“I happen to be living here! Four months!” I was aggressive. I didn’t bother to call him, "sir". I wanted to hide my shock.
“Johnny-on-the-spot?” mocked the inspector.
“Not me!” I shouted. “I’m renting six floors up – on the other side of this glorious condominium! No holiday beach views on a police sergeant’s pay!”
“So what are you doing in Australia?”
“I told you! I’m on holiday.”
“Some holiday, son! Miami, Florida, to Beachfront, New South Wales? Four months? Even Paradise would out-stay its appeal in four months. So what’s the four-monthly attraction for you in Beachfront?”
I forced myself to point to Susan’s body. She lay on the carpet, between her velvety sofa and rosewood coffee table. I masked my face, but there was no need. My finger had told the inspector all he wanted to know. In this dim light, Susan seemed like a yogi in a trance. Suddenly, she would sit up!
“No blood!” remarked the inspector sharply. I hadn’t disguised my fear at all well, but I knelt down beside the body and then looked back at him, straight in the eye. He inclined his head with a movement so slight it was barely perceptible. But it was enough to indicate a ghastly “permission granted”.
Susan lay on her back, staring calmly at the ceiling, her piqued face surprisingly relaxed, midnight eyes forever open. With typical neatness, she had wrapped her slim figure in a towelly bath-robe of light pink, a perfect match for her fair complexion and straw-blonde hair. Only yesterday, I’d tried to say hello to her in the foyer. She’d cut me dead. Bitch!
Yesterday now figured far in the past. A light green scarf knotted cruelly into Susan’s throat. An early evening breeze, weeping in through open balcony doors, fanned the scarf’s edges across the dark Berber carpet, lending her shoulders a shivering illusion of movement. She was the leading player in a nightmarish game of hide-and-seek.
“I repeat my first question: How do you come to be here now, Manning? How’d you come to knock on the door? Miss Ford invite you?”
“Miles Garrani, the janitor, told me.”
“There’s always at least one loose mouth. But maybe he did us both a favor.” The inspector knelt down beside me. “Beautiful girl. A shame!” he whispered. A soft light, filtering through the shade of the table lamp, transformed his spectacles into surreal, silver tear-drops. “Know her well?”
“She’s the only reason I’m here.”
He glanced at me sharply. “Six floors away? On the other side of the building? A fellow American? She give you the air?”
I nodded bleakly as I stood up. “A dual citizen. Her dad was American, her mother Australian. Like me. But I’ve spent just about all my life in the States. Far as I know, Susan’s spent only the last six or seven years. In Atlantic City and Miami.”
“Where’d you meet her?”
“What was doing there? Holidaying?”
“Working as a secretary. She’s actually much older than she looks. I’d put her age at twenty-eight.”
The inspector looks me over carefully. I know what he’s thinking. I’m at least twenty years older than that. Maybe thirty. Hard to tell. I’m in good shape.
Suddenly he kneels down and unties Susan’s scarf, pulling it loose. Then he straightens up and sits down on the sofa. He doesn’t invite me to sit. Not that I would. It’s too close. His left shoe is only six inches from her blonde hair. And a few loose strands are stirring slightly in the evening breeze.
Bending over the body again, I force myself to look away from the cruel, purplish blotch on her throat as I pull aside her towelly bath-robe. Her body is naked. “Attacked as she stepped from the bathroom?” I ask.
“Possible. But maybe she was sunbaking on the balcony.”
“Not Susan! She burnt too easily.” I pulled the robe further aside so the inspector could see the skin around her navel. Fair, young, untanned.
I stood up. “I take it the science boys have been and gone?”
“Coroner too. I’m just waiting for the ambulance to take the body to the morgue. Autopsy.”
“You and – ?” I pointed towards the balcony. There was another detective out there. A tall, thin man. I’d caught sight of him when I first entered. He is listening.
