Authors: Parker Francis
I told her about my conversation with Erin Marrano.
“I’ve never met Mrs. Marrano,” Charla replied, “but I remember seeing her picture in the paper after they were married. She’s a lot younger than he was, maybe twenty years younger.”
“What’s she look like?”
Charla arched an eyebrow. “You want to know if she’s a hottie, don’t you?”
“Of course not. I was only wondering what kind of woman marries a man who will be trading his Jockey shorts for Depends before they reach their twentieth anniversary.”
She was accustomed to my so-called humor, and shook her head before answering, “I’ve never seen her in person, but she seemed quite attractive in the newspaper photographs. You can judge for yourself when you meet her.”
Unlike what’s portrayed on TV shows, a private investigator’s life isn’t very glamorous. Most of my days are spent on the computer or telephone tracking down people who are trying to avoid their debts. We call them skip traces, and I had one major client who paid me a good monthly retainer to find several hundred of these supposedly missing persons. I spent the rest of my time on background checks for sensitive positions and a growing number of insurance scams. If desperate, I’d been known to accept a few adultery cases, following and photographing wayward husbands and wives.
I paged through the outstanding skip traces, trying to focus, but my mind kept wandering to the dead man in the wicker basket and Jeffrey Poe. I eventually gave up and called Poe to tell him about Erin Marrano.
“She seemed to be a big fan of yours,” I said. “She wants to hire me to find her husband’s killer.”
“She does? That’s a surprise.” He said this without sounding the least bit surprised.
“You do know her, don’t you?”
“I used to speak to her classes when she was teaching, and we’ve run into each other at some city functions from time to time. That’s about it.”
“Since I’m coming to St. Augustine to meet with Mrs. Marrano, I was wondering if I might drop by your office first.”
“Of course, if you don’t mind being seen with a suspected murderer.”
I told him I’d be there in an hour or so. I left unasked the key question, not wanting to speak about it on the telephone. When we were face to face, I’d ask him about the bayonet.
My next call was to Serena Howard. I’d been avoiding this task since last Wednesday when she introduced me to her Uncle Walter. The gut-wrenching experience still reverberated in my mind. When Serena and I parted company afterwards, she seemed to close the door on any future we had together. I hoped we might meet for lunch today and perhaps find a way to resolve the growing tension between us. But Serena had other ideas.
“I have a lunch date with a client at noon,” she said when I reached her on the phone. I felt a touch of frosty air clinging to her words.
She paused before saying, “How about a quick cup of coffee at eleven-thirty?”
Checking my watch, I swiftly made the mental calculations—travel time, my meeting with Poe at ten-thirty—and agreed.
Poe’s office door was open. He stood over an ancient desk that might have been hanging around since Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Head down, rummaging through some papers, he didn’t see me standing there. His desk was surrounded by shelves of books and a cluttered table in the corner with two mismatched chairs.
Through an open connecting door, I glimpsed what may have once been a conference room, now packed with shelves and low tables overflowing with boxes of artifacts. Stacked on a workbench were trays of human bones spread out like a butcher’s display. Bowls of bone fragments balanced precariously atop the trays.
The mess reminded me of his home on Anastasia Island with its spare bedroom storing the growing piles of rubble from earlier civilizations. I knocked on the door jamb and Poe looked up, dark rings evident below his gray-green eyes.
“Quint, come in. Come in.” He shuffled a box from one of the chairs and gestured for me to sit before closing the door and sitting in the other chair.
He studied me a moment, a self-conscious look on his tired face. “I have to confess I wasn’t totally honest when you called this morning.”
“I knew Mrs. Marrano was going to call you. She phoned last night and told me she didn’t believe I killed her husband. A wonderfully supportive thing for her to do. You don’t know how much it lifted my spirits.”
“And …” I waited for the rest of the story.
“She wanted to know how she could help. I told her you and I were friends. That you were a private investigator.”
“She asked for your phone number and I gave it to her. I’m sorry if I took advantage of our friendship, Quint. You probably didn’t want to get involved in such a messy affair.”
