“I suppose I should admit it,” said Tania Riker to the Saint. “I had a particular reason for asking you here.”
They were sitting on a bench in the monument-cluttered Plaza de la Constitucion of St. Augustine, Florida, and spread out around them was the haphazardly picturesque scenery of the oldest European settlement in America. Founded by the Spanish in 1565 to thwart French efforts at settlement in the New World, the town had withstood nearly four centuries of fires and hurricanes, Indian attacks and privateer plunderings. Over the course of that tumultuous history, its ownership had been passed from Spain to England and back to Spain, and finally to the United States, transforming it into a uniquely graceful collision of continents and cultures. It reminded Simon Templar of a free-spirited Spanish gypsy going barefoot in an austere Victorian dress—and he could have had no better vantage point from which to survey that serenely self-conscious eccentricity.
To the east of the plaza, a pair of splendid marble lions guarded the merely decade-old bridge to Anastasia Island, where the St. Augustine Lighthouse blinked above the trees. To the north rambled the quaint tourist-traps of St. George Street, a pleasant crowd of shops and cafés infesting buildings that dated back to the town’s first Spanish colonists; and beyond that, the Castillo de San Marcos squatted ponderously on the shore of Matanzas Bay. To the west rose the Spanish Renaissance spires of the sprawling Hotel Ponce de Leon, where Simon was staying, and almost in its shadow stood the now-empty Hotel Alcazar—two of the many spectacular buildings commissioned by industrialist Henry M. Flagler, a one-man construction boom whose efforts had made the town a favorite resort of the nineteenth-century elite. To the south, the historic heart of the Old City trailed away in a tangle of rose gardens and old oaks and genteel Victorian houses that had survived the city’s last great fire in 1914. Some of them had been converted into inns, while others—particularly on Aviles Street, from which they had just walked—were now used as studios by a thriving population of artists.
Titania Riker, known as Tania to her many friends and countless more admirers, was a denizen of that particular colony. In all fairness, it must also be said that she was the reason why the Saint was taking precisely no notice of his environment.
Not many years earlier, he had helped Tania’s father out of a rather uncomfortable implication of murder on Broadway. It had been an interesting little dilemma, as Junius Riker was a playwright with a definite motive for the ingenious on-stage death of his drama’s leading man—but that, of course, is another story. At the time, the daughter named for Shakespeare’s fairy queen had been a lanky teenaged tomboy who painted stage scenery, but she was now a grown woman… and quite a woman, as Simon conceded with the utmost alacrity.
Her hair was an exceptional shade of gold, and her eyes were the stormy blue of the bay, overarched by slender eyebrows that seemed to have a permanently half-mocking lift to them. Her full pouting lips and chiseled features had their own intriguing play of shadows about them, giving her face the look of a somewhat naughty angel. A figure of flawless proportions completed the portrait. She was startlingly beautiful—and yet at the same time, she was somehow still the tomboy Simon had first met, if only in the avant-garde attitude that made itself outwardly visible in her mode of dress.
She wore faded blue jeans instead of a skirt. The golden hair was determinedly working loose from a braid tied with string, and the flawless figure was obscured beneath the loose flannel folds of a hand-me-down men’s shirt which—judging by its splashes of watercolor paint—was enjoying a most enviable second career as the shapely young artist’s smock.
Most women could have succeeded in making themselves look dowdy in that getup, but Tania was not one of them.
“I thought your invitation might have an ulterior motive,” Simon sighed languidly, resting his chin on his hand as he gazed past her, toward the bay. “The trouble is that my idea of an ulterior motive never seems to be anyone else’s.”
“I wouldn’t say that… Not always, anyway.”
In addition to her more obvious physical virtues, Tania had a low and dusky voice that would have made a recipe for goulash sound like unblushingly passionate poetry. Simon turned to give her a rather quizzical glance, and was unexpectedly conscious that he had received as frank an appraisal as he had given her. And yet, facing the bohemian impishness that was so natural to her face, he was—for one of the few times in his life—not quite sure of his interpretation of the moment.
