Authors: Parker Francis
“If I didn’t do it? Do you think I’d kill Marrano and bury him at one of my own excavation surveys? How stupid do you think I am?”
“I know you’re innocent, and I’m sure the police will come to the same conclusion. But you understand why you’re on their radar, don’t you?”
“I’m just so damn confused right now. Finding Marrano’s body under our noses is too much of a coincidence.” He let out a long shuddering breath.
In bed that evening, my mind traversed the day’s events, and I tried to make some sense of it all. When I closed my eyes, a succession of images swirled around like dirt caught in the grip of a wind devil, then settled into strange and unnerving forms. I attempted to push away the bloated and discolored face of William Marrano insinuating itself into my thoughts and focus instead on what may have led to his murder.
Poe emerged as the principal suspect because of his heated disagreement with Marrano over the Matanzas Bay project. With St. Augustine’s limited tax base, the fifteen-acre Malaga Street site had been trumpeted as the centerpiece of a new downtown renaissance.
Malaga Street was off the beaten path for the tourist trade. The acreage where the development would be built had been used by the City of St. Augustine for its motor pool operations and warehouse storage. Vice Mayor Marrano had proposed selling the property to the private sector hoping it would stimulate development and revitalize the entire area. After a lengthy process and a bidding war among four developers, the St. Johns Group emerged as the winner. Their plan called for a ten-story condominium unit with an adjoining 130-room hotel and a seventy-five-slip marina. A second phase would later add a six-story office building and an upscale spa and health club.
The high-rise condos and commercial buildings were standard stuff for larger cities like Jacksonville and Orlando, but quite a leap for St. Augustine. As the City Archaeologist, Poe considered St. Augustine sacred ground and didn’t believe condos were a fitting tribute to the generations of Spanish, British, Indians, Minorcans and others who lived and died to create a unique piece of American history.
Even though the development would front the San Sebastian River, the developer named the project Matanzas Bay, a name with a history of its own. Every school kid in the area knew the story of how Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the settlement’s protector and first governor, had massacred several hundred injured and starving shipwrecked Frenchmen. The Spanish found them on a sandbar in the Matanzas Inlet and ferried them to shore in their rowboats. As they collapsed on the sand thinking they’d been rescued, they were greeted by more Spanish soldiers who put them to the sword.
Miles away from the historic heart of St. Augustine, the inlet had been named after the massacre—Matanzas,
Place of Slaughter
. The bayfront of the Matanzas River is in the very heart of the old city, not far from the San Sebastian River, a tidal channel of the Matanzas.
The 600-year-old massacre touched memories still fresh in my own past, and the thought of the doomed Frenchmen pleading for their lives, their ripped and bloody bodies tumbling in the surf, was too painful for me to contemplate. I tried to wipe the unsettling pictures from my mind and finally fell asleep.
Drifting in a current of darkness, the dream returned. Curtains parted inside my head and there she was again, driving with one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding a cell phone to her ear. The camera in my mind zoomed in even closer, and I saw a clearer picture of a young girl with short hair and bright eyes. The girl chatted excitedly, actually taking her hand off the wheel at one point to gesture with an open palm. She laughed, her mouth open, light glinting from the braces across her teeth.
Now my silent movie added a soundtrack, and I heard screeching tires, screams and curses. The light tunneled into a narrow beam outlining a face transforming itself from one of youthful giddiness to a mask of terror.
In my dream, the scene swish-panned from the accident to a peaceful Long Island shoreline. Crunching sounds and screams from the automobile accident gave way to the cries of gulls and waves slapping the beach. I knew what was coming next. My unconscious fought to protect me from the awful pictures of my brother’s mutilated body moving in gentle rhythm as the waves washed over his wounds in bloody baptism.
I suddenly felt a giant hand crushing the breath from my chest, and I awoke to find my T-shirt wet and twisted. Sitting up in bed, I pulled the shirt down and did what I did every night. I begged forgiveness.
The tide was out the next morning as I hit the beach for my three mile-run. I headed north passing the Jacksonville Beach Pier where five or six early risers dangled their fishing lines over the side. Bogie, my yellow lab, bounded ten yards ahead of me, tail wagging, streaking left and right to investigate the treasures strewn over the beach. He seemed to take great pride in leading the way, like the high priests going before an Egyptian Pharaoh. Or maybe he thought he was the Egyptian Pharaoh and I was the slave who picked up his poop.
