Authors: Parker Francis
I didn’t say anything.
“He tried to do his job during the day, but people called him all the time. He and his brother Buck own a camp near Palatka, and he’d drive over there just to get away. Even when it wasn’t hunting season.”
“It sounds like the honeymoon was over.”
“My mother would say, ‘The blush was off the rose.’”
“A wise woman, your mother.”
“Yes, a cliché for every situation. Let’s say things were difficult and it didn’t get any better.”
She raised a hand to the right side of her face, unconsciously fingering a spot along her cheekbone. A dark blotch was still visible beneath her carefully applied make-up. She’d done a good job concealing the bruise, but not quite good enough. I knew it wasn’t from her collision with the intruder since the handprint had been on the left side of her face.
“I believe I get the picture,” I said.
She snapped out of her reverie, dropping her hand to her lap.
“Tell me about the last time you saw your husband.”
“Saturday night. We were supposed to drive into Jacksonville and have dinner with friends, but he called to say he couldn’t make it. Some Republican Club function he needed to attend. He wanted me to go with him, but I decided to go to dinner with our friends. Didn’t get back until ten-thirty. Bill was home when I arrived, and had been drinking.”
She shrugged as if to say,
how much is a lot?
“He wasn’t knee-walking drunk, if that’s what you mean. But he wasn’t in a good mood either, and I’m afraid we had an argument.”
“Oh, he became rather childish
he’d been drinking. He thought I should have gone with him or stayed home and waited for him. The dutiful wife, don’t you know? It didn’t occur to him that he was gone almost every night while I sat home alone. I was frankly tired of it and told him so.”
“How did he react?”
She touched her cheek again. “He stormed out of the house and said he was going to spend the rest of the weekend at his hunting camp. ‘Get it ready for hunting season,’ I think is what he said.” Looking toward the front door, she shook her head sadly. “That was the last time I saw him.”
I waited a beat or two before following up. “Do you have any idea who might have wanted to harm your husband?”
“No, I really don’t. I know the police are looking at Dr. Poe, but I can’t believe he had anything to do with it.”
“How well do you know him?”
“I first met him when he came to speak to one of my classes. He has a remarkable way of making history come alive for the kids, and I made it a point to invite him back as often as possible. I didn’t tell my husband this, but I admired Dr. Poe for taking a stand against the Matanzas Bay project.”
“Maybe he stood up too often and too loudly.”
“Perhaps, but isn’t it refreshing to find someone so honest and passionate in defense of their beliefs? Bill was a politician through and through. Very skilled at answering questions without stepping on toes so no one could pin him down on an issue. That’s the difference between a politician and someone like Jeffrey Poe who says what he really means.”
I couldn’t argue with that, but standing up for his principles may have made Poe a target for the police. “Is there anyone else you think I should talk to about this?”
“Clayton Henderson is one of Dr. Poe’s closest friends. He also seems to have quite a network of confidants who keep him informed on everything going on in St. Augustine.”
“I’ve met Mr. Henderson. An interesting man. Lives in town, doesn’t he?”
“He bought the old Martinez House in the historic district and restored it beautifully.”
“What did your husband think about Mr. Henderson?”
She huffed through her nose derisively. “For all his public support for the arts, my husband had an antipathy for intellectuals and academics. Plus he was Dr. Poe’s friend.”
“Anyone else I should talk to?”
I watched as she rubbed her shoulder, thinking about my question. She finally said, “Not that I know of.”
“What about Kurtis Laurance? His name keeps coming up. Aside from being allies on the Matanzas Bay development, he and your husband were pretty close friends, weren’t they?” I recalled the photograph of Marrano and Laurance on the golf course. “Do you think he’d know anything about your husband’s death?”
“Of course not. He and Kurtis were almost inseparable. Bill was his campaign treasurer, and they’ve worked closely together to get this development off the ground ever since Kurtis moved to St. Augustine.”
Before I could follow-up with another question, her telephone rang. She excused herself and walked to the phone mounted on a nearby wall.
The conversation was one-sided. She listened, keeping her eyes on me, until she said, “Thank you,” and hung up. The glow was gone from her face now, the blemish on her cheekbone more pronounced.
