A cough echoed through the din of the cave like a wet rag forced through a pipe. Larry spat chunks of meat and dried blood onto the dusty ground. His lungs burned as he sucked in air and coughed again.
Bits of his throat stuck to his lips and chin in a semi hardened bile stench. A small mud pool gathered against his cheek in the dirt and smelt bad, although helped cool his bruised face. He didn’t want to move. Everything hurt. He shook. He knew why he had survived, but now wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have.
The gun shot still rang in his ears. A looping constant hum. He recalled the searing pain in his throat. The numbness. Then there had been nothing afterwards. Not even a dream. Maybe that’s what death was, nothing? Oblivion.
He opened his eyes and darkness swallowed him without sound except for his own ragged breathing. He moved to an all fours position using his smashed hand. The screams filled the cave and echoed with all the brilliance of a well constructed acoustic chamber. He swayed, barely stopping himself from collapsing. His empty stomach squeezed. He came close to blacking out a second time, but concentrated on climbing to his feet and finally stood, leaning against his chair.
A crescent of light came from far away. Not enough to see by, but enough to guide him in that direction.
Along the wide passage he stumbled past different colored cables. Three, and all leading out of the shadow filled cave to a distant mouth. He screwed up his eyes as he came closer to daylight and raised his hand to ward off the burning sun.
He rested one hand against the rock wall and waited until he could see past his squinted lids. Bile rose again but he swallowed it back down his acid burned throat. He walked onward only to stumble down the slope, tripping on branches and rocks.
The ground trembled. A huge whump-crack explosion sent dust and leaves into the air around him. The hill slid and moved like the earth had turned to water. It finally stopped and so did his momentum on the dirt travolator. He caught a tree trunk in a bear hug and stopped himself from falling.
His ears rang. This new deafening explosion overriding the first. This is exactly what he had heard many days ago, although from a greater distance, when he had first found himself out here lost and alone. Maybe all his work colleagues were buried under this hill.
The ringing in his ears slowly dissipated and gave way to the crunch of scrub under his feet as he walked, nothing else disturbed the muted forest sounds. Birds and ground animals remained silent waiting for what may follow the loud noise. He needed to keep silent too, and be careful, the Russian and his men might not be far.
He fingered the stinging bullet wounds at the front and back of his neck. The holes still wet, the blood had congealed and stopped. He felt puss as well, although not enough to be concerned about. His left hand ached, throbbing with each heart beat. He hoped it might heal.
The trials conducted in the middle east on allied troops had seen some soldiers back on the field within days after multiple gun shot wounds. Injuries worse than this. Every unsuspecting patient had been convinced that their injuries were less severe than first thought to keep Sincorp’s viruses secret. He didn’t remember the specifics of the testing, he just knew he had been excited to do the tests and see the remarkable results.
The virus coursing through his brother’s veins now flowed through his. Larry had earlier realized that the blister pack he had found in his pocket after emerging from the deserted outback into civilization, was the same virus he had been administering to his brother in his food. He had taken it himself to speed up his own recovery. He suspected Bradbury had seen the changes and quick healing, but at least had not bothered with questioning him.
He stepped over branches and rocks and found the ground more solid. He wiped at his dripping forehead and looked up through the trees to the blue sky.
Again, he was standing in the outback, lost and damaged, trying to find his way home. His life had become a strange merry-go-round. He laughed for a moment at the absurdity. Tears mixed with his sweat, his eyes stinging. He knew his identity, more than the last time he had been lost in the outback, at least.
It took under an hour before he stood at the side of a road. The sealed asphalt returned the heat double strength from the sun. In the distance a car changed gears while it made its way up the twisting highway into town.
He stepped back into the trees, hesitant to flag any car until he knew for sure that it wasn’t the people who wanted him dead. As it got closer he saw it to be an old utility truck. Panels scratched and metal rusting in small brown patches. He stepped onto the road and put out his hand, at least he could be sure this would just be a regular local.
“It’s only a few minutes to the cop station from here,” the old man said changing down gears and pulling deep into the next turn. “I just wonder if the hospital would be the place you should be getting to first, son. Looks like someone’s put you through the ringer and shot you afterwards for good measure.”
Larry didn’t know the old man, but the man knew his brother. Most did, he had discovered, since Paul’s first novel had made it onto the shelves. He had slipped easily into the role as Kinglake’s celebrity, and openly adored the attention.
“So how’s that brother of yours going, has he written any more books yet?” the man asked, then continued without pause, “I don’t read myself, but the wife loves ’em.”
