Angus was clutching his stomach as the cops descended on him. He had to think fast. If they managed to get him to the police station it was game-over. As impervious to trouble as Jackie seemed to think his organisation was, the cops wouldn’t take too long to add it up. Staying away from the authorities was all-important if they were to survive.
He was pretty sure the shot that hit Jarrod was fatal; it had stopped him in his tracks and he had gazed down at Angus for a second, swaying. He gave a single cough and blood poured from his mouth and nose. There was a slight frown that crinkled his brow just before he drooped to the ground. It hadn’t played out the way he’d intended, but death by cop was still a means to an end; an end that was inevitable.
The first cop to approach Angus had cuffs in his hand, so he rolled onto his back and let out an agonised wail.
‘My stomach.’ He cried, ‘That guy punched me so hard I think he split my stomach.’
From his position he could only see their feet but he sensed their hesitation. Another set of black-booted feet joined the small crowd. ‘What’s going on? Cuff him and get him down the station.’
‘He’s hurt boss.’
Angus rolled onto his side, groaned and writhed, after a moment he sobbed.
‘Okay, escort him to the hospital. You Stevens, go with him in the ambulance, Goldsmith, you follow behind. As soon as he gets the clearance bring him to the station.’
‘He looks pretty banged up boss. What if they keep him in?’
‘Don’t leave his side. Call me with an update.’
Angus saw the feet move swiftly away he and groaned again.
‘It’s okay, we’re here to help.’
Two women in ambulance greens converged and began to examine him. His performance was probably second rate, but at least he had a few bruises and a busted nose, thanks to Jarrod, that were real. He was offered a green inhaler to help with the pain; he took it but didn’t breathe the stuff in. He needed to keep a clear head. The cops hadn’t taken his phone or wallet from him yet, and while he was still in possession of them it would make escape much easier.
In only minutes he was loaded onto the stretcher and wheeled to the ambulance. His eyes were semi-closed but his mind was in overdrive during the trip.
It may have been an emergency department they arrived in, but nothing about the staff’s response seemed urgent. He guessed they were too busy trying to work on Jarrod. After more than twenty minutes one cop was yawning while the other went off to find a place to pee.
A doctor had taken a cursory glance at Angus when they had first arrived. One push on his abdomen had elicited a scream of pain, so the physician told the nurse he would organise an ultrasound in Radiology. They were still waiting to hear from the department an hour later.
Angus had fought to remain sharp but sheer boredom had him dozing. Finally an orderly came to collect him. The two officers walked at either end of the gurney. But the ultrasonographer’s room was tiny and the cops opted to wait outside. That seemed reasonable, as there was only one door into the office, but in less than two minutes Angus had escaped out the window.
When the police finally realised the procedure was taking too long they tried the door. It was locked. By the time they had a maintenance worker come and open it with a master key, Angus had already boosted a late model Commodore from the staff car park and was twenty kilometres out of town. The ultrasonographer had been stunned, but not permanently harmed, by the blow to his head.
Angus’ phone call to Jackie had been a one sided conversation, and the stony silence told Angus that his boss was far from happy. When Angus was done telling of the events that had unfolded, Jackie asked just two questions; was Jarrod likely to live, and where was the impounded Colorado? On the former Angus could not be sure, but on the latter he gave him the exact location.
Jackie assured him that the car, along with its incriminating cargo, would shortly disappear. By that evening it would be crushed along with the evidence. The relief that Angus felt soon numbed any disappointment at the waste of such a good car, his freedom was beyond a price.
As Angus intersected the main northern highway he saw the sign for a turn off to a town up ahead. This would take him some distance from his desired course, but there was a car sale-yard in the vicinity, and he was in dire need of a legitimate vehicle. There were too many traffic cameras on the drive to Brisbane for him to make it without trouble.
He did two laps of the township before he spotted a deserted farmhouse that suited his needs; the veranda had partially collapsed and the clothesline was barren, a sure sign it was unlived in. The driveway was bumpy and spoke of disuse, but the paddocks were filled with tall green crops. Harvest would be at least a month away, and with no one living on the premises, it was safe to assume whoever farmed this property would not set foot on it for weeks. He parked the car under a weeping peppercorn tree. From only a dozen meters away it was practically invisible.
By the time he reached the car yard he was foot sore, but that was the least of his worries. He ducked into a public toilet block and examined his face. His nose was swollen and both of his eye sockets were beginning to blacken. He washed his face and the worst of the blood from his T-shirt, put on his sunglasses and tried to keep a smile on his face.
The used car salesman didn’t seem to notice anything strange; he was too busy trying to con Angus into buying an overpriced Trans Am. But in the end they settled on a diesel Pajero with low kilometres. Angus didn’t bother to haggle and the salesman didn’t care. He took the gold credit card with a grin. Angus then hit the local supermarket and stocked up on food for the trip. He wanted as few stops as possible on the long journey.
