Wayne Stinnett, Author

Wayne Stinnett, Author

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Perfect Amazon Book Promotion

I've mentioned this idea a few times in the Writers' Cafe on KBoards.com and discussed it in PM with several authors there. Nobody knows what Amazon's algorithm looks like. There's a lot of speculation as to how much and how long historical sales contribute to ranking. That aside, we know one thing with absolute certainty. It's mathematical. It's numbers. Regardless of how much weight a two day old book sale carries or how long it will still matter, a perfect promotion can still be easily described.

Since ranking is updated every hour, nearly everyone agrees the algorithm is hourly based. The primary contributor obviously would be the most recent hour's sales and each previous hour is weighted as some percentage of that multiplier. Whatever the length, in hours, days, weeks, or any time period, each previous block of time in this constantly moving block of time is recalculated hourly, compared to every other book on Amazon and given a rank based on that comparison.

Being a numbers guy, it was obvious right from the start how a perfect promo would look. Regardless of how many books I'm currently selling, the promo will achieve the highest possible ranking, if every single hour of the five day period had a higher sale. Actually, perfect would be a higher number of sales by the same amount. In other words, when the promo starts and my book sold 2 copies in the last hour, I would want the next hour to have 4 sales, then 6, then 8, and so on, culminating with 242 sales in the last hour after 5 days, or 120 hours. That would create a perfectly straight line, rising to the target of 242, when graphed. Why 242 sales per hour in the last hour? If you take the time to run this calculation, you'll see that the last 24 hours of sales will yield 5246 sales. That's enough to rank #1 in the Kindle Store on the busiest day. Go ahead, I'll wait.

It's simply not possible to set up a promo that will do that. If it were possible and could be replicated, the number one spot would change every hour. There's no way of predicting the main variable, which is the reader. Some days book sales just stink on ice and subscribers don't open emails. Therefore the perfect promotion isn't achievable. But, the closest you can get to that perfectly straight incline, the better your peak ranking will be.

Getting your book higher in rank is the ultimate promotion. At a certain point in the promotion, your book is likely to be #1 in several sub-genres, gaining even more exposure than the advertisers can produce. The higher it climbs the less control you have with advertising and it takes on a life of its own, which creates a whole new uncontrollable variable.

No, the perfect promo can't be achieved, so the best promo you can set up for a discounted book, whether it's in Select or not, would be to maximize the affects of the ads you buy. You want to set your ads up in as close to a perfectly inclined sales numbers as you can intelligently guess they'll create. Putting a lot of ads on the first day, that all post or email early in the day, then having only one ad in the afternoon of the second day, will cause a steep rise, and precipitous fall.

I subscribe to and use dozens of advertisers, getting recommendations emailed to me every day for books in my genre. Have you noticed that you get each one about the same time each day? Oh, sometimes one will be twenty minutes later, or an hour earlier from one day to the next, but they're pretty much in the same two or three hour block each day.

First, choose your anchor ad. If that's BookBub, they send their emails between 11am and 12 Eastern time. To maximize the ranking effect from the sales generated by BookBub, you should have another big ad, or several smaller ones earlier in the day, between 6 and 10. To maximize the affect of that one, a slightly smaller one in the four hour block before that. And so on and so on, counting back from your biggest ad. It gets difficult in the overnight hours to find an advertiser that sends emails at 2 am. But then, sales are slower overnight, so fewer advertising is needed. But, think outside the box. If it's midnight on the east coast of the US, it's early morning in the UK and afternoon in AU.

By setting up your ads so that each block of time has enough ads to surpass the previous block of time, you can straighten that line out a little and get it closer the the unachievable perfect incline.

Recently, Readers in the Know announced a new marketing tool, with literally dozens of advertisers that you can sort by all types of criteria. Simon reached out to me and asked my opinion. I'd already seen it a few days earlier on Jan Hurst-Nicholson's thread in the Writers' Cafe and liked how it worked and all the new advertisers I might try. I explained my idea of a perfect promo to Simon and he liked it, adding another column to the tool that you can sort by email time. You can even change it to your own time zone. I gave him the list I'd compiled of advertisers I use and he added those times and is now contacting each advertiser on the tool, to get their email times.

That can help a lot in picking the right advertisers for a particular time of day and a particular day in your promo. But, you should still do your own research by subscribing to them. Some may email different genres at different times of day.

Friday, January 23, 2015

I Just Like To Tell Stories

I always have. Ever since I was a kid. The taller the story the better. Appalachian folks tell a lot of stories, as do most Southerners. Both my grandfathers were story tellers. Alonzo "Booty" Cooper was a railroad man most of his life, building bridges and laying track through the Appalachians from the Great Depression all the way into the 60s. West Virginia has a lot of railroads. All that coal doesn't just walk out those mountains. Edwin Tally Stinnett was a miner, spending his later years deep beneath the ground. Before that, he was a revenuer in Virginia during Prohibition. I heard stories about mining camps, railroad camps, building bridges, tearing down stills and all the tough men that worked the camps. Met a lot of those men, too. Rough, hard men who could clear a bar in seconds.

My characters come from the images of those long dead miners, spikers, and bar-room brawlers. They're molded and manipulated into the modern, tropical version of the heroes of my childhood. A laughing, fun, carefree bunch, who would be more than content to be left alone by the outside world, particularly the government. But, if you step on one of their toes, you'll hear a collective, "Ouch!"

These folks have been in my head since I was big enough to walk. My parents are in there, along with many of their friends, like Shorty and Dreama, who lived across the ridge from Mamaw Cooper. Just a half mile, but it took two hours to walk it. The old moonshiner's road along Coal River was faster, but it went through town. These people have been in my head for over half a century. I catch bits and pieces of long ago conversations and stories from my grandpas, my dad and his friends and play them over and over in my head, changing the pitch and setting until they're right. These little Earlisms, Merrillisms, and Bootyisms come out in my books. Dad was a Master Carpenter and had hundreds of hand tools in dozens of tool boxes, some he hardly ever used. "Better to have it and not need it boy, than need it and not have it." So my characters have things they rarely use. Hey, what's a 45' fishing boat without a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the cockpit?

