1885: twenty miles from Tampa on the last leg of Henry Plant‘s newly constructed Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West railway.
The train screeched to a halt. Passengers thumped to the floor. A woman screamed as she tumbled off a bench, and her feathered hat slid down over her nose. Oliver Redcastle had been watching two boys toss apples at a gator on the riverbank. Caught off guard by the sudden stop, he jammed his shoulder into the back of the bench in front of him. Nursing his arm, and wondering whether he’d broken a bone, he pulled himself to his feet. Two men cradling shotguns crashed through the door into the car and stationed themselves at the head of the aisle.
“Settle down, folks. This ain’t a robbery. We’re lookin’ for an escaped criminal. Be quiet, and we won’t trouble you.”
They were both in shirtsleeves and suspenders, their faces flushed and sweaty. The speaker, a short man with a wiry build, wore a broad felt hat pulled low over his forehead. His cohort, a muscular six-footer, stalked down the walkway. At intervals he steadied his gun on his forearm and stopped to look closely into the faces of passengers still scrambling for their benches.
He halted to stare at Oliver. Of a similar height and physique, the two men stood eye to eye. The intruder‘s pale blue gaze drilled into Oliver‘s steady gray one. “Why ain’t you sitting down like you were told, Mister?”
“What’s this about?”
“Sure as hell ain’t about you, Yankee. So mind your business.”
Before Oliver could get another word out, a hand came down hard onto his injured shoulder. As it dragged him back into his seat, he turned to find a stranger’s face inches from his. The man’s narrowed brown eyes sparked a warning.
A commotion burst out at the other end of the car. Both armed intruders galloped down the aisle. A woman screamed, and a male voice yelled for help. “I’m Innocent! Kidnapped!” The stranger pressing Oliver to his seat leaned closer. He hissed, “If you value your life stay put, and keep your mouth shut.”
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing worth getting your head blown off for.”
The sounds of struggle at the back end of the car grew louder and more violent. Oliver tried to look, but the stranger tightened his hold. Oliver struck out and yanked himself free. When he got up and turned, he glimpsed a pair of sockless white ankles. They disappeared as the armed intruders dragged a man’s kicking body off the train.
Oliver started toward the doors when once again the stranger slammed him into his seat. Furious, he confronted the man.
“Lay a hand on me again and I’ll break it!”
“Is that so? Well now, is that any way to talk to a Good Samaritan?”
“Only an ignorant fool Yankee wouldn’t know. Railroad men rounding up work gang escapees ain’t polite. Interfere with them, and they‘ll shoot you dead. You being a meddling northerner, they‘d enjoy pulling the trigger.”
Like a sleepy dragon jolting to life, the train began to creep forward. Oliver shot a rueful glance toward the back of the car. He judged it already too late to do anything about what had occurred. Nor was he sure that he should. After all, William Walters hadn’t sent him to the south to interfere with local law enforcement—if that’s what he had seen.
The other passengers seemed to have no trouble putting the incident from their minds. A motherly woman in charge of three youngsters opened a picnic basket. Behind her an elderly gentleman adjusted his neck cloth as he carried on an animated conversation with his plump wife.
Oliver rubbed his sore arm and turned to the man who was now bending to rescue his crumpled hat from the floor.
“I still don’t understand what happened.”
The man rested the hat on his round belly with one hand and steadied himself on the swaying train with the other. “All I can tell you is that the fella’ those two deputies drug away was either a convict or a debt peon.”
“Mister, you’re in the south. Around these parts folks who don’t pay their bills wind up on a work gang. How do you think Henry Plant put the railroad through this jungle? Not by throwing a tea party for the local darkies.”
“The man who just got dragged away wasn’t a negro.”
“No, that’s why I say he was a debtor, or a foreigner who answered the wrong call for employment. Either way, there’s nothing you or I can do for him.”
Oliver regarded the speaker. His gray handlebar moustache framed his small mouth. His fringe of gray hair brushed a sweat stained collar. He inclined his head. “Wendell C. Hartley at your service.”
