Authors: Parker Francis
Carefully, I used the edge of my trowel like a brush so as not to damage the buried object hidden below the surface. But there was no telltale sound of metal against rock. Instead something softer, organic.
“What the hell is this?” I asked.
Poe and the others turned around and moved toward me.
“Let me see.” Poe leaned down to peer into the hole. “Maybe you’ve made a real find, Quint.” His gray-green eyes sparkled with curiosity.
“I was just saying something seemed different about this pit,” Rachel said.
Poe handed me a brush. “Careful now. Careful.”
Slowly, I brushed away the last layer of soil covering the object.
“Look at that,” Rachel squealed.
Instead of coquina or a corroded cannonball, I’d unearthed the top to what looked like a large wicker hamper. Reed baskets were used by the early settlers, a craft learned from the Indians, but this looked too modern and well-preserved to date back to the 1560s. I’m only an amateur, but I thought it was a good guess since the top of the basket was secured by two brightly-colored bungee cords.
Seeing it wasn’t an artifact, but obviously contemporary, Poe lost interest. “Probably somebody’s idea of a joke,” he grumbled. “Get it out of there.”
I tossed the brush aside and took the shovel someone handed me. Tim, the college student, grabbed another shovel and together we cleared more than a foot of dirt from around the hamper. As we dug deeper, I estimated the hamper’s dimensions to be at least four feet tall by perhaps two-and-a-half feet wide.
An odor like three-day-old road kill oozed from the basket. Stepping away, my stomach revved into overdrive; my gag reflex fully engaged. The stench brought back memories from my days in the Gulf War, and I pushed away the image of bloated bodies lying in the desert and told myself that the basket contained the remains of someone’s old dog.
Wiping the sweat from my face, I took the bottle of water Rachel handed me and took a long swallow.
“God, that smells horrible,” Rachel said.
Tim took his cue from me, stabbed his shovel into the ground, accepting the bottled water.
“What do you think it is?” he asked me. His face seemed to have lost some of its summer tan.
“Probably garbage.” I took another swallow of water trying to wash down the taste of my cheeseburger lunch working its way into my throat.
Poe shook his head in disgust. He took his work seriously and didn’t appreciate anyone corrupting his research. Tim and I bent over the basket intending to pull it out of the ground. The smell was now almost unbearable, and I noticed more color draining from Tim’s face.
“Let me see if I can manage it.” I’m a fairly big guy, six-one-and-a-half, and I work out regularly, but when I tugged on the basket I barely budged it. Instead of garbage, I decided the basket must contain concrete blocks.
Tim held a handkerchief over his nose and mouth, but bravely leaned over and grabbed one side of the basket with his other hand. “On three,” I said between clenched teeth, feeling the cheeseburger making a comeback appearance.
With a series of grunts, we hauled our discovery out of the hole and set it carefully on the ground.
“I have a basket like that at home,” Rachel said. “I bought it at Pier One and use it as a clothes hamper.”
We all laughed, and I tried to imagine how many dirty clothes would have to be compacted into the basket to weigh what must be well over a hundred pounds.
Poe gestured toward the basket. “It’s your discovery, Quint. Why don’t you do the honors?”
I fumbled with the bungee cords for a minute. They were stretched to their limits and I strained to disconnect the hooks. As they fell away, I cut my eyes to Poe. He nodded and I reached over to lift the cover from what might be someone’s clothes hamper.
My participation in this dig was not a selfless act. I hoped to lose myself in the physical work of scraping and digging as a momentary escape. A form of penitence. Just as Poe reconstructs people’s lives by the detritus they left behind, the phone call was a reminder that my life is built on crumbling splinters of guilt still embedded beneath my skin like pieces of shrapnel in a combat veteran. One day there will be a final accounting, but until then I’ll have to live with a grieving father’s phone calls, with his daughter’s death, and, even worse, the terrible knowledge of my responsibility for my brother’s murder on a Long Island shore so many years ago.
I breathed deeply through my mouth and heard the mockingbird call again. When I looked up, I saw the bird lift from the tree and fly away. With Poe and the volunteers surrounding me, I removed the lid and stared inside. Immediately the thought occurred to me my search for penitence must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Staring back at me was the bloody head of William Marrano.
