“Just lovely! First a murder – a guaranteed lead item on every TV channel and newspaper front page in Australia – and then two hours to the mid-day press briefing, the star witness does a bunk!” Inspector Hyland glared at us angrily. “I don’t believe it!” he exclaimed. “All wrong! But let’s hear this sorry story again. Sergeant Jarrett!”
“Don’t you think we should move to some place more private?” I suggested, nodding towards the little crowd of interested onlookers who – led by Miles Garrani and Iris Delahunty – had gathered in the foyer.
Jarrett ignored me. “Like I said, chief, there’s nothing much to tell,” he replied easily. “I come back to get the hat – and come to think of it, lucky I left it there as it happens. If I hadn’t gone back to her flat to get the hat, we wouldn’t have known she’d done a bunk until Christmas.”
“Get on with it! I don’t give a damn about the hat!”
“I come back… I come back… Now you’ve thrown me off! That’s it: door was wide open. I was wondering how I was going to get in. So I noticed it straight away. The door, I mean. Wide open, it was. So I knock on the panel. I call out. ‘Mrs Erwin,’ I call out. ‘Are you there, Mrs Erwin? Are you there?’ No answer. So I come right in. I look around. No witness! I get myself out on the balcony and I call out to Merry. I can see him sitting in that glass shelter, but he doesn’t hear me. I’m shouting and screaming fit to burst, but with the noise of the waves – ”
“Never mind the bloody waves!” Hyland snapped.
“A hell of a job, that balcony! Door hadn’t been open in a pig’s eye. Filthy!”
“Shut up! I don’t want to know!” Hyland abruptly about-faced and turned his wrath upon me. “So what’s your story?”
“I suggest we go upstairs to Mrs Erwin’s apartment.”
The inspector frowned at me as if I was an imbecile. “I thought you said the elevator’s out of order?”
“It is,” I agreed. “That’s just the whole point.”
“You!” Hyland shouted out to Garrani. “You’re the janitor here!”
“Janitor, caretaker – who cares? Has long has that elevator been out of order?”
“Near as I can tell, about four hours. Maybe five. I rang the mechanics – ”
“You told me you didn’t ring them!” I interrupted.
Old Garrani shook his head. “It’s not much use ringing them. They don’t work Sundays,” he whinged. “Unless it’s an emergency – people trapped. But after you talked to me, Mr Manning, I thought I would ring them, just to be on the safe side: Leave a message on their answering machine. I can always cancel it later. But I still think there’s nothing wrong with the elevator. Just some careless clot left the door open. Happens all the time in this place.”
“How about you find out for sure one way or the other?” I suggested.
“I’m not paid to climb mountains of stairs.”
“Not asking you to,” I answered. “Just ring one of the tenants on the tenth floor and ask them to check.”
Garrani seemed a bit put out by this suggestion, but made a quick comeback nonetheless. Somehow he always managed to grab the last word. “Owners, occupiers, we call them, Mr Manning. But I’ll give them a try.”
“We’ll be in Mrs Erwin’s apartment,” I told him. “Let’s know how you make out.”
“No need! If you hear it moving, it’s working. If you don’t hear it, it’s blown a fuse.”
“We’ve had six men from the station combing every corridor, every stairway,” I told Hyland. “No sign of Mrs Erwin. No sign at all. She’s most definitely not here!”
Inspector Hyland frowned at me as if I were an imbecile.
“She’s disappeared!” I expatiated. “Into thin air!”
You could almost hear Hyland’s officious police mind ticking through all the possibilities. “She’s most likely sheltering with someone,” he announced. “Someone in the building. Some friend!”
Hah! I felt like retorting. Some friend? A crackpot like Mrs Erwin? “I know the people in Beachfront Towers,” I answered mildly. “They’d be most unlikely to aid Mrs Erwin.” I was going to add that even Santa Claus would have a hard job finding sanctuary among the hard hearts in this building, but instead explained: “Mrs Erwin was not exactly a popular proprietor.”
“No?” he seemed surprised. Here we were, gathered in her sitting-room, surrounded by her grotesque bric-a-brac, and he feigned surprise. Did he think Beachfront Towers a haven for zombies and witch-doctors?
“Mrs Erwin is one very strange lady,” I commented. One hell of a strange lady! I glanced towards Vic to back me up, but, as usual, he was daydreaming in front of the balcony doors.
The cool, calculating police mind was still clocking over. “Marshal our facts, Manning. The old woman’s gone for how long, and what did she take?”
