3. St. Augustine

The old bookshop clung to the back of one of historic St. Augustine’s lesser known streets. The aged building had green lattice windows, a cement chimney, and a paneled wood exterior. Robust puffs of hibiscus clambered up the sides. A tiny bell chimed overhead as Cassandra entered.

The musty smell of ancient paper battered at her nostrils. An array of potted bonsai crowded the large room. They were everywhere. Bonsai on the counter beside the old school cash register. Bonsai doing double duty as bookends on shelves. Bonsai atop stacks of hardcover books. They seemed to be thriving in their odd environment.

Even so, Cassandra’s spidey senses tingled. Something wasn’t quite right. It was a weird sort of feeling. It was like an icepick, cold and sharp, prickling at the back of her neck. She’d never felt anything like it. The gravid knotting in her gut.

She stepped back outside. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. A few cars drove by. An old man riding a bicycle grinned and waved at her as he passed the shop. She stepped inside again. She heard a muffled thud from somewhere behind the door in the back of the shop.

“Mr. Takano, are you here?”

The door at the rear of the shop opened. A shadow lurched out. A man of slight build with white hair cut close to the scalp emerged. He hesitated, frowning. His eyes glinted through thin rimmed glasses. He wiped his hands in his dirt-spotted smock.

He gave her a tentative smile. “Miss Baron, is it? You’re early.”

“I was so excited when I got your email,” Cassandra admitted. “Is this a bad time?”

He skipped a beat but then he shook his head. “Not at all.”

He walked past her and ducked under the counter to get to the cash register area. He got a bag from under the counter. “I do have an unexpected guest from out of town though. Why don’t you take the book for now? We can discuss the contents later.”

“You’re sure?” Cassandra gave him a dubious look. “Don’t I need to pay you or something?”

It was a rare book, wasn’t it? Who in their right mind would hand over something like that? For free.

The elderly man set the bag down beside the register.

“I have a good sense for people, Miss Baron.” He said. “My gut tells me I can trust you.”

A bit floored, she gawked at him.

“Where are you staying?” He asked.

“The Oceana,” she answered, still too dumbfounded to wonder why he was asking. “Room 255.”

She would take the book since he insisted. Still, that unpleasant, prickling feeling hadn’t gone away. Was she being paranoid?

She heard a low murmur from the next room. A man’s voice. She gave Mr. Takano a searching look but he seemed unperturbed. He wrote down the name of her hotel and room number on the scratchpad by the register.

He placed the bag with the book in her hands. “I’ll contact you tomorrow and we can discuss a price then.”

He followed her to the door. As she was about to step back out into the daylight, he stopped her.

“Miss Baron,” as if inspired, he plucked one of the smaller bonsai from a nearby shelf.

“Here,” he offered with a smile. “A gift.”

Cassandra’s eyes widened. “I can’t–“

“They’re very easy to care for,” he insisted.

She hesitated but then she smiled, meeting his eyes. “Thank you.”

“Oh my!” He breathed in wonder as their gazes locked. “You have the most remarkable–“

Cassandra broke eye contact abruptly. She hadn’t meant to do that.

“I hope we have more time to talk next time,” she said.

“Oh yes,” he smiled. He swayed slightly, still dizzied by their brief eye-contact. “So do I.”

He watched her walk out into the street. As soon as she was out of sight, he locked the door and changed the “Open for Business” sign to “Closed”. He returned to the room in the back, where his guest, a man with ferocious golden eyes, waited.

Despite the peril he knew he was in, Susumu Takano’s serene expression never faltered.

* * * * *

Rain came again and went. The road was still wet as twilight descended. A lanky man stood across the street from Mr. Takano’s bookshop. Like any ordinary tourist, he wore faded jeans and a rumpled t-shirt. His outfit, though, was completely at odds with his serious demeanor.

Hands in his pockets, he contemplated the deserted shop before crossing the street. The sign on the door still said “Closed” but he tried the knob anyway. The door opened. Inside, he groped about for the light switch. Fluorescent lights flickered on.

The store was a mess. Books torn from shelves littered the floor. Some of Mr. Takano’s precious bonsai had tumbled onto their sides, soil spilling out. The old man lay sprawled amidst this mess by the counter, empty eyed and broken.

The newcomer swore bitterly. He bent over Mr. Takano’s body and checked for a pulse, but there was none.

His took his cellphone out and hit the speed-dial. After a moment, he spoke.

“Sorry, Dominic. I can’t give you good news.”

He listened to the voice on the other end for a few seconds. “It doesn’t look like they found it.” There was a brief pause. “Right. I’ll do that.”

He disconnected and stuck the phone back in his pocket. With a heavy sigh, he bent down over the body. Rigor hadn’t even set in yet. He closed the dead man’s eyes and stood.

“Give me something, you tricky old bastard.” He muttered. “No way did you let them get the better of you, like this.”

He cast his eyes about the room. There had to be something. Knowing Susumu Takano, something cryptic, left in plain sight. Something the killer either hadn’t counted on or had found but dismissed.

On the ground beside the counter was a small notepad. It was upside down. Not expecting much, the man flipped it over and read the words scribbled on the top page.

Oceana. 255.

“Long shot probably,” he murmured. He turned to the corpse. “But I’ll take what I get.”

He used the store’s phone to dial 911 and gave them the address. “There was a robbery,” he told the operator, then disconnected.

With one last, regretful look at Susumu Takano’s ruined body, he departed.

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