Authors: Parker Francis
She pulled her hand out from under mine. Her eyes seemed to turn darker. “Not tonight, I’m afraid,” she said. “Two honchos from corporate are coming in this afternoon for long-range planning sessions, and we won’t break up until pretty late. Besides, we’re having dinner brought in for us.”
“How about tomorrow night? Are you free?”
She took her time before answering. “This week is crazy. Let’s make it Friday night at my place.”
“Your place? But I wanted to treat you to a nice dinner.”
“That’s okay. I’d like more privacy so we can talk.” I tried to read the far-away look on her face, but it remained distant and indecipherable.
Walking from the hotel to my car, I received a call from Charla telling me the senior vice president of Gulf Breeze Insurance wanted to see me at two o’clock. Today. I’d been pursuing their corporate business for six months. Landing this account would punch up my bottom line in a big way, adding another $100,000 to $150,000 to my gross income. I’d be able to hire another investigator and take a pass on those smarmy infidelity cases that left me feeling like I needed a shower.
As I slowly made my way along Castillo Drive toward San Marco Avenue, I checked the clock—11:55. Ahead of me, a horse and buggy conveyed a family of tourists at a ferocious five miles per hour while cars stacked up behind it. I simmered along with the other frustrated drivers, waiting for the buggy to turn onto another street. While I waited, I considered my present dilemma. Erin Marrano expected me at her house at 2:00, the same time as the insurance exec. Despite my amazing talents for detection, I’ve yet to locate the secret for being in two places at once.
I knew I might not get another chance if I blew off this meeting with Gulf Breeze. I told myself Erin Marrano would understand if I rescheduled our meeting, and kept driving. I passed the Mission of Nombre de Dios where Menendez supposedly knelt to kiss a wooden cross after he came ashore back in 1565. The site is marked by a massive stainless steel cross rising over two hundred feet above the marshes.
I had every intention of continuing north toward Jacksonville, but when I saw Myrtle Street approaching, I whipped the wheel to the right and followed Myrtle to Magnolia Avenue where Erin Marrano lived.
Magnolia was a curving residential street with a canopy of overhanging oak branches. I found the Marrano house and pulled in behind a silver Lexus parked in the driveway. The split-level stucco had a red-tiled roof. Several terra cotta pots filled with hosta and daisies lined the walkway, and I followed them to a handsome front door with frosted, beveled glass inlays. What looked like a handcrafted wreath hung on the door, grapevines stuffed with evergreens, pinecones, and some dried flowers.
I stood there studying the wreath as though I’d written my doctoral thesis on the decorative crafts of the South. I had to keep this short to make my appointment with Gulf Breeze Insurance. Knocking loudly, I stepped to one side expecting Mrs. Marrano to open the door. Instead, a woman’s scream jolted me. It came from inside the house and I grabbed the door knob. Locked.
“Mrs. Marrano, are you okay?” I banged on the door with the flat of my hand. Another scream. I ran around the side of the house to my right until I came to a wooden deck and a set of French doors. One of them hung open.
Inside, I saw the form of a woman on the floor half curled in a fetal position, one hand holding the side of her head.
“Help me, please help me.” Her hair was wet and she wore what my mother would have called a housecoat, a thin cotton wrap with a bright flowery print. I knelt by her side.
“Are you hurt, Mrs. Marrano? Did you fall?” I placed a hand on her arm.
She jerked at my touch, her eyes wide with terror.
“It’s all right. I’m Quint Mitchell. Can you sit up?”
She slowly pushed herself to a sitting position, dropping her hand from her head to grab the robe that gapped open enough for me to see she wasn’t wearing anything beneath it. I managed to redirect my eyes to her face and for the first time noticed the red imprint of a hand on her cheek.
“Who hit you?”
She pointed at the open door toward the back yard. “A man … in the house. He hit me and ran away.” Her lower lip trembled, and she touched the side of her face as though feeling the sting of the slap all over again.
I hurried onto the deck, surveying a yard of flagstone paths curving through flower gardens and beneath shade trees. No intruder in sight. A low picket fence surrounded the yard. Not a problem for someone to climb over and make his get-away.
