Ahmed’s mobile phone vibrated in his pocket. It rang at least twenty times in a day. Most of those calls came from his wife, demanding reassurance, seeking comfort from all the stresses in her life, and asking if he’d heard any news. But Ahmed knew before he looked, that this call would be different. It was the one they had been promised, the one he was waiting for.
‘Hello?’ he answered.
‘Is this Ahmed Homsi?’ the caller asked.
‘Yes it is.’
‘Good, good. I am calling on behalf of a mutual contact. Do you remember Pham Van Nam?’
‘Um…do you mean Jackie?’
The man gave a short laugh. ‘Sure, Jackie, but I call him Nam.’
‘Is this regarding what he said he could help me with?’
‘Absolutely. I’m Nam’s associate. My name is Lawrence, you can call me Lawrence.’
There was a pause. Ahmed realised he was supposed to laugh at the man’s joke.
‘I would like to meet with you. I have what you need,’ Lawrence continued.
‘Really?’ Ahmed whispered.
‘Sure, but face to face would be more prudent.’
‘Prudent? Yes of course. I am…’
‘Yes. I know where you are. If you cross the road out the front and walk two blocks north you will reach a small park. I will meet you there in fifteen minutes. Don’t speak to anyone about this.’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Not even your wife.’
‘I…um. No, I won’t.’
The park was almost empty. On each corner and in the centre grew stands of eucalypts, some of which were flowering red and yellow. The remainder of the park was mown grass with a winding path that cut through the middle, joining the footpaths from north to south. A small playground was a riot of colour by the southern exit.
Ahmed watched as a mother pushed her toddler’s stroller over the grass towards her car. The child babbled and squealed as they moved. The gradient was steep and he looked away as the woman’s buttocks flexed with the strain.
It was sunny and warm with no wind, but despite that Ahmed shivered. It had been three long years since they’d reached Australia, finally the dream of calling this place home had arrived. A twist of fate only two months ago had brought this aspiration to fruition. It seemed to good to be true. He searched the park for the man who would help him but saw no one. He jammed his fists into his cotton hoodie, touching his phone, but resisting the urge to call Yalda.
A flock of galahs cackled as they passed overhead. His daughter, Lilith, loved the stupid birds. She had cried one day as Ahmed struck one with his car. It wasn’t as though he could have prevented it. The dumb creature flew straight at him. His momentary distraction was quickly forgotten as the man, Lawrence, stood before him and cleared his throat.
Lawrence was tall, well over six feet. Ahmed was the tallest of his four brothers but he was a head shorter than this man. The bench creaked as Lawrence sat beside him. Ahmed thought the man’s laid-back style was at odds with his designer clothing. Ahmed had only seen a watch like the one Lawrence wore in up-market magazines. He tried to guess how much it cost.
‘So…,’ Ahmed began. ‘Where would be my location?’
‘In rural South Australia. It’s a nice little seaside town.’
‘Is there work? Could I get a job?’
‘Of course. What was it you did in Syria?’
‘I was a banker, not business, more at the grass roots level; loan approvals and investment advice.’
Lawrence nodded and chewed the inside of his lip. ‘I’d stay away from corporations; they tend to take in-depth observations into staff backgrounds. But there’s no reason you couldn’t set up your own financial planning business. There is a glut of elderly people in the surrounding towns of the area we have found for you. They are always trying to stretch their superannuation. They need to these days because our population is living far longer.’
Ahmed coughed and wondered about the man who had died to give him this windfall. It seemed that Lawrence sensed his discomfort.
‘We only source from those who need a release. It was a mercy.’
Ahmed touched the crucifix under his t-shirt. It hung from his mother’s gold chain around his neck. He didn’t want to know any details. He breathed deeply and thought of Baltasar and Lilith. He was doing this for them.
‘Yes. I understand that you have used up most of your resources.’
‘But I paid Jackie…or Nam. I paid him everything I had.’
‘Sure. What I have for you is your own home. You will have a new identity, one that proves your Australian birth, and a legal Will that states your father has left you everything.’
Lawrence gave a dry laugh. It sounded more like he was choking. ‘This all comes at a cost. You understand that don’t you?’
‘Your father was not a wealthy man but he has a nice home and a small nest-egg, and I think it’s safe to say that after our fee is paid you will still have enough to remain comfortable until you get on your feet.’
‘And after that.’
‘We get twenty per cent of all your earnings in perpetuity.’
‘For the rest of your earning days.’
