One of the things Lawrence hated most in the world was driving long distances. He’d loathed the drive from Adelaide to Moonta and that was only two hours from the city. So when Nam told him that he had to avoid cameras and especially the airport, he felt physically sick. Of course he had vehemently argued against a road trip but Nam wouldn’t budge. Nam pointed out that with Ahmed’s accident under investigation, there would also be interest in the Homsi family members. Under no circumstances were they to fly to Brisbane.
Things didn’t get off to a brilliant start. For the life of him Lawrence couldn’t fathom how something as simple as getting in the car could take so long. It started with Lilith losing a shoe, which, after a thorough search of their accommodation, turned out to be wrapped in a small blanket with her doll. Then Baltasar misplaced the power cable for his I Pad. Upon finding it under the car seat he then realised he’d lost his baseball cap. Just when they were buckled up and seemingly ready to go, Yalda decided she desperately needed to pee. This took over a quarter of an hour as they’d locked the motel key inside as per the directions of the receptionist.
It was a long drive over some fairly featureless countryside. But despite the blandness Lawrence enjoyed the trip. His phobia of open spaces and lack of proximity to any amenities was dulled by the chatter and antics of the family. As an only child his strict and dour natured father had thrown him into adulthood. He enjoyed the childish games of I Spy and Spot the Road Kill, and the silly made-up songs that lingered in his head long after they’d been sung. For the first time he could understand the human need to have a family. The roadside food and unmemorable motel rooms were less of a drag while he was surrounded by childish enthusiasm.
Nick was over an hour late for dinner. Ellie had tried to call him and had left three messages. The third one was brusque, asking if he intended to come at all? By the second glass of Merlot she felt some of the tension drain, but by the third she took the lamb curry from the oven and dumped in on the kitchen sink.
It wasn’t like Nick to be so thoughtless. She blamed herself for being so hard on him and wondered if recent events had soured their relationship. She sat on the couch between her two dogs and tried hard not to be maudlin. When Nick finally walked into the room she had dozed off, her head resting on Hannah’s chest.
She rubbed her eyes and gave a weak smile. ‘What happened?’
‘I’m not sure. Do you have any more wine?’
‘Um…yes. There’s some red in the pantry or white in the fridge.’
‘Red’s fine,’ he said as he walked out the door.
Ellie lurched as she stood, then rushed to follow him.
‘Why are you so late? Is something wrong? Is it me? Are you angry?’ Ellie was aware she was babbling but she couldn’t stop it.
Finally he shook his head and poured a drink. He chugged down half the glass before he spoke. ‘Sorry I’m late, and sorry I’m not good company.’
She took a step closer but kept her arms by her sides. He seemed to read her apprehension and threw back the remainder of his wine. He swallowed and watched her.
‘Come here,’ he said softly.
For a second she hesitated, and then rushed to him. They embraced for a long time and she felt him bury his face in her hair.
‘I love you,’ he whispered.
They were the words she’d dreamt of hearing, wished for, but there was something in his tone, sadness in his voice.
‘Are we going to break up?’ she asked.
He held her face in his hands, holding her just inches from his intense gaze.
‘No Ellie. This isn’t about you. I’m so happy with you. It’s something else that’s going on.’
‘Is it about Ahmed?’
Nick shrugged but was shaking his head at the same time. ‘I’m not sure. It seems I’m not sure about anything right now. It’s a case and…well you know I can’t talk about it. Things are weird right now, and a bit uncertain.’ He glanced at her and said, ‘except you. I’m really sure about you.’
‘Are you hungry?’
‘I guess. I feel like another drink first though.’
’Sure. I can heat up dinner when you’re ready. Are you going to tell me anything about what happened?’
Nick didn’t answer right away. He poured two glasses of wine, kissing her on the cheek as he hand one to her.
‘I can’t say just now. It’s best that you don’t know.’
‘Is Ahmed okay? Can you tell me that much?’
‘We don’t know. He’s gone.’
Ellie’s knees felt weak and she clutched the bench for support. ‘Gone? How?’
‘He was taken from the hospital.’
‘Oh dear! He could die without treatment.’
‘It was a private patient handover. He’s been taken to a medical facility interstate. As far as we know there haven’t been any laws broken.’
‘But he was in ICU! Surely it was dangerous to move him.’
‘The paperwork was all in order. Ahmed signed for the transfer.’
‘What about his family? Are they the ones who organised it?’
‘I suppose they did.’
‘Maybe they don’t realise how badly injured he is?’
