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Gasparilla King of the Pirates Susan Wolf Johnson
By Susan Wolf Johnson
Balboa PressCopyright © 2016 Susan Wolf Johnson
All rights reserved.
The Queen's Party
To understand how the disappearance of Daniel Westcott bewildered the people of Tampa Bay, you would have to know that the city was much smaller then. More like a sleepy town, Tampa sprawled out and yawned along the edge of the Hillsborough River. In 1972, the largest shipping port on the Sun Coast had yet to attract a major cruise line or an NFL team. Some historians claimed the town's slow growth and propensity to "keep to itself" could be traced back to the early 1930s and the failure of the Tampa Bay Hotel. Before that, beneath the hotel's soaring minarets, cupolas, and horseshoe arches, the palatial palace on the river had attracted well-heeled families who escaped northern winters to play golf and shoot quail on the verdant grounds that surrounded the hotel. After sumptuous meals, they strolled along the rambling verandahs. Once the Great Depression hit, the hotel was abandoned, even ghostlike. Some people claimed the town turned inward then.
In the summer of '72, before anyone knew Daniel Westcott was missing, Tampa's summer routines ran along in the usual ways. Picnics were prepared and packed to shell the beaches of Treasure Island or fish along the causeway. Days lengthened, stretched out by heat. In town, the hot, bright sun of early June sent children to play in sprinklers, while adults lingered in the shade of granddaddy oaks, sipping lemonade and anticipating the summer's one social highlight — the Gasparilla Queen's Party. This annual ball, hosted by the new queen's family, was the most exclusive event in the long line of Gasparilla festivities. It's important to note that it was the patrician families of Tampa who had dreamed up these amusements and scattered them across the calendar year. Their intent was to enhance the town's prosperity and to create a posh social niche for the founding members of the Caspar Krewe and their families.
The grand town holiday, Casparilla Day, was seeded in the glory years of the ill-fated hotel and was rooted deeply within the locals' imaginations. It came to full flower through the decades. Based on a mythical pirate and fashioned after New Orleans's Mardi Cras, Casparilla thrilled the townspeople with an annual pirate fest that paraded down Bayshore Boulevard. Before Tampa hosted Super Bowl XVIII, the celebration was held on the first Monday of February. Banks closed, schools shut down, and businesses locked their doors for the day. Even the mail was held so everyone could enjoy the parade. From convertibles at the head of the motorcade, local celebrities waved as high school bands marched and played John Philip Sousa. Elaborate floats glided in the procession were identified as TECO, CTE, or Freedom Federal. But the most thrilling float — the one the townspeople most heartily cheered — was the royal float. Two thrones centered the moving pageantry and carried the king and queen of Casparilla, who waved graciously to their loyal subjects. On that day, painted Caspar pirates walked the parade route. They threw beads, fired blank ammunition from .38-caliber revolvers, and kept pace with the day's main event — heavy drinking. Everyone, young, old, and infirm, embraced the merry event. But the Queen's Party was held for krewe members only.
On the eve of June 10, Caspar pirates escorted their ladies through the double doors of the Tampa Yacht Club. They could hear the orchestra playing, "Days of Wine and Roses," as the much-anticipated gala began. Women in elaborate gowns graced the ballroom. They toasted one another with grasshoppers and tequila sunrises, drinks as brightly colored as the gems around their necks and wrists. Costumed in plumed pirate hats, the men smoked cigars and downed Harvey Wallbangers. The french doors were open. Couples glided from the ballroom to the verandah outside to dance beneath the waning crescent moon. They waited patiently for their king. Attuned to his big-hearted laugh, they knew it would announce his arrival. At six foot three, Daniel stood above every crowd. With an impressive shock of black hair and a pair of curly eyebrows to match, he wouldn't be missed as he kissed his way across the ballroom or threw an arm across a pirate's shoulders. Despite his sixty-eight years, Daniel would dominate the dance floor in a light-footed foxtrot or a sassy swing. The Krewe of Caspar drank, danced, and chatted, while the night ticked on. They danced until the moon disappeared behind the live oaks and until the band played its last song.
But King Daniel did not arrive.
