It was a still night, and warmer than usual for spring. The moon sat eerily behind the low clouds, giving off a murky grey light. The old man’s house overlooked a park. From one of the nearby trees an owl screeched, but that was the only sound as Jarrod crossed the road.
He used the small jemmy bar to prize the back door open and the old lock came apart under the stress. Jarrod paused to listen for any response but there was none. Past the bathroom he could see that the hallway was lit. Angus had said there would be no dog at the house, but his reconnaissance had been brief and perhaps not thorough in its brevity, so Jarrod waited, just in case.
He peeked around the bedroom door and saw the man had fallen asleep whilst reading a book. The room smelt of pee. Jarrod’s nose crinkled as he passed the urine bottle lying near the walking frame. The man’s eyes opened as Jarrod sat on the side of his bed. Oddly the old bloke didn’t seem shocked to see a stranger in his bedroom.
‘Hello,’ the man said.
‘Sorry to call around to see you so late but I’ve been so busy,’ Jarrod said. ‘Your doctor sent me.’
Jarrod consulted the printed notes on the top of his medical bag. ‘Yep. That’s right, Gupta.’
‘Is there something wrong?’
‘Nothing serious, but one of your blood test levels wasn’t quite right.’
‘But I saw Doctor Gupta last week, he didn’t mention anything then.’ A hint of suspicion had crept into the man’s voice.
‘Yes but there was an error with the cholesterol levels.’
Jarrod smiled. He had the bloke hooked. ‘They ran the test again and the doctor needs to change your meds to be safe.’
‘Oh dear! Of course. Do I need a new prescription?’
‘Yes you will, but because your doctor was so concerned, he asked me to start you off on the new meds ASAP.’
Jarrod handed the man a tiny plastic cup, which was filled to the brim with tablets.
‘So many, are you sure?’
Jarrod nodded sternly. ’I just told you. The doctor said you must start them immediately. He was very adamant about that.’ Angus had coached him on his lines, and Jarrod was nailing it.
‘Oh, of course.’
The man swallowed down the tablets and the asked, ‘are you staying for a while?’
‘If you like. It’s probably not a bad idea. One in five people have an adverse reaction to new medications.’
‘I didn’t know that! How interesting, and what is your medical background young man?’
‘Oh I’ve worked for many years as a psychiatric nurse and in aged care.’
‘The world is blessed to have people like you in it.’
The old man was beginning to slur his words, which disappointed Jarrod a little; he was taking a shine to this bloke who was obviously quite intelligent. But then again, he was dumb enough to believe that a doctor would send someone to a patient’s home to administer emergency statins. Still if these old people weren’t so trusting and gullible, Jarrod knew his job would be that much harder.
The man told him about his time in New Guinea during the war. He spoke of the Kadoka Trail, of the mud, the heat and the malaria, of the bloated corpses and the nightmares for years after.
Jarrod did a quick calculation; the old bloke had to be in his mid nineties, or perhaps even older. He still had all his marbles. Jarrod felt a flicker of regret as the man grew quieter, but he was working to a serious deadline, and still had another person to dispatch after this one.
The old man muttered his last, gave a long yawn and fell asleep. Five minutes later his breathing ceased. Jarrod was pleased it had been so peaceful for the old digger. After listening for a heartbeat, and hearing none, Jarrod checked the room thoroughly; it was clean. He drew the blankets up to the man’s chin, checked for a carotid pulse one more time, and, feeling nothing, left.
After a hasty repair of the backdoor lock, Jarrod strode off down the street and into the park. He crossed the dark lawn until he reached another road where Angus was waiting.
‘Okay?’ Angus asked once he was in the passenger seat.
‘Of course,’ he assured him as he removed his latex gloves. ‘Where to now?’
‘Out at the mines this time, and this old lady owns a dog.’
‘Some type of yappy terrier.’
‘Did you get the meat I asked for?’
‘I got chicken mince.’
‘Good one. I’ll sort the dog first, then the old girl.’
Nam looked at his phone. It was his mother. She rarely phoned and she had an uncanny knack of knowing when things were wrong.
‘Hello dear, how is everything?’
Nam bit down on his fingertips. He was not usually an emotional person; he prided himself on his hardness, but right now he needed to let it out.
‘It’s Felicia.’ His voice was frail. ‘The doctor is worried.’
‘Are you at the hospital? What has happened?’
‘They’ve taken her to theatre. The doctor wanted a scan done first but he’s pretty sure she’ll need an emergency C section.’
‘Oh no! What is wrong?’
‘He called it placental abruption. He said it was severe and she would need a blood transfusion.’
‘Oh dear, my youngest sister died from that, and baby too.’
‘Mum! That’s not helpful.’
‘It was years ago, in Vietnam. I’m sure Felicia is in the best hands. Tho didn’t have the right care; she was giving birth at home, by the time we got her to hospital it was too late.’
‘The doctor says she should be fine.’
‘Tho’s doctor said that too.’
‘Mum! Stop it now or I’ll hang up the phone.’
