Authors: Parker Francis
“I’ll be right back, Jeffrey,” she shouted. “I need to check on Sir William.” She gave us a puckered smile, flashing yellow teeth, and shuffled away, one hand in front of her as though holding onto an invisible railing.
After she left I asked Henderson, “Sir William? Is that what she calls her husband?”
“She’s a widow, but she probably treats her dog better than she did her husband. But back to my question about Marrano and Jeffrey.”
I knew Poe and William Marrano had clashed over the real estate development on more than one occasion. At a city commission meeting one night, Poe came close to being fired after he lost his temper and accused the vice mayor and the St. Johns Group of selling out St. Augustine’s heritage to increase tax revenues. The three hundred million dollar project had both political and popular support so Poe appeared to be tilting at windmills.
“We’ve talked about it before and, frankly, this thing is going to happen. In the end, it might even be good for St. Augustine.”
“That’s what Laurance and Marrano want everyone to think,” Henderson retorted. “But if the truth be known, Kurtis Laurance doesn’t give a damn about what’s good for St. Augustine. He’s countin’ on another development feather in his cap to help him get elected governor of this fair state of ours.”
Both Watts and Grimes returned with fresh drinks.
“You still talking about the Matanzas Bay development?” Grimes asked.
“I was just giving our private eye a refresher course on Florida politics,” Henderson said.
“It’s all bullshit. Politicians promise you the world when they’re campaigning, then stick it to you when they’re in office. We should send them all packing.” Grimes puffed out his cheeks and blew a mouthful of air toward the ceiling.
“Don’t hold back, Dude. Tell us what you really think.” Watts said, holding his clenched fist toward Grimes who bumped it with his own.
“Well, you may have a point there, Denny, but I was telling Quint about Kurtis Laurence and his ambitions to be our next governor.”
If Henderson was a former Poet Laureate, then Kurtis Laurance should receive
honors. As CEO of the St. Johns Group, he had offices throughout the South besides his new home office at the World Golf Village outside of St. Augustine.
“You know he’s been tapped by the political string-pullers to be our next reigning monarch,” Henderson said, referring to the governor’s office in Tallahassee. “They need someone to pull their nuts out of the fire after the gambling story hit the papers.”
The media had blasted Florida’s present governor and key legislators, tying them to illegal contributions from lobbyists who hoped to bring casino gambling to the Sunshine State.
“There’s nothin’ wrong with a little graft,” Henderson continued. “Hell, it’s an old American tradition. But we expect our leaders to be discreet and not get caught with their fingers in the honey pot.”
“With the smell rising out of Tallahassee these days, Laurance seems to be a pretty good choice to clean things up,” I offered.
, as my grandpaw used to say.” Henderson winked at Grimes when he said bull puckey, then leaned in to me, placing a wrinkled hand on my arm. “But you better not let Jeffrey hear you talkin’ like that. He’s totally against this project and against Kurtis Laurance. You don’t want to be sent home without your supper, do you?”
“Actually, he knows where I stand. He agrees the Matanzas Bay project probably makes good economic sense for the city, but, of course, not with a contemporary high rise.”
“It will suck the character right out of this city,” Poe yelled from the kitchen.
I didn’t realize he’d been listening. Attempting to change the subject, I raised my voice and asked Poe, “Do you have any new digs coming up, doc?”
“A small excavation at Trinity Episcopal Parish next week. I could use another hand.”
From my previous visits, I knew Poe preferred for his guests to leave him alone while he cooked, but the mouth-watering aroma wafting over us pulled me into the kitchen. “Count me in for a few days,” I said, referring to the dig. “God, that smells good. What is it?”
He muscled an oversized cast-iron skillet from the stove to a side table holding four cream-colored bowls. “Gail’s Jambalaya. It’s the most fantastic thing you ever put in your mouth,” he said, spooning steaming heaps into the bowls. “Do me a favor and herd the others into the dining room while I finish what I’m doing.”
While I did the herding, Eleanor returned, the smell of smoke trailing after her. “You’re just in time,” Henderson said. “Our master’s voice is beckoning us to dinner.”
It turned out to be a New Orleans-themed meal including red beans and rice with beer bread topped off with strawberry beignets and chicory coffee.