Because Daniel was not found for almost a month, stories from that summer had taken on a curious twist. Passed on in ways that are difficult to trace, the details of what actually happened remain debatable, although the outcome was hard fact. A couple of pirates later swore that Daniel was headed for trouble in the worst way. Others said they never saw it coming. What everyone agreed was how the town rallied to help the Westcott family. After all, with Daniel missing, his wife, Natalie, was all but alone in that big house. She had an elderly family retainer there, but now the roles were reversed. Natalie had become Eula's caretaker. Eula's daughter, Niobe, worked there too, but her duties were focused on Natalie's daughter, Julia, whom most agreed was more than a little "touched" in the head.
At the time, Julia was in her late forties — and everyone knew that. At age twenty-two, she'd worn the queen's crown and ridden the float. She'd then married a man named Richard McNeil, who worked for Tampa Electric. He was, of course, a pirate in the krewe. Around the time their first child started school. Julia took to her bed. Some called it migraines. But wait — for the sake of clarity, we must return to the night of the Queen's Party and what happened then.
After the gala ended, pirates and ladies alike speculated about why Daniel would fail to attend his own Queen's Party. Perhaps he or Natalie or Julia was ill. Maybe something had happened to one of the grandchildren, who were mostly grown now. When phone calls to their home went unanswered, a few people drove by the Westcott Mansion on the Bayshore.
Their grand estate, one of the first to be built on the boulevard, had recently fallen into disrepair. Embarrassing as that may seem, in certain circles, the look was coveted. Much of the town's old wealth was dwindling; those in that circumstance took pride in the quiet beauty of a home's chipped and weathered features. They went so far as to scoff at the nouveau riche with their freshly painted soffits and shutters. The custom had become so widespread that pristine houses amid the lot of rundown homes created a checkerboard effect throughout the town. Outsiders puzzled by the phenomenon rightly concluded the neglect varied from a lack of resources, laziness, or at the time, grief. The war in Vietnam raged, and the town had lost more than its fair share of sons. The protest song by Country Joe and the Fish played on jukeboxes in local bars, the lyrics haunting: "Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box." Washington was in upheaval — secrets prevailed. Within days, Nixon would break into the Watergate Hotel. By July, the "amnesty, abortion, and acid" presidential hopeful, George McGovern, would win the Democratic Party's nomination on his promise to end the combat.
But that night, the one we begin with, was peaceful in the West Florida town. Those who drove down the Bayshore, car windows open and night breezes rustling their hair, would say the Westcott Mansion looked lovely nestled on its sprawling lawns, aglow in starlight. The clean, architectural lines of the house created a symmetry that pleased the eye. The white pillars, black shutters, rose-covered trellises, and its side-yard fountain whispered privilege. Here was a home that shielded it residents from ordinary strife. Once the passersby saw the goodness of the house, any doubts concerning Daniel were dismissed. Only a few noticed the light in an upstairs window. No one thought about Julia, but leaning against the window frame, watching headlights glide down the Bayshore, she thought about them.
"Julia! Julia! Julia!"
That's what she heard. Their voices rushed in three or four at a time, the sounds tuneless and harsh. She covered her ears and looked out the window to the Hillsborough Bay, where the water was smooth and unruffled and glistening in the starlight. Had anyone expected Julia would attend the Queen's Party tonight? Earlier, she'd listened for her father's footfall on the stairs and for her mother to follow him into her bedroom.
"Come!" she was sure they would beg. They would insist it was her duty now that her father was king. Julia had thought about it for a moment. If going would stop the clamoring in her head, she would do it — but her parents did not come to her room and ask the question.
Julia touched the sleeve of her silk blouse and for a moment was startled. When had she dressed? After Niobe brought up her dinner tray? Or was it before? She backed away from the window and twisted the button on her sleeve until it wound up taut, snapped, and rolled across the polished oak floor. It disappeared under the bed, hidden, like a pearl. Julia laughed. Of course! She remembered now. There was a tray on the bed with a half-eaten omelet. The window was open to the hot evening, and Niobe was at the door.
"Let me get that," Niobe had said, hooking the back of Julia's skirt. "And this." She pulled a fuchsia scarf from the top drawer of the dresser and tied it around Julia's waist. Niobe urged her to the full-length mirror. "Ain't no one prettier than you tonight," she'd said.
