All Nick Nicholl wanted at this moment was a good night’s sleep. His problem was that it was 8.30 in the morning and he was in the back of a blue unmarked Holden police car, in brilliant sunshine, heading away from the airport complex towards downtown Melbourne. They were on a wide, multi-lane highway which, to his eyes, could as easily have been in the USA as in Australia, except that the driver, Detective Sergeant Troy Burg, was sitting on the right.
Some of the road signs looked similar to those in the UK, but some were a different colour, blue and orange a lot of them, he noticed, and the speed limits were in kilometres. He stared at a slim black box on top of the dash, at a touch-screen computer mounted on the front binnacle and at the big shiny buttons all around it. It was like an adult version of a child’s computer. Although Liam wasn’t old enough yet, Nick was already looking at educational toys for him.
He was missing him. Missing Julie. The prospect of spending the weekend in Australia without them, with just bloody Norman Potting for company, filled him with dread.
The avuncular Detective Senior Sergeant George Fletcher, in the front passenger seat, seemed well briefed and got straight down to business after a few pleasantries. His taciturn colleague, a decade younger, drove in silence. Both the Australian detectives wore freshly pressed white shirts, patterned blue ties and dark suit trousers.
Potting, dressed in what looked like a demob suit, had briefly lit up his pipe the moment they stepped out of the airport terminal and he now emitted a rank odour of unaired fabric, tobacco and stale alcohol fumes into the car. But he seemed remarkably breezy after the lengthy journey, and the young Detective Constable, also in a suit and tie, envied the older man’s constitution for that.
‘OK,’ Fletcher said, ‘we haven’t had a lot of time to prepare but we’ve made a start on all the lines of enquiry. First thing we can report on is the trawl of immigration records for people with the name David Nelson who have entered Australia since 11 September 2001. We have one that is particularly interesting in terms of your time profile. On 6 November 2001, a David Nelson arrived in Sydney from a flight from Cape Town, South Africa. His date of birth puts him at the right age.’
‘Did he give an address?’ Norman Potting asked.
‘He came in on an Australian passport with a five-year residence visa, so we didn’t require that information. We’re now checking our Law Enforcement Assistance Programme. That will tell us if he has a driving licence and any vehicles registered in his name. It will also tell us any known alias he may have used and his last known address.’
‘He could be anywhere, couldn’t he?’
‘Yes, Norman,’ Nick Nicholl reminded him, ‘but we know that he had one old friend, Chad Skeggs, in Melbourne, so there’s a good chance he came here – and might still be here. If you are going to do a disappearing act and fetch up in a new country, you need someone you can depend on, someone you can take into your confidence.’
Potting considered this. ‘It’s a valid point,’ he conceded a tad grudgingly, as if he didn’t want to be outsmarted in front of these seasoned detectives by his junior.
Troy Burg said. ‘And we’re checking the Revenue to see which David Nelsons have a TFN.’
‘TFN?’ Potting queried.
‘Tax File Number. You’d need that for employment.’
‘Legitimate employment, you mean?’
Burg gave a wry smile.
‘We have something else that could be a connection,’ George Fletcher said. ‘Mrs Lorraine Wilson committed suicide on the night of Tuesday 19 November 2002, correct?’
‘Allegedly,’ Potting said.
Four days later, on 23 November, a Mrs Margaret Nelson arrived in Sydney. Could be nothing,’ he said. ‘But the age on her passport is about right.’
‘It’s not that common a name,’ Nicholl said.
‘It’s not,’ Detective Senior Sergeant Fletcher said. ‘It’s not rare, but it’s not common, I’d say.’
‘I think we should run through the agenda we put together, see if it works for you guys,’ Troy Burg said.
‘So long as it includes beer and tottie, it works for me,’ Potting said, and chuckled. ‘Tinnies, isn’t that what you call ’em?’
‘You mean girls or beer?’ Fletcher grinned at him, eyes twinkling good-humouredly.
In the distance, Nick Nicholl could see a cluster of jagged high-rise buildings.
‘You guys are in for a treat tomorrow. George’s going to cook for you. He’s a genius. He should have been a chef, not a cop,’ Burg said, becoming animated for the first time.
‘I can’t boil an egg,’ Potting said. ‘Never could.’
‘I think you’ll want the best part of a week here to get through everything,’ George Fletcher said.
Nick Nicholl groaned inwardly at the thought.
‘We’ve been given a list of what you need to see,’ Fletcher said. ‘You just tell us if you want to skip some of it. We’re going to take you out to the Barwon river, where Mrs Wilson’s body was found. Then you might want to see the car – we have that in the pound.’
‘What are the ownership records on the vehicle she was found in?’ Nick Nicholl asked.
‘The car had false number plates and its serial numbers had been filed off. I don’t think we’re going to get much from it.’ Moving on, he said, ‘I imagine you will want to see Mrs Wilson’s remains so we’ve set up a meeting with the pathologist.’
