Chapter 1: I. How Tania Riker Confessed, and Simon Templar Went to Jail
“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.
Chapter 2: 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.
Chapter 3: 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 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.”
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.”
Chapter 4: 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.
Chapter 5: V. How the Saint Went Calling, and Alex Cordona Told Stories
Late in the afternoon, Simon received the return call he had expected.
For a little while afterward he lurked grimly in his hotel room, smoking several cigarettes and pacing like a caged cat, his normal instinct for quick resolve overshadowed by a sense of foreboding uncertainty. Such a hesitation was rare for the Saint, but the ideas coalescing in his mind were so incredible that he could not help questioning himself.
Finally he made his choice, and turned his steps toward Cordova Street and the home of Ron Josselin.
He was not carrying any tools that would have allowed him to circumvent the padlock on the gate, but it required little effort for him to top the rough coquina wall, even with its protective battlement of spears. Secure in the knowledge that Josselin’s dogs were still in the custody of the Law, he sauntered leisurely up the porch steps to the front door, and knocked.
An intruder within his hallowed grounds was clearly an inconceivable phenomenon to Josselin, and he responded to it instantly. Not more than three seconds passed before the door was thrown violently open, and the trust-fund bohemian stood rooted at the threshold like a grizzly, his red face contorted with indignation.
Simon’s gaze was drawn upward from the steel-trap hand wrapped around the edge of the door, across the length of Josselin’s exposed forearm; and then he had no more doubts.
“Good evening,” he said pleasantly, before the other man could speak. “I’m collecting for the National Fund for the Protection of Blue-Bellied Pangodillos—and considering your boundless love for all of God’s creatures, I thought you might like to make a donation.”
“How did you get through the gate?” Josselin boomed.
“Oh, I simply flew over it. I’ve been purported to do that sort of thing, you know.” Simon moved forward, with such assurance that the still-astonished Josselin automatically stepped back, and the Saint was in the house before its owner could even think of resisting.
The living room was better described as a workshop. Cluttered and uninviting, it was taken up largely by a workbench, its table piled with tools and coils of wire and half-finished examples of Josselin’s art—one of which, Simon noted, was a silver figurine of a running wolf. The heavily curtained windows left the room rather gloomy, with a strong lamp over the workbench providing the main source of light. The few other furnishings were dark, solid, ugly affairs that must have either come with the house or been collected from secondhand stores.
“Well, what do you want?” Josselin snarled contemptuously behind Simon, slamming the door shut—and efficiently planting his burly bulk between the Saint and that means of exit.
Simon turned, still perfectly placid and congenial, but there was the faintest undercurrent of ice beneath his solicitous tone.
“I just thought I’d drop in and make sure I didn’t hurt you too badly last night.”
Josselin’s sinewy body almost physically braced itself with an instinctive defiance. “What are you talking about?”
“You’ve played a clumsy game, Ronnie, really. I’m surprised even the police, as addled as they are, haven’t managed to catch up with you by now. Of course, they’re rather sticky about state lines and all that.” Simon’s poise was relaxed, and his voice drifted languidly from the depths of an apparent reverie. “You see, I had a terribly unpleasant dream about Newport last night. It bothered me so much that I had to ring up my old chum Inspector Fernack from New York for comfort. Well, just to make me feel better, the old parsnip went pestering a few professional colleagues to assure me my dream wasn’t true… and what do you suppose, Ronnie? It was!—Three supposed maulings by animals in Newport in as many months, all unexplained—and the last one happened almost exactly a month before Johnny Hinshaw died.”
The silversmith gaped in outraged astonishment. “Are you out of your mind?”
Simon ignored him, continuing his dreamy discourse.