The inspector doesn’t answer my question. Instead he consults his notebook. “No sign of forced entry. Lots of cash lying around. Over $700, in fact, including $178.90 in small notes and coins dancing over the top of Toby.” He waves towards a teak shelf of brightly-costumed china.
“The man was disturbed.”
“Not woman’s work!”
“Took time to strip the body of two items. Wrist watch. Neck chain. Didn’t you notice?”
I shivered. The breeze from the balcony was getting mighty cold. “Susan took them off to take her bath. Or shower.”
“No sign of them. Ear-rings have gone too. The ones your Mr Garrani said Miss Ford was wearing this afternoon.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“So yes, you can, Sergeant Manning. You’re the policeman with all the experience, I’m told. What was your last job?”
“You’ve already been checking up on me. Who with and how come?”
“Assisting the D.A. at Miami. A mighty important position. So why throw it all up four months ago, Manning?”
“I told you. And doubtless Old Garrani spilt the news to you as well. A born gossip, that man. One sad thing about him though: You can’t trust him as far as you can throw him. He’s always got plenty to gossip about. But Garrulous Garrani doesn’t let truth or lack of knowledge stop him. If he doesn’t know the facts – or they’re not spicy enough – he simply makes them up!”
“So this murder’s a family affair, Manning. Only family wouldn’t find hard cash an irresistible temptation.”
“That proves I didn’t do it. I’m hard up. My money’s all but gone. I’m about to touch my sister in Adelaide for a loan.”
“I see it the other way, Manning. You were friendly with this young lady in Miami. She then takes a job in Atlantic City. Her job record is Atlantic City, Miami, and then back to Atlantic City. Something you carefully omitted from your brief bio a minute ago.”
“Perhaps you’d also like to know I spent three weeks in Phoenix once? And a whole month in San Diego, including a day trip to Tijuana?”
“So you resign from Miami to follow her to Atlantic City. She refuses your advances and comes here to Beachfront. But undeterred, once again you follow her. And this time, all the way here to Australia. And once again she refuses you.”
“Good Old Garrulous Garrani! But you can’t trust him as far as you can throw a dollar bill!”
“We have all the facts. So why not come clean and save us both a great deal of trouble?”
A double tap on the ornamental brass knocker on the front door. The inspector nods to me and I let them in: two ambulancemen escorted by a uniformed policeman.
The sheets on the trolley are hospital white. And there’s even a flat pillow. The ambulancemen lift the small, slender body very gently, as if it were fragile as bone china. Reverently, they set it on top of the inner sheet, resting the head on the pillow, parting the neck-length blonde hair evenly to each side of that pale, calm face. As they move aside, I see her wide-staring eyes are now closed. And in the harsh-spilling light from the corridor, I can make out irregular purple bruises on her throat and neck. With a swift movement, one of the men covers her face with the sheet. She is wheeled away.
The inspector’s grim face relaxed a little. Settling himself back on the sofa, he asked, “So how many residents in this building?”
“You’re climbing the wrong tower,” I answered. “No way! They all expect too much of Susan.”
“Just answer the question.” He tapped his notebook impatiently.
“Double sixty-six is a good guess. Twenty-two units facing the beach like this one, with their identical balloon balconies and realtor’s dreams of sand and surf. Twenty-two in the middle: Toast-rack balconies with nice views of the parking lot and back walls of Beachfront shopping center. Finally, twenty-two units at the rear, like mine. No balconies, but great views from our kitchen windows of the nursing home next door: Old ladies being pushed around by hired thugs, dressed as attendants; and old men being crammed into a mini-bus every morning to take them hell knows where.”
“Quite done, sergeant?”
“No!” I countered defiantly.
“You barged in here!”
“You sent for me! You primed Old Garrani to give me the news just when you were ripe and ready for me.”
He smiled wryly. “I keep forgetting you’re a fellow police officer, Manning, and are wise to all our little tricks.”
