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John Howard Reid

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Merryll Manning Beachfront Murders Part 16
By John Howard Reid
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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A sequel to "Merryll Manning: The Health Farm Murders".

 

While Garrani opens up Mrs Erwin’s apartment again, I stand at the threshold. “Must be gettin’ old,” he mutters as he flicks the switch and the place remains in darkness. “Forgot I just nicked the flamin’ fuse! Can ya beat that? Lucky I still got me torch.”

    Even by torch-light those masks still send a shudder through my bones. I’d proved to my eyes they were just brittle bits of cane, but somehow my brain didn’t believe in their innocence.

    “Balcony locked. Check!” Garrani held up the balcony key for my approval. “Don’t want them doors to blow open. Ya know how wicked the weather gets. Reckon it’s gonna storm up again to-night! Worse’n last night, I reckon.”

    What have I done to merit old Garrani’s meteorological confidences? He’s acting like a fellow investigator. I feel like telling him the threatened storm’s blown off to New Zealand, but I let it pass. 

 

And after all that, Mrs Erwin’s key didn’t work in Susan’s balcony door!

    “Must!” said Garrani, snatching the key out of my hand and  examining it closely. “Ah, rust! All rusty, that’s why. Ya got somethin’ to rub it off with?”

    I felt in my pockets.

    “No knife? Nothin’?”

    I shook my head.

    “We’re a coupla nuts, aren’t we, Mr Manning,” he announced cheerfully. “I’ll fetch a knife from the kitchen.”

     I tried to stop him, but he ignored my restraining hand and strode out to the kitchen as if he had every right in the world to commandeer Susan’s knives. Or maybe that was just an excuse? I followed him quickly and caught him just as he was about to open the door of her fridge. “You won’t find any knives in there,” I said. 

    “Thought she might have somethin’ for a man to drink,” he explained, totally unabashed. “Ya know how it is?”

    “I can tell you exactly what’s in that fridge: skim milk, margarine, cheese and carrots.” There was also light beer, but I wasn’t about to let Garrani in on that fact. Jarrett had made a list and Hyland was just the sort of officious officer to check it off at some stage.

    Garrani’s face fell. “Well, no harm in tryin’, Mr Manning. Ya never know yer luck. Now what we were lookin’ for?”

    “A knife.”

    “Well, here we are, Mr Manning. First drawer, lucky!”

 

Finally I had the doors open and stepped gingerly on to the balcony, old Garrani breathing close behind. Nothing but blackness. Even the stars had disappeared. An ominous chill in the air. A jolt of lightning strikes at a penumbral mass of cloud nearby. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the storm hasn’t blown away after all. I stand still, waiting for another flash, my eyes focused on the deeper blackness at the balcony’s far corner, my ears trying to sieve through thunder. The wind is starting up with renewed violence, a sudden spurt of rain catches me by the shoulders, another flash – the balcony is starkly empty!

    I slam the balcony doors together, bolt them and lock them.

    “Now what, Mr Manning?”

    I told him I was looking for Susan’s private papers. That roused his interest. I couldn’t have bribed him to go back to sleep. So of course he doesn’t know the killer has all Susan’s current correspondence, up-to-date bills and love letters (if any). Scratch Garrani from the list of suspects – not that he was ever on it. Not on my list anyway!

    Two bed-rooms. I’d examined Susan’s while Inspector Hyland watched me that first night. The other bed-room was evidently a guest room – but with no evidence of any recent guests. The dressing-table drawers were all empty and the wardrobe merely held the overflow from Susan’s own closet. So many pretty dresses! A few of them I remembered well. In fact, here was a real nice one I’d torn open in my eagerness to cup her breasts. I was a little surprised she’d kept it, or never bothered to have it repaired. I’d given her the money and she’d taken it willingly enough. Susan never knocked back a gift. She wasn’t fussy. If you wanted to shower her with money and presents, she’d never knock you back. But if you expected her to return the favors with a favor, you were soon disillusioned. Well, most of the time anyway. Susan delighted in doing the unexpected. When you were so bone tired, you could scarcely raise one foot on top of the other, that’s the moment she decided she wanted to be extra friendly. Or maybe she realized that if she didn’t occasionally come across, a man would pack up his purse and take his favor elsewhere. She was a bitch through and through, but I loved her. God help me, I loved her!