“Pleased to meet you, Redcastle. Guess I riled you just now. Believe you me, it was for your own good!”
“If you say so.”
“Well, I do say so. I know what I’m talking about. You didn’t even realize I was sitting behind, did you? Before this ruckus started you was a million miles away staring out the window.”
Oliver shrugged. That was true.
Hartley nodded. “I been in the cab up front. It got so infernal hot I thought I’d see if I could catch a breeze back here. I‘d just set myself down when those two fellas stopped the train.”
They were both silent, eyeing each other. Hartley broke the awkwardness. “Going to Tampa on business or pleasure?”
“A little of both.” That wasn’t true. Oliver didn’t expect to get any pleasure from this trip.
“Me, strictly business. I don’t travel otherwise. Travel don’t suit my constitution the way it did when I was young.” He winked. “I sure detect from your accent you ain’t from anywhere near here.”
“Baltimore?” Hartley’s eyebrows jumped up. “Now what kind of business would bring a Baltimore man to Tampa? Bet it has something to do with this new railroad of Plant’s.”
Hartley chuckled. “Half the people on this train wouldn’t be in Florida otherwise. Thanks to Henry Plant northerners can escape from snow and ice in comfort.”
“If you call this comfort,” Oliver said, raising his voice over the clack of the rails, “and if northerners want to come to Tampa.”
“You ever been there?”
“Thought not. Well it ain’t much now. From what I hear, Plant reckons to turn what used to be a sleepy fishing village into paradise on earth. He even plans to build a grand hotel the likes of which will stun even a sophisticated fella’ like yourself. Tampa’s going to become a regular seventh heaven.”
“How heavenly is it now? I’m going to be spending several days there.”
Hartley shrugged. “Any place where it don’t snow ought to be paradise for a northerner this time of year. As for myself, I don’t plan to linger.”
“But Tampa is the end of the line.”
“For Henry Plant’s train, not for me. Now, if you don‘t mind, I think I’ll head back to the front car. It’s no cooler here than it was up there. In fact, I‘d say it‘s hot as hell back here.”
Wendell C. Hartley pushed through the car’s vibrating door. When he was out of sight, Oliver glanced around. All the other passengers had settled back into the routine of travel. Three blond youngsters wolfed down sandwiches from their mother’s picnic basket. Several other people had opened box lunches. An old woman wearing a pancake hat with a veil that covered her nose, dozed. Her head lolled back and forth like a mechanical doll’s.
Oliver turned back to his own troubling thoughts. Could it be February? He gazed at the thick greenery streaming past his window. Blinding sun knifed through the encroaching tangle of trees and vines. It was as if the train and its passengers were being swallowed into an endless maw of tropical vegetation. He closed his eyes and breathed in the sticky, pine-scented air. He had sworn never to come back to this land. Yet here he was, captive on a train twisting into the bowels of the south.
He pictured the wintry dawn in Baltimore less than a week ago when all this had started. A messenger had knocked at Oliver‘s door. Stamping snow from his boots, he’d handed an envelope to Mrs. Milawney. “Note from Mr. William Walters to Mr. Oliver Redcastle. I’m to wait for a reply.”
Duly impressed, for everyone knew that William Walters was one of the richest men on the East Coast, Mrs. Milawney had brought the letter to the kitchen. Oliver, who had been dozing over his breakfast, opened it. “To hell with him. I’m finished dancing to the tune of men stuffed with money!” He had dropped the communication on the floor.
“Oh sir, but you must!” Mrs. Milawney retrieved the message and smoothed it against her apron. “I’m only the housekeeper, and it ain’t my place to tell my employer what to do. But, oh, think of that poor little mite upstairs struggling to catch a breath.”
Sighing, Oliver pictured his nine-year-old daughter as he’d last seen her, unconscious with exhaustion. “How is Chloe doing now?”
“Still got her pretty eyes closed, thank the good Lord. Oh Sir, I know you’re tired. We’re both tired after spending the night boiling water for steam just to help her get a breath.”
Sleep. Right now all he wanted was a decent night’s sleep.