And if all those stories from my childhood weren't enough (we're talking '50s and '60s here), every generation of my dad's family has had wanderers and I was my generation's wanderer, meeting people and gathering stories along the way. We go back to before the Revolution in central Virginia, but I have distant cousins in Oregon, Texas, California, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and New Jersey, just to name a few. There's only one Stinnett first cousin left in West Virginia, an adopted son of my dad's brother. Stinnetts wander around. There's a whole lot of us in Virginia. The wandering Stinnetts came out of there, but a lot stayed, the rooted Stinnetts. The wanderers leave home early. Papaw Stinnett took his family to West Virginia in the '30s to work in the mines. Only a hundred miles, but the story told is that it took nearly a week to get across those mountains back then. Papaw up and decided one day he wanted to be a miner. Actually, that was just an excuse. He spent two years in prison. Remember I said he was a revenuer during Prohibition? He shot a moonshiner in the butt while busting up a still. Great story.

My dad moved us from West Virginia to Florida in the 60's, looking for work as a carpenter. He just up and left for a week, then came back and gathered up his wife and four kids and departed from the snowy mountains in early February and never looked back. That move took two days, but today, it'd only take one. He'd made up his mind while sitting on a beach in shorts and a teeshirt watching the moon rise over the ocean a few weeks after Christmas. Another great story.

I grew into my teen years, surfing, sailing, swimming, fishing, and diving the Florida coast from Melbourne to Key West. There was always another shore break down the beach, or another reef to fish and dive on, so I kept wandering. At 16, I reached the Florida Keys and met a lot of the characters I later put in my books and I gathered more stories. Like the time I was walking Duval Street with some friends and a girl rode by and wrecked her bike. She was bleeding and some guy helped her up, said he was a doctor and leaned her backwards across the hood of a car, while "checking" her for other injuries under her clothes. Yeah, another great story.

I got to see a little of the world as a Marine and after that I saw a lot of the Caribbean Basin. I was my generation's designated wanderer. My youngest brother lived in the same town we moved to in Florida all his life and my sister's still there. One brother moved to Tennessee, but that was his one and only big move and he was just following family. The others moved back to Florida, tired of wandering, but his roots had taken hold in the rocks.

I lived in North Carolina, in Japan, the Florida Keys on a boat, Colorado, Minnesota, Cozumel, Mexico, Andros Island, in the Bahamas, Dominica, in the Lesser Antilles, back to Florida, and at the age of 43, I moved to South Carolina to start a new family. I was an over the road trucker for 12 years, wandering from Miami, to Portland, to San Diego, to Kennebunk, and everywhere in between. I've lived here in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains for almost 15 years now, longer than any four other places combined and my roots are getting long in the red clay. So we're up and moving this summer. I'm over two hundred miles from the ocean and it makes my head hurt. Or maybe it's all the voices in there, clamoring for attention.

Yeah, I just like to tell stories and wander around. Thanks to Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing, and Down Island Press, I can tell my stories far and wide, right from the comfort of my recliner. So maybe I don't have to wander anymore.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Seven Seas Mysteries is Free for Five Days!!

You get seven nautically themed thrillers, including my own Fallen Out, in this box set. All seven authors are Amazon Best Sellers.

From 1/18 to 1/22 this collection is FREE! Just click on the cover at right.

No strings, no nothing. We ask only that you let your friends know how they can get seven great novels for less than a buck. Yeah, wait until it's not free anymore to tell them.

At midnight on 1/22 the price will go up, but it's still a bargain at only $.99!!

100% of the royalties after expenses will be donated to Veterans Writing Project to help returning Vets by writing about their experiences for both an income and as therapy. Over the previous month all expenses have all ready been covered and the donation amount currently stands at over $500. We're hoping the added exposure of this free offer will sell more, once it ends.

So read a couple of stories and on Friday let your friends know.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I was interviewed for the Veterans in Creative Careers series.

Yesterday, I was interviewed by author/blogger Justin Sloan as part of his Veterans in Creative Careers interview series. I enjoyed the back and forth and also enjoyed reading the other interviews of Veterans.

Here's the link to the interview: http://www.bayareascreenwriters.org/JustinMSloan/veterans-in-creative-careers-wayne-stinnett/#respond

Below is the Q&A with Justin:

Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your experience with us, Wayne. I love seeing other Marines making it in the fiction world. For my readers who are not familiar with you, can you give us a pitch about your work, and more specifically about your next novel? 

Wayne Stinnett: Thanks for inviting me, Justin. I enjoyed reading the other Vet’s interviews. I grew up in Florida and spent a lot of time on the water as a kid. My dad took me, a friend of his and his son to the Keys once when I was a young teen and I loved it. After the Marine Corps, I traveled down there quite often, moving there for a short time after my second divorce. I lived on a 42’ Alden sloop built in 1926, moored in Boot Key Harbor in Marathon. That place is mentioned many times throughout my books, or sea stories as I like to call them. My sea stories are about a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant who starts a new life in the Florida Keys, but always seems to find trouble. In February I’ll be releasing the 6th book in the series, Fallen King. This sea story revolves around a Haitian gang out of Miami that is using explosives to fish the reefs in the back country, the many uninhabited islands on the Gulf side of the Keys. I’m about 80% complete writing it, so I don’t yet know how it ends.

JS: My wife and I actually spent part of our honeymoon in the Florida Keys, so I’m glad to see some of your writing takes place there. Having lived there and, according to your website, the Bahamas, Dominica, and Cozumel, Mexico, must have really influenced you as a person and writer. Can you elaborate on place and how your experiences impact your creative side?