‘Okay. Who is looking after Rosa and Franco?’
‘We have a sitter.’
‘Is she reliable?’
‘Of course mum.’
‘I can come over. I could get a morning flight.’
‘That’s really sweet but it isn’t necessary.’
‘You be strong for them. They are going to need you.’
Nam felt his throat constrict. Talking to his mum had not been such a great idea. ‘We’ll be okay. I’ll call you once everything is over.’
‘Make sure you do.’
Fifteen minutes passed and the surgery doors opened. The surgeon was still gowned and masked, his eyes downcast and grave. Nam stood and moved towards him.
‘I’m sorry Mr Pham but the news is not good. We have delivered the baby; a little girl, she is fine and the nurse will take you to her in a minute, but the reason for your wife’s haemorrhaging was not placental abruption, it was due to a uterine tumour. I need to remove it. I need to remove most of the uterus. Do you understand what that means?’
‘Yes, I guess…no more children.’
‘Your wife will need follow up treatment. We need to determine if the tumour is malignant.’
Nam nodded, there was nothing he could think of to say.
‘The nurse will need you to sign some papers. I’m sorry I don’t have better news. I must go.’
Nam followed the nurse into a small office and signed papers that he couldn’t read because of the tears in his eyes. She then led him to an alcove at the end of the surgical suite. Their baby wriggled within the swaddling blankets. She gave a little frown and a cry that sounded like a lamb bleating. Nam glanced at the nurse.
‘You can hold her.’
She was so light. He’d forgotten just how small newborns were. She had Felicia’s mouth and her head was covered in dark fuzz. He put her face to his cheek and thought about his mother’s words. He needed to be strong. There was no time to be maudlin or pathetic. He wouldn’t fold, and he wouldn’t spout the “why me?” shit.
Because in his heart of hearts he knew he deserved this.
This was the final night of work in the little town. They were on target and had avoided any troubling issues. In fact things had gone so well that Angus was at his apartment packing; it was rare to see him so laid back and not stressing over a job in progress.
Jarrod slipped quietly into the back door of Ted Furness’ house and felt a thrill of excitement. ‘Is this the best job in the world?’ he muttered. Then he grinned and said, ‘shit yeah!’ Adding to his euphoria was an added stroke of brilliance. Prior to coming here he had darkened his face and neck with face-paint. The result was quite amazing, so much so that on the drive here Jarrod’s eyes were constantly drawn to his reflection in the mirror. ‘Smart thinking,’ he muttered.
The home was silent, no not quite; Jarrod strained his ears and heard gentle snoring. This would be a piece of cake. He tip-toed down the hallway, trusting that Angus’ investigation had been thorough and he wasn’t about to be leapt on by an undetected family dog. He reached the source of the snoring with no drama, and the man’s breathing didn’t change at all when the small bedside light was switched on. The glow illuminated his face. Age and gravity had not been kind to his features; he already looked dead.
There would be no talking this fellow into taking a few tablets; the medical reports revealed that the bloke was barking mad, so Jarrod had to work swiftly. The pre-drawn-up injection was held in his left hand as his right slipped under Ted’s neck. As Jarrod clamped his hand over the man’s mouth, the old bloke awakened. There was a split second as they eye-balled each other. But the old fellow didn’t have time to cry out; Jarrod was too quick. He felt wet breath against his palm as he prepared to inject.
But while Jarrod removed the needle cap with his teeth, the old boy threw a punch that landed under his jaw. The syringe and needle flew across the carpet and came to rest under the wardrobe.
‘Bloody hell!’ Jarrod cursed.
The old boy was much stronger than he’d anticipated, and with the drug to sedate him out of reach, Jarrod had only one option. He flung himself on top of the man and slammed the pillow down over his face. The old fellow bucked and flailed. It shocked Jarrod that he was so tough. But Jarrod was stronger and soon the movements began to slow, it took less than five minutes for all activity to cease. Jarrod held the pillow in place for an extra five, just to make doubly sure; there could be no stuff ups tonight.
He felt for a carotid pulse before pulling the pillow away; there was nothing. The man was slack-jawed and pale. Jarrod shone his light into the dead man’s eyes.
‘Oh crap!’ he spat.
He looked closer and saw the tell-tale petechial haemorrhage colouring the sclera of the man’s eyeballs. Jarrod knew this would not escape the scrutiny of a doctor or pathologist; it was a sure sign of asphyxiation. He paced the room and swore, cursing the old man for making trouble and putting him in such a precarious position. Angus would be fuming, and God only knew what Jackie would do. He strode faster and tried to think of a way to hide the potentially damning sign. There had to be some solution! The soft light fell on the furnishings in the room. He scanned slowly and his gaze fell upon a pile of folded washing draped over a radiant heater.
‘Yeah,’ Jarrod muttered as a plan formed in his mind.
He cleared away the clothing and sheets and placed the heater by the bedside. He unplugged the electric blanket and replaced it with the heater’s power plug. It took only a minute for the two bars to glow bright orange. Jarrod dragged the man across his bed and draped the cotton sheet over the front of the radiator. Then he positioned the man face down with his arms out to his sides.