Erin Marrano folded her arms below her breasts and took a deep breath before speaking. “That was Chief Conover. He wanted me to know that Jeffrey Poe has been arrested and charged with my husband’s murder.”
Even the largest, best-equipped police department normally took more than a day to investigate a murder case. Poe’s arrest meant he’d either confessed to the murder, which I didn’t believe, or more likely, Conover’s detectives had discovered what they believe to be overwhelming evidence. They probably found his prints on the bayonet, but they’d need more than that to make their case stick before a jury.
Knowing Poe’s history of depression, I figured he’d take his arrest hard. He needed a friend more than ever. As I drove, I called the County Jail and made an appointment to see him during tonight’s visiting hours. Erin Marrano may be my client, but Poe was my friend, and I planned to do everything in my power to clear him. That meant interviewing everyone who might be connected with the case, starting with Clayton Henderson.
I turned onto King Street hunting for a parking place. A white Ford Explorer slipped in behind me. He may have been following me from Erin’s house, but I was absorbed in Poe’s arrest and hadn’t noticed him. He stayed on my tail as I turned into the parking lot behind city hall. I climbed out and fed quarters into the parking meter before turning to find Sergeant Marrano staring at me through his Oakley Ducati’s.
“Sergeant, so nice to see you again,” I said with what I hoped was the appropriate degree of sarcasm.
He stepped toward me. I reflexively tensed myself in case he blew another valve.
“You’ve heard the news about Poe?” he asked.
“Didn’t take long to wrap it up,” I said. “One day. Must be some kind of record, even for a crack investigator like Detective Horgan.”
“We have a solid case, and Poe’s going to get the needle for what he did.” Marrano spoke quietly, under tight control, unlike the raw emotion he displayed yesterday.
“That remains to be seen, sergeant. From my perspective, this is a classic railroad job. The prosecutor will have to hold his nose when he presents the case, and the smell will probably gag the jurors.”
Marrano took another step in my direction, and I instinctively tightened my stomach muscles. He responded with a twisted smile. Removing his sunglasses, he said, “You’re talking out of your ass, Mitchell. But that’s what I’d expect from you. The evidence proves he’s the killer. We found his prints on the murder weapon, and—”
“Come on,” I broke in. “He must have told you why his prints were on the bayonet. There are three witnesses to back up his story.”
“You can think whatever you want, but there’s no doubt we have the right man. There is one other thing bothering me, though.”
The smug expression on his face didn’t waver as he waited for me to respond. Behind him, I spotted the long-neglected statue of Lady Justice standing on a stained pedestal. The statue’s arm, which normally held the Scales of Justice, was broken off at the elbow.
When I didn’t take the bait, he said, “This is where you say, ‘Okay, sergeant, what’s bothering you?’”
“I’ll bite. What’s bothering you?”
“They also found your prints on the murder weapon. That’s what bothers me. Be thinking of a good answer because Horgan will want to know when he brings you in today.”
“I’ll be glad to clear up the mystery for you, as I’m sure Poe did. There’ll be a lot of red faces when the truth comes out, sergeant. Not everyone believes you have the right man. In fact, your sister-in-law is one of those people. She’s hired me to find her husband’s killer since the police seem to have a bad case of tunnel vision.”
Marrano replaced his sunglasses. “I’ll make you a promise, Mitchell. If it turns out we’re wrong about Poe, I’ll personally apologize to both of you. But if I find out you had a hand in killing my brother, you’re not going to know what hit you.”
“You’ve already demonstrated your investigative techniques,” I said, patting my stomach. “But I look forward to your apology, and Mrs. Marrano will look forward to learning who really killed her husband.”
“Erin’s made a mistake,” he said stiffly, his jaw tightening. “Poe killed her husband. There’s no question about it, and you should do yourself a favor and back off.”
“You may be right, but I’m staying on the case until she tells me it’s over.”
“And I’m telling you if you don’t watch your step you’ll be wearing an orange jumpsuit and sharing a cell with your friend.” He leaned in close. I smelled stale coffee and fried fish on his breath.
