III. How the Saint Explored the Town Ghosts, and Gilbert Giddens Missed the Boat

 

 

 

The Saint eventually set aside his contemplations and slept with the ease that was natural to him, and in the morning he awoke with a renewed energy coruscating through his nerves. He had made no definite decisions or conclusions the night before, but he nevertheless had a fixed idea of his next actions, which spontaneously formed without any conscious effort on his part. He showered, shaved, and dressed, then breakfasted frugally in the hotel’s lavish second-floor dining room, and at last set out for a lengthy and deceptively casual constitutional.

 

Simon rambled contentedly through the residential areas of the historic downtown, with its two centuries’ worth of surviving houses. Some now served as inns or museums or even shops, but others were still private residences. The few oldest buildings from the Spanish-held era were squat, solid structures of stone and wood, scattered among Victorian wood-frame confections of gingerbread and gables and broad front porches. A few of the private homes lurked behind the defenses of coquina-brick walls and wrought-iron gates, but for others, a white picket fence was more conducive to showing off winter gardens of roses and azaleas.

 

On this particular perambulation, the Saint was taking more interest in the fauna than the flora. Songbirds twittered in the thick canopy of oak trees, while fat squirrels rooted for acorns among the gnarled roots. A black-and-white tomcat gazed down with drowsy golden eyes from the top of a wall. At one house, two ridiculous little curly-haired dogs yapped at Simon from the porch—but of larger specimens of canine, there was no sign. No dobermans or retrievers bounded up to the fences to growl in warning or whimper for a friendly pat.

 

Perhaps the demanding maintenance of these houses in the unforgiving Florida climate, or the postage-stamp size of their yards, discouraged most people from owning any pet that was larger than lap-sized. Whatever the reason, it suggested to Simon that there was no other possible animal suspect to be had in the death of John Hinshaw—and having seen the police photographs of the body, it was extremely difficult to believe that the killer could be anything else.

 

This had been an academic curiosity on Simon’s part, more than anything. His experience at dinner the night before left him far more interested in the people at hand than the matter of a very apparent dog mauling. Something in the conversation had set his infallible instincts askew. That there was a mystery here somewhere, he had no doubt, but he was convinced it was something more subtle than murder…

 

At least, to begin with.

 

Recalling the critical addresses from the police report, he paid particular attention to those locations. Ron Josselin’s house on Cordova Street was one of the more forbidding examples of Victorian domicile, a brooding gray structure overshadowed by massive oaks. Surrounding it was a wall topped with attractively hostile wrought-iron spikes of gothic proportions, and a heavy padlock ornamented the gate. Certainly, the yard was secure enough that not even three large dogs could escape from it; but by universal admission, they were not in that yard when they had gotten loose.

 

Somewhat more than two blocks north of that house, Simon encountered the alley where the mauling had occurred. This was one of those narrow, brick-paved interstices which occur in any old city whose founders were too busy fighting starvation and disease to ponder such details as a neatly geometrical modern street plan. It ran between the back sides of two houses, one of which was now a café, and the other a private home. There was some recent litter scattered around a few ash cans, but overall, it enjoyed a distinct lack of dinginess—which may or may not have been attributable to a fastidious cleanup following a very gruesome death.

 

Simon spent a few minutes poking around, inspecting the foundations and the crevices between the paving bricks, but he found nothing more than he had expected to find. A month removed from the incident, there were no tracks or traces of blood to be seen. At this point, the Saint suspected it would have meant little if there had been.

 

At length he circled round to the open front door, and stepped over the uneven threshold of the café. It was a comfortable but unremarkable affair of pastel colors and invitingly creaky wood floors, with scuffed but clean tables, a long counter, and a very limited menu scrawled on a chalkboard between disproportionate decorative doodlings. A few weathered men who might have been local fishermen were brooding over coffee in a corner, and a woman who looked young but prematurely spent by life was wiping the counter.

 

In the mood for something refreshing after his walk, Simon sidled up to a patched barstool, and asked for a glass of the freshly squeezed orange juice which the menu emphatically touted.

 

“Were you here when that unfortunate business happened in back of the place last month?” he asked, as the waitress decanted the pulpy liquid.

