Authors: Parker Francis
The two detectives sat there looking at each other as though they’d run out of questions. They really didn’t have anything, I thought, and I couldn’t resist sticking it to them.
“Not much of a case, guys. Four witnesses will testify we were there when Poe left his prints on the bayonet. You know the rest is circumstantial. The judge will throw it out before the prosecutor gets his briefcase unpacked.”
Horgan shook his head as though stunned by my brilliant argument. “You think so? The prosecutor thought we had a pretty strong case when we told him what we found in Poe’s storage shed.”
“Yeah, like what?”
For the first time, Thompson’s flushed face changed expressions. His lips curled into an ugly version of a smile before he said, “Since you and Poe are such good friends, Mitchell, we’ll tell you Poe doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”
Thompson and Horgan turned to one other and laughed aloud, reminding me of a pair of high school kids telling dirty jokes.
“Right,” Horgan added. “Even though we found an extra set squirreled away in his shed.”
I made a quick stop at the donut shop on San Marco Avenue and picked up a half-dozen Boston cream donuts before driving to the County Jail. Informally known as the lock-up, the place hadn’t changed since the last time I was there a few months ago. Not the depressing green walls of the lobby as I entered, nor the skeptical look in Regina Washington’s eyes when I told her I was there to see Jeffrey Poe.
“Honey, you might have a cute ass for a white boy, but rules is rules.”
Everyone referred to Regina as The Warden, and no one came into the county lock-up without her say-so. An imposing woman with the bulk of a defensive tackle and the smile of a barracuda, she guarded her post ferociously. I felt sorry for anyone who got on her bad side, especially me.
Regina stood from behind her desk, arms folded, daring me to make a move.
“Come on, darling, you know how much I’ve missed you since my last visit here. I’ve already called and made an appointment to see him. Why do you always make me beg? Is that what you want? Get down on my knees and beg?” Regina and I go through this charade every time, but it paid to suck-up to The Warden.
“Beggin’ is nice, but things have changed since you called, so you won’t be talkin’ through the glass tonight.”
“Changed? What’s changed?”
“Poe’s lawyer has the next hour blocked off for a face-to-face with the good doctor Poe.” She looked at me with a twinkle in her brown eyes that seemed to say
. “Unless your name is Thad Wannaker and you’ve somehow transformed yourself from lowlife private dick to lowlife defense attorney, then you’re goin’ nowhere but home.”
“That’s why I’m here,” I lied with a straight face. “I’m part of Poe’s defense team, and Wannaker wants me to start questioning Poe because he’s running late.”
Regina speared me with her skeptical stare once again, but before she could throw me out I held up the bag of donuts.
“Sweets for my sweet.”
Regina snatched the bag from my hand, opened it and inhaled the fresh-baked aroma. “Deep-fried dough is surely one of God’s blessings,” she said, before pulling one of the donuts out of the bag. She squinted left and right to be sure no one saw her accepting my bribe before biting into the donut. A supreme calmness passed over her as if she’d been invited through the gates of heaven.
“I may be a lowlife private dick,” I said as I watched her chew the last bite, “but I take care of my women. You gotta admit that.”
“You’re so full of shit, Mitchell, I’m surprised you don’t choke on it.”
Harsh words, but at least she smiled as she said them. She pulled another donut from the bag, but before she raised it to her mouth I coughed.
Regina’s brown eyes looked up from her treasure, a smear of cream gracing the corner of her mouth. I tapped on the sign-in log in front of her. “How about it, Regina?”
“You’re going to get me fired for sure.” She placed the donut on top of the bag, pivoted away from her desk and brushed her hands together. I watched bits of chocolate frosting fall to the floor before she turned back, picked up the phone and punched two numbers.
“Mr. Mitchell here to see prisoner Poe in Visitation Room One.” She listened and nodded impatiently before adding, “Don’t you think I know his lawyer is meeting him in that room. There’s more than one chair, ain’t there?”
Shaking her head, she dropped the phone into the cradle. Regina held my stare, waiting to see if I said anything. I knew when to zip it and that’s exactly what I did. She extended a finger with a bright red nail protruding a good inch past her finger tip, and pointed to the sign-in log. While I signed, she ran the same finger across the face of the donut, raised the chocolate-covered digit to her mouth and sucked provocatively.