“Hinshaw was just a random target, I suppose; but I knew there had to be a reason for Giddens’ death, looking back on all his oblique hints. It fits together nicely now. When you knew each other up north, he somehow caught on about those other three killings. He was rather desperate to at least live the life of an artist, even if it was utterly beyond him to be one—and he decided you’d make a convenient patron. However, like most parasites, he made the mistake of trying to blackmail someone who had no compunctions about doing things even less pleasant. And naturally, the final straw was hearing him give myself and Tania that veiled warning of danger last night.” The Saint raised an eyebrow wryly at Josselin. “I’m only surprised you let him live as long as you did. Of course, you might have intended to take care of him last month… except that our friend Hinshaw had the misfortune to get in the way of your peculiarly cyclical homicidal urges.”
Josselin took a step forward. Simon’s fluid muscles tightened almost imperceptibly in readiness, but the other man simply stared at him in stupefaction.
“You’re completely insane,” the silversmith diagnosed him at last—and there was almost more awe than anger in his voice.
“Well, I’m quite sure one of us is.” The Saint calmly took out a cigarette, gazing at it meditatively. “The particular scientific term I had in mind was lycanthropy.”
The dog lover’s pale blue eyes were as round as the moon had been the night before. “You think I’m some kinda werewolf?”
“Let’s say that I think you believe you are.”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Josselin laughed, harshly and incredulously and quite without humor.
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. Sure I like dogs, and wolves too, and lots of other animals—but that doesn’t mean I think I am one. And I never killed nobody, Saint.”
Truth be told, Simon had been more or less expecting a physical attack by this point. The fact that it had not come made him almost uneasy; certainly it added a new level to his skepticism, although his unchanged attitude did not betray it. There were still too many questions to be asked, too many threads in the rope he had mentally tightened around Josselin’s neck.
“If Gilbert wasn’t blackmailing you,” he said inquisitively, “would you care to explain why you tolerated him in this house, when you so clearly despised him?”
Josselin scowled and slumped down angrily onto his workbench, knotting his fists on his denim-clad knees.
“My father cut me off, that’s why,” he grumbled. “He told me if I wouldn’t go back up north and join him in leveling forests, I wouldn’t get another cent. I said no—but my art didn’t make enough money to get by on. I already owned this house, anyway, so I rented out the upstairs. Gilbert was just a tenant. He was an idiot and he bothered me with his trying to be pals, but he had plenty of money—though where he got it from, I don’t know. I just put up with him because it helped pay the bills.” Josselin folded his brawny arms and glared at Simon. “Satisfied?”
“Well, it’s not entirely implausible.” The Saint put away his unlit cigarette, his nonchalance fading slightly. “But there is one more thing. I was there at the Castillo last night, just after Giddens was killed.”
“I know.” At Simon’s interested look, Josselin added quickly, “Alex told me earlier.”
“I saw Giddens’ killer in the dark. I threw my knife, and drew blood.” Simon nodded toward Josselin’s left arm, and the first thing he had noticed when he was met at the door: a fresh white bandage, located slightly above the wrist, which he knew had not been there on the previous evening.
“I think Deputy Haskill might like to compare my blade against the wound you have under that gauze,” the Saint remarked.
The silversmith glowered at him, almost defensively clasping his meaty hand over the bandage. “That’s no cut. It’s a burn from my soldering iron.”
“Would you care to show me?” Simon asked lightly.
Josselin sat up straighter, his shoulders stiffening. “No—I don’t think I would. You’re no cop, and you don’t have a warrant. You’re just a crackpot who’s barged into my house with a lot of crazy ideas.” He abruptly stood up. “I want you to get out.”
Simon sighed elaborately. “You’re making things difficult for me, Ronnie. It’s true that what I have isn’t quite enough to act on, but I’m afraid I’ll have to let Brother Haskill in on it. If you want him for a playmate instead, that’s your business—but I don’t think I care to let you out of my sight until we’ve both spoken to him. So if you wouldn’t mind venturing off with me on a little social call to his office…”
“Why single me out?” Josselin snapped. “I didn’t know Hinshaw, and even if Gilbert did live upstairs, I barely knew him either. Why don’t you ask Alex who else might have hated him? They knew each other longer than I did.”
A sudden shaft of ice speared down the length of the Saint’s spine, stiffening him like an electric shock.
“What did you say?”
