The House on Mermaid Point
I am embarrassed to admit that although I was born and raised in Florida, I didn’t make it to the Keys until I decided to set this book there. I had originally planned on a Key West location, but my husband and I stopped off in Islamorada on the drive down to visit friends Justine and Elliott Fine. There, Justine shared her knowledge and love of Islamorada history, natural beauty, lifestyle, and people in a way that made me fall in love, too. The moment I set foot on Tea Table Key, I was a goner. I knew I’d found William Hightower’s home.
Heartfelt thanks are owed to Justine, who shared far more than could ever be included in one novel and who read every word I wrote so that I’d get it as “right” as possible given that this is a work of fiction and I make things up for a living.
Additional thanks go to Larry Gabor, who showed me the fabulous private island on which I based Mermaid Point and who shared everything from aerial photos to his feelings about life, music, and the astounding natural beauty of the area in which he lives. I hope he will forgive me for the liberties I’ve taken. Any mistakes are my own.
When I realized William Hightower would have to be a backcountry fisherman Larry sent me to Rick Kendrick, who took pity on me and talked me through what I needed to know about fly tying and flats fishing. One afternoon in his driveway, I discovered just how little talent I have for casting, and I am deeply grateful that it isn’t necessary to be good (or even competent) at something to write about it. Thanks, Rick, for the help and for keeping your laughter to yourself.
Thanks also to Sam Holland, owner of the fabulous Conch House Heritage Inn in Old Town Key West, for sharing his renovation experiences and family history. We had a great stay there and hope to be back soon.
Once again I have to thank designer and friend Rebecca Ritchie, who has been such an incredible help on all of the Ten Beach Road books. She designed William Hightower’s home and outbuildings and talked me off the ledge several times. I still don’t know how someone who belongs to a family that’s not allowed to own tools because they require medical attention after using them came to write a series that revolves around renovation. I do know that I couldn’t have done it half as well without Rebecca, who does pretty great work on real houses, too.
As always, my undying friendship and gratitude go to Karen White and Susan Crandall, without whom the act of writing would not be the same. I’m very proud to be a member of the Nittie Club.
There had been a time, many times, actually, when William Hightower would have left rehab in a limo. That limo, sent by his record label, would have had tinted windows, a fully stocked bar, and an eager woman with long legs, big breasts, and a talented mouth perched on the backseat.
His release would have been celebratory and newsworthy, with photographers and fans jostling each other outside the gates so that they could snap photos and scream his name as the limo sped by.
The articles and news stories would run for weeks after his release. Each would begin with pictures of him on a stage surrounded by a vast, undulating sea of enraptured fans. Back when the braid that hung down his back was darker than the night sky over a Florida swamp. When he’d swaggered across a stage as if he owned it. As if he were a real Seminole warrior and not a scared kid from a dusty, no-name town who had two drops of Native American to every gallon of Florida Cracker blood in his veins.
Back then the alcohol and drugs were just part of the gig. They hadn’t yet slowed his fingers or marred his voice or eaten away the muscle and sinew that held him together, like termites gnawing on a wood shanty. The pain of watching his little brother leave their band, the aptly if offensively named Wasted Indian, in a hearse hadn’t yet been carved into his face like a name slashed into a tree trunk. Back then the roar of the crowds had convinced him that he was alive. And destined to be young forever.
Today the car that whisked him away from rehab had not been sent by a record company and did not contain drugs, alcohol, or a woman, eager or otherwise. It was a muddy brown BMW driven by his angry, tight-jawed son, whom he barely knew. The only one left from that once-vast sea, the only one bound by the obligation of blood.
“Thanks for picking me up,” Will said.
A grunt was his only answer. Which was perhaps more than he deserved.
“And for arranging my . . . stay.” It was as close as he could come to admitting that he, William Hightower, who had made and blown millions, couldn’t have afforded the month spent at Three Palms Whole Health Center, which practiced a holistic and adventure-based approach to beating one’s demons. Not even if he’d wanted to go there.
There were no gates to drive through. No waiting press. No screaming fans. Just a clean, modern building sandwiched between a lake where he’d paddled a kayak until his muscles burned and a pool where he’d numbed his mind and his body with lap after lap. He was leaving far fitter than he had arrived. Fitter than he’d been since he’d played his first gig at seventeen. He’d give the Three Palms folks one thing: they’d forced him to clean up his outside while they’d hammered away at his interior. As if there were anything left in there.
The hair that had once hung down his back barely brushed his shoulders; the glossy black was streaked with gray. His face, bruised and battered by sixty-one years of hard living, was still dominated by a hatchet of a nose and high, harsh cheekbones that the camera had once loved. His dark eyes were framed by a spider’s web of lines, but they were clearer than they’d ever been, allowing him to see the world around him as it really was: stark and unrelenting.
They drove south from the hermetically sealed town of Weston, Florida, in silence, palm trees sliding by, bold blasts of tropical color climbing walls and snaking up tree trunks. The flat morning light was unforgiving, leaving only the stingiest triangles of shade.
