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.
“However, it’s always possible she had a duplicate key.”
“No way. Apartment keys can easily be duplicated, but the front door latch-key is not cut from a standard block. A locksmith could make you one, but he’d charge you a fortune. It’s just another of the lame-duck, sucker-bait security measures at Beachfront Towers. And why would you want a duplicate anyway?”
“So she never went out the front?”
“Not before 9 a.m., that’s for sure. And Vic had that area covered, didn’t you, Vic?”
Jarrett didn’t even stir at the mention of his name. He was still wrapped in his moody survey of the sea. The sky had now completely clouded over. Another storm was about to break at any minute. All the nice reporters and equally courteous TV men would have to battle the rain. In the meantime, we three stifled in the now menacing semi-darkness of Mrs Erwin’s apartment. Just this once, I didn’t blame Jarrett for watching the storm gather itself together. I’d join him if I weren’t pinned down by Hyland.
“Nowhere she could hide in the lobby – just a couple of frowsy palms. Even Vic could spot that wizened old crone.”
“Like a mouse in a tub of cheese!” Vic had suddenly come to life.
“So where does that leave us?”
“Mrs Erwin is still in the building for sure,” I answered. “The only way she could have gone is up!”
“With the elevator out of order and God knows how many bags?”
“Maybe she stashed the bags somewhere? Maybe they’re still sitting in a closet in this apartment? It’s unimportant. It’s Mrs Erwin we want, not her luggage.”
“Then we’re right back where we started, Manning. A friend is hiding her in this building.”
“Unlikely! Most unlikely, inspector. Mrs Erwin has no friends.”
“You can say that again,” chimed Vic.
The inspector rounded on him. “How would you know? An experienced officer – and a sergeant at that – who lets an old lady disappear right from under his nose! Tell you both what I’m going to do: I’m going to round up a justice of the peace and swear out search warrants for every apartment in Beachfront Towers!”
“All sixty-six of them?” I asked.
“Most certainly including yours, Manning!”
“And I thought I’d talked myself back into your good books, inspector?”
“The only way you’ll get yourself into my favor, Manning, is to deliver Miss Ford’s killer into my arms – bound and suitably subdued!”
“I might do just that, inspector.”
It took all day. Inspector Hyland managed to rouse enough men from their sabbath “rest” for three teams, but it was well after 8 p.m. before we finally opened the last closet and disturbed the last long-legged spider under the last bed.
No Mrs Erwin!
Of course some of the tenants – gossips like Iris Delahunty – were actually glad to see us. We made a welcome diversion from an otherwise rainy, dreary Sunday. Most, however, were grudgingly resigned to what they saw as either police interference and inefficiency or downright publicity seeking. They stood sullenly close by as we rummaged through cupboards and clothes dryers while their TVs echoed with up-to-date news flashes of the “sensational beach girl murder”.
Despite hindrance – and even open abuse – we eventually opened every stubborn door and thoroughly searched every unlikely nook and cranny of Beachfront Towers.
Old Miles-of-fun Garrani proved essential. Not only did he have keys to those suites and apartments that were temporarily unoccupied, but he was able to open secret doors that gave access to plumbing fixtures and electrical circuits. Not that they did us any good! As for the elevator, stuck on the tenth floor, it was really inoperable; and the elevator shaft itself also proved a complete waste of time: a grease pit at the bottom, a dust box at the top. And of course we also searched the roof itself from tiles to rafters, much to the dismay of a colorful colony of rainbow lorikeets.
Oddly enough, the guy who kicked up the most fuss when we tried to fossick through his place was old Miles-of-fun himself. He’d managed to turn three airless, tunnel-like cubbyholes of rooms in the basement into a hazardous rubbish warren. One of these tunnels of love proved absolutely impossible to enter. It was completely flooded with old newspapers, stretching back twenty years or more. This newspaper library had also spilled out into the passageway, making even progress to the janitor’s living quarters a speleological feat. His kitchen was not spared either. In addition to its usual function, it served as a repository for numerous odds and ends, ranging from battered toasters to dog-eared ledgers, non-working radios, lawn mowers and TV sets to flattened cardboard cartons and numerous bundles of plastic bags. “Never throw anything away,” he explained. “You never know what’ll come in handy some day!”
But after all that effort, no Mrs Erwin! Not a sign of her. Not even a report. No-one had caught sight of the old crazie in recent memory except Hyland, Jarrett, myself, and of course Iris Delahunty who’d made a sterling effort last evening to wrestle some gossipy information out of her, but with little success.