Mrs. Milawney patted his shoulder. “Think of what the doctor said. This ain’t the climate for Chloe. She needs to go west where the air is dry and clean. She was breathing good last summer when she and I was in Arizona.”
Oliver sighed again. He‘d beggared himself borrowing money to pay for his daughter’s summer out west. The doctor had been right about the dry desert climate. It had improved Chloe’s health, and Mrs. Milawney had liked the open spaces. Since returning to Baltimore his housekeeper had harped on taking the child to Arizona permanently.
He said, “Moving will mean selling here and starting new. It won’t be easy.”
“It will take money. And don’t I know that money is in short supply?” She handed the note back to Oliver, “I’ve got eyes, and I know for a fact you haven’t had a good paying case in weeks. Go and hear what William Walters has to say. Maybe he wants to hire you. Maybe he‘ll pay you smart enough so you can do something for your little girl.”
Oliver had swallowed his pride. He had pulled on his boots and slogged through the ice and snow to Walters’ townhouse in fashionable Mount Vernon Square. That’s why, a week later, he was on a train headed to Florida, the last place on earth he wanted to go.
The sun was low when Oliver stepped off the train in Tampa. He looked around, taking a moment to appreciate the dreaming beauty of the Hillsborough river edging the tracks. No alligators in sight, though they might lurk beneath the surface.
Turning, he caught sight of Wendell C. Hartley hurrying off as if he had a vital appointment. Hartley disappeared behind the loading warehouse, and Oliver shrugged. Most likely, he‘d never to see the man again. A few minutes later he approached a cart driver pulled up in the shade of a live oak draped with beards of gray Spanish moss. Both he and his bony horse appeared half asleep.
“Can you take me to the Palmetto Hotel?”
The driver, a handsome, dark skinned fellow, opened his eyes, shook himself awake, and agreed to the fare. After Oliver had climbed up beside him, he urged his sorry looking horse into a slow walk. He said, “That Palmetto is brand, spanking new and the fanciest hotel in town.”
It was also the hotel where an employee of William Walters named Ruben Spooner had stayed. Walters, an investor in the PICO Investment Company which had financed Plant’s newly completed Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad, had sent Spooner to Tampa. He was to look at the operation of the newly minted rail line and report back. But Spooner had never reported back.
Members of his family had traveled to Tampa searching for him. When they’d failed to find Spooner, they’d appealed to William Walters. He’d commissioned Oliver to track the missing man down, or find out what had happened.
As the cart rolled toward town, the driver introduced himself as Rigo Alvarez. Rigo began commenting on the passing scene. “You being a northerner, you might not know that tree over there to the right. Don’t look like much, but it’s key lime. They say the Spanish brought it here. It’s hard peeling but great in pies. My woman loves it.”
A cow meandered into the road, and Rigo reined in. Cursing at the animal which appeared to be settling in for a long stay, he jumped down and whipped it out of the way. When he returned to the cart, Oliver asked if cows wandering into the road were a common occurrence.
“Nobody fences in these parts. So long as you got your mark on an animal—cow, pig or chicken, it’s yours no matter whose grass fills its belly.”
“Some people might find that annoying.”
Rigo picked at his teeth. “Some people do. Mostly nobody cares.”
The Palmetto was an attractive structure with a two-story porch attached to a tall tower. A gingerbread mansard roof topped its widow’s walk. It dominated the corners of Polk and Florida streets, two broad dirt lanes that appeared deserted. “Quiet part of town,” Oliver commented as he alighted from the cart.
“Not for long,” Rigo said. Another couple of years you northerners will be swarming our little town like bees in honey.”
“Sounds as if you think that’ll be good.”
“Be mighty good for me. Man’s gotta’ feed his young’uns.”
“How many children do you have?”
Holding the reins in one hand, Rigo started counting on the other, his expression bemused. “Eight last I looked.”
Oliver raised his eyebrows. “Can’t be easy, supporting such a large family on fares from this cart.”
“My woman raises vegetables and sells lunchtime food. I preach. We get along.”
