“Sit down, Mr Manning. I am sorry to call you away before breakfast, but something has happened which disturbs me a great deal.”
“You remember these cards?” She nodded towards the massive filing cabinet.
“I retired last night soon after you left. I always keep these cards in a certain order. The cabinet is not locked. This morning, I can tell, the cards have been disturbed.”
“I can assure you, Sister, that I wouldn’t dream — ”
“I am not accusing you, Mr Manning.”
“Mr McDonald didn’t strike me as the sort of man — ” Come to think of it, though, he did know his way around.
“I’m not accusing Mr McDonald either. I am simply stating the simple fact, Mr Manning, that one of my guests has been inspecting my cards without my knowledge or authority.” The old lady delivered all this in her flat, level, railway-regulations tone. She had obviously been rehearsing what she was going to say.
“What about the staff?” I asked.
“Impossible! Except for Carlo, my staff has been with me for years. And Carlo helps me file the cards. He knows the order I keep them in.”
“And that is?”
“By birth-dates, Mr Manning.”
Surely she too wasn’t a believer in star signs and all that malarkey!
“I find it very disturbing,” she continued. “One of my guests has been stealing information from my files.” Nervously she clutched at the collar of her unbuttoned cardigan and drew it closer around her neck.
“I can’t see why, Sister.”
She stared at me angrily.
“I mean I can’t see how the information would be useful to anyone.”
“Blackmail,” she said hollowly.
I felt like telling her she’d been watching too many TV shows. Hardly anyone gets blackmailed these days. Sleeping out of bounds is no longer a crime. Even robbing banks and making out swindle sheets on a grand scale has a statute of limitations. None of the guests looked like bank robbers anyway, though maybe a few could pass for embezzlers. And most of them were too old to play around.
I’d filled in a card myself. Personal details were limited to Name, Age, Address, Phone, Married/Single, Occupation, Illnesses. “Hardly world-shattering information, Sister,” I said carefully.
“This is the card that was out of place.” She slid it across the desk but kept her fingers over the name. The address was in Vaucluse, a very swanky suburb in the city of Sydney — no-one under $500,000 a year. Single. Occupation: Catholic Priest. Illnesses: Alcoholism.
She slid her fingers off the name. George McDonald.
“Maybe he was looking at his own card?” I suggested.
“Why should he? He filled it in himself.”
“Someone could have filled it in for him.”
“He filled it in here — in my presence.” So I was right: He had been here before!
“What about the other guests? Any repeats?”
She hesitated. Maybe she knew about Grey and his honeymoon — but that was obviously not the sort of repeat visit I meant. “No.”
“None of the guests strike me as a potential blackmailer,” I surmised. “Let me see their cards.”
Again she hesitated for a moment, before drawing them all out in a bunch and handing them across.
I read them out in order:
“Lester Jurd. Retired sea captain.
“Russell Payne. Retired cinema exhibitor.
“David Grey. Retired text-book publisher.” That was a surprise! The debonair, tragic Mr Grey looked much younger than his years.
“Walter Sullivan. Casino employee.” I didn’t know Mr Sullivan. I put his card to one side.
“Bill Seabrook. Clerk, Main Roads Department.
“Jack Seabrook. Clerk, Main Roads Department.
“Scot Radford. Partner: Radford, Price & McEnnally, Accountants.” I didn’t know Mr Radford either, but he seemed a most unlikely suspect. Radford, Price & McEnnally were a well-known firm with a U.S. branch on Wall Street. They specialized in liquidations and bankruptcies. I hesitated. What the hell! I put his card on top of Sullivan’s, the casino man’s.
“Alastair Quimby. Government employee.” That was telling me a lot! I flipped through the four remaining cards: E. J. Hopkins, Numerologist; myself; Kevin Holloway, Pastor of the Church of the New Kingdom; Seldon Taylor, Film Critic.
This Quimby must be the guy Hopkins was proselytizing on the train, the public service man with the empty pipe. I can certainly pick them! I glowed with a sense of self-satisfaction as I handed the cards back. A sudden thought came to me. Of course! “I think I know who’s been looking at your cards,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”
She stared at me.
“Don’t worry,” I continued. “He’s not after blackmail. He’s out to win converts. He wants to impress everyone he’s a real adept with the cosmic forces or whatever. A weak link like Father McDonald would be a big catch for him.”
