As they came over the rise Erica and Ellie saw the man lying on the road. The passer-by who had called triple zero parked his van on an angle to protect the person. His warning lights were flashing. He jumped up and down on the spot as he waved them down.
‘He’s breathing,’ the bystander gasped. ‘I checked and… I didn’t think he needed CPR, but he doesn’t look good.’
Ellie felt like she had taken a gut-punch when she saw the patient’s face. It was Morris’ son. She swore, a word she rarely uttered, and Erica gave her an odd look. They went about their work, stabilising his cervical spine, giving him oxygen, IV fluids and drugs.
‘No sign of obvious head trauma, most of the damage is below the waist, but he isn’t conscious, he has poor perfusion and low BP,’ Erica assessed. ‘There are obvious fractures but it will be the internal bleeding that will finish him. No point sending him to the country hospital, he needs to be in an ICU unit, and fast.’
Erica walked a few feet away and spoke to communications. She relayed the severity of the man’s condition and what they required. After a minute she returned, hunkering down by Ellie’s side.
‘They’re sending a Medstar chopper from Adelaide. We need to keep him stable until then. ETA is twenty-five minutes. We have a back up crew as well as police and fire trucks on the way. They can help us put him in a Vac Mat.’
Ellie nodded, knowing that the vacuum mattress would protect and stabilise the man’s body during transportation, assuming he made it that far.
‘Erica,’ Ellie said after a moment, ‘this scene is all wrong.’
‘Well yeah,’ Erica said sarcastically, ‘there is a bloke squished on the road.’
’No, I don’t mean that. This man was hit in the middle of the road, as if he was flagging someone down, like maybe his car broke down. But why then is there damage to the rear of his car? The damage is new. There is indicator glass strewn down the road. I saw it as we drove closer.’
Erica exhaled and shrugged her shoulders. ‘No idea. I guess that’s a job for the accident investigation team.’
She didn’t seem interested and Ellie guessed she was more focused on their patient. But Ellie’s eyes were constantly drawn to the damage of the car parked on the roadside.
Twenty minutes later Ellie and Erica watched as the helicopter landed. The doctor ran from the chopper to the patient on the stretcher. He glanced briefly at the man as Ellie delivered her handover.
Together they moved the man into the waiting chopper. He would be taken direct to Adelaide’s major hospital. It was his best chance of survival.
The accident scene was a riot of flashing lights by now, with two fire engines, a second paramedic van, and police cars dotted all down the road. Ellie sat in the driver’s seat and filled out her paperwork.
‘Are you okay?’ Erica asked.
‘I don’t know. I feel like this is my fault somehow.’
‘What? Are you crazy? You didn’t run him down.’
‘I knew he needed protecting.’
But Ellie couldn’t answer. She had been running on a gut feeling. She had no concrete proof that the man was in peril, but now this had happened. ‘Let’s go home Erica.’
‘Did you know that man?’
‘Not really. I’d seen him, and I think he was scared. I think he wanted help but he didn’t ask for it.’
‘Are you saying you think he was hit on purpose?’
‘Jesus! You need to talk to the police. That could be why the scene looks strange.’
‘I already did talk to the police about him. It didn’t do any good. The man wouldn’t ask for help.’
Erica got out of the ambulance and walked around to the driver’s side door. ‘Come on. We need to talk to the cops, now!’
There were two police officers squatted down on the road, assessing the fresh skid marks. They paid no attention to the two ambos until Erica loudly cleared her throat. Ellie introduced herself; the cop grudgingly gave up his name, Phil.
Ellie told him about her previous dealings with the victim, and how he had seemed so fearful, as though he thought he was in danger. When she was done the cop just stared at her.
