II. How Simon Templar Dined With Artists, and Ron Josselin Lost His Temper

 

 

 

Promptly at five-thirty, Simon Templar strolled out through the varnished oak doors of the opulent Hotel Ponce de Leon, and found Tania waiting for him in her modest green Ford. A pleasant drive of some twenty minutes followed, as they crossed over the Bridge of Lions and wound their way south along the narrow strip of land known as Anastasia Island.

 

Belying the tropical image of the Florida coast, the inland side of the barrier island was greenly forested with ancient live oaks. The red-capped black-and-white spiral of the lighthouse did not cling romantically to the shifting sands of the shore, but was instead set well back among those trees over which it towered, casting out its beam like a great Cyclopean eye. Beyond this the highway curved and ran parallel to the coast, where palm-trimmed beach cottages were interspersed with the hauntingly bare and windswept winter skeletons of orange groves. Red-and-gold firewheel flowers flamed along the roadside—in some places sparsely, and at other points nearly carpeting the ground. Although it was an eastern coast, the sky was streaked with pink and blue sunset shadows, and the nearly full moon hung low over a strikingly silver ocean.

 

Their destination was Stasi’s, a modern inn on Crescent Beach, which was as attractively eccentric as anything the Saint had encountered on his sojourn so far. A dozen cheerful bungalows for rent sprawled alongside a two-story restaurant that was all picture windows and Art Deco angles, set off to a beautiful effect by its seaside backdrop. The interior décor, colored in muted warm hues, was a zesty mix of nautical kitsch and Grecian patterns integrated into sleek modern lines—all of which somehow contrived not to be incongruous. The menu reflected the legacy of the Minorcan refugees who had migrated north from a failed colony—now the city of New Smyrna—during the state’s British period. It consisted largely of Greek dishes, along with items of native fish and a few prerequisite Spanish influences.

 

“How do you want to be introduced?” Tania asked perceptively, as they strolled through the etched-glass front doors. She had metamorphosed drastically from the careless artist of that afternoon, clothed in a slender black dress of alluring simplicity—the curves of which confirmed beyond all doubt Simon’s previous judgment that the artist was pure Woman underneath the paint-spattered mock.

 

“My own name will do,” he replied indifferently. “I’m not here to play out any of those performances under nom de plume for which I’m so paradoxically famous. Besides, I’m somewhat curious to see how your friends will react to me… Mr. Josselin in particular.”

 

“Oh, I expect there’ll be a reaction, alright,” Tania murmured.

 

The maître d’ clearly knew Tania, for he greeted her by name, and guided them upstairs to a table overlooking the beach and the rolling surf. One man was already there, and he stood up as they approached. He was slight of build and somewhat dark in coloring, with smooth tan skin and crisp black hair, and a fine-boned erudite face that was saved from a look of delicacy only by a neatly trimmed beard. Yet the svelte softness of him was offset, as well, by obsidian eyes that were sharp and intelligent—and upon seeing that Tania had a stranger in tow, they took on an expression that Simon could only describe as guarded.

 

In a curiously appealing way, he reminded the Saint of a sleek panther that gazed out through jungle foliage—trying to decide, in the fabulously omnipotent attitude of all Felidae, whether to eat an intruding white hunter or just loftily forbear his presence. It was a quiet self-assurance that Simon instantly sensed and respected.

 

“Good evening, Tania,” the man said, in a soft voice. The ineffably foreign impression about him was confirmed by the ghost of an accent, although it was too faint for Simon to identify from those first three words.

 

Tania greeted him with a warm smile and a handclasp. “Hello, Alex. You’re early again.” She turned cheerfully to the Saint. “I keep telling him he’s much too punctual to be an artist. Simon, meet Alex Cordona, one of the brightest talents in town.” Then to Cordona, with a bit more gravity: “This is a friend of my father’s—Simon Templar.”

 

Although the slight lifting of Cordona’s eyebrow was unmistakable, he did not acknowledge the Saint’s more notorious identity. Instead they shook hands; and the cool hand that met Simon’s was as slender and elegant as the rest of Cordona’s build, but the sinuous dexterity of an artist could be felt in his fingers.

 

“You come from Spain, Mr. Cordona?” Simon asked conversationally as they sat down.

 

“I was born there,” Cordona replied. “But I travel a great deal, and it has been many years since I called any place my true home.”

