My phone was ringing loud and clear. The crouching mask in my dream dissolved into a blank shadow of wall. My hand reacted like an automaton, reaching for the phone before I was half awake.
“….judge and jury?”
“What?” I tried to shake the nightmare out of my head.
“Hyland! What about the witness?”
“You mean Mrs Erwin?” I was still groggy.
“Who else is there?”
“Hasn’t Sergeant Jarrett reported back to you?”
“Why do you think I’m ringing you?”
“Maybe he’s tracking down another lead,” I suggested. God knows Jarrett’s an idiot, but a policeman will always cover for a colleague. It’s one of the rules of the game.
Silence. Hyland was not biting.
“She’s writing a list of Susan’s visitors,” I told him.
“What about the other neighbors? Rear apartment?”
“Mrs Selwynne? She won’t be very helpful. And she wasn’t home anyway. Week-ends, she visits her sister in some old ladies’ home somewhere. In any case, she won’t be the least bit co-operative. She’s the only resident who isn’t kicking about the proposed life-saving club on our front lawn.”
“Why not? I thought all the owners would be up in arms.”
“All except Mrs Selwynne. She’s the kind of person who always kow-tows to circumstances. Hates stirrers.”
“So the rest of you went ahead without her and nominated Susan Ford to Beachfront Council?”
“Election’s next Saturday,” I told him.
“Whose idea was that?”
“Mine, if you must know.”
“I intended to elect myself her campaign manager. Give me an excuse to get close to her.”
“And did you?”
“No! Mrs Erwin took over.”
“Find out who signed the nomination forms.”
“I did, but I wasn’t qualified. So Miles Garrani signed the second lot. Mrs Erwin seconded.”
“Right! Garrani’s just the man I want to see. Put the fear of God into him. He’d shot through when I left – probably made one-night hero at his local pub. Make sure you get hold of his keys. And I want no reporters in, under or around Beachfront Towers. Above all, question, question. I want anything and everything on Susan Ford. Check her mail box. Station a man by her phone. Bully all the residents, browbeat your own mind. What do you know about Susan Ford?”
What do I know about Susan Ford?
Now I was wide awake. It was a miracle I’d gone to sleep at all. But even nightmares are better than lying awake, staring at the past. Where was that clown, Jarrett? Why couldn’t he answer his phone? Maybe he’d just pulled the plug and was dozing away in dreamland, leaving all the wide-awake night-mares to me?
Try as I might, I couldn’t get back to sleep. Death masks, weird altars, chanting cannibals stayed firmly in the shadows. The incense, the perfume, even the pungent musk of death…
Finally, I gave up. Propping another pillow under my head, I lay awake in the darkness, listening to the storm:
A sudden jolt of lightning, an overhead clash of thunder warred through every brick in the wall. Down hidden shafts and architraves, the wind howled a mocking corroboree. Beachfront Towers was only five years old, but the voice and fingers of the wind had already hollowed its secret ways. A cold damp draft bristled over my temple and twitched my hair.
I was sweating. The rain rattled against my window with urgent taps – a blind beggar fleeing an assassin down an endless cobbled lane.
Atlantic City! How does that song go? Atlantic City. That’s where Susan and I met up again. But I’d no sooner invited her up to my hotel room and put my arm around her waist than she broke free and ran away.
Yet then, thirty minutes later, she was back. In my mind, I knew I was heading for a runaway repeat, but I couldn’t stop myself. I ran my fingers lightly down her bare arms from shoulder to elbow. To my amazement, this time she didn’t shake me off or make any attempt to move away. I pressed harder, sweeping her soft skin into warm folds, smooth ripples.
“I had to come back,” she said. “I didn’t want to come back. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.”
She was standing in front of me on the balcony. Below, tourists and day visitors were squalling all over the beach, fighting the surf, the sun, the sand. Seagulls squawked above, raking the shore for picnic leftovers, easy pickings. Ahead the summer glare of sea frothed sequinned bubbles of silver across breaking waves.