“I’ve already worked it out. She had a maximum of twenty minutes to make her escape, but let’s say twenty-five.”
“Thanks to you birds dawdling along.”
“We weren’t dawdling, but we weren’t watching any clocks either. We were discussing the case, when Vic missed his hat and went back for it. I was waiting for him in that shelter, as I told you. Now it seems to me that he wasn’t gone for more than ten minutes before I heard his shout. So ten plus ten equals twenty. Max! She was mighty quick off the mark, but this explains why she was so slow opening the door to us in the first place. She had everything packed and was ready to leave when we suddenly surprised her by our knock on the door. Took her at least three minutes to open up, enough time to hide her bags. Right, Vic?”
“Too right, Merry.”
“You birds suddenly on friendly terms? How did that happen? What are you hiding?”
“Hiding nothing,” I answered. “We decided to co-operate.”
“Isn’t that nice? And the first thing that happens, our star witness – our only witness – disappears. Why?”
“Panic!” I suggested.
“For once I agree with you. She panicked. What did you birds say to her?”
“Nothing! Vic took it all down in his notebook.” I waved towards him. I wasn’t the only person on the griller. It was about time Vic threw in a few comments.
“Well, I’m waiting,” snapped Hyland
Slowly, Vic pulled himself away from the beach view on the other side of the balcony doors, and reached for his note-book. “I’ve got it all written down,” he declared. “Merry put the wind up her.”
“Me! I never did!” That’s gratitude. He leaves me to do all the talking…
“Mate, you had this maniac on the loose.”
“A maniac?” repeated Hyland furiously, once again turning all his attention full on me.
“Just trying to get her to talk,” I explained.
“A maniac? Just lovely! A little old lady!”
“She’s no faint-heart. Look around you at all this hideous brood. I guess you were right all along, inspector. She did it! She guessed we were on to her, so she panicked and flew the coop.”
“Rubbish! No old lady. An ape.”
“The victim was throttled by a man. Scarf held by powerful fingers.”
“You didn’t tell me that!”
“Rips in the cloth. Lab report. So where’s our witness gone and why? Forced? Panic?”
“I think you can forget about panic. She never went out the back way.”
“For once I agree with you. There’s no way she could have avoided the prying eyes of that janitor and his gossipy friend. So that leaves what may be termed the front or main entrance. So that’s how she made her escape.”
“Except for one little detail,” I said.
“Yes, Mr Manning?” Hyland’s voice was as low and cold as Christmas snow. Whether they be inspectors, captains or lieutenants, policemen the world over hate to have their pet theories shot to pieces.
“Security in Beachfront Towers is virtually non-existent. Except for one thing. They do lock the front door from nine at night to seven in the morning, seven days a week. Only the janitor and a few favored tenants who have more cash than brains – or simply feel that a front door key is something they just can’t do without – have keys! Like Susan Ford and Mrs Erwin and yours truly. I always like to think that if there’s a fire or some other emergency, I’m not going to be trapped by only one exit. Because of course as a security measure, the whole rigmarole’s no more than an empty token, as the back door is always left unlocked, day and night. And by the way, parking is in the lot next door – under cover for those who like to keep their Mercedes Benz nice and shiny.”
Inspector Hyland was not amused. “Quite finished?” he asked.
“Quite frankly, Manning, if that’s a sample of your American police theorizing, I think we can get along without your input, thank you. Consider yourself a prime suspect and do not attempt to leave Beachfront for any purpose without my express permission.”
“You didn’t wait for me to finish. I said ‘almost’. The proof is in the pudding.”
I threw two bunches of keys on the table.
“What’s all this?”
“These are Susan’s keys,” I said, holding up the first bunch. “Her apartment key, her front door key, her parking lot key – all similar to mine of course – and what I suspect is a post office box key, and a mystery key. She always kept her keys in a little purse with a butterfly pattern – just one purse among fifty or sixty others. And some of them also held keys. She was a bit of a key collector. This other bunch is Mrs Erwin’s – front door, apartment door, parking lot. I recognized them of course, picked them up from her table and put them in my pocket when we went next door to Susan’s apartment last night. I thought there was a danger that a little old lady with cassowaries for brains might lock herself out. And then when we returned and she bolted herself back in, I simply forgot to give them back to her. I have a terrible memory for these sorts of things. It’s shocking to think what terrible scrapes a bad memory like mine can get a man into.”
Inspector Hyland’s frown had gradually turned into a smile. He extended his hand. “Welcome to the club, Manning!”
“Call me ‘Merry’, Wally,” I answered.