 

The pitcher froze in her hand, and her hard hazel-gray eyes met his. “One of them curiosity-seeking tourists, eh?”

 

“No.” Simon shook his head. “Merely a friend of someone concerned in the matter.”

 

“Not a friend of that dog owner?” the waitress asked suspiciously, and when the Saint shook his head again, she relaxed a little. “That’s good. We knew there’d be trouble the day that man showed up with those mutts of his.”

 

“Then you’re quite satisfied that his dogs did it.”

 

The woman gave him an appropriate look of condescending incredulousness. “Does it look like we have any other wild animals around here, bub? It was those dogs alright. Used to jump out of the bushes in his yard to growl and snap at anybody who got within ten feet of the gate. Nearly gave old man Burris a heart attack. I tell you, Mister, it didn’t surprise anybody around here what they did when they got loose… if that guy Josselin didn’t sic ’em on Hinshaw himself, just for a laugh.”

 

“I see.” Simon thoughtfully sipped his rather rancid orange juice, feeling that it was somehow not very different from what his ears were digesting.

 

“Well, they’re putting those mutts down tomorrow,” the waitress concluded, with an expression of righteous satisfaction on her pinched face. “I say good riddance, and I hope the guy goes back wherever he came from.”

 

“That wouldn’t surprise me.” The Saint drained his glass, pointedly counted out the exact change for the orange juice, and went out again into the bright freshness of the late morning.

 

Even he could not explain to himself why he kept coming back to questions about the dog attack. In his mind he had written it off as just what it appeared to be. The more conscious whims of his imagination were turning over the clashes of personality among Tania’s artistic clique, replaying the previous evening, searching for the thing that felt somehow not right… and yet, there was something still nagging him about the death of a friendless, drunken handyman he had never met.

 


 

Simon still had a few hours to kill before pursuing his next line of inquiry. Shrugging off his questions until then, he spent the time idly, wandering in and out of the various shops and museums that stood near the hotel. He admired the bright, raucous Moorish architecture of Zorayda Castle, and spent quite some time browsing the vast selection of newspapers at the Segui Bookstore. Finally, at ten minutes to three, he made his way to the plaza.

 

A few minutes later, as he thoughtfully regarded the names of slain local Confederates inscribed on the Civil War monument, he sighted Tania strolling toward him from the direction of Aviles Street. Today she was somewhat more conventionally dressed—again forsaking a skirt in favor of pearl-gray slacks, but with the addition of an orchid-colored sweater and white jacket instead of her makeshift smock.

 

“Hullo, beautiful,” Simon greeted her cheerfully.

 

Tania’s lips twitched wryly. “Hello, Simon. Been waiting long?”

 

“For you? Only my entire life,” he answered piously, rising.

 

She ignored his genial flirtations with equal good humor. “To start with, I thought you might like to go visit the lighthouse. Well, actually, I thought you’d be more interested in the legend that some condemned pirates were hanged and buried behind the lighthouse—but it’s a beautiful view, anyway.”

 

“As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind just browsing along St. George Street this afternoon,” Simon admitted. “I expect to be in town for a little while, so I might as well get the more embarrassing tourist-like behavior out of the way first. Who knows? I might even do a little bit of shopping.”

 

Tania gave him the dubious look of one who smelled the ripe odor of Ulterior Motive; but then she shrugged and smiled. “Well, it’s your party. Follow me, then. I suppose what we have to offer here isn’t so impressive to you, compared to what you see in Europe—but I’ll try to show you a good time anyway.”

 

“Said the actress to the bishop,” Simon remarked dryly.

 

For the next few hours, no one who observed the Saint would have realized that he was a man grappling with a mystery. He set aside his questions in a conveniently accessible but unobtrusive part of his mind, allowing himself simply to enjoy the afternoon and Tania’s company. They stopped first for a late lunch of fresh-baked bread and spicy empanadas at an outdoor café, then carelessly drifted northward along the quaint, narrow avenue of St. George Street.