‘Ellie,’ Phil said. ’If what you are saying is correct, then we may not be looking at an accident here, we could be looking at attempted vehicular homicide. If this man dies it will be a homicide investigation. And what you’ve said may give us some idea as to why the man has damage to the rear of his vehicle.’ He gestured to the car. ‘Your patient is in a bad way, but the speed limit on this stretch of road in a hundred and ten, a person hit at that speed would not normally be alive, he’d be mince meat. This fellow didn’t accidently get hit by a passing car. The mechanism of injury doesn’t fit. What does fit is he stopped after his car was rear ended by someone, and that someone may well have run him down.’
‘It does look that way. Nick tried to talk to him, to find out what was wrong, what he was scared of, but the man wouldn’t say.’
‘Nick, he’s a policeman. He’s a friend. Nick Pham.’
The cop jotted down the name. ‘Then there would be a record of an interview.’
‘Yes, he spoke to the man at the Kadina police station a couple of days ago.’
‘I’ll need a statement from you. If Major Crimes take over this investigation you will need to talk to them too.’
Ellie nodded. She felt bone weary. ‘Can I finish my shift?’
The cop shook his head. ‘Speak to your team leader and have yourself relieved. I want you to come down to the station right away.’
Ellie turned to Erica who shrugged and said ‘I’ll sort it, you go with them.’
One of the fire trucks was leaving; they had finished soaking the ground around the accident site. There was another fire in town that required back up, so they tore away with sirens blaring.
‘One of those nights,’ the cop said. ‘Must be a full moon. Come on Ellie. I’ll take you to the station.’
Ellie sat in the front seat of the cop car as they drove away. She saw a bright light in the sky and for a second thought it was the chopper. But Medstar were long gone, and they went in the other direction. She gazed toward the coast and saw the moon. She wasn’t surprised to see it was fat, and very full.
The sun shining through his hotel window had woken Lawrence early. He hardly remembered the previous night. Following the drive from Moonta he had checked in to the Intercontinental Hotel, trudged to his room and then slept like a log.
This morning he had been unable to book a flight online. The night flight to Doha was full, which was unusual. It seemed that the Formula One race being held at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, was flavour of the month with Aussies. So for Adelaide fans, Doha had become a popular stepping-stone to the track.
His next option was to get a domestic flight to Melbourne and then onto Paris via somewhere else, but choosing the fastest route was proving tricky. There was one seat left on a Singapore Airlines flight, but as he was about to book it, it was taken. He punched the desk, and instantly regretted it. He nursed his sore hand and swore loudly.
The phone rang and an ominous feeling nestled in his gut.
‘Hello this is Lawrence,’ he said as cheerily as he could manage.
‘Nam? Are you okay? Why are you calling me? Is this a safe line? You don’t sound so good.’
‘I had to call. I’m all right… but Felicia is not.’
‘Oh God! Is there anything I can do?’
‘No, the doctors are doing the best they can.’
There was a pause and Lawrence clutched at his tightening throat. He didn’t want to cry.
‘Where are you?’ Nam asked.
‘I’m still in Adelaide. I couldn’t get a flight from here. I need to go via Melbourne or Sydney to Paris, but there’s nothing leaving until later today.’
‘Don’t worry about it. I need you to stay.’
‘But Madame Lesombe was adamant. I should be on my way there already. The company is in trouble and....’
‘Not as much trouble as we are.’
‘What?’ Now his gut was squirming.
‘There was a hit and run in Moonta last night. I will give you three guesses who the victim was?’
Lawrence frowned, unable to think for a moment, but then it dawned on him. ‘Oh Jesus! Not Ahmed?’
‘Without a doubt.’
‘What an idiot.’
‘That’s putting it extremely mildly.’
‘What can I do?’
‘There is only one thing you can do. Angus can handle Jarrod, but I’m worried about Ahmed’s wife. I have tracked Ahmed’s last credit card transaction to a motel about sixty kilometres from Moonta. I assume Ahmed was in hiding. Maybe he suspected that Jarrod wasn’t finished, and if so he was right. She needs to be calmed or this whole thing could blow wide open.’
Lawrence covered his mouth with his hand. What was Nam asking of him?
‘Are you still there?’