We scattered a few seagulls, and I nodded to the occasional beachcomber searching for sharks’ teeth. I made a U-turn at Oleander Street and waited for Bogie to take the point again. He paused a moment and seemed to smile as if to say, “Is that as far as you can run today,
As I sprinted over the hard-packed sand, my thoughts returned to the bayonet and the first time I’d seen it at a dinner party at Poe’s house two weeks ago.
Poe’s culinary skills were amazing. He concocted incredible meals for dinner parties of twelve and fifteen guests at a time when Gail was alive. Months after her death, Poe slowly started cooking again and the process became a catharsis, helping him reconnect with people. These weren’t fancy gatherings planned for months in advance, but usually spontaneous calls to a few friends or neighbors to help him share what would have been a lonely meal.
Two weeks ago I received one of those last minute invitations. When I arrived at his house that night, I found the party already in full swing. Through the screen door I heard music and a loud voice I didn’t recognize offering a toast in a distinctly Southern accent. “Here’s to that monstrosity fallin’ down on his head.” The words were slightly slurred, but the meaning unmistakable.
I knocked and let myself in. Poe met me in the living room and led me back to the Florida room. Four people were sitting around an oblong table, drinks in their hands. They all turned toward me as we entered the room.
An elderly man held his glass high, tipping it toward me in greeting. His deeply lined face broke into a smile, highlighting the broken capillaries sketched over his nostrils. Next to him sat a woman who would never see seventy again. Deep wrinkles grooved her lips and forehead. Her hair, surprisingly thick for a woman of her age, framed her face with silver curls, and when she looked at me, it seemed her eyes were not quite focused.
Sitting across from the two older guests, with their chairs turned slightly away as though they were fearful of catching the old timers’ disease, were two young men. I recognized one of them as Denny Grimes, who had volunteered with me on several of Poe’s digs. The other man smiled at me with straight, white teeth. He had short blond hair and a bemused look on his handsome face.
“Quint, I don’t think you’ve met all of these people,” Poe said, with a nod toward the table.
“I know Denny. Good to see you again.” I stuck out my hand and Grimes gave it more than a friendly squeeze. He was a short man, maybe five-six, who compensated by lifting weights. I remembered that he once worked for the City of St. Augustine, but had left to start his own company. Something to do with website development.
“Hey, Mitchell, how they hanging?” Grimes said, finally releasing my hand.
Poe had me by the elbow and turned me toward the old woman. “This is my neighbor, Eleanor Lawson. She lives across the street and has to look at my pitiful front lawn everyday, so she’s definitely entitled to a free dinner or two.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Lawson.”
“Please, call me Eleanor.”
Her light and reedy voice sounded like it had floated in through the window. High cheekbones, slightly faded brown eyes, a pert little nose. Eleanor must have been a knockout when she was young. No longer young, though, liver spots freckled her face and hands and she drooped in all the usual places.
“I’ve sent my lawn man over to see Jeffrey, but he prefers to do it himself. When he can find the time,” she sniffed.
“I’m sure you know that most any idiot can mow a lawn, but few people can cook like the good doctor here.” This came from the man sitting next to Eleanor.
“Thank you for that, Clayton. Quint, meet my good friend and protector, Clayton Henderson.
Henderson put his glass down, grasped the table and pulled himself up with great effort. His face momentarily contorted in pain before he straightened to take my hand. Only then did I notice the cane hooked over the back of his chair, an expensive-looking model with a shiny black shaft and a curved handle tipped with a sterling silver lion’s head.
“Don’t get up,” I said about five seconds too late.
“Young man, I’m not going to use my knee surgery as an excuse for poor manners.” His hazel eyes twinkled and his face blossomed with a robust smile. Clean shaven except for a fuzzy patch beneath his lower lip, he laughed and pumped my hand, shaking a wattle of loose skin hanging below his chin.
“Clayton Ford Henderson is a bit of a scoundrel, as you’ll soon learn,” Poe said. “And Quint Mitchell happens to be a private investigator, Clayton, so watch your step. Let me get you a beer.”
