No purse, of course. I’ll admit Sergeant Jarrett did a surprisingly expert job, while Hyland stood guard. But finally, they had to admit defeat. “Looks like you’re in the clear for now,” the inspector grudgingly complained. “Turn out your pockets!”
I did so.
“Satisfied?” I asked after they’d ransacked through my few bits and pieces.
“Always carry your warrant card with you?”
“Force of habit. I bet you do the same.”
He nodded. “Offering to help us out?”
“Why not? Looks like I’m Johnny-on-the-spot. Besides I loved her. I always thought I’d get her back. I never gave up hope. Until I saw her. Until I saw her…”
I don’t remember the next half-hour. When I came to, I was lying on top of my bed and Sergeant Jarrett was sitting in the chair alongside. No sign of the inspector. “Take it easy,” he said. “We’ve still got loads of time.”
“Time for what?”
“Interview your Mrs Erwin, of course. What else?”
“I’m sure you can manage that all by yourself.”
“I don’t even know the lady. Inspector Hyland has put me in charge of this investigation and I’m seconding you to assist me. I don’t even remember how to get back to the wharf from here. Never been in Beachfront before in my life. So I’m putting it to you plain. I need help and I mean to get it!”
I looked at him in amazement. Where was the dull, bovine, sleepy-eyed Jarrett, perpetually standing in Hyland’s shadow?
“How can I help? Even if I wanted to?”
“Even if you wanted to?” he mocked.
“Okay, I’m anxious! But how can I? I’m not credited!”
“You are now. Wally will fix that.”
“Wally? Wallace Hyland. You’ve known him long?”
“Never met him before in my life.”
“You’re not attached to the Beachfront force?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “You’re not listening, cobber. Central. I’m with Sydney Central. What Central wants, Central gets. Been there five years almost. Before that, I was in Bitter Springs.”
“Bitter Springs! That’s where Susan comes from! Came from!”
“I know. That’s why I’ve been seconded to Beachfront to help out.”
“You knew Susan?”
He shook his head. “Met her once. And I’ve done my level best to forget all about it. I was with Sergeant Feeney when he broke the news to her: Her parents were both killed in a head-on smash just outside the town.”
“I never knew that. I always wondered what she was doing in the States, but I never asked.” I could have added that she kept me too busy dancing on a string, but that would only add fuel to Hyland’s fire.
Mrs Erwin opened her door just a crack – and even that with a great deal of reluctance. Stupid old biddy! Knew my voice! Yet made me identify myself in front of her peep-hole. And insisted on a flash at Jarrett’s warrant card as well. Finally she slid back the bolt and slowly edged the heavy door open a lean Jarrett-width; then rapidly pushed it shut behind us, snapping off the harsh light from the corridor, sealing us in a maw of questing darkness.
We were not alone in the dark.
There were voices. Malicious, gleeful voices.
Had we thy coming known,
We would for sacrifices
Have poured thee out hearts’ blood
Or blackness of the eyes;
And for thy feet have spread
A company of faces
That thy sandals might tread
On eye-lids, carpet-wise.
Beachfront was gone. Camera sky, lorikeet night, pearled forest of lemming waves. Vanished, blotted out.
We had stepped into another time. Another cult. Imprisoned in the alien nave of a barbarous temple. Scowling faces, massive idols, obscene totems, wizened conjurors of evil…
The room was crowded with malevolent, life-sized statues, fashioned of cane, primitively carved of wood, roughly hewn from stone. Malignant masks jostled with monstrous shields upon every wall. Weird carvings sported with nightmarish figurines on numerous tables and shelves. Sub-human crocodiles and seven-headed serpents feasted upon naked cannibals. Vividly pregnant girls proudly emphasized their bulging bellies and painted cheeks, while battalions of battle-swollen warriors brandished hellish clubs and spears. And everywhere the eye encountered enormous, glowering, animalistic blasphemies distorted by black-pitched eyes, bone-pierced noses, wolverine foreheads, snake-fleshed lips.
