Book excerpt: Man Overboard by Susan F. Edwards

Susan F. Edwards has been researching and writing about Tampa’s history and culture for for more than 30 years, first as scriptwriter for a five-part documentary public television series that won WEDU-TV its first Emmy Award, and later for local magazines, newspapers, and cultural institutions. During her years of research, she became fascinated with 1920s Ybor City, the Florida Land Boom, and the fate of D.P. Davis, the flamboyant developer who created Davis Islands and whose mysterious disappearance from an ocean liner in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was never solved. Man Overboard is her fictional account of what might have happened, written in the noir style of the 1920s. The excerpt below is being reprinted by 83 Degrees with the author’s permission.

I took the back stairs in the dark and slipped up to the open door of my office. What I saw made me want to sneak back down the stairs and out into the night. But whatever else I am, I’m no coward. I stiffened my spine and went in.

She had made herself at home in my chair with her feet up on my desk. She was smoking one of my handmade Cuban Belvedere cigars and had even poured herself two fingers of the rum I keep in a drawer for medicinal purposes. She didn’t introduce herself -- she didn’t have to. Everyone knew Nesta Edmunds was the daughter of one of the most prominent Tampa families, that she had been the Gasparilla Pirate Queen four years ago in 1924 and later that year had married the infamous EQ Edmunds.

The happy couple had divorced and remarried, and generally kept society matrons fueled with enough gossip to light up their luncheons until about a year ago. That’s when Edmunds disappeared from an ocean liner bound for England. The official story was accidental death. The insurance company made a great show of promptly paying off the million-dollar policy on his life.

“Drink?” asked Nesta Edmunds, like she owned the place.

I never agreed with my father’s politics, but I did inherit his mistrust of a whole class of people. This dame was definitely a member of that class.

“Parade’s over, lady. Your float left without you.”

“You always treat your clients so politely?”

I pointed to the chair on the other side of the desk. “My clients usually sit there.”

She took her time, but eventually she moved.

I settled in behind my desk and surveyed the drawers to see what else she might have filched. Everything was there, but the mess told me she had gone through it without the slightest finesse.

“Now. Am I to understand you’re looking for a private investigator?”

“Yes.” She crossed her legs and took out a compact. She inspected her face in the mirror and started to powder her nose. She wasn’t what you’d call a doll. Her unpainted features were large and horsey, but she was handsome and well-groomed in an expensive-looking navy blue suit, her hair pulled back into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. Her buffed, unpolished fingernails had never touched dishwater. Her one vanity was a pair of red high heels. “I want you to find my husband,” she said.

“You’re remarried?”

She stopped powdering and shot me a look that could have withered a water oak. “No. I want you to find Mr. Edmunds.”

I wondered why she would want to bring him back from the dead. By all accounts he had been a hard-drinking, womanizing little braggart and bully. But I didn’t say that. All I asked was, “What makes you think he’s alive?”

Her mouth drew into a hard, straight line. “My husband is a con and a liar, Mr. Heart. This wouldn’t be the first time he tried to trick me.”

“Leaving you with a million dollars in life insurance money hardly seems like a dirty trick.”

The taut line of her mouth curved into a bitter smile. “Everyone assumes I was the beneficiary of that policy, but the truth is, I didn’t get a dime.”

“Who did?”

“My husband.”

“Kinda tough for a corpse to spend a million bucks.”

“Oh, he spent it long before he disappeared.”

She dangled it out there like bait on a hook. I wasn’t about to bite. I waited, stone-faced, for her to go on.

“It was a neat little sting, actually. Edward so loved the art of the sting.”

“That’s what land speculation is all about, isn’t it?” I ignored the look she shot me, cold and sharp as a shark’s tooth. “Please continue,” I said.

“When the bottom started falling out of the real estate market here, Edward sold Edmunds Island for one million dollars to a real estate syndicate called Liberty Limited. For a tiny fraction of its value. He held the contract and title, and they made monthly payments to him. Liberty took out a one-million-dollar insurance policy on his life. The deal was if Edward died, I would inherit the contract and title. Liberty Limited would sign the insurance check over to me in exchange for the papers. They’d own Edmunds Island, and I’d be a rich widow.”

I took my time digesting that. I had to hand it to the Anglos. They knew how to work a buck. One thing I didn’t understand though. “So how did your husband end up with the money?”

“You can use a life insurance policy as collateral for bank loans up to the limit of the benefit. After Edward disappeared, we discovered that he had borrowed a million dollars against the policy. The benefit paid off his loan.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“The bank placed a lien on the policy. The loan balance had to be paid before anyone else. In effect, by taking out that loan, Edward placed the bank as beneficiary in line ahead of me.”

“So Edmunds got his million, the bank got its million and you and Liberty were left out in the cold.”

“Mostly me. It turned out Edward had also run up over five million dollars in debt claims against Edmunds Island. The property can’t be sold until the debtors are paid. When Liberty Limited found that out, they pointed to some fine print in their contract and bailed out of the purchase. I now own a development that’s over five million dollars in debt. I’m broke, Mr. Heart. Worse than broke. I’m personally liable for all those debts.”

I poured myself a stiff dose of island tonic and downed it. I didn’t have to ask who owned stock in Liberty Limited. The same handful of men owned everything in this town. This case would have me nosing around some pretty powerful closets, and I didn’t like the smell of it.

Read more by purchasing the book, Man Overboard by Susan F. Edwards, on Amazon. The book is available in paperback or by download, and was originally published in 2020.
 
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