I’d never seen the old bonelazy so agitated. He was always a whinger, but his ceaseless grumbling was usually tempered by a degree of self-preservation. A job with a hundred and one drawbacks was better than no job at all. As he was obviously in a rare fighting mood, I decided to humor the old coot. “You certainly have a rare lot to put with, Mr Garrani,” I agreed. “There’s not many would take on all your responsibilities.”
Success! His venomous glare relaxes. “That’s for sure, Mr Manning, that’s for sure. There’s none can say that old Miles doesn’t pull his weight,” he argues in a self-pitying tone. “And then some, Mr Manning; and then some!” The lazy old sniveller has actually convinced himself he’s doing a halfway decent job.
“I’ll just take the key, Mr Garrani, and you can toddle off to bed. No need to wait up for me. I’ll just slip the key under your door when I’m through.”
“Right you are, Mr Manning!” he concurs with surprising alacrity, his mood changing. Once more he assumes the cloak of super-agreeable, do-anything-for-you Garrani, your friendly local janitor.
Carefully peeling off a key from a large bunch he gathers up from a secret cache under the sink, Garrani hands it to me with a smile. Was he swaying ever so slightly – or was it just the dim light?
Wouldn’t you just know it? The old fool has given me the wrong key!
Or is the door locked on the inside!
What to do? Face Garrani again? Or wait till morning?
I press my ear against Susan’s door. If there is someone in her apartment, I’ve possibly alerted them by rattling the lock. Hell! I kneel down quickly, out of range of the peep-hole. I put my ear to the crack at the bottom. Not a sound!
Damn! Now the corridor lights have switched themselves off automatically.
It’s pitch black. Can’t see a thing. I sit against the door. Thinking. Considering my options. Groping my way back to the light switch and then climbing down the stairs and rousing old Garrani? Retreating to my own apartment? Or just sitting right here where I am? If my hunch is right and Mrs Erwin is inside, she has only this one exit. Me and my pistol – or rather, old Garrani’s heavy pistol – are more than a match for one murderous old lady.
But what if I fall asleep? Silently, she prises the door open and before I’m half awake, her cruel scarf is around my neck!
“Merry, you didn’t get my note?”
“Of course I got your damn note, Susan. I’m sick of your bloody notes. Let me come in!”
“I don’t want to discuss it, Merry. I don’t think I want to see you any more.”
“You don’t think you want to see me?”
“I’m positive. Get out of my life, Merry. Get out of my life!”
“For God’s sake, let me come in!”
“I’m going out, Merry. I’m just on my way out.”
“I’m coming in. Open the door or I’ll try to break it down.”
“Just for a minute then. I’m getting ready to go out… Now are you happy?”
“At least you were telling me the truth for once!” I exclaimed. She was all dolled up like a Christmas box.
“I told you I was going out. I have a date.”
“Mr O’Gorman, if it’s any business of yours.”
“Fred O’Gorman? You’re crazy! For one thing, he’s got a wife.”
“I’m well aware of that, Merry. Didn’t I get the old bitch kicked off the Body Corporate?”
“And I thought it was all just a ploy to replace her with your pal, Mrs Erwin?”
“Partly, it was, Merry. Partly, it was. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with Fred.”
“Why, Susan, why?”
“Money, Merry. Money! We have no secrets from each other, do we? And that’s why I want you as a friend, Merry – and that’s all! See this nice coat I’m wearing, Merry? Mr O’Gorman bought it for me. He’s waiting for me right now. Downstairs. In his Mercedes. And we’re going to the swankiest nightclub in town, where the cover charge is a $100 a pop, Merry. You could never afford that in a lifetime. So put that in your craw and eat it. Goodbye and good riddance!”
I grabbed her by the shoulders. “What’s the matter with you, Susan? What in bloody hell’s gone wrong with you?”
“Leave me alone! Leave me alone. Get out of my life and stay out.”
“You’re the one who came back,” I pointed out. “This time, you came back to me!”
“I needed you. That’s why. And I told you right out too. I didn’t keep it a secret. And that’s why I’m not keeping this date a secret. I’m going out with Mr O’Gorman and you can just like it or lump it!”
I shook her. “Susan, come to your senses! You complain I’m old enough to be your father. I am, but I don’t look it. I keep myself in shape. O’Gorman’s old enough to be your grandfather – and looks every year of it. You want people snickering and sniggering about you, calling you names behind your back – or even right in your face?”
She went limp in my arms.
“What’s the matter with you?” I repeated.
“I don’t know,” she sighed, “I honestly don’t know.”
“How could you write such a mean note to me, Susan? Merry, I don’t want to see you any more. Never try to see me or speak to me again. Go to hell and never come back. How could you do such a thing? Susan?”
“I don’t know, Merry. Don’t ask me. I’d tell you if I knew myself.”
She sat down. “Don’t look at me. Don’t look at me!”
Yet she reached out her hand. I took hold of that soft little hand and sat down beside her. I tried to kiss her, but she quickly turned her head away. I nuzzled her little ear instead and squeezed her hand. “You know I love you, Susan.”
“I love you too, Merry.”
My eyes must have opened wide.
“Sometimes I’m so crazy about you! Some nights I can’t go to sleep, just thinking about you!” She reached over and patted my cheek. I tried to kiss her lips, but again she moved her head out of easy reach. “I’m so worried about you, Merry! That’s the trouble. That’s just the trouble!”
Suddenly, she stood up. “I don’t want to worry about you!” she shouted.
I looked at her in amazement.
“I don’t want to worry if I love you or not. Perhaps I do. Perhaps I don’t. Sometimes I’m crazy over you, sometimes I can’t stand you. Maybe I want to love you, maybe I want to hate? Get out! Get out of my life, Merry! Get out! I can’t stand it any longer!”