A flippantly salacious rejoinder was duly abandoned on the tip of his tongue.
“Well… what, then?” he asked, almost cautiously.
Tania frowned abruptly and gazed down at the dry winter grass, turning over a fallen leaf with the toe of her shoe.
“I’m afraid it’s a little hard to explain. You see, someone was killed a month ago.”
The Saint did not blink.
“Oh, I see. That old story. Well, which is it—a friend for whose death you want revenge, or an enemy from whose death you want exoneration?”
“A total stranger, actually.” Tania raised her eyes. “That is, I’d seen him on the street or at the Drunken Mermaid a few times, but we never even exchanged a single word. He was like that; nobody knew him, but almost everybody knew about him. He did odd jobs as a carpenter—and he was sort of a drunk, I guess, but harmless enough. You know the kind. Anyway… it seems obvious he was killed by some kind of animal.”
“You’re making perfect sense,” Simon replied wryly. “Go on.”
“Well, the police think my friend Joss’ wolfhounds did it… but I know those dogs. Oh, they might make as big a noise as any guard dogs, but they’re really gentle as kittens if they’re not threatened. Joss is the best trainer around. Besides, he insists they didn’t do it. He said when he was walking them that night, they got agitated about something and broke away from him. He found them beside the body at the end of an alley—but he says it must have been there already. He thinks they got upset in the first place because they could sense that someone had been hurt.”
A dim sense of incredulity was creeping through the Saint. He blinked and drew himself up slightly, pulling together the threads of the roughshod narrative.
“Let me see if I understand you correctly, Precious,” he said slowly. “You invited me on this little holiday in the hope that I might be able to clear your friend’s pooches of the charge of manslaughter. Does that cover all of the essentials?”
Tania scowled—something she did most attractively. “Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way.”
“My dear, you seem to have mistaken me for Philo Vance. He fancies Scottish terriers, if I recall correctly.”
“Really, Simon, it isn’t only about the dogs. Joss is a nice guy, but he’s a little… irascible. His dogs are like children to him—but the police have taken them, and they’re supposed to be put down within thirty days. The date’s been set for just two days from now.” For the first time in their conversation, a look of genuine concern darkened Tania’s face. “And to save them, I’m sort of afraid Joss might try to do something… rash.”
“This story is assuming rather fantastic aspects.” Simon took out his cigarette case, helped himself from it, and then offered it to Tania. “The ones on the left don’t explode… Yes, that’s alright.”
He sat back thoughtfully, touching the flame of a lighter to his own cigarette, and a faint smile of amusement passed across his lean and rakish features.
“Well, at the very least, your charming city should be an interesting place to spend a few days sightseeing,” he drawled at last.
Tania looked up so sharply that the cigarette between her lips jerked away from his proffered light. “You mean you’ll really look into it?”
“I came here with expectations of playing tourist for a few days, and I don’t see any reason to alter that plan—especially if it involves your stimulating company.” Simon gave her his most Saintly smile. “Besides, the English climate is having a… rather stormy spell, on more levels than one. If I weren’t staying here, I’d simply be drifting along to Miami, Havana, and points south. In any case, if I do happen to mistake the local constabulary’s records office for a gift shop, I doubt anyone will mind. I have to admit to some curiosity about what constitutes murder on the part of man’s best friend. It gives me some interesting ideas… By the way, who would you suggest I speak to about the case?”
The dazzling smile that had lit Tania’s face as he spoke was a reward in itself. “Deputy Haskill handled it. I’ve met him at some of our public exhibits. A nice guy with a decent amount of brains, but not very interesting—and no eye for art whatsoever.”
“A pity. I was hoping your local excuse for Law and Order might at least provide some entertainment.” The Saint stood up, prompting Tania to do the same. “Still, I think I might go bother Comrade Haskill for a brochure about the local landmarks. When that dreary task is dispensed with, would you care to join me for dinner?”