“Clayton Ford Henderson? Why does that sound familiar?”
“Ah, you must be a poetry critic as well as a detective,” Henderson said after seating himself and picking up his drink.
Poe returned from the kitchen with a beer and handed it to me along with a pilsner glass. He pulled a chair from the corner, pushing it toward the table. Eleanor scooted away from Henderson, making room for the chair.
“Come sit by me. You look like someone I should get to know,” she said, rubbing my forearm as I scrunched the chair closer to the table. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been hit on by an eighty-year-old woman.
Poe returned to our conversation. “I’m sure you’ve heard Clayton’s name before. He’s well known in literary circles and one of St. Augustine’s claims to fame since he’s a former Florida Poet Laureate.”
“Yes, a legend in my own mind, Mr. Mitchell. And please excuse my boorish manners. I neglected to introduce you to a man who plays a key role in my life right now.” Henderson turned and nodded at the blond man who watched us with a coquettish tilt of his head. The bemused smile still pasted on his lips, he struck me as one of those cynics who kept the world at arm’s length so he could better mock it.
“This is Jarrod Watts. PI meet PT. Jarrod’s a physical therapist and he has the sad duty of putting up with me and my bad habits. I’ve hired him to not only get me back on my feet, but to act as my caregiver for the next few months.”
Watts shook his head in amusement. “How bout it?” he said, hoisting his bottle toward me in greeting. He flashed his dazzling smile once again. I now realized his delicate lips were slightly curved at each end providing the illusion he found the world a humorous place.
I nodded in return to Watts who looked to be twenty-nine or thirty years old, although from the faint etchings around his pale blue eyes I thought he might be older.
“We were just toastin’ the demise of the Matanzas Bay project when you arrived, Mr. Mitchell,” Henderson said.
“Call me Quint.”
“Fine, and you can call me Mr. Poet Laureate.” Henderson chortled loudly and whacked my shoulder so hard beer sloshed over the rim of my glass.
“I told you he was a scoundrel,” Poe said, handing me a napkin. “But he’s serious about his toast. St. Augustine will never be the same if this abortion is allowed to be built.” The planes of his face shifted imperceptibly, and I felt all levity from the previous moment exit the room.
“Isn’t it a done deal? From what I’ve heard, the St. Johns Group is breaking ground in a few weeks.” Even though Poe worked for the City of St. Augustine, he’d been speaking out against it and making a nuisance of himself at city commission meetings.
“You bet your ass, it’s a done deal.” Grimes glared at me as though I had challenged him, tilting his head back and jutting out his jaw. He had sloping shoulders, the chest and biceps of someone who made daily pilgrimages to the gym. A scruffy beard covered his wide face. He’d pulled his hair straight back and tied it off in a stringy pony tail. “You know that bastard Marrano has greased this deal and nothing’s going to slow it down.”
“Yes, but we can always hope more lucid minds will prevail,” Henderson said. “I admit it looks like the vice mayor and Kurtis Laurance will surely win this one. Now there’s a pair of scoundrels for you. A man preparing to wear the governor’s crown and his personal toady on the city commission. Isn’t that right, Jeffrey?”
“There’s no doubt Marrano’s a cheap political hack who’d sell his mother for an extra vote, but Laurance is driving this train,” Poe snapped with uncharacteristic bitterness. He pushed himself away from the table. “Excuse me, gentlemen, but I’d better get back to our dinner or we’ll be forced to call out for pizza.”
“My, my, I seem to have hit a nerve,” Henderson said after Poe left. He held his empty glass toward Watts. “Jarrod, nature abhors a vacuum. Please help an old man out, won’t you?”
“Hold up, dude, I have to take a whiz.” Grimes got up and walked with Watts into the kitchen.
When they left, Henderson turned to me and asked, “You do know about Jeffrey’s skirmishes with Mr. Marrano?”
“Oh, do we have to go into that again?” Eleanor dug into a purse and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. “I’m going to check on Sir William while you two take turns boring each other. Young man,” she said to me, “make sure no one touches my drink.” Eleanor’s shoulders hunched forward slightly as she stood, like the floor had some magnetic power affecting calcified bones.