He drove with the window down until the night chill began. And although it was cold he didn’t put the heater on. The drama of the day was taking its toll and the last thing he needed was to doze off. This job was almost over, and almost a success. It was time to get far away.
This would be his last job for Jackie; the risks had far outweighed the payday. He would take his money and leave. He had a cousin in New Zealand who would put him up while he thought about his future. No matter how much money Jackie offered him, Angus would tell him to shove it.
Nick wasn’t the only one in the station who was in trouble. The disappearance of the vehicle that the victim of the shooting had been travelling in, sent the Major Crimes squad into a frenzy, but when it was learned that the driver of that car had absconded from the hospital, all hell broke loose.
‘Go home Nick,’ his superior officer had advised him, her voice gentle with concern. ‘I can keep you posted on Jarrod O’Dowd’s progress. So far all we know is that he was transferred to the Royal Adelaide Hospital by helicopter.’
Nick hung his head, not sure of what to say.
‘The investigation will be long and tedious. I won’t sugar coat it; it will be a pain in the arse, but it will be over. You may get a slap on the wrist but ultimately you did the right thing. O’Dowd could easily have had a knife, and if you hadn’t taken the shot, one of the other officers would have. You won’t lose your job, I’m certain of that, but they will suspend you while the investigation takes place. Why don’t you take a holiday? Your mum is in Sydney isn’t she?’
‘Yeah, maybe I will go and see her. What if O’Dowd dies?’
‘He may not make it but you did what you had to do.’ She glanced toward the empty corridor and lowered her voice. ‘Some evidence has come forward that links him to the arson from the other night. It’s possible the fire was started to cover up a killing; the resident of the house may have been murdered. It’s not our investigation, it’s Major Crime’s, but you may have caught the perpetrator for them. It’s early days Nick, but you could come out of this as a hero, so go home and try not to stress over it. Maybe you could take a break with your girlfriend.’
Nick felt his cheeks flush as he glanced away.
‘Oh come on Nick, there’s no such thing as secrets around here. Cops are worse gossips than sewing circles. Between you and me, you couldn’t have found a better lady.’
But her comment did little to stifle his embarrassment.
‘You go on home and take it easy.’
‘Will you keep me posted?’
She hesitated for a second and then said, ‘I will let you know as much as I can.’
Nick slung his backpack over his shoulder and headed for the door. There were two things that he was sure about now. Jarrod and his mate’s appearance in town had not been random, and whatever was going on was personal. The whole business reeked of his brother Nam and that meant his future was under threat. His head was reeling with possible bad scenarios.
‘What do you mean you’re at the airport? I booked us a table at the little Italian place.’
‘I have to sort some stuff out Ellie.’
‘I thought…I thought right now you might need me.’
‘Please Ellie, this isn’t about you. I have to go and straighten some things out. Of course I’d rather just be with you, but I can’t right now.’
‘Is it your brother?’
‘Why would you say that?’
Ellie heard the desperation in his tone and she knew she was on the right track. ‘There’s a problem between the two of you isn’t there?’
‘I…it’s just a bit complicated. I promise I will explain everything when I get back.’ There was a moment of awkward silence and then he asked again, ‘why would you think it was my brother? Was it something I said?’
‘No Nick, it was what you haven’t said. You avoid the subject of both him and your ex-wife so much that it makes it obvious there is a problem. So am I right? Is it your brother or your ex?’
‘Probably both,’ Nick said in a blunt tone. ‘But that’s a conversation for another time. I have to go Ellie. Sorry about dinner. I’ll call when I get back.’
The phone went dead in her hand and she stared at it for a long while, as though wishing it back to life.
She bit back her tears and fled to the bedroom. The dogs had followed her and when they saw her pull on her jogging shoes they began to leap about.
‘Sorry kids we aren’t going for a walk right now.’
Ellie pulled a bunch of tissues from the box on her dressing table and rammed them into her pocket. Hannah and Tyrion followed her to the gate but she didn’t look back at them, instead she sprinted, swearing occasionally, slowing, but pushing herself on and on, and not stopping until her lungs felt ready to explode. She stood doubled over, inhaling loudly.
All the fight had gone out of her, and some of the anger too. Now, she knew, it was time to think without the distortion of rage. She loved Nick and she didn’t want to lose him. Their problems would be sorted out, given both patience and time, and God willing, no more dramas. She had to have faith that Nick could sort out whatever was disrupting their lives. She took a deep breath. ‘I’ll be there for him,’ she whispered. From her crouch she stood tall and strode the three kilometres back home.
His mother had welcomed him at the front door with the usual tirade of kisses and words of endearment, but now she stood back and scrutinised him.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘Nothing. I need to talk to Nam.’
‘Why? What’s happened?’
‘Please mum, I don’t want to go into it just now. It is important. I wouldn’t be asking you otherwise.’
‘Has he done something to you?’
‘No mum, can you please stop thinking the worst. I just need to speak with him.’
‘Oh, so out of the blue you want to chat with a brother you haven’t had contact with in years and you expect me not worry?’