Tania smiled crookedly. “Actually, I’ll be having dinner on the island with a few other people from the Arts Club—but you’re welcome to join us. It’ll be a chance for you to meet Joss. Then you’ll see what I mean about him.”
“I’m sure I’ll look forward to it,” the Saint murmured.
“Fine. I’ll pick you up outside the hotel—five-thirty sharp.” Tania smiled impishly. “Just don’t get yourself arrested while you’re sightseeing.”
She extended a slim hand, letting it rest in Simon’s for a long moment, then turned to walk back to her studio on Aviles Street.
It was a January afternoon, and the temperature on that part of Florida’s northeastern coast was hovering near a comfortable sixty degrees—relatively warm for that time of year, even by local standards. Christmas wreaths and slightly weatherbeaten red ribbons still hung on the ornate lampposts, while many of the shops, hotels, and restaurants along the west side of Bay Street were strung with white lights, giving the town even more of a storybook feeling. On the east side, the avenue was bordered by a seawall that overlooked the choppy waters of Matanzas Bay, with its population of gleaming yachts and stout shrimp boats. Simon crossed the street, dodging a moderate traffic of both automobiles and horse-drawn sightseeing carriages, and strolled along the waterfront in search of a taxi to hail.
One ship gliding across the bay stood out, and he paused for a moment to admire the proud Spanish galleon. Of course she was only a replica, designed to haul ignorant jabbering tourists on day cruises; and the gaudy banner of a tour company flying from her mast drove home that point. But the sight of her stirred something wistful within Simon, and he paused, letting himself daydream of the grand mayhem committed on those shores by such men as Sir Francis Drake. In the annals of buccaneering, no other place on the North American coast could rival St. Augustine’s history of battle, murder, and sudden death—a thought that gave Simon, for a brief moment, a feeling of connection to the place that made the blood sing in his veins.
Then from the corner of his eye he noticed a taxi, and rather reluctantly he turned, raising a hand to flag down the driver.
The taxi took him north, past the brooding City Gates, and the adjacent four-cornered star-shape of the great Castillo de San Marcos—the fortress built by the Spanish in their bloody quest for mastery of Pascua Florida, a land named innocently for its spring flowers. The vista of tan coquina walls, green grass, and blue bay was marred only by a group of surveyors in orange workmen’s vests, busy taking measurements on the vast rolling lawn that had been a golf course in recent history. A campaign for historical preservation in the city was beginning to take shape, and someone must have decided that having golf balls pinging off the walls of a national monument was counterproductive.
A few minutes and several more city blocks passed by, and the corpulent taxi driver let Simon out at the county jail.
In service since 1891, the building was yet another product of Henry Flagler’s construction spree—and with its improbably quaint Romanesque Revival façade, it almost bore more resemblance to a dollhouse than an outpost of the Law. Indeed, if not for the bars on the windows, it might have been mistaken from the outside for just another charming Victorian hotel.
The Saint appraised it with a complacent little smile, like a reformed pickpocket academically admiring the bulge of a fat wallet beneath another man’s coat. Then he boldly sauntered in through the front doors.
He asked a bookish little clerk if he might speak to Deputy Haskill, and was directed down the hall to a cramped and cluttered office which the bureaucracy of modern Law had long since outgrown. The room was unoccupied; and so the Saint, with great amusement, stepped behind the desk to browse through a thoroughly uninteresting assortment of papers and rolodexes. They reinforced his perception that the drowsy resort town, which in this modern age was like one great rambling museum compared to the nightclub atmosphere of its more southerly cousins, was not a magnet for crimes of any significance.
“This is a charming place to visit, but I might die of boredom if I lived here,” Simon criticized the unprotesting walls. “I suppose everyone’s off observing the fine old Spanish tradition of siesta at this time of day. Whatever happened to the Indian raids and piratical looting sprees?”