Julia sat in the Queen Anne chair that looked out over the water toward Davis Island and downtown Tampa. The slightest sliver of a balsamic moon rose across the bay while the wind kicked up. The water churned the color of India ink. It was quiet now, quiet enough to hear her heart beat. She wondered if it was unusual to hear the soft-pedaled thump of one's own heart, buried as it was in muscle and bone. She realized that hers was connected directly to her brain, where it pulsed like the measured beat of a metronome. She leaned back in the chair and hummed.
I walked to the hill today, Dear Maggie
To watch the scene below;
The creek and the creaking old mill, my Maggie,
As we used to long ago.
Suddenly she sat up. With the rhythm in her brain, she counted back the nights. One or two? Only one. Yes, she was sure. Julia pressed her hands to her knees, felt them hard and round beneath the satin skirt. The night before last, she'd been sleeping. She had been in bed when she heard her father tramp down the stairs and her mother shout. She'd climbed slowly from the bed and then edged to the door and cracked it open.
"You'll not go out tonight!" her mother had cried. (Or was it a seagull?) And then the first shot wheeled through the house. She'd stepped down the corridor. She had not yet reached the stairs when she heard the second blast. She stopped and waited. Half-expecting the final shot that came with a blur of smoke, she leaned into the stairwell to see her father stagger down the steps and stumble out the front door while her mother stood in the foyer holding the pistol.
Julia fell back in the chair and hummed the tune again. No one saw her on the stairs that night. No one ever sees her. Clever girl. She realized, of course, the whole thing could've been a dream. God knows she'd had worse. Still, the fact remained that Daniel was missing. She swept a hand over her hair, which was coarse and dry, now threaded with gray. She tugged the ends. Julia hadn't dared to ask what had happened to him, and no one had told her — not Eula, Niobe, or her mother. She switched the light off next to her chair and sat in the dark. But what if her mother had killed him? Julia twisted a lock of hair around her forefinger. Who thought she was good at keeping secrets? Julia laughed. Not a team of twenty horses could drag it from her. But what would she do if her father was gone? She folded her hands to ponder the question. First she would separate the chatter in her head, listening closely for the voices of her children.
But where were they?
"Where?" She said it out loud. She didn't always recognize them, especially when they bombarded her at once. But she could guess. She thought the low, whispery voice belonged to the child she never knew, while the abandoned one howled and wailed like a small animal caught in a thicket. She thought of the one who called her sweetly Mama, the daughter who used to crawl onto her lap and press gummy lips against her ear, whispering, "I love you, I love you!" To this child she struggled to answer, "It is not as it seems."
Julia stretched her hands wide. Her long fingers slipped over the arms of the Queen Anne chair. If her father was gone, she didn't have to wait anymore. She could call them. Each of her children. The first one, the second, and third. In sequence, like those shots fired up the staircase. She called them home — the one she did not know, the one she'd shunned, and the one she sacrificed her life for.CHAPTER 2
A Wild Goose Chase
Nobody knew Becca McNeil was coming into town, and that's just the way she wanted it. At twenty-one, she'd left Georgetown University to pursue a career on Broadway. That was two years ago, and so far, it hadn't worked out. The night after the Queen's Party, she'd been seen running down the Bayshore, barely recognizable with her hair wild behind her. Rumor had it she'd come home because Daniel was missing, but that was not the case. She came home for one reason: to get money. Becca was Julia and Richard's firstborn, a lively, round-faced cherub with auburn ringlets and a splash of freckles across her nose. At the time, they lived with Daniel and Natalie in the Westcott Mansion. Why the young family didn't move into a house of their own remained a puzzle, but when Julia took to her bed and Richard died shortly after the birth of their son, everyone thought it best the children were settled under the Westcott roof. When Becca started stuttering (a shameful defect in those days), the parents at Gorrie Elementary scolded their children for mimicking her (even while they, the grown-ups, gossiped about Julia's absence at PTA meetings). In spite of Natalie's efforts, Becca grew up sullen and unable to look anyone in the eye. But on Sundays when she belted out, "The Old Rugged Cross," from the church choir, no one could deny she possessed a voice as rich and buoyant as any heard in those parts.
