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John Howard Reid

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Member Since: Feb, 2008

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Here's Part Six of MERRYLL MANNING: THE BEACHFRONT MURDERS, the sequel to "Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders":

 

    Jarrett was taking no precautions. In felt hat and bulky overcoat, he is easy to spot, as he ambles along the pathway towards me. I join him. Neither of us greet each other. Together, we trudge along the promenade in silence. I never feel chatty before ten o’clock and my outburst on the phone with the inspector has drained all the conversation out of me. I have my own thoughts. Besides… I don’t know the rules at Sydney Central, but you’d think a business-before-pleasure captain/inspector like Hyland would put Jarrett wise to the fact that plainclothes operatives at beach resorts don’t wear overcoats and hats. The idea is to apear inconspicuous, one with the fun-seeking crowds. Jarrett stood out like an elephant on an iceberg of penguins. I was embarrassed to be seen with the clown.

 

It was a mighty long time before Mrs Erwin opened the door. Even a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses would have given up. But we knew she was in there. Putting my ear to the door, I could hear a slight shuffle of movement inside. Most new buildings in Beachfront feature some sort of press-the-button-at-the-front-entrance security system. But not Beachfront Towers. Any self-serving Witness or itinerant salesman can bowl right up to your door.

    Eventually, Jarrett’s heavy-handed pounding wore Mrs Erwin’s patience to breaking point. “Go away!” she shouted.

    “Mrs Erwin!” I shouted back, holding my warrant card in front of her peep-hole. “Please open the door.”

    “I’m not ready for you now. Come back later!”

    “We have important news, Mrs Erwin,” I lied.

    At least three or four bolts were drawn back slowly, and the door finally opened twelve inches. On a chain.

    Mrs Erwin looked a sight. Her wispy hair dishevelled, her eyes watery, lips cracked, hands shaking – it was obvious she’d stayed up half the night, fretting over Susan. Or maybe she’d simply worried herself sick over witch doctors turning themselves into emus? Whatever, her dark face seemed paler, haunted. “I have nothing more to tell you,” she said. “Nothing!”

    “I’m just after that list of Miss Ford’s visitors you promised us,” I answered in my nicest, most ingratiating voice. “Anyone you can tell us. You must have seen a few strangers in the corridor – or even in the lobby – in the past seven or eight months.”

    She hesitated.

    “Especially as you knew Susan so well,” I added sarcastically. Pinched her cassowary phial!

    I kicked the side of Jarrett’s shoe to get his attention and raised my eyes towards his hat. He got the message and took his hat off, but it was not much of an improvement. His head was high and narrow, as if it had been squashed sideways in a wringer. The disproportion was strikingly ugly. If you’re going to look like an oversized bear in that overcoat, get yourself a head to match! “Morning,” it drawled politely.

    I turned back to Mrs Erwin. I don’t like to be kept waiting in doorways. “Could we come inside?” I asked.

    “Perhaps, perhaps you’d better come in,” she answered. Hesitantly, she took the door off the chain and opened it a bit wider. I brushed determinedly past her.

    I’d nerved myself for the shock, but her apartment looked a damn sight cheerier in the daytime. Through the glass of her closed balcony doors, she had a sideways view of the beach. Not a full view as Susan had, but Mrs Erwin had skilfully arranged her curtains to screen off the parking lot and focus on the beach. Strangely, this daytime view of cobalt blue waves rolling to their foam-flecked finale on a long boomerang of sand, framed between a parallel arc of tall Norfolk pines, didn’t seem the least bit out of place with Mrs Erwin’s line-up of heathen masks and primitive ornaments. In fact, it gave her whole apartment a breezy South Seas air. Picture us standing in a native chief’s hut, over-looking the golden beach of a coral island.

    “Great views!” I declared enviously. “Reminds you of New Guinea?”

    “No!” she replied with surprising asperity. “I can’t stand this glare. Used to keep the shades down, but my electric light bill forces me to make do with daylight.”

    Isn’t it always the way? Those can afford a million-dollar view, don’t want it and try to shut it out. I have to put up with a five-and-ten view. but she’d rather gaze at drawn shades.

    Under cover of handing her my note-book, I pulled my face back into neutral.

    She gazed up at me in surprise.