 

The main marketplace of the city somehow contrived to present a lovingly harmonious mix of elegance and kitsch, like an old woman proudly displaying her grandchildren’s self-portraits beside the antique china on the mantelpiece. An undertaking parlor resided next-door to an outlet selling gaudy souvenirs, while a patently inauthentic “Indian trading post” nestled snugly between a Greek Orthodox shrine and a clothing boutique that could have belonged on Fifth Avenue. The street was home to several of the area’s most historic buildings, and those that were not commercially infested were preserved as still more additions to the town’s endless registry of museums. Simon politely allowed Tania’s narrations about the Old Curiosity Shop and the nation’s oldest wooden schoolhouse to slide past his consciousness, and imagined for himself what that place must really have been like in centuries past, when the shadow of death and disaster had been ever near to the pioneering souls who lived there.

 

The clockwork at rest in the back of Simon’s mind ticked over only once—and that quite expectedly—as he stepped out of a haberdashery with a new and gleamingly white Panama hat perched on his head. A sign across the street caught his eye, and he sidled over to the closed door of what must have been little more than a hole in the wall between a tobacco shop and a rare books dealer.

 

Wolf’s Head Sterling,” he read the sign aloud, and glanced at Tania beside him. “Josselin’s workshop?”

 

 “Yes. He didn’t open up today. He’s on sort of a… a death watch for the dogs, I guess.” Tania’s troubled blue eyes clouded faintly with suspicion. “Were you thinking of looking for something?”

 

“I was only curious. Perhaps I might even have liked to buy something—I saw some fine examples of his work last night, you know. I think he was considering using them to knock my teeth out.”

 

Tania’s lips twisted disapprovingly. “Don’t kid me, Simon. I know you have a healthy interest in precious metals, but wearing them isn’t your style.”

 

“Well, never mind.” Simon smiled ingratiatingly at her. “Come on. I’d like to see what this bookshop has to offer.”

 

Dusk was setting in by the time they neared the north end of St. George Street. Many of the shops were beginning to close for the night, while scattered taverns and restaurants came into their full bloom of light and noisy conviviality. Tania guided Simon—now carrying a rare nineteenth-century book on ancient Greek and Roman weapons—to a pleasantly cottage-like old wood-frame building. Sounds and scents of good cheer wafted through the door, and from the overhanging balcony common to the area’s Spanish Colonial buildings, there hung a sign of carved wood with an appropriate (if not at all indecent) illustration that labeled the establishment as The Drunken Mermaid.

 

“So this is where you used to see Johnny Hinshaw?” the Saint asked casually as they stepped in.

 

“It’s one place. I’m sure he made the rounds.” Tania waded through the faintly Irish atmosphere of the crowded tavern to the long oak bar—where she physically bumped into the powerful shoulder of Ron Josselin.

 

It was clear from first glance that the volcanic silversmith had already put enough sheets to the wind to buy out a canvas mill. He eyed Tania with the beginnings of a desolately mournful look—which immediately shifted to suspicion and hostility as he saw the Saint following her.

 

“How you doing, Joss?” Tania asked sympathetically, patting his arm.

 

Josselin’s shaggy head swayed from side to side, and he looked away. “Murderers… They’re gonna kill my dogs.”

 

He knocked back a gulp of his beer, and Simon took the opportunity to better admire the jewelry on the hand wrapped around the neck of the bottle. The silver rings bore the sort of thick, three-dimensional carvings that made them look more like sculpted paperweights. He was particularly intrigued by the ornament on Josselin’s left middle finger, which sported the fierce features of something like a dog’s head with red crystal eyes…

 

“So,” Josselin rumbled, a sound that seemed to come up from somewhere deep in his chest, “ya thought anymore ’bout helpin’ me out, Saint?”

 

Simon made an effort to look as righteous as his lean, piratical features would permit. “Sorry, old chum. I’m afraid I still haven’t learned anything that would convince me not to see it Haskill’s way. And I don’t mean money,” he added a trifle more sharply, as Josselin squirmed on his barstool and fumbled for the wallet in his pocket.

 

For an instant, Josselin appeared to waver on the verge of an angry outburst—but then he abruptly sagged over his beer, like a circus tent whose center pole had been upset by an unruly elephant. “Guess I can’t kick ’cause you got principles. I know how it all looks. This town don’ wan’ me here anyway. Mebbe I’ll leave an’ make ’em happy…” An unhealthy brightness flickered in his eyes for a moment as he raised his head. “But not before I make sure they never forget I was here.”