I smiled back. “Elementary, Watson. Let’s put all our cards on the table. First off, you can ask your stooge on the balcony to come inside. He didn’t quite disappear fast enough. You slipped up there. I caught his shadow from the corner of my eye.”
“So sixty-six units equals roughly how many residents?”
“I just told you. Counting singles and triples, near enough to a hundred and twenty. Adults only. No kids, dogs or cats. Canaries and parrots only by special permission.”
The inspector flipped back a page or two in his notebook. “Mrs Ethel Erwin?” he asked.
I sighed. “Yes, I know her. Who doesn’t in our little family of renters and residents? Your typical little old lady. Seventy – seventy-five. Very tiny. Frail, yet wiry. Dark face. Odd-looking. Has weird ideas. And come to think of it, this is her floor! She lives on this floor. Which unit – center or back – I’m not sure.”
“She discover the body? Mrs Erwin?”
“She phoned. Walking down the corridor, she sees the door open. So she peeps in, to say hello. Sees the body on the floor. Toddles back to her own unit and phones us. Great presence of mind. Wish there were more people like that.”
I clicked my tongue doubtfully. Actually, I knew Mrs Erwin far better than I told: Nutty as hickory! I pointed to Susan’s shiny brass “antique” on its mahogany stand at the kitchen doorway. “She didn’t use that phone?”
The inspector shook his head slowly. “Evidently not.”
“Just one set. Presumably Susan’s.”
“No others?” I persisted.
The inspector shrugged. “You’re not listening, son. Didn’t I just say the old lady – great presence of mind?”
He was fishing. My respect for him went up a few notches. He was right too. The old lady’s story seemed simple enough, but it rang false. “Mrs Erwin is a real weirdo,” I commented. “I can credit she didn’t faint or throw a fit or start screaming blue murder. But I don’t believe she placidly ambled back to her own unit. No way! Mrs Erwin is the sort of person who would poke around. At residents’ meetings, she’s always the number one hassle. Always the lone, last-minute voice with either corkscrew suggestions or rattle-brained complaints.”
“So, love her or not, whatever she found – if she did find anything – she took away with her.” He stared at me steadily. I didn’t take the hint. He was finally forced to invite me. “Look around,” he offered.
I shrugged. “No use! Never been here before,” I lied. “Only to the door. Susan never let me come inside.”
“Notice anything strange?” he invited.
I knew what he was driving at, but I wasn’t about to fall into that hole. “You tell me,” I suggested.
“Furniture shines like Christmas. Look at it! Not a mark, not a scratch. Not a single fingerprint anywhere. Except on the phone. Handles, benches, table-tops – everything wiped clean.”
“Doesn’t intrigue me. Killer knew for sure that he’d never ever used the phone.”
“Which points to – ?”
“Someone she knew. Obvious. No sign of forced entry?”
Silence. (He’d already told me, but I’d forgotten).
Anyway, I took it as a negative. “Therefore Susan opened the door to him. Or he had a key.”
“So there’s just one thing out of place, son. Go into the bedroom and tell me what it is.”
“How would I know? I wouldn’t know from Adam. Never been here before.”
“Go into the bedroom and tell me what you see.”
But I wasn’t falling for that one either. “I’m assuming it’s the door straight ahead on the right,” I said. “All these units have the same lay-out.”
I stopped halfway across the room. “You out there on the balcony!” I shouted. “I’m guessing. Make a note of that!”
There was nothing to see in the bedroom, but a pristine bed, a luxury dressing table dominated by a huge mirror, and two closets full of clothes (most of them unworn). I examined these dresses, frocks, gowns and even Susan’s underwear quickly but expertly. Just as I suspected, at least half of them were too small. Even the bras. Susan had beautiful breasts, but she was always yelping they were too big. She hated them! (Despite the fact that she was diminutive rather than tall, Susan had always wanted to be a model. Time and again, she’d tried to slim herself down to the right anorexic profile, but her perky breasts consistently defied all her efforts).
