The golden 309 on the pitch-black door makes me pause for a moment, caught up in memories while Red does clever things with the door-lock. I never came here all that often: Joel preferred to come to mine, and I'm lazy enough that I preferred that too. But there are memories nonetheless -- laughing tipsily, pressed against the wall outside the door, pulling Joel against me after a Christmas party, snow still melting on our shoes and our coats hitting the floor; tiptoeing along the corridor in my stockinged feet, carrying my shoes to let myself in to his apartment with the key he'd given me two days earlier, dreading finding him in there with some other woman and so relieved to find him sleeping alone; standing outside the door, holding the key in my hand and wondering if I should go in because he'd not answered my calls for three weeks. I left without going in that time, but it turned out he'd been in Israel anyway.
Red has the door open and we go in. The alarm starts its familiar beeping and I push Red further into the apartment so I can close the door. The control panel for the alarm is hidden by the door when it's open. I flip the panel up to reveal the keypad and wait. The beeping stops abruptly and then becomes one long electronic squeal. I count to three and press the hash key on the keypad. A soft, feminine voice replaces the squeal:
"Welcome home, Joel. Please enter your date of birth."
I enter his social security number, which is the key no matter what the voice asks for. Then I look over at Red, whose nose is wrinkled is looking around him as though he's lost something. The smell suddenly strikes me, and I cough immediately. It's like chicken left to go off and rot, but somehow sweeter and worse.
"Smells like something's died," says Red. I pull a handkerchief out of my jacket pocket and a bottle of perfume out of an inside jacket pocket and spray the handkerchief. Once that's pressed to my nose I agree. Red eyes me curiously, and I shrug.
"It's like the boy scout 'Be Prepared' thing," I say. "I've got a tampon here somewhere too if you want it?"
He blushes, and I hide my smile behind my perfumed handkerchief.
"Can you spare me one of those hankies?"
I give him one, with less of a spritz of perfume -- men don't appreciate quality scent -- and then, apprehensively, we start looking round the flat for the source of the smell.
The kitchen, the obvious choice for rotting meat, is clean and empty. The fridge has some hard cheese and a half-empty packet of coffee beans in it, but is otherwise empty. The freezer has two frozen lasagne in it, wrapped in deli-bags. "His mother sends them, they're like aid parcels." I say. No cups are out, no plates on the draining rack. It looks to me like Joel's not staying here at the moment.
The bedroom is next, and I know I'm picking rooms to see if Joel has been around recently or not. The bed is made, the wardrobe is closed and the curtains are half-drawn. Joel always half draws the curtains when he's going to be away for more than a day or two. Red looks around cursorily and is ready to move on again, but I stop him with a hand on his shoulder. I hadn't realised how cold it was outside, it's almost a shock to be able to feel the texture of his coat. I slide the wardrobe door open, and slide the shirts along on the top rack revealing a stack of vintage Playboys hidden at the back. Red starts to speak, so I lay a finger on his lips; I can do the jokes myself. Underneath the stack is a small, brass key, and this fits into a near-invisible keyhole in the back of the wardrobe. It turns with a snick and a panel, maybe a metre square, opens outward, revealing a gun and two clips of bullets.
"Huh." I can't tell if Red is impressed or not but he moves in and takes the gun and the spare ammunition and checks the barrel. I could have told him it would be loaded; I hated knowing it was there like that. It's completely irrational to think that a loaded gun could discharge itself in a locked safe at the back of a wardrobe, but... some people believe in ghosts, don't they?
The sitting room yields the source of the smell, and we know it as we open the door because it grows stronger. There's a woman's body lying face down on the carpet in front of the television with a plastic-handled knife sticking out of her back. Red puts his arm around my shoulders, probably acting on instinct, and all I can think is that the knife can't possibly be Joel's because he wouldn't be seen dead with such a cheap knife in his apartment.
I pull away from Red. I like his instinct, but my mind is clear and I feel a little separate from the rest of the world. Too much has happened now for one more dead body to throw me too far out of my stride.
"I wonder who she is," I say, and Red gives me a worried look. "It's cool," I say, "I'm fine. Really."
He helps me turn her over so we can see her face, and then I discover that I'm not really all that fine after all.
"She looks almost exactly like you," says Red.