“We introduced the Indians to liquor and sent the looting pirates to Washington,” a voice retorted from the doorway.
The Saint was well aware that he had been observed for the last half-minute or so, and now he unhurriedly turned to face his watcher. The young man was tall, athletic, and blond-haired, and he looked excruciatingly clean-cut in the uniform of the local Law. His hand was quite visibly resting on the holster at his hip—a poise calculated to match his disgruntled face.
“Good afternoon,” Simon said genially.
“We’ll see about that.” The Law glowered at Simon, as if his arrival had interrupted a particularly refreshing nap. “Were you looking for something in particular, or are you just here to confess to a murder?”
“My, such an unpleasant disposition—and here we haven’t even been properly introduced. Well, never mind. Perhaps you’ll allow an old friend to make my introductions for me.”
With a perfectly bored expression, Simon stepped away from the desk, nodding downward to its cluttered surface. The deputy warily edged behind it and glanced down—and as his eyes met the childish haloed figure that was scrawled on his notepad, his face turned to a fascinating but rather unhealthy-looking ashen color.
“The Saint,” he breathed at last, and his hand twitched beneath the flap of his holster.
Simon bowed with ridiculous dignity, but when he spoke, his tone was exceedingly underwhelmed. “Deputy Vernon G. Haskill, I presume.”
Staring at the Saint as though the most dreaded monster of his childhood bedtime stories had suddenly come to life, the young lawman asked an absurd question—apparently out of sheer astonishment. “How did you know that?”
It would have been impolite, not to mention disadvantageous, to tell the real truth: You matched the description I was given of an uninteresting man. So the Saint settled instead for a tactful answer which, all things considered, was probably the least questionable lie of his entire life. “Well, I have just been rooting through your office. And your own introductions were made to me in advance by Miss Tania Riker.”
Haskill’s expression registered another impact on the inside of his skull. “You know Miss Riker?”
“It’s at her invitation that I have descended like a pestilence upon this quaint hamlet.” The Saint smiled, in very Saintly fashion. “You can stop fidgeting with that six-shooter, friend. I’m not here to sack and pillage the place, the way some of my ancestors did back in the days when you were rather injudiciously flying the Spanish flag. I’m really just on a little holiday, and I had every intention of leaving my redoubtable reputation at home—but Miss Riker has asked my opinion of something, and as long as I was passing by, I thought I might as well brush up on the facts of the matter.”
The deputy had finally managed to ratchet his jaw back into place, only to have it unhinge again.
“D’you mean to say she called you all the way over here about that dog attack? And… you came?” he asked incredulously.
“Well, I didn’t know precisely what was on her mind at the time. As I said, I arrived here as a mere tourist.” Simon tilted his head slightly. “I take it Miss Riker has consulted you on the subject already.”
Haskill winced, dropping his hand from his holster. “Only every day for the last month. But that’s nothing compared to what we’ve been getting from the owner of those dogs. Between her pleas for canine clemency, and his veiled threats, it’s the most troublesome case I’ve ever dealt with.”
Simon had to suppress a smile of amusement and faint surprise. Either Haskill had been in desperate need of a friendly ear to bemoan his job to, or he really was so browbeaten over the case that the subject caused him to forget his previously exhibited and quite typical Lawmanly horror over his visitor’s haloed identity.
“So you believe the dogs did it,” the Saint remarked, seating himself on the hard wooden chair that faced the desk, in the same manner that another man might have lounged on a velvet-cushioned armchair.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. There was still blood all over them when a patrolman came on the scene just after the killing—even though Mr. Josselin, the owner, had tried to clean them up.”
“Is it possible the blood only came from their nosing around a body that was already dead?”
Haskill sat down behind his desk with a creak of worn-out springs, frowning suspiciously at the Saint. “What is it to you?”
