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Frank Haddleton

P.O. Box 64649

Burlington, VT  05406

(802) 363-9352

Author of Walker's Key (see below for first chapter), a murder mystery set in 1900 on Cape Cod and in Florida at Egmont Key, Cockroach Key (a/k/a Indian Hill or Walker's Key), and St. Petersburg.

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(Frank Haddleton of the U.S. should not be confused with Dr. Frank Haddleton of the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K.)

Looking west from the landing at Walker's Key, my great-grandfather's island, 100 years ago and now.

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


Description of the book:  

As dawn breaks on a summer morning in 1900, Darby Walker, owner of a St. Petersburg, Florida, ferry service, sets out to check on his older brother, Tulley, whose lighthouse across the bay on Walker’s Key has gone dark. This will be Darby's last trip across Tampa Bay. It follows the recent death of ship pilot Kenelm Walker, father of Darby and Tulley, at his home on Egmont Key at the mouth of the bay. Captain Walker’s death has been ruled a suicide, but those who knew the captain know better, and the signs point to Tulley as the murderer.

Going back to the time of Darby’s birth at the Walker home in Harwich Port, on Cape Cod, Walker’s Key then explores the long sibling rivalry between overly kind, personable Darby and angry, isolated Tulley. While that sibling rivalry unfolds, Darby learns of a sibling rivalry that resulted in murder in an earlier generation of his family. 

We also learn of the adventure of the grandfather of Darby and Tulley, an abolitionist who rescues slaves from a Florida plantation in 1839. In multiple ways, this event bears directly on the lives of Darby and Tulley. 

When we arrive back in 1900, Darby works to figure out who has murdered his father. When he learns the killer's identity, will he find the inner strength to bring him to justice, and will he figure out how to save himself?

Walker’s Key, my first novel, is based upon actual events I uncovered while researching my family’s history.  The novel is 33 chapters and 88,000 words in length. 


Copyright (c) 2018 by Frank B. Haddleton


Monday, July 23, 1900

Darby Walker looked up from his work just as the first rays of the morning sun brushed the east-facing brick facades of the commercial structures nearest the shoreline. The realization that Darby might never again see this town caused a nearly unbearable sadness for him. He couldn’t believe that things had gotten to this point. Or could he? Hadn’t Grandma Nick and Freeman Scott told him that something like this was bound to happen eventually? But it didn’t matter whether or not he had seen this coming. If he never saw this place again, it was simply the price that had to be paid. He owed that much to his father.

Dawn was breaking at St. Petersburg, a twelve-year-old town exploding along with the rest of Southwest Florida as the result of the extension of the rail lines, the growth of the citrus and cattle industries, the recent discovery of large quantities of phosphate, and the creation of tourist destinations for wealthy northerners. Two piers extended eastward into Tampa Bay from the shore. On the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Pier at the foot of First Avenue South, 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, the Electric Pier, not quite as long, reached out into the water at the foot of Second Avenue North. 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 mounted to the side of the shed stated in plain letters “Walker’s Ferry Service.” Below this sign, a large piece of cardboard announced in hastily painted lettering “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 floated alongside the pier at different points, including several sailboats associated with a boat livery.

The Shooting Star, Darby Walker’s forty-foot steam-powered launch, lay impatiently just below the Walker’s Ferry Service shed. She bobbed in the choppy water, the strong southerly wind nearly pinning her against the bumpers hanging down between her port side and the pilings of the pier. Darby, a handsome, lean, bearded man in his mid-thirties, repeatedly bent, lifted, and reached, loading wood into the Shooting Star’s firebox.


At this early hour, no living soul other than Darby breathed the air circulating around the pier. Then Darby noticed a man starting to make his way out the Electric Pier towards Darby’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!” the Reverend shouted, as he approached the Shooting Star. “Good morning, my friend!” 

“Reverend Dyer. Good morning,” Darby shouted back.

After several more paces, Will stood directly above the Shooting Star. The close proximity made shouting necessary no longer. “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 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 that take?” 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.” 

A short period of silence took hold. 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 finally 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.

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. I always wanted to follow in his footsteps. 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’d say you’re right about that. My mother’s fascination with family history was unusual. 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, because 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. 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’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. He doesn’t seem to get along with anybody. 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. Again he placed a thumb and forefinger on his jaw and pulled them 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.”

Darby continued. “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. And 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 years he’s been at the island. 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 he’s 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 that was covered far less than respectably by 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 had gone to some lengths to avoid the woman now racing towards him. After awakening thirty minutes earlier, he had carefully arranged the pillows under the quilt on his bed so that they would appear that his sleeping body lay there. “Appearances are often deceiving,” Darby had said to himself as he had arranged this illusion, repeating a favorite expression of his father and of his grandfather. The seemingly crazy lady now running towards the pier was none other than the owner of the house where Darby was staying, the very woman he’d been trying to dodge. She had obviously not been fooled by a few pillows stuffed under a 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. Thanks to the southerly wind, the Shooting Star 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, 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. His mouth was open and his cheeks were raised creating 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 the 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 her, 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 she 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. Darby looked back at Will with his lips pursed, his eyes wide open, and his eyebrows raised. Then he rolled his eyes. The effect was a clear suggestion 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, nobody’s going to be checking for engineers on little steam-powered launches at 6 o’clock 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’s right hand went to his beard  as he pondered the question. “You may have a point, but Hetty isn’t dressed for a boat ride. You aren’t either, for that matter. You really should have another layer on given the wind on the bay. 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, and I’m sure you have a blanket onboard if we get chilled. If you’re determined to go to Walker’s Key, then let’s get on with it!”

Darby paused to think for a moment. “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, now in the wheelhouse, firmly pushed the regulator lever all the way forward. Steam rushed to the engine and jump-started the pistons that started the propeller rotating, and the Shooting Star thrust forward with tremendous force, instantly generating a massive bubble of churning water at her stern.


All of this happened instantly. The Shooting Star, despite her substantial mass, practically jumped away from the pier, leaving Hetty and Will totally flabbergasted. The bow and stern lines dropped limply into the water from the Shooting Star as she shot away from them and out into Tampa Bay.



The wind, though still pretty strong, was diminishing, and the surface of the bay was beginning to calm, just as Darby had predicted it would. However, not everything was favorable to a safe voyage. As the Shooting Star began steaming east, Darby knew, at least on some level, that he had failed to do something important. For some reason, however, this awareness had not been sufficient to result in any action on Darby’s part.

What Darby had failed to do that morning was actually a task of great importance. The safety valve on the boiler had begun to stick late on Tuesday of the prior week. The pressure in the boiler was, as a result, unusually erratic, climbing more than it should have climbed before the valve would grudgingly open and restore the pressure in the boiler to the 60 pounds per square inch at which the boiler was designed to operate. 

Darby had been aboard a steam-powered vessel many years earlier when one of its boilers exploded. The sound of the boiler deforming just before it had exploded was seared into his memory. The vessel had been quite large, and though the explosion had caused a tremendous amount of damage, it had remained afloat and nobody had been killed, rather miraculously. So Darby knew better than most people how important it was to address any pressure valve issues.

Darby had realized that in order to avoid an explosion, he would have to watch the pressure gauge more carefully than he ordinarily did. He could easily release pressure from the boiler manually if it came down to it, and thereby prevent an explosion. He knew, of course, that the proper thing to do was to replace the safety valve, and that he wouldn’t be taking any passengers on board until he had made the fix. And he had almost done it.

Darby had sailed to Tampa on the Steamship H.B. Plant the day after the valve on the Shooting Star’s boiler had become sticky. In Tampa, Darby had made several stops in search of a replacement safety valve. He explained what he was looking for to as many people as he could, and was finally directed to a company that built and serviced boilers of various kinds. Finally, people who could help. He should have visited them first. At this last stop he was able to procure a safety valve that was nearly identical to the safety valve on the Shooting Star’s boiler, surely close enough that he could swap it in and make it work. He paid for the valve and brought it back home with him.

Darby should have installed the new valve by now, but he had not. He had had plenty of time in the last several days to take care of it, but he hadn’t done it. Walker’s Ferry Service was closed for the time being anyway. As the Shooting Star churned away from the Electric Pier, the valve for which Darby had searched so widely on his Tampa trip remained sitting inside a pint-sized cardboard box on his desk in his bedroom in his home back at 141 Second Avenue North in St. Petersburg. 

Nevertheless, everything was working within normal parameters at the moment the Shooting Star left the pier on its way to Walker’s Key. It only had to make it six miles across the bay. Darby looked at the pressure gauge and it indicated an ideal 60 pounds per square inch of pressure inside the Shooting Star’s boiler. If he was not so preoccupied with getting away from Hetty and Will, perhaps Darby would have been careful to continue checking the pressure gauge as the Shooting Star steamed east. Or perhaps he wouldn’t have been.

After a few minutes, Darby scanned the horizon and saw Walker’s Key rising up above the water. It was the highest point in all of Hillsborough County, and it was the first thing that came into view when approaching the eastern shore of the bay. The pressure gauge indicated 90 pounds, but Darby wasn’t looking at the pressure gauge.

The Shooting Star continued pushing its way across Tampa Bay. At that early hour, there were no other vessels about, other than a lone steamer that had started south from Tampa on its way out to the Gulf of Mexico, bound either for Key West or New Orleans. It was probably a couple of miles distant. The pressure gauge, again unobserved by human eyes, indicated 150 pounds.

Several more minutes passed with Darby lost in thought. When the world came back into focus, the Shooting Star was within a hundred yards of the eastern shore of the bay. Darby was heading for the Walker’s Key channel, a natural channel between two low-lying barrier islands just west of Walker’s Key. He pulled back a little bit on the Shooting Star’s throttle, slowing the vessel down. 

190 pounds! Still not observed by Darby.

At that moment, a very strange and disconcerting sound of metal deforming under excessive stress started emanating from the depths of the Shooting Star’s boiler. Darby had heard this awful sound before. He immediately looked at the pressure gauge, now showing over 200 pounds per square inch of pressure. Then in what appeared to be almost one, unbroken movement, he darted from the wheelhouse to the starboard side of the boat and then lunged over the rail without a fraction of a moment’s delay. 

As Darby plunged into the water, there was a tremendously forceful and breathtakingly loud explosion onboard the Shooting Star. The explosion was heard all the way back across the bay in St. Petersburg, all the way up the bay in Tampa, all the way down the bay on the Manatee River, and all the way out at Egmont Key where the bay met the Gulf of Mexico. 

Fragments of steel, chunks of burning wood, and all manner of broken boat parts flew out in all directions as scalding steam enveloped the rapidly disintegrating vessel. Flames broke out and advanced rapidly across the jagged remains of the Shooting Star as smoke billowed into the sky, the plumes of smoke visible from nearly all points along the shores of Tampa Bay. Darby disappeared under the water as heavy boat fragments crashed down onto the surface of the water with more than enough force to kill.



Why I wrote Walker's Key

The Real Walker's Key

Egmont Key

About Me

Genealogy as Time Travel

Contact Me


(802) 363-9352

Frank Haddleton