Lawrence spread his hands, holding his palms upwards. ‘This is a golden deal Ahmed. You will be living the dream.’
‘Sure, the dream.’
They were momentarily distracted as two cars arrived and six children ran screaming down the bank towards the play equipment. The two mothers sauntered after them wearing tightly hugging sport clothes.
Ahmed looked away.
‘They call themselves yummy mummies, but most of them have never seen their huge backsides. Yummy my arse,’ Lawrence observed with unbridled distain.
Ahmed would not look at the women.
‘Mate, if you want to fit into a small town you’ll need to embrace the culture a bit. You know? Aussie blokes are supposed to have a perv at women. The last thing we need is for you to stand out like a sore thumb. It’ll be different than it has been in the city. Your identity will hold up, but avoiding scrutiny would be prudent.’
‘Prudent,’ Ahmed muttered.
‘I really mean it.’ Lawrence had raised his voice. ‘I suppose your wife wears the head thing.’
Ahmed shook his head with momentary confusion. ‘Do you mean a hijab or a burka?’ He tried to control the annoyance in his voice.
‘Whatever,’ Lawrence said with a shrug.
‘No she doesn’t. We are Syrian Orthodox. We are Christians, just like you.’
‘Like me?’ Lawrence pointed to himself and snorted out a laugh. ‘I’m not a Christian. I write software. I’m a computer geek.’
‘That is your job, not your belief.’
‘Then I believe in the power of the computer.’
The women were walking towards a nearby picnic table so Lawrence leapt to his feet. ‘I’m loving this discussion but I really must depart.’ He handed Ahmed a slip of paper. ‘These are the bank details you need.’ He paused to watch the women. While they were busy looking at their phones he pushed the bag that had sat between them closer to Ahmed. ‘Your new birth certificate is just one of the items in there. You need to make up a story about how you ended up in Syria with your mother. Everything you and your family need is in there, everything from passports to driver’s licences are authentic, but as I said before we don’t want anyone scrutinising, so act normal and have your story straight. Aussies can be a nosey bunch. Make sure your wife and the kids know the story very well too.’
Ahmed stood and held out his hand. He had a hundred questions, but felt flummoxed and unsure which to ask first. Lawrence shook his hand and said, ‘it won’t be too hard to fit in. Your English is better than most Aussies. You’ll be right mate.’
‘But…what if something goes wrong?’
‘That’s up to you. If you are careful, nothing will go wrong.’
‘Can I contact you?’
‘No. That’s impossible. You just go to your new home and settle in. We’ll give you two months to get an income. After that we’ll expect weekly payments, and don’t think you can rip us off. We’ll have more idea of how much money you have than you will. We’ll be watching everything you do, so be good.’
‘What if the authorities are watching this account?’ Ahmed waved the paper with bank account details in front of Lawrence.
‘That is the start of a trail not even the best hackers in the world could follow. I’m pretty sure Nam told you we are the best, but I tend to think we are even better than that.’
Ahmed rubbed his chin. ‘Better than the best,’ he repeated.
‘You are a very lucky man Ahmed.’
‘I know, luck has smiled on me.’ For some reason this happiness wasn’t conveyed to his tone. Ahmed realised he was scared of Lawrence, and scared of this next step.
‘Nam has taken a liking to your family.’
‘We are truly grateful.’
‘You helped one of his kids?’
‘Yalda, not me. She was in the right place at the right time.’
‘Very lucky. Some people would give their left nut to be in Nam’s good books.’
‘It’s a joke…it doesn’t matter.’
There was silence for a moment and Ahmed had the feeling that Lawrence wanted to ask him something. Eventually Lawrence did ask, ‘you saw Nam didn’t you?’
Ahmed shrugged and said, ‘only briefly at the hospital. It was an emotional time for him.’
‘Did he…did he touch you?’
‘He shook my hand. He hugged Yalda, more than once.’
But Lawrence wasn’t listening anymore. He rubbed at his eyes, coughed into his hand and turned away. ‘Stay out of trouble,’ he said tersely. ‘We have given you a brilliant new identity, so don’t stuff it up.’
Lawrence didn’t wait for a reply. He was striding away and in only a few minutes was gone from view.
Ahmed sat back down and clutched the bag at his side. Lawrence’s confidence didn’t bolster him; the man’s cockiness was a worry. He wished he had dealt with Jackie instead. From his pocket he felt the vibration of his phone. Yalda. She would be worried. She always worried and most times Ahmed scolded her for it. Now he was worried too.