She looked at me with an expression of displeasure. I realized too late she could well be a disciple of all that stars tripe herself. “Mister McDonald,” she said with emphasis. “We use no titles here.” She swept her hand over the cards. “We are all plain ‘mister’. I hold with no titles at all!”
“Yes, Sister,” I agreed.
Breakfast was not exactly a cheering affair. Guests had a choice of two oranges, OR raw rolled oats with natural sultanas and cream, OR two slices of rye bread with unsalted butter and pure fruit spread. No drinks at all — not even a glass of water.
Breakfast had already started when I came in. To my horror, I found myself billeted at a table with Erasmus J. Hopkins and the empty pipe musician Quimby and Mr Grey. Grey was a nice guy, but I felt self-conscious and embarrassed in his presence. I watched him warily as I sat down. He obviously blamed the police for his wife’s death, but if he knew my identity, he was a good actor. Smiling cordially, he handed me the menu with an old-fashioned, Continental flourish. On the other hand, Hopkins and Quimby ignored me. They were deep in a conversation about astral forces and Hopkins’s current political predictions.
“Rolled oats?” Mr Grey smiled.
“Carlo!” Mr Grey called, staring past my head.
Attending the table behind me, Carlo was arguing with one of the guests.
“What do you mean I can’t have the oranges and the oats and the toast?” came a complaining whinge from Pastor Holloway. “It’s bad enough there’s no cup of tea or coffee for breakfast — I expected that — but how can you make a meal of two oranges, I ask you?”
Carlo mumbled a reply.
“When I ordered the oranges,” Tubby resumed, “I naturally thought oats and bread were to follow. I didn’t see any ‘OR’ on the menu! If I had seen that ‘OR’, I wouldn’t have ordered oranges. No way! Besides, I said to you,” — here Holloway appealed for confirmation to his table at large, — “remember I said, ‘I think I’ll start with oranges!’ I can hardly give them back. I’ve eaten them already. It takes no time at all to eat two oranges.”
Carlo mumbled again.
“Surely I could have just a few slices of toast? None of us had anything to eat last night!”
“Two pieces of toast isn’t going to make any difference in the kitchen — ”
At this rate, none of us would get breakfast. I remembered the Hershey bar back in my room. I hadn’t eaten mine. I’d fetch it for Tubby to shut him up.
On re-entering my room, I saw a man going through Zapata’s things. At first I thought one of the other guests had got wind of Taylor’s chocolate hoard and was helping himself.
“Hold on there!”
I expected the helping-hand guest to wheel around and offer some feeble excuse. Imagine my surprise when he pitched Zapata’s bag right at me! The bag knocked me over but as the guru made to rush past I lashed out at his shins with my foot, tripping him up. As he fell forward on his face, I threw myself on top of him. He tried to roll sideways, kicking out with his feet, but I was too heavy for him. I grabbed his head with both hands and forced it on to the floor; but he arced out his left arm and caught me a glancing blow on the chin, — not forceful enough to knock me off. I knelt up the more heavily on top of him, and burying both my knees into his arms and pulling his head back and forth by the hair, smashed his forehead repeatedly into the floor.
“Enough! Enough!” he cried out.
“You and I are going along to see Sister Susan.”
We both stood up. He preceded me into the corridor. He was a thickset gent, maybe thirty-five or forty, wearing black slacks and a black jumper. It was just beginning to dawn on me that he didn’t seem like a fellow guest at all, when there was a sort of gurgling sob from the next room. The door opened and one of the Seabrook brothers wobbled out, his face ashen, his normally bulging eyes now wide as saucers. “It’s Mr Payne!” he cried out. “He’s dead!”
“And then the man broke free!” exclaimed Sergeant Lambert.
“Well I didn’t actually have hold of him,” I said. “When my attention was distracted, he rushed past Seabrook and escaped. Seabrook collapsed into the corridor, blocking my path. I wanted to see if I could do anything for Payne. I didn’t believe he was dead. Besides, I thought the intruder was one of the guests and could easily be tracked down.” This wasn’t true , but who was to know?
“At least you’ve given us a good description anyway.” Sergeant Lambert looked a bit like the intruder himself. He was about the same age, thickset, jowly — but not half as lean. A lot of Lambert’s weight rested on a big beer gut.