WS: I love scuba diving and became certified before I joined the Corps. I continued taking classes, simply because I love to learn more about anything I’m passionate about. Currently, I hold a divemaster/assistant instructor certification and more than enough specialty certifications to apply for a master scuba diver rating. The divemaster card can get a young man a job just about anywhere in the tropics. In the Keys, I worked days as a divemaster and weeknights as a taxi driver. I worked as a divemaster in Cozumel and Dominica, as well. On Andros Island, I worked in the HVAC field, installing and maintaining air conditioning and chiller equipment for AUTEC, the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center. They conduct tests on guidance and location systems for the Navy in the TOTO, or Tongue of the Ocean. My main character operates a fishing and dive charter business based out of Marathon and visits many of the dive sites I’ve been on numerous times.

JS: You have had a variety of careers. What was your transition like from the military and what did you do when you were in?

WS: Yeah, I’ve never seemed to be able to find my true calling in life. My website only lists a few careers, I’m guessing writing is now my 7thor 8th career change. That’s okay, though. Life shouldn’t be about working the same job from 9 to 5 and getting a gold watch after 40 years. I’ve managed to turn things I was interested in into my job. That’s what it should be about. Do what you love, the money will come along sooner or later. In the Corps, I was a heavy vehicle operator and had an explosives license. When I left the Corps, I drove a dump truck for a while, then moved into the HVAC field, where my brother worked. Most recently, I worked for 12 years as an over the road truck driver, having come full circle.

JS: Where do you write now? Do you prefer seclusion? A coffee shop?

WS: I’m a full time writer and though she doesn’t have to, my wife still works as a teacher. Three of our four kids are grown and gone, but the youngest is still in school. I have the house to myself most of the day and converted the spare bedroom into an office, though I usually write while kicked back in my recliner in the den. The walls and ceiling of our den is tongue and groove heart of pine and we have a wood burning fireplace there. The wood creates good acoustics and I’ll put on some Caribbean music, or Radio Margaritaville on the XM and go back to the islands in my mind.

JS: That sounds like an optimal writing situation. Do you feel that being a Marine made you a better writer (craft and process)?

WS: I think having served, regardless of branch, gives a person a lot more self-discipline and motivation. I learned early in the Corps how to break any problem down into smaller elements and work out each one until a resolution is reached. That’s carried over into both my writing and marketing.

JS: What led to your decision to become an author?

WS: I’d had a few friends tell me I should write a book about my experiences, but I always thought that’d be just way to boring for any prospective readers. In the eighties I wrote a bunch of short stories with a main character who was a former Marine living in the Keys. I still have the 37 rejection letters from publishers. One day, my wife found a hand written manuscript from way back then and read it. She encouraged me to try again and after digging up the floppy disc the stories were saved on, I updated the character, made him a little older, and independently wealthy, due to an inheritance. My goal was to make enough money from my sea stories to set up a wood working shop and build boats. That would get me off the road, home with my family and allow me to do something I enjoyed. I still plan to do that starting this summer.

JS: At what point were you able to write full-time? Is it the dream we imagine it to be?

WS: Absolutely it is! I really can’t explain why my sea stories have been so successful, but after publishing the second one, Fallen Hunter, I realized I might be able to replace the income from my driving job, if I wrote a couple more. Seven months after releasing my first book, and then having three books out that I’d written during my down time in the truck, I told my boss I wasn’t going to be available for long hauls anymore and wanted to be a local driver, to get home more. He and I never got along well and though I’d been with the company for five years, he told me I’d have to drive one of the older trucks. I’d only received my first new truck a few months earlier. I explained that I was planning to quit in a couple of weeks anyway and rather than move all my gear out of a truck twice, I’d prefer to only do it once and I gave him my two weeks’ notice. He still insisted I move into the older truck, so I told him to consider it two hours’ notice and I cleaned the truck out and went home. The great thing about writing is that I know what my income will be for the next two months and knew if we tightened our belts, we’d make it. I had another book that would be released within a few weeks and just took the plunge. It was the best move I ever made. When the fourth book, Fallen Out, was released, my income from sales quickly passed my old income as a driver. Fallen Out was written as a prequel to the series and I keep it priced lower than the others so readers can get an inexpensive sample of my writing.

JS: That is inspiring! What resources have you found to be most useful as a writer? Have you taken writing classes? Do you have favorite books on writing?

WS: Another writer sent me an email after reading my first book, Fallen Palm. I’d just read his first book, On the Road to Key West and loved it. We quickly found we had a lot in common and became good friends. He’s been my mentor for over a year now and sent me a copy of his Fledgling Authors’ Handbook, which I devoured. We noticed a lot of similarities in both our writings, almost like we were looking over each other’s shoulder. Recently, I’ve been able to help him out with some marketing ideas, also. But, by far the greatest resource I’ve found yet is the Writers’ CafĂ© on KBoards.com. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of other indie authors that frequent the site daily, sharing tips on everything from formatting to marketing. The wealth of knowledge and the willingness to share that knowledge has been worth more than any writing class.

JS: Who are some other writers out there that you recommend we read? Marine authors?

WS: I like to read books set in places I’ve been, places I know and love. By far, most of the authors I’ve read write stories set in south Florida and the Caribbean. I guess I’ve been mostly influenced by John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. Although written in the sixties and seventies, a lot of MacDonald’s insights can be applied today. I have all 23 of those books and have read the entire series from end to end at least a half dozen times. I also like to read James W. Hall, Randy Wayne White, Carl Hiaasen, and Elmore Leonard. Recently, I’ve finished reading every book my mentor Michael Reisig has written, along with a few other indies, like Jinx Schwartz, Steven Becker and John Cunningham, all of which I now call friends. Great writers, every one.

JS: What are your thoughts on self-publishing versus traditional publishing?

WS: Self-publishing has opened up a whole new world for readers. In the past, we had to wait months, up to a year for our favorite writers to pen a new novel. Today, I can read a novel a week and never leave the south Florida setting. For writers, it’s enabled many to live a dream. No, we’re not selling the millions of copies that James Patterson sells, but because we’re able to cut out the publisher’s take of the royalty, we can keep our prices much lower and many of us are selling enough to live comfortably. And that’s what it’s all about. Doing something you love to do and being compensated for it. I still don’t have any idea how my career as a writer has taken off so fast, but I’m happy for it. People are actually willing to part with their money to read my sea stories. What a great age we live in.