“I was sitting on that seat.” She pointed to one of the wooden benches on the promenade adjoining the beach. “I was sitting there, just quietly eating my lunch, when these two horrible men sat down beside me. They were drinking out of a brown paper bottle.”
Susan shuddered, then slowly turned to face me, moving contrary to the rhythm of my hands, but so gently I had to stop stroking her arms for only a few seconds.
“I mean the bottle was in brown paper…” Susan tilted her pleading eyes up to me. I had to bend down. I ached to kiss her, to touch her with my mouth. On the cheek. On the tip of her nose. On her full, young-girl lips. I wanted to dig my hands into the soft arc of her shoulders, force the whole thrust of her breasts against my chest.
“One of them kept falling off. They were laughing.” She trembled. “So I ran back here. I wanted to get away.”
“Would you like to have lunch?” I asked clumsily. “I forgot! You’ve already had it.”
“I didn’t finish. I left it there.”
“We’ll go out then,” I said. “Would you like to freshen up? The bedroom’s through there.”
“Pick me up! Take me!”
I didn’t want to come back! I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go! Those were virtually her very first words when we came together again. And I’d thrown up my police job with the D.A. in Miami, sacrificed my career, spent half my severance pay to track her down in Atlantic City, and was fully prepared to throw the world at her feet…
I didn’t want to come back! I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go!
What an incredibly cold-hearted creature she was! Right from the very start!
Somehow I drifted off to sleep. Once again, the phone jarred me awake.
“No ring, no gossip, no scandal. She lived alone all right.” Inspector Hyland didn’t waste time with hellos.
“That’s what I told you,” I answered.
“Finally heard from Bitter Springs. Left there five years ago. Believed she went to the States.”
“That we already know!” I told him.
“Both parents killed. Car smash, three months before.”
“That we know too!”
“No rings, no jewelry,” Hyland repeated.
I sighed. “Jewelry wasn’t Susan’s vice. She wore very little. No bangles or beads. Sometimes a thin chain necklace of platinum or gold. But always ear-rings – little studs, squares or half-circles; sometimes petals.” Never sailing boats or razor blades or other tarty swinging junk.
“She owned that apartment outright. Paid cash. Where’d she get it from?”
“Parents’ estate,” I hazarded.
“Maybe. Mid-day! That’s all we’ve got. Then we’re going to be neck-high in reporters and the box. And all we’ve got to show their enquiring minds is one twenty-seven-year-old Caucasian, living in a luxury beach-froint with no fingerprints but her own – and an old woman’s!”
“A crazy old woman’s,” I suggested.
“Let’s not be too hasty, Manning. Got a gold cigarette case?”
“Sergeant Jarrett either. You’ll have to use a plastic-covered note-book. And for God’s sake be careful you don’t smudge the print.”
“Jarrett on deck already?” I asked.
“Sergeant Jarrett is with me right now. And he’ll be with you in twenty minutes.”
A whispered conversation. I couldn’t make out a word but within thirty seconds, Hyland put his hand over the mouth-piece anyway.
“No, make that ninety minutes.”
A typical police ploy! As Hyland himself had remarked at out first meeting, I was a wake-up to all their little tricks. If Hyand thought this little maneuver was going to worry me, he had another think coming. I’d go straight back to sleep. Or better still, get myself a bite to eat. Marvelous what a difference the light of day can make! Even the most crackpot imaginings can assume a semblance of reality at night, when a storm-clothed moon is wanly reflecting through ribbons of cloud and the surf crashes blindly against invisible rocks and endless sand.
But now all such illusions were firmly and decisively shattered.
The phone again: “Forgot to mention, we do have something else to go on in the fingerprint line. A smudge. Palm of a man’s hand on the coffe table.”
“Could have been made weeks ago,” I suggested.
“The expert guess is that it’s fairly recent. Even as recent as yesterday, Manning.”