Stepping out of Beachfront Towers via the rear entrance, we made our way along the geranium-bordered walkway that curled around the shore to the cluster of greasy spoons and nothing-over-$2-stores on the main corso. I pointed out where the Council wanted to erect a new surf club and explained how it would encroach on almost all our beachfront frontage, leaving just a bottle-narrow tunnel to reach the beach itself.
Admittedly, the geraniums would be no great loss. They were the work of good old Iris Delahunty. The building’s chief scandalmonger, Mrs Delahunty tended the garden as an excuse for prying and gossiping. I mentioned this to Jarrett. “Come to think of it,” I told him, “Iris would be a good bet to interview right away. She never goes to sleep and what she doesn’t know about Beachfront Towers…”
To my surprise, Jarrett walked right on without stopping. He hadn’t been listening. “Wait a bit!” I called out.
When I caught up to him, he was dreamily gazing over the sea, following the roll of the waves as they hurled themselves at a forbidding cluster of rocks.
I was about to repeat my Delahunty suggestion, but thought better of it. I’d try a more direct approach to wake the cretin from his dream. “Have you got that note-book safe? It’s the first thing the captain – the inspector – will ask for.”
“I’ve been thinking. We’ve been assigned to each other, like it or not. My name’s Vic.” He offered his hand.
Well, I wasn’t going to refuse him. If he wanted to be more friendly, why not? It could be another ruse, but I shook his hand anyway. “Merry,” I introduced myself. “Now have you got that precious note-book with Mrs Thing’s fingerprints tucked away?”
He patted his overcoat pocket. “Too right, Merry.”
“Don’t fool around with it. You’ll smudge the prints.” I looked him up and down. Something missing. “Where’s your hat?” I asked
“Blimey! I must have left it at Mrs Erwin’s.”
For God’s sake! Useless spends the whole time mooning at the beach through the balcony door, offering not a scrap of aid or support, then he leaves his hat in the spooky place!
“You’d better go back and get it.”
He spread his hands in a dumbfounded gesture. “How am I going to get back in? You know what she was like.”
“Show her your warrant card.”
“She doesn’t know mine. Better lend me yours.”
“No way! Things may be a bit slack down under, Vic, but lending out your card merits instant dismissal in the States. Even losing it or having it stolen, docks you a week’s pay. And in any case, Mrs Erwin hates me, or at least suspects me. Showing her my card at her peep-hole is a sure way not to get your hat back.”
“Thought you’d resigned from the Yankee force anyway.”
“You thought wrong. I’m on an extended leave of absence.”
“How am I going to get back in?” he repeated.
“You don’t need to get back in. Just ask her to fetch your god-damned hat.”
It suddenly occurred to me why Sydney Central had been so quick off the mark to assign Sergeant Jarrett to assist in this investigation. It wasn’t merely the factor that he’d once had a fleeting contact with Susan at Bitter Springs but the undeniable fact that he was utterly, totally useless.
He was still hanging around, looking at me pleadingly. I waved him off. “I’ll wait for you over there,” I said, indicating a rather ugly glass shelter which a thoughtful if artistically handicapped Council of by-gone days had erected to protect picnickers and their sandwiches from the sea breeze.
I sit facing the ocean. A coven of raucous sea-gulls gathers around my feet, cawing for the invisible food they think I’m carrying. The hardy, early morning swimmers have been joined or supplanted by less purposeful sun worshippers. More tourists have arrived. You can always tell tourists from locals by their paraphernalia. Beachfront’s the sort of free-and-easy where you can stroll the streets in your briefs, but tourists tote all their gear with them – togs, towels, baskets, eskies …
Blustery, mainsailing clouds dot the sky, jibs of gray are merging beyond Long Reef to the north. I wet my finger to determine which way the wind is traveling. South! Yes, the whole topsail of gray is definitely unfurling this way. If the wind holds, the sky will be overcast in an hour. Bad news for all the greasy spoons and the five-and-tens. This is the time the vast majority of weight-slackers leave home. If it rains, they’ll drink their beer and top up their tummies around the TV instead.