‘Yes,’ Lawrence’s voice was just a whisper. ‘What do I have to do?’
‘Bring her to me.’
He sighed, relieved for the moment. ‘To you? In Brisbane?’
Nam sighed noisily and the sound was terrible. It was the sound of a man who had lost control. Lawrence sat on the bed, cradling the phone. ‘Nam? What will happen to her?’ He grimaced as he asked the question.
‘To Ahmed’s wife? Nothing bad will happen. I want her here with Felicia. If Ahmed pulls through he will be months in hospital recovering. I want her and the children us. It will be good for Felicia and the kids right now. As soon as he can be moved I will have Ahmed brought to Brisbane too.’
‘That’s a bit risky isn’t it? The police will be all over this accident. There will be a direct trail to you if you take them in.’
‘I don’t care. If Angus can pull this off then the story will end with Jarrod. If not…well it’s been a good gig, but if it’s over, then it’s over.’
‘But, it could mean jail.’ For the first time Lawrence realised that he too was in danger. ‘Maybe for all of us.’
‘It will be fine Lawrence. You won’t be caught up I promise. This was a stupid venture, and my idea. I will take the consequences.’
‘But why Nam? Why did you plan this job?’
‘Go and get Yalda and the kids. We will meet somewhere when you get here. I’ll tell you why when I see you face to face. I’ll tell you everything then.’
Despite the dire circumstances Lawrence felt a thrill that caught his breath. He was going to see Nam again!
Lawrence had to talk through the crack of opened motel room door for more than five minutes. When Yalda finally asked him in he saw her look of distrust. From another room her young daughter came running. She was calling “daddy” and said something about a kitten. The kid slammed on the anchors when she saw Lawrence, and then she took a few swift steps in reverse and stood behind her mum, peering out through curious brown eyes.
‘You say you are a good friend of Jackie’s but I’ve never heard of you,’ Yalda said.
Lawrence licked his lips, his eyes drawn to the kid. ‘Listen, Yalda, I really don’t want to have this discussion in front of the girl. Can we please speak in private.’
The raised eyebrow of scepticism abruptly changed to wide-eyed terror. ‘What has happened? Has something happened to my Ahmed?’
Lawrence hated this kind of scene. ‘Like I said, I need to talk to you in private.’
The woman was breathing rapidly and her eyes were pooling with tears. ‘Tell me!’ she begged.
Lawrence pointed to the little girl. ‘You, go to another room while I talk to your mum.’ He was aware that he’d raised his voice, and was about to apologise, when a pint-sized version of Ahmed appeared. The boy stood by his mother with his arms held across his chest. When he jutted out his chin Lawrence cursed.
‘Okay then, I don’t want to tell you like this, but if you insist…there’s been an accident, a hit and run by the looks of it. Ahmed has been taken to the hospital in Adelaide. He’s in a bad way.’
The woman began to wail while the girl looked confused. The boy continued to appear defiant but his stare had lost its fierce edge. Lawrence took deep breaths while the sobbing continued. For over a minute he tolerated it, but finally he held up his hand for silence.
‘Okay! That’s enough.’ He was surprised that the crying ceased but he knew it would begin again so he spoke quickly. ‘Ahmed is in trouble because he’s been hurt, but you, his family, are also in danger. There is a worry that what has happened to him was no accident. Nam…Jackie, believes you are in danger here. He wants you to go and stay with him, and his family, until everything is sorted out and safe for you to return to Moonta.’
The wife and little girl began crying again but the boy wanted answers.
‘Who would want to hurt my father? He is a good man.’
‘Yes,’ Lawrence said with some relief, ‘and you are just like him. I haven’t got to the bottom of it, but I think it is a case of someone wrongly believing that your dad meant to hurt him.’
‘Who? Who is this man?’
The words “moron” and “idiot” came to mind, but instead Lawrence said, ’a distant associate of Jackie’s, but I don’t know that for certain, so it would be prudent not to mention his name, in case I am wrong.’
‘Will this man be brought to justice?’