Oliver glanced at Rigo’s fine-looking profile. Despite his threadbare clothing and humble cart, he radiated the self-confidence of a man happy with himself and his life. “You’re a preacher?”
“I am.” Rigo chuckled. “And a mighty good one when the spirit moves me.”
“I believe it. My father was a preacher. It’s not an easy life. At least, it wasn’t for him. Where’s your church? I’d like to hear your message.”
“Oh, I ain’t got a church. When I get the itch to preach the word, I travel. You’d be surprised how many people hiding out in the piney woods around here need a good spirit talk.”
Oliver would have liked to hear more about the people hiding in the woods and what they needed. But Rigo’s horse, bitten by a particularly aggressive fly, had begun to stamp his feet. Oliver dug deep into his pocket and handed Rigo a large tip. “Buy your little ones a treat.”
Rigo lifted his straw sombrero and grinned. “That’s mighty fine. My little ones can use a treat. You ever need a favor, I’m your man. Remember that. I‘m a man of my word. I ain’t just talking.”
Oliver watched Rigo drive away and wondered if he’d meant what he’d said. If things didn’t go well down here, Oliver might need a favor.
Inside the hotel’s lobby, he stood for a moment taking in the quiet, lazy warmth of the high-ceilinged room. He breathed in deeply, smelling the scent of flowers edged with a hint of mold. Shutters screened the tall windows from the late afternoon sun. Potted palms on either side of the doorway cast slatted shadows on the polished wood floor. A man with slicked hair and a dark moustache sat in an armchair smoking a cigar. He glanced up from his newspaper and tracked Oliver’s progress to a mahogany reception desk. Behind it a clerk dozed with his arms folded over his belly. His eyes popped open when Oliver hit the bell.
“Staying long?” he asked when Oliver requested a room.
“No more than a week.” At least, that’s what he hoped.
“Long enough. You want to pay now?”
“I’ll pay when I leave.”
“You’d better. We don’t take to debtors around here.”
Shrugging, Oliver signed the register, then flipped it back two pages.
“Hey now, that’s not allowed!”
Ignoring the clerk’s protest, Oliver pointed to a signature. “I see a friend of mine, Ruben Spooner, stayed here a couple of months ago.”
The clerk squinted at the signature and shrugged. “What of it?”
“Do you remember him?”
“If I remembered all the people who stayed here, I could join the circus.”
Oliver held up a tintype Spooner‘s sister had given him. “Fortyish, medium height, dark hair. Came from Baltimore. Some of his folks were here looking for him a few weeks back.”
The clerk squinted at the image. “Now I recall. They were mighty persistent. Asked a lot of questions. All I could tell them was he left without paying his bill. Seeing as he’s your friend, maybe you’d like to pay it for him?”
Ignoring the suggestion, Oliver replied, “That doesn’t sound like Ruben. I’m worried he might have met with an accident. Did he leave anything behind? Clothing? Personal items?”
“Like I told his folks, not so far as I know. Ask Rosella, here. She cleans the rooms. She’ll show you to yours.”
Oliver turned to find a dark-eyed young woman sauntering toward him. Her shapeless maid’s uniform didn’t disguise her lush figure and pretty face. She stopped a few feet away and smiled beguilingly, her shapely lips pink against velvety skin the color of milky coffee. “You like I take your bag?”
Oliver assured her that he could carry his own carpetbag. He spent an enjoyable few minutes admiring her as he followed her back across the lobby and up the staircase to the second floor. Despite the distraction of Rosella’s gracefully swaying hips, he was aware of the curious gaze of the man in the armchair. At the top of the staircase he paused and looked down. The man took a cigar out of his mouth, tapped it against the armrest, and returned his attention to his paper.
“Who is the gentleman in the white linen suit?”
Rosella cocked her lovely head. “Oh, that’s Senor Ybor.”
“He’s American now. He has a cigar factory in Key West. They’re saying he might move his business here to Tampa.”
“Who’s saying that?”
“Oh, just people. You hear things when you work in a hotel.”