The steel door to my left opened and a Corrections guard stuck his head through it. “Mitchell?”
“That’s me.” I wanted to thank Regina, but she was fully engaged with her donut.
I followed the silent guard to the Visitation Room. He opened the door and waited until I stepped in before slamming it shut behind me.
Poe stood in one corner of the small room. The baggy orange jumpsuit made him look even more gaunt than usual. Dark crescents bruised his eyes, and he shuffled toward me with the stiff, short steps of a much older man.
“Thanks for coming, Quint. Can you believe this crap?” He grabbed the front of his jumpsuit and pulled it out, shaking his head in disbelief. We sat at the scarred metal table bolted to the floor and he continued, “You know I’m being framed. Erin Marrano knows it, and my lawyer knows it. Please tell me you found something—anything—that might get me out of here.” His voice jumped an octave and broke.
“I’m working on a lot of possibilities. Nothing solid yet.” No false hope there. “Heard an interesting rumor, though, that Marrano had changed his mind about the Matanzas Bay development and called a special commission meeting to put it on hold.”
His mouth twisted, skepticism on his face. “I can’t see Bill Marrano doing that. He and Kurtis Laurance were joined at the hip on this one, or joined at the bank account, I should say.”
“You think Marrano took money from Laurance for his support of the project?”
“I can’t prove anything, but he raised ten times more money than any other candidate in last year’s elections. Most of it from the St. Johns Group’s different divisions and key staff members. You know Laurance expected payback for his investment. And he got it with this project.”
“I’m afraid the police are using your public dispute with Marrano as a motive. Of course, finding your prints on the bayonet didn’t help.”
“Godammit, I explained that to them a hundred times, but they’re not listening.”
“For what it’s worth, so did I, but they don’t need the bayonet after what they found in your storage shed.”
“What do you mean?”
I tried to think of a less painful way of telling him about the discovery of Marrano’s legs in his storage shed, but in the end I blurted it out, “Whoever killed Marrano apparently planted his legs in your shed.”
Poe’s face grew slack, his eyes flicked around the room as though searching for a way out. Getting arrested for this horrible crime was bad enough, now the terrible vision of William Marrano’s severed legs would haunt his every waking moment.
He cupped his forehead with one hand. “Why is this happening to me? I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison, aren’t I?” Poe’s anger gave way to self-pity. It wouldn’t take much to send him spiraling into the same depressive state that consumed him after his wife’s death.
“Come on, Jeffrey, you have to hang in there.” I gripped his forearm and gave it a little shake. “Someone’s obviously framed you, and I’m going to find out who it is and why. But you have to be strong. Don’t give up before we even get started.”
“Sure,” he said without any apparent feeling.
“Hey, who’s the best private eye you know?”
Before he could answer, the guard knocked sharply on the door and swung it open. A balding man who looked to be in his early fifties walked in clutching a flat leather briefcase the color of old cognac. He wore tortoise-framed glasses and a bushy salt and pepper mustache that helped to hide his bulbous nose but not the suspicious look he gave me.
Poe jumped from his chair, greeting the man with renewed animation. “Thad. God, I’m glad to see you. What did you find out?”
Dropping the briefcase on the table, the man turned to me and said, “I’m Thad Wannaker, Dr. Poe’s attorney.” He hovered over me, obviously wondering who I was and why I was sitting here with his client.
“I’m sorry, Thad,” Poe said quickly. “This is Quint Mitchell. Quint’s a good friend and a private investigator. Mrs. Marrano hired him to find her husband’s killer.”
I stood, gesturing for him to take my chair. Without a word, he slipped into it, and I retrieved the other one, setting it at the end of the table.
Wannaker’s hands played with the clasp on his briefcase. He avoided looking at me when he said, “Jeffrey, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be discussing your case in front of someone else. Particularly an investigator working for the wife of the victim.”
“He’s probably right, Jeffrey.” I pushed my chair back and excused myself.
“No, you sit your butt down,” Poe said, the anger flaring up again. “Listen, Thad, Quint and I are old friends, and I trust him with my life. You can feel free to say anything you want in front of him.”