‘Sounds good,’ Potting said. ‘But I want to start with Chad Skeggs.’
‘We’re going there now,’ Burg said.
‘You guys like red wine?’ George Fletcher said. ‘Australian Shiraz? It’s Friday, so Troy and I thought we’d take you to a place for lunch that we like.’
At this moment, Nick Nicholl felt desperately in need of black coffee, not any kind of alcohol.
‘You bet,’ Potting said.
‘George knows his way around Australian Shiraz,’ Troy Burg said.
‘Are we going to see you over the weekend too, Troy?’ Potting asked.
‘Sunday,’ George said. ‘Troy’s busy tomorrow.’
‘I’ll take you guys to the river on Sunday,’ Troy said. ‘Show you where the car was found.’
‘We couldn’t do that tomorrow?’ Nicholl asked, anxious not to waste any precious time.
‘He’s busy most Saturdays,’ George Fletcher said. ‘Tell them what you do on Saturdays, Troy?’
After some moments, reddening a little, the Australian Detective Sergeant said, ‘I play the banjo at weddings.’
‘You’re joking?’ Norman Potting said.
‘He’s in big demand,’ George Fletcher said.
‘It’s how I switch off.’
‘What do you play?’ Norman Potting asked. ‘“Duelling Banjos”? Ever see that film Deliverance?’
‘Uh huh, I saw that.’
‘When those hillbillies tie the guy to the tree and butt-fuck him? With the banjo music playing?’
‘That’s what they should have at weddings, not the “Wedding March”,’ Potting said. ‘When a man gets married that’s what happens to the poor sod. His wife ties him to a tree and butt-fucks him.’
George Fletcher laughed genially.
‘Know the similarity between a hurricane and a woman?’ Potting asked, on a roll now.
Fletcher shook his head.
‘I think I heard this,’ Burg murmured.
‘When they come, they’re wet and wild. When they go, they take your house and car.’
Nick Nicholl stared out of the window miserably. He’d already heard the joke on the plane. Twice. He saw a row of low-rise apartment blocks ahead. They were driving down a street of single-storey shops. A white tram crossed in front of them. A short while later they crossed the Yarra river and passed a geometric building in a wide plaza that looked like it was an arts centre. Now they were entering a busy downtown area.
Troy Burg made a left turn into a narrow, shaded street and parked outside a shop advertising itself as a bottle store. As Nick Nicholl climbed out of the car he saw the shop had a bay-windowed, Regency front that looked as if it had been modelled on one of the antiques shops in Brighton’s Lanes. The window was filled with displays of rare stamps and coins. In gold Olde Worlde lettering above he read: CHAD SKEGGS, INTERNATIONAL COIN AND STAMP DEALERS AND AUCTIONEERS.
They went inside and a bell pinged. Behind the glass-topped display counter, showing more stamps and coins, stood a skinny, tanned youth in his early twenties with spiky, bleached blond hair and a large gold earring. He was dressed in a T-shirt with a surf board emblazoned on it and faded jeans, and he greeted them as if they were long-lost friends.
George Fletcher showed him his ID. ‘Is Mr Skeggs in?’
‘No, mate, he’s away on business.’
Norman Potting showed him a photograph of Ronnie Wilson and watched the man’s eyes. He had never got the hang of Roy Grace’s technique for sussing a liar, but he reckoned he was pretty good at telling, anyway.
‘Have you ever seen this man?’ he asked.
‘No, mate.’ Then the Australian touched his nose, a dead giveaway.
‘Take another look.’ Potting showed him two more photographs.
He looked even more awkward. ‘No.’ He touched his nose again.
‘I think you have,’ Potting said insistently.
Cutting in, George Fletcher said to the assistant, ‘What’s your name?’
‘Skelter,’ he replied. ‘Barry Skelter.’ He made it sound like a question.
‘OK, Barry,’ George Fletcher said. He pointed to Potting and Nicholl. ‘These gentlemen are detectives from England, helping Victoria Police on a murder inquiry. Do you understand that?’
‘Murder inquiry? Right, OK.’
‘Withholding information in a murder inquiry is an offence, Barry. If you want the technical legal term, it is perverting the course of justice. In a murder inquiry that carries a likely minimum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. But if the judge wasn’t happy, you could be looking at ten to fourteen years. I just want to make sure you are quite clear about that. Are you clear about that?’
Skelter suddenly changed colour. ‘Can I see those photographs again?’ he asked.
Potting showed them to him again.
‘Actually, you know, I can’t swear, but there is a resemblance to one of Mr Skeggs’s customers, now I come to think about it.’
‘Would the name David Nelson help you think about it a bit more clearly?’ Potting asked.
‘David Nelson? Oh yeah. David Nelson! Of course. I mean, he’s changed a bit since these were taken. You see, that’s why I kind of didn’t recognize him immediately. You get my drift?’
‘We’re drifting with you all the way,’ Potting said. ‘Now let’s just drift along to your customer address book, shall we?’