“I saw him working on something the other day, Larry said, “but I’ve no idea when he’ll be done. I can’t say I’ve read anything of his since the first book.”
“Right. So what do you do? Whatever it is, you should stop. Looks like it’s killing you.”
Larry couldn’t help but laugh. The old man laughed too although had begun laughing before even starting his joke.
His clanking truck pulled up out the front of the police station. They waved and seconds later Larry entered through the sliding doors of the police station and walked inside. He stopped only a few feet from the reception desk and put his hands up in the air.
“Get down on the ground, get down! Get down!”
A chorus of these kinds words came from the officers surrounding him. Their guns out and pointed at Larry’s chest. He stayed standing, stunned. They continued to yell at him. He tried to tell them his name, but they just spoke louder. Their guns became more deadly in their white knuckled grips as each second passed. They didn’t recognise him and he hadn’t really taken the time to get to know any of them, except maybe Bradbury and Matthews.
Someone pointed their finger to the ground directing Larry there and to get face down. He also said, he wouldn’t tell him again.
Larry’s hand had stopped throbbing—gone numb. His whole body felt like a weightless thing and his mind went blank while thinking on what he could say to make them understand who he was.
“Wait, wait, it’s Larry, Larry Emerson,” Constable Matthews called out from behind and made his way through.
The tension drained and then disappeared. The surrounding officers relaxed, all lowering their guns. Larry lowered his raised hands and saw that they were all now staring at his mutilated fingers.
Constable Matthews reached Larry and also saw the damage.
“What happened? You look terrible! I didn’t even recognise you.” Matthews said.
Larry held up his hand for him to see. Detective Sunny walked up beside Matthews, his wide body bumping and shifting the reception desk.
“I don’t even know how it’s still attached to your wrist,” Sunny said. “It looks absolutely crushed. The pain must be killing you. Come to the back with me and I’ll see if we have some pain killers, then we’ll get you over to the hospital. Matthews can drive you.
“The hotel. Tell me while we walk what happened. You had us pulling our hair out, you know.” Sunny pointed to a chair. “We rushed in when the video feed went dead. Still not sure how that happened.”
Larry waited until they had also sat down before he spoke of the events leading to his arrival at the police station.
At the end of his story, Larry asked, “Did you get the guy that I met at the hotel?”
Sunny said, “We stormed inside and found the bartender and a few regulars who knew each other. But no sign of you or your guy. We did get a half-assed description from the bartender. Do you know what these people want? And did they say anything about your brother?”
“Sorry, I’ve no idea. The questions they asked me made no sense. I think they just wanted me dead,” Larry said, deciding to keep what he knew from Bradbury’s partner, at least for now. “I didn’t get a chance to say anything at all about Paul.”
Larry took the offered glass of water and some pills from Matthews. “What happened here, why the handguns welcoming me at the door?”
“We’ve been following some chatter on the phones and online. Possible threat...
The building rumbled then tore apart. Metal flew through the air, timber burst and ripped open. Chairs, tables, plaster and glass flew to the rear of building like the station had been tipped on its end. No one screamed, no one dived for cover, it happened too fast.
Flames engulfed every room instantly, dark clouds rushed through from the front of the station to the rear. Hot air blasted like a furnace along the corridors and out the rear windows with the force of a hurricane.
Then everything quietened. Crackling fire and breaking glass the only sound remaining. No siren, no voices or cries.
Larry put his hand against a still intact wall and pushed himself up. He wiped at his nose and rubbed at his eyes. His throat hurt. Everything burned, including people. Hair, clothing, skin, all on fire and he could smell it all. His ears rang once again. Glass and wood crashed down around him.
The front of the building was drowning in rising flames, fuelled by gusts of hot wind. The front wall didn’t exist anymore. A single window pane stood still in tact on the side wall. All the others had shattered.
The roof creaked as it blackened. The flames would eat everything soon enough. Larry found the Detective under scattered timber and plaster. He looked for Matthews, but there was nothing left of him. Unless the black thing burning, in what used to be the hallway, was his body. Larry looped his arms through the detective’s armpits and dragged him to the back exit.
Bones crunched and moved in his left hand. He swore and grunted. Sunny turned out to be a lot heavier than he had hoped. Outside the door, he leaned up against Bobby’s kennel and cradled Sunny’s head. He couldn’t see the dog, which meant Phillip Gordon wasn’t here. Maybe with Bradbury. Lucky for them both.
All the local Kinglake officers would be safe at home now that they had been suspended with pay. Larry felt for the detective’s pulse in his neck. He could barely feel it, but it was still there. His chest rose and fell as well. Nicks, scrapes and burns covered his entire body.