‘How old are you kid?’
The boy looked confused. ‘Almost ten,’ he said. ‘Why?’
‘Because you seem so mature. You’re a bright kid.’
Yalda had found her tongue and asked, ‘when can I see Ahmed?’
Lawrence wondered how to answer her. Ahmed could die from his injuries but if he told Yalda that, she would be hysterical and this nightmare would get worse. If he lied and said she would see him soon then she would be doubly shocked if her husband didn’t make it. He weighed up making the situation better for himself, or better for her.
‘Very soon,’ he said quickly, ‘but for now we must get you to the safety of Jackie’s house. Felicia is dying to see you.’
‘Oh Felicia! How is my darling friend.’
‘Good,’ Lawrence lied again. ‘Now we must hurry. Pack your things and lets go.’
‘I can see Ahmed on the way?’
‘No, not now. Jackie has said it is too dangerous. You must go immediately to his place in Brisbane.’
‘But Ahmed must be safe at the hospital? Surely we can go there to see him?’
’Jesus lady! What part of “we aren’t going to the hospital” don’t you get?’ Lawrence raised his long arms into the air and tugged at his hair in frustration. To his surprise it was the boy who came to his aid.
‘Mum! Stop nagging the man. If Jackie has told us to go immediately to his house, then we must.’
Yalda pointed and shook her finger at Lawrence. ‘How do we know we can trust you? You could have made this whole story up just to get us to come with you.’
‘Believe me lady,’ Lawrence said softly, ‘I have no desire to hang out with you. Jackie and I are business partners, as I’ve told you, I’ve shown you my ID. I’ve shown you the text message from Jackie, which you know came from his mobile. If you don’t want to go with me you don’t have to, but Jackie won’t be happy, you will all be in danger, and your husband may lose his family. It’s your call.’
He turned and walked to the doorway.
‘Wait!’ the boy called. ‘We will pack. We will be ready in a few minutes.’
The young girl, who apart from tears had been silent, now found her voice. ‘What about my kitten? I want my kitten.’
Lawrence shrugged and glanced at the boy, but the boy shook his head, apparently he had no more help to offer. So Lawrence lied again. ‘Your kitten is already at Jackie’s so hurry up and get moving. You have five minutes. I’ll be waiting out in the car.’
The beeping sound became part of Ahmed’s dreams. He was sitting by a pool surrounded by palm trees, watching the water trickle over the waterfall, a beautiful cascade of blue, and foamy white. As drops splashed at his face there was that tiny ding, ding, ding noise, which made him giggle. He had no power in his limbs to ward off the drips but that was okay. The sun was bright overhead so he closed his eyes. Was it the heat from the sun that caused the tempered fire in his belly? He tried to close his eyelids against the light but he realised they were already closed. His head, like his arms, was almost impossible to move. It took all his effort to angle his face away from the sun, but he did, and then he screamed in agony.
His eyes opened to a chaotic scene. A man, a doctor he presumed, was drawing up an injection, while either side of him nurses, he guessed, spoke reassuringly whilst holding down his arms with noticeable force. One of the nurses pushed the mask on his face, settling it to grip near the bridge of his nose. He could smell plastic, his tongue tasted of some chemical.
The doctor came nearer and injected the drug into a port in his IV line. He would have spoken but the fire burning in his gut had become a raging inferno. No, he probably wouldn’t have spoken, he would have screamed, but then the world went fluffy and dim.
Angus walked along the path that led from the apartment car park to the inlet of the marina. It was early by his standards, but most of the recreational fishermen were already out on the dead calm water. There were many white dots on the shimmering carpet of blue; they could be seen as far as the horizon. He sat on a large rock that formed part of the breakwater. It was cold and hard but he scarcely noticed.
He gazed down at his hands, curling them into fists and then relaxing them flat. For some reason he thought of his grandmother, how she had always held his hand when crossing the road. At every curb it was offered, the fingers wiggling, insisting he grip them. He always did.