“Why would he kill old Payne? A guy with no money. He was complaining how damn near ruined he was! And why wasn’t he at breakfast with the rest of us?”
Sergeant Lambert made a pretense of flipping through his notebook. “Both the Seabrooks say he was a heavy sleeper — and they couldn’t wake him.” Sergeant Lambert spoke emphatically, deliberately. Just the merest trace of a mocking or patronizing tone in the heaviness of his voice.
“What did Erasmus J. Hopkins say? He slept in that room too.”
The sergeant shut his notebook with a bang. “His evidence? Useless. A lot of rot about Payne being under astral influence and it being dangerous to his cosmos to wake him up!” Sergeant Lambert made no effort to hide the mockery, the disgust in his tone.
“So the three of them just went out to breakfast and left him there?”
“That’s it,” said the sergeant.
“And then this other joker breaks in — ”
“We’ve no evidence he broke in,” interposed the sergeant. “He just walked through the back door, so far as I can see. According to Mrs Delaflore, the front door is locked at night, but the back door is always kept on the latch.”
“So this joker walks in, sees Payne sleeping there, suffocates him with a sheet or a pillow or a blanket or something, and then goes into the other room and starts to go through Taylor’s things. It doesn’t make sense! Why didn’t he start on the room Payne was sleeping in? Why did he kill him at all? Payne was obviously out cold with sleeping pills or whatever.”
“We don’t know that he did kill him — yet.” Again, the slight mocking inflection in the sergeant’s voice.
“Come off it! We can both recognize suffocation.”
“Maybe you can — you’re the visiting police officer with all the big city experience. I’m just a country cop. Nothing ever happens here except a few drunks on New Year’s Eve and maybe a car gets stolen.”
“And maybe a petty larceny or two,” I said.
“And maybe a few burglaries!” he repeated heatedly. “It’s not like suffocating city-side here. And Happy Valley, Australia’s an even longer way from Miami! Most people in this town keep their doors wide open.”
“Mid-autumn?” I asked.
Lambert didn’t bother to reply.
“I’d be interested to look at your charge sheets over the past year. The man who attacked me was obviously one of your local saints — and I’d be willing to bet he was no first-timer.”
“Maybe from out of town? Who knows?”
“At seven o’clock in the morning? He knew his way around. Probably been casing the place for months.”
“Okay!” he admitted angrily. “Remember, you’re just an advisor here, mate. Just an advisor! Your badge isn’t worth two cents here. Not two cents!
I smiled. “Sense is dead right, sergeant. This doesn’t make sense. Not a cent of sense. A small-time burglar kills a guest he has no need to, and then hangs around in another room. Ridiculous!” I exclaimed.
A sudden thought struck me. “I’m wrong. Dead wrong! Not a small-time burglar at all. He was a hired killer. And when he knocked off Payne, he realized Payne wasn’t the right man. Because he’d been sleeping in the wrong bed. A bed with the wrong name-tag. The killer was really after Captain Jurd!”
Lambert pursed his thick lips to make some retort, but then checked himself even as the breath was rising to his throat. He covered his retreat by referring back to his notebook. “I’ll need you to come up to the station later and sign a statement.”
“I’ll do more than that! I’ll go right through your flamin’ charge sheets till I find the guy!” I affirmed aggressively. “Unfortunately, I’ve got no transport,” I finished lamely.
“We can take care of that. I’ll get your statement typed up.” Lambert ran a pudgy finger through the scrawl in his notebook, seeking the place. “Your evidence is: You challenged this thick-set stranger going through Taylor’s things — ”
“And such things!” I interrupted. “Fifty-two chocolate bars!”
Lambert shrugged. “Maybe your burglar has a sweet tooth?”
“That’s another thing: Why would anyone in their right mind come to a health farm with fifty-two chocolate bars?”
“Who cares? Maybe he knows what the food’s like here. Maybe he’s been here before. But right now your statement is all that interests me. My Captain’s just going to love it!”
“At least let’s have Jurd in for questioning. He’s a cranky old coot. Used to be a ship’s captain. Probably made a flock of enemies in his time.”
Lambert exhaled heavily. “We don’t even know yet for certain that Payne was killed. He could of died in his sleep!”