“Whoever it was is long gone,” I told her after I returned.
I helped her to one of a pair of matching Queen Anne chairs in front of a tall bookcase. She thanked me and pulled her wrap around her, crossing her legs primly. A petite woman with finely chiseled cheekbones, Erin Marrano had a straight nose, wide mouth, and long dark hair. By any measure, she was an attractive woman, but her frosty blue eyes gave her an alluring, mysterious quality capable of igniting sparks in any man with a heartbeat.
She moved her right arm in a circle and massaged her shoulder.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so. Might have twisted something when I fell.”
“You should get it looked at. But now you need to call the police.”
“I suppose so, but I’ve seen enough police to last me a lifetime. And they probably feel the same about me.”
Her half-hearted smile brought a lump to my throat. I wondered what would happen if it had been a no-holds-barred, full-voltage smile.
“Thank goodness you …” A confused look passed over her face and she glanced at a little gold clock sitting on one of the bookshelves.
“Yes, I’m early.” I explained why I appeared at her door two hours before our appointment. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“My neighbors have been here most of the morning, and I finally shooed them away so I could shower, have lunch, and get ready for your visit. I’d just finished my shower and was drying myself …”
She paused and ran her fingers through her still damp hair while an image of a wet, naked widow Marrano snaked into my mind. She must have seen something on my face because she colored and folded her arms across her chest.
“I thought I heard a noise coming from Bill’s office,” she continued, gesturing at a room to our left. “I called out, ‘Who’s there,’ but no one answered. I put on my robe and went to the office door. And that’s where we collided.”
“He rushed from the office and nearly knocked me over. I grabbed onto him to keep from falling and he carried me a few feet toward the door before pushing … slapping me away. I don’t think he meant to harm me, but I was standing between him and the door.”
“Did you see what he looked like?”
She shook her head. “He was wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and jeans. But it all happened so fast. He was big, in a muscular way, not fat. You’re what—six-one?”
“Well, he was a few inches shorter than you. That’s about all I can tell you. I’m sorry.”
“You’re doing fine. It must have been quite a shock, especially after everything you’ve endured. Do you think it had anything to do with your husband’s death?”
“I doubt it. I’ve heard about burglars who read the obituary pages to find appropriate targets, checking to see when everyone would be away for the funeral. It was probably poor timing on his part and bad luck on mine.”
“I’d say you were very lucky it wasn’t more serious. I think you should call the police now, Mrs. Marrano.”
She rose from the chair and walked into a large, open kitchen. I listened while she reported the break-in and then returned to the living room. She paused in front of the open doors a moment, the bright sun shining through, and I glimpsed the shadowy outline of her trim body through the thin wrap.
“They’ll be here in a few minutes,” she said. “If you don’t mind waiting, I’m going to get dressed before they arrive.”
While she was getting dressed, I peered through the door of the office, trying to figure out what the burglar had been after. Numerous plaques lined the dark mahogany paneled walls. From where I stood I couldn’t read any of the inscriptions, but I imagined they were the typical awards civic organizations give to politicians to curry favor and stroke oversized egos.
Mixed in with the plaques were framed photographs of William Marrano with various dignitaries, including the last two governors. In one of the pictures, Marrano and Kurtis Laurance were grinning into the camera and holding golf clubs in the air as though they’d won a playoff with Tiger Woods.
An expensive rosewood desk faced a window overlooking the front lawn. Desk drawers were open with file jackets and papers strewn across the floor. On the desk a computer with a large monitor flickered from columns of characters to a blue screensaver. I glimpsed it briefly before it changed screens. Definitely an email inbox.
A matching hutch behind the desk contained books, a briefcase, and an expensive Nikon SLR digital camera. I’d recently priced the same model and knew it retailed for nearly $2,000. Most burglars snatched money or easily hocked valuables. Jewelry, electronics, cameras. Yet, this dude took the time to rifle Marrano’s desk and read his emails, but left the Nikon behind.
“It’s a mess, isn’t it?”
