I went out to the kitchen and hunted up a bread knife and skewer. Thus armed, I prodded the other masks until I was sure each hid nothing more menacing than old newspapers.
Funny, they didn’t seem so monstrous now that I’d touched and gutted one of them. They were just ordinary ornaments of cane after all, primitively molded and economically sealed with totally commonplace newspapers. Likewise, the shields and even the cannibal obscenities with their spears and skulls were merely conventional pieces of native “art”.
I poked through every cupboard, plunged a broom under the bed, but found nothing more disturbing than dust. I told George he could go back to his ledgering or whatever else he was amusing himself with at this time of night.
Impossible to re-attach the fallen mask to the wall, so I propped it up best as I could on the floor. It half-blocked the passage to the kitchen, but who cares?
Closing Mrs Erwin’s door behind me, I walked down the common hallway, turned the corner, prised open the lead-heavy fire-door and made to climb up the stairs; but just as I was about to haul myself up to my apartment, my ears were assailed by the most god-awful racket coming from somewhere above. Some ingenious person had borrowed old Garrani’s trolley, and was bumping his garbage bin down to street level one careful but catterwauling step at a time. There was hardly room for two men abreast on the stairs. One man and a loaded trolley would be pushing my luck, so I scrambled back down to the rear entrance and waited just outside the doors for this ingenious person to appear.
Sure enough, the racket came to a stop just inside the porch. The glass doors swung open, the wan street lamp clicked on. Its light was dim, but I could make out light blue trousers and a light blue shirt. The constable who was supposed to be on guard duty here! He held the doors open for whoever was wheeling the bin.
And that turned out to be Vic Jarrett.
“Taking up garbage collecting, Sergeant Jarrett?” I asked. “Rehearsing for a new job perhaps?”
He was obviously quite startled to find me waiting for him, so I decided to rub it in. “So this is the little hunch you were so hell-fired anxious to prove? Whose bin have you got there? Susan Ford’s or Mrs Erwin’s?”
Vic stopped in his tracks and looked at me all ashamed, like an overgrown kid whose mother has caught him out playing out of bounds with little brother’s train set. He shook his head slowly, “Belongs to this old couple, mate – on your floor,” he said softly.
The young constable was one of these eager-beaver recruits who delight in making themselves useful to their superiors. “Sergeant Jarrett has been doing some good P.R. work,” he enthused.
“What was in the garbage bins, Vic?”
He put his beefy hand on my shoulder. “You were half right, cobber. Looking into them other bins gave me this idea.” His voice was quiet and assured. He’d fully recovered from the surprise I’d handed him. “Some of them folks was so put out by our little search, thought I’d lend them a helping hand.”
The boy from the bush shows us city slickers a lesson in neighborliness and community spirit. I wasn’t buying it. “What was in the bins, Vic?”
“Nothing, mate. Nothing but the usual junk.” He looked at me ingenuously. “There’s no way I wouldn’t tell you, cobber, even if I found so much as a toothpick.”
Just an honest, neighborly country cop. I still wasn’t buying it. I punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Next time you get one of these hunches, let me know, huh?”
I couldn’t get to sleep. My little apartment is right next to the stair-well. I could hear Vic and his constable acolyte bumping bins around for another hour or so.
Finally, all was quiet. But I still couldn’t sleep. My mind kept harping on Susan and that crazy old witch. Tomorrow it seemed likely the commissioner would call the lot of us into his office and have out teeth for door stops. Our one witness in a front-page murder – and we lose her! Where in hell had she gone? I’d swear she’s somewhere in Beachfront Towers, yet we’d searched every room. Even mine and old Garrani’s. Even mine! And not so much as a postcard or a bill had turned up. Not so much… Even mine!
Jumping out of bed, I switched on the light and rushed into the kitchen. Have to hunt it out! Who am I kidding? I know exactly where it is. Lucky they weren’t looking for anything that sacrosanct.
Thank God, here it is, right where I’d left it. Page 914, where old Jeremias opens his chapter 33 with the verse, I will close their wounds and give them health, and I will cure them; and I will reveal to them the prayer of peace. There shall be heard again in this place – which you say is desolate – the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride…
She started to unbutton her blouse. I tried to help. She slapped my hand away. “I’ll do it.”
“I don’t want my things all torn.”
“Or dirtied up. Your hand’s dirty.”
“I’ve just had a shower.”
“It’s all sweaty. It’ll leave marks.”
Her hand paused, a button half through the eye. She looked me up and down. “Please myself? That would be a nice change.”
“Whatever you like.”
“Whatever I like? Since when have my likes ever been considered?”
“I haven’t noticed. Have you ever bought anything nice for me?”
“Have we ever been to places where I wanted to go?”
“Have you ever considered my feelings first?”
“You’re a liar. Go on, admit it! Tell me you’re a liar.”
“I’ve never lied to you.”
“You’re a liar! You’re a liar. How do you like that?”
“Well, go on! If you’re such a champion of Truth, fight me, I dare you. Fight me!”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Aren’t you the little Lord Fauntleroy?”
I made an effort to control my impatience. Easy, easy. The fish was on the line. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean you’re a male chauvinist pig.”