Now I was in a real quandary. There was a good chance neither the inspector nor his fresh-air stooge had noticed this tell-tale evidence of Susan’s perpetual dieting/binging. On the other hand… I was just about to blurt these facts aloud anyway, when I noticed a hat-box out of place on the floor. Why wasn’t it on the top shelf with the others? There seemed enough room for at least one more. “Hat-box out of place!” I shouted.
“Open it up! What do you see?”
The hat-box was full of How-To-Vote cards: Elect Twelve Good Men to Beachfront City Council. Vote (1): FORD, Susan Alexis Devoro!
“No surprises in there,” I announced, walking back into the lounge room. “If you accept the layout for Home Beautiful. But I knew she was standing for election. And why not? She’s a registered voter, resident in Beachfront for over six months. She’s an Australian citizen. She’s entitled. I am too, if I stay another couple of months, fill out all the forms and apply for a dual passport. But I couldn’t be bothered. Besides, I regard myself as an American. I’m proud to be an American!”
“So who signed her nomination form?”
“No idea! It wasn’t me. I’ve just got through telling you I’m not even qualified to vote in this election. Even if I wanted to! Been here four months – not six! And that’s just for starters.”
“Perhaps our Mrs Erwin?” he suggested.
“I’d be surprised. Did she sign a statement?”
“Hasn’t been typed up yet. But I’ve got it down in my book.”
“Read it back to me, why don’t you? And you might tell me your name and show me your warrant card while you’re about it.”
The inspector actually smiled. “I was wondering why you didn’t ask.”
“Too shocked! I knew Miss Ford. Intimately.”
“So I guessed. Here?”
I sighed. “Never in Beachfront. But I had hopes. I didn’t come here for a holiday. That’s why I chased after her.”
“And why you strangled her?”
I shook my head. “Not my scene. If I intended to kill Susan – and I admit I’ve thought about it many times, but I’d always do it face to face, not creep up behind her.”
He held out his warrant card. Inspector Wallace James Hyland.
“I guess an inspector’s the same as our captain?” I asked.
“I much prefer our ‘inspector’. I’m a law enforcement officer, not a who’s-this on a four-by-five fishing smack!”
I gave him a bleak smile. “I was asking about Mrs Erwin, inspector. Statement?”
He flipped through his notebook. “I was walking down the corridor. I saw Susan’s door open. I thought I’d just peep in to say hello. I saw her body on the floor. I went back to my unit and phoned the police. End of statement.”
“You ran through all the usual questions?”
“Mrs Erwin saw nothing, heard nothing.”
“Just peeped in to say hello?” I asked.
“Her exact words.”
“Implying she was a frequent guest?”
Hyland shrugged. “So you tell me?” he asked.
I couldn’t imagine Mrs Erwin being a frequent guest of anyone – let alone a hard-nosed bitch like Susan Ford – but I let it pass. “Didn’t Mrs Erwin strike you as being unnaturally calm under the circumstances?”
“No. But it was at least three hours later before I got to her. The effect had worn off. Some witnesses are still hysterical – or worse. Others are calm and collected. They go all hysterical the day after – or three weeks later. You should know that.”
“In my job, I interview witnesses six months after the event.”
“So I forgot. You were assisting the D.A.”
There seemed more than a trace of sarcasm in the inspector’s tone, but I didn’t take offense. Instead, I walked over to the front door, pulled it open and stood on the threshold. “You could see the body from here,” I admitted, forcing myself to stare at that still mentally visible horror near the sofa. I made an effort to tear my eyes away. “But wouldn’t you first look straight ahead – at the balcony doors? Open – as they are now – or closed?”
Hyland refused to take the hint. Instead he simply made an “open” motion with his hands.
“Then I’d look into the mirror on the far wall, obviously put there on the diagonal so a visitor can see right through to the kitchen.”
Hyland nodded patronizingly.