‘Like I said, I can’t talk about it.’ He walked to the sink and lifted the lid on the casserole dish. ‘That looks great. Maybe I am hungry. Shall we eat soon?’
She watched him walk from the room and the sense of foreboding engulfed her once more. She tried to tell herself that she was being too reactionary, and maybe it was the wine. His job as a cop was a difficult one, and she would have to learn to be supportive. There had to be an equilibrium that they hadn’t yet reached. There were possibly many missed meals in their future together; she would have to lighten up if she was to cope as a cop’s partner.
‘So why don’t you tell me what happened, you know, with Jackie and his brother, back in the day. How did you know them?’ Angus asked.
From the corner of his eye he saw Jarrod squirm in his seat.
‘It’s a really long story.’
’Well, we have a really long drive to get to Broken Hill tonight, so fire away.’
‘Suit yourself.’ Angus muttered as he selected a playlist and turned up the volume, but after only one minute of listening to Arcade Fire, Jarrod began to speak.
‘I was pretty young when I met Jackie’s family, I guess around six or so. I was already going to school. My mum was always in trouble. I used to think she was just stupid, until I found her unconscious on the lounge room floor with a syringe sticking out of her arm. I didn’t really know what was happening so I went to see Nam’s uncle, they called him Alfie but his real name was something else, something Vietnamese. My mum visited him a fair bit. He helped her out so I figured he’d help me too.’ Jarrod paused and Angus felt his gaze. ‘Mate, do you want a beer?’
Angus cleared his throat. ‘Maybe later, we have a long way to go, but you have one.’
‘No, I can wait…it’s just that, I’ve never told anyone about my childhood before, you know? I guess the people I knew back then all knew what it was like, and no one I’ve met ever since has asked. It’s a long time since I’ve even thought about it.’
Angus felt a pang of guilt but also a healthy serve of curiosity. ‘I’m interested man, I really am.’
Jarrod sat straighter in his seat. He seemed like an eager kid. ‘Alfie took her to the hospital. I found out later he dumped her in the foyer, it didn’t pay to be associated with junkies, or so he said.’
‘Aw, it wasn’t that bad. She really got what she asked for. She overdosed a few times over the years.’
‘Is she still alive?’
Jarrod shook his head. ‘She died when I was fifteen. She was a total wreck by then. Every time I’d come home from school there’d be some loser hanging off her, some new bloke that she’d introduce as her new boyfriend.’
‘She never found anyone that could help her?’
‘I guess she had a couple of blokes that weren’t too bad, but who the hell wants to be with someone like that? She was her own worst enemy. For a while she was doing it for money, you know, like a hooker, but she was hopeless. The blokes would come and go, and so would our television set, or our money, sometimes even the food in the fridge.’
‘That must have been tough.’
‘Yeah, it was. Alfie used to help us out.’
‘What did he do for a job?’
Angus sniggered. ‘He had a couple of laundrettes and a noodle company.’
‘Why is that funny?’
‘He was a drug dealer. The businesses were just a front.’
‘Wow! Did Nam know?’
‘He wasn’t supposed to because his mother could never find out, but yeah, he dealt drugs too. He was clever though, saved enough to support himself through his university degree and got himself a career. I didn’t blame him for dealing drugs. That was Cabramatta back in the day. Everyone was dealing drugs or taking them.’
‘So, your mum, she died?’
‘Yeah.’ Jarrod gazed out the side window. ‘It was strange. I’d just come back from helping Alfie move some bins out on the street. I went into our flat and she was curled up on the couch.’ His voice softened. ‘You know how they say people look peaceful when they’re dead?’
‘Well, she did. It struck me at that moment that I’d seen every expression on her face over the years; laughter, rage, sadness, mania, hysteria, drug-fucked…but never peace. She looked… she looked like an angel.’
For a while they drove in silence. Angus bit his bottom lip but had no words. He was grateful that Jarrod just stared blankly at the passing landscape. The story of his mother and their dysfunctional life left Angus feeling uneasy, a mixture of empathy and pity he hadn’t anticipated.
‘Oh hell! I just remembered something.’ Jarrod said suddenly. ‘Can you pull over somewhere?’
Angus tried to ignore the shiver in the back of his neck. Before long he knew he would have to dispatch Jarrod. Was it possible that the man had an inkling of his fate? If he did perhaps he would try something, maybe escape, or worse, maybe he was going to attack him. Either way he didn’t stop the car. ‘What’s up Jarrod? You know we have a long trip ahead. If we keep stopping we’ll never get there.’