The startled consternation on Simon’s face was evidently enough to blunt even Josselin’s hostility. A bit of the harshness ebbed out of his expression, and he nodded.
“Sure—Alex and Gilbert met each other over in Spain, about six months ago, I guess. They came back to the States together. I was already living in Newport when they got there.”
Simon suddenly felt as breathless as if Josselin had laid a fist into his gut.
“Listen to me,” he rapped out quickly. “I want you to call Deputy Haskill and send him to Alex Cordona’s house. Tell him it may very well be a matter of life and death.”
Josselin gaped; and then the floridness of his face darkened in a new flush of incredulous contempt.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to pin that crazy story on Alex now!”
The Saint’s voice turned to ice. “I haven’t got time to argue with you, Josselin. Tania could be in danger.”
“She’s in more danger from a maniac like you than she’ll ever be from Alex.” Watching Simon carefully for any move toward the door, Josselin took the two sideways steps necessary to reach the telephone on a side table. “I’ll call the cops, alright—to cart you off to a padded cell.”
Simon heaved a sigh, watching the artisan insert his thick finger into the dial of the phone.
“Terribly sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t sit around now to wait for the lads with the butterfly nets. When you wake up from your impending hibernation, old grizzly, will you please give Haskill my love—and tell him to meet me at Cordona’s house.”
Josselin looked up in surprise—but before he could raise a hand in his own defense, the Saint’s fist undertook a mathematically precise concurrence with the underside of the bigger man’s jaw.
It was a necessarily explosive blow, given the recipient’s size, but at the same time not too hard. Simon had an active desire to see the man come to his senses and complete that telephonic distress call posthaste. For all he cared at the moment, Josselin could have Haskill bring along an entire squadron of men in white coats for the Saint’s dubious benefit—as long as it got the Law to the right place at the right time.
He knew how he would be judged if there was even a chance that he was wrong; and if he was, with the impossible ideas that had sunk their claws into his brain, he would be more than tempted to own himself deserving of that judgment.
But he was far more afraid of the chance that he was right.
Before Josselin’s temporarily unpiloted hulk had even thudded to the hardwood floor, Simon was turning to make his exit. As he did so, his gaze swept across the craftsman’s unkempt workbench. He paused infinitesimally, then stepped over to pick up the most promising object that lay before him.
“Maybe you are getting daft, Templar old boy,” he murmured to himself, and sprinted out the door.
Located only a few blocks farther down the same street, the residence of Alex Cordona was likewise a quaint artifact of Victoriana—this one somewhat smaller and far more inviting, its immaculate yard unfettered by a fence, its cream-colored walls reflecting a pink warmth in the light of the setting sun. Simon leaped up the porch steps with the uncanny silence of a stalking panther, and gently tested the knob of the front door.
It opened freely, and the apprehension vibrating in his nerves became a few degrees more intense.
With the exception of its electric light, the interior of the house might well have still been existing in the nineteenth century. There was not one furnishing that was not an elegant antique. Simon moved through a foyer and living room forested with end tables and wingback chairs, ornately carved wood and heavy floral-upholstered fabrics. The place reflected Cordona’s austere and fastidious manner, with not a single object out of place, and the books on the shelf—many of them also antiques—arranged in perfect alphabetical order.
There was no sign of either Cordona or Tania Riker, his intended dinner partner for the evening.
At the very instant when a new shadow of doubt flickered across Simon’s consciousness, he heard a faint sound from the upstairs landing, which may have been either a footstep or a soft protest of ancient hinges. A man with senses less finely attuned than the Saint’s would not have heard it, but it was enough to draw his attention sharply upward.
A bedroom door slowly creaked halfway open. Feeling weirdly transfixed, Simon watched as a familiar exquisite figure in a red dress stepped out, her golden hair framing the strained but steady expression on her face. Behind her shoulder, partly shielded by the door, there lurked the slender tan features and keen eyes of the Spaniard—and beneath Tania’s arm, against her ribs, the cylinder of a thirty-eight caliber barrel glinted with silent eloquence in the grip of a brown hand.