 

“Judging from his paintings, you’d never know Florida wasn’t his home,” Tania offered, and the note of enthusiasm in her voice was just a bit more eager than that of one professional’s admiration for another. “He does historical portraits—and the detail of his conquistadors and Seminoles is just amazing. He’s even written a few books about the local history, and illustrated them himself.”

 

“It is my interest,” Cordona asserted humbly.

 

“I’d like to see your work,” Simon said interestedly. “With praise from such a learned critic, you must be good.”

 

“I am certain you will have an opportunity to look at my paintings. There will be an arts market in the plaza this weekend, and I will have several works there.”

 

A waiter flitted over to their table to ask if they were ready to order. Simon was prepared to decline until the rest of their party arrived, but Tania waved a dismissive hand. “You know how we artists are, Simon. If Joss or Gilbert have gotten any creative brain flashes today, they could be another hour or more. We might as well have an appetizer at least.”

 

In short order, they had started in on a plate of dolmathes, made of rice rolled into grape leaves. Their conversation proved to be unexpectedly comfortable; although Cordona’s voice remained quiet and rather solemn, it soon became clear that this was merely a part of his natural demeanor, rather than a sign of shyness. He expounded upon local history with a knowledge and vividness that the Saint found most engaging—in particular his tales of pirates and plunder, such as the burning of St. Augustine by Sir Francis Drake in 1586.

 

Tania gave every sign of enjoying the colorful history lesson as much as the Saint did, even though she must have heard all of those stories before during her residence in the city. Several times she even prompted Cordona on a point he had passed over. Indeed, Simon perceived that Tania’s interest in the Spaniard went beyond that of a friend and fellow artist—although it was an open question whether Cordona had noticed. There seemed to be a Spartan austerity about him, an almost monastic intellectual devotion that reserved his zeal for matters of art and history.

 

At last, more than forty minutes after Tania and Simon’s entrance, the boom of a deep chesty voice heralded the arrival of their other two expected dinner companions.

 

“Hello, Tania, Alex!”

 

The greeting was not phrased with the enthusiasm of an exclamation, but the mere pitch and volume of the voice turned it into one. Simon shifted in his chair to look over his shoulder, and saw two men approaching the table.

 

There was no mistaking the one who had spoken. He was a large, powerful grizzly of a man, with somewhat haphazard red-gold curls and a full beard. Flinty pale-blue eyes gazed out from a face that was ruddy and hard-set with a look of permanent apoplectic irascibility. His grim expression could not even be lightened by his colorfully bohemian attire—frayed jeans, sandals, and a loudly tropical shirt that was unbuttoned halfway to the waist, displaying not only a furry barrel chest but a tangle of cord necklaces adorned with shells, shark’s teeth, and sundry other native objects. His huge hands were weighted with two fistfuls of large silver rings that he wore like brass knuckles, and as he reached out to pump Cordona’s hand with a bone-rattling vigor that for him must have been merely perfunctory, Simon caught a glimpse of an unidentified tattoo beneath the edge of a short sleeve.

 

His companion could not have posed a greater contrast. A plump, bland-faced, clean-shaven, and entirely innocuous figure of middling age, he was easily the least artistic-looking fellow the Saint had ever seen. In his neatly pressed gray trousers and navy blazer, he would have looked much more at home on a golfing green amidst a party of staid and complacent bankers—or even selling vacuum cleaners on someone’s doorstep. He trailed behind the gaudy human bear like a discombobulated buoy in the wake of a luxury liner, his chubby cheeks creased by a polite but eternally puzzled-looking smile.

 

“Hi, Joss!” Tania met the bear with a heartfelt—but plainly platonic—hug, and was briefly engulfed within his brawny arms as he reciprocated. Then she merely shook the hand of the mismatched butterball before turning to Simon.

 

“This is the friend I was telling you about, Ron Josselin—and that’s Gilbert Giddens. Boys, meet Simon Templar.”

 

Giddens ingenuously gave Simon a hand that felt like a bundle of bait fish, saying “Hello” in a voice reminiscent of a deflating balloon—but Josselin regarded the interloper keenly for a moment before extending his own beefy paw. “So you’re the Saint. Heard plenty about you from Tania… among other places.”

 

Simon met the man’s vise-like handshake with equal steel in his own grip, and responded smoothly, “Well, if you know the sort of places I know, I’m sure we’ll get along just smashingly.”

 

Josselin twitched and drew a breath to make what might have been an angry retort—but then he paused, his eyes glazing over slightly, as his brain stalled on the abrupt question of whether the Saint’s remark had actually been an insult at all. Simon blithely reclaimed his hand and his chair, with a beatific smile that only widened when Tania gave him a chiding look.