A couple of young kids are skirmishing up and down the sidewalk on their bikes. At least that’s better than the Christmas craze when the whole boardwalk was turned into a breezeway for skaters. Now that fall is upon us down under, most of the skateboards have disappeared.
I look down at the boardwalk. The Council recently resurfaced half the paving with bricks, but left the middle cement with its faded 1920’s deco pattern of intersecting green triangles…
What’s that? Did the loud speaker on the beach suddenly squawk into life? Another purblind swimmer freewheeling too far away from the flags and aching to be caught in a rip? No! My name. Someone calling my name. From Beachfront Towers. That Vic is standing on a balcony – Mrs Erwin’s balcony – and yelling out to me. What’s he saying? Come quick!
The elevator is stuck on the tenth floor. Some clown has probably neglected to slam the door tight. So I bound up the stairs.
The door to Mrs Erwin’s creepy apartment is open. Vic is waiting for me in the corridor. “She’s gone!” he says.
“Gone?” I echo stupidly.
“The place is empty, mate. She’s not here.”
“Was that elevator stuck on the tenth when you came back?”
“Sure it was. I walked up the stairs.”
“And you found Mrs Erwin’s door open?”
“Just like it is now.”
“Have you rung the station?”
“No. I thought I’d get you first.”
Useless! “Get back in there and press the panic button. Then race downstairs and guard the front lobby. No-one in or out. Except the boys!”
“I’ll fly down and guard the back exit.”
So back I fly down three flights of stairs, having assured myself the elevator is still stuck at floor ten. As I rush through the swinging doors at the back, I almost collide with old Miles Garrani, the janitor, and Iris Delahunty, the building’s number one gossip, both of whom have suddenly appeared from nowhere.
“Miles, Iris, excuse me butting in, but you haven’t caught sight of Mrs Erwin in the last couple of minutes, have you?”
They both look at me strangely. I am excited and out of breath.
“Mrs Erwin!” I repeat. “Have you seen her?”
“That we haven’t,” answers Garrani in a grumpy voice. I had obviously burst in on some exciting exchange of confidences.
“How long you both been standing here?”
“Not long,” he admits grudgingly, frowning at me as if I were cheating him of some prize.
“Iris, what about you?”
She blinked at me insolently as if I were a whisky drummer caught out peddling samples to school girls. “About twenty minutes, if you must know.”
“You must have seen me?”
“Sure I did. Going and coming.”
“And Sergeant Jarrett?”
“Him too. Going and coming back. At least he was in no rush like you. Polite, that’s what he was. Always raises his hat to a lady.”
“Raised his hat?”
“No, come to think of it, he had no hat this time. But it’s the thought that counts, I always say, Mr Manning. If he’d been wearing his hat, he would have raised it. That’s the main thing. He’s always polite, like that other inspector. Not like Americans! Just rush past as if they don’t see you!”
“I didn’t! I’m sorry.”
“Well, maybe the first time… I was down there,” she pointed. “The snails have been getting at the geraniums again.” Suddenly her eyes light up. She was always slow on the uptake. “So what’s going on now, Mr Manning? What’s all the latest doings?”
“Listen! I want you both to do me a favor. Both of you stay here. If you spot Mrs Erwin, coming or going, one of you detain her and the other run up and tell me.”
“All them stairs? Elevator’s not working, you know.”
“How long has it been out?”
“All morning, far as I can tell.”
“It was moving around breakfast time,” put in Garrani. “Used it myself.”
“Have you rung the mechanics?”
“What for? Probably just someone left the door open. Happens all the time. I’m not paid to walk up ten or twelve flights of stairs to fix it. We’ve got residents and tenants up there.”
“Anyway, I won’t be in my unit. I’ll be in Mrs Erwin’s. If you spot her, let me know.”
“If I spot her, Mr Manning, I’ll nip into my office right there and I’ll give her phone a tingle. Right?”
I turn to go, but Iris puts her hand in my arm. “What a terrible tragedy, Mr Manning,” she exclaims in a sorrowful voice. “What time do you think the reporters will get here?”