The landscape changed rapidly. Ahead of them, Nicholl saw the glimmering water of the ocean. The wide street they were driving down had a resort feel to it, with bleached, low-rise buildings on either side. It reminded him of some of the streets on the Costa del Sol in Spain, which was pretty much the limit of his previous travel horizons.
‘Port Melbourne,’ George Fletcher said. ‘This is where the Yarra river comes out into Hobson’s Bay. Expensive property round here. Young, wealthy community. Bankers, lawyers, media types, those kinds of people. They buy nice flats overlooking the bay before they get married, then graduate to something a little bigger further out.’
‘Like you,’ Troy ribbed his colleague.
‘Like me. Except I could never afford to be here first.’
They parked outside yet another bottle store, then walked up to the smart entrance of a small apartment block and George rang the bell for the caretaker.
The door clicked open and they went into a long, smartly carpeted corridor that was freezing cold from the air-conditioning. After a few moments, a man in his mid-thirties with a shaven head, wearing a purple T-shirt, baggy shorts and Crocs, strutted up to them. ‘How can I help you?’
George again showed the man his ID. ‘We’d like to have a word with one of your residents, Mr Nelson, in Flat 59.’
‘Flat 59?’ he said cheerily. ‘You beat me to it.’ He raised a clutch of keys in his hand. ‘I was about to go up there myself. Had a few complaints from the neighbours about a smell. At least, they think it may be coming from there. I haven’t seen Mr Nelson in a while and he hasn’t picked up his post in several days.’
Potting frowned. Reports of smells from neighbours were rarely good news.
They entered the lift and travelled up to the fifth floor, then went out into the corridor, which smelled strongly of new carpet and nothing else. But as they walked along it, towards the flat at the far end, their nostrils started picking up something very different.
It was a smell with which Norman Potting had long if uncomfortably been acquainted. Nick Nicholl less so. The heavy, cloying stench of decaying flesh and internal organs.
The caretaker gave the four detectives a hope-for-the-best raise of his eyebrows, then opened the front door. The stench became instantly stronger. Nick Nicholl, covering his nose with his handkerchief, brought up the rear.
It was stiflingly hot inside, the air-conditioning evidently not on. Nicholl stared around apprehensively. It was a nice pad in anybody’s terms. White rugs on polished boards and smart modern furniture. Unframed erotic canvases lined the walls, some showing women’s loins, others abstract.
The smell of rotting flesh hung heavily in the corridor, getting denser with every step the five men took forward. Nick, increasingly uncomfortable about what they were going to find, followed his colleagues into an empty master bedroom. The huge bed was unmade. An empty tumbler lay on the table, along with a digital clock radio that appeared to be off.
They walked through into what looked like a den converted from a spare room. A hard-drive back-up sat on a desk, along with a keyboard and a mouse, but no computer. Several cigarette butts lay in an ashtray and had evidently been there a while. The window looked across to the grey wall of the building opposite. There was a pile of bills on the side of the desk.
George Fletcher lifted one of them. It had large red printing on it.
‘Electricity,’ he said. ‘Final reminder. Several weeks ago. That’s why it’s so hot. They’ve probably cut him off.’
‘I’ve had the landlords on my back about Mr Nelson,’ the caretaker prompted. ‘He’s behind with the rent.’
‘Badly?’ Burg asked him.
Nick Nicholl was looking around for family photographs, but could not see any. He stared at a stack of bookshelves, noticing that alongside the volumes of stamp catalogues there were several collections of love poems and a dictionary of quotations.
They entered a large, open-plan living and dining room, with a view across a wide balcony with a barbecue and loungers on it, and a neighbour’s rooftop tennis court, to the harbour. Nick could just make out the hazy silhouette of industrial buildings on the far shore.
He followed the three detectives through into a smart but narrow kitchen, and by then he was having to pinch his nose against the worsening smell. He heard the buzz of flies. A mug of tea or coffee sat on the draining board with mould on top of it and there was rotten fruit, covered in grey and green mould, in a wire basket. A wide, dark stain lay on the floor at the base of the swanky silver fridge-freezer unit.
George Fletcher pulled open the bottom door of the refrigerator and suddenly the smell got even worse. Staring at the green, decaying cuts of meat that lined the freezer shelves, he said, ‘Lunch is off, guys.’
‘I think someone must have told Mr Nelson we were coming,’ Troy Burg said.
Fletcher closed the door. ‘He’s gone all right.’
‘Done a runner, you think?’ Norman Potting said.
‘I don’t think he’s planning to come back any time soon, if that’s what you mean,’ the Detective Senior Sergeant replied.