Simon shrugged. “Mere curiosity, I suppose, and the terminal inability to let sleeping dogs lay—if you’ll pardon not only the phrase, but my correction of its usual horrendous grammar. Besides, you might say I’m sort of a friend of Miss Riker and her father. She believes there’s something not quite square about the case; and even if it is as straightforward as you say, she seems to have taken it into her head that my asking a few questions would let her rest more easily. And as long as I’m here—and still with every intention of contributing to your tourist trade, I might add—it’s no trouble to me to humor her.”
Haskill nodded impatiently. “I’ve heard you’ve occasionally played around with solving crimes instead of committing them. But there’s nothing to solve here, and my official position is that you’re a—”
“A thief and a brigand,” the Saint interrupted cheerfully. “Well, one has to have hobbies. Look at it this way, Brother Haskill—if you’ll indulge my dabbling in this little matter, you’ll have me in a perfect spot to watch me.”
“I’d do that anyway,” Haskill grumbled. He stared hard at Simon for a long moment, then sighed and spread his hands.
“If my superiors hear about this…”
He let that cheerless prospect go unspoken, and took a smudged and dog-eared folder labeled HINSHAW from a file drawer in his desk. As he stood up, he pushed the folder toward Simon.
“There. That’s the case file—and I’m still not here. Thank goodness I came in through the back entrance.”
Simon smiled as he took the folder. “Thanks, Haskill. Your breach of protocol is safe with me. I don’t suppose I’ll have cause to talk to you any more about this dog business, but I do hope to see you around town during my stay.”
“Bet on it,” Haskill replied dourly.
The deputy exited, and for the next several minutes, the Saint pored over the report of the alleged dog-mauling. He found the facts to be just as Tania and Haskill had stated them.
On the twenty-eighth of December, Mr. Ronald Josselin, a local craftsman, had been walking his three purebred Scottish wolfhounds at nine-fifteen at night—which seemed an odd hour for an excursion, especially in the dead of winter, but there was no accounting for the eccentric habits of some people. According to his own statement, he had been about two blocks from his home on Cordova Street when the dogs became agitated, pulled their leashes free of his grip, and ran into an alley about half a block farther on. When he followed them, he found them gathered around the savagely mutilated body of one John Hinshaw, a rather shiftless local handyman with a minor record of drunk and disorderly conduct. Josselin claimed he had heard no cries, and when he came upon them, the dogs were anxious and whining—but not violent.
On the other hand, the local patrolman who stumbled into that pretty scene reported that Josselin was trying to wipe blood from the dogs’ paws and muzzles. Josselin did not deny this, but insisted the dogs had only picked it up in walking around and sniffing the body, and he had tried to clean them up out of perfectly reasonable concern for the hygiene of his beloved pets. To cap off the matter, as the dogs were being taken away soon afterward, he became so threatening toward the police that he was charged with a handful of misdemeanors himself. His court date for that infraction was still pending—to say nothing of potential charges related to the keeping of allegedly dangerous animals.
To the Saint, it sounded like a perfectly clear case of dog attack. In his reading between the lines of the report and Tania’s own remarks, he gathered that Josselin was a surly, reclusive man who preferred animals over people. Dogs being highly perceptive creatures, Simon could imagine that such a temperament might have rubbed off on them.
There were a few pieces to the puzzle that still left him vaguely curious, but even they were not without possible explanations.
What was Hinshaw doing in the alley to begin with? Perhaps taking a shortcut home; perhaps merely looking for a quiet place to get drunk. A freshly broken bottle had been found at the scene.
As for Tania’s assertion that the dogs were well-trained and docile: she had included the proviso that they were harmless if they were not threatened. When approached in the dark by three large dogs, any man—especially if he was drunk—might be alarmed enough to react defensively, and inadvertently provoke the animals. Simon could not really fault the dogs in that case, but he supposed the ponderous rigidities of the Law could, and had.
What puzzled him most was that Tania Riker could become friends in the first place with a man who possessed so presumably disagreeable a character—and, he realized serendipitously as he laid down the folder, his impending dinner date with them both would be an ideal occasion to plumb the depths of that mystery.