JS: What would you advise to someone just starting off as a writer, especially veterans who may want to become full-time writers?

WS: Get into the habit of writing at least a thousand words a day. Make it such a habit that you feel guilty if you take a day off. A thousand words a day will create a 100,000 word novel in four months, factoring in editing and cover creation time. Invest in your career. Having a good story to tell is one thing, but most of us need professional editing and cover designers. Even if your first editor is your 8th grade Creative Writing teacher, you need another set of eyes on your story. The more the better, but make sure they can give you honest feedback and you can accept it, without being hurt. Gradually, you can improve on the quality of editing, until your writing produces enough income to hire a professional editing company. The same applies to marketing. There are hundreds of small book advertisers that will promote your book for anywhere between $5 and $100. Don’t be discouraged when the money invested in advertising doesn’t come back to you in sales. Getting your book into more hands is what’s important. Create a newsletter mailing list, using something like Mailchimp and put a signup form everywhere you have a web presence. At the front and back of each book, on your website, your blog, your Facebook page – everywhere. A strong mailing list of 300 to 400 subscribers, waiting patiently for your next book is better than any advertising. Let them be the first to know the new book has been released and price it as low as possible, just for them. They’ll show their appreciation by buying enough in the first day of release to put your book into the top 1000 on Amazon. That exposure will then sell more books.

JS: Thank you again, Wayne. Before signing off, do you have a last piece of advice to leave us with?

WS: Yes. Two things Michael Reisig told me early on. A career as a fiction writer is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint. Ignore the nay-sayers and follow your dream. Just don’t expect overnight success. It’ll come in one fashion or another over time. Second, there are no original thoughts. Every literary idea has been written and your work will reflect the style and writing of those you enjoyed reading. That’s okay. Write what you love and put everything you can into it.

 To follow Justin Sloan: http://eepurl.com/bbpNjv

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Just a Book Recommendation. A Really Good Book Recommendation

If you've read any of my books, you know my heart is in the Caribbean. I love adventure books set in balmy tropical locations, so that's what I like to write. I've read all of the popular South Florida writers, Hiaasen, Hall, White, Leonard, and of course, John D. MacDonald. Oh yeah, and Jimmy Buffett, too. Yeah, he's written a few books.

Anyway, when I first started writing, I received some guidance from another author and we soon became good friends. His name is Michael Reisig and like me, he's an indie author. Michael writes descriptive prose a whole lot better than I do, but with his tutelage, I'm getting better. Recently, he told me about an idea of taking one (actually two) of his previous works, which were a two book set and revising them then republishing them as separate books, the beginning of a new series he's calling Caribbean Gold.

The two book set was called Brothers of the Sword/Children of Time and is one of my favorite books ever. The first book in this new series is now called Caribbean Gold - The Treasure of Tortuga. Anyone familiar with Caribbean history will recognize the name of Tortuga. It's a small island off the coast of Hispaniola and was a pirate stronghold in the days of swashbucklers.

If you liked my books, I can guarantee you'll like this one. In fact, I got the idea for the prologue of Fallen Mangrove after reading this book. It left that big an impression on me. Right now, The Treasure of Tortuga is available on Amazon for only $.99. Don't wait, get it now. The price will go up Friday night. Just click the cover below and you can buy it on Amazon today. I promise, you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Self Editing for Dummies (Like Me)

The bane of any writers existence. You just typed "The End" and now it's time to edit your masterpiece. Here's a very simple way to do a complete run through twice, that not only allows you to self edit, but makes for much better flow in the story.

Day one of writing your new book. I always try to write a thousand words a day. I usually get in between 1300 and 1800, so occasionally I take a day off. Anyway, once you finish writing for the day, type in your word count at the bottom and give it a chapter style, so the number appears in your TOC. This will be important later on.

The next day, before you type a single word, read the entire previous days work and make any corrections, additions, or deletions. Once you get to the word count you typed in at the bottom, start writing below that. When you finish for the second day, do the same thing, type in the word count and make it a chapter style.

On the third day, before you start writing again, go back to the very beginning and start reading/editing once more. Then start writing below that second word count and write until you achieve the thousand words and do the same word count chapter style at the end.

At this point, you've self-edited the first day's writing twice and the second day's once and have three numbers in the TOC along with chapter styles. These are the end of the first day's writing, the end of the second day's writing and the end of the third day's writing that you just completed.

On day four, go back to the first number, the end of day one's writing. This is why you make it a style, you can just click on it in the TOC. Delete the first word count style. Then start reading and editing again just like before. When you get to the last word count number, continue writing below it and enter the word count at the end, making it a chapter style. You once again have three numbers in the TOC.

Doing this will accomplish two things.

First, when you type those two magical words, The End, you will have self edited the entire manuscript twice, except for the last two days of writing. Read/edit the first of those once and the second one twice. Now you've self-edited the whole thing twice.

Second, by reading and editing the previous two days of work, you're putting your head back in the story where it was when you knocked off the day before. This is important for good continuity and makes for a much smoother story.

I still follow this habit every single day and once I'm done, it goes to a professional editing company for polishing and then to my "final eyes proofreader" for any finishing touches.

Hope this simple tip helps.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

First Chapter of the Upcoming Fallen King

Below is the first chapter of my new book, Fallen King. It's the 5th book in the Jesse McDermitt series, 6th if you count the prequel, Fallen Out. I started on this project in early October, immediately after publishing Fallen Mangrove and am currently about 75% finished with the writing. I expect to release this book in early February, with 2/8 as the target date. That's the birthday of my late brother, Eric. Anyway, here's chapter one. Feel free to comment, opine, or offer any suggestions.