‘Nick, you are a good boy. I want you to stay that way. Mixing with your brother can mean trouble.’
Nick forced a smile and said, ‘I promise mum, I only want to talk to him for a good reason.’
‘What good reason could that possibly be?’
Her face lit up. ‘Are you…going to get married? Is that what you want to tell him? Have you forgiven him and Felicia because you have Ellie now?’
‘Something like that.’
The eagerness in her face was heartbreaking and at that second he decided not to lie. ’I am going to ask Ellie to marry me. So please mum, I don’t have much time. I need his phone number.’
‘Okay, but are you staying for a while?’
‘I will, I just need to get this thing done and I will be back to stay for a night or two.’
She began to cry and Nick held her close. She’d never felt so small or capable of breaking. All his life she’d been the toughest person he knew but now he sensed her mortality. He fought back his own tears.
Nam, as he predicted, was both shocked and abrupt when he heard his brother’s voice. ‘What do you want?’ he demanded.
‘I need to speak to you.’
‘I’m pretty sure you know why. Just name the place. I will be in Brisbane by eleven tomorrow. We have to do this Nam.’
‘Bulimba Ferry Terminal. I’ll find you.’
It was windy, and almost midday by the time the ferry docked. Nick followed the line of workers and tourists into the terminal, but he’d taken less than a dozen steps before he felt a strong grip on his elbow. It wasn’t Nam, it was one of his security men.
‘Come with me,’ the man said.
They walked for three blocks before he saw a black Mercedes with darkened windows. The door sprung open as Nick approached. Nam made no attempt at conversation; he wouldn’t even look in his brother’s direction on the twenty-minute drive. They finally pulled up in a deserted reserve. Nick could hear the distant voices of school children. The place was secluded but not ideal for a hit. Nick didn’t feel at risk.
He followed Nam as he hobbled toward a sheltered picnic area, and when he sat heavily on the wooden bench, Nick sat opposite.
‘What do you want Ty?’
‘I want this to be over.’
‘Do you expect me to believe that the crap happening where I live is just a coincidence? That you aren’t behind people getting hurt? I saw Jarrod for Christ’s sake!’ Nick shook his head. ‘I don’t believe you had nothing to do with any of the trouble.’
‘I said it’s over. It is. It’s over.’
There was a resignation in his brother’s voice, and a despondency that made Nick’s heart race. His brother was many things, but never a defeatist.
‘You are going to leave me alone? You are going to let me live my life without worrying? I find that pretty hard to believe.’
Nam nodded and gazed at a strappy eucalypt bending in the strong breeze. Suddenly his eyes looked wet and his bottom lip quivered. Nick felt his gut clench.
‘I wanted my revenge,’ Nam said, ‘I wanted you dead. But I love our mother too much to put her through that pain. I hope I have hurt you. It seems you are over Felicia now, but I don’t wish you happiness. I hope you will never be happy.’ He paused. ’But the revenge thing, it is over.’
‘I could have killed Jarrod. He may still die.’
‘No, he will survive. I received his medical update this morning, but he won’t face prison; he’ll never walk or wipe his own butt again. The only food he’ll eat will come out of a blender.’
Nick’s head drooped. ‘Shit,’ he cursed.
‘He knew the risks of the job.’
‘You don’t seem upset. I thought he was your friend?’
Nam shook his head while his lips became a cruel sneer. ‘He had to go and he knew it.’
‘There were old people in Moonta that died…horribly. Did you do that?’
But Nam didn’t answer; he was getting to his feet. The minder standing by the Mercedes opened the back door in anticipation of his boss’s return. Nam shuffled a few steps then turned and said, ’don’t ever contact me again. I don’t have a brother; not one I love and not one I hate. You are nothing to me. But come near me again and you will die.’
It took Nick ten minutes to walk to a main road, and another ten to flag down a cab. He went straight to the airport.
When they finally reached Brisbane, not even the thrill of seeing Nam could brighten the disappointment Lawrence felt. By now the kids called him Uncle L and spent more time talking to him than their mother. Yalda told him more than once that he would make an excellent father one day. He told her he thought it unlikely, but he was still chuffed by the idea. He would miss his temporary family.
When they pulled into the driveway Nam’s babysitter ran to the car. She hustled the family inside but told Lawrence he was to leave immediately. She told him that Nam was not at home but had said he would contact him shortly. After such a long journey this ousting felt like a slap in the face. Lawrence was overcome by an urge to catch a flight home to Melbourne. He’d been away from home for far too long. Once there he would pick up his dog from the over-priced boarding kennel. The wave of homesickness lingered and dampened his mood further.
He understood that being at the house of his business partner was not in their best interest, but he was tired from the journey and more emotional than he anticipated. There was something missing now, something not even his beloved Labrador could replace.
As he put the car in reverse he saw Baltasar waving from the front door. Lawrence felt his eyes sting. He drove to the first motel he could find and collapsed onto the over-soft bed. He slept for more than twelve hours.