IV. How Deputy Haskill Had His Doubts, and Simon Templar Asked Three Favors
Ten minutes later, Vernon Haskill stood at the bottom of the moat, surveying the Saint’s discovery.
The beam of the heavy flashlight in his hand was deceptively steady; but the young deputy’s face was colorless, and in spite of the evening’s deepening chill, a thin film of perspiration glistened on his brow beneath the brim of his hat. The moon had risen above the walls of the Castillo by this time, casting a cold light upon the carnage before him.
Simon stood a few paces away, arms folded, watching the officials go about their grim work. He was no longer shocked by the savage scene in the midst of the mud and blood. Now he felt something else: a numb incredulity at his own thoughts, as they spread and interwove like the silver threads of a spiderweb in the moonlight. In that place at once majestic and forbidding, on ground soaked with the blood of centuries, it was far too easy for sense and fancy to blur; and yet there was something in it that resonated upon his instincts.
He blinked ungratefully as Haskill’s light flicked up toward his face.
“Well?” the lawman asked flatly. “You can’t tell me you just happened to be here, Templar.”
Almost with an effort of will, Simon brushed aside his reverie and shook his head, smiling joylessly at Haskill. “Oh, of course not, dear old Vern. You see, I hadn’t had my dinner, and Giddens was such a plump juicy specimen—so I followed him here and tore open his entrails.” The Saint cooperatively extended his hands. “You’re quite welcome to examine my claws and fangs without a warrant.”
Haskill grimaced in disgust, but the chastening had made its point. His flashlight flickered back across the corpse for a moment, and then he met Simon’s eyes with a hard gaze. “You say you were with Miss Riker when you heard the scream?”
“Yes,” Simon said patiently. “In the Drunken Mermaid a few minutes earlier, Giddens had told us he was going across to the North Beach for the night. I presume he was on his way to catch the ferry when—whatever it was found him. Unfortunately…” He nodded to the ravaged figure on the ground, and his voice softened with unexpected regret.
“By the time I reached him, Giddens needed an angel, not a Saint.”
Before Haskill could reply to that, Simon took his own flashlight from his pocket and moved off into the darkness, scanning the ground. The deputy followed him puzzledly.
“What are you looking for?”
“I didn’t want to mention this in front of the lady… but I wasn’t alone, Haskill. Someone—or something—was up there on the rampart. It made off into the night, but I have a notion that… ah.” As the Saint was speaking, his light glinted brilliantly against a shaft of polished steel and ivory that lay abandoned on the ground.
“It’s my knife, and look—there’s blood on it. I thought I might have clipped whatever it was.”
Haskill knelt to examine the knife without touching it, then took out his handkerchief and gingerly picked it up. “It’s evidence now.”
“I intend to have that back when your case is closed, Vernon. I’m rather attached to Belle.”
The deputy gave him a skeptical look, then stood up and shook his head. “If you wounded the animal, we’ve got an even more dangerous situation on our hands.”
“That’s assuming it was an animal.”
The remark earned Simon a sharp look. “You really think anything human could have done…” Haskill gestured vaguely toward Giddens’ body, “that?”
“I’m not sure what I think.” The Saint glanced up at the night sky, and murmured softly: “But the date checks.”
Haskill was studying the knife, as if pondering whether it could have been used to inflict such savage wounds, and did not hear him. At last he glanced up at Simon.
“Well, either way, I guess this puts some doubt on whether Josselin’s dogs really killed Hinshaw. They’re locked up now—and it’s hard to believe Hinshaw and Giddens weren’t attacked by the same thing.”
“Do me a favor, Haskill. Don’t release the dogs to Josselin yet.”
“I couldn’t do that until we conclusively prove they didn’t kill anyone. This is just a reasonable cause to put off destroying them. Why do you ask?”
Simon shrugged pensively. “There are still one or two loose ends I’d like to gather. They may lead somewhere, or they might just unravel. I don’t want to say any more until I’ve asked a few questions.”