The night-djinn had carved them into being, stabbed them into existence.
Shook, throbbed, pulsated!
Exuding evil, flaunting restlessly, flexing shadows.
The large living-room, unevenly ill-lit by five or six heavily-shaded lamps, danced with shadows.
Mrs Erwin seemed surprised we were so overcome. “Many years we lived in New Guinea,” she explained, pointing to a time-tarnished photo of a squat cane hut on crooked stilts. A group of glassy-eyed Europeans, flanked by self-consciously grinning natives, were lined up in front. “That’s my Alec when he was a patrol officer.”
“You live here all by yourself, Mrs Erwin?” Jarrett asked.
“I do. Sometimes. Only sometimes.”
“Suppose you just tell us what you saw, Mrs Erwin?” I put in. A barmy old lady might choose to live and beathe in this mausoleum, but I was canoeing out fast.
“Sometimes my married sister comes over. Sometimes she stays the night. Sometimes longer. She pops in whenever she wants to. Once she stayed a week when Alec was in New Zealand.”
“Just tell us about Miss Ford. What you saw,” I insisted.
“I already have. For that other detective. The one who interviewed me before.”
“This is for the record,” I said. “Sergeant Jarrett will write it down and you will sign it.”
Jarrett was hanging around near the door, obviously too scared to move right inside. I motioned to him to station himself near a pool of light where he could see what he was doing.
“Yes. I, I was coming back, coming back from visiting my sister’s place, my other sister’s place,” she stammered. “She, she lives over, over the other side of the harbor. I’m not alone. Not alone. Never alone. We visit two or three times a week. Every week. And there’s other people too. Other people. Other people like Mr Garrani. Yes, Miles. Miles Garrani, the janitor. He’s in and out all the time.”
“For God’s sake, just tell us about Susan Ford, Mrs Erwin!” I shouted.
“If you’ll just allow me to tell it, I will!” she snapped back with surprising vigor. “And there’s others too. Lots of others. Friends! My late husband had many friends. They visit me all the time. They just drop in. Any time of the day or night. Whenever they like.”
Like hell, they do! But despite everything, I felt sorry for the batty old lady. I smiled and nodded my head. “Please continue, Mrs Erwin. I know this is a terrible strain for all of us.” I look around for Jarrett to back me up, but the clown has slipped back into the shadows somewhere. He’s supposed to be writing this down. And why am I leading the witness? It’s his job, not mine!
“Was it two o’clock? I know I caught the quarter past one ferry from Sydney. It takes half an hour in the ferry from Sydney, as you know, Mr Manning. I could have caught the ten past two hydrofoil, but I was in no hurry, so I caught the ferry instead. Besides, it’s cheaper. And you don’t get any discount on the hydrofoil, no matter who you are. Pensioner, child, big businessman – it’s all the same.”
“So you arrived here at Beachfront Towers, close enough to two o’clock, this afternoon, Mrs Erwin?” I asked, keeping my voice as steady as I could.
“I bought some milk on the way, so it must have been about two o’clock – No! The elevator was out of order, so I had to use the stairs. Say quarter past two. I don’t know how often it’s been out of order. It seems every time – ”
“Never mind that now, Mrs Erwin. It wouldn’t take that long to walk up one flight of stairs.”
“Three flights. I didn’t come in the front entrance, but through the garage, because I made a slight detour because I needed milk from the shops – ”
“So when you came up the stairs, you were right opposite Susan’s door?”
“Yes, I was right opposite her door.” She hesitated.
“You saw the door was open?” I prompted.
Again she hesitated. Finally, “It was open!”
“So you looked in?” I supplied.
Mrs Erwin shuddered. “I could see her lying on the floor.”
“Knew her well, did you?” It was Jarrett. I had to shade my eyes to focus his blurred outline, but his country drawl stabbed through the darkness like a poison dart.
