it an adventure. A misadventure, more likely.” 

There was another period of silence. Will watched Darby as he went about his chores on the Shooting Star. 

“I would love to go out for a boat ride. May I come with you?” Will asked, still studying Darby. 

“You’d love going out for a boat ride right now about as much as consuming a dish of live cockroaches,” Darby thought to himself.  

“Look, Will, we both know why you’ve stopped to talk with me. You’re worried about me. I appreciate your concern and your kindness, but I’m managing well enough. You’re welcome to come aboard for a few minutes while the steam is building, but I’m afraid that I can’t take anyone with me this morning. The regulations for steam-powered vessels require that whenever there are passengers there be an engineer aboard, in addition to the captain. I could lose my boat captain’s license if I were caught violating the regulation. I gave my engineer some time off and he’s gone out of town.” As he said this, Darby knew that he wasn’t representing the regulation in question entirely correctly, but he imagined that Will would have no idea about such things.

Darby extended his hand out to Will, who stepped down the gangplank and onto the gunwale boarding mat. Darby motioned to the bench on the starboard side of the Shooting Star, where they both sat down.

As he sat on the bench, Will turned to Darby. “You know, Darby, I’ve always wondered how you happened to decide to run a ferry boat.”

“I’m sure you’ve never, ever wondered that,” Darby thought, “but you’re a very decent fellow who’s just trying to make me feel comfortable and I’ll be happy to tell you.”

“Hmmm,” said Darby, “That’s a long story, but I’ll give you the short version. As you know, I’ve been around boats since I was a little kid back at Cape Cod. After I finished high school I worked with my father on his fishing schooners and later on the steamboats he captained. Ten years ago, when my father took the position as a Tampa Bay ship pilot based at Egmont Key and my brother became the lighthouse keeper across the bay, it seemed like the right time for me to pursue something I’ve always thought of doing, which was to run a ferry service. My mother named me after one of our immigrant Ancestors, Darby Field. He had one of the very first ferry services in America – starting in about 1637 he ran a ferry service across a bay near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Having been told about this history, I had always thought about having my own ferry boat one day. And now I do.”


“Fascinating, Darby. There’s something almost poetic in your story.  Most people have no idea what their ancestors were doing that long ago.”

“I think you’re right about that. My mother was unusual in her fascination with family history. She was also a bit superstitious. She would always tell me that she never worried about me being on the water, even though her family had lost an unusually high number of men to the sea. When she was carrying me, a fortune-teller advised her that I wasn’t going to die at sea, and she believed that the fortune-teller actually could see such things. I don’t suppose that you put much stock in what fortune-tellers say, do you Will?”


“The lord works in mysterious ways. I can’t claim to understand all of it. However, it would surprise me very much if there was any merit to fortune-telling beyond its entertainment value.”

A moment passed. 

“All right, Darby, we both know that nobody needs to be ferried anywhere at this early hour, so where are you going?”

Darby regarded Will and slowly pulled his thumb and forefinger forward through his neatly trimmed beard. Darby felt like he was under pressure to get his answer right. 

“Will, here’s the story. It turns out that my brother is taking our loss far worse than I am. As we discussed the other day, his wife and son went back to New England in June, so he’s had to deal with the Egmont Key tragedy all by himself. Tulley has seemed quite depressed every time I’ve seen him since the tragedy. I have started to worry that he might take his own life.”

“Yes, I can understand your concern. Does Tulley have close friends he can turn to right now?”

“What do you think, Will? You met him at the funeral service. I’m sure you watched him interacting with those who came to pay their respects. What did you see?”

“Okay. I think I know what you’re getting at.”

“I’m afraid that Tulley doesn’t really have any friends. He doesn’t seem to get along with anybody. He’s a very unusual person who is difficult to understand, and difficult to know. He’s always been ill at ease around strangers, and awkward even with people he knows. It’s hard to have a normal conversation with him.  Unless he’s deeply interested in the topic at hand, he doesn’t ask any questions and he generally offers only one-word responses.”

Darby paused and drew his thumb and forefinger slowly through his beard.

“I definitely don’t mean to speak ill of my brother – I don’t think he intends to be antisocial. And he does have his strengths. He’s surprisingly intelligent. He’s the best chess player I’ve ever known. And in a single day he could take apart the entire engine on this boat, or any engine, and then put it back together so that it works better than it ever had.” 

“Don’t worry, Darby. I know you wouldn’t malign your brother. Your description of him doesn’t seem unfair or malicious.”