“I bet you do.” Oliver took a silver dollar out of his pocket and offered it to her. “Do you remember a man named Ruben Spooner. He was a guest here a couple of months back?”
Her hand was out for the coin. But when she heard the name Ruben Spooner, she snatched it back. The smile disappeared, and her eyes went blank. “I don’t remember anyone by that name, sir. Here’s your room.” She unlocked a door, opened it, and stood back. “We serve breakfast at eight. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Oliver shook his head and watched thoughtfully as she hurried away, her hips no longer swaying quite so seductively.
The next morning Oliver made his way to the docks. Unlike the sleepy lanes around his hotel, Tampa’s waterfront bustled. Vessels crowded the wooden piers.
Four masted schooners tied side by side vied for space with steamships and smaller sailing craft. Stevedores groaned and shouted as they unloaded cargo and carted it to a ramshackle warehouse area.
Pausing at the water‘s edge, Oliver inhaled humid air flavored with the scent of shellfish and rotting wood. A dead mullet caught in a web of seaweed sloshed against a piling. Pelicans wheeled overhead, disappearing into the glare of the morning sun.
Nearby a small steamer named Gypsy Dancer edged between several small craft loaded with pineapples, bananas and strings of fresh caught kingfish, grouper and tarpon. Oliver’s eyes narrowed as he studied the rakish angle of Gypsy’s twin smokestacks. She was a long, low, lead-colored vessel. He considered her convex forecastle deck extending aft, nearly as far aft as the waist—placed there to force through and not over heavy waves. Old memories stirred. He knew this ship.
She looked old because she was, he realized. These days she might be plying the waters of southern Florida carrying passengers from Key West. But she’d once been a blockade runner, famous for her speed. He knew because he’d been a sharpshooter on a Union vessel chasing her through the fog in hopes of drawing a bead on her daring captain. Where was that captain now, he wondered
Gypsy Dancer docked and a few minutes later began disgorging passengers. Women carrying parasols against the sun held small children by the hand. A man in a Panama hats and white linen suit pushed an elderly woman in a wheeled chair. As he steered her onto dry land she waved a fan and chattered at him in high-pitched tones.
Oliver wondered what their purpose in Tampa might be. Did they have relatives here? Were they planning to set up a business because of Plant’s new railroad?
The crack of a bullet sent the gulls and pelicans into a panic. The old woman in the chair screamed, and one of the men stepping onto the dock from the ship slumped against a piling. Oliver caught sight of a puff of smoke at the side of a warehouse nearby and sprinted toward it.
As he rounded the building’s corner, he spotted a man throwing his rifle into a cart. Oliver made a dash for the cart, but he wasn’t fast enough. The man leapt into the seat and whipped his horse into a gallop. Seconds later the wagon vanished down a dusty lane.
A voice at Oliver‘s shoulder asked, “Who was he? Did you see?”
Oliver turned. A stocky young Negro in a rumpled suit stood with his broad chest heaving.
“I only caught a glimpse of the shooter, but I’ve seen him before.”
“Yesterday, on the train. He told me his name was Wendell C. Hartley.”
“Hartley?” The young man shook his head. “Means nothing.”
“No and probably isn’t his real name. I wonder why he took a pot shot at the gent leaving the steamer. How is the poor fellow? I hope he wasn’t injured.”
“I don’t know. When I heard the shot and saw Jose Marti fall, I followed you to catch the villain. I wasn‘t quick enough. I‘m no runner.”
“Marti? You know the man who was attacked?”
“I’m here to fetch him from the boat. He’s to be my guest.”
“Then we’d better see what we can do for him.”
As the two hurried back to the scene of the violence, the young man introduced himself as Ruperto Pedroso and gave his particulars. Oliver had already realized from his accent that he was not an American Negro. Pedroso had emigrated from Cuba. He told Oliver that he and his wife, Paulina, ran a boardinghouse on the corner of 8th Avenue and 13th Street.
“And Marti is Cuban also?”
“Oh yes, a patriot of rare courage. He’s here to raise support for our cause.”
“What cause is that?”
