Angus sat in the passenger seat shaking his head. He was feeling ill and it had nothing to do with Jarrod’s rotten body odour. Jarrod started the motor and they pulled away, cruising slowly down the quiet black street with the lights off. The job had been successful but Angus found it traumatic. The images wouldn’t leave him.
‘What the fuck did you do to her man?’ Angus finally asked.
Jarrod chuckled. ‘I used to be a psychiatric nurse. It’s a hold I learned years ago. Keeps them still and gives the drugs time to kick in. After that they’re putty in your hands.’
‘You didn’t strangle her?’
‘No. Holding her like that meant she couldn’t move. If she could move she would scratch me or punch at me. If that happened there would be signs of injury, or DNA at the scene.’
‘But it won’t look suspicious now?’
Jarrod shook his head as they turned onto the highway. His shaved head accentuated his thick brow.
‘Why did you cut her?’ Angus asked.
‘It wasn’t a cut, it was a graze to hide the injection site. By the way, did you pick up the Band-Aid wrapper?’
‘Yeah, I didn’t leave anything behind.’
‘There was no way she was going to swallow tablets. The dementia sometimes makes them hard to get along with.’
The car picked up speed and Jarrod put the lights on full beam. Theirs was the only car on the road. It was almost three am.
‘She shat herself. Is that a problem?’ Angus asked.
‘No, as long as you didn’t step in it and leave size eleven prints everywhere.’
‘No,’ Angus said quietly. ‘I think most of it stayed in her pyjama pants.’
‘Unusual that she wore them, most old girls wear night gowns.’
Angus shuddered at Jarrod’s observation. The old lady had looked a lot like Angus’ Gran.
‘What was that song she was trying to sing after she stopped squealing?’
Angus pinched the bridge of his nose. His eyes were stinging and his stomach lurched. ’She was trying to sing Amazing Grace. It’s an old hymn.’
‘Oh yeah, I know it. She was a crap singer.’
‘She was dying at the time.’
Jarrod laughed so much he snorted.
‘Stop the car!’ Angus yelled.
Jarrod hit the skids and came to a halt in the middle of the road. ‘What?’ he asked, but Angus was hanging out the door, vomiting loudly.
‘Are you alright mate?’
Angus spat out the last of the sick and waited for a moment. His stomach was sore and his head was beginning to ache. Not for the first time he wondