I’M A WRITER, NOT A DETECTIVE. But thinking that I could be is how I made the mistake of overestimating my own skills and talent.
One of my best friends had been murdered with thousands of people standing nearby. And yet, there were no witnesses. I only wanted to help the police and another friend, a private investigator, in finding the killer.
But, it seems that my arrogance got in the way of my common sense. And that’s how I nearly lost my life.
I think it was the third of February when it all started; my eyes popped open before dawn. I experienced a feeling of dread, a thickness in the air; it felt like something that gets stuck to your skin. And I felt a dreadful foreboding as if I was about to receive a horrendous phone call or perhaps the dreaded knock on the door.
Did I know anything other than I had an aching in my stomach and my heart beat heavy in my chest? No. I knew nothing except that deep aching inside that says to you, “Something terrible is about to happen.”
Well, I had been under extra pressure over the past month or so. The income from my books had dropped about ten percent, and my publisher called a couple of months earlier wanting a full update on the progress of the next two books I was scheduled to finish. In a sense I felt it was time to go out and get a real job and earn a salary. Perhaps if I were married, my wife would be giving me fits. I guess I had plenty of reason to worry.
But, since I’m a pessimistic person by nature, I simply shook it off because, well, I already had too much to worry about. Besides, I had work that needed to get done during the day. I had no extra time for useless worry. I mean, ten years ago I believed that turning thirty would mean that my life was completely over, done, caput.
Now I am thirty-six and, let’s just say, I’m still kicking. Besides, I worry about everything anyway, so I added the emotion of foreboding to the lengthy list I carry with me every day just in case I need something to obsess on.
I looked at myself in the mirror noticing the little lines beginning to cut the skin around my eyes and at the edges of my lips. I splashed water on my face and proceeded to do my morning ritual: shave, shower, and then sit on the throne for ten minutes thinking about the day ahead of me.
After eating a bowl of cereal at the table in my small kitchen, I carried a cup of coffee with me and sat down at my writing table next to the open window that looked out onto Eaton Street. I called my desk a writing table since that’s about the only thing I do at it. There was plenty of room on the 36" by 60" top. It was built for someone who needed a smooth surface to write on. I use a computer to write. The irony did not escape me.
I’d blown over a thousand bucks a month on this apartment that took the ground floor of a small, two-story twenties-era house. I was happy to pay that because it was located a half block from Duval Street, the center of most of the action in this small town of Key West.
A porch extended the length of the front by about a foot on either side and faced the south. The second floor was fronted with a balcony giving the front porch a comfortable shade in the hot afternoons. It also partially shaded the morning sun soon after sunrise.
The door on the left of the building led to an apartment on the second floor. The door to the right led to my apartment which occupied the whole first floor. I usually tell people that fact because it makes the apartment sound bigger than it really is.
I loved Key West from the first time my family brought me here on vacation more than twenty years ago. Therefore, I found it quite easy to move here when I made the transition from journalist to novelist. This apartment offered a comfortable place to call home with its four rooms including a front room where I could work, a kitchen, a large bedroom with a bathroom off to the side.
And there’s that smaller “extra room” that is hardly big enough to store eight or ten boxes and my two pieces of luggage. At first glance, I thought it was a closet; but there were no shelves or racks to hang things on. It was, well, empty.
The moment I first walked into the house, I could see that it was built to accommodate a second-floor apartment to rent out while the owners lived on the bottom floor, or vice versa. I rented the first level from the owner who lived in Chicago after he spent an hour telling me how he had inherited it from his uncle. Or was it his father?
I love living just off Duval Street since that’s where most of the social and tourist action happens in this small town at the southern end of US Highway One. All sorts of events occur on this main north/south thoroughfare where nearly two hundred businesses of several types and sizes are scattered about.
I sat at my computer on this cloudless day looking at the breaking light of the sunrise to the east. The few people up at that hour walked by and couldn’t help but notice me sitting at my desk pounding away on the keyboard. Nosy tourists walking by may have thought I was probably a pervert surfing the net because of my habit of sitting in a pair of shorts and no shirt.
But I was banging out the next “great American novel.” At least I hoped the one I was working on would be the one that would make me rich. Today I was praying it would be true.
Most of the permanent residents around here know of my work and stop to see how the writing is going. I like to pretend that I’m busy but always happy to take time away from my writing to talk about my next novels0. Most of the time I’m just happy to do anything but pound out meaningless drivel as I pretend to write.
Sometimes when the air is crisp I take my laptop out to the porch and sit in a large, old rattan rocking chair that some people say had to be at least a hundred years old. Actually, I find solace and inspiration living in this small town where the people know one another. The atmosphere helps me feel relaxed enough to free my imagination.
Unfortunately, my imagination would often stop at the open gate of my mind afraid to fly. You see, at the time of this story, I was suffering with a serious case of writer’s block. And this had been going on for nearly three months.
People passing by wave or say “hello.” I always make it a point to acknowledge them and act like I’m getting back to the business of writing. Actually, I learned to be disciplined enough never to lose my place or thoughts when disturbed. Even when in the throes of writer’s block, I believe that a smile and a nod helps to maintain a good rapport with the neighbors, most of whom buy my books, and later stop by and ask me to autograph it.
While in college, I learned the habit of writing no less than ten pages per day whether I kept them or not. My writing teacher at Emerson College often said, “Even if you end up throwing those pages away, just make sure you are writing. Just like any skill, use it or lose it.”
So, every morning I write something, never flagging on the commitment I made to Professor White to do what he told me to do. I rise at six and write from seven until one in the afternoon. Then I take a break for lunch.
By the way, I’m that person who hates to do house work. And I despise cooking for myself. So everyday instead of fixing something to eat, I walk down to the Monument Street Café located at the corner of Whitehead and Petronia in the middle of Bahama Village around lunch time. There I eat, talk with patrons, and relax before getting back to my writing.
The wonderful thing about living in Key West’s Old Town is that everything you may need is within walking distance. So, I enjoyed exercising by walking the seven blocks to the restaurant. Sometimes I ride my scooter, depending on if I had other errands to run. Sometimes I pack my laptop in the baggage container under the seat and arrive at the café by eight for breakfast and sit most of the day typing and eating.
After lunch on this February day, I rode my scooter to the Key West Public Library to research the locations of several of the sunken wrecked eighteenth-century ships in the region. I needed this research to add details to enhance the believability of the story I was working on. I was hoping that in reviewing the maps, charts, records, and other materials I would be inspired and break out of this brain freeze I was experiencing.
As I entered the Florida History Room, the archivist nodded to me and said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Morrison. You want those same charts again, or do I need to get some others?”
“If you don’t mind, just the ones I had out the other day. And, Carl, please call me Jay.”
“I just don’t feel right, you know. I mean I was raised to call folks by their last name, you know. And besides, your being a famous author and all.”
“I know. I love that about you.”
“I’ll fetch those charts for you, Mr., er, uh, James.”
I smiled as I watched him walk back into the storage area to retrieve the numerous charts I had worked on earlier. Many had marks on them indicating the confirmed and suspected sites of sunken ships.
At about two that afternoon, I was deep in concentration making notations on an old yellow note pad as I studied the charts and maps. I felt the cell phone buzzing in my pocket. Pulling it out and checking the screen I saw that it was my agent Holly Beard calling from her New York office.
“Hold on a moment, Holly,” I said as I moved through the library passing the main desk on my way out onto Fleming Street.
“Sorry, I was in the library. What’s up? Calling to check on me, seeing if I’m writing?”
“Of course, I am. Did you expect anything less?” she said, laughing.
“Of course not.”
“So, how’s the project coming?”
“Fine. Knee deep in old, dusty charts of the Florida Straits.”
“Okay, Holly. What’s up?”
“Nothing, darling. I just like to keep tabs on my favorite writers.”
“Holly, dear, I know you too well. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Jay, really. Just wanted to call to be sure you’re going to be in town Friday.”
“I decided I need to come spend a little time with my favorite novelist.”
“Holly, we’ve known each other too long. What’s up? Really.”
“Honey, it’s just too damn cold here in New York City. Besides I need an excuse to take a vacation without, you know, using vacation time. So, I’m coming to Key West; and since I’ll be spending time with you--”
“You can take the trip expenses off your income taxes.
“Am I that transparent?”
“You need me to pick you up at the airport?”
“Not if you’re going to meet me on that motorized skateboard,” she said.
“Okay, just grab a cab. I’ll meet you at the Monument Street Café.”
“Your compassion underwhelms me.”
“Hey. You’re the one who hates my scooter.”
“I should be in around 2:30,” she said with that I’m all business tone she gets when she was tired of sparring. “I’ve got reservations at the La Concha. I fly back Monday at 1:20 p.m.”
“Good. We’ll have a chance to visit.”
“I expect you to be your normal charming self.”
“Best behavior, darling. I promise.”
“See you Friday,” she said and hung up.
I put the phone back in my pocket and wondered just what was going on. She’s up to something, I thought as I sat down on the bench near the front entrance taking a moment to enjoy the shade and light breeze blowing from off the gulf. Suddenly I felt a deep painful churning in my stomach just like I had when I woke up.
Damn! I thought. She’s going to try to pressure me into writing something new. Or she’s going tell me the publisher has decided to drop me because my book sales are in the tank.
I shook my head and thought, I can’t worry about this until she brings it up this weekend.
For a moment, my mind drifted back to when we first met in New York City. I was in a meeting with Larry Carmichael, Editorial Chief for Hollister Publishing, along with three of the company’s attorneys. We were in the middle of finalizing the contract for my first three novels. Carmichael handed me a small piece of paper with a name and address on it.
He was recommending Holly Beard, a literary agent located a few buildings down the street.
One of the attorneys pointed at the paper and said, “Mr. Hollister has already called and made arrangements for this agent to represent you. Just call the number and she’ll take you on as a client.”
“Sight unseen?” I asked.
From his chair at the end of the long conference table where we were sitting, Mr. Hollister stood up and walked to where I was seated and said, “She’s one of the best in the country, young man. If you’re not referred to her, she won’t even talk to you. Feel lucky; this is a terrific opportunity. Besides, she a friend and she’ll help me hold on to you.”
Not being a total idiot, I called her immediately after the meeting was over and signed a contract with her that afternoon. And just like that, my professional writing career was launched.
Wait, I thought. If Holly wants to press me on writing something different; well, I’ll just have to do it. If she wants to tell me personally that I’m being dropped, I’ll just get another publisher. I’ve faced worse in my life. I can face this.
So, my instincts had been correct at the outset of this day. Something did happen, something significant. And yet, I still had no idea what. I stiffened and thought, if my agent and my publisher want things to change, I’ll just have deal with it.
Slapping my knees, I stood up and walked back into the library and into the Florida History Room. As I reached for my magnifying glass, I gave a silent sigh, picked up the old charts, and got back to work on my research.