Chapter One

 I woke to the gentle sound of a soft rain falling on my tin roof. It’s not all that unusual for winter in the Florida Keys, though it is considered the dry season. We really only have three seasons here. Dry from September to June and wet the rest of the time. Somewhere in there there’s supposed to be a tourist season, but since they’re here more or less all year round, I’ve never been real clear on just when that is.
Sometimes a storm will come up in late afternoon during the dry months. Something about a warm air mass colliding with cold air. I try not to watch the TV weather guy unless there’s a hurricane. Where I live, you can see a storm coming from a long way off and watch it as it either bears down on you, or passes you by. Unless you’re out on the blue it doesn’t matter much. The storm will pour down big fat raindrops for thirty minutes then the sun will come back out and transform it into humidity.
This wasn’t that kind of rain, though. I’d caught the NOAA radio broadcast yesterday and knew this was a cold front that had been slowly pushing its way south. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs continuous weather updates all along the coast.  The front was rolling down the whole Florida peninsula to the long island chain at the southern tip simply called The Keys. It was a light, quiet rain, gently drumming a laid back rhythm on the tin roof of my little stilt house. The kind of front that might take hours, or even days, to slowly pass on through or dissipate.
I live in the Content Keys, a few miles north of Big Pine. I’d built my little stilt house several years ago, mostly out of scrap wood I’d salvaged in several of Miami’s smaller, but very busy, ship yards. I have a few friends up there and they used to let me know whenever there was enough of the good stuff that needed to be carted away. Cargo out of South America was usually loaded on pallets made of, what is to them, local hardwoods. While some of the wood they use is considered exotic here in the States, they’re plentiful south of the equator, which is why they’re used for pallets.
The floor boards and beams are made from lignum vitae, or palo santo, as it’s called around the Caribbean basin where it grows. It’s one of the densest woods on the planet. A board cut from this tree will sink in water, even salt water. The bigger beams were cut from a huge lignum vitae that was blown down in a friend’s yard in Islamorada. I had to hire a crane and two tractor trailer rigs to haul it up to a mill in Homestead. Then two more to return with the finished beams, it was that heavy. The siding is mahogany, another dense hardwood. Both virtually impervious to the ravages of weather and insects. Really rough on saw blades and drill bits, too. I must have gone through dozens of each in building my home.
Rising from the big king sized bed in my tiny bedroom, I put on a pair of khaki cargo pants and a faded Gaspar’s Revenge Charter Services tee-shirt and padded barefoot to the head to relieve the pressure in my bladder before going into the combination living room, dining room, and galley.
Gaspar’s Revenge is my charter boat. It’s actually the second one to carry the name. The first one was a six year older, but nearly identical, forty-five foot Rampage convertible. It was destroyed in an explosion a few months ago that was meant to kill me. After several days of online searches, I found the new one in Galveston, Texas. Aside from its dark blue hull, it’s alike in nearly every way. Like the first, it had twin 1015 horsepower engines, but the previous owner of this one had added superchargers, which bumped the power and top speed up just a bit. She could do fifty knots, wide open, in calm seas.
My house is small, only fifty feet by twenty feet, with the bedroom and head taking up the eastern third of it. The front room has a small, little used, dining table and chairs in front of a smaller window in the northwest corner. The galley is in the southwest corner with another small window over the sink. Between them is the hatch going outside to the wrap around deck. Small, simple, and functional.
The rest of the main room was sparsely furnished. A pair of recliners with a table and lamp between them sat against the south bulkhead in front of a large window that provided a great view of the flats to the south. A small work bench took up the opposite bulkhead with another large window above it looking out over the interior of the island. A small fly tying bench and an old potbellied wood stove filled the bulkhead space between the bedroom hatch and the one to the head. Various parts of outboard motors, storage boxes and other fishing, diving, and boating detritus filled much of the empty space in the room.
The coffee maker had finished doing its magic and I poured myself a cup of the Costa Rican brew. A longtime friend of mine in Marathon by the name of Rusty Thurman, found this Costa Rican coffee farm called La Minita and we’d both become hooked on the smell and flavor of their coffee.
Looking through the south window, it was just beginning to turn gray with what little light was able to pierce the low clouds. Light rain was falling on the water out over the flats. Just another day in paradise, I thought and stepped through the hatch and out into the rain. It was cool, but not cold. If the front pushed on through, the dryer air behind it would be cold, maybe into the low fifties. While people in Montana might think that ridiculous, down here where even the Walmart doesn’t stock jackets, that’s cold weather.
I walked over to the north side of the deck by the two thousand gallon rain cistern that provided our drinking water and looked out over my little island community as the shoulders of my tee-shirt slowly dampened from the mist. Rain’s never been a problem for me. I’d learned as a kid growing up in Fort Myers that the human body is pretty much waterproof and you could always dry off in the sun later. Later, as a young Marine I had a Platoon Sergeant who drilled into us the phrase, “If it ain’t rainin’, you ain’t trainin’.” He later became a close friend, but was killed a little over a year ago. His killer met justice in a very hard way.
My island is also really small. At high tide, it covers slightly more than two acres. I bought it seven years ago, right after I was retired from the Marine Corps after twenty years of service. At the time, it was a scrub and mangrove covered thicket, on a long dead coral reef and limestone outcropping covered with sand. It took me the better part of two years to clear it by hand and build my little house on stilts. Since then, I added two small bunkhouses on the north end of the island to comply with the County zoning that the island be maintained as a fish camp. Then I helped a friend build a tiny home for him, his wife, and their two small kids on the west side. All four structures combined were about the size of an average home up on the mainland.