 

A general shuffling of chairs and menus followed, and Simon noticed that Josselin claimed the seat on Tania’s left, which placed her between them. Giddens found himself on the other side of the Saint, like the runt of the litter squeezed into the last space at the feeding trough. No one seemed to pay much attention to him, and Simon wondered for the first of many times that evening why the avuncular little porkchop clung to the company of young and adventurous artists.

 

Conversation was briefly delayed by the motions of ordering dinner. Simon boldly requested octapothi, enjoying the glances he received; apparently even these bohemians did not have a taste for grilled octopus. Tania wavered between chicken breast and shrimp Santorini, finally choosing the latter. Cordona took an ascetic vegetarian route with salad and lentil soup. Giddens cheerfully asked for a platter of lobster and lamb—an expensive combination that was not even offered on the menu. And Ron Josselin, without even bothering to peruse the array of delectable house specialties, ordered a simple, unadorned rare steak… which somehow did not surprise Simon at all.

 

“How’s Sterner doing with the stay of execution for the dogs?” Tania asked Josselin, once the waiter had collected their menus and departed.

 

Josselin made a rumbling noise. “Not good. Far as the cops are concerned, they’re guilty until proven innocent.”

 

The Saint raised an eyebrow. “Sterner is an attorney, I take it?”

 

“He’s an idiot,” Josselin said, almost reflexively, as if in his mind the word was an automatic synonym for the man’s name. Then he paused and gave Simon a suspicious look.

 

“I told him about the dogs earlier,” Tania told him. “I thought he might be able to help.”

 

Humph.” Josselin eyed the Saint with grim speculation. “Maybe it’s not a bad idea, at that. If you want to make yourself some quick money, Templar—we can make a deal on you busting my dogs outta the lockup.”

 

The bluntness of the proposition, and in front of witnesses no less, surprised Simon; but he blinked mildly and replied, “I don’t think Deputy Haskill would like that very much. I had quite a nice chat with him this afternoon, and it strikes me that I wouldn’t particularly enjoy hurting his feelings—well, whatever feelings he actually has, anyway.”

 

Josselin scowled, and drew himself up with a distinctly challenging look.

 

“So the great Saint’s scared of one little hick cop?”

 

There was a moment’s silent tension around the table.

 

“Not at all,” Simon answered placidly, with a gaze that felt like the breeze off a glacier. “I simply haven’t seen any evidence to make me believe that he’s wrong.”

 

The big man growled something in his throat, bracing his hands on the tabletop as if to push himself up from his chair. Tania swiftly put her hand on his hairy arm, and he froze for a moment. Then, slowly, he relaxed.

 

“My dogs didn’t kill nobody,” he rumbled, staring venomously at the Saint.

 

“I didn’t say they did. I don’t know either way—and frankly, I’m not sure I’m interested at all,” Simon replied callously.

 

The very vaguest look of contrition passed over Josselin’s face. His big, sterling-weighted fists knotted on the tabletop, and his shoulders slumped a little.

 

“Look, Mr. Templar, I’m not joking. My dogs are innocent—and they mean the world to me. If you busted ’em out, I could take ’em back up to my place in the Michigan backwoods and let this all blow over. Maybe they could fine me or throw me in jail, but they wouldn’t get to murder Bearcat and Tuffy and Kingfish. That’s all I care about.”

 

“Joss, you’re not thinking straight,” Tania protested gently.

 

The Saint gazed at Josselin unaffectedly. “If it’s all so easy, have you considered doing the job yourself?”

 

Simon!” Tania protested.

 

Josselin scowled. “I’d do it in a minute if I thought I could get away with it. I’m not that smart, or that sneaky. But you, with your reputation—”

 

“My reputation, which people have a funny habit of interpreting however it pleases them,” Simon interrupted blandly. “Some of you seem to think I’m some sort of rent-a-rogue who can be bought for any job—regardless of justice as well as law.”

 

“What have laws got to do with justice?” Josselin uttered the word as if it tasted vile. “They’re only meant for one thing, and that’s to protect the criminals. If there weren’t any laws, nobody’d ever commit a crime, because he’d know his victims would hunt him down and do something ten times worse to him.” His eyes narrowed. “Plenty of people would be as brave as you are about standing up to wrongs, Templar—if they weren’t afraid of being punished for looking out for themselves.”

