Authors: Parker Francis
I struggled to force air into my lungs, to defend myself before he hit me again. He grabbed me by the shoulder and lifted me into position for another punch. Weakly, I raised an arm, but he only smirked and pushed me against the wall next to Poe.
“If you had anything to do with this, Mitchell, I’ll make you sorry you ever came into my town.”
He raised his fist again, but before he could throw another punch, Horgan grabbed his arm. “Not a good idea, sarge. The chief’s here.”
Marrano swung toward Horgan who pointed at another squad car pulling into the parking lot. A balding, middle-aged man I recognized as Chief Milo Conover climbed out on the passenger side and approached us. Conover was considered a straight shooter. He’d risen through the ranks of the small St. Augustine Police Department and had been appointed chief last year after his predecessor retired.
Horgan hurried over to the chief and they spoke briefly before Conover surveyed the hamper with its macabre contents. Taking in our little group and the beefy sergeant’s threatening stance, Conover strode toward us.
“Buck, I’m so sorry,” he said, laying a hand on the officer’s shoulder.
Marrano seemed to sag for a moment before the fury returned to his eyes. “We have the bastard who did this right here, chief.” He shoved a meaty index finger into Poe’s chest. “Everyone knows how much he hated Bill.”
The chief toted more than a few extra pounds around his waist, but he carried himself with authority. He grabbed the sergeant by his upper arm and pulled him away from Poe. “You’re too close to this, Sergeant Marrano,” he said in a stern voice. “I’m asking you to step aside and let us give this case the thorough investigation it deserves.”
Marrano tried to pull his arm away from Conover, but the chief held him firmly. “No way. I’m in charge of detectives, and that’s my brother over there. This killer has to pay for—”
Conover yanked Marrano’s arm, forcing him to turn toward him. “Listen to yourself, Buck.” He kept his voice low, under control. “You may be Detective Commander, but you’re in no condition to objectively investigate anything at the moment. For your brother’s sake, we have to put emotions aside, and I don’t think you can do that.”
Marrano had been staring over Conover’s shoulder at Poe. He looked back at the chief as if he’d just heard him and shook his head vigorously. Before he could respond, Conover said, “I'm putting Detectives Horgan and Thompson in charge of the investigation, Buck, and ordering you to return to headquarters.”
Conover held Marrano’s icy glare. “Do you hear me, sergeant?”
“I hear you,” Marrano murmured. He gave each of us a hard stare before turning and walking briskly to his car, taking one final glance at his brother’s head as he passed.
Breathing normally now, I watched Conover and Horgan huddle together, the detective inclining his head in our direction several times before the chief approached us.
“I understand Detective Horgan has taken your statements. This must be very traumatic for you folks, and I apologize for the sergeant’s outburst. I’m sure you understand what he must be going through.”
Conover puckered his lips and shook his head slowly. “This is a terrible loss for our entire community, but we have to remember the Vice Mayor was Sergeant Marrano’s only brother. I hope you can forgive him if his emotions got the better of him.” His eyes slid over each of us before settling on me, and I figured Horgan told him Marrano had sucker-punched me.
“Except for Dr. Poe, you’re all free to go,” Conover said. “Please remember St. Augustine’s a small town, folks. We rely almost entirely on tourism. We don’t want to frighten anyone, so I’d appreciate it if you kept this to yourself as much as possible while we conduct our investigation.”
He turned away and addressed Poe. “Jeffrey, let’s go down to my office. We have a few more questions for you.”
“But I don’t know anything.”
“It will be better for everyone if we put this feud business to rest and try to get to the bottom of this terrible crime.” Conover studied Poe through hard brown eyes, reminding me of a shark contemplating its next meal.
I stayed in place when the other volunteers departed, thinking I might be of some help to Poe. Offering my most conciliatory smile, I said, “Chief, I’m Quint Mitchell. I found Mr. Marrano’s body.”
“Yes, Mr. Mitchell, we have your statement and appreciate your cooperation.”
“Dr. Poe’s a good friend, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to accompany—”
“Are you his attorney, Mr. Mitchell?” Conover cut me off.