“Holy shit!” I yelled, dropping the lid and jerking back from the open basket. Over my shoulder, Rachel screamed. When I turned away from the gruesome scene I saw Tim retching into one of the plastic buckets.
Poe put a hand on my shoulder and together we examined our find. Marrano’s head had a deep indentation over the left temple. Blood had seeped from the wound and caked along the left cheek in dried rivulets. His tongue protruded from his mouth, swollen and discolored like the head of a tree toad. A green garbage bag hung loosely around the lower torso, providing an excellent view of the old Spanish bayonet protruding from Marrano’s chest.
I stared at the weapon for a moment before making the connection and looked up at Poe to see if he recognized it. These dagger-like bayonets had been carried by the Spanish arquebusiers or riflemen and were adapted to fit into the bore of the musket. I knew many had been found at various digs throughout St. Augustine, their wooden grips rotted away. This one had a bone handle with a vertical crack running through it—exactly like the one I saw at Jeffrey Poe’s house two weeks ago.
One of the volunteers, a retired dermatologist, edged closer to the basket and stared at the corpse. The dead man’s head had one eye open and the other closed as if giving us an obscene wink. “Isn’t that Bill Marrano?” the doctor asked.
Poe and the others lived in St. Johns County and obviously recognized the vice mayor. Even though I lived in an adjacent county, a client once introduced me to Marrano and I recalled him as a wide-bodied man standing about five-ten. That’s when he was standing, of course. And when he had legs. I couldn’t be sure because of the garbage bag, but it seemed to me this body was missing those essential parts.
I stepped away from the basket and pulled Poe with me. “Everyone out of the pit,” I ordered, reverting back to my Navy Master-at-Arms training. “I’m calling the police, so don’t touch anything.” I knew the rain, plus our digging and tramping over the site had erased most of the trace evidence, but we didn’t need to add to the mess the police would soon find.
A squad car with two young, uniformed officers arrived shortly. They took one look at the basket and ran back to their car. Less than five minutes later, two more cruisers and an unmarked vehicle roared up, sirens wailing, lights flashing. We stood next to the church, out of the glare of the afternoon sun, and watched the police close off the narrow lane. I swatted at a cloud of gnats investigating my ears before moving on toward the corpse.
August in St. Augustine brought with it suffocating humidity, along with throngs of tourists. Dozens of them were now lined up three deep along the yellow police tape gaping at the scene. I saw a boy of around nine or ten perched on his father’s shoulders pointing at the dead man’s body as if admiring a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Finally, one of the uniforms chased them away. A plain clothes detective approached Poe and our knot of volunteers. He identified himself as Detective George Horgan and asked us who found the body. Narrow and bird-like, Horgan’s face seemed to have been cobbled together by someone with a wicked sense of humor. His pointed nose and protruding eyes gave him a constant look of surprise.
I answered his question. “That would be me.” I described it all for him, from finding the basket in the new depression, to pulling it out of the ground and seeing Marrano inside. Horgan took notes with a silver ballpoint pen, glancing up at me from time to time.
“Can I have your name, address and contact information in case we need to ask you some more questions?” I noticed yellow nicotine stains on Horgan’s fingers, and the odor of smoke clinging to him like burrs on wool socks.
“It’s Mitchell. Quint Mitchell.” I repeated my address and phone number before telling him I was a private investigator from Jacksonville Beach. Horgan’s bird-like face grimaced slightly at the words
as though he had a bad case of acid reflux. He grunted at me before nodding towards Poe and the others.
“Dr. Poe, I take it these are all volunteers working with you on this project.”
“Can you tell me how Mr. Marrano’s body
to be buried where you
to be digging?”
Poe licked his lips, eyes darting toward me then back at Horgan before answering. “You’re not suggesting I had anything to do with this?”
“I’m not suggesting anything, Dr. Poe. I’m only asking if you knew—”
“I know what you’re implying and why you’re implying it, but you couldn’t be more wrong.”