“You can’t stand the worry?” I repeated. “That’s what life’s all about,” I added fatuously.
“I just can’t stand the worry of me. I can’t decide.”
“Let me get this straight. You can’t decide between love or hate?”
She looked at me pleadingly. “Please, Merry, I can’t stand the worry. Right now, I want to hurt you. But also I don’t want to hurt you! So get out of my life, Merry! Leave!”
I stood up and put my arms around her. She struck me repeatedly on the chest with her futile little fists.
“Leave me! Leave me!”
I tried to kiss her, but she kept moving her head. I moved my hands over her back. She scratched the back of my neck with her nails. I lifted her up. She could now reach my face. She slapped my cheeks hard, not stopping until my mouth was sore and her hands bruised. She bit my ear – gently – and licked my burning cheek with her tongue.
“Why aren’t you always like that, Merry? I love you when you’re like that.”
She smiles seductively, her soft gray eyes dancing in criss-crossed beams of light. “You know – masterful. You know the trouble with you,” – her flushed lips curl impishly – “you’re too nice.”
“Too nice to be a policeman,” I repeated bitterly. “I’ve heard that one before.”
“My poor Merry.” She reaches up to stroke my burning, swollen cheeks. The light brings into shap relief the freckles on her shoulders, the downy hair of her skin. She is young enough to be my daughter. Old enough to tempt me to death. Sweat blinds my eyes and my lips cry out in pain.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves.
By all let this be heard:
Some do it with a bitter look.
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword.
The brave man with a sword!
Fatal to lie down and rest against Susan’s door! Whoever’s inside can just open it up suddenly and surprise me while I’m half asleep. Must get help!
Cautiously, I crawl across the carpeted corridor, groping my way to the opposite wall. I am a blind man, with ony touch and hearing to guide me. But there is no sound but the distant rumble of the surf; and not the faintest pin-prick of light.
Slowly, slowly, careful not to betray my presence by the slightest muffle of noise, I crawl along the wall towards the corner and the door leading to the stairs.
Here’s the corner at last! It seemed incredibly far away. I have been crawling forever and was beginning to think I’d missed it – taken a wrong turning somehow – and was heading blindly along the path to hell.
Ah! My fingers feel the solid wood of the door. I try to prise it open, but it’s too heavy. I’ll have to stand up.
I have the door open at last – just wide enough for me to squeeze through. Can’t risk the light. I grope my way down the stairs to the lobby. It’s always lit up – not brightly at this hour, but just barely sufficient to guide latecomers to the elevator.
Where’s the police constable who’s supposed to be guarding this entrance? No sign of him. I hang around for a bit, hoping he’ll re-appear. No such luck! He’s probably found himself a little nook somewhere and gone to sleep. So back to the stairwell and down to the basement.
All the security lights are off. And even the light under old Garrani’s door has gone!
I had a hell of a time waking him up! His door was locked – kick it! – never mind the racket – no way it can be heard upstairs – I hope.
His light finally flicked on. “What the devil is it?” he growled from the other side of the door.
“It’s me, Mr Garrani: Manning. I’m sorry, but the key won’t fit. Must be the wrong one.”
Much clicking and unclicking and drawing back of bolts – he had the place barricaded like Fort Knox – and he stood there in a night-shirt and flip-flops. (A night-shirt, for God’s sake! I mean I haven’t seen anyone in a night-shirt since Wee Willie Winkie ran through the town. And a grubby, off-white night-shirt at that, reaching right down to his ankles). I stared at him in utter disbelief.
“Give us it,” he said, holding out his hand for the key.
“Wrong ’un?” he muttered, holding it to the light. He scratched his head – at least he wasn’t wearing one of those ridiculous night-caps – but then announced, “Should be right. See that there number.” He pointed to an invisible mark on the finger-grip, and all the while glaring at me as if I were the sort of imbecile who couldn’t put a key in a lock right.
“Just give me them all,” I suggested. I’ll return them later.” Much later! After Inspector Hyland has played lock-luck with them!
He plodded through to the kitchen while I waited at the door. I watched him take the keys off a hook in his kitchen and then disappear into his bed-room. Whatever he was doing, he took such a hell of a time, I was about to holler – thinking he must have fallen asleep – when he finally emerged. This time he’d tucked his night-shirt into a pair of trousers and exchanged his flip-flops for loafers. “What are you waitin’ for?” he growled.
I hadn’t expected him to accompany me, but I wasn’t kicking. If there was someone in that apartment, two men will be more than a match for one crazy old dame!
Before I can stop him, old Garrani thumbs on the lights in the corridor. Burt after all, there are two of us now. And I still have his pistol handy.
“Ya right!” he says grudgingly, after trying the key in Susan’s lock. “Doesn’t work!” He gets down on one knee and peers at the lock closely. “Been changed!” he grumbles. “Not authorized. Corridor light’s gonna go off in a second. Press that there switch in, Mr Manning, and fetch me that box.”
I hand him the box unthinkingly.
“Janitor’s supposed to hold a copy of all keys. I’ll fix him!” He opens the box and before I can stop him, he’s attacking the lock with a hammer and chisel. Mrs Erwin better be in there, I’m thinking, or the inspector will have my brains for breakfast! Now she knows we’re coming. She’s looked through the peep-hole and knows how many we are. She’ll be prepared for a fight. I tug at the butt of Garrani’s pistol, making sure the safety catch is off.
“Ahh! That gotcha!” grunts old Garrani with an air of triumph. Before I can warn him, he swings the door open and blithely steps inside, reaching for the light switch.