The stairs are black as Hyde’s heart of course. I have to grope around like Dr Jekyll, shuffling slowly downward step by step and easing my fingers along the wall to locate the light switch; and even then it flashes on for only sixty seconds, thanks to our penny-pinching body corporate. I’m halfway down the first of seven flights of stairs, when the light automatically clicks itself off. I’ve no choice but to struggle down in the dark – continually bumping my shins on the edges of the bin – to the next landing where the next switch is expertly hidden.
Six floors later, I maneuver the bin through the rear doors and into its alloted space on Weeks Road. I’d expected to find most of the other bin spaces empty, but doubtless by similar efforts more than half the residents had also somehow managed to cope with the no-elevator problem.
What a perfect finish to a perfect day! At least, all the going had been down, not up!
I sit down on the knee-high concrete fence to get a breather. The street is deserted. Even the few reporters who’d had enough sense to explore Beachfront Towers for rear entrances and the like, had long since gone away to face their deadlines.
Such a nasty, squally day has turned into quite a pleasant night. The air is cool but not shivery. The clouds have all vanished. You can actually see stars playing hide-and-seek all over the sky. And underlying the whole panorama, you can hear the rhythmic cymbal of surf clashing against tumbled rocks at the base of the cliffs.
Behind me, lighted windows stud every floor of Beachfront Towers. The residents are all watching “Sunday Night at the Movies” – delayed for an hour or so by the “breaking news” of Susan’s death. Now they are siding just as avidly with Clint Eastwood as he pistol-whips the pimps and drug-pushers of some Hollywood backlot. On the box, fiction achieves such a parity with reality, it changes character. Who can tell where the sound stage ends and real streets begin?
We police are the heroes and villains that TV has made us. Maybe we’re lucky. At least we retain some identity; whereas your average viewer is no longer an individual, responsive to his or her own needs and desires, but an amorphism of the passive and the credulous, craving to be manipulated by advertisers and media-men.
I find myself shivering. Maybe the wind is a bit colder than I thought.
Those were pearls that were her eyes. I noticed there were no rings on her fingers, no thin gold chain around her neck. She’d worn that chain often; rarely bothered to take it off – even in the shower. And her wrist-watch in the form of a little heart. Also gold. A golden heart! The killer had taken them away.
Why do we say heart of gold when we mean overflowing, soft? Is gold soft, tender, responsive? Is stone less hard?
Perhaps like all of us, Susan wanted to change her identity. You don’t need booze or drugs. You can change identity just like upending a rock. Now its dark side faces the moon.
But some of us are always reluctant to change the known for the unknown, no matter how desirous it may appear to be.
“That’s the trouble with policemen. They’re so intently passive.”
“Because you’ve managed to browbeat me into helping you, I’m passive?”
“I want you to show a bit more independence. Don’t do what I tell you all the time. Be your own master. Assert yourself.”
“Give you an excuse to pick a quarrel and lock me out? No thanks!”
“Don’t depend on me. I warn you, I’m fickle. Get yourself another girl.”
“Easier said than done!”
“That’s just what I don’t like about you, Merry. No initiative. No get up and go. Any other man would find ways and means to make me jealous. But not you!”
“I love you too much!”
“Love? Or desire? Which is it?”
“Choose one! Which is it?”
“Pity! I’d rather be desired than loved. Much rather.”
I stood up. It was cold on the fence. Two years. Was it that long. I haven’t had such a hell of a day for two years. Every day was a hell day with or without Susan Alexis Devoro Ford. And the last the most hellish of all!
Nightmares! What’s a few moldy masks and cannibalistic statues? I’ve been eaten alive by the best!
I walk back to the swinging rear doors of Beachfront Towers. Where’s the cop who’s supposed to be guarding the rear entrance here? A whole regiment could troop in and out, let alone a quivery old dwarf. Her and her giant cassowary! That Vic was a total idiot, pandering to such truck. Look in Susan’s fridge for some crazy phial!
Nuts! How could she up and disappear? A whirly-bird winch her from the sky? Maybe she a mistress of disguise, leading a double life as Iris Delahunty? Better still, she turned herself into a giant condor and flew away!
Cassowary phial! She had enough room in those creephouse cupboards…
Hell! I shivered violently. I knew where the old witch was hiding! The one place we hadn’t really searched. The old zombie was holed up in her own death-watch apartment. And that bloody Vic knew it! He’d taken the cop off the rear exit and right now they were crouched up in the corridor, just waiting to put the cuffs on the old lady as soon as she thought it safe to come out.