The evening following the Queen's Party, only a few cars passed down Bayshore Boulevard. To Becca, who pulled up in a cab, the Westcott Mansion looked dismal. The eaves were so burdened with soggy magnolia leaves, live oak buds, and twigs that they sagged in places. Standing on the front porch, she sucked in the muggy air and held it for a moment. She knew she would have to explain (yet again) why she had missed her grandfather's coronation in February. Becca had an answer for that. She'd committed to a war protest. But the sooner she could get her granddad alone to ask for the money, the easier she would sleep. He wouldn't ask questions like Nattie, who would interrogate her. She couldn't take that chance, not now. A girl in trouble, she halted on the stairs and pushed her chin out. The resolve she'd felt in New York to end the baby's life felt shaky as she faced the front door of her childhood home. She knocked. When no one answered, she tried the latch; it was unlocked. That should've been her first clue.
"Nattie!" Becca called. She dragged her suitcase over the threshold and into the foyer. The dank odor of the house hit her with its foul breath. She hadn't remembered that. Instead of closing the door, she wedged the ceramic doorstop flat against the bottom to hold it open. The gamy smell of the bay was better than the mustiness inside the house. She called up the stairs. "Granddad, I'm home!" Then she scanned the living room with its arrangement of empty chairs, the family portraits decorating the walls.
She set her suitcase at the bottom step and walked down the dark corridor just past the elevator. From the kitchen, she heard her grandmother's voice talking high and fast. "How're you going to explain this?" her grandmother was shouting.
Becca pushed the door open. Inside the sinks were polished white, and the counters were cleared except for a half piece of banana cake lying on a paper napkin next to the coffeepot. She hurried past the kitchen table, around the captain's chairs, to the counter, where her grandmother sat propped on a stool. Her silver hair fell in wisps from a disheveled bun that hung lopsided at the back of her head. Becca peered around the kitchen. "Who're you talking to?"
Natalie's eyes gazed up, watery and blank. "What? What?"
Becca picked up her grandmother's hand. The palm was damp, sticky as warm dough. "Where's Granddad?" When Natalie didn't answer, didn't squeeze Becca's hand, or acknowledge her presence, she gripped her grandmother's shoulders and shook her a little.
Natalie blinked a few times. Then, as if seeing her granddaughter for the first time, she drew Becca into her arms. "You're home?" she asked.
Excerpted from King Daniel by Susan Wolf Johnson. Copyright © 2016 Susan Wolf Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Queen's Party, 1,
Chapter 2. A Wild Goose Chase, 8,
Chapter 3. Child of Mine, 23,
Chapter 4. New York City, 25,
Chapter 5. Stealthy as a Cat, 36,
Chapter 6. The Sea Booty Adrift, 47,
Chapter 7. Tongue of the Ocean, 65,
Chapter 8. "Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!", 75,
Chapter 9. King-napped, 90,
Chapter 10. The Clock Struck Ten, 93,
Chapter 11. Sins of the Father, 101,
Chapter 12. A Time Bomb, 109,
Chapter 13. "Buzz Quoth the Blue Fly", 126,
Chapter 14. Working on a Big Catch, 129,
Chapter 15. Moonlight Sonata, 141,
Chapter 16. War Games, 157,
Chapter 17. A Last Act of Redemption, 164,
Chapter 18. The Stakeout, 171,
Chapter 19. Ghosts on the Wall, 176,
Chapter 20. "I'm Your Captain", 186,
Chapter 21. King Daniel, 197,
Chapter 22. A Spotted Blowfish, 209,
Chapter 23. Sucking Chest Wound, 218,
Chapter 24. A Closed Casket, 228,
Chapter 25. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 241,
Chapter 26. A Smoking Gun, 259,
Chapter 27. Flower Boxes, 270,
Chapter 28. Under a Spell, 275,
Chapter 29. Blue Heat, 290,
Chapter 30. Lost in the Belly of the House, 293,
Chapter 31. Ashes to Sea, 312,
Chapter 32. Harmony in the Flowers, 326,
A Note on Photographs, 331,