“Well, no, but I’m a private investigator.” Even as I said the words I knew how lame they sounded.
Conover moved closer to me. I smelled peppermint on his breath. “Believe me, Mr. Mitchell, we’ll be in touch if we have any more questions for you. Right now, Dr. Poe is the only one we need to speak with. Routine questions, that’s all.”
With that, he turned his back on me and guided Poe by the elbow toward his squad car.
Poe climbed into the back of Conover’s cruiser, and they pulled away leaving me rubbing my aching abdomen and nursing a bruised ego. Yellow police tape had been strung around the entire church parking lot except for a gap to allow official vehicles to enter and exit. While I watched, a man in his late fifties arrived in a white van. He approached Horgan who stood by the excavation site, a clipboard in one hand, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips.
Horgan greeted the new arrival and passed the clipboard to the man, who wore a limp seersucker jacket that looked like it may have been purchased at a 1978 JC Penney summer sale. He tucked a small black valise under his left arm in order to hold the clipboard and signed in.
As the primary investigating officer on the scene, Horgan was responsible for documenting the chain of evidence. If I was right, the gentleman with the retro coat and black bag was the county medical examiner. They conferred for a minute before Horgan pointed to the hamper where Marrano’s remains were now attracting dark clouds of gnats and flies.
The medical examiner’s first order of business was to confirm the victim’s death. His next task would be to estimate the time and cause of death. The corpse’s temperature provided an approximation as to how long the victim had been deceased. But most of the answers would be found during the autopsy.
Standard crime scene investigation procedures call for photographic documentation of the scene in order to create a permanent historical record, collecting of trace evidence and writing a detailed report, including diagrams, of everything found at the scene. But prior to all of this, I knew the police were required to clear all non-essential personnel from the crime scene.
Right on cue, Horgan looked up and spotted me.
“Mitchell, what the hell are you still doing here?” he blared out from his position next to the excavation site. “Even a PI should know a crime scene when he sees one. Now move your ass before I ask one of these officers to escort you to headquarters. If we need you, we know where to find you.”
As he yelled, Horgan’s eyes bulged to the point I expected to see one of his orbs pop out of his head and roll across the ground like a marble.
“Don’t get your tighty-whities in a twist, detective. I was just leaving.”
Horgan didn’t need to remind me the police were in charge of this investigation, but as I walked away from the church, I worried about my friend. Jeffrey Poe was obviously more than a person of interest. He was at the top of the SAPD’s suspect list, and I didn’t want to see him railroaded because he and Bill Marrano had disagreed over St. Augustine’s future skyline.
I’ve known Poe for about five years. We’ve grown increasingly close, particularly after his wife Gail died three years ago. She suffered through an agonizing bout with liver cancer, Poe suffering along with her, a part of his spirit departing when she died. In the weeks following her death, he retreated behind a wall of grief, refusing to answer his phone and ignoring the friends and neighbors who came to check on him. Poe eventually dug himself out of his pit of depression, but now, I worried how he would react to this latest trauma.
After Poe was taken in for questioning I spent an hour sitting on a bench in the Plaza de la Constitución making phone calls and observing the waves of tourists washing over the old city. The Plaza was slung between Cathedral and King Streets. Tourist guides tout it as the oldest public park in the United States, established by Royal Spanish Ordinances in 1573.
From where I sat, across from the Government House, I watched young people playing among the Civil War cannons and running the stairs of the covered pavilion that was once used as a public marketplace. Also known as the Old Slave Market, during the civil rights struggles it had been the gathering place for local demonstrators. During the summer months, the park hosted weekly concerts and an occasional art show. These days, though, homeless men inhabited many of the benches.
If I walked two blocks up King Street, I’d be facing the Casa Monica Hotel. Thinking of the hotel made me remember how Sergeant Marrano had erupted when he heard my name. What did he say? That I was
involved with that Howard woman
. His statement was correct. I just didn’t like the way he said it.