I race up the stairs. The sting of discovery dulls my fears. How stupidly simple! Just leaves the door wide open and hides! God knows what priest holes and vampire warrens are shielded by those walls of zombie masks. She was there all the time. Why? She killed Susan of course. Why? Could be any number of reasons. Jealousy. A quarrel. Money. Susan always carried at least $500 in her purse or handbag. Made her feel secure, she said.
Or maybe our Mrs Erwin was just a barmy old bag, screwed silly by the tropic sun?
I’d almost reached the second floor. Wait a minute! The old zombie’s door is locked. No doubt about that. And Vic plus his constable pal are waiting to pounce on her. No doubt about that either!
Who’s got the key? Inspector Hyland, most likely. But what the hell does it matter? Old Miles-of-fun Garrani’s got a whole set of master keys!
I race back down the steps and head straight for the basement. Old Garrani’s door is open. At the end of a newspaper-choked passage, I see the clown, seated at his kitchen table, scribbling away in one of his massive, dog-eared ledgers. “Garrani!” I shout. “Garrani!”
He looks up, startled, closes the book with a bang. “Just what in flamin’ hell do you want now, Mister Manning? Don’t bloody come in! Coppers left them papers all a-tumble. Like as not, they’ll bloody tip over. Coppers!”
Old Miles-of-fun was in a distinctly bad humor. He usually swore only in the company of trusted compañeros like Lonesome Lupin and Iris Delahunty. I try to be patient with the lazy hound. He keeps me standing at the door while he sits grousing at his kitchen table, thoroughly convinced he’d done his duty by the coppers for one day.
Actually the lazy old whinger has a sinecure. Lives rent free in our garage basement, collects a weekly pay packet into the bargain. All he does is hang around and gossip, turn a sporadic hose on Iris Delahunty’s garden, and phone up the elevator mechanics two or three times a month.
Today was probably the most day’s work he’s ever done in his life, but I was not through with him yet.
Finally with a mixture of veiled threats and bribes – I hint I’ll support his wage increase at out next body corporate meeting (though God knows what he did with money – he wasn’t spending a penny on flash clothes or gourmet eating – I caught sight of an empty tin of baked beans on his sink) – I get him to his feet. But even then the old scavenger won’t trust me with the keys, he has to come with me, his innate curiosity getting much the better of bone laziness and bad temper.
Having cursed every step on four flights of stairs, the old reprobate finally lurches to a stop in front of Mrs Erwin’s door. He fumbles around maddeningly, blows his nose stridently into a greasy handkerchief, jangles his overloaded ring of keys officiously. At lasy he selects one of the keys, tries it in the lock, and with a grunt of triumph swings the door slowly open.
Frankly I’m glad he’s with me. That cavern of expectant darkness is horror enough, but when we snap on the light and these terrors junmp out, I can’t control my fear. Oh God, how that crazy old zom could meditate among this ghastly brood night after night! And this weird waxworks light makes it all the more hideous, filling shadow and substance upon monstrous images, breathing depth and glitter into ther black-pitched eyes, adding arms and bodies to sub-human masks.
Old Miles-of-fun coughs loudly, “Gotta get back to me work,” he grumbles, turning on his heel, “Just slam the door when ya leave.”
I can’t believe he’s serious – old Mr Stickbeak himself? Were the cannibals picking at his skin too? Or was he just waiting to be urged? “You’d better stay, Mr Garrani,” I said quickly.
He glared at me truculentky, but at least he didn’t move,
“I want to take a look behind this mask.”
I hesitated to touch my finger to the obscenity. It was large enough to cover the entire body of a giant. I moved my hand towards it gingerly…
What am I afriad of? The anger of primitive gods? The mask is made of cane – just dusty, yellowing cane, hard and brittle with age,
I gave the mask a tug – no lightning, no rumble of anger – but it didn’t budge,
“Got a flashlight, Mr Garrani?”
“Down in me room,” he grunted.
Although I tugged at the mask more fiercely, still it wouldn’t budge. All I was going to accomplish was to tear a hole in the cane. “Blasted thing seems to be glued to the wall.”
To my surprise, Garrani stomped forward to investigate. He seized the other corner of the mask. “Watch it!” I warned – but too late. With a tremendous wrench, old Garrani tipped the whole thing over and sent it crashing to the floor.
When the dust cleared, we realized the hollow of the mask had been tightly filled with rolled-up wads of five-year-old newspapers. If the rest of the masks were similarly fastened and furnished…