Authors: Parker Francis
“That’s why I’m here, boss,” Watts said. He held the old man under his arms while Henderson steadied himself and grabbed the banister for extra support.
Watts followed him to the top of the stairs. When we reached the landing, Henderson said, “See, I made it fine, Jarrod. Now stop actin’ like a mother hen and make us some Anastasia Island Iced Tea. Care to join me, Quint?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Anastasia Island Iced Tea?”
“Surely you don’t think I’d serve anything called Long Island Iced Tea in my house? My dear old granddaddy would send the ghost of Stonewall Jackson to render me a new one.”
“I’ll have a taste,” I said. “Do you need to sit down?”
“My study’s right here.” He pointed toward an open doorway. “Give me that strong arm of yours, my friend.” Henderson squeezed my bicep the way you’d check a melon, and pulled me toward the open door.
We entered a large room with a high ceiling. While the downstairs seemed as immaculate as a model home, stacks of boxes, old newspapers and magazines covered the floor of Henderson’s study. We walked along a path cleaved through the middle of the piles of boxes to an open area by a window. Floor to ceiling bookcases lined both sides of the window and along one entire wall. A well-used desk and two chairs were perched between the windows. An old Royal typewriter, probably dating back to the nineteen-thirties or forties, sat on the desk.
Henderson eased himself onto one of the chairs, pointing to the other and waited until I sat. Waving toward the mounds of clutter, he said, “I trust you’ll excuse the condition of my study. I’m a hopeless collector, I’m afraid. It drives Jarrod batty.”
I smiled. “Reminds me a little of Jeffrey’s office. And the storeroom in his home, too, come to think of it.”
“Didn’t I say as much at dinner that night? Jarrod couldn’t believe anybody could be as much of a pack rat as I am. He told me we must have come from the same sperm bank.” His smile faded and he licked his thin lips. “Poor Jeffrey. I suppose you’ve heard he’s been arrested?”
“That’s why I’m here.” I told him Erin Marrano had hired me, of our meeting at her home, omitting the part about the burglary. He listened attentively while I spoke, his eyes never leaving my face. “You and Jeffrey are good friends, and I was hoping you might have some insights into the case. In fact, Mrs. Marrano suggested I should start with you.”
He nodded solemnly. “Erin is such a dear. She didn’t deserve this. Of course, she shouldn’t have married that cretin in the first place, but no one would wish such a dreadful thing on the commissioner, would they?”
Before I could answer, Watts entered the office carrying a tray with two tall glasses and a small dish filled with cookies.
“Ah, Jarrod, your timing is impeccable, as usual. I need this refreshment before launching into my tales.”
Watts placed the tray on the desk between us, and with the conspiratorial smile still on his face, retraced his steps through the mass of debris.
Henderson watched him walk away. “I was so fortunate to find Jarrod after my surgery. He has this knack for knowin’ just how far to push me.”
“Seems like a nice young man,” I said.
“Yes, and he likes poetry, believe it or not.” He picked up his glass, gestured a symbolic toast my way and downed half the glass in one gulp.
“Ah, that’s better,” he said, eying my untouched glass. I sipped it to be polite, knowing it would be all booze and no tea.
“You have your work cut out for you, Quint. From what I hear, Chief Conover and the State Attorney have already tried and convicted our friend. But Jeffrey made it easy for them.”
“How do you mean?”
“The skirmishes with Marrano at the city commission meetings. The imbroglio over the Matanzas Bay project. The whole pitiful mess. I’m afraid Jeffrey may have lapsed into a bout of temporary insanity.”
“But you were against this project, too, weren’t you?”
“It is a bit of a monstrosity. Like painting a mustache on the
“Did you ever accompany Jeffrey to the city commission meetings when he protested the project?”
“One time. That’s all.” He cast an odd look my way before taking another swallow of the tea. “It was obvious from the start that the development was
a fait accompli
“Yet Jeffrey kept butting heads with Marrano. Did he really hate the man?”
“Jeffrey considered Marrano to be a self-serving politician, but I wouldn’t say he hated him. No, he saved his hatred for Kurtis Laurance.”
“But Marrano pushed it through the city commission.”