“Not at all. You know I’ll do whatever I can to help you, and it can’t hurt to have the wife of the murder victim on your side. Hopefully, the police will take that into consideration, although Mrs. Marrano seems convinced they’ve already made up their minds about this case.”
He hung his head as if it had suddenly become too heavy to hold erect. When he looked up, he stared directly into my eyes. “You’ve got to believe me, Quint. I didn’t kill him. I admit I let my temper get the best of me. Marrano and the St. Johns Group were about to disembowel St. Augustine with that damned Matanzas Bay project. Hot-headed, yes, but that doesn’t make me a murderer.”
His eyes glistened with emotion as he spoke. I had no doubt he was telling the truth. But what about the bayonet? “Jeffrey, I have to ask you again about the bayonet.”
He nodded slowly, and I knew he’d been anticipating my question.
“You must have checked to see if it was still there when you went home last night.” He was still nodding. “Was it?”
The nodding stopped. “No. It wasn’t there.”
“You understand what this means? The murder weapon was in your possession, and the police will want to know how it ended up in Marrano’s chest.”
“I was awake all night asking myself the same question. I honestly haven’t seen it since our dinner two weeks ago. I don’t know what happened to it.”
“Have you had any visitors lately?”
He thought a moment before replying. “Had a few neighbors over for coffee and pancakes last Sunday morning.” He hesitated, then added, “Oh, one of the city maintenance workers came by last week with something he’d found in the park by Oyster Creek Marina.”
“What was that?”
“A piece of pottery. I brought him back to my storeroom to show him some other examples.”
“So he was in the room. Did you notice if the bayonet was still there?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“Who else has keys to your house?”
“Several neighbors, but it’s not like my house is a bank vault. I don’t have any special locks or security. It’s a quiet neighborhood, and sometimes I even forget to lock the door.”
“Has that happened recently?”
Poe rubbed a thumb over his chin, giving the question some thought. “As a matter of fact, I noticed the back door was unlocked last Thursday morning. I remember it because I’d gone out and done some weeding in the garden after work Wednesday and assumed I’d forgotten to lock it when I came in.”
“Was that unusual?”
“As I said, I’ve left it unlocked before, but …” Poe paused and scratched his head again. “I guess I’m losing it. Turning into the absent-minded professor.”
“You know sooner or later the police will find out you had the bayonet in your possession. Your prints might even be on it.”
I saw uncertainty and fear reflected in his eyes. “Do you have a lawyer?” I asked.
“You think I need one?”
“Probably a good idea. It would be best if you came forward with the news about the bayonet rather than waiting for the cops to dig it out. They’d think you were trying to hide it from them.”
“God, I don’t know what to think. None of this makes any sense.”
“Let’s go back to your run-ins with Marrano. Did you explain to Chief Conover and his detectives why you were fighting the project?”
“I don’t think they understand or even care.” He shook his head, and pink circles blossomed on his cheeks. “Lord knows I’ve watched them put up all kinds of tacky buildings in this town and kept my mouth shut. But this was too much. This so-called Matanzas Bay was going to be huge, totally out of character for St. Augustine.”
“But the city commission approved it,” I said, as if that explained everything.
“Yes, but that was part of the problem. Half of those commissioners ran for reelection last year. Kurtis Laurance funneled tens of thousands of dollars into their campaign accounts with Marrano pulling in twice as much as the others combined. With all that development money in the trough, do you think they’d vote against it?”
“I suppose they would if they thought it wasn’t right for the community.”
He gave me the kind of sad smile you might give to a backward child. “Laurance has the commission in his pocket. If he said ‘squat,’ all you’d hear were butts hitting the floor.”
Laurance again. His name kept cropping up.
“You think I’m paranoid, don’t you?” Poe asked.
“You know what they say, ‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.’”
I walked the few blocks from Poe’s office to the Casa Monica Hotel at the corner of King and Cordova Streets. While I waited for the light to change, I glanced across the street to admire Flagler College and the statue of Henry Flagler out front. Built in the Spanish Renaissance architectural style, the college began its life as one of Flagler’s luxury resort hotels attracting the rich and beautiful to Florida.