The bedding would catch alight for sure but he couldn’t know how much the fire would spread. His main aim was to destroy the man’s eyes and he was satisfied that the heater would manage that. If the whole house went up, so be it. There would be no sign of accelerants, so the authorities should view it as an open and shut accident. Not out of the realms of possibility for a senile old man to do something dangerous and stupid.
The room was filling with smoke as he took a last look around. He nodded, his confidence returning, and then fled to the back door. He had just reached the car when he heard the squeal of a smoke detector coming from inside the house. It was unlikely to be loud enough to alert the neighbours, but he sped away regardless.
In his rear view mirror he saw a car coming up the street so he turned off his lights and pulled into a nearby laneway. As he ducked down the car drove right past, the driver obviously unaware of the developing fire. But Jarrod had clearly seen the man in the car. He struggled to sit upright and shook his head.
It was that bloke again. It was that Syrian bastard.
‘He’s watching me.’
Jarrod punched the steering wheel so hard that the horn gave a short bleat. He slammed the car into reverse and roared down the street with no regard for stealth. Up by the main road to the beach he saw the car taillights. Jackie’s orders had been to leave the Syrian alone, even though Lawrence said they were still unable to locate him. Angus had also reassured him that the man was no threat. But now the creep had shown up out of the blue and watched him leaving the scene of a job. Jarrod knew he was in trouble. The Syrian was a witness.
‘A bloody short-lived witness,’ he muttered.
The taillights had disappeared but that was okay because Jarrod knew where the man lived.
‘I’m no idiot,’ he reassured himself.
He drove with calm restrain, the wisp of a plan forming in his mind. The house was dark when he approached it. The man had parked some four houses further down the street.
‘Sneaking around,’ Jarrod observed.
Twice he saw the glow of a flashlight through the nearest front window in the man’s house. He heard a sound from inside. It sounded like sneezing. After no more than five minutes the man reappeared and jogged silently back to his car. Jarrod followed, once again with his headlights off, letting the man drive all the way to the main road before speeding up to catch him.
In the still night the sound of a siren was distinct. Jarrod wasn’t sure if it was cops, fire brigade or ambulance, but it didn’t matter, both he and the Syrian were going in the opposite direction, and were unlikely to cross paths with them. Jarrod kept his distance when they reached the start of the highway. The houses soon became few and far between, and the speed limit went up to one hundred kilometres per hour.
After ten kilometres or so it became obvious the Syrian was heading to another town, but there were more than a dozen dotted around the peninsula, so Jarrod couldn’t guess which one. He glanced at his petrol gauge; he had a full tank.
Over the next few kilometres he picked up speed, until he finally reached one hundred and twenty. The Syrian’s car suddenly loomed large in his windshield, getting nearer by the second. Jarrod slammed his foot down on the accelerator, the car lurching forward, and braced for the impact.
His car ploughed into the back of the other vehicle, and then he hit the skids. Miraculously one of his headlights still worked despite the impact. The Syrian’s car zigzagged crazily and Jarrod was sure the man would lose control, but it eventually straightened and came to a stop. Two wheels were on the gravel verge, the other two on the tarmac.
The driver side door opened and the man practically fell onto the road. He grasped the door and stood on shaking legs. Jarrod’s single headlight was on high beam. He knew the man could see next to nothing as he staggered towards the light. The Syrian was using his hand to shield his eyes when Jarrod flattened the accelerator pedal once more. The man stopped in his tracks and gave a small wave. His mouth was a perfect “O” just before he was struck. His body flew over the top of Jarrod’s car and rolled along the road, coming to rest almost perfectly on the broken white line.
‘Yes,’ Jarrod said as he punched the air. ‘Problem solved!’
For a moment he thought about checking to see if the man was still alive but suddenly he didn’t care. If he wasn’t dead he would be pretty banged up, and Jarrod would be away in Cairns with Angus while the stupid Syrian lay in hospital. And if he was dead, so be it, Jackie couldn’t pin this on him; Jarrod wouldn’t admit to it, and there were no witnesses to say what had happened.
He did a U-turn and drove homeward, slowing just for one second to wave to the lifeless man on the road.
‘Sucked in,’ he murmured.
He took the road backs to Moonta to collect the last of his possessions. Until they left, which was in two days time, he was staying at Angus’ place in Wallaroo. The thought of staying over at his mate’s place was more than a little pleasing. He’d never really had a mate before. Something always seemed to go wrong with his friendships; people got weird and then opted out.
As he neared his house, he saw the colourful lights of a variety of emergency service vehicles congregated outside the old man’s burning home. Many figures wearing reflective clothing darted around the scene. The flames reached a dozen feet into the sky. He nodded. That was good. There would be no evidence, no eyes to give away the smothering, just a silly old man who didn’t take enough care.
‘And one silent Syrian,’ he whispered as he turned toward home.