“If you want to know the truth, Kurtis Laurance may have good reason to celebrate Mr. Marrano’s unfortunate demise.” He raised one feral eyebrow and fixed me with a look like an exclamation point on his not so subtle accusation.
“I’m a little confused,” I said. “From what I’ve heard, Marrano was leading the charge on this project from the very beginning. How could Laurance benefit by his death?”
“Mr. Marrano’s family goes back to the Minorcan settlers here in St. Augustine. You know about them, don’t you?”
I indicated that I did. These were a group of indentured servants recruited from the Island of Minorca and elsewhere in the Mediterranean several hundred years ago to help build and work the colony of New Smyrna a hundred miles to the south. Many of them ended up in St. Augustine, and their descendants are influential in the community to this day.
“Despite his other failings,” Henderson continued, “and he had many, I believe Marrano truly loved St. Augustine and didn’t want to see it harmed. The story I heard is that somewhere along the line, his conscience got the better of him and he had a change of heart about the Matanzas Bay project.”
This didn’t fit into anything I’d learned about William Marrano. “Wasn’t it too late to change his mind? They’re breaking ground in four days.”
“Never underestimate the power of a reformed vice mayor. Marrano had called a special meeting of the commission for Thursday night, and there were rumors he would try to put the project on hold until he could either kill it or downsize it substantially.”
“And you think this is what got him killed?”
“Quint, believe me when I tell you I’m a man who hates clichés, but I’ll ask you to do the math. Matanzas Bay is a two hundred and ninety-five million dollar project. Laurance has thirty million of his own money wrapped up in it.”
“You know he’s runnin’ flat out for governor. Casting himself as a clear-headed, successful businessman. An alternative to business as usual in Tallahassee. Hell, some people are saying he has his eye on the White House down the line. How would it look if this development goes down in flames and he has to declare bankruptcy?”
I watched him swallow more of the tea and place the glass back on the tray before adding, “Laurance had thirty million reasons to make sure that commission meeting never took place.”
Afterwards, I returned to my car to discover Detective Horgan waiting for me. Even though Chief Conover took Buck Marrano off the case, I had a feeling the sergeant still pulled the strings and told Horgan where to find me.
“About time you got back, Mitchell. I’ve been sitting here sweating my ass off for nearly an hour.” Horgan squinted through a haze of smoke from the cigarette clamped in the corner of his tight little mouth. “
Let’s take a ride
. We have more questions for you.”
Not that I believed Horgan capable of the violence Marrano displayed, but Let’s take a ride sounded like a line from a bad gangster movie. “Sure, detective, but I’ll follow you. Lead the way.”
No surprise why they wanted to question me. Had to be the bayonet. But interviews work both ways, and I hoped to learn more about their case. Poe’s prints on the murder weapon were easily explained. They might as well release him now if that was all the forensic evidence they had.
Minutes later we arrived at the SAPD on King Street. Horgan steered me through the lobby where the same spectacled receptionist sat behind the desk.
“In here,” Horgan said, punching his identification code into the security box next to the door, and pulling it open. We walked along a dim hallway, past the communications center, past a few small offices and stopped in front of a door marked Interview Room. He flipped on the light and nudged me through the door.
A narrow table covered with a faux granite laminate jutted from the wall like the prow of a ship. The table was bolted to the floor and flanked by the same black plastic chairs populating the lobby. Horgan pointed to the chair on the left side of the table so I’d be facing the mirrored observation window. He stood in the doorway a moment before another man joined him. The newcomer appeared to be about forty with a head shaped like a fleshy Idaho potato. With his circular cauliflower ears and flattened nose he reminded me of Mr. Potato Head wearing a buzz cut instead of a derby hat. The man must have been a boxer or wrestler at one time, but his muscles had morphed into soft rolls of fat. He wore a short-sleeved white dress shirt, a narrow striped tie and a perpetual blush that made his face look like a freshly cut carrot.
Both of the men stepped inside before Horgan closed the door and took the seat across from me. The other man plunked a large black storage box on the table between us. I caught the sharp tang of his body odor. “This is Detective Thompson,” Horgan grunted.
I nodded to Thompson who ignored me.