“Morning, Carl,” I called down to my friend and caretaker, who was tending to some winter vegetables in our aquaculture garden. I’d had a crazy idea when I bought the island of growing my own food, but the soil proved to be too sandy and salty. When I met Carl and Charlie Trent, he was up to his neck in smug drugglers down in Key Weird, where he ran a shrimp trawler. I helped him out of a bad situation by hiding him and his family here and taking on the drug kingpin with the help of a friend who works for the federal government. Carl liked it here so much, he put his trawler up for sale and came to work for me.
That’s when he told me about growing vegetables in raised beds, supplying them with nutrient rich water from a fish tank. Or in our case, a crayfish tank. I like Cajun food, so we built it and it worked. We now have two large raised beds and two tanks. The original crayfish tank has supplied several local restaurants with the Cajun delicacy and a new fish tank would have freshwater catfish ready to harvest in another few weeks.
Carl looked up, as I started down the steps to the clearing. “Hey, Jesse. I thought I heard you stirring around up there. I was just checking the nutrient level in the water. You ready to get to work?”
I nodded and together we walked across the clearing to a shed we’d built just a couple of months ago next to the battery shack. The island isn’t powered from the mainland. We use a series of wind generators and solar panels with a generator backup to charge a bank of thirty deep cycle marine batteries. These provide the power for the pumps on the aquaculture system and what little other electricity we use.
“This weather hasn’t been very good for curing,” he said as we walked into the shed. “But, everything’s ready, I checked it out before checking the garden. We can turn her over today.”
A small amount of light filtered through the clear acrylic roof panels. It reflected off the newly finished wood hull before us, which shined with a deep chocolate hue, as if it were wet. Last fall, Carl and I had gotten drunk and talked about designing and building a boat, something we’d both always dreamed of doing. We worked on the plans together, deciding on an antique looking twenty-four footer.
My grandfather was an architect and I must have picked up his genes, or my sub-conscious retained enough of what he tried to teach me. My parents died when I was a kid and I was raised by Mam and Pap. They were my Dad’s parents.
Carl and I soon had a really sharp looking runabout on paper, complete with cross sections and rib details. Over the last few months, the drawings slowly materialized in front of us in its physical form.
Yesterday we’d hung wide rollers to the ceiling beams in six places, with strap loops threaded through them to create three slings, which we hung up out of the way. Today, we planned to lift the boat hull enough to get the slings under it then remove the saw horses that it sat on and flip it upright.
A sweaty, grunt filled, hour later, we had the hull swinging free in the slings and slowly pulled on one side, rotating the hull until it was upright. Then we heaved it again to remove the slings and lower her onto new form fitted supports. She was actually starting to look like a boat now. She had long, narrow lines, with two rows of seating further forward than more modern designs. The forward sloping transom was gently rounded, with gunwales flaring inboard just aft of the rear seats and a long rear deck covering the engine compartment. Of course, none of that was there yet, but I could see it in my mind’s eye.
“She’s gonna be a beaut,” Carl said, once we had her nestled in the four cradles. “What we gonna use for power again?”
We’d hashed over this question for weeks and never could agree. I thought it ought to have a small Perkins diesel, with a three to one transmission. Carl thought it should be a big, throaty gas powered V-8 and a direct drive transmission. We’d been over it so many times we both knew we’d never agree. Before we could rehash the same argument, Doc walked into the shed.
“Hey, Doc,” I said. “Didn’t even hear you come up. How you been?”
Doc used to be First Mate for my charter diving and fishing business. He’d served in the Navy as a Corpsman attached to First Battalion, Ninth Marines, not long after I retired. His real name is Bob Talbot, but in the Corps all Corpsmen are called Doc. Before working for me, he was Carl’s First Mate on his shrimp trawler, Miss Charlie, named after Carl’s wife. Doc’s a tall, lanky, easy going guy, with sandy colored hair, nearly to his shoulders and sharp green eyes. He had the typical deep tan of people who make their living from the sea, except around his eyes where he nearly always wore wraparound shades.
Working for me got dangerous at times and when he learned a few months ago that his wife Nikki was pregnant, he approached Carl about hanging on to his old trawler and letting him skipper it. Carl not only made him the Captain, he helped Doc upgrade his license from Mate to Captain. Doc’s wife is the cook on board and de facto First Mate.
“Came in early this week,” Doc said. “Maxed out the hold in four days.” Carl grinned as Doc handed him a wad of hundred dollar bills. “Got a good price for ‘em, too.”
“How’s Nikki?” Carl asked, stuffing the roll, uncounted, into the pocket of his trousers. That’s how business is done here.
“Really starting to show now. She said to say hi,” he replied as he walked along the side of the hull, gently caressing the gunwale. “This looks really nice. What are you gonna use for power?”
“Haven’t decided yet,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Carl wants a big block Chevy engine and I say we should go with diesel.”
“Mind if I make a suggestion?” We both nodded. “How about twin engines?”
I looked at Carl and we both scoffed at the idea. “It’s barely beamy enough for a single big block or diesel.” Carl replied.
“Yeah,” Doc said running a hand along the gunwale again, “but it’s plenty wide enough for a couple of Harley engines.”
“Motorcycle engines?” I asked. Doc rode an Indian Chief and was always going on about how powerful the engine was.
“Think about it,” he went on. “My bike’s got an eighty-eight cubic inch air cooled engine. It produces seventy-five horses and only weighs a hundred and fifty pounds. A company called S&S builds a one-hundred and twenty-four cube engine that’ll give you a hundred and sixty horses.”
“Yeah, but all those chains and sprockets,” Carl said. “Plus those motors can’t be cheap.”
“Belt drive,” Doc said. “Connected to a pair of two to one marine transmissions. Just think, no water intake strainer to clog, no rusty manifold coolers and over three-hundred horses, with a throaty rumble at half the weight.”
“That much power on a motorcycle?” I asked. “I had no idea. You just might be onto something. We could put an air intake right behind the rear seats with an electric fan below it to suck in cool air.”
Carl and I both looked down into the empty engine bay, visualizing it in our minds. It was definitely feasible, motorcycle engines were plenty narrow enough and we hadn’t cut the through hulls for the prop shaft yet. An air cooled engine would eliminate a lot of the problems usually associated with inboards.