Pedroso looked surprised by the question. “Why, to win our freedom from the Spanish rule that oppresses us. We Cubans yearn for our freedom just as you Norte Americanos yearned for yours. Praise God, one day we‘ll be successful, too.”
When they arrived at the scene of the shooting, they found Jose Marti on a bench. A handsome Negress was pressing a wet cloth to his forehead. She stepped back when Pedroso rushed up and asked Marti about his condition.
When Marti replied in Spanish, Pedroso translated for Oliver’s benefit, “He says it’s only a nick on his arm. The shooter missed his mark. He’s shocked, but otherwise fine.”
“He doesn’t look fine to me.” Nor did he sound fine. Marti waved his hands about and gabbled Spanish curses, clearly enraged by what had happened to him. Oliver muttered in Pedroso’s ear, “He should see a doctor.”
Marti refused this suggestion vehemently. He struggled to his feet with the help of the black woman. He was a small, slender man with a bush of dark hair. His moustache covered his upper lip and bracketed his mouth almost to his chin. Marti had removed his white jacket. A spot of blood stained the sleeve of his shirt.
Pedroso, muttering soothing words in Spanish, took his arm and directed the woman to secure their cart. After bidding Oliver a distracted farewell, he and Marti headed off.
Oliver watched them for several minutes. The oddity of his encounters with Wendell C. Hartley struck him. He had not taken the brash man on the train for an assassin. He had dismissed him as someone he would never see again. Now, that had changed. Now he had a gut feeling he and Hartley would meet—and that when they did he‘d better be prepared.
Could Hartley have anything to do with the disappearance of Reuben Spooner?That seemed unlikely. But then so did what had just happened. He heard a splash and turned his head but saw only a faint ripple on the dark surface of the river.
Oliver spent another quarter of an hour exploring the waterfront and then walked into Plant’s headquarters. The building sat close to the area where carpenters were hoisting beams and pounding nails into Plant’s new waterfront hotel. Nearby, other workers were busy enlarging the piers and walkways, anticipating much greater traffic through Tampa to parts south.
Inside the headquarters, a young man, whose carroty hair gleamed with pomade, looked up from a telegraph key. “May I help you?”
“My name is Oliver Redcastle. I’m here to see Mr. Henry Haines.”
“Mr. Haines is busy at the moment. Do you have an appointment?”
“I have a letter of introduction from one of your investors, Mr. William Walters. He contacted Mr. Haines to let him know I would be paying him a visit.”
The redhead gazed at the signature on the letter for several seconds, then rose and disappeared behind a door to the rear of his desk. Oliver looked around the outer office. It was almost as hectic as the waterfront. Telegraph keys clacked. Men in shirtsleeves hurried in and out carrying rolls of what looked like architectural drawings. Clerks scribbled schedule changes on a blackboard. Minutes later they erased them and scribbled new numbers. The constant hum from all this activity sounded like bees in a hive.
Finally, the young gatekeeper emerged. “Mr. Haines will receive you now. Please come with me.”
Inside the office Oliver saw two men, both in shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows and light colored pants held up by suspenders. The fair-haired younger of the two sprawled in a swivel chair, his booted feet crossed at the ankle. A wrinkled but expensive looking linen jacket hung from the back of his chair. He straightened when Oliver entered the room. The older man, dark haired and mustachioed, stood behind the large oak desk that dominated the office. He leaned over the desk with his hand outstretched and introduced himself as Henry Haines.
Oliver shook his hand. He had done his homework and knew that Henry Haines had supervised the building of Plant’s railroad. It had been a formidable undertaking. He’d had to oversee the laying of over seventy miles of track through the sub-tropical forests and swamps of central Florida. And he’d had to do it in record time. Oliver also knew that Haines had been a colonel in the Confederate army. So at one time he and Haines had been mortal enemies.