Larry heard sirens. Finally. Water crashed into the building.
After what felt like hours, the CFA crew walked through the wreckage.
Still nursing the detective, Larry called out and coughed at the wall of grey surrounding him.
Dark smoke swirled and parted. Two firefighters dressed in protective clothing and masks, holding axes like warriors on a battlefield walked through and stopped to stare at the two men on the ground. Larry squinted at the heat and smoke which still poured out from the rear door. He gestured to the detective and pointed at the head wound.
They saw to Sunny, then took him away on a gurney once the paramedics were able to get through. Larry went in the second ambulance to the Healesville Hospital. The siren blared for less than a minute before they turned it off, now that they were on the winding road back to Healesville.
Thirty minutes later Larry looked on as the front doors to the hospital opened for him and the ambulance crew. Again. The paramedics wheeled him inside.
Home sweet home.
Larry watched from the corner of his eye as the doctor pulled back the bandage on his neck.
“Is this some sort of joke?” the doctor said and looked at the other side of his neck for the exit wound. “You’ve either healed over night or you never had a wound. Mr Emerson, I have other patients; that detective for example. If you’re going to play games then I may as well just discharge you now.”
“I heal quickly—”
“No one heals that quickly. What about your hand? Alright, well your X-rays show extensive damage. How’s it feel?”
“Good. A little itchy.”
“Well don’t go scratching under that cast yet. All the splinters were taken out but there’s still a lot of work to be done. You’ll need more surgery in a couple of weeks. I’ll send in a nurse to remove those stitches in your neck since it appears you don’t need them.”
The doctor left the room.
Constable Jones poked his head in.
“Seems a little upset at you?”
Larry nodded. Jones turned back to the hallway when he heard yelling.
“No sense. Christ! Was he shot or wasn’t he...”
Larry asked Jones if Sunny had recovered. Before he could answer Bradbury burst into the room. “Are you sure that’s all he said?’”Detective Bradbury said.
“The doctor? I was shot clean through—”
“No, Sunny. What did he say?”
“Ah, that they were following some leads on the phones and online?” Larry asked. When he got no reply except for an impatient stare, he continued on. “He was about to tell me, but...”
“For all hell’s sake!”
The detective stormed out of Larry’s room.
Larry heard more yelling further down the corridor although he couldn’t tell if it was the doctor continuing to yell or Bradbury. He shrugged and watched his doorway for the next person to rush in. When no one else came, he imagined Matthews at his door instead of Jones, looking in on him from time to time to make sure he was okay. He had been a fairly intense and serious guy, but seemed to love his job. Maybe that had made him a good cop? Larry smiled thinking of the arguments they had had. Mostly about politics and government spending. Matthews debated everything they discussed, seemingly to revel in discussing the opposite side of any topic, so it wasn’t a surprise when Matthews had mentioned he would like to get into politics one day.
“Hey, how well did you know, Matthews?” Larry called out.
Jones turned and looked into the room. “As well as anyone. He was a good guy.”
Jones turned away to look into Sunny’s room then back again. “Why? You and him talk much?”
“Yeah, a little.” Larry took a long deep breath and let it out.
“I hope when we find the guy who did this, he goes for his gun.” Jones gave his sidearm a single pat. “Still nothing though. Probably know more by morning. Vic-Pol SOGs have taken charge of the scene. They’re saying a car was left near the front of the building minutes after you arrived. Probably the only reason you and Sunny survived is because you were at the back of the station. There’s no footage from external cameras, so we’ve got no visual of the asshole dumping the vehicle. And the digital video at the station is fried. Maybe they’ll get something from it.
“By the way, I don’t think they believe it was you they were after, in case you were wondering, probably just a coincidence you showed up when you did. Glad they sent in the SOGs with heavy guns. They’ve got them all over Kinglake, you know. Healesville as well, patrolling day and night. They’re looking at putting in road blocks and checking every car and every person. It’s a bit crazy now. I also heard some were still alive after the fire, but so badly burned and blackened that... hell, I’m just glad I didn’t have to go and see it.”
“Sorry,” Larry said. He fidgeted, not sure if that had been the right thing to say.
“Yeah, everyone’s sorry.”
Jones turned his head back to the hallway.
Larry picked up his belongings and walked out past Jones.
“Bradbury’s running his operation from Healesville,” Jones said as Larry rounded the door. “Need an SOG guy to pick you up?”
“I’ve got Sarah coming. I also want time with my son, he should see that I’m okay. I couldn’t imagine what he’s thinking right now.”
The constable nodded. Larry turned and left.