 

Tania sighed and squeezed Josselin’s bristly arm. “Don’t talk about that now, Joss. You should go home and get to bed. When you wake up in the morning… well, at least it’ll all be over.”

 

Josselin snorted bitterly, looking past Tania to Simon. “Got any spare halos, Saint? Give some of ’em t’ Haskill fer my dogs.”

 

The sudden and complete despair in the artisan’s voice gave pause even to the Saint—but before Simon could begin to work out any sort of graceful reply, another voice spoke up behind his shoulder.

 

“Well, well. Is it a party or a wake?”

 

Gilbert Giddens sidled up to the bar. He smiled ingratiatingly at Tania and the Saint, then gave Josselin a slightly uneasy grin that was answered with a scowl. Shrugging, the spherical poet squirmed onto a barstool between Josselin and Tania, who was still standing.

 

Simon gestured for the bartender to serve Giddens a drink on his own tab, and then gave the improbable bard an inquisitive gaze. “What about you, Gilbert? You live with dear old Ronnie here—perhaps you can supply a clue that will inspire my grand intellect to unravel the whole thing. What’s your version of the night Johnny Hinshaw was killed?”

 

Giddens was in the act of downing the drink the bartender had just poured. He swallowed a bit too quickly, and stifled a cough behind a plump fist.

 

“Me? Why—well, what would I know about it? I was upstairs in my room. I heard Ron here go out with the dogs like he does every night, but that’s all. I certainly wouldn’t go chasing around the streets with him in the middle of a freeze!”

 

“No… I suppose not,” Simon said gently; but there was something lurking just beneath the kindly lightness of his voice, and he was looking past Giddens, to the flat, cold look in Josselin’s eyes.

 

Giddens glanced at his wristwatch, then quickly downed the rest of his drink. “Well, ah—thanks for this, I’m sure. I’ve got to get going now. Have to catch the last ferry for Capo’s Beach.”

 

“Painting the town red for the second night in a row?” Tania queried.

 

“Why not? I—well, you know how it is. Creative whims and all that. I thought I might stay over on the island tonight, and work on a few poems under the stars.” Giddens glanced back and forth between Tania and the Saint, leaning toward them and away from Josselin, and only someone who was looking for it could see the traces of an inward war flitting across his round features. “Listen, why don’t you join me? We could make a real night of it again. We’ll have some fun at the Surfside Dance Hall, then stay on the beach all night and watch the sunrise. Whadaya say?”

 

“I should say,” Simon replied blandly, “that I’d like to go to bed early tonight.”

 

Giddens deflated visibly. “Oh. Really? Because—I was hoping very much for your company. And besides,” he twitched and hesitated. “Besides… it might be nice to get out of the city tonight.”

 

“Why?” the Saint asked bluntly.

 

“Just—just because.” Giddens squirmed off his barstool. “Well … if you’re not coming—then I’d better be going. Good night.”

 

The nervous poet retreated, with a haste that a discerning observer might feel was bordering on the unseemly. Josselin stared after him for a moment, then abruptly pushed himself to his feet.

 

“I’m goin’ home,” he rumbled, without looking at Simon or Tania, and lurchingly followed Giddens out into the night.

 

Feeling Tania’s hand clutch his arm, Simon turned to meet her look of anxious bewilderment, and smiled disarmingly at her. “I seem to be getting very good at losing dinner guests and drinking partners, don’t I?”

 

“But what was that all about?” Tania queried.

 

The Saint shrugged peacefully. “Just confirming a wild idea. Gilbert knows something. It was a complete stab in the dark when I needled him on it—but living in the same house with Josselin, I thought he might be aware of more than he lets on.”

 

“Such as?”

 

“Such as any relationship Brother Josselin might have had with the late Mr. Hinshaw.”

 

Tania stiffened slightly, withdrawing her hand from his arm. “They didn’t have a relationship, Simon. They never even spoke to one another. I’ll swear to that.”

 

“Your faith is a beautiful thing, Tania.”

 

The habitual half-mocking could not quite be suppressed from Simon’s voice—but at the same time, a shadow of something gentle and melancholy whispered through the tone beneath his quiet smile. It was the smile of a man who had tasted his share of disillusionment, and learned to his cost that he could not always spare others from learning those same lessons for themselves. That voice and expression stilled any further protest Tania might have made, and her azure eyes softened with an instinctive if puzzled sympathy.