“But I have my own investigator,” Wannaker countered.
“That’s all right. He’s not going to get in anyone’s way. Besides, we can use all the help we can get.”
“You may be right,” Wannaker said grudgingly.
“Good. Did you talk with Mrs. Lawson?”
“You bet I did. The old gal was a little unclear about the time, but she remembered seeing you and will back up your story.”
“That’s wonderful, just wonderful.”
Poe must have seen the confusion on my face. “The police told me Marrano was murdered Saturday night between ten p.m. and two a.m. at his hunting camp near Palatka. I was home alone that night, which isn’t much of an alibi. But later I remembered the raccoons and I asked Thad to check it out.”
“Yeah, I’ve had a problem with raccoons getting into the garbage cans and sometime after eleven Saturday night I heard a commotion outside. The damn raccoons were at it again, so I went out to chase them away.” Poe’s face had come alive and his eyes danced with excitement.
“After I cleaned up the mess they’d made, I saw Mrs. Lawson—you remember Eleanor from my little party that night? Anyway, she was walking her dog. We chatted for a couple of minutes about my raccoon problem and the weather before I went back inside.”
“There’s no way you could have driven to the hunting camp, killed Marrano and been back home at eleven-thirty when Mrs. Lawson saw you,” Wannaker said.
“And that doesn’t count the time it would have taken to bury him,” Poe added.
Wannaker pulled papers from his briefcase. “I have her deposition right here. They’ll have to release you when Mrs. Lawson verifies your alibi.”
“That’s the best news you could have brought me,” Poe said, a huge smile of relief flooding his face. “When do you think I can get out?”
“I’m going to talk with the District Attorney first thing in the morning.”
I congratulated both of them, but my gut told me it was too early for celebrations.
Instead of returning home, I decided to stop in for a quick one at the Mill Top Tavern. Perched on the second floor of a former grist mill in St. Augustine’s historic district, the Mill Top offers an excellent view from its open balcony of tourists parading along St. George Street, and from the other side the Castillo de San Marcos and the bay beyond. Even better, the beer is cheap and they feature live music every night.
Despite Poe’s and Wannaker’s optimism, I couldn’t quell the nagging feeling my friend was in real danger. Maybe they were right and Poe would soon be a free man. But maybe the raccoons, Eleanor Lawson and her dog were just so much smoke and mirrors. And maybe I needed a beer or two to help me put everything in perspective.
As I entered the bar, I heard the booming voice of a female singer. Inside, a throng of drinkers huddled around the tiny raised platform that passed as a stage watching a sweet young thing with multi-colored hair. The vocalist belted out her song while an older man with torn jeans and cornrows accompanied her on a scarred guitar. Her powerful vocals, filled with sorrow and longing, hovered above the beery conversations like a velvet shroud. Her voice reminded me of a young Judy Collins and after I ordered my beer, I leaned against the bar admiring the girl’s voice. Her talent was obvious, although I couldn’t help noticing her low-rise jeans and her tight middriff shirt exposing a wide swatch of skin.
When the duo took a break, I wandered out to the balcony to get some air. All of the tables were filled with people smoking and talking animatedly, so I eased into an opening along the rail next to one of the whitewashed columns. My bottle was halfway to my mouth when I heard a loud voice from the courtyard below.
“Leave me alone, Jack. You’re a whorish shit, and I don’t want to see your lying face again.”
The girl’s strident voice cut through the buzz of conversation, and everyone on the balcony craned their necks to find the source of the editorial comment. Including me. The girl was in her early twenties, wearing shorts, a pale blue tank top, and a very pissed-off expression. Her boyfriend, or more likely her former boyfriend, tried to put a hand on her nicely curved backside, but the girl slapped it away.
“Come on, Tia, you know I love you,” the boy whined. “It didn’t mean a thing.”
Tia ignored him, striding swiftly away. She had undoubtedly had her fill of Jack, but he raced after her, grabbed her arm and pulled her around to face him.
The entire upper balcony took in the scene, and I wagered Jack was well on his way to learning a difficult lesson about the mysterious ways of the fairer sex. I’ve been there so many times I could teach a graduate level course on it.