“Please come up, Mr. Templar. We’ve been expecting you.”
There was nothing for Simon to do but go up.
As he climbed the stairs, moving slowly with his hands in plain sight, he met Tania’s gaze. Reading his unasked question, she answered with a tense and crooked half-smile, a reassurance that she was for the moment unharmed. He recognized fear in her eyes, but her outward poise was as cool and statuesque as ever. Once more he marveled at the unflinching nerve of the girl—and at the same time, he felt the peculiar, daunting consciousness that her courage was due in part to an unquestioning faith in him. He would get her out of there; to her, it became fait accompli the moment he stepped into the house.
“My hero?” she asked, almost ironically, and without the slightest quiver in her voice.
The Saint responded with a somewhat pained smile. “I’ll admit there seem to have been certain complications.”
“I thought you would come here, if you were clever enough to ask Josselin the right questions,” Cordona said candidly. “That is what brought you, is it not?”
“Actually, the old boy just sent me round to borrow a cup of flour,” the Saint prattled easily. “He wants to bake those hounds of his a dog biscuit with a file in it—and after I heard about Spain, I thought you might be sympathetic to the cause.”
He had reached the top of the stairs. Cordona gripped Tania’s arm and drew her back into the room, gesturing slightly with his automatic for Simon to follow. The Saint complied, sauntering casually into a bedroom that matched the rest of the house for handsomely ornate anachronism. Cordona directed Tania to sit on the edge of the four-poster bed, and then circled round the edge of the spacious room to shut the door—never once taking his eyes from Simon or coming near him.
“I do regret the blame Josselin’s dogs have received,” Cordona admitted. “But it was rather fortunate for me.”
Simon shook his head, with an admiring expression.
“I certainly have to give you credit, Alex. You found a nearly perfect fall guy in Ron Josselin—and when you saw my personal dislike for him, you took advantage of it beautifully. I had the right story… just the wrong man.”
His expression hardened. “You were responsible for three deaths in Newport, and probably others in Spain. Giddens knew it, and he was blackmailing you. A month ago you set out to stalk him, but John Hinshaw had the bad luck to be in your path… The site of his murder does just happen to be almost precisely halfway between Josselin’s house and this one. Now, you finally finished off Giddens last night.” His eyes ranged over Cordona’s slender figure. “Just where did I nick you, incidentally?”
A dark smile flitted briefly across the other man’s mouth. “That does not matter now. It was merely a scratch—but I thank you for your concern.”
“How could he have killed… the way they were killed?” Tania’s voice broke in from the bed, over Simon’s shoulder. Only now was there a faint and quickly-suppressed tremor of shock in her voice, and Simon knew his account of Cordona’s crimes had been the first revelation of the full truth to her.
“I’m still working on that one,” Simon murmured without turning to her, unwillingly remembering the sight of Giddens’ savaged corpse. “I’m not sure we’ll ever really know.”
“There is no reason why you should not. After all… you will never have the chance to tell the tale.” Cordona moved over to the bureau, reaching out without looking away from Simon, and picked up a coil of rope. This, surprisingly, he tossed into Tania’s lap.
“You will do me the service of tying Mr. Templar to that chair,” he said evenly, nodding to the piece of furniture in question. “I am not so foolish as to place myself within his reach. But I shall watch you, and if you do not tie him securely, I am afraid I will be forced to remove his temptation—along with his fingers.” He touched the handle of a knife sheathed on his belt.
“Do as he says, Tania,” Simon said calmly.
Slowly, the artist moved to obey. With a scornful look at the gun in Cordona’s hand, Simon seated himself in the wooden chair to which he had been directed, crossing his wrists behind its straight solid back in cheerful anticipation of the rope—and the arduous task ahead of him. He had good reason not to want his wrists tied to the chair arms in plain sight.
Tania stepped behind the chair, and a moment later, he felt her slim fingers set to work. Cordona had likewise moved beyond Simon’s field of view, and it was clear that he was now looking over Tania’s shoulder, watching intently as she proceeded to bind her would-be rescuer with her own hands. Simon could not help but admire the way Cordona controlled the scene from a careful distance, covering every possible move, avoiding the simple mistakes made by so many specimens of the ungodly.