“I don’t see the connection.”
“I mean all your courtesy’s a sham. Everything you say and do is simply a charade.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“You can’t help it. It’s part of your psyche like dandruff and acne.”
“We are what God has made us.”
She laughed. “We are what we make ourselves, Merry. We don’t have to be anything we don’t want to be. We don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do. We are our own masters. Or mistresses, if you like. Aren’t we?” She smiled crookedly.
“That’s true to some extent.”
She’d almost finished unbuttoning her blouse. Her hand was on the last button. Instead of pushing it through, she pulled it back. The she reached up higher and pulled another button back into place. “I’ve changed my mind,” she said. “I feel like dining out tonight. Let’s go to a nice place with a floor show.”
“What about your diet?”
“One night won’t hurt.”
“That’s what you said last night. And the night before.”
“Did I ask you to keep count?”
“Poor Merry. You’re old enough to be my father, yet you don’t understand women at all, do you?”
“Good for you. Damn! I’m having trouble with this clasp again. Well, don’t just stand there, come and help me.” She turned her back. I fumbled with the catch on her bra. Finally, it slid home. She brushed her hair against my hand. Her perfume invaded my senses – delicate, pervasive, conquering as honey-suckle, poignant as lavender.
“Thank you, Merry. You’re a good boy. I like good boys – sometimes. Don’t you ever feel like doing something really daring?”
“Oh, fly to the moon, wrestle an alligator, sail a skiff to Bermuda, chase drug-runners in Peru, climb the Eiffel Tower, rescue an heiress from drowning – stuff like that.”
“Police work has its share of excitement.”
“Oh, yes – issuing parking tickets to little old ladies, holding up traffic at intersections, marching through the streets on Saint Patrick’s Day, laying traps for shoplifters at the five-and-ten, lecturing school children on road safety, selling tickets for the Policemen’s Ball – very exciting!”
“Merry, I’m sorry for disturbing you.”
“You’re not disturbing me, darling. Come in. I’m so happy to see you. It’s nice to be back together again. But I’m not ready yet. I thought we said eight o’clock.”
“I wasn’t going to come. But when I got home from work today, there was this dreadful man waiting for me. He was sitting by my door. He gave me this. I’m terribly worried about it.”
It was a Default Summons in the Court of Petty Sessions at 291 George Street, Sydney, in the State of New South Wales. Plaint No. 346468275. Plaintiff: Ceremon Quintessence of Quality Treadmills Pty Ltd. Defendant: Susan Alexis Devoro Ford. Particulars: Balance of goods sold and delivered by the Plaintiff to the Defendant: $774.06.
“What’s this all about? You bought a treadmill and forgot to pay for it?”
“It was an exercise machine. I didn’t want to come – but, Merry, I’m so worried. I wanted blue, but they sent black. So I refused to pay for it. I sent it back and asked for my $225 deposit back as well.”
“They wouldn’t take it back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you keep your receipt from the carrier?”
“Mr Garrani helped me take it back. We loaded it into my car and we left it on their loading dock.”
“What do you mean, ‘left it’? Didn’t you get a receipt?”
“The place was closed. But we left it right against the door in a bit of shelter.”
“Merry, I was going to give you a ring as soon as I got home. And then I thought I would just stand you up and not go home till past midnight. But I needed something from my apartment, and there was this dreadful man waiting.”
“What are you telling me? You were going to break our date? After we’d just gotten together again last week? Before you knew about this?”
I waved the summons in front of her.
“Why? In heaven’s name, why?”
Susan shrugged her shoulders and made a helpless gesture with her hands. “I honestly don’t know. I’ve tried to think about it.”
“Why are you telling me now? You could have just kept our date.”
She looked up at me with her pleading eyes. “Merry, I’m so worried. I want your help – but I need you to understand why you’re helping me.”
“Why am I helping you, Susan?”
She stared at the floor. “Because we’re friends, that’s all,” she murmured. “I want you to be my friend, Merry.”
I put my arm across her shoulder and tried to pull her close, but she heaved away. “Are you going to help me?”
I sighed bitterly. “Yes.”
“Of course not.”
A fool there was, who would a-wooing go…
Lightning did strike twice! I was fool enough to pay the $774.06 out of my own pocket. But then she wanted her $225 back. I gave her that as well. She was grateful. For one night anyway!
I know you will be surprised to get this letter.
I have been thinking about us.
I have decided to end it before it begins again.
Don’t ask me to explain.
Last night never happened.
Please don’t try to see me or ring me up.
Act normal when we meet.
I know you will understand.
I kept that letter with the summons and the receipt for $774.06 from the clerk of Petty Sessions. God knows I couldn’t afford the money, but I paid it willingly for one night of happiness. And I lived in hopes that if lightning had struck twice at Beachfront Towers, it would strike again and I’d be able to take her back to the States as my bride before my furlough was up. She was a real honest-to-goodness bitch, but I loved her!
Jeremiah had effectively guarded this little treasure trove in my big Bible, but I couldn’t take a chance that Inspector Hyland or his lackeys would snoop through my effects again.
I ripped the letter, the summons and the receipt into a million shreds and flushed them down the toilet.