“If you’re counting on the brighter side of your reputation—”
“Something like that.” The Saint smiled thinly at the lawman. “If you’re satisfied with me for now, Vern, I think I should retrieve Miss Riker from the Drunken Mermaid and walk her home. It was something of a shock to her when I told her Giddens had been killed.”
“Yeah.” Haskill pushed back the brim of his hat and massaged his frontal lobe wearily. “Tell Miss Riker I’ll come around in the morning to get her side of the story. For what it’s worth—personally, I’m sure your alibi is sound. But I’ve still got to cover all the bases.”
“You’re a credit to your uniform, Haskill.”
The deputy smiled wanly. “Don’t leave town just yet, Saint.”
With a rueful smile in return, Simon waved his hand slightly, and went on his way.
He found Tania sitting alone at a table in the busy tavern, absently scraping a few flecks of dried paint from her hands with a thumbnail, lost in a haze of quiet distress. She had heard the details of Giddens’ demise when Simon reported them to Haskill over the telephone—except for the presence of the unknown quantity whose blood his knife had drawn. Quite understandably, the gruesome death of someone from her own artistic circle had horrified her, even if it was just the errant poet who had only been noticed when he was buying the drinks.
Simon leaned into Tania’s view, and she started slightly.
“Oh—Simon.” Rising quickly, she took his arm, almost out of nervous reflex. With his free hand he picked up his book from the table, and in silence they stepped out into the night. She leaned against him as they made their way down St. George Street toward the plaza at the southern end, and he knew it was not merely due to the cold when he felt a shiver pass through her slim form beside him.
“It’s rather like something out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, isn’t it?” he said gently after a time.
Tania grimaced and squeezed her eyes shut. “Maybe I have read too many ghost stories. I know there must be some kind of rational explanation for what’s happened… but my imagination can’t help running a little wild.”
The Saint paused in his step, causing her to stop as well. “What would you consider to be a ‘rational explanation’?”
“Well… a panther or something that got loose from the Alligator Farm, maybe.”
Simon shrugged his left shoulder, the right one being hindered by Tania’s comfortable clinging, and started forward again. “The Alligator Farm is out on the island. I’d be surprised if any animal would try to make its way across the bridge—especially when there are such inviting oak hammocks for it to hide in over there. Besides, Haskill would know if any large predator had been reported missing.”
“Then maybe someone else in town besides Joss has a large dog, and no one’s noticed.”
“I suppose that’s not impossible… but I took a very thorough ramble of the downtown area this morning. I didn’t see so much as evidence of a fire-plug visitation by anything larger than a Yorkshire terrier. Quite honestly, an animal large enough to kill a human being simply couldn’t go unnoticed—at least not in a neighborhood of antique dollhouses like this.”
Now it was Tania who paused, gazing up at him quizzically. “Why do you sound like you’re trying to debunk the most logical possibilities?”
“Perhaps your ghost stories are getting to me, too.” The Saint smiled faintly at her, then resumed their walk. “Don’t worry. No doubt Haskill will uncover a perfectly prosaic answer like that. I’ve just seen so many unusual puzzles that I can’t help looking at everything a little crookedly.”
His demeanor was so convincing, so reassuring, that Tania relaxed against his side and said nothing more as they crossed the plaza. The silence lasted until he had brought her to the door of her own apartment, above her studio on Aviles Street.
“Will you do something for me, Tania?” Simon asked quietly, as the artist was searching for the key to her front door in the light of a nearby streetlamp.
She looked up at him guilelessly. “Anything I can—you know that. What is it?”
“Keep clear of Ron Josselin. At least for a day or two.”
He was not surprised by her reaction to that request. She gaped at him, her initial astonishment slowly hardening into a look of frustrated reproach.
“Why do you have to keep at him, Simon? Isn’t my word enough?”
“Believe me, Tania—if it wasn’t for your faith in him, I’d be taking an even stronger view of his behavior. I have questions that I need answers to, and until I get them, I’d feel better if I knew you were giving him some distance. Will you?”
Tania stood frozen for a moment in angry hesitation, then turned abruptly to fumble the key into the lock, her shoulders stiff with tension. The door swung inward into the dark, and at last she raised her stormy eyes to his earnest ones, still clearly torn in her response.