Except for one.
Simon shifted his arm slightly, pressing it against Tania’s fingers, letting her feel the hard object concealed beneath his sleeve. He was acutely aware of the instant of hesitation it caused her. Under Cordona’s scrutiny, it was impossible for her to reach for it herself; but then he felt a feather-light yet plainly deliberate pressure against his hand, and knew she had received the message to take heart.
“Well, Alex?” he asked lightly. “You promised to tell us a bedtime story. Something along the lines of Little Red Riding Hood, I expect. ‘My, what a big gun you have, Grandmother,’ and all that.”
Behind him, he heard Cordona chuckle faintly.
“You do not believe, Mr. Templar, but I shall tell you anyway. My name is Alejandro de Mazarrón y Cordona—and I first set foot upon this shore in the Year of Our Lord 1513, in the company of Juan Ponce de Leon.”
The Saint heard Tania’s faint, startled intake of breath, but he himself gave no visible reaction. A part of his mind was taken up now with the task of discreetly twisting his hands and tensing the muscles of his forearms, ensuring as much slack as he could in the ropes she was reluctantly coiling around his wrists. With Cordona watching, it was exceedingly delicate work.
“For a man at the ripe old age of four-and-a-quarter centuries, you seem to have aged very gracefully indeed, Alejandro,” he remarked offhandedly.
Cordona did not acknowledge him. Behind Simon’s shoulder, the fantastic yet eerily reminiscent narrative continued: “I was not a soldier, but a scholar and an artist, brought on the voyage to make maps and drawings of the lands we discovered. But I was not strong. After only a few days in the marshes, I became mortally sick with a fever… and my comrades left me to die.”
There was a moment of silence. Finished binding Simon’s hands, Tania was evidently motioned back to the other side of the room by Cordona, and resumed her nervous seat on the bedside. With one hand, the Spaniard cautiously tested the strength of the knots for himself, then stepped back into Simon’s view as well. The light of zealous passion that came into his eyes when he spoke of history was again visible, but there was now a fever-brightness about it, the reflected spark of a maniacal conviction burning within.
“As I lay waiting for death, I was found by a tribe of natives, who gave me new life. Their ancestors had long ago found their way to this place from Central America, for once they were an offshoot of the Aztec race—but their customs were so strange, so violent, that even that savage nation had driven them out across the sea. It was these who healed me, by mingling their own blood with mine.”
A look of rapturous fervor came over Cordona’s face, his gaze flickering back and forth between his captives. “Do you see? Ponce de Leon came here to seek the Fountain of Youth, but it was I who found it. The secret was not in the water—it was in the blood.”
Slowly, and very quietly, Tania answered him.
“You’re insane, Alex.”
And the Saint, behind his back, resolutely twisted his wrists and stretched his long fingers toward the cuff of his sleeve.
He found that Tania, for fear of Cordona’s threats of disfigurement against him, had done an all-too-efficient job with the ropes. As he silently fought to draw out the meager slack he had created, the rough hemp bit burningly into his skin. He set his jaw and closed his mind against the pain, at the same time flexing the muscles in his arm to ease his trump card down toward his hands.
Cordona himself, apparently satisfied that he had neutralized the Saint, seemed almost prepared to dismiss his presence. Simon was not at all sure he liked that development, because Tania was now the primary subject of the Spaniard’s attention—and the gun was still in his hand.
In response to her judgment upon his mental state, he turned to her with an air of strangely earnest appeal.
“You yourself have often said that my art makes one feel as if I had seen my subjects with my own eyes. Now you know the truth: I have. Through the centuries I have watched this land change and grow—seen it fly the flags of Spain and England and America—and I have recorded it all in my paintings and written histories.”
He paused then, growing somber, and turned away slightly.
“But there is a price for immortality. Mr. Templar has realized already what I am.”
“I know what you’ve made of yourself in your own mind,” Simon replied steadily. “In your own terms: hombre lupo.”