‘I need to dump the tyre iron in the tray,’ he gestured to the back of the ute with his thumb.
‘What?’ Unease was replaced by hot panic.
‘There’s an iron bar in the back. I hit that Syrian bloke over the head with it when I caught him snooping around my house. It’s evidence, I mean, I didn’t kill him with it, but I’m pretty sure it has my prints on it, and his DNA.’
Angus clutched his constricting throat. They were plenty of words he wanted to say but nothing would come out. He came to a swift and sloppy halt on the gravel verge and turned off the motor, reaching for his water bottle with shaking hands.
‘What?’ Jarrod demanded. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
But Angus kept shaking his head, water sloshed from the corners of his lips.
‘The tyre iron? Where is it?’
He gulped. ‘Gone,’ Angus said.
‘Gone where? Jesus Angus! If the cops find that I’m dead meat. Did you leave it where they would find it? Did you do that on purpose?’ He pounded the dashboard and kicked at the foot-well. ‘I knew you were out to get me too!’
Angus took another swallow of water. He held up his hand to silence Jarrod. ‘I took it out because I was only packing the things we needed. I had no use for it. I didn’t realise it was an incriminating piece of evidence.’
‘Oh Hell! I’m going to go down if the cops find it.’
‘Shut up,’ Angus growled. ‘We will both be going down.’ He glared at his travelling companion, and from Jarrod’s wide-eyed stare, he recognised the intense rage. Angus was pleased that he had the decency to look worried.
‘What…?’ Jarrod began.
’I took the bloody thing out of the back tray. It has my prints on it too.’
‘Why? I took it out because I had no idea why it was there. If you’d given me the heads up that it was something that was going to put us both in jail, I’m pretty sure I would have left it there. But seeing as how some idiotic asshole didn’t bother to enlighten me, how the fuck was I supposed to know?’
Jarrod was flexing his palms at his side, his face angled downwards, his mouth a straight white line. ‘Don’t talk to me like that.’
‘I can’t help it Jarrod. All you had to do was tell me. Why didn’t you?’
‘I didn’t think I had to. I thought you would see it and leave it. It wasn’t like a bunch of flowers or something, you know? It was something that belonged in the back of a car. I saw no reason why you wouldn’t leave it there.’
‘Well I didn’t. I was packing the car and there was limited space.’
‘So what did you do with it?’
Angus rubbed his brow. ‘I put it in the bin.’
‘The one for the apartment.’
‘What if that cop goes snooping around there?’
‘Why would he? Why would he know that was where I was staying? Why would the cops be looking for me anyway?’ Angus was talking more to himself, trying to calm his jangled nerves. There was no reason he could think that the cops would be looking for him. He was worried about nothing he told himself, he was catching a dose of Jarrod’s paranoia. He needed to calm down, to relax, to forget about this. After a few deep breaths he reached for the ignition.
‘Wait,’ Jarrod said.
Once more the unease returned.
‘I got pulled up by the cops last night.’
Angus groaned and closed his eyes. He listened to Jarrod’s recollection of the previous evening’s events. His mouth dried even more when the Marina was mentioned. There was every chance the cop from the petrol station this morning could talk to those policewomen. It may have already happened.
‘We have to go back.’
‘No, no!’ Jarrod’s eyes were huge. He looked like a big kid.
‘We have to. If we’re lucky we will be there just after dark. It should be a matter of driving in, picking up the tyre iron, and driving out again. We can rest up in the car for an hour or two and then make the journey.’
‘If we go back he’ll catch us.’
‘If they find the tyre iron they’ll send it for analysis. If they do we’re screwed; both of us. If we get pulled over any time in the future, for the smallest thing, we will be on the database, no matter where we are in Australia. Don’t you see? We have to get it before the cops do. It’s not a risk I’m prepared to take.’
‘You go then.’
‘And leave you where exactly?’
‘I don’t know, the last servo we passed?’
‘I could be hours. Don’t you think you’ll stand out like a sore thumb hanging around a truck stop all night? The proprietor will probably call the cops.’
Jarrod gave a strangled groan. ‘I’m sorry.’
It was almost, but not quite, enough to make Angus feel something other than barely controlled fury. And not all of that emotion was directed at his travelling companion, a good portion was focused on his own stupidity.
‘We will be back here before we know it,’ he said with feigned confidence. ‘Once we have it there’ll be nothing to worry about.’
He turned the car around on a straight stretch of road and hit the accelerator.