 

It was not an argument to which Simon was unsympathetic, and so he could only answer it with a judicious silence. Beside him, Tania sat in rigid embarrassment, and Giddens prodded the ice in his drink as if to make scrupulously sure it was not alive. Only Cordona appeared to be as interested in the discussion as an avid spectator at a tennis match.

 

“Sort of reminds me of the latest sonnet I’m working on…” Giddens murmured meditatively, as if to change the subject.

 

Josselin shot him a black look. “Don’t start.”

 

There could not have been much more implied menace in his voice if he were holding a knife to the other man’s throat. Giddens blanched slightly and hunched into himself, like a turtle retracting into its shell, with a pitifully wounded expression.

 

“Oh, I’d like to hear him,” Simon remarked cheerfully, scrutinizing the end of an unlit cigarette. “I dabble in poetry myself now and then. Let’s see… ‘There once were the dogs of an artist, whose behavior was really quite heartless’—”

 

“I assume you’re not going to help me out?” Josselin boomed.

 

Simon gazed at him levelly over the cigarette.

 

“No, Mr. Josselin. I don’t believe I am.”

 

The large man exchanged a bitter look with Tania, then pushed himself away from the table. “Good night.”

 

“But what about me—” Giddens started to yammer.

 

“Take a cab,” Josselin shot over his shoulder. “I’ll be somewhere getting good and drunk.”

 

Then he was gone, and another awkward silence closed in on the table—although it was distinctly lacking the tension that had existed while the angry dog fancier was present. Only Simon remained at ease, happily browsing the plate of dolmathes as if Josselin had politely excused himself to make a telephone call.

 

“Sorry, Tania,” he purred, and he did not sound at all sorry. “I was only honest with him.”

 

Tania stared down at her hands for a moment, worrying her lip between her teeth.

 

“I don’t suppose I can blame you,” she said at last. “Joss is hard to get along with—and he was on his worst behavior tonight. But give him a break, Simon. They’re going to kill his dogs in less than two days, and he’s upset.”

 

“Nobody seems to be upset for the fellow who was killed, I notice,” Simon remarked dryly. Tania’s eyes flashed at him, but before she could reply, he had turned to Giddens at his right. “Do I understand correctly that you have the misfortune to live with that charmer?”

 

Giddens shrugged roundly. “I rent the upstairs of the old Pemberton House on Cordova Street. He owns it, and he lives on the ground floor… with those mongrels of his. But there’s a private staircase, so we don’t have to see too much of each other.” His lips twitched in a thin, oily smile. “One can’t be too picky on a poet’s budget, of course.”

 

A ghostly cascade of frost caressed the Saint’s vertebrae.

 

“Tell me more about Josselin,” he said interestedly. “What sort of art, exactly, does he engage in?”

 

Cordona spoke up. “He is a silversmith. Perhaps you noticed the rings he wears; they are his own designs. He has a small shop on St. George Street, where the tourists can watch him work.”

 

Giddens’ round face puckered wryly. “He likes the attention—and it helps him make sales. There are plenty of better jewelers over there, but people get sort of attached to something when they can watch it being made. A lot of the crafts people around here use that trick.”

 

“For a man with such antisocial tendencies, it sounds like he has excellent marketing skills,” Simon remarked glibly.

 

“He got that from his father,” Tania remarked, somewhat reluctantly. “Josselin Senior owns a lumber empire up in Michigan. One of those self-made-from-the-ground-up executive types. Apparently he wanted Joss in on the business too—but Joss just had too much of a creative temperament to sit behind a desk. So now he’s here, making trinkets for tourists.”

 

“Not that he needs to,” Giddens put in. “His allowance from his father takes care of him pretty well—so he says, anyway. And owning the kind of house he does, I guess it’s true. As for making jewelry and paperweights and things, that’s just ‘art for art’s sake’, as he calls it.” The lumpy poet sniffed, his small brown eyes focusing to lancet points. “Easy for him to say. He’s never had to starve for his art, like some of us.”

 

It was quite evident to the Saint that Giddens had never done much starving either, for art or anything else. However, he chose not to point that out. In his experience, it was poor business practice to insult the possessor of a free-flowing tongue—even if it was the least eloquent tongue Simon had ever heard flapping in the mouth of a self-professed poet.

 

“What I don’t understand,” he admitted with perfect candor, turning to look at Tania, “is what sort of appeal Josselin has for a gorgeous creature like you.”