Even as he spoke, the Saint continued his secret battle, and at last he felt the butt end of his precious tool drop into the palm of his hand. With slow and excruciating care, he maneuvered it between his fingers, gently sliding it out of his sleeve and into his grasp. Then, without a pause to rest his strained and aching hands, he once more contorted his tortured wrists and set to work on the ropes that bound him. All the while, he listened for any sound of Haskill’s cavalry plodding to the rescue; but there was only silence downstairs. His heart sank a little as he reflected that he may have hit Josselin harder than he calculated.
Cordona was unquestionably alert for any sudden moves, but he still declined to acknowledge Simon. However dangerous it was, his intent focus on Tania was an advantage to the Saint, allowing him to struggle with his bonds a bit more strenuously than he could have if their captor had been expending more awareness in his direction.
Instead, the artist-historian met Tania’s wide, incredulous eyes with that impossibly sincere sense of entreaty, a strange plea for understanding and belief.
“He speaks the truth. Those natives who saved my life, Tania, were such beings as you would call… werewolves. They healed me by making me one of them, and their blood in my veins has allowed me to live for these four hundred years without sickness or death. But the terrible price I must pay is that on a single night of each month, when the full moon rises, I am myself changed into a wolf—and I cannot reclaim my own form until I have tasted human blood.”
And there, at last, was the fulfillment of every fantastic suspicion that had entered the Saint’s mind in the last two days.
Even when twisted in an expression of disgust, Tania’s face could be nothing but beautiful. She gazed at Cordona with a coldly horrified loathing that nevertheless gave not an inch of ground, refusing even to physically shrink back from him.
“You’re sick, Alex,” she said, quietly but steadily. “Let us help you.”
The self-professed lycanthrope gazed at her with the regretful pity of an adult punishing a child for its own good.
“You will feel differently, my love… when you are as I am.”
The Saint’s heart skipped a beat. Some supernal instinct within him had almost begun to anticipate such a threat—but to hear it spoken was a chilling confirmation of his worst half-realized fears.
“What?” Tania gasped, jerking to her feet in unsuppressed startlement.
Their captor extended his free hand slightly toward her. “Through these long years, I have searched for a worthy mate… and at last I have found that in you. Once our blood has been mingled, you and I will share the centuries to come. Think of it, Tania—together we will witness history not yet imagined, and teach its truths to still-distant generations, just as I have done with my art and my writings. When multitudes die in wars which man could learn from the past not to repeat, is our wisdom not more than worth the cost of twelve lives each year?”
For a moment, an electrically frantic tension hung in the air—and then a half-desperate yet shrewdly calculating light glimmered through Tania’s eyes. Simon recognized it with a sinking heart, and could almost read her thoughts as he watched the delicate shift of her demeanor.
“Maybe it would be, Alex,” she conceded, in a soft, breathy voice. With a svelte brazenness that made Simon catch his breath, she took two steps closer to Cordona, gazing meltingly into his predator eyes. “Besides, you should have known all along that I’d follow you anywhere.”
Had Tania pursued her father’s theatrical realms of art, Simon would reflect later on, a performance such as that could have made her the toast of Broadway.
Cordona reached out with his empty left hand, his fingertips tracing a silken lock of her hair. His face was a map of his internal pitched battle between temptation and mistrust. With pulse racing, Simon redoubled his effort and strain against the ropes; there was no more time to be discreet.
“Let’s leave right now, this minute,” Tania went on with seductive eagerness. “We can go anywhere. You don’t need to bother about the Saint. You don’t really want to hurt him, and I’d rather not either—it wouldn’t be a nice way to repay him for helping my father, after all.”
The Spaniard’s expression turned regretful.
“I wish it were so simple, Tania. But even if I did not think Mr. Templar would follow us to the ends of the earth, we have need of him.” His hand dropped gently, caressingly, onto her shoulder. “Even if the moon is not full, you must suffer the change when you are first initiated. Mr. Templar will be your first kill, and his blood will restore you to your own true beauty.”