 

Then the wistfulness was brushed away in an instant, and Simon stood up languidly, pushing the money for their drinks and Giddens’ across the bar. “If you don’t mind, I was telling the truth when I said that I’d like to retire early. I have a few things to think over.”

 

Her face lighting with new hope, Tania slipped her arm through his as they moved toward the door. “Is there a chance your ideas could still save Joss’ dogs tomorrow morning?”

 

“I wouldn’t like to say yet. I haven’t quite thought it all through.” The Saint smiled apologetically at the compassionate angel who leaned on his shoulder. “I’m afraid the outcome may be disappointing in any case. Will you trust me?”

 

Tania smiled hollowly and squeezed his arm, laying her cheek on his shoulder.

 

Outside under the stars, the night air at last held a genuine winter chill. Simon hunched his shoulders and drew Tania close to his side, gazing down the length of St. George Street, where darkened shop windows contrasted with the warm pools of light from the doors still open. The happy gaudiness of the street by day had been transmuted to a silent dignity, as if only now the ancient walls around them had the chance to speak their own stories of the centuries. Seeming compelled not to break the hush that had fallen, the few passersby conversed in whispers, and only the occasional ring of laughter through the doors of a restaurant or tavern intruded on that stately peace.

 

“Let’s walk for a few minutes.” Tania leaned against Simon’s ribs, lightly nudging him toward the Old City Gate that stood just on the other side of the intersecting street. “The Castillo looks beautiful at night.”

 

Together they passed between the coquina-brick pillars of the Gate—almost new by the city’s standards, the last remainder of an extensive fortification built in 1805—and sat down on a parapet that extended a short distance beyond it. On the other side of Bay Street, the Castillo rose from the darkness beside the water, an imposing block of shadow and brightness where a few well-placed lights played on its inland walls. Across Orange Street to the north, on the third side of the triangular intersection that diverged around the Gate, there stood the grim, oak-shrouded plot of an old cemetery.

 

“Your city seems quite at ease with mortality,” Simon observed, tilting his head toward the hallowed ground that stood so close to the brightness and gaiety of St. Augustine’s tourist-courting heart.

 

Tania smiled solemnly, gazing across the road to the outlines of the weathered headstones. “History is our stock in trade—and when you get down to it, I suppose death is the biggest part of history. That’s called the Huguenot Cemetery, even though the French Protestants killed by Spanish Catholics four hundred years ago aren’t actually buried there. It really only dates back to a yellow fever outbreak in 1821, the same year Florida became a United States territory. Legend has it that so many people died, they dug unmarked mass graves outside the fence, and now those nameless victims of the epidemic lie forever beneath the road.”

 

The Saint smiled crookedly. “First hanged pirates at the lighthouse, and now this bedtime story. I never realized you were such a font of knowledge. Do you know every morbid morsel of local lore in St. Augustine?”

 

The artist smiled in chagrin and shook her head. “Oh, no. You could live here a lifetime and only scratch the surface—there’s a ghost for every brick in every building. That cemetery has some of the most colorful ones, though.”

 

“Such as?”

 

Tania pointed to the tallest grave marker in the cemetery, a peculiar slate-gray pillar that somehow started with a square base and ended in a pointed conical top. It reminded the Saint of an ungainly bishop in a chess set.

 

“In memory of prominent citizen Judge John B. Stickney,” said Tania. “He was buried there after he died of typhoid in 1882. A few years later, his children thought maybe he’d rather rest in peace up in Washington, and they exhumed him—but during the process of digging him up, grave robbers came along and pried the gold teeth out of his skull. From that time onward, people have seen Stickney’s ghost pacing around that gravestone with his head down, looking for his teeth.”

 

Simon raised an eyebrow and smiled bemusedly. “One wonders what he needs them for in the afterlife—gold or otherwise. Have you ever seen him yourself?”

 

A touch of blue devilment danced in Tania’s eyes. “Are you kidding? He made for one of my best paintings.” She ducked her head and smiled. “I suppose the ghosts of this town are—my interest, as Alex would say.”