    While I’m reminiscing, Garrani is making a thorough search, even sweeping his torch under the beds, hoping to spy a stray letter or two. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Hyland and company had already ransacked every inch of the apartment.

    Susan’s bed was still made up, smothered by one of those chic, elaborately embroidered quilts with all the lace hanging down the sides. Just a comb and brush on her dressing-table, the only sign that she’d ever actually lived here. Scads of make-up in the drawers, but so neatly arranged and labeled, it could stand in for a display in a drug-store window.

    The bath-room. A glare of antiseptic white. Drawn shower curtains give me a Psycho start, but they hide nothing more than the polished chrome of the shower head, elegant gold taps and shining blue tiles.

    Garrani saunters back to the kitchen and pulls at a couple of the cupboards under the sink in a desultory, half-hearted fashion. You can’t keep the sticky instinct down even when the going looks so unpromising. All he discovers are neat piles of neat crockery on the top shelves, neatly laid out assortments of soaps, scourers, detergents and washing powders on the lower. Theh he swooped on a door I hadn’t noticed. “Laundry,” he explained. An airless little room, with washing machine and dryer. No sign of any dirty clothes.

    “Gettin’ back to bed!” Garrani reverted to his usual grumpy manner, his hopes of an exciting time among Susan’s belongings finally dashed.

    I felt like a fool. Thank God I hadn’t snared Hyland with any of my hare-brained suspicions and idiot deductions! I’d crawl back to bed, chastened in heart, but at least secure than nobody would crow over tonight’s misadventures. Nobody but me, that is. I was angry with myself. Frightened by a sterile apartment, scared stiff by a few heavy curtains.

    Of course, there was no-one in the apartment! How could there be? Somehow the old not-so-crazy had given us the old ruby-rinse. She didn’t get past me! A legion of elephants could get past that country cousin! Sergeant Forget-me-hat was as myopic and color-blind as they come. A regiment of little old ladies riding bareback on giant cassowaries might safely sail by under his nose.

    A sudden rumble of thunder outside made me jump – and that made me even angrier. Now I was even more furious with myself. I’m going to stay right here, right in this apartment, and face all the spirits who are hiding, snickering, laughing in every shadow. I’m not going to jump at every clap, dance to every tune of the wind. I’m going to stay – stay put! – until I cast every one of these ridiculous hallucinations right into hell!

    I deliberately went around and turned off all the lights but the little lamp on the sitting-room table.

 

I don’t know how long I sat like a gravedigger in that dark kitchen. Maybe no more than fifteen minutes. There was just enough reflected light to make out the edge of the laminated table, the shape of the window, the outline of the fridge still humming against the wall, the blur of the electric range, the antiseptic camber of the sink.

    Old Garrani’s predicted storm center was moving closer – thunder and lightning were almost one – yet I still jumped at every crack and inwardly danced like a Wild West tenderfoot to every harmless shot. I was in a bad way. Even a sudden lash of rain against the kitchen window panes prickled my skin.

    Ridiculous to sit around in the dark! Don’t forget a seven o’clock masquerade with Inspector Hyland this morning. Get to bed!

    Another roll of thunder and a quick burst of lightning that screams through the drawn blinds like an exploding shell!

    I try not to shudder. I pull myself slowly to my feet and start for the door.

    B-woom! Relax! It’s just the fridge – the fridge! –  automatically cutting out. Ever since Garrani replaced the fuse, it’s just been humming away quietly in the background. God knows how long it was off. Most of the food will be ruined. But the beer should be okay. I’m not that fond of light, but if Hyland kicks up a fuss over a missing can, what can he do about it? That Vic’s stupid enough to miscount anyway.

    I take hold of the handle and swing open the refrigerator door.

    “Oh, God! Oh, hell! God!”

    As the door opens, the interior light jolts on. It’s very dim because the shelves have all been removed and there’s something in front of the light, almost completely blocking it. 

    The something is the hunched up body of Mrs Erwin, her head twisted and almost severed from her neck at a crazy sloping angle, her dark, lop-sided face staring up at me with wide-open, beady eyes!                 

         

       Web Site: John Howard Reid

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