Such madness was more than even Tania’s iron-willed performance could withstand. With a gasp of shocked revulsion, she attempted to recoil—but Cordona’s loving grip had suddenly become a vise around her upper arm. As he twisted her slender, struggling body against him, he threw the gun down on the bed, and reached for the knife at his belt.
Simon fought the ropes with manic strength, feeling the fibers give way against the desperate strain of his muscles and the sharp edge of the tool in his hand. Another second would be a second too late…
And then Tania kicked Cordona—hard—in a very well-chosen place.
At that instant the Saint’s bonds surrendered with a snap, and he flung himself out of the chair, bringing his weapon to bear. Tania had almost simultaneously wrenched herself from the grip of the crumpled and gasping Cordona, and for a moment the three of them stood frozen in a hair-triggered tableau. The unwieldy but potentially lethal object in Simon’s hand was poised to be thrown with the flick of a wrist; yet he waited. His sapphire eyes had turned to steel, but they were not the coldly merciless eyes that had been the last sight of so many other men.
After a few seconds that felt like an eternity, Cordona straightened slightly, breathing hard. He looked up from beneath lowered brows, his obsidian gaze glittering with hot malice as he realized that the Saint now possessed the upper hand. For a moment, he looked chillingly like the animal he had professed to become by moonlight.
Then, with a faint, maniacal grimace of a smile, he edged forward. His hand crept toward the knife that still remained sheathed at his hip.
“Don’t do it, Alejandro,” Simon warned him, and wished with every fiber of his being for the other man to heed him.
Cordona’s mad-dog smile merely widened just a little. He lurched forward almost bestially, his fingers closing over the handle of the knife.
“You cannot harm me…”
The knife flashed from its sheath, and the Saint’s choice was made for him.
Suddenly Cordona was arrested in mid-stride, the knife raised, his eyes bulging in an instant of shocked disbelief before infinity veiled them over forever. In eerie silence, the body parted from its soul slumped bonelessly to the floor. Projecting now from its breast, just over its heart, rose the unfinished handle of a silver dagger—sculpted in the rough shape of a wolf’s head.
For a moment there was stillness. Then, before Simon could turn to face Tania, she was in his arms, her face buried against his chest and her warm tears soaking into his shirt. He gathered her in his sheltering embrace, and laid his cheek against her soft hair; and in silence, brick by brick, he rebuilt the walls within him that she would never know had cracked.
She barely gave a start when the crash of an imploding door sounded from downstairs, followed by the commanding voice of Deputy Haskill.
Chapter 6: Epilogue: How Two Happy Reunions Occurred, and Deputy Haskill Was Puzzled
“In the conventional epilogue to a story like this,” the Saint mused, gazing meditatively at his Peter Dawson as he turned it to catch the afternoon sunlight, “a fellow is expected to explain patiently that the antagonist was really just an unfortunate madman, driven by his delusions to commit unthinkably inhuman crimes. And yet, I’ll be the first to admit… I don’t quite rest easy with such a simple answer.”
He was seated comfortably in a wicker chair on the front porch of Ron Josselin’s house, his long legs stretched out and his feet propped on the ornate wooden railing. At his left sat Tania; in her eyes there still lurked a somber shadow of the shock she had endured the night before, but her natural warmth and resiliency were steadily reclaiming the usual light in her gaze. Beyond her sat the master of the house, for once looking amicable and not at all unkind. Perhaps it was because Josselin was waiting now for Deputy Haskill to bring home his beloved dogs—but Simon liked to hope it was something more than that.
“Then you figure something different might have happened… if that hadn’t been a silver knife you picked up off my table?” the artisan of the lethal weapon asked somberly.
Simon tilted his hand slightly, in lieu of a shrug. “I wouldn’t venture to say. But I doubt it.” Then he glanced past Tania to meet the other man’s eyes. “By the way, I apologize for blipping you on the mandible. And for so unceremoniously borrowing your handiwork—Haskill had taken my knife, and I didn’t feel I had the time to contrive something else.”