In the end, we questioned nobody. It was decided to keep the whole thing under wraps. Lambert went back to the police station to phone his superiors at Echo Point. I elected to nose around quietly at the farm until he sent for me.
So we withheld the news of the burglar/intruder from Sister Susan and the guests, letting everyone assume that Payne had died a natural death. Maybe he had. True, one of the Seabrook boys had seen the intruder, but he didn’t say anything to the good sergeant about it. Presumably he thought the felon a fellow-guest who’d rushed away to summon help!
However, there were a few things I wanted to find out from the Seabrook brothers. I ran them to earth back in their room. They were sitting on the ends of their beds, staring with wide-eyed concentration at the late Payne’s empty mattress. There was no sign of Hopkins. Doubtless malign astral influences kept him at bay.
“What did Mr Payne say or do last night?”
They looked at each other fearfully. “He didn’t do anything,” said one. — “Yes, he did,” said the other, “he took all those pills, remember?”
“How many pills?”
“Heaps!” said one. — “It must have been three or four,” said the other.
They both shrugged.
“You weren’t surprised when you couldn’t wake him this morning?”
They looked at each other with puzzled expressions. Were they surprised? Perhaps they were. Perhaps not. Erasmus J. Hopkins will certainly have his work cut out with this pair!
“Well, that’s clear enough,” I said soothingly. “Now tell me, after Mr Payne was brought to your room last night, — he was pretty agitated, — did he settle down all right?”
They nodded vigorously.
“He just took his pills and went right to sleep?”
“Yes,” said one, nodding furiously. — “Yes, that’s what he did,” confirmed the other nervously.
I was puzzled. They were hiding something. “He just took his pills and went to sleep?”
They both nodded.
“He didn’t introduce himself or say anything?”
“No,” answered one. — “No, he didn’t,” echoed the other.
“Not a peep about his boyhood adventures in Happy Valley?”
They shook their collective heads.
“Didn’t that strike you as strange?”
“No,” answered the first softly. The second brother visibly gulped, but said nothing.
“Ah blame mahself!” came a voice from the doorway — a voice with a raised lilt. “Ah could see it! Ah could see it all in the stars! Ah should have warned him!”
The pest Hopkins had returned — the room’s malign astral influences must have worn off — but for once I could use him. I turned back to the Seabrooks. “Remember, Mr Hopkins was in this room last night!”
“It didn’t mean anything,” said one. — “No, it didn’t mean anything,” repeated the other.
I was losing patience. “What didn’t mean anything?” I shouted.
Hopkins darted forward and grabbed me by the shoulder. “The stars, man!” he exclaimed in a sepulchral voice. “It’s all written in the stars — a man’s destiny — ” His dreamy-looking eyes were shining. I shook him off.
I fixed the more nervous of the Seabrooks with an implacable stare. “What didn’t mean anything?” I shouted again.
He wilted. “Mr Payne — he found out we were in the Main Roads Department.”
“We told him,” explained his brother.
“He blamed us for putting a road through his cinema.”
“I swear we knew nothing about it!”
“He said we’d ruined him!”
“He said he’d get us — if it was the last thing he ever did!”
Because of the death, Sister Susan decided to cancel the morning’s activities. Just as well! I couldn’t concentrate on health if it killed me.
What was worse, Lambert had talked. The whole place now knew that I was a police officer. The fact that I had no authority wouldn’t weigh with this crowd. I was in for one of those holidays where everyone pussyfoots around when I come into sight, and careless talk dries up like charity in a parsonage!
When I returned to my own room, I knew they’d all been gossiping. Holloway, McDonald, Taylor, Jurd — there they were huddled in a little group around Taylor’s bed. As soon as I walked in, the buzz of conversation suddenly stopped in mid-decibel.
“Well, er, thanks for the Hershey bar,” said Holloway loudly, never one to miss an opportunity.
“You’re welcome,” said Taylor smoothly. “Any time.”
“Er!” Holloway had his hand out. “Er!”
“Any time!” repeated Zapata grandly, staring at Holloway impassively.
“Er, thanks.” Sheepishly, Holloway withdrew his empty hand and shuffled past me to his bed.
McDonald and even Jurd glared at me malevolently as if I were a most unwelcome hobo daring to dine in the Millionaire’s Club, but Taylor was dissentingly friendly. “How goes it, chief?” he asked, raising his swarthy eyebrows.