Mrs Erwin shivered again. But she didn’t turn her face towards Jarrett, but continued to gaze up at me. For a few seconds her features assumed a curious expression – appealing? pleading? – but the light was so dim I couldn’t fathom it. She shook her head. “Knew her well?” she repeated. I anticipated a “No!” But instead, Mrs Erwin answered the question by stating calmly and distinctly, “Susan Ford was interested in spiritism.”
“Very interested!” she added.
“How’s that?” asked Jarrett.
“Often she’d come in to see me. Week-ends, evenings, after work. We’d have a nice cup of tea and we’d talk for hours! Would you like a nice cup of tea, Mr Howard?”
“No thanks, Mrs Erwin! Just tell us—”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive! Just tell us—”
“I forgot you’re an American. I could make coffee. I have friends who like coffee. Many friends. Dropping in all the time. I’m not alone! I’m never alone!”
While I was desperately searching for a tactful way to break up Mrs Erwin’s prattle, the storm came to my aid. Ever since entering her cursed sanctuary, I’d been conscious of a continuous tap-tap-tapping against her balcony doors. It was the wind drumming for an entrance. The doors were probably none too securely latched – and I was right! With a sudden, screeching clang, the doors flew wide open and a wild tear of wind stabbed the stale air with sandy, salty fingers!
Would you believe it, Mrs Erwin jumped? Then darting forward, she tried to push her inadequate weight against the doors. “Don’t just stand there, Mr Howard!”
I found it comparatively easy to push the doors together – despite the upraised fist of the wind. But they were not so easy to secure, as the bolts top and bottom were heavily crusted with salt. As I wrestled the bolt on the floor into its socket, Mrs Erwin leaned forward, thrusting her dark old face within an inch of my ear. “Mr Howard,” she whispered fiercely, “who is that man?”
I was careless with surprise. The bolt pinched my finger. “You mean Sergeant Jarrett?”
“That man behind you!”
Oh, God! Every hair on my body lanced into my skin. I whipped around, but there was no-one there! Even Jarrett had disappeared into the gloom. Barmy old biddy! I peered up at her accusingly.
“That man who came with you!” she whispered urgently, gripping my shoulder. “I’ve seen him before!”
“You wouldn’t know him, Mrs Erwin,” I said resignedly. “He’s from Central. And before that, he was at Bitter Springs.”
The old lady shuddered. “That explains it!” she whispered. “That explains it all!”
“Explains what, Mrs Erwin?” Jarrett finally stepped into the light.
“It’s missing!” she cried.
“What?” I’d lost all patience with her.
“Susan! Susan took it! She must have!”
Jarrett stepped closer. “What’s missing, Mrs Erwin?”
“Look here! I’ll show you!” She rushed past me and was swallowed up.
Suddenly a light snapped on in the next room. “Look here! Look here!”
Another surprise! She was standing in the middle of a modern kitchen. In fact it was a duplicate of Susan’s next door. Same twin-tubbed, stainless steel sink, bench-like stove, mahogany-enameled oven, gleaming white fridge. Of course, she’d added a few treats of her own: An overflow of framed photos crowded the top of the fridge, and a dusty brass monkey squatted sulkily in a corner. My kitchen was only half the size and boasted a refrigerator from Pygmy Paradise. Mrs Erwin’s was bigger than herself!
“There! Didn’t I tell you?” Mrs Erwin had opened the fridge and was pointing inside with an air of triumph. “You can see it’s gone!”
Dutifully, Jarrett took a look. All I could see was what he saw: Meat, bread, eggs, margarine, four or five mystery dishes and at least a dozen bottles of economy-sized coca-cola.
“What’s gone?” I had to ask. I couldn’t help myself.
“The cassowary phial! I’ll show you!” Mrs Erwin snapped off the kitchen light and ran back into the nave of the temple. “When Susan was here, often we’d go through my husband’s artefacts. Every dream a diamond, every stone a sigh, every whittle of wood a power, every grain of dust an eye. Here’s what Alec used to call his medicine cabinet.”