 

Tania dropped her gaze and half-laughed, a little sadly. “Oh, I can’t explain it. There’s just something childlike about Joss—in a spoiled, frustrated sort of way, I mean. If he’d only put aside all that angry defensive armor, I know he could loosen up and like people better.”

 

“He likes you,” Simon observed pointedly, and the young artist’s cheeks colored.

 

“Well, I’ve tried more than anyone else to understand him. He’s… sort of like a wild animal, that only trusts one person enough to eat out of their hand. Do you know what I mean?”

 

“I’m beginning to get an idea,” the Saint murmured, gazing out toward the moonlit surf beyond the windows.

 


 

Dinner was superb—all the more so, in Simon’s view, with the absence of the redoubtable Mr. Josselin. The waiter was rather at a loss for what to do with the rare steak ordered by their dearly departed, but Simon gamely volunteered to help dispose of it; and Gilbert Giddens, in spite of his own plate resplendent with lobster tail and rack of lamb, was eager to pitch in on that chore.

 

Giddens was not an obviously clever man, and it was difficult to imagine his plump round brain fathering any masterpiece of verse more complex than Ring Around the Rosie. Even so, in his own buttery way, he was amusing and engaging—and he ordered the house’s most expensive bottle of wine after the meal, as the party lingered contentedly over a dessert of baklava and Key Lime pie. So they conversed about art and local attractions and everything else that had nothing to do with Josselin or his dogs, and it ended as a very pleasant evening.

 

Of course, it was even more pleasant when that well-sated and drowsily convivial party broke up by mutual agreement, and the Saint was once more alone with Tania, winding their way back through the ghostly groves along the seaside highway.

 

“You’ve kept up appearances beautifully this evening,” he said at last. “But I’m quite sure you’re unhappy with me.”

 

Tania glanced over at him from behind the steering wheel, and sighed.

 

“I’m disappointed,” she admitted. “But I guess I can’t make you believe something that all the evidence goes against—any more than I could make you like Joss.”

 

“But I do like him somewhat, in a weird way. As much as I’ve liked any anarchist—which in my particular case is saying rather a lot, you know.”

 

She gave him a slanting, sardonic smile. “You don’t have to spare my feelings. You’re not the first person to get into a fight with him as soon as you met.”

 

“Meaning Gilbert or Alex?” Simon asked, the corners of his lips turning up.

 

“Actually, I can’t say about either of them. They all knew each other up in Newport before they came down here. They’re just snowbirds; they don’t live here year-round, the way I do.”

 

“Interesting. With the obvious overflow of affection between them, I’m surprised Gilbert was so eager to move to the same city as Josselin—much less into the same house.”

 

“Don’t ask me. I can’t explain it either. Yes, they do get on each other’s nerves, but somehow they manage to coexist without killing each oth…” Tania cut herself off, her exquisitely sculpted face reddening in the dark. “I didn’t mean it to sound like that. And if you’re starting to get any ideas about Joss—”

 

“I haven’t an idea in my head,” the Saint replied tranquilly. “Except the peculiar notion that I’d love to have you show me the sights of your fair city tomorrow.”

 

Tania frowned. “I don’t know. I have a couple of paintings to finish up before the Art Mart this weekend…” Then she glanced into the Saint’s clear blue eyes, and abruptly smiled. “But if I get enough done, maybe I will have time to play tour guide for you in the afternoon. Three o’clock in the plaza?”

 

“It’s a date,” Simon replied expansively.

 

By now they were crossing the Bridge of Lions into the city, and the Hotel Ponce de Leon loomed ahead like a great castle on the other side of the plaza, while such lesser hotels as the Ocean View and the Monson glittered along the waterfront. On Bay Street, a few restaurants and taverns still blazed merrily in the darkness, but much of the town had settled in for another long winter night.

 

Tania let Simon out in front of the Ponce de Leon, then leaned across the passenger seat, her lovely face caught once more between worry and hope as she gazed out at him through the window. “If you think of anything, Simon—anything that could throw a doubt into the case about Joss’ dogs. I still hope you’ll tell me.”

 

“If something occurs to me, you’ll hear it,” Simon promised. “I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

 

The artist looked faintly reassured. She smiled and nodded, and drove off toward Aviles Street; and Simon passed through the soaring rotunda of the hotel, with its magnificent Tiffany windows and mosaics, and went up to his room on the third floor. And there he sat by the window for a long time, smoking a cigarette and pondering, as he gazed out at the sleeping town beneath the light of the round silver moon.