“Everything under control,” I said. “He was an old man,” — I looked pointedly at Taylor, — “and he’d had a rough night!”
“Poor old guy,” said Taylor, shaking his head. “It’s a shame!”
“He sure won’t have to worry about movie critics any longer.”
“It’s a shame,” acknowledged Taylor. “I’m always dead sorry to see the old picture-shows go. I was on his side!”
“No doubt of that,” I agreed. “No picture-shows, no film critics.”
“I can remember when every neighborhood had its own picture-theatre — sometimes two or three. I had a great time while they lasted! At least they didn’t all die at once or simply overnight. They just petered out one by one. One by one.”
“Like ten little Indians.”
“Old stagers like Payne struggled to keep their shows alive. I know. But you can’t buck progress. Sad!”
“What have you got to feel so sorry about?” I asked. “Payne was just one of many. You said it! How many old showmen were killed by debts — and broken hearts — when they saw their old theatres — theatres they’d spent their lifetimes building up — just crumble away into dust? All the keen filmgoers, all the Saturday night regulars, even all the special occasion crowds — all gone! Sure, let’s shed a crocodile tear or two. Stagers like Payne were dinosaurs caught in an age of change. What do you care? You don’t have to be a film critic — you can turn around and write heaps of rubbish about something else. Lots more kudos being a super hot-shot reporter than a conscientious connoisseur of old movies.”
I was prepared for it, but Taylor’s blow still came with little warning. I didn’t really have time to duck. His knuckles caught me right in the ear. I grabbed both his arms about the wrists and tried to force him back against the wall, but we ended up tumbling into his bed. He got in a few ineffectual blows on my chest before McDonald and Jurd came between us.
“No more! No more!” I cried, scrambling out of the bed, my foot caught in a flurry of sheets and blankets. “I apologize! I admit it. I was deliberately trying to provoke you.”
“Why?” asked Taylor coldly.
“You’re under suspicion.”
They all looked at me, amazed.
“We don’t think Payne died a natural death. However, what I’m more concerned about,” — and here I turned to Captain Jurd who was still glaring at me as if I were a particularly disorderly cabin boy who needed boxing into line, — “is that the killer, whoever he was, may have mistaken Payne for you, Captain Jurd!”
Jurd stared at me open-mouthed. “Me? It takes a mighty calloused head to compare me with Payne!” he spluttered. “Not a whisper! Me and that Payne! You’ve rat-tails for brains!”
“No physical comparison,” I said quickly in an effort to mollify the old salt. “It’s simply that he was sleeping in your bed. The killer may not have known you from Adam.”
“Everyone knows Captain Jurd! Captain Lester Jurd!” roared the old boy in his deepest, most gravelly voice. Even the old brass buttons on his navy-blue jacket seemed to be shining with affronted indignation. For a moment there I thought he was going to add some descriptive eponym like (Captain Jurd) The Scourge of the Seven Seas or The Terror of the Tortugas! Instead he shouted belligerently, “Do you know what this calls for?” He poked his bony finger into my chest. “Eh? Do you know what this calls for?”
Nervously, I rapidly shook my head.
“This calls for a drink, lad! Calls for a drink!” Suiting the action to the word, Captain Jurd rummaged in his Gladstone bag and produced both a half-empty bottle of Eck’s lemonade and a miniscule bottle of Grant’s Scotch whisky. He also came up with five cardboard cups he’d commandeered from the train — “Travel By Rail and Arrive Refreshed”.
Holloway, who’d been sitting sheepishly on the end of his bed all this time — he’d not even stirred during the scuffle — suddenly came to life. He stood up and came forward. Jurd gave him a cardboard cup into which he poured about a thimbleful of lemonade. McDonald shook his head and frowned forbiddingly when offered a cup, but I didn’t turn the offer down and for a moment there I thought Holloway was going to ask for seconds — or at least McDonald’s share. He thought better of it, however, — Jurd had thoroughly intimidated him and his fear got the better of his greed, — and he returned dejectedly to his bed, where he sat rolling his now-empty cup around and around in his fingers. Adding a full dash of whisky to his own lemonade, Captain Jurd took no notice of Holloway’s hint but, whacking the stoppers back on both bottles with a flourish, he buried them once more in his bag.