“You know, when my mother was dying – I had just finished high school, so this was quite some time ago -- she made me promise that I would watch out for Tulley. She understood that he couldn’t completely manage on his own. I promised my mother that I would do my best to make sure that Tulley would be okay.”

“You are a good brother.”

“Thank you, Will. Right now, Tulley is all alone at Walker’s Key. On occasion, someone from Gulf City will stop in to see him, or somebody who is exploring up the coast will happen upon his place and say hello. Tulley regularly sails up to Tampa to sell the oysters he has harvested from the oyster beds near his island and to pick up supplies. Other than that, he’s isolated. He has never been a person to reach out to others. After the Egmont Key tragedy, I asked him to come to St. Petersburg and stay with me, but he wouldn’t do it. He said he belonged where he was.”

“So you’re heading across the bay to Walker’s Key to check on Tulley right now? Couldn’t it wait a couple of hours until conditions are a little better?”

“No, Will, I’m afraid it can’t wait. Tulley’s lighthouse went dark sometime last night. That has almost never happened in the last ten years. Something may have happened to Tulley, and he may be in urgent need of help. I’ve got to get over there as quickly as I can and find out if Tulley is all right.” Darby looked at the pressure gauge on the Shooting Star’s boiler. “It looks like I’ll be heading out in just another few minutes.”

“You really won’t let me join you, Darby?”

“No, I need to deal with this problem on my own, but I appreciate your kind offer.”

At that moment the two men noticed a very attractive, vigorous woman in her mid-fifties running up First Street towards the pier. She was dressed in nothing more than a nightgown covered far less than respectably with a Macintosh. With her arms flailing and her Macintosh flapping she looked like a total lunatic. She was shouting something but she was too far away for them to make out the words. 

“Ye gods and little fishes!” Darby thought to himself. “This is the one person in the world I can’t have here right now.” 

Darby recalled what he had done just after awakening 30 minutes earlier. He had carefully arranged the pillows under the quilt on the bed where he had slept so that they would appear to be his sleeping body. “Appearances are often deceiving,” Darby had said to himself as he had tried to arrange this deception, repeating a favorite expression of his father and of his grandfather. Darby knew that the seemingly crazy lady running towards the pier was the owner of the house where Darby was staying, and she had obviously not been deceived by the appearance created by the pillows under the quilt. Darby had to think fast.

“Say, Will, I need you to do something for me,” said Darby. Can you look inside the large box in the wheelhouse and see if you can find my ship’s log while I look around for it out here. I don’t remember where I left it.”

“Of course, Darby,” said Will, and then he got up and went into the wheelhouse. While Will was engaged in that diversion, Darby darted up to the bow of the Shooting Star and untied the bow line. He then darted to the stern and untied the stern line. The Shooting Star was pinned firmly against the pier by the southerly wind. Though she was rising and falling on the disturbed surface of the water, at that time she was in no danger of drifting away from her place at the pier, even without being properly secured to it.

Just as Darby finished untying the lines, Will emerged from the wheelhouse.

“Sorry, Darby, it doesn’t seem to be here.”

“Okay, thanks. I must have left it at home.”

Then the crazy lady in the nightgown and Macintosh, a lady Darby knew wasn’t really crazy at all, arrived at the shed just above the Shooting Star, breathing hard from running. 

“Darby!” she screamed between breaths. “I know where you’re going! But you mustn’t go!”

“Good morning, Hetty. Are you all right? You’re all out of breath.”

“I’m perfectly fine!” protested Hetty as she stepped from the pier onto the gangplank. “And I’m coming aboard!”


Darby knew that there was no stopping Hetty. Though she looked more like a little tug boat, she had the power of a battleship. So Darby extended his hand, as he had done for Will, and helped Hetty as she stepped onto the gunwale of the Shooting Star.

“I vow and declare, Darby, you are a weaselly little dastard this morning” said Hetty. “You promised me you wouldn’t go to Walker’s Key, and yet you employed treacherous means – which failed, thankfully – to slink out of my house undetected and now here you are getting ready to steam across the bay. Don’t deny it! I know that’s what you’re up to! But I will not let you go!” 

There was as much steam in Hetty as there was in the Shooting Star’s boiler at this point.

“But I have to go, Hetty. Didn’t you notice that Tulley’s lighthouse went dark last night sometime after we turned in? I’m afraid something has happened. I have to make sure that Tulley is all right.”

“Right now I don’t care a hang about Tulley, and nor should you! It’s a trap, Darby! Tulley wants you to go his island so that he can kill you!”

“What!?” yelled Will, a look of puzzled perturbation on his face. “Hetty, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard you say. Why on earth would Tulley want to harm Darby?”