But for once the roles were reversed. When Yalda arrived home with the children after school and heard the news, she was ecstatic. This was the day she had dreamt of. She spoke too fast and several times reverted to her native Syrian tongue; such a thing had been banned in their house since they arrived in Sydney. It now became another thing for Ahmed to be anxious about.
The following morning they packed the last of their possessions into their ten-year-old Mazda and drove away. The chaos of the city became the monotony of the suburbs and eventually morphed into the isolation of the countryside. The children loved it. They counted the sheep and cows as well as the squashed roos on the road. They waved to big-hatted farmers on slow tractors and B-double truck drivers coming the other way. They got no response from their salutes to the ubiquitous, fat, bearded-men riding Harley’s, but they waved to them anyway. They overtook countless slow-moving caravans stocked with grey nomads, desperately travelling the country in an effort to see places before the grim reaper finally claimed them. The countryside changed sometimes hour to hour and they loved every bit they saw.
The family spoke English very well and the kids had fitted into their multi-cultural school in western Sydney with no problems. This new journey excited them. Their enthusiasm helped to keep Ahmed’s anxiety at bay. Their new life in the small seaside town of Moonta was about to begin. Ahmed trembled with a mixture of excitement and fear. He kept his hands firmly on the steering wheel and hoped that he could navigate their lives with as much control.
‘Come on in Angus, have a seat. Can I get you a drink?’ Lawrence asked as he held open his hotel room door. While the man seated himself on the leather settee, Lawrence took the opportunity to give him the once over. The jeans and dark T-shirt suited his physique. He was well muscled, but not over the top. His close-cropped hair was fair with a touch of ginger. He was handsome by anyone’s standards, but neither brute nor beauty. Lawrence had to tear his gaze away.
‘Sure man, just a soda water,’ Angus said.
‘So where is it you’ve flown in from this morning?’
‘Oh yeah, I remember Nam messaged something about that.’
‘Do you mean Jackie?’
Lawrence laughed as he handed Angus his drink. ‘I’ve know Nam since we were kids. Back then his name was Nam. The kids who bullied him at school called him “Jackie.” Now that he’s successful he’s embraced a nick-name that was once a racist insult.’
‘Oh, like Jackie Chan?’
‘Yeah, Aussies have no imagination. Forty years ago they would have called him Bruce.’
‘You’re Australian aren’t you Lawrence?’
‘Yeah. Don’t get me wrong. I love the country but it is full of dungers.’
‘It’s a colloquialism, dickheads, losers, that sort of thing. What would you call them in Canada?’
‘I guess a “hoser” would be the closest.’
‘Yeah, that’s what the losing team has to do after a hockey game, hose down the ice. It’s usually associated with beer swilling fuckwits.’
Lawrence laughed so hard he splashed water from his glass onto the floor. ‘I like that!’
‘I don’t mean to be rude, but you don’t seem like the type of person who was brought up in Cabramatta.’
‘No, I know. Many people have made that observation. You see, my father was the head principal of Cabramatta Public School. He was fluent in Vietnamese. My mother and father had lived in Vietnam for several years before I was born. Back then my dad ran a hotel. He took up teaching when we returned to Australia. It was a brave career move for him and he was quite successful. It had been a hard position to fill; the school, like the suburb, had a bad reputation. And of course he insisted that I attend the same institution, to do otherwise was to not have faith in the place. My mother was appalled. She left us after only six months. She has remarried now and lives in Perth.’
‘It can’t have been easy.’
‘It wasn’t as hard as you would imagine. I think my height helped. I don’t think of myself as intimidating, but I was often head and shoulders above even the older boys. I think that, plus not wanting to be on the wrong side of the head principal, played a role in keeping me safe.’
‘We hit it off from the start, friends from day one.’ Lawrence sat across the coffee table from Angus and gazed evenly at the man. ‘Where did you meet him?’
‘At a private party in Hong Kong.’
‘How did he seem?’
‘I dunno, pretty happy. His wife was with him. She’s pregnant.’
‘Wow, child number three.’
‘We chatted for a while. He comes across as a nice bloke, serious and very focussed on this project.’
‘So what has Nam told you about me?’
‘That you are the best security software writer there is.’
‘A bit private, but hardly a secret.’
‘He said you have a photographic memory and are the most brilliant person he knows.’
The silence lasted longer than a minute. It was uncomfortable but Lawrence didn’t trust his voice.
