A small canoe was taking me upstream. It was night. A thick jungle of vines and creepers grew down to the water’s edge, leaving a narrow band of stars, a motionless conveyor belt of diamonds guttering across the sky.
I sat forward. A couple of native boys in the stern rowed our way steadily through the blackness, guided only by the sound of the river.
Jungle had ceded to night. I glimpsed only that distant strip of stars – heard only the fall of the stream – yet I could sense there was someone following us, tracking us soundlessly, sightlessly through that dense and impossible tangle of trees. My boys sensed it too. Even as they plashed their oars vigorously into the darkness, their eyes darted to catch at deeper shadows, their ears strained for notes of alien sound. Something evil and frightful is following us. Some tangible incarnation of primitive fear.
I shudder as I glance at the opaque ripples of inky water stirred from rest by our oars. The river is the column of a barbarous temple on which we scratch a blasphemous course, disturbing the ancient, malevolent spirits of fire, wind and water from their primeval dreams. Now they follow us, keening tenaciously for our blood – the river which would smother our minds in her depths – fire which would devour our bodies – wind which would hurl our souls into her jagged arms…
But now, far off, we see the light of the fire that marks the boundary of our home village at the river’s edge. As we round that last bend and search out that securing blaze in the distance, we look at each other and smile. We shrug off our fears and push towards that promise with rekindled courage.
As I gaze ahead, the fire grows larger and more transparent until I can make out dancers silhouetted against the flames. The dancers wear weird triangular masks. Their movements are cataleptic and macabre. Somnambulists jogging to a monotonous yet persistent beat – an eerie, high-pitched rhythm that reverberates across the water like the pounding of axes on stone.
I try to resist, but I feel myself being drawn by that hypnotic pulse. I try to stomp out the continuous drumming, but my senses are conquered, swept aside. I am powerless, My hands and feet drum out the time, my head nods to the incessant beat, my whole body is a cog in a steadily enlarging piston of repetitious movement and sound.
I feel something gripping me around the neck, closing my eyes. Choking, blinded, I raise my hands to strike my face. My fingers scrabble against wood. My head is imprisoned in a wooden mask which falls over my shoulders and traps my arms, binding them tight like a tourniquet. I hear a hammer pounding into the wood of the mask. A chisel gouges out two triangular holes. I can see! We are drawing nearer, closer to home with unnatural speed. The rhythm of barbaric music increases in pitch and tempo – frightful, hideous, maddening!
Will I be joined to this cannibalistic celebration, one with the ghosts of this sacrilegious rite? I try to resist, to hold back. I turn to my boys for help. Horror! They are wearing the same demonic masks, their triangular eyes glowing like lava, their cannibal hands reaching towards me, grabbing my legs, pulling, wrenching, twisting, chopping…
Sweat blinding my eyes, I sat up in bed, groping for the light switch. Ahh! The light stabbed me awake like twin knives gouging the eye-balls.
Had I really cried out? Or was that just part of the dream?
I sat on the edge of the bed, breathing heavily, shaking my head slowly. One of my blankets had fallen on the floor. I tried to muster the courage to pick it up. I half expected to find it sheltered a ghastly necklace of shrunken skulls.
Still trembling, I decided to go into the kitchen and pour myself a jot of brandy. But I’d taken just two steps when I heard the noise – a dull, hollow clang, echoing up from the recesses of the stair-well adjacent to my bedroom wall.
On each floor of Beachfront Towers, the doors leading into the stair-well have been fitted with those compression devices which are supposed to pull the door shut, firmly but quietly. Unfortunately, two of them are broken. Old Garrani was supposed to fix them a month ago, but the lazy hound hasn’t done so much as taken them to his work-bench. When anyone uses these doors, they close fast with a hell of a bang.
I looked at the kitchen clock. Twenty past two. Some latecomer putting out his bin? Who? I thought Vic and his acolyte had pulled their Good Samaritan act for everyone in the building that hadn’t already parked their bin on the roadway. Certainly, just about all but seven or eight allotment spaces were filled when I was down there. Then I heard them banging bins down the stairs for another hour. In any event, the sound this time had come from below. Who would be prowling around at this hour? Everyone was home when we did our checking, except for a few young teenagers. They wouldn’t be stirring at this time of night. Maybe one of the constables on guard duty? Vic? He would have gone home hours ago!
What bloody stupid fools we are! All of us – even peep-under-every-stone Hyland.
The one place none of us had searched! What was it the busy old biddy had said to me? How she and Susan would natter on for hours about her crazy old junk. And hadn’t Susan nominated the old wierdie as secretary for our body corporate – practically forced her on us – and elbowed the far more competent Mrs O’Gorman right out?