“Listen, sergeant, I know you have a personal interest in this case, but Jeffrey Poe didn’t kill your brother. Someone’s obviously made a mistake.”
“You bastard,” he spit out, his rigid control suddenly replaced by a hot fury. “The only person making a mistake is you. And you can’t afford to make any more enemies around here.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
His lip curled into a sneer. “You forget where you are, don’t you? You’re not in Boston or New York. This is St. Augustine.”
When I looked at him blankly, he added, “You’ve already put yourself on some people’s shit list by dating that colored girl, Serena Howard. Don’t make it any worse on yourself.”
I hadn’t forgotten where I was, but maybe when I was. Wasn’t this the twenty-first century? Hadn’t we elected the country’s first African-American president? Marrano’s brand of ugly racism should have gone the way of those
signs once posted on rest rooms and above water fountains. An inner rage bubbled inside me, and I wanted to slam this ignorant redneck against the nearest palm tree and pound some decency into him. But I knew it was a lost cause.
He spun around without another word, got in his car and left me alone with my rage.
The Martinez House fit nicely into the B & Bs, restaurants, and private homes on Charlotte Street. The fortress-like structure came equipped with an overhanging second floor balcony, recently whitewashed walls, and a narrow, shaded front yard. Two Shaker style rockers sat on the porch and a couple of hanging fern baskets filled in the space between the milled posts.
I used the antique knocker to announce my arrival. Jarrod Watts opened the door almost immediately. He greeted me with his familiar bemused smile.
“Good to see you again, Mr. Mitchell,” he said, shaking my hand in a crushing grip.
“Hey, Jarrod. I wish you’d call me Quint, I’m not that much older than you.” He appeared to be about the age my brother Andrew would be if he were still alive.
He looked at me as though calculating my age before smiling broadly. “Sure, Quint. You here to see Mr. Henderson?”
“Is he home?”
Before Watts answered, a voice behind him boomed, “Jarrod, how long do you intend to stand there with the door open? Either move your ass so I can get a good look at our visitor or pull him inside before he faints from that gawd-awful heat.”
Henderson was obviously home.
Watts rolled his eyes at the outburst as if it was something he’d heard many times before, but he moved his ass aside and gestured for me to come in. I stepped into a large open room with exposed wooden beams, a fireplace, polished hardwood flooring, and Clayton Ford Henderson sitting in a Louis XV chateau cane chair next to the stairwell.
“Welcome to Martinez House, Quint. We’re pleased to share our humble abode with you.”
“You’re looking good, Clayton. How’s the knee?”
“Still setting off alarms in airports,” he said with a chuckle. “Actually it feels pretty good today. I’m only sittin’ because Jarrod just put me through a sadistic workout, and I needed to rest for a few minutes.” He pushed himself from the chair with a little effort and took a wobbly step forward to shake my hand.
Henderson’s wavy white hair was perfectly groomed, and a mischievous twinkle appeared in his watery gray eyes when he smiled. With his Deep South accent and southern charm, I imagined him in a white linen suit, standing on the veranda of a massive plantation house surrounded by women in ball gowns and servants dispensing mint juleps.
“I was hoping for a few minutes of your time.”
“Of course, as much time as you want. Why don’t we go upstairs to my study?”
I glanced at the short but steep flight of stairs and back to Henderson. “We can stay down here if it’s too much trouble for you.”
“Nonsense, I’m fine. Don’t you worry about me. Besides, Jarrod keeps telling me I need more exercise.” He had one hand on the chair as he waved me off. “You go on up, don’t wait for me.”
I took four or five steps before pausing to check on his progress. Three steps behind me, Henderson’s right hand gripped the railing as he carefully placed his leg on the next step. “What are you waitin’ for, Quint? I’ve climbed up and down these stairs a hundred times since my surgery. In fact, it’s been part of my daily—”
His left leg seemed to have other ideas and slipped out from under him. Before I could move Henderson toppled backwards into the waiting arms of Jarrod Watts.
His face paled, but Henderson quickly snapped into character. “Damn, Jarrod, you really are my knight in shining armor, boy. If I’d hit my head and croaked, I guess you’d be out of a job.”