Mrs Erwin keyed open the gloom-carved doors of a massive teak sideboard. The shelves inside housed an enormous collection of discolored strips of rope, string and cloth; beaded and broken shells; soiled, odd-shaped bottles – and all sitting amid mounds of yellow, pumice-like dust. “You can see it’s missing!” she cried, pointing to a circular hollow in the dust.
Granted! But whatever it was – an old shell, the base of a bottle, the rim of a cup – had probably been gone for years. Besides…
“I thought you said that whatever was missing was missing from the fridge, Mrs Erwin.”
“That’s it! That’s exactly it! Susan called my attention to the phial and said I should keep it in the fridge.”
“What’s missing?” asked Jarrett, butting in.
“I told you. The cassowary phial. It’s a little green-and-red bottle containing the secret recipe witch-doctors use – when they want to change themselves into the giant cassowary.”
I raised my eyes heavenward. God help us! Just as I suspected all along: Crazy as a loon!
She misinterpreted my mini-conclusion. “A flightless bird. Swift like an emu.”
“Can we get back to Miss Ford, Mrs Erwin? What can you tell us about her visitors?”
But the old lady would not be budged. “Susan must have taken it! She must have, I tell you!”
What a neighbor! As if anyone – let alone a hard-headed little bitch like Susan Ford – would snatch any of her nutty old stuff!
“It must be in her apartment.” She turned pleading eyes to me. “Could we go there, please?”
I stared at her blankly.
“It’s a matter of deathly importance. The phial must be recovered.”
“We can’t go breaking into a dead girl’s apartment just to look for – whatever it is!” I remonstrated,
She fastened her dark old eyes on Jarrett. “Would you, please? It’s a bottle about this size – ”
“Look, Mrs Erwin, I can assure you there is no dirty little bottle in Susan’s apartment,” I cut in, visualizing that super sterile sitting-room and kitchen.
“The refrigerator! It must be kept cold. Especially before you use it!”
That was it! Susan Ford turn herself into a giant cassowary! I snapped shut my notebook and strode pointedly towards the door. Enough nuts for one night! Anything she had to tell us would be a complete waste of ball-point. Even if she’d caught the killer in the act, were to poiunt him out and swear There he is! even the most incompetent defense counsel would soon turn her testimony into laughing gravy. She was one hell of a crazie who’d turned a perfectly nice apartment into a rat-bag annex of some creepy museum.
But Jarrett ignored me. He remained stock still, staring intently at Mrs Erwin, obviously enthraled by all this malarkey. “Why should she want to use it?” he asked.
Hah! Why indeed? I felt like screaming.
“You can run,” explained Mrs Erwin, now bizarrely crouching on her knees. “The giant cassowary can run – faster than a bird can fly, faster than the wind, faster than sound across the sand!”
Even in the gloom, I could see her old eyes shining, alight with a lunatic’s enthusiasm. “That’s how the witch doctors killed their enemies – or yours, if you paid them enough! Faster than an emu the witch doctor speeds to a distant village, slays the victim and returns. Who can say the witch doctor is the killer? Absent from his hut for far too short a time!”
Still crouching on her knees, Mrs Erwin edged slowly forward. A shaft of light gleamed on her earnest, beady little eyes. Despite myself, I was being drawn in, The perfect alibi! I glanced nervously at the nightmare masks, threatening, eerily oppressive in their nightmarish cross-cross of penumbral shade. I shuddered.
“Who would Miss Ford want to kill?” It was Jarrett. Even his monotonously low-key, sing-song voice seamed to stab through the stifling atmosphere like a spear through nascent mist.
Mrs Erwin laughed hoarsely, rocking herself to and from on her knees, as if she were hugging something visible, tangible on her empty lap. “Her former lover, of course. He was making a nuisance of himself, wasn’t he? In fact, he was driving her crazy. You, Mr Manning! You!”