“Don’t even think of it,” said Josselin, and although he winced as he rubbed his jaw, his gruffness lacked its usual harsh edge. He reached over to pat Tania’s hand, receiving an appreciative smile in return. “You put it all together in time to get Tania back safe—and you got my dogs off the hook by finding the real killer. That’s all I care now.”
“Alex’s paintings are going to go up in value now,” Tania said thoughtfully, her tone edged with cynicism in contempt of human morbidity. “The Arts Club is going to handle what he left in his studio. Since he didn’t have any family…” She trailed off briefly, as if the unanswered questions of Cordona’s life had once again reached the tip of her tongue; but then she merely gave a sad shake of her head. “We’ve decided to donate the proceeds to the restoration work here in town. History was Alex’s passion. I think it’s what he would have wanted.”
“I think so too,” the Saint agreed, without malice. He was rarely sorry for a life he had extinguished, but in the case of the unique yet twisted mind of Alejandro Cordona, he could make an exception. Even after the madness of that final encounter, he still found himself remembering most of all the knowledge and quiet enthusiasm of the man—qualities he had observed during one all-too-brief evening of thrilling tales about swashbuckling and savages and long-lost ways of life.
Tales described so vividly, one almost felt Cordona had seen it all with his own eyes…
At that moment, a car with the markings of the sheriff’s office slid up outside the open front gate. Josselin was on his feet and bounding down the porch steps even before Deputy Haskill emerged. The lawman moved to the rear door of the vehicle and opened it—and in a scene worthy of any circus clown car, three enormous Scottish wolfhounds rocketed out of the back seat. Josselin was bowled over in a joyous tsunami of dark gray fur, and for the first time since Simon had met him, the big man laughed with genuine happiness as he wrestled in the grass with his canine friends.
Simon glanced at Tania, and found her gazing back at him with conflicted emotions in her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “And I’m sorry.”
She understood even more than he had given her credit for. The Saint smiled gently and reached out to squeeze her arm.
There was no time for the moment to fully flower, as Vernon Haskill was striding toward the porch, carefully skirting the playful battlefield taken up by Josselin and the dogs. Tania rose and sauntered down the steps to greet the animals herself, giving the deputy a warm smile and a nod as she passed him. He returned the salutation, but there was a distracted look on his face as he continued up to the porch.
Simon stood up, extending his hand. “Good afternoon, Vern. Am I to presume you were overwhelmed with eagerness to see the happy reunion?”
The deputy shrugged as their hands met. “Well, it’s not every day you get to bring somebody good news in this job. Anyway, I had another reason to come when I heard you’d be here.” He disengaged from the handshake and reached beneath his jacket, withdrawing a slim ivory-handled blade. “Now that the case is wrapped up, I think this belongs to you, Saint. What did you call it again?”
“Belle,” the Saint replied, gratefully accepting the cherished weapon. “Thanks, Haskill.”
For a moment he was preoccupied as he slipped the knife into her customary home beneath his sleeve. When he looked up at Haskill again, the deputy was gazing ponderously toward nothingness in the general direction of the ground, with his hands on his hips and a troubled look on his face.
“Your expression falls short of the rapturous glow of an agent of the Law reveling in a closed case,” Simon observed pointedly. “Is something wrong, Vern? If there are any questions I can still clear up for you—”
“Oh, no. Nothing to do with you,” Haskill replied, and tipped his hat forward to scratch the back of his neck with a frown. “It’s just…”
Familiar ghostly fingers of ice caressed the Saint’s nerves.
Haskill sighed and shrugged. “Well… as it turns out, the coroner found some coarse gray hairs clutched in Gilbert Giddens’ hand. They obviously came off an animal. I don’t know what it means, but…” The lawman hesitated, then spread his hands in a hapless surrender to bewilderment.
“The lab swears up and down that they’re wolf hairs.”
For a moment, there was a profound silence. The Saint’s eyes widened slightly, and his gaze wandered away to the wide blue sky beyond the ancient oaks.
2007 Jordanna Morgan – with gratitude to Leslie Charteris