 

“You think a great deal of him, don’t you?” Simon asked, with unblushing inquisitiveness. He expected her to meet the question just as frankly, and she did not disappoint him.

 

“He intrigues me. I can’t imagine how anyone can be so quiet and at the same time so charismatic.” Tania grinned. “Except for you, that is.”

 

The Saint chuckled softly, gazing off toward the round clear moon that was just rising above the Castillo. “Darling, I’ve had an entertaining variety of adjectives ascribed to me in my time—but I can’t recall that quiet has ever been one of them.”

 

“I think there is a quiet in you, deep down.”

 

He looked at Tania. Her eyes were deep, and steady, and utterly earnest; and he wondered how, in the volumes of temptation that were so natural to the exquisite lines of her face, he could still read the innocent grace of a child.

 

The Saint drew himself up slightly, taking in a deep breath of the fresh, cold bay air.

 

“Perhaps you’d better heed the example of your namesake, Titania. As I recall, she discovered that infatuation with a mule-headed chap was rather an embarrassing mistake.”

 

Tania’s lips twitched and began to curve upward, in a smile that would have put Simon’s restraint in mortal peril…

 

…And a blood-curdling scream cut through the night, ringing out from the direction of the Castillo.

 

Simon sprang to his feet, the instinctive call to action so keen that he barely hesitated long enough to give Tania a short, sharp command: “Stay here!” Then leaving her startled and alarmed beside the City Gates, he sprinted across Bay Street and onto the soft, sloping lawn of the fort.

 

Guided by another cry, much weaker than the first, he ran toward the darkened north side of the Castillo. In the shadow of the massive walls, he barely perceived the deeper darkness of the fort’s dry moat in time to stop short of plunging headlong into it. As he dropped noiselessly over the side of the sharp embankment, his right hand slid beneath his left sleeve, drawing a flawless blade of perfectly-balanced steel from the sheath strapped to his forearm.

 

Simon landed in a crouch in the dusty half-dried mud at the bottom of the trench, and there he paused, straining all his senses. The blackness engulfing the base of the Castillo was almost impenetrable to his eyes, but he thought he heard one last groaning gasp—a sound of terrible finality that sent a chill through his veins.

 

Very slowly he withdrew a pencil flashlight from his pocket, and with its thin beam he cautiously probed outward in broadening sweeps. Less than ten feet beyond him, a puddle of stagnant water slowly turned crimson, as it collected the red rivulets running into it from higher ground. His pinpoint disc of light followed those dark trails up a gentle incline for another yard, where he found their source.

 

Simon Templar was a man accustomed to seeing terrible things… but even he now felt a crawling sensation across his skin.

 

Then the nascent horror was pushed to the back of his consciousness by another perception, equally primal and instinctive: the awareness that he was not alone.

 

The throwing knife in his right hand was instantly poised to draw blood, and he turned, every muscle and nerve razor-edged. Almost supernally he felt his eyes drawn upward in the darkness, to the broad battlement of the Castillo wall above him. He began to turn the light in that direction—and then his knife flashed out like a sliver of lightning, almost before his eye detected the first ghost of movement.

 

He heard a muffled grunt, felt the brush of displaced air as something sailed over him; but his eyes registered only a split-second glimpse of a swift black shadow as he ducked. An instant later, the sound of a fleeing figure retreated across the grassy ground above the rim of the trench.

 

Now unarmed, Simon flattened himself against the darkest shelter the Castillo wall afforded, and waited for a few painfully long minutes. At last satisfied that no assailant lay in wait for him, he warily emerged from cover and climbed up out of the moat.

 

Almost to his surprise, Tania had obeyed his order and remained beside the City Gates. As he reached the road, he could see her slim silhouette pacing along the parapet, backlit by soft light from the lamps of St. George Street. When she saw him, she rushed forward, clutching his antique book to her chest like a protective talisman.

 

“Simon! What happened? Are you—”

 

“I’ll tell you after we’ve found a telephone.” As he guided her back toward the Drunken Mermaid, Simon gripped her shoulder with firmness and quiet intent; and as effortlessly as that, he willed her a measure of his strength. He meant it to brace her both physically and mentally, even as she felt the weight of the tense urgency in his voice.

 

“We have to call Deputy Haskill. Gilbert Giddens is dead.”