As I crossed the street, I caught a brief glimpse of a well-muscled man with dark, curly hair duck into the Lightner Museum on the opposite corner. I didn’t get a good look at his face, but my mind filled the void with the snarling visage of Sergeant Buck Marrano.
Shaking it off as the product of an overactive imagination, I entered the dimly lit restaurant of the grand old hotel. Built in 1888, the Casa Monica changed hands the next year when Flagler bought it to add to his growing hotel empire. It thrived for twenty years, but couldn’t make it through the Great Depression and the hotel closed its doors. Thirty years later the county purchased it and turned it into a courthouse. Today, the castle-like structure has reverted to a hotel and was the only Triple A-Four Diamond Award-winning hotel in St. Augustine.
I ordered a cup of coffee while I waited for Serena to make her appearance and thought about my conversation with Poe and what he said about the St. Johns Group.
Depending on how you look at it, developers either fuel Florida’s economic engine—providing jobs, attracting high-income employees, building communities—or they’re responsible for destroying our natural resources and polluting the environment. An argument can be made for both sides. I usually come down in the middle. Let’s face it, hundreds of people a day move to Florida for good reason. No state income tax may be high on their list, but the climate and the state’s natural beauty are hard to beat. The developers are simply helping to meet the needs of this influx.
Poe implied Laurance had paid off the commissioners. The last time I checked, campaign contributions were still legal, but I made a mental note to pay Mr. Laurance a visit if I could catch up with him between his campaign trips.
Serena stepped into the restaurant, cell phone to her ear, nodding vigorously to her cellular companion. For a moment, an image of another girl with a cell phone flared in my mind. Only a single flash of a horrendous memory, but unless I found a way to re-entomb it in my psychic cemetery, one image would soon cascade into a parade of horrors.
My best tactic for keeping the monsters below the surface was to concentrate on Serena. Without being overly dramatic about it, Serena was one of the most striking women I’ve ever known. The dozen male eyes riveted to her as she walked across the room reinforced my evaluation.
How many times had I seen men staring at her dark, exotic features, trying to determine her nationality and what fortuitous mixture of genes were responsible for such a stunning woman? The chiseled planes of her face and her tall, shapely figure were like a powerful magnet compelling a man’s attention and fueling their fantasies. Their open lust no longer bothered me. Not much, anyway.
If I’m honest with myself, something I try to do from time to time, I’d attribute my feelings for Serena to pheromones and plumbing, the blood rushing to extreme parts of my body and away from my brain. But some deeper attraction tugged at me, which is why our impending break-up seemed so painful and sad.
Seated beside me now, she said goodbye and put away her phone. Without thinking, I leaned over to kiss her, but she adroitly turned her cheek. Serena avoided public displays of affection in the best of circumstances, and our present relationship can’t be described as the best of anything. She looked past me, her honey brown eyes sweeping the room.
“What a morning. This is the first time I’ve stopped to take a breath,” she said with a small sigh.
“Breathing is pretty important. You should find time for it whenever possible.”
Finally, the hint of a smile lit up a face the color of a mocha latte. She has straight brown hair with a trace of auburn, stylishly short and parted in the middle. “I only have a minute, really,” Serena said. “I’m meeting with a representative from an insurance company. They want to hold their next conference here.”
“A solid two hundred and fifty room nights, plus meeting rooms and banquets.”
Serena wore a snug-fitting rose-colored silk suit along with delicate gold filigree hoop earrings and a matching bracelet on her right arm. Her legs were crossed, and I couldn’t help but notice the shortness of her skirt and the expanse of thigh it revealed. Surely, this must be one of the devilishly clever marketing tricks she used on insurance executives.
“After you add Mr. Insurance-man to your list of corporate conquests, you might feel the need to relax a bit,” I said. “Maybe we can we get together later tonight.” I leaned forward and put a hand on top of hers. “I really think we should talk.”