Dots of crimson peppered Poe’s cheeks, and I put a hand on his arm to calm him. “Think about it, Detective Horgan,” I said. “Would anyone, especially Dr. Poe, be foolish enough to hide the body where it would implicate him? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Horgan eyed me for a moment then wrote something in his notebook before gesturing toward the other volunteers. “I’ll need your names and addresses as well.”
While the detective recorded the volunteer’s information, a white SUV screeched into the church parking lot. I looked up to see a thick-necked man in street clothes climb out of the Ford Explorer. He had a badge clipped to his belt, and the other officers stepped back as he approached the corner of the dig where the hamper sat.
The cop stood motionless, staring at the corpse. He removed his sunglasses, and ran a hand through curly black hair flecked with gray. From my vantage point, I saw his jaw muscles working furiously, the cords in his neck straining. He stepped over the police tape and walked toward the basket.
“Sarge, maybe you should …” Horgan began, but the sergeant’s withering glare made the detective swallow his sentence.
The sergeant stopped in front of the basket and dropped to one knee to look at the dead man’s head from eye level. He remained in that position, silent, not touching anything. Finally, he raised a hand toward Marrano’s face, but stopped short of touching it. I saw his fingers tremble slightly before he balled them into a fist and turned toward our small group by the church. His eyes immediately drilled into Poe. He popped up and rushed toward the city archaeologist with the fierce resolution of a tiger leaping toward its prey.
“What do you know about this?” he yelled, pushing his face within inches of Poe’s. He put a hand on Poe’s chest and shoved him against the wall of the church.
Poe wasn’t a small man, but the sergeant had surprised him and he fell back, his wide-brimmed hat sliding forward until it touched his nose. The sergeant’s face flushed, and his right hand cocked back, the knuckles on his fist wide and white, straining at the taut flesh.
“Hey, wait a minute,” I said, foolishly stepping between them. “I’m the one who found the basket, not Dr. Poe.”
My gallant gesture had the intended effect of diverting the sergeant’s attention, and he stared at me as though I was a cockroach crawling over his Christmas ham. Without a word, he dismissed me and turned his attention back to Poe.
“You hated him, Poe. I know you’re behind this somehow. You’d do anything to stop that project.” Flecks of spittle flew from his mouth and a little tic worked beneath his left eye. He opened and closed his fingers as if trying to decide whether to slap Poe with an open hand or pound him with his fist.
I’d never seen a police officer lose control of himself in this way, and I considered what the consequences might be if I had to pull him off my friend. I was an inch or two taller, and maybe ten years younger, but the sergeant was broader across the shoulders and chest and had forearms the size of bowling pins.
Before I could do anything, Poe found his voice. “You’re wrong, Buck. Sure, Bill and I had our differences, but no way would I harm your brother.”
His brother? No wonder he went ballistic. The sergeant leaned in toward Poe, his face a mask of hatred, one huge fist locked in the firing position. Against my better judgment, I spoke up again.
“Listen, sergeant, whatever you may think of Dr. Poe, you can’t believe he’s capable of murder.” I made the mistake of putting a hand on his arm. He whipped it away and gave me his full attention.
“Who the hell are you?” he shouted in my face. “I’ll need a name before throwing you in jail for interfering with a criminal investigation.”
I raised both hands in a sign of surrender and backed off. Horgan quickly stepped between us. Looking at his notes, he said, “He’s the one who found the vict … your brother. His name is Quint Mitchell and he lives in Jacks—”
“Quint Mitchell!” Marrano spit my name out as though it burned his tongue and studied me for a moment before continuing, “I know who you are. You’re the Jacksonville Beach PI who’s involved with that …” He paused and seemed to search for words. “… with that Howard woman.” He sneered and turned away from me.
I felt a wave of heat creeping along my neck and up my cheeks. I fought to control my breathing, my chest tightening, my hands stiff at my sides. “You’re out of line, sergeant. I can understand how it feels to lose your brother, but—”
With surprising speed, his left hand shot out, snatched a handful of my shirt, and yanked me toward him. At the same time, his right fist slammed into my stomach just below my ribcage and I doubled over gasping for air.
“You know how it feels, you stupid bastard? How does that feel?”