Merryll Manning: The Beachfront Murders Part 1
"I happen to be living here! Four months!" I was aggressive. I didn't bother to call him, "sir". I wanted to hide my shock.
"Johnny-on-the-spot?" mocked the inspector.
"Not me!" I shouted. "I'm renting six floors up, on the other side of this glorious condominium! No holiday beach views on a police sergeant's pay!"
"So what are you doing in Australia?"
"I told you! I'm on holiday."
"Some holiday, son! Miami, Florida, to Beachfront, Sydney Harbor, New South Wales? Four months? I guess even Paradise would out-stay its appeal in four months. So what's the four-monthly attraction for you in Beachfront?"
I forced myself to point to Susan's body. She lay on the carpet, between her velvety sofa and rosewood coffee table. I masked my face, but there was no need. My finger had told the inspector all he wanted to know. In this dim light, Susan seemed like a yogi in a trance. Suddenly, she would sit up!
"No blood!" remarked the inspector sharply. I hadn't disguised my fear at all well, but I knelt down beside the body and then looked back at him, straight in the eye. He inclined his head with a movement so slight it was barely perceptible. But it was enough to indicate a ghastly permission granted.
Susan lay on her back, staring calmly at the ceiling, her piqued face surprisingly relaxed, midnight eyes forever open. With typical neatness, she had wrapped her slim figure in a towelly bath-robe of light pink, a perfect match for her fair complexion and straw-blonde hair. Only yesterday, I'd tried to say hello to her in the foyer. She'd cut me dead. Bitch!
Yesterday now figured far in the past. A light green scarf knotted cruelly into Susan's throat. An early evening breeze, weeping in through open balcony doors, fanned the scarf's edges across the dark Berber carpet, lending her shoulders a shivering illusion of movement. She was the leading player in a nightmarish game of hide-and-seek.
"I repeat my first question: How do you come to be here now, Manning? How'd you come to knock on the door? Miss Ford invite you?"
"Miles Garrani, the janitor, told me."
"There's always at least one loose mouth. But I guess maybe he did us both a favor.â" The inspector knelt down beside me. "Beautiful girl. A shame!" he whispered. A soft light, filtering through the shade of the table lamp, transformed his spectacles into surreal, silver tear-drops. "Know her well?"
"She's the only reason I'm here."
He glanced at me sharply. "Six floors away? On the other side of the building? A fellow American? She give you the air?"
I nodded bleakly as I stood up. "A dual citizen. Her dad was American, her mother Australian. Like me. But I've spent just about all my life in the States. Far as I know, Susan's spent only the last six or seven years. In Atlantic City and Miami.
"Where'd you meet her?"
"What was doing there? Holidaying?â"
"Working as a secretary. She's actually much older than she looks. I'd put her age at twenty-eight."
The inspector looks me over carefully. I know what he's thinking. I'm at least twenty years older than that. Maybe thirty. Hard to tell. I'm in good shape.
Suddenly he kneels down and unties Susan's scarf, pulling it loose. Then he straightens up and sits down on the sofa. He doesn't invite me to sit. Not that I would. It's too close. His left shoe is only six inches from her blonde hair. And a few loose strands are stirring slightly in the evening breeze.
Bending over the body again, I force myself to look away from the cruel, purplish blotch on her throat as I pull aside her towelly bath-robe. Her body is naked. "Attacked as she stepped from the bathroom?â" I ask.
"Possible. But maybe she was sunbaking on the balcony."
"Not Susan! She burnt too easily." I pulled the robe further aside so the inspector could see the skin around her navel. Fair, young, untanned.
I stood up. "I take it the science boys have been and gone?"
"Coroner too. I'm just waiting for the ambulance to take the body to the morgue. Autopsy."
"You and who else?" I pointed towards the balcony. There was another detective out there. A tall, thin man. I'd caught sight of him when I first entered. He is listening.
The inspector doesn't answer my question. Instead he consults his notebook. "No sign of forced entry. Lots of cash lying around. Over $700, in fact, including $178.90 in small notes and coins dancing over the top of Toby." He waves towards a teak shelf of brightly-costumed china.
"The man was disturbed," I suggested.
"Not woman's work!"
"Yet he or she took time to strip the body of two items. Wrist watch. Neck chain. Didn't you notice?"
I shivered. The breeze from the balcony was getting mighty cold. "Susan took them off to take her bath. Or shower."
"No sign of them. Ear-rings have gone too. The ones your Mr Garrani said Miss Ford was wearing this afternoon."
"I can't believe it."
"So yes, you can, Sergeant Manning. You're the policeman with all the experience, I'm told. What was your last job?"
"You've already been checking up on me. Who with and how come?"
"Assisting the D.A. at Miami. A mighty important position. So why throw it all up six months ago, Manning?"
"I told you. And doubtless Old Garrani spilt the news to you as well. A born gossip, that man. One sad thing about him though: You can't trust him as far as you can throw him. He's always got plenty to gossip about. But Garrulous Garrani doesn't let truth or lack of knowledge stop him. If he doesn't know the facts, or they're not spicy enough, he simply makes them up!"
"I guess this murder's a family affair, Manning. Only family wouldn't find hard cash an irresistible temptation."
"That proves I didn't do it. I'm hard up. My money's all but gone. I'm about to touch my sister in Adelaide for a loan."
"I see it the other way, Manning. You were friendly with this young lady in Miami. She then takes a job in Atlantic City. And you follow her. Her job record is Atlantic City, Miami, and then back to Atlantic City. Something you carefully omitted from your brief bio a minute ago."
"Perhaps you'd also like to know I spent three weeks in Phoenix once? And a whole month in San Diego, including a day trip to Tijuana?"
"So you resign from Miami to follow her to Atlantic City. She refuses your advances and comes here to Beachfront. But undeterred, once again you follow her. And this time, all the way here to Australia. And once again she refuses you."
"Good Old Garrulous Garrani! But you can't trust him as far as you can throw a dollar bill!"
"We have all the facts. So why not come clean and save us both a great deal of trouble?"
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A publishing professional, with over 50 years in the book industry, John Howard Reid has sat on both sides of publishers' and editors' desks. Author of over 100 published books himself, Reid has specialized in mystery and detective fiction, and film reviews. At one stage, Reid was reviewing movies for two rival newspapers, using his "Tom Howard" pseudonym for one, "John H. Reid" for the other. Reid has also won awards for his poems and short stories. As an editor, he has produced 12 anthologies of prize-winning prose and poetry. Currently, he is Chief Judge of three of America's leading annual literary competitions.