“No-one in sight. I come in further. I call out. Maybe Susan’s sunning herself on the balcony? Then I see her body on the floor. My natural impulse is to rush over. Do I?”
The inspector shook his head.
“Do I call for help? Do I use this phone? Do I scream, faint, have hysterics? No, I walk calmly back to my own apartment. Do I close the front door on my way out?”
Hyland smiled crookedly. “No. As I said, son: Great presence of mind.”
“That’s exactly why I don’t believe it, captain – inspector! Mrs Erwin is such a weirdo, she’d make the wicked witch in Snow White look like Cinderella’s fairy godmother.”
“So this little old lady – whether queen of spells or simply a stray ginger nut – but slight, frail, and blown from Beachfront to Baltimore by every wisp of wind, creeps up behind your young girl, and twists at her scarf with enough force to strangle her? So tell me another one!”
A sudden thought struck me. “It wasn’t Susan’s scarf!”
“I know that. You don’t wear a scarf with a bath robe.”
“Susan didn’t like scarves. Period! She thought they made her look small. She never wore them.”
“So what else have you fogotten to tell me about your young girl?”
“She wasn’t my young girl.”
“What else? How old was she?”
“I told you! Late twenties. Maybe she didn’t look it, but she’d have to be. When she and I – when we first… ”
“Save your excuses. She was twenty-seven,” he replied evenly. “Birth certificate in her hand-bag.”
“In her hand-bag?”
“One of twenty or more such bags. Most of the others were empty, except for lip-stick, combs, make-up mirrors, odds and ends, and small change. So whatever she told you, she was twenty-seven.”
I shook my head. “As I said, she didn’t look it.”
Hyland looked up at me sharply, but didn’t pursue this line of thought. “Rural girl,” he continued mildly. “Bitter Springs. It’s here in New South Wales, but right in the very center of the state.”
“Her people?” I asked.
“So it’s a small town. Only two Fords currently listed. Five-man police force. Phone doesn’t answer. Sent off a wire anyway. Not that it will do us any good. This is strictly a Beachfront affair. Whoever killed her is right here, right now!”
He gave me another crooked grin. “None! You were right. This place has hardly ever been used. No laundry in the laundry basket, very little food in the cupboard, not much in the fridge.”
“She was probably on a diet again?”
He shook his head. “I saw the body before you did. She wasn’t on any diet.”
“I doubt it, but possible. We’ll have to wait for the autopsy to be sure. But one thing we know… Look around you! No TV. No women’s things in the bathroom cabinet or in any of her purses or hand-bags. So she wasn’t living here. So we find out where she was living, and who she was living with, and we have our murderer. Simple as one, two, three. And first of all, Manning, we’d like to start with your apartment.”
I tried to suppress a start of surprise. “You’re welcome!” I forced my face into a proximity of enthusiasm. “Any time!”
“Right now, Manning! Right now! But first, let’s collect Sergeant Jarrett.” Indicating the balcony, Inspector Hyland made a sweeping motion with his hand. “After you!” he said in what seemed a mocking tone. But I could have been wrong.
Even for mid-autumn, the sea-wind on the balcony was esky cold. Standing in its full blast at the ocean end of this thin strip of concrete, I saw a tall, strong-shouldered man with an oddly thin, pointed face. “Detective-sergeant Vic Jarrett, Merryll Manning, a friend of the deceased.”
Sergeant Jarrett turned his head slowly from profile to full face. The wind made frantic efforts to dislodge his hat, but it remained firmly fixed on his peculiarly wedge-shaped, pointed head. He stared straight at me. Although all I could make out was his thick, old-fashioned mustache, I judged him to be about the same age as me – early fifties – but I know I can pass for a good ten years younger.
“Come inside, Jarrett! I’m turning this case over to you.”
Sergeant Jarrett nodded gloomily. Without acknowledging my presence, he squeezed past us. “How are you?” I said, extending my hand. He ignored me.
“What did Miss Ford do for a living?” Hyland asked me as soon as we were back inside her apartment.