“Yes,” said Jurd, putting his booted feet up on the bed and relaxing his back on the pillows, — I noticed his own cup was more than half full, — “many’s the time Captain Jurd has had a narrow escape!” (He might have said, ‘scrape’. With his gravelly voice it was hard to tell, but I give him the benefit of the cliché.) “Many’s the time, Captain Jurd has looked Death full in the face! Full in the face! I ’member mutinies on board the old Queen Corby! One in particular, one led by the mate it was — that mate, he was a rapscallion, a real rascal. A hook for a hand, mind you, a curved hook that come out of his wrist, like a, like a — ”
I took advantage of the captain’s search for a suitable simile by interrupting loudly, “No doubt you’ve made quite a few enemies in your time, Captain Jurd?”
He looked at me with an expression of surprise. Whether it was surprise that I was daring to interrupt him, or surprise that I was questioning his amicability, I couldn’t say. I hurried on, “What master of a ship doesn’t make enemies among the crew?”
Captain Jurd laughed. “Me? Never made an enemy in me life, son! Not me! Not Captain Jurd! They call me, Smiley.”
Not the terror of the seven seas? I felt like asking, but I restrained myself. “What about the mutineers?” I asked instead.
Jurd took a swallow of his drink. “Dead! All dead! Captain Jurd’s out-lived them all. How’s that for an old sea-dog, eh?”
“Excuse me gentlemen. You go right ahead. Don’t mind me. I’m just going to fix this window here.” It was Jeff, the tall, silver-haired manager, straight from Hollywood casting. He stood there looking at us benignly, his shirtsleeves rolled up and a wooden toolbox in his hand. To my astonishment, Captain Jurd whipped his feet off the bed with the speed of light. His cardboard cup also disappeared with the same alacrity. We all acted like a group of naughty prep-boys who’d been caught out bumming a smoke behind the school toilet.
Still smiling, Jeff moved over to the window. Yes, he did wear rubber soles. No wonder he’d caught us out.
I was the first to recover. I sauntered over to the window under which Jeff was arranging his tools. “What’s the matter with it?” I asked.
“Stuck!” he replied succinctly. I didn’t move away but continued to stare at him evenly, so he was forced to explain, “No worries in the cold weather. But daytimes at least are still warm enough for a bit of fresh air.”
For such a simple job, Jeff had certainly assembled an impressive array of tools. “You going into the carpentry business, Jeff?” I asked.
He looked up at me, still smiling. “A manager has to be a bit of everything in this place.” He selected a thin-bladed chisel and pushed it between the window and the frame.
“How long you been here, Jeff?”
He stopped working while he pondered the answer. “Must be four or five years.” He selected a little saw and prized the blade underneath the sill.
“And before that?”
“Worked in the town,” he replied easily enough — but I could see my questions were starting to annoy him.
I looked at his hands. The fingernails were all blackened and chipped. “A mechanic?” I hazarded.
Jeff dropped the screwdriver he was balancing on the sill while he moved the saw back and forth. “That’s a pretty fair guess,” he commented sourly. He still managed a smile though.
“No guess. Your hands. You haven’t always been a manager, Jeff.”
“No. I like to work with things. Easier to understand than people. Things break down, same as people. But you can repair things (if you know how they work).”
“Wouldn’t need a health farm, Jeff, if we knew how to repair people.”
“Sister does,” Jeff smiled. “She knows. (She knows everything).”
“Anyone ever die here before, Jeff?”
“There!” he said, dropping his tools back in the box with a clatter. “See! It works fine now.” He pushed the window up and down to demonstrate. “Works fine.”
“Other deaths, Jeff?”
“Now you can have fresh air (whenever you like),” he said. “And if you don’t want it, you don’t have it.” He made a downward motion with his hand.
“What about the Oxfarm days, Jeff?”
“Fresh air is Sister’s religion. Fresh air, fresh water, fresh food. (Fresh people).”
“Thank you,” said McDonald stiffly.
“Yes, yes,” echoed Holloway nervously.
“Thanks a lot!” said Taylor.
“You didn’t answer my question, Jeff. Deaths?”
“I’ll go and see about lunch,” answered Jeff, walking off with his box. “(It’s getting time).”