“Will, there isn’t time for me to explain the whole thing to you right now, but we’ve got to stop Darby from going across the bay! Darby knows why.”

Will looked at Darby, who raised his eyebrows and returned a perplexed look.

Darby looked at Hetty. “Hetty, my dear Hetty, I don’t know what’s gotten into you this morning, but I think you should just let Will escort you back to the house and then you should climb back into bed.”

Hetty then went right up to Darby, who towered over, and started pounding her fists into his chest. “NO, NO, NO!” Hetty screamed. “Darby Walker, you promised me that you wouldn’t go to Walker’s Key! I will not allow you to go Walker’s Key!”

“Hetty, now you’re hurting me! Stop hitting me, please!”

Will then put his arms around Hetty, pulled her away from Darby, and continued to hold her, trying to comfort the poor woman.

“Hetty, dear,” said Will, “You need to calm down. Let’s sit down and talk this out. I don’t know why you’re so upset, but perhaps the three of us can find out how to fix whatever the problem is.” He guided Hetty to a seat on the nearest bench, and sat down next to her. 

Hetty put her face into her hands. Darby could tell that Hetty was afraid that she would lose control over the situation, and he was determined that she would lose control over it.

“I’m all right, Will. I’m all right. But we can’t let Darby go to Walker’s Key! There is compelling evidence that Tulley is a murderer, and until and unless we find out for sure that he isn’t, Darby needs to stay away from him!”

Will looked up at Darby, who returned a look that suggested his conclusion that Hetty had completely lost her mind.

“I don’t know what to say, except that it appears that something with our beloved Hetty has gone a little skewangles this morning” Darby said, desperately hoping that Will would figure out some way to make his Hetty problem go away. Darby mused: “Will, if you could get Hetty to volunteer to go home, I might have to agree that there’s balm in Gilead after all.”

“Look, Hetty,” said Will, taking her hands into his. “Tulley isn’t a murderer. He’s unusual, I grant you that, but he’s not a murderer. His lighthouse has gone dark, so, naturally, Darby is concerned that something has happened to him and wants to go make sure that he’s all right. I think we should let Darby do that, don’t you?”

“No, we absolutely should not! I’m not getting off this boat!” screamed Hetty, and then she released her hands from Will's, got up from the bench and laid herself down on the deck, her body jerking around like that of an unruly child having conniptions.  “I’m not getting off this boat!  If Darby is going to Walker’s Key, then I’m going to Walker’s Key with him!”

“Okay,” said Will. “We have a bit of a conflict here, Darby. But why can’t Hetty and I just go with you? We’re not paying passengers, and even if you are supposed to have an engineer aboard, which I think may not be the case, nobody’s going to be checking for engineers on little steam-powered launches at 6:00 in the morning here on Tampa Bay. Hetty seems pretty determined, and I don’t know anybody who has ever gotten their way over Hetty’s way, do you? What do you say?”

Darby drew his thumb and forefinger slowly through his beard. “You may have a point, but Hetty isn’t dressed for a boat ride. Neither of you is, really. Why don’t you both go back to your homes and get properly dressed. I’ll wait here and then we’ll all go check on Tulley.”

“Heavens and earth, Darby, you’re not going to hoodwink me again! We’re not going to a cotillion. Will and I are sufficiently well attired for the purpose at hand. If you’re determined to go to Walker’s Key, then let’s get on with it.”

“All right. Off we go. Hetty, I need you to go up on the pier and untie the bow line from the piling. Will, I need you to go up and untie the stern line. You are now my first and second mates.”

Will helped Hetty up to a standing position, and then Will and Hetty set themselves to carrying out Darby’s orders, climbing up the gangplank to the pier. Hetty reached the piling where the bow line was tied just as Will reached the piling where the stern line was tied. 

At that very moment, Darby, who was now in the wheelhouse, pushed the regulator lever to the fully open position. The lever opened a valve that released into the engine a full blast of steam that got the pistons jumping at maximum speed. The pistons caused a shaft to rotate, a belt transferred the rotation of the shaft to the large screw propeller under the waterline at the stern, and the rotating propeller thrust the Shooting Star forward with tremendous force, instantly generating a massive bubble of churning water at her stern. 

All of this happened instantly. The Shooting Star, as heavy as she was, practically jumped away from the pier, leaving Hetty and Will totally flabbergasted. The bow line and the stern line dropped limply into the water from the Shooting Star as she shot away from them and out into Tampa Bay, Darby having just a few minutes earlier untied the ends of the lines that had been tied on the boat in order to enable this quick getaway.

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