“Why ask me?” I exclaimed bitterly. I was surprised by my own vehemence, but it was too late to retract. “Probably some sort of high-class secretary,” I suggested in a more compliant tone. “That’s what she did back in the States.”
The inspector had again settled himself on the sofa. He smiled grimly, then stared at me unblinkingly through those rimless spectacles of his until I became downright uneasy – even though I’d taken special care to stand outside the direct range of the lamp. All of a sudden a short, sharp gust of wind squalled through the balcony doors and tore through the apartment, almost rocking the lamp from its base. As the wind died away, you could hear the incessant sound of the sea – wave after wave drumming into the beach and forever scouring the rocks immediately below. Without thinking, I slammed the doors shut and turned the key.
I tried to make light of my action. “All these apartments are the same!” I commented.
“No balconies on a sergeant’s pay!” he threw back at me.
“They all have doors! And some of them have locks too. Bedrooms, for instance!” I pulled myself up. I was getting over-excited. Jarrett was looking at me with particular interest. Now that we were both inside, I could readily measure how those deceptively sleepy brown eyes in that dull, bovine face were positively shining. But at least I was right about one thing. Fifty years of age, for sure. I could certainly get by with a figure nearer forty. He couldn’t. No way!
“No P.C. No typewriter. Nothing!” The inspector had jumped back to Susan’s profession.
“Not everyone takes their work home with them,” I offered. “Few girls do!” Susan was a bitch, but she never let work interfere with pleasure.
“So what sort of a girl was she?” he asked sharply.
“I told you: Secretary. She used to take down shorthand at our monthly meetings. She was on the body corporate, same as me.”
“You’re renting? You’ve been here only four months. You’re on the body corporate?”
“I’m entitled. Besides, it was a way of getting close to Susan.”
“Where did she work?”
“I never found that out. I asked her. She never told me.”
Grinning crookedly, Hyland rocked his head like a smiling Buddha. “No? Perhaps someone else on your body corporate? We’ll have to ask.”
“You’ll be wasting your time. All the men are married. Except me.”
“Two things more: Did she have a car?”
“What for? She couldn’t drive. And even if she could… I don’t drive myself on this crazy wrong side of the road of yours.”
“Did she carry a purse?”
“Of course she carried a purse. All women do.”
“Where is it?”
“You told me yourself. She had fifty-three or something.”
“My exact words were ‘twenty or more’.”
“So I’ve got a poor memory.”
“The exact number was forty-seven. Forty-eight if you count the one we can’t find. The one with her keys, her passport, her half-used make-up, eyebrow pencils, compact, smudged powder, crumpled tissues, weekly ferry ticket, shopping dockets. That one! The killer took it away.”
“He still has to dispose of it.”
“He’ll just put it in the garbage.”
“You’re jumping the gun, Manning. First, he’ll remove whatever incriminates him. A letter or two? A watch or cigarette case with an inscription? She did smoke, didn’t she?”
“So maybe the killer still has the purse, Manning? And he’s wondering how to get rid of it?”
I said nothing.
“So our next port of call is your apartment, Manning. You lead the way. And incidentally, we’ve got this building sewn up tight. He can’t escape.”
“If he’s still in the building,” I shot back. “Which after five or six hours is highly unlikely, inspector!”
He laid his hand on my arm. Rough and tight. “How did you know what time she was killed? I never mentioned it.”
I could sense Sergeant Jarrett moving in for the kill right behind me. “I asked to examine the body, remember? You nodded your permission and I did just that. I would say she was killed round about 2 p.m. Give or take an hour either way. But I also happen to have seen her in the foyer at 1.45 or thereabouts. Waiting for the elevator. I tried to say hello to her. But she cut me dead. What do you think of that?”
Hyland’s hand tightened. “So in a rage, you killed her!”
“Yes, I waited around for the five hundredth insult until finally I got good and mad.”