    “Hand that notebook to Sergeant Jarrett, please!” I said smoothly. “Now, Mrs Erwin, what can you tell us?”

    Clutching the note-book with the nice plastic cover, she glances from me to Jarrett with a nervous, puzzled expression, as if I’d asked her the color of sea-weed on the Galapagos.

    I extend the question. “Miss Ford’s visitors?”

    “I can tell you nothing,” she replies in a hollow voice. “Nothing at all. I’m not the sort of woman to pry into a neighbor’s affairs.”

    “We’re not asking you to pry, Mrs Erwin,” I patiently explain. “A beautiful girl is dead. We all of us want to find out who killed her, bring him to justice.”

    “No!”

    I couldn’t believe my ears. “Mrs Erwin?” I turn to Jarrett for back-up. He has gathered up the precious note-book and moved behind me to the balcony doors, where he is staring moodily through the glass – at the fascinating sea.

    “Mrs Erwin?” I repeat.

    “No! Let the dead bury the dead.”

    “Your own neighbor? The girl who was helping us all in our fight with the Council? In fact, if I remember correctly, it was your idea in the first place?”

    “No!”

    Crazy old dame! I could cheerfully throttle her myself. I pulled my face back into friendly. “Mrs Erwin, if there’s no motive for this murder, if the killer was not one of Susan’s regular visitors, we could be dealing with a maniac on the loose. You think of that! Now he knows how easy it is to get in and out of Beachfront Towers. Whoever built and leased this place should be shot. No security whatever! You think of that! A maniac on the loose – he could return to kill any one of us.”

    That got to her. “It was no maniac,” she declared.

    “How do you know?”

    “Susan always kept her door locked. She was careful. A young girl alone. She always checked through her seeing-eye. She wouldn’t open to anyone she didn’t recognize.”

    “Some person delivering How-To-Vote cards?” I asked, remembering that out-of-place hat-box just inside her bed-room. “You forgot about the election. Your statement doesn’t hold water. If you ask me, we’re dealing with a maniac.”

    “He was no maniac!” she insisted.

    “That’s exactly what I’m trying to find out, Mrs Erwin!”

    “He was a young boy. I was there when he delivered them.”

    “How-To-Vote?”

    “Exactly.”

    “That’s good, Mrs Erwin,” I lied. “Anything else you can us about Susan’s visitors?”

    “No.”

    “No, Mrs Erwin?”

    “I’ve told you everything. He was a young boy. Came on his bicycle. Parked it in the lobby. You know what thieves are like around here. All these day visitors. You can’t trust any of them.”         

    Was the old girl deliberately evasive? Or was she simply out to rile me? And where was Jarrett? He was supposed to be lending a hand. Instead he was stuck by the glass doors, still staring at the beach and the purple sea.

    But at least I’d got the woman talking. I glared into her dark, beady-eyed face. She was seriously befuddled. A cork-screw mind. Her brain broiled in the tropics.

    “Now who else, Mrs Erwin?”

    “I ordered them myself.”

    “Forget the boy! Who else?”

    “A very young boy. He couldn’t have done it. He’s an older man.”

    “What?”

    “I see him as an older man. A spirit of evil.”

            God help us! If she was going to conjure up the spirit world or insights from her own gloriously convoluted mind, I was going to call it a day.

    “Sergeant Jarrett! Perhaps you have a question or two for Mrs Erwin before we go?” I asked pointedly. He has still staring at the beach. Mr Useless.

            “A spirit, Mr Manning. An essence of evil. From the past. From the past!”

            Jarrett reluctantly dragged himself away from the balcony doors. “Don’t think so,” he drawled softly.

     An essence of evil. “Like a witch-doctor?” I asked incredulously.

            Nodding her beady-eyed little head, Mrs Erwin smiled a triumphant little smirk. “A spell, Mr Manning. Susan was under a spell. A spell from the past. But she broke free, Mr Manning. Only the spell-binder returned, Mr Manning. The spell-binder returned.”

            “Yes, Mrs Erwin. You’ve been a great help, Mrs Erwin. Thank you very much. We can see ourselves out, thank you.”

    “He came back, he came back!” she shouted after us. “You, Mr Manning, you!”      

       Web Site: John Howard Reid

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