Serena Howard is the marketing director for the Casa Monica, and we’ve been seeing each other for the past three months. Unfortunately, what had begun with a flash of sparks and grew into one of my most meaningful relationships had flickered down to its last embers. Time to pour water over our campfire and declare it officially dead.
I didn’t want to think about our crumbling romance now, so I walked the six blocks to the St. Augustine Police Department. I wondered how Poe’s interrogation had gone. What could he tell them other than he was completely in the dark about Marrano’s murder? But how could he explain away the bayonet?
Poe had a stubborn streak. Sometimes his temper might push common sense aside and he’d say things he later regretted, but in my heart I knew my friend was not a killer. I glanced at the monument sign in the middle of the sidewalk identifying the neat concrete building as the St. Augustine Police Department before climbing the white steps and entering.
A half-dozen plastic chairs hugged the walls inside the small waiting room. In one of the chairs sat a bony woman in a shapeless black dress covered with tiny yellow flowers. Emitting invisible signals of distress, she stared at the massive set of double doors separating the lobby from the rest of the building.
I walked past the woman to the information window on the right side of the lobby. The window was identical to those you see at security-conscious gas stations for after hours’ transactions and included a stainless steel tray at the bottom as well as a round aluminum grid in the center for two-way conversation. Behind it, a solidly built woman in a white and green uniform talked animatedly on the telephone, scribbling something in a large three-ring binder.
I waited patiently until she finished her conversation, turned the page in the notebook and finally acknowledged me. She studied me for a moment above a pair of half-frame reading glasses before approaching the window.
“Can I help you?”
“Do you know if Jeffrey Poe is still here?”
Muscles tensed along her fleshy jaw line as she looked down at the notebook still in her hands and back to me. “He’s being questioned,” she said. “Why don’t you have a seat?”
I walked to one of the chairs facing the interior doors. By the time I sat down the receptionist had returned to her desk, leaving me alone with my thoughts and the worried woman who broke the silence with a phlegmy cough.
I gazed at the row of photographic portraits lining the wall directly in front of me. Each member of the St. Augustine City Commission including Mayor Hal Cameron and Vice Mayor William Marrano wore a nearly identical smile. Marrano’s face jolted me back to the discovery of his mutilated corpse. I had a little experience with murder cases, but this one didn’t seem to fit into the typical patterns of violent crime—escalating domestic abuse, drug-related shootings, or random acts of violence that are more likely to be crimes of opportunity.
Whoever killed Marrano had taken the time to saw off the commissioner’s legs, and bury the body at Poe’s survey site. This wasn’t the work of your average street criminal. A brutal and twisted killer, for sure, but clever enough to know the police would immediately zero in on Poe as their main suspect.
About the time I’d mulled this over, one of the large wooden doors swung open and Poe and Chief Conover walked through. Poe held his wide-brimmed hat in both hands, covering his chest protectively. The archaeologist tried to smile when he saw me waiting for him, but only managed a grimace.
“Thank you for your time, Dr. Poe,” Conover said. “I guess I don’t have to tell you not to leave town until we get to the bottom of this.”
“Yes, yes, I know.”
I approached Poe, asking, “Are you okay?”
He pushed past me without a word and scurried out the front door.
His long legs were striding east toward the historic district, when I caught up with him. “How’d it go?”
“I can’t believe the bastards suspect me. They asked me the same questions over and over. Where was I yesterday? The day before? Did I own a wicker hamper? Had I ever seen the bayonet?”
“What about that bayonet? It looked like the one you showed us at your house.”
“I have half a dozen bayonets in my office and at home. Hell, they’re on display at the Visitor’s Center and the museum.”
Poe stopped at the intersection of King and Riberia Streets and turned toward me, his eyes seeking an answer in mine. “I don’t know, Quint. It did look like the same bayonet, but how’s that possible?”
“When did you see it last?”
“Not since the night you were there. You saw me leave it in my storage room. I swear I haven’t touched it since then.” More than a hint of desperation had crept into his voice.
“What happens now?”
“They’re getting warrants to search my office, my house, even my truck.”
“That’s standard procedure, Jeffrey. You don’t have anything to worry about if—”