After dinner, as we nursed our coffee, I asked Poe if he’d dug up anything interesting lately. Poe’s downtown office overflowed with artifacts waiting to be catalogued, and he had a habit of carrying some of the better ones home so they wouldn’t be lost or damaged.
Poe’s eyes glittered with excitement as he jumped to his feet. “You won’t believe what we found.”
“Oh, God, Jeffrey. I think I’ve had enough excitement for one night.” Eleanor used Poe’s arm to pull herself to her feet. “You’re a dear for inviting me, but this old broad needs her rest.”
“Are you sure?” Poe asked.
“The meal was delicious. You boys have fun.” Eleanor winked at me. “And you, sonny …” She searched for a name. “I’m sorry, my memory isn’t what it used to be.”
“Quint,” I said.
“Quint. Yes. Quint, if I was thirty years younger, I’d be all over your bones.” She leaned over and planted a soggy kiss on my lips before departing, looking like a geriatric version of Mrs. Robinson.
Everyone got a charge out of that.
Poe jumped in to help me out. “Do you want to see my new find or not?”
We followed Poe into a spare bedroom lined with wide shelves. The shelves held an assortment of labeled boxes as well as a patchwork of earthenware bowls, buckles, and twisted iron spikes. A warped and scarred workbench stacked with boxes and trays of artifacts dominated the middle of the room. Laid out on the table were pieces of glazed dishes in varying patterns and colors as well as a remarkably intact rust-colored cook pot. Poe put his hand on the pot and beamed.
“We found this at the San Juan del Puerto mission site. Isn’t it a beauty?”
Henderson waved his arm at the table full of artifacts. “If I didn’t know better, Jeffrey, I’d say you’re almost as big a packrat as I am.” He’d been drinking heavily the entire evening and his words came out as
Isay yolmos asbigga packra’ as I’m
The old poet leaned on his cane with one hand and with the other reached toward a second box nearly toppling it from the table. “Hey, this ‘ould commin handy for filletin’ catfish,” he slurred.
Grimes and Poe moved in unison. Grimes grabbed the box before it tumbled to the floor. Poe snatched a wicked-looking dagger from the pile before Henderson could pick it up.
Henderson looked like someone had slapped him in the face. “What’s wrong, Jeffrey, you don’t want me playing with your toys?” Henderson may have been speaking to Poe, but he put his hand on Grimes’ shoulder and pushed him away.
Grimes, who’d been drinking almost as much as Henderson, glared at the old man, his eyes hard and menacing. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you drunks shouldn’t play with sharp objects?”
Watts stepped toward Grimes, but Poe inserted himself between them still holding the bayonet above his head. “Take a look at this thing.” Poe’s voice cut through the tension. “This is a real find.”
We all turned to look. “Sure is,” I said.
Poe beamed, “Yeah, it’s one of the better bayonets we’ve found in the fifteen years I’ve been in St. Augustine.”
“That’s unusual for a bayonet, isn’t it?” I asked. “The bone handle, I mean. Most of the bayonets I’ve seen had wood plugs. Or they did before they rotted off.”
Poe nodded in agreement. “The military bayonets of that period were very plain, but the later ones, from sixteen-eighty on, had more decorative elements. I’ve seen them in other collections, but this is a first for us.”
He passed it to me for closer inspection and I admired the filigree design and noted the wide, lightning-shaped crack dissecting the bone handle.
“Very nice,” I said and handed it to Grimes who gave it back to Poe.
“Now, it’s time to put these old things away.” Poe replaced the bayonet in the box and looked at Henderson. “I’m afraid that means us old folks, too.” He smiled at Watts and me. “And you younger folks, as well.”
Henderson sagged against Watts, his eyes half closed.
“Jarrod needs to take you home and put you to bed, Clayton.”
“Hell, I’m good for anotha three or four hours,” Henderson grumbled.
“You’ve managed to drink us all under the table again, Mr. Henderson,” Watts said, putting an arm around the old man’s waist. He gently pulled Henderson toward the door. Watts smiled sheepishly, as if to say,
the old guy’s a pistol, isn’t he?
I followed them as Poe turned off the light and closed the door to his storage room. Poe then did an extraordinary thing. Coming up behind me, he tousled my hair and gave me a smile filled with such affection I was taken back to a time when my father would look at me that way.