I hadn’t heard Erin Marrano walk up behind me. “Sure is, but it looks like you scared him away before he did any real damage. Tell me, were you using this computer?” I pointed toward the PC. She looked at it and started to enter the office, but I blocked her way. “Better not until the police have a chance to dust for prints.”
“That was Bill’s office, I seldom go in there. In fact, I have my own computer in the spare bedroom. A new iBook. Why do you ask?”
“Probably nothing more than a nosy burglar, but it seems like he was accessing your husband’s email.”
“That’s strange. Perhaps he—”
The chimes of the front door bell rang through the house, and Erin’s eyes flashed with uncertainty. The police had arrived.
There were lots of
as the police took Erin’s statement. Detective Horgan accompanied two uniformed officers and a crime scene investigator who dusted all the surfaces for latents. Horgan shot me his version of the hard-ass squint when he saw me. He took my statement, and once again I found myself explaining my role in another crime.
More than an hour had passed, and I knew I’d never make my two o’clock meeting in Jacksonville. While Horgan nosed around, I phoned Charla and asked her to plead my case with the insurance company. She rewarded me with a
tsk, tsk, tsk
like a mother hen, and I returned to watching the police dust the desk and computer for fingerprints. Burglars aren’t genetic engineers, but I had a feeling this burglar was too smart to leave his prints behind.
After they left, I asked Erin if she wanted me to come back tomorrow.
“You’re probably hungry,” she replied. “I’ll make us some sandwiches and we can go ahead with our meeting.”
She moved efficiently through a large kitchen that looked like it had recently been remodeled with expensive cabinets, granite countertops and brushed aluminum appliances. A large plastic pretzel container half-full of pennies occupied a space next to a built-in wine rack and seemed out of place in the nearly sterile kitchen. Erin picked up a half-dozen pennies sitting on the counter, offered me an embarrassed smile, and dropped them into the jar.
We said little as we ate, but after she cleared the dishes and poured us another glass of tea, I got down to business.
“You told me over the phone that you’ve lived in St. Augustine for seven-and-a-half years.”
“Yes, that’s right. I taught school in Huntsville, Alabama for about six years before moving here to accept another teaching job.”
“Why St. Augustine?”
“My old college roommate lives nearby in Ponte Vedra Beach. I came for a visit one summer, and she brought me to St. Augustine for lunch. I absolutely fell in love with this quaint old town. On a whim I applied for a job with the St. Johns County School Board. After returning home, I received a letter informing me they had an opening if I was still interested.”
“And how did you meet Mr. Marrano?”
She tilted her head back as though it happened in the distant past and she needed to dredge it out of her memory. “I attended a symphony concert at Flagler College with a friend of mine. Bill was there, and my friend introduced us. Back in Huntsville, we’d say he took a shine to me.”
“What about you? Did you take a shine to him?”
“Let’s say that I was a bit overwhelmed. Bill Marrano had a finger in everything in St. Johns County. He was on the city commission, owned a successful real estate company, and his family had been here for over two-hundred years.”
“Did you date long before he proposed?”
“About a year. He took me on a Caribbean cruise and we were strolling the deck after dinner one night when he proposed.” She adjusted her skirt, tugging the hem down a fraction.
“Very romantic,” I said.
“We were married two months later in the Cathedral.”
“When was that?”
“Three years ago next month. Not a very long marriage.”
I pressed on. “Any problems with the marriage?”
This is where it can get dicey. I’ve interviewed dozens of husbands and wives who were screwing around and most will put their individual spin on the facts. Men usually deny they were unfaithful until you lay out the photographs, but most women will ‘fess up quickly after they’ve been caught.
Erin Marrano didn’t hesitate. “The first year couldn’t have been better. Bill was attentive and we traveled a good bit.” A small, dark mole perched below the right corner of her lush mouth like an invitation for closer scrutiny, and I found myself staring at it.
“And after the first year?” I asked, regaining my focus.
“He ran for re-election, won, was appointed vice mayor. Every night he’d go to one meeting or another. He’d come home late and exhausted. You can imagine how that affected our marriage.”