Finally Angus said, ‘he said that the two of you are currently at odds.’
Lawrence chewed his lip and nodded. ‘He’s right. I think I understand Nam, but I don’t always agree with the projects he selects.’
Angus took a deep breath before speaking. ‘Excuse me for being direct, but I don’t know why you two don’t go your separate ways? You are both so talented.’
Lawrence traced the diamond in his pinkie ring with his index finger. ‘We could, of course, but we are friends; good friends.’
‘No, no, not in a sexual context. He is not my type and I’m certainly not his. But we are best friends and have been for a long time.’
‘I don’t understand why you need me? You two seem to have everything covered.’
‘No we don’t. I don’t like this refugee placement project, but I comprehend his need to set people up with new lives. Nam’s dad died when he was only eight. I remember him; he was a nice man. He escaped the Vietcong only to succumb to colon cancer after making a new life in Australia. It was hard on his mum. It was hard on all of them. No Aussie kids ever had to work as hard as they did just to keep afloat.’
‘So Jackie has a philanthropic streak, but it also sounds a bit like revenge.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t got so far as to say that. These people being displaced are not young or healthy. In most cases they are mercy killings.’
‘But it is still murder man, no matter how you try to gloss over it.’
Lawrence stood and looked down on Angus for a moment before moving to the bar fridge. He plucked out a beer and didn’t ask Angus if he could get him anything.
Angus had obviously realised that his rudeness was not appreciated. ‘I’m not judging,’ he said, filling the uncomfortable pause. ‘I know what the job entails or I wouldn’t be here.’
‘That’s right. This job is nothing worse than anything you’ve done before.’
Angus sniggered at the implication.
Lawrence took a sip of beer and held the bottle up to the light, gazing at it. ‘So things were getting a bit edgy in Hong Kong?’
‘You already know what happened. My past caught up with me. I had to get out of there.’ Angus looked at the table top for a moment and then asked, ‘did you have anything to do with the press leak?’
‘Oh no. We don’t work that way. I can assure you that you were on our short list of candidates. When the news broke…well, we took the opportunity to offer a kindred spirit a life-line, and to speed things up.’
Lawrence didn’t know or care if Angus believed him and he had no intention of sitting around nursing the man’s bruised self-esteem. ‘Nam and I are computer geeks. We tailor make security programs for big corporations; the corporations that want the best cyber security. We’ve designed firewalls for countries that value their national security. We’ve made more money than we could ever spend in ten lifetimes, but we are only human. Nam wants to run with this refugee cause and I will back him. But neither of us are “people” types. You may find that strange because I am so warm and inviting.’ He paused for a laugh that didn’t happen. ‘So that’s where you come in Angus. You are an organiser, a manager. Your track record speaks for itself. You also have a little problem with the law that we can help with. You see, you will be yet another refugee that we can assist. A Canadian refuge!’ Still no laugh, Lawrence sighed and finished his drink.
‘Jackie mentioned a figure.’
Lawrence waved his hand in the air. ‘Oh, please! Let’s not have such a banal conversation. Whatever Nam promised, that’s what you’ll get.’
Angus’ eyes narrowed and he stared at Lawrence. ‘Nam or Jackie, whatever you want to call him, he isn’t coming here today is he?’
‘No,’ Lawrence felt his eyes begin to sting; he rubbed at them angrily. He got to his feet and walked to the window, pausing to gaze outside. ‘I haven’t seen Nam face to face for almost fifteen years.’
‘Neither the authorities nor the criminals have ever put two and two together because they can’t link us. It’s not the way that either of us would like things to be, but it is the only way we can safely co-exist. It gives a solid guarantee to the people who buy and trust our software. We remain anonymous because in our job we have to. If either of us was kidnapped we could only divulge half a gold mine of information, but it would be like finding a gold mine without a key.’
’Yes. It’s also how we will operate Angus. That is why I have met you here in Melbourne and not in Sydney. We mix things up to avoid scrutiny. Once you leave this hotel room with your new passport and identity you’ll rarely see me again. Of course we’ll be in contact, but nothing traceable and always away from prying eyes.’
‘So the job is mine.’
‘What will you say to Jackie, about me?’
Lawrence smiled. ‘I will tell him you are the right man for the job. I will say you are definitely not a hoser!’
Angus’ lips changed shape slightly, but it was no smile. Lawrence didn’t care whether he liked his joke or not.
‘You have someone on the job already don’t you?’
‘Yes, Jarrod is great at what he does and I think he will be of benefit to you. His problem is that he stands out like a sore thumb.’