Poe put his head close to mine and whispered in my ear, “I’m so glad you came tonight, Quint. It means a lot to me.”
I finished my run and was back at my place before seven-thirty. I lived on First Street, across from a pizza place and a popular hangout known for the length of its happy hour and the tightness of the waitresses’ shorts. People are amazed when they learn I own this building, along with the bank, of course, but they should have seen it fifteen years ago. This end of Jacksonville Beach had deteriorated into a stretch of seedy bars, boarded up storefronts, and a couple of adult book stores.
I’d been based at Mayport Naval Air Station before they shipped me out to the Persian Gulf for the first big blow-up with Saddam. After I returned and later separated from the Navy with a nice amount in my savings account, I looked around for an investment. This old building appealed to me because of its location, its size, and the fact the owner desperately wanted to unload it.
Over the next three years, I converted the four small retail stores on the ground floor to two larger business suites. One of them was now my office, Mitchell Investigative Services; the other I rented to a small graphic design and advertising firm.
Back in my apartment, I fed Bogie and my cat Dudley. Not that Dudley would let me forget. He’s developed a habit of pushing against my ankles and yowling loudly to be fed, so I poured a half-cup of hard food into his dish and headed to the shower.
The phone rang as I toweled off, and I padded out to answer it. Surprisingly, William Marrano’s name popped up on my digital readout along with a St. Augustine number. “Hello, Quint Mitchell here,” I said in my best business voice.
“Mr. Mitchell, this is Erin Marrano.” She paused, but before I could respond she said, “William Marrano was my husband.”
The statement resonated with a sense of sorrow, but her voice had a soft, hopeful note and an underlying strength. “Yes, Mrs. Marrano, I’m very sorry for your loss. How can I help you?”
“I understand you found his body.”
“That’s right. I’ve been working with Dr. Poe as a volunteer on the Trinity Church survey.” I prepared myself for another Buck Marrano-style blast against Poe.
“Dr. Poe didn’t do this terrible thing.” I caught a slight tremor in her voice.
“I’m on your side there, Mrs. Marrano. Jeffrey and I are close friends, and I know he could never murder anyone. But the police seem to have the investigation under control. I’m sure they’ll sort it out.”
“The police questioned me yesterday, and I had the feeling they’ve already sorted it out. They’re building a case against Dr. Poe.”
“It’s only natural they start with him because of his differences with your husband. They’ll expand the investigation when they realize there’s no evidence connecting Jeffrey to your husband’s murder.” A picture of the Spanish bayonet sticking out of Marrano’s chest burst into my head.
“Mr. Mitchell, I’ve only lived in St. Augustine for seven-and-a-half years, but I’ve learned there are several versions of justice in this city.”
“It’s a small town.”
“Yes, and your friend needs an advocate. I’d like to hire you to prove his innocence and find the real murderer before they send the wrong man to prison.”
The lady knew which buttons to push. “I am his friend, but the police have the equipment and experience to—”
“You are a private investigator?”
“Yes, but murder is more than a few compass points off my usual investigations. I specialize in tracking down people who are lost for one—”
She interrupted me again. “Someone butchered my husband, Mr. Mitchell. Jeffrey Poe is under suspicion only because he stood up for his principles. I want you to find the animal that did this and make sure he’s brought to justice.”
Her breath seemed to push itself through the phone and my ear tingled with the phantom sensation. “Please, Mr. Mitchell, you have to help me and help your friend.”
I tried to put a face to the angry widow who I assumed was in her fifties since William Marrano had been fifty-six when he died. “I’ll do what I can,” I finally said.
“Good. How soon can you meet with me?”
“My morning is pretty well tied up. How about after lunch? Say, two?”
She gave me her address. I told her I looked forward to meeting her, and I meant it. Her voice had been hypnotic in its intensity. I wanted to see the woman who owned it.
Charla Huggins was already at work when I entered the office. Young and well-organized, Charla ably filled the role of office manager and part-time associate. This morning, though, I hoped to tap into her knowledge of the old city.
Charla’s family had lived in St. Augustine for generations, and she seemed to know everyone who was anybody. She greeted me with a broad smile displaying both uppers and lowers. She reminded me a little of Kyra Phillips, the news anchor on CNN.