“Let’s go over how you came to be working with Dr. Poe the other day, and then tell us again about digging up the victim.”
“Why don’t you look in your little notebook? I already gave you a statement.”
“Humor us. Sergeant Thompson wasn’t there at the time and he wants to hear the story straight from the horse’s mouth. Isn’t that right, Dan?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” Thompson leaned against the wall to the left of the observation window, a wattle of flesh hanging below his crossed arms. He was shorter than Horgan but probably outweighed him by fifty pounds.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ve been a volunteer on Poe’s excavations on and off for the past four years.”
“What makes a PI want to volunteer to dig ditches?” Horgan asked.
“What makes you want to dig into other’s people’s dirty laundry?”
“For such a smart guy, you seem to have missed the point of our interview. This is where we ask the questions and you answer them. So answer.”
“I took some archaeology courses in college and we were required to take part in a few surveys.”
Horgan said, “So, you like digging in the dirt, finding bones and shit.”
I ignored his sarcasm. “There’s more to it than that. Dr. Poe said each survey is a mystery. We’re digging to help solve the mystery, finding clues to how people lived hundreds of years ago.” I paused and smiled at the two detectives. “Finding clues. Solving mysteries. Maybe you should try it some time.”
“Okay, we get it, smart ass,” Thompson said. “Tell us about digging up Sergeant Marrano’s brother.”
I walked them through the entire afternoon step by step without leaving out anything except my phone call. I told them how we dug the post holes and garbage pits. How each shovel full of dirt is analyzed and recorded. How we discovered the new depression after the weekend rains and added it to the other sites. And finally, how I uncovered the wicker hamper containing Marrano’s corpse.
“Did you know Commissioner Marrano?” Thompson asked before squeezing past Horgan to sit at the other chair facing me.
“Not really. A former client introduced us at a restaurant last year. That’s the only time I ever saw the man until Monday.”
Horgan’s eyes flicked down at the box on the table then back to me. “I’m sure you had a good look at Mr. Marrano when you opened up the basket. Did you see anything familiar?”
The preliminaries must be over. Now they were getting around to the real reason they hauled me here. “Familiar? Well, we recognized Marrano, if that’s what you mean.” I wasn’t going to make it easy for them.
“Sure you did. But what else?” Horgan lifted the top from the storage box and reached inside. He withdrew a sealed plastic bag containing the Spanish bayonet. “You’ve seen this before, haven’t you?” He held the bag by one corner and dangled it inches from my face.
“Why play games? I’m sure Poe told you about the dinner at his house two weeks ago. There were six of us there and probably everyone but the old woman touched the bayonet.”
“That’s what Poe said, but we wanted to hear your version,” Thompson said. “Why didn’t you mention the bayonet when you gave Detective Horgan your statement?”
I gazed at the stained bayonet in the evidence bag and back to Thompson. “This bayonet is only one of dozens Poe’s found.”
“But this is the only one used to kill a St. Augustine official and has Poe’s fingerprints on it,” Horgan said, his voice rising slightly at the end as though he asked a question.
“And, we found partials of your prints, as well,” Thompson added.
“That’s because we both handled the bayonet that night, damn it.” How many ways did I have to tell them the same thing before they understood? “Besides, I couldn’t be sure it was the same one. Not like it had a tag on it or anything.”
Horgan stared at me, a slight smile playing across his thin lips. “You’re not the only history buff around here, Mitchell. We did a little research of our own and learned this was the only bayonet they’d found with a bone handle. So, don’t give us this crap about not being able to tell one from the other.”
“Okay, it looked familiar, but I couldn’t be sure it was the same one. Everything happened so quickly, and then you guys came and chased us away.”
“All right, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get a straight answer from you. Where were you Saturday night, say from ten to two a.m.?” Horgan asked.
“Had pizza with a friend in Jacksonville Beach, and then we went to Pete’s Bar and played three or four games of pool. I was home in bed by eleven-thirty.”
“Alone?” Thompson asked.
“Afraid so. I guess you could ask Bogie and Dudley, they’ll vouch for me.”
This caused some confusion before I explained that Bogie and Dudley were my pets. Then Thompson asked for the name and number of my friend and I gave it to him.