“Fine,” she rasped at length, and slipped through the door, shutting it behind her without even saying good night.
With a weary sigh, the Saint turned his steps toward his hotel room.
Simon’s sleep that night was uncharacteristically fitful, and he awoke the following morning in a mood of grim intent.
His first action after he had dressed was to put in a long-distance call to New York. Over the course of a brief conversation, a favor was asked—simple, straightforward, a parley in the fond truce between two respectful adversaries who would have been friends in any other life. Then there was nothing for Simon to do but await the return call that he hoped would bring the answer to his question.
A twinge of hunger reminded him that he had not eaten since his late lunch with Tania the day before, and he took the onyx and marble stairs to the glittering opulence of the Ponce de Leon’s dining room. Sitting at a table beneath the vaulted ceiling and the Spanish-Floridian murals of George W. Maynard, awash in colored light from the stained glass windows that were among the early works of Louis Comfort Tiffany, he devoted himself to a plain and fortifying breakfast of ham and eggs.
Near the conclusion of his meal, as he gazed in idle speculation at the bronze statue of Queen Elizabeth that presided over the great columned space, his eye was caught by the slim dark figure moving intently in his direction. He turned to Alex Cordona as the Spaniard strode up to his table, looking solemn and grave.
“Good morning—such as it is,” Simon said politely, and gestured for the artist-historian to sit down. “The news of the day is… well, quite apparent, I gather.”
Cordona nodded as he took a seat, gazing out through the floor-to-ceiling window, toward the deceptively calm waters of the bay.
“Matanzas, in my native tongue, means slaughter,” he said pensively. “The bay was named so because it ran red with blood when my countryman, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, slit the throats of the French under Jean Ribault. Now, four hundred years later…” He made a somewhat despairing gesture and shook his head. “Again there is slaughter on this shore.”
“It was that,” Simon admitted quietly, remembering the icy harshness of moonlight on torn flesh and spilled blood.
“I have spoken already this morning with Tania. She tells me it was you who found Gilberto by the Castillo.” Cordona paused. “She tells me also that you have asked her to avoid Josselin.”
Simon sighed inwardly. “I wish she hadn’t mentioned that.”
“She is angry. He is her friend—or so she thinks.” Cordona gazed keenly at the Saint. “You believe he has some part in these deaths, then?”
“At the moment, all I believe is that I don’t know anything. I may have a better idea when I get hold of certain facts.” Simon paused, weighing his judgment of Cordona. “Do you know anything about why Josselin tolerated Giddens’ chumminess, when he had such an obvious contempt for the man?”
“I have often wondered that myself. It was the same in Newport, before we three came here.” Cordona swept the room with a judicious glance, then leaned forward slightly and lowered his voice. “I did not trust Josselin even then. His savage temper, his strange ways… You will be careful, yes?”
“As careful as I can be—with a wolf,” Simon said cunningly.
Cordona’s head tilted, and then enlightenment dawned in his eyes. “The ring. Yes—it is a curious fascination of his. If he could sell them, I think he would portray nothing but dogs and wolves in his craft. Sometimes… I even think that he resembles one himself.”
The Saint was not quite sure if the slivers of ice sliding down his spine were the familiar prick of his intuition—or something far more fantastic.
His companion resumed speaking in a normal tone of voice. “I have asked Tania to dine with me tonight. Perhaps her mind will not dwell on what has happened—or her anger toward you. I hope you will feel no more need to worry for her as you carry out… whatever you may intend.”
“I suppose that’s for the best. I may have the rest of the pieces to this puzzle in a few more hours, and Tania won’t want to see me right now anyway.” Simon gave Cordona a rueful smile. “I’d certainly prefer to be in your place tonight.”
With a shy smile in return, Cordona rose and bowed slightly. “Until later, Mr. Templar.”
Simon inclined his head and watched the Spaniard walk away. Then he frowned and turned his brooding gaze back toward the window, as his thoughts wandered on restlessly through a dark forest of clues and suspicions—in which he now felt sure there lurked a thing of unspeakable evil.