‘He is very large and sports a really obvious tattoo.’ Lawrence pointed to his neck area. ‘Not sure why anyone would want to do that.’
‘Do I have to keep him on?’
Lawrence held his hands out to his sides, palms towards Angus. ‘This is your show now Angus. You do things as you see fit.’ He cleared his throat and gave a small laugh. ‘Within our guidelines of course.’
Angus frowned and nodded. Lawrence was pleased that he took everything so seriously. He didn’t laugh at Lawrence’s jokes, but the man was extremely focused. That was important.
‘Nam picked you well I think.’
But Angus ignored the compliment, instead asking, ‘How many targets are in the area you are operating in?’
‘An abundance, but we are limiting you to ten jobs per population of fifteen thousand residents. The town we are dealing in at the moment could easily sustain more losses, but we will avoid suspicion by not being greedy. Besides, the sooner you move on to new territory the sooner you are out of view from the authorities.’
‘What are the police like in rural Australia?’
Lawrence made a so-so gesture with his hand. ‘We can’t be sure, so it’s best to avoid any mistakes.’
‘So this other guy, Jarrod, has he been careful?’
‘Yes, extremely. We wanted to run a couple of test cases so we could work out the exact procedure the emergency services follow. He was given perfect candidates to work with. It went swimmingly.’
‘So does that mean I get dodgy candidates?’
‘No, not at all. Jarrod’s jobs were easy and meticulously picked; remember these were test cases. You will have to use your discretion. There may be some candidates who seem perfect on paper but there may be something we haven’t anticipated.’
‘One of the first selected jobs involved an old woman with no living relatives. She had declining health so there would have been no suspicion aroused…’
‘But, although we have census data, bank details, medical records, pharmaceutical details, Centerlink, Medicare and utilities information, she had a live-in-friend who went below the radar. That’s why we need to carefully scope out these jobs. That’s why we need you.’
‘Where do the drugs you use come from?’
‘Ah, yes. We avoid the obvious sources, dubious doctors or veterinarians. We have a supplier in the pharmacological trade, someone high up, who is above suspicion. You don’t need to worry about medications being traced to you.’
‘How will I receive the drugs we need?’
‘Jarrod picks them up directly from the supplier. Every month or so he will take a road trip. That is another reason it may be prudent to keep using him, but of course that’s up to you. I will have him call you in the next day or so.’ Lawrence handed Angus a prepaid phone. ‘You can meet him and decide.’
Angus drank the dregs of his soda water while he checked out the phone. ‘There is a number here for a laundry?’
‘That’s my number, but you aren’t to use it.’
’Yes, and I mean dire emergency. I don’t ever want to get a call from you. Nothing personal.’
Angus grunted and shoved the phone in his pocket. ‘Anything else I should know?’
‘I think we’ve covered most things. One hit per week for the next ten weeks and then you move on.’
‘Do I meet the beneficiaries of these hits?’
‘No. You won’t have contact with them. Your job is simple and quick.’
‘But the price per job is the one that Jackie mentioned.’
Lawrence smiled and hoped it didn’t look as condescending as it felt. ‘As I said before Angus, you will be paid well. Whatever figure Nam mentioned will be honoured.’
‘Yeah, coz you seem like a pretty honourable man,’ Angus grinned.
Lawrence forced the smile to stay on his face, but the hold on his beer bottle tightened and there was an edge to his voice when he eventually spoke. ‘Was that as funny as your jokes get?’ he asked.
Angus’ Adam’s apple bobbed up and down and he muttered an apology.
Lawrence was pleased to see the other man’s discomfort. ‘Right, time to get to work then.’ He handed Angus a briefcase. ‘Tickets to Adelaide, laptop, passport, ID including Medicare card and driver’s licence, car lease details, apartment rental details, a credit card and files on fifty potential hits on a USB. I don’t have to tell you to guard this information with your life do I?’
‘No, no you don’t.’
‘Well, good luck. I will be in touch in due course.’
Angus stood and nodded. He held out a hand and Lawrence reluctantly shook it. Lawrence knew his handshake was as sappy as his smile but he didn’t care what Angus thought of him. He wanted to be alone.
Once the door closed Lawrence sighed and returned to the bar fridge. He took out a small bottle of coke and plucked two tiny bottles of Johnny Walker from the shelf above. He drank it down in three large gulps and then rang the concierge for a taxi to the airport.
He was looking forward to going home.