He wiped his streaming eyes and tried to convince himself if it was the sea-spray, but knew it was not. It had been the memory of his grandmother that had sealed his hatred for Jarrod. The way the man had killed the old lady so mercilessly, not a human putting another out of their misery as the job entailed, more like a horrid child enjoying the vivisection of a poor creature in science class.
Angus could have embraced Jackie’s decision to terminate Jarrod as revenge for the frail old lady. He might even have taken some joy in being the one who would rid the world of an unhinged killer. But as he gazed at his hands, hands that had killed before, it felt wrong. What would his Granny think of her beloved boy? It didn’t matter about the reasons for ending Jarrod’s life, and it didn’t matter what justification Jackie gave him about this job, he knew what his Granny would have thought and said. He pushed the image of her saddened face from his mind. For the first time ever, he felt grateful that she was gone.
His butt cheeks were beginning to numb so he stood. It would be a long day and they had to go soon. When he got the call in the middle of the night he listened with strange calm. Jackie spoke of another botched killing, a fire, and the running down of Ahmed, in a voice that was shrill with rage. His demands were urgent and strident, and encouraged unnecessarily cruelty. Angus had agreed with odd detachment. He’d sat and waited on the balcony, listening in the calm of the windless evening. Just after three he heard Jarrod’s car pull up, then the sound of the man’s boots on the stairs. He pretended to pay attention to the man’s version of what had gone down. He let Jarrod bluster and rave for a moment or two before saying, ‘take it easy mate.’
It was quite possibly the term of endearment that he had not used before, but Jarrod shut up.
‘It’s all cool.’ Angus assured him. ‘I spoke to Jackie.’
Belligerence departed Jarrod’s eyes and fear took its place. He mumbled and punched his fists into his hoody pockets, kicking at something invisible on the floor.
‘The job’s done. We are out of here tomorrow. Good work mate.’
Distrust now replaced fear. Jarrod cocked his head to one side and his jaw projected outwards. ‘How can we be done? We are one kill short.’
‘No, we aren’t.’ Angus patted the seat of the chair beside him. ‘Sit down and stop looking so worried.’ He glanced out at the sea and heard the seat beside him squeak under his partner’s weight.
‘What did Jackie say?’
‘This project is about helping people to get new lives. We take away the people whose lives are all but over and that gives others, who are in need, a new start.’
Jarrod didn’t sound convinced but he did appear to be attempting comprehension. Angus spoke slowly.
‘Finishing off Ahmed solved two problems. All that snooping around made him a liability to this project, and to Jackie’s security. We also had a quota we needed to adhere to. Jackie wanted ten, Ahmed became the tenth.’
‘You mean, Jackie’s not angry?’
‘Why should he be? We carried out our work. We are done.’
‘But,…did he know about the fire?’
Angus had never heard so many blistering invectives come out of a man’s mouth before. Jackie had thought very badly of the fire.
‘Fires happen all the time. They are a good way to hide evidence. I think Jackie was impressed.’
‘Wow! I’ve been worried about nothing.’
Apparently crotch scratching was a sign of relief. Angus looked away.
‘So what now? Do we have another job?’
‘Of course, but we have that break first. We’ll have some party time in Cairns.’
‘Me and you?’
‘Have you booked the flights?’
Angus sucked at his bottom lip and then smiled. ‘You see, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Sure we could fly, but what about a road trip?’
‘A road trip?’ Jarrod grinned, his teeth gleaming in the dim light. ‘That would be awesome!’
‘Cool.’ Angus glanced at his watch. ‘We better get some sleep then. Tomorrow I’ll get us a four-wheel drive for the trip, and the day after, I reckon if we get away by eight we should make it to Broken Hill at a decent time. Then we can sink a few beers together.’
Jarrod got to his feet and lunged at Angus, and Angus wasn’t sure what repelled him the most, the sight of Jarrod’s trembling lips or the grip of his ball-fondling hands around his neck. All he knew was, he felt like throwing up.