In Florida City the turnpike emptied onto U.S. 1 then onto the two-lane, eighteen-mile ribbon of asphalt that locals called “the stretch.” It was here that the real world began to dissolve while paradise crooked its finger just ahead. Even on the crappiest day the stretch could cause heart rates to slow, stress levels to drop, and brain synapses to fire less frantically. But today Will’s mind flitted at random as Tommy drove sedately, his eyes fixed straight ahead. Despite the open windows the silence between them hung hot and heavy, stuffed with things that had never been forgiven and that Will sincerely hoped would never be discussed.
A chain-link fence was all that held back the scrub and brush as they skirted the Everglades and crossed over the Monroe County line. Will stole the occasional surreptitious glance at his son, who had inherited his size and coloring and who looked so much like the younger brother he’d been named for that it hurt to look at him. He thought about the boy’s mother, who’d been a casualty of the life they’d lived, too. So many people gone for no good reason.
From the top of the Jewfish Creek Bridge sun glinted off the impossibly turquoise water that flanked them, and a warm salt breeze tinged the air and riffled Will’s hair. In Key Largo scuba and bait-and-tackle shops began to fly by. A strip mall sign promising Pilates in Paradise caught his eye.
The silence spooled out. Will’s eyelids grew heavy. He was close to nodding off when Tommy said, “I talked to the bank. Then I brought in a Realtor to look at Mermaid Point.”
Will’s eyes blinked open. This was what happened when you gave your only blood relative power of attorney. In case of emergency. Never thinking that you might be thrashing it out in rehab when they decided to declare one.
He’d bought the tea-table-shaped key on a whim back in the early eighties when Key West had ceased being a place to hide out, kick back, and chill. When cruise ships began to arrive and depart daily and crowds longing to be wild and eccentric planted a flag and declared Key West their capital of crazy. Everyone he cared about had fled. Will had only made it seventy-nine mile markers up U.S. 1.
“I’m not interested in selling Mermaid Point.” Not his island. Not ever.
They were passing through Tavernier. Mariners Hospital and McDonald’s flashed by and then they were crossing Tavernier Creek. Soon they’d be on Upper Matecumbe, the third of Islamorada’s four keys.
“Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t sell the island without doing something about the house and the outbuildings,” his son said. “Not in the condition they’re in.”
It was Will’s turn to grunt. When he’d bought Mermaid Point it had been one of many homes Will owned. Now it was all he had left. All he wanted to do when he got there was stretch out in a chaise by the pool and zone the hell out. Which wouldn’t be anywhere near as easy without a drink or a joint in his hand.
At the moment he was trying not to think about how he was going to live the next week, let alone the rest of his life, without numbing up. He wasn’t sure his pool—or even the Atlantic Ocean, which his pool overlooked—was big enough to swim the number of laps it would take. He didn’t know if there were enough laps in this world to make the need to detach go away.
“The thing is, if the house and grounds could be renovated it would make a great place for an island vacation or a corporate retreat. And you could keep the rooms rented out all the time—I mean, you’re still a name. People would pay a fortune to come stay in a property owned and operated by William the Wild.” The tone was derisive. As if he were relating something that he didn’t understand but he knew to be true. “You could make a living as the ‘genial host’ of the Rock ’n’ Roll Bed-and-Breakfast. Or, I don’t know, maybe we should just call it the Wild House.”
“You’re joking.” Will kept his voice even. He wasn’t even home yet. He was not going to get worked up. Hadn’t he just spent a month trying to learn how to stay calm and in control? “And it’s not like you’d ever get approval for a bed-and-breakfast. There’s an ordinance against them. And a moratorium on building.”
Tommy shook his head dismissively. “That’s just semantics and small-town politics. And I never joke about money.” Of course he didn’t. The kid was a damned investment banker with a calculator for a brain. If he didn’t look so much like a Hightower Will might have doubted the paternity test. “Unless you want to end up on the sleeper sofa in my living room? Or an old-age home for former rock stars?”
Will crossed his arms over his chest and turned an eye on Tommy. He’d used this look to good effect with record people who’d wanted to turn him into some fancy-boy crooner when he was a rocker through and through. And with fans who didn’t understand boundaries or personal space. “That won’t be happening.” If he’d earned anything in all the decades played out onstage, it was privacy. “There’s no way in hell I’m sharing my island or my home with strangers.” He shuddered when he thought of wide-eyed honeymoon couples or, worse, sad-eyed retirees in the bedroom down the hall.
You didn’t own a slab of coral rock barely tied to land if you wanted strangers anywhere near you.
His son turned and looked at him. “Well, I’m afraid you don’t really have a choice. You don’t have enough money to live on without using your sole remaining asset one way or another. You can sell Mermaid Point and the structures on it and live frugally for the rest of your life”—his tone indicated he didn’t believe William had the ability to do any such thing, as if he’d been born to wealth and hadn’t earned his fortune one damned song at a time—“or you can renovate, play the host to anyone willing to spend the money, and at least keep a roof over your head.”
William’s throat was so parched he could barely swallow. He didn’t know how he’d made such an obscene amount of money and ended up with so little. Or how the son who despised him had come up with such a horrifying plan.
A drink would have smoothed things out. Would at least allow him to pretend he wasn’t a broke, recovering alcoholic. Slowly, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a Tootsie Pop. He unwrapped it carefully and placed it in his mouth as they passed Whale Harbor Marina.
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