Darkness has descended over the southwest Florida swamps as I ease my rental car into the parking lot of Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island. Grabbing my bag, I head for the marina to meet up with Captain Jack La Plante, whose boat will be my ride over to Cabbage Key.
As we skim across Pine Island Sound on a moonless night, I let my imagination run wild and think how easy it would be to dispose of a body in these murky, black waters. If you're wondering why I'm thinking such lurid thoughts, it has nothing to do with Captain Jack, who is the very picture of geniality, and everything to do with Randy Wayne White, the New York Times best-selling mystery author, who has created a memorable fictional character in his Doc Ford novels.
Doc, a one-time government operative in Central America, now lives a (somewhat) off-the-radar life studying marine specimens at his laboratory in a stilt house on Florida's southern Gulf Coast. Trouble, however, is never far away in the multi-book series.
While I'm not looking for trouble, I am looking to follow in Doc's footsteps in this area of mangrove swamps, remote islands and numerous bays and inlets.
Some 20 minutes later, we tie up at the pier at Cabbage Key, an island owned by the Wells family who operate a historic restaurant, inn and assorted rental cottages, and that's pretty much all there is on the 100-acre island. If you want solitude, this is the place.
My accommodations are in Osprey Cottage, a newly remodeled house located at the end of a secluded trail shrouded in vines and vegetation.
My first stop, however, is the focal point of the island, the open-air restaurant, built atop a 38-foot Calusa Indian shell mound. Nestled among moss-draped trees and offering a panoramic view of Pine Island Sound, the restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner 365 days a year, positively reeks of atmosphere.
The decor consists of ceiling fans, antique fishing gear, classic photos and obligatory fiberglass replicas of Florida game fish, as well as thousands of one-dollar bills signed and taped to the walls by previous guests.
The adjoining bar, which has been serving fishermen and boaters for 60 years, boasts original hardwood floors, cypress walls, working fireplace, and a bartender who knows where the bodies are buried -- literarily speaking, of course.
The bar is a favorite watering hole for Doc Ford, who pilots his skiff over to enjoy a beer and a baseball game, and occasionally, a bout of fisticuffs ("The Heat Islands").