Of course she just peeped in to say hello! All that malarkey about the cassowary was just a blind. Crazy? Who says she’s crazy? She acts crazy sure enough, but that’s all just part of the act. Maybe she was never in New Guinea? Who’s to say all that junk was hers? And who would ever suspect her of anything? Just a harmless if dotty old dame. That’s what all the rot about missing cassowary phials was all about. She needed to prove to dumb Vic and equally mentally retarded me that she couldn’t get into Susan’s apartment. We fell for it. But she overplayed her hand with me. She acted just a bit too stupid for this smart guy. She had a key! Then why wasn’t it on her chain? She was too smart for that. Far too smart!
So a man’s hands had ripped the scarf that she’d so cruelly twisted around Susan’s neck? Bunk! Mrs Erwin’s hands were thin but wiry. Like talons, they were!
Why had she killed Susan? Maybe she was engaged in some criminal activity and Susan had threatened to expose her? Or maybe she was really just plain crazy?
But now she had to disappear. She needed time to get her dough together. What rotten bad luck to kill Susan on a Saturday when all Oz banks are closed! She’d have to hang around till Monday. That was it – she thought the dumb coppers properly snowed by her voodoo act. She’s watching us from her balcony door. And then she sees Vic coming back! Doesn’t realize the stupid ox has just forgotten his hat, but thinks we’ve actually tumbled to her. So she flees! And where does she hide? Susan’s apartment, of course!
Hyland! I pick up the phone, but caution overcomes my initial enthusiasm. What if I’m wrong? The good inspector won’t thank me for rousing him at half past two.
But now that I’m thoroughly awake, I may as well check. I’ll never be able to get back to sleep unless I settle this thing one way or the other.
Oh God! Only one way to check it out. But if it so happens I’m right…
Old Garrani has a pistol. He showed it to me once. But how am I going to unlock Susan’s door? Hyland and Vic have the keys.
Garrani, of course! I’ll borrow his pistol and his keys. He certainly won’t appreciate another visit, but maybe he hasn’t yet gone to bed? Maybe he’s a dead keen fan of late night TV?
A thin crack of light under his door. I knock loudly. “Miles! Miles!” No answer. I rattle the handle of the door. To my surprise, it jerks open, but I can only push it halfway. Just inside the passage, a leaning tower of newspapers has tipped over just like the old clown predicted. I manage to manhandle some the overflow back against the wall. Maybe the clown is buried deep under the pile? “Miles! Miles!” Still no answer.
The light comes from the kitchen at the end of the passage. I tread carefully through the towers and columns of papers.
A tap dripping into a couple of dirty dishes in the sink. The slovenly old fool must have gone to bed, leaving the place unlocked and the light on.
I’d gone this far. I had the impression his bedroom was on the left. I thought I may as well wake him up.
The bedroom door is closed. I turn the handle, but the door won’t open more than a crack. Something stopping it. Another topple of papers?
I push the door harder. Finally, I manage to get it open wide enough to put my arm through. I feel out cautiously with my fingers. Nothing! The pile-up must be closer to the floor. I kneel down in the semi-darkness, twisting my arm against – cardboard. A cardboard carton. Heavy as hell! What’s in the thing? I manage to prise up part of the lid. Cold. Smooth. Glass!
“Just what in cripes are you doin’ there?”
I jump two feet. “I’m looking for you!”
“You won’t find me in there! That’s where I keep me bottles.”
“Then where were you? I called out ten times.”
“Putting me bin out – if it’s any of your business, Mr Manning.”
“Why didn’t you let Vic do it? Sergeant Jarrett? Didn’t he offer to take yours? Borrowed your trolley, didn’t he?”
“Think I’m gonna let some copper poke around in me bin? It’s not enough to have coppers underfoot all day, now they want to sift through your rubbish bin as well. No way, Mr Manning, no way! A man’s entitled to a bit of privacy. What do you want anyway? Haven’t I seen enough of you today?”
“I’m after the key to Miss Ford’s apartment.”
“That’s too bad. The inspector’s got it. Took away me whole bunch.”
“I’m sure he did just that, Miles. But there’s one thing the inspector doesn’t know.”
“What he don’t know’s not worth knowin’, Mr Manning.”
“He doesn’t know you have more than one set, does he, Miles?”
“How do I know what he knows? I’m not a flippin’ mind reader.”
“All I want is to borrow your duplicate key. And I’d like a loan of your pistol as well.”
“Cripes! You don’t want much!”
“Hand them over and I won’t bring your duplicate keys to the inspector’s attention. If he ever needs to ask me how I got into Miss Ford’s apartment, I’ll say I picked the lock.”
“It’s not enough we’ve been up there once already tonight, poking around next door, Mr Manning, plus up and down a hundred times while the inspector was here, now you want to go up again. Up and down, up and down, all bleedin’ day and now half the flamin’ night. Don’t worry, old Miles can bloody do it – never mind his weak ticker and his bum legs!”
“If you’d put the fear of god into those blasted elevator mechanics – ”
“That’s right, blame old Miles Garrani! Anything goes wrong in Beachfront Towers, blame old Garrani! Well, I tell you what, Mr Manning, old Garrani is bloody well sick and tired of it. I’ve a good mind to give in me notice.”