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‘There’s an old house up there,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure who actually owns it. It’s half falling down. Bill took me there to stay once. It’s a great spot-clean air, you know?’

She’d created enough fug in the car to prompt a rude remark, but I resisted the temptation. I just said I’d heard about clean air.

‘You get up in the morning and really feel alive. Feel like going for a long walk, not like in the city.’

‘Can you find the house in the dark?’

She looked back at the tangle of glass, metal and electrical wire on the back seat and smiled. ‘You’ve got it all wrong. The place is in the town, not half way up a mountain. There’s street lights. Mind you, there’s no light in the house except kerosene lamps.’ She paused, maybe to enjoy a memory. ‘D’you think he’ll be there?’

I blinked a few times to get rid of a momentary blindness caused by some passing high-beam headlights. ‘What do I know? I’m the guy who said Mai wouldn’t be in the pub tonight, remember?’

‘You did a good job there though.’

It was the first bit of praise I’d earned from her. ‘Thanks. We’ve got a few worries with this.’

She lit a new cigarette. ‘You tell me yours.’

‘First, why did Mountain mention Blackheath to Mai? It seems indiscreet.’

She blew smoke at the windscreen. ‘And?’

‘The opposition. What’ve they made of it? I haven’t been up here for years. What’s Blackheath like now-biggish?’

‘No, smallish, especially now-not many holiday people around.’

‘That’s what I was afraid of. If the car lifters went up there to flush him out the odds are that they’d be able to do it. He’s a pretty distinctive bloke, even without the big beard. What’d he be, six foot two?’

‘Three,’ she said. ‘He’s six foot three.’ She fell silent after that. I thought what an incongruous pair they’d make, but of course, that could’ve been half the fun.

We went through Katoomba somewhere around midnight. The moon was nearly full in a clear sky that seemed to have twice as many stars in it as it does over the city. I stopped on the outskirts of the town to stretch my legs and empty my bladder. I shivered as I stood there in my cotton shirt and unlined jacket. Steam lifted pleasingly from the stream of urine. Like most city people, I like the country in small doses. The light breeze carried tree smells that evoked boyhood memories of holidays in big guest houses with stiff, cold sheets and mountainous plates of toast. I doubt if they serve that much toast these days.

From the road, Blackheath first appeared out of the blackness as a spread of lights to the right. Erica directed me around a few turns of the wide, quiet streets and down to a big corner block where an overgrown garden spilled out over broken fences on two sides. The house was set well back from the street behind high, wild hedges and shrubs that had grown to the size of trees.

I parked further down the street, and we came back quietly on foot. My boots had rubber soles and Erica wore cloth-topped espadrilles with rope soles. She also had a padded jacket, so she probably wasn’t shivering as I was. We were noiseless on the footpath as we walked around two sides of the block. There were no lights showing in the house. I put my mouth close to Erica’s ear and whispered: ‘Where would he put a car?’

She pointed into the backyard. There was a dark hole looming beside an outhouse, which showed grey with strips of peeling paint in the moonlight. I stepped over a rusty gate, took a few shuffles through the knee-high grass and probed the black hole with a torch beam. As I switched on the torch a dog howled and I froze. It was some distance off, but the hair stood up on the back of my neck just the same. The light showed that the grass had been flattened by a vehicle and by some comings and goings on foot, but the hole, between the outhouse and what I now saw was a thick, sprawling blackberry patch, was deep and empty.

I went back to the gate and shook my head at Erica’s upturned, enquiring face. Following Hardy’s first law of entering strange houses at night, we went around to the front gate. It creaked open, and then we were pushing through undergrowth and straggles of privet up to the front porch. The smell from the house was so strong that it was a wonder it wasn’t catchable from the street. The scents of the trees and bushes must have concealed it.

Erica’s grip on my arm almost cut off the circulation. I eased her hand away, turned the knob and opened the door. The stench was like a combination of rotting meat and of a science lab in which something had gone very wrong. I’d smelled it before, in Malaya when the bodies had lain in the sun in jungle clearings and the smell of putrefaction had soaked the still hot air. This wasn’t quite as bad, but it was bad enough.

The torch beam showed a long front room with a fireplace in which a fire had been thoroughly set. The furniture was standard for such places, a mixture of styles and periods, mostly sagging, all looking comfortable.

‘Bedrooms.’ Erica pointed to the doors off to the right and left. I looked in at the right but the double bed was undisturbed; the other room was empty, and though the smell had penetrated, neither room was its source.

‘Where can I find one of those lanterns?’ I realised that I was whispering, and I repeated the question too loudly. There was no need to whisper, no-one was living there with that smell. She opened another door and went down a short corridor to a kitchen that ran across the width of the house. The smell was very strong. Erica used the torch to locate a kerosene lantern on a shelf. She held it out to me and shrugged.

‘I don’t know how they work.’

‘Give us your lighter.’

I lifted the glass, poked at the wick and got the thing lit. The light slowly penetrated the darkness and showed the outlines of the room-sink, table, bench, newspaper-lined shelves, old dresser crammed with enough cracked crockery to serve an orphanage. I inclined my head at the door at the end of the room, and Erica spoke in the same sort of whisper I’d used.

‘Toilet, bathroom, storage room-there’s a series of…’ She made a sloping motion with her hands.


She nodded, and I opened the door and lifted the lantern above shoulder height. The kerosene smell helped a little but the stench got stronger in the bathroom and we found him in the storage room. The floor was a mess of paint tins, drop cloths, plumbing fittings and discarded machinery. He was propped up against the far wall and I heard the flies for the first time just as I spotted him. They buzzed as I kicked my way across the floor, rose in an angry cloud and settled. Erica stood stock still in the doorway; then I heard her blunder away in the dark and the sound of her retching and vomiting.

From the arrangement of the floor clutter, I decided that the body had been dragged across the floor and carefully wedged up between a wall and a heavy cupboard. Even by the dim lantern light I could see the dark smears and dried puddles of blood that marked the trail. As I got closer, there was a scurrying on the floor and a couple of rats raced for the darkness of the far corner. I came as close to the figure as I could stomach and raised the lantern. The dead man would have been unrecognisable as to features and not only because one side of the face and skull was collapsed. The rats had done a lot of work. Fingerprints were unlikely but I wasn’t going to have to bother about such things or his dental history. In life he’d been of medium height and stocky build. He wasn’t William Mountain.

I gave Erica the good news, if that’s what you could call it, and helped her to clean up the mess she’d made in the bathroom. Then I prowled around the house trying to find out what had happened. It wasn’t too hard. The man had been killed in a lean-to laundry by several blows to the head with several implements, including a bottle. Then he’d been dragged to the storage room. There was a blood-caked hammer that the flies had visited and lost interest in, along with an implement for manipulating the controls of a combustion stove and the bottle. The bottle had contained Suntory whisky.