The man in the chair was unknown to Oliver. Haines introduced him as Lawrence Thomas, a junior surveyor. He was boyishly handsome and obviously well aware of the fact. Tall and blessed with an athletic build, he lounged with the confidence of a sleepy Adonis
After Oliver explained his reason for coming to Tampa, Haines gazed back at him with a troubled expression. “I have to tell you the same thing I told Spooner’s family when they made inquiries a few weeks back. He never came to the office. We never met the man.” Walters had sent Spooner to check up on the Tampa operation incognito. But the cat was out of the bag now. Spooner’s family had already come to Tampa and made a ruckus.
“Spooner checked into the Palmetto Hotel. I’m staying there myself. I saw his signature on the registry.”
“In that case, talk to the people at the hotel. They must know more about him than we do.”
“Unfortunately, they claim not to. They say he stayed only one night and disappeared the next day without paying his bill.”
Haines scratched his ear and directed his gaze to Thomas. “You know anything about this, Larry?”
Larry smirked. “Not me. It’s a mystery, ain’t it? Man comes here in secret. Don’t bother to tell us what he’s up to and vanishes into thin air. Could be a lot of things. Maybe he swam in the wrong pond and met a hungry gator. Maybe he ran off with someone’s wife. Hope you haven’t come all the way from Baltimore on a fool’s errand, Mr. Redcastle.”
“Spooner couldn’t have vanished into thin air,” Oliver said. “William Walters sent him here to have a look at his railroad investment. Something happened to him, and I’m here to find out what.”
“I have the greatest respect for Mr. Walters,” Haines declared, shooting Thomas a frown. “We all do. I know for a fact that he and Henry Plant are good friends. Mr. Plant would want us to give you all the help we can. That is what we’ll do.
“Meanwhile, since you’re new to town, I’d like to invite you to a small shindig my wife and I are throwing. It’s tonight at the Hillsborough Hotel. It’ll be dinner and a little dramatic performance. If you can come you’ll meet some of the town’s important people. They might know something we don’t. They might help you complete your assignment.”
A few minutes later Oliver left the railroad office. He had accepted Haines’ invitation, though he suspected the “shindig” would require more formal dress than he possessed.
He thought for a moment about the two men he’d just met. Young Larry, Haines’ handsome underling, was a puzzle. He didn’t have the southern drawl Oliver had been expecting. He spoke with an eastern twang. Where did the swagger and ill-disguised hostility that rolled off him come from? Haines seemed more straightforward—a competent engineer who knew how to get things done, and who had no need for swagger.
The sun was high in the sky. Already Oliver could feel sweat slicking the inside of his hatband. His black suit felt travel-weary and inappropriate to the weather. It wouldn’t do for a fancy dinner party. Should he acquire some lighter weight clothing that could pass muster? Distracted by this question, he looked up and caught sight of a figure that made him snap to attention.
A woman in a dark blue skirt and white shirtwaist stood on the edge of the dock. As she gazed down at the water, she twirled a parasol. Her back was to him, but her trim figure, and light brown coil of hair, looked familiar. It couldn’t be, could it?
Oliver said, “Hannah?” The woman turned. He studied the familiar pointed chin shadowed by the wide brim of her untrimmed straw hat. “Hannah Kinchman, is it really you?”
“So far as I can tell.” Her dry tone confirmed her identity.
Oliver said, “It‘s been almost two years since you left Baltimore. I never expected to see you in Florida.”
“I could say the same.” She cocked her head. “I was going to remark that you haven’t changed, but I think I see a few flecks of gray at your handsome temples. Of course, on you it looks good. What are you doing in Tampa, Oliver? Or shouldn’t I ask?”
“Ask away. I think we both have questions.”
“You’re right. Let’s discuss our answers over lunch.” Hannah took his arm and led him to a picnic area across the road. A young Negress with a half dozen children for helpers had set up a stand selling a midday meal. As the children doled out food to a crowd of dockworkers, Oliver smiled down at Hannah. “Is this a respectable place to entertain a delicate young woman?”
Hannah chuckled. “A humorous question, since you know I’m neither delicate nor respectable, nor even young.” She spread her skirts and dropped onto a rough bench with a view of the river. An old live oak with wide-spread branches offered shade—a relief from the Florida sun aflame overhead.