“Did you guys hear about the dynamite fishing going on up in Florida Bay?” Doc asked, peering down into the engine bay. Carl and I both looked up at him.
“Y’all need to get off this rock on occasion,” Doc said, standing up straight. “There’ve been reports of people using explosives to kill fish all up and down the Gulf side. When the Coast Guard or Marine Patrol gets there, the people are long gone and there’s dozens of tropical fish and inedible fish floating dead on the surface above big blast holes in the bottom. The last incident wasn’t far from here, on Bullard Bank.”
“Bullard Bank?” Carl asked. “That’s Charlie’s favorite grouper spot. She’s gonna be pissed.”
“Doesn’t Vince O’Hare run a trap line there?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Doc replied. “He’s fuming. What I heard, he took four of his nearly destroyed traps to the Fish and Wildlife office, half full of dead and rotting lobster. Just dumped all four of ‘em in the station’s lobby and demanded that they do something.”
“There’s a guy I wouldn’t want pissed at me,” Carl said.
O’Hare was a rough and ready lobsterman whose roots in the Keys go back to the days of the early wreckers. A big and sometimes mean guy who kept pretty much to himself. He owns an acre on Grassy Key with a deep water dock on the Gulf side. He lives in a little tin shack with his lobster boat at the dock and the yard littered with lobster traps, floats, old boats and cars. Thought to be in his early eighties, you’d never know it by his demeanor. He lived alone and as far as I knew nobody ever visited his shack.
In this case, I’d go along with whatever he did. Sure, using explosives is a fast and easy way to catch food fish. Using it to pull teeth has the same effect. It gets the job done, but with a lot of unnecessary collateral damage. Explosives kill everything in the water, including the reef. Most people think of a reef as a pile of rocks, but it’s really a colony of tiny animals that filter the water for microscopic food. I’d seen firsthand the results of blasting one. Fallen, crushed and broken piles of white calcium skeleton that took centuries to grow. It ruptures the swim bladders of fish, causing them to float to the surface. Not just grouper and snapper, but thousands of brightly colored tropical fish, as well. Even invertebrates like shrimp, crab and lobster are killed by the shock of the underwater blast.
“Does Fish and Wildlife have any leads?” I asked.
“Nothing I heard about,” Doc replied. “I gotta get going, promised Nikki we’d go shopping for some baby stuff. I just wanted to drop by and let y’all know that the survey crew on Elbow Cay finished up their work. They should be cutting us a check any day now.”
Last fall, Doc and Nikki came across a clue to a lost Spanish treasure while cleaning out her parent’s attic. Rusty is a licensed salvor, so a bunch of us headed over to the northern Bahamas after solving the riddle. It took three days, but we located it along with the skeletal remains of the survivors. What we located turned out to be only a portion of the whole treasure, though. Just what the survivors of the 1566 Spanish wreck were able to recover and bury. We were due a ten percent cut of the value and had been waiting for months for the final tally.
“They give you any idea how much it’s going to be?” Carl asked.
“The total worth of the find has been calculated at sixty-four million dollars,” Doc replied with a crooked grin. “Between the twelve of us, we’ll each get about half a million.”
“Twelve of you?” Carl asked. “I thought it was just nine of you that went over there.” Then grinning at me, he added, “And ten of ya came back.”
He was referring to an undercover Florida Department of Law Enforcement Officer by the name of Linda Rosales. She’d been coming down here on the weekends lately and the two of us would sometimes run or swim. A few times we’d gone fishing, taking my daughter along as chaperone.
“Twelve of us,” Doc replied, grinning again. “Nikki and I agreed that Linda should get an equal cut. Then Charlie and Chyrel were just as big a part of finding it as any of us that went over there and they get an equal cut, too.”
“You’re kidding,” Carl said, in disbelief.
“No, he’s not,” I said. “If it hadn’t been for Charlie’s riddle solving ability, we’d still be twiddling our thumbs.”
“Well,” he said, looking down into the engine bay with a wry grin, “if she’ll let me, motorcycle engines it is, then.”
“Agreed,” I said, reaching my hand across the narrow stern to take his. When we shook, I winked and said, “But, Charlie doesn’t have to know.”
I walked with Doc back to the main house. The sky was a slightly paler gray and off to the north, I could just make out a blue horizon. Damn, I thought. The front’s gonna push through and it’ll be a cold night.
“What were you not telling us, Doc?” I asked, as we climbed the steps to the deck.
“They’re not using dynamite,” he replied. “Nikki said I shouldn’t even tell you.”
“Why? What are they using?”
Doc seemed to think it over, as we walked down the back steps to the pier next to my channel where he’d tied his skiff. “She’s worried you’ll try to do something about it. Says it’s probably teenagers and you could get into trouble with the law. You do have a tendency to piss badges off.”
“What are these teenagers using, Doc?”
“What I heard on the coconut telegraph was that they’re using grenades.”
The coconut telegraph is usually faster and more accurate than the local news. Living on a small chain of islands, anything worth knowing is told from one person to another very quickly.
“Sure. A bunch of kids using frags to kill fish? How do you suppose these kids got their hands on grenades, anyway?”
“See?” he said, untying his skiff and stepping aboard as he pushed it away from the dock. He hit the starter and the big Yamaha outboard sprang to life, burbling quietly with a steady stream from the piss hole. “She was right. You always get too involved in shit that ain’t your business.”
“Who said I was getting involved?” I shouted as he turned the skiff smartly inside the narrow channel.
“There’s been twenty incidents in the last month,” he shouted back. “They use chum and several grenades at each spot.”
Damn, I thought, that’s a whole lot of grenades.
I was almost to the top of the steps when the rain stopped and I heard the faint sound of not just Doc’s outboard heading south, but another one heading north. Turning on the top step, I could see a familiar, twenty foot Grady White headed this way. Charlie and Kim were coming back from dropping Carl and Charlie’s kids off at school and shopping. My dog, Pescador was standing in the bow, his shaggy head in the wind.
Kim’s been staying with me since September and we’d been getting to know one another. Her mother left me seventeen years ago, just before Christmas. Hard to blame her. She was two months pregnant with my older daughter, Eve, when we got married in May of ’83. Two weeks later, I reenlisted and two weeks after that, I was deployed for six months to Beirut, Lebanon. Her due date and our date of rotation were only a week apart. Then terrorists blew up our barracks and we rotated out early. I was in a funk for weeks after getting back home. But I was there when Eve was born. Three and a half years later, I reenlisted for my third tour and was promptly deployed again. This time on a four month West Pacific float, leaving when Sandy was six months pregnant with Kim. I missed the birth of our second child. Four months after returning from the cruise and without being able to even make a phone call to tell her the Corps was deploying us again, I was in Panama. Sandy packed the kids up and left the next day, right after the CO’s wife told her.
Kim was only five months old then. Over the years, Sandy told the girls I was a bad man and finally told them I was dead. My older daughter believed the lies. Kim somehow didn’t accept any of it. I’d sent a check every Christmas and on birthdays, but my ex intercepted them and the checks were never cashed. That is, until last July when Kim picked up the mail one day and found the card and check inside.
She confronted her mother, who insisted she’d told the girls I was dead for their own good. By then, my ex had become an extreme liberal and hated all things military. Kim had skipped her freshman year and had just graduated from high school a year early. She told her mom she wasn’t going to go to college right away, so she could be with her own age group when she did. After saving up her money for six more weeks, she found the website for my charter business and came down here to find out for herself if what my ex had said was true.
What she’d told them was only partially true. I can be a very dangerous man. To the enemies of the country I love and its people, or to anyone that threatens a friend. I was chosen early in my career in the Corps to be a Scout/Sniper. When I ended my career, I’d been a Sniper Instructor for over a year, teaching other young Warriors how to be dangerous.
I walked back down to the pier and caught the line Kim deftly tossed as they idled up. She’d really taken to life on the water and was filling in as First Mate whenever I took charters out until I could find a permanent one. She was good with people and the men didn’t seem to mind at all having a pretty teenage girl help them land their catches. I made it real clear she was my daughter and my view of the cockpit from the helm was all encompassing. Not that I had to worry, most of our clients were gentlemen. One guy got a little too drunk once and touched her inappropriately. Before I was half way down the ladder, she had the guy face down on the deck, the offending hand chicken winged behind his back, while he howled in pain. She’d calmly asked him if there were other activities he liked using the hand for. The man sobered quickly and apologized profusely. Instantly, she released him and resumed her First Mate duties as if nothing had happened. Even wiped the guy’s brow with a wet towel an hour later when he hooked a really big bull dolphin and was fighting it. He left her a very generous tip.
“Hi, Dad,” she said, stepping onto the dock and hugging me. “Was that Doc leaving?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “He and Nikki got in early, so he stopped by to give the owner take of the trawl to Carl.”
Kim and Charlie were dressed nearly identical. Lightweight khaki fishing pants and long sleeved work shirts, the standard garb of watermen all over the Keys. They managed to stay dry behind the Grady’s wrap around clear plastic screen, which surrounds the Bimini top and can be rolled all the way down to the deck, just for days like this.
As Charlie handed me the boxes of groceries and I stacked them on the deck, Pescador jumped from the cockpit, shook the water from his coat and sat next to me waiting for an ear scratch. Since school started, he rode with Charlie and the kids every day to where they caught the bus at Old Wooden Bridge Marina and again to pick them up in the afternoon.
“He also brought news from Elbow Cay,” I said to Charlie. “He told Carl that you and Chyrel would receive an equal cut for all your help in solving the riddle.”
“I hope Carl told him no,” Charlie said, taking my hand as she stepped up to the pier. Charlie’s short for Charlotte. Just a wisp of a woman, but big in heart and attitude, like most Conch women.
“Doc wouldn’t take no for an answer,” I said, as the three of us picked up boxes and headed up the steps to the deck.
Charlie’s brow furrowed, deep in thought. A quiet woman most of the time, she measured her words carefully. Finally she said, “I don’t like it.”
“Then put it in the bank,” I said. “That way, when Carl Junior and Patty get older, you won’t have to worry about college.”
After helping put away the weeks’ worth of groceries in the large pantry in the Trent’s little house, I went up to the deck to make a phone call. Cell service on the island is sketchy at best. The only place where you could get any reception at all was on the southwest corner of the deck and even there you have to hold your tongue in your cheek just right.
Linda answered on the second ring. “Hi, Jesse. I was going to call you later today. Are we still on for this weekend?”
“Yeah, I was thinking we might do a little something different, though.”
“What did you have in mind?” she asked, huskily.
“How about we catch some grunts out on Bullard Bank and do some snorkeling?” She didn’t say anything for a moment and I thought I’d lost my signal. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. Who have you been talking to?” she asked, all business now.
“Talking to?”
“Come on, Jesse. You’re not a very good liar.”
“Are you part of the investigation?” I asked.
“Your position with Homeland Security notwithstanding, I really can’t talk about it,” she said. A friend of mine, Deuce Livingston, heads a counter terrorism team for DHS, based out of Homestead and I sometimes provide transportation for his operatives.
“You’re saying Bullard is off limits?”
“No,” she replied. “I don’t know how you heard, but I’m assuming you’ve learned about the illegal fishing practices.”
“That’s Fish and Wildlife. How’s FDLE involved?”
“I said I can’t talk about it,” she replied.
I thought for a moment then said, “It’s no longer just about taking fish, is it?”
“You didn’t hear that from me,” she said. “In fact, I think I better hang up now.”
“Wait,” I said. “I didn’t mean to piss you off. I really would like to see you this weekend.”
“No talk about the investigation?”
“If that’s what you want,” I said. “Maybe we can get a few people together and fly up to Cape Sable for a camp out and back country fly fishing.”
“Yeah,” she said, her voice taking on its usual cheery tone. “That sounds like it’d be a lot of fun. I really do have to go, though. See you tomorrow night?”
“Pick you up at the Anchor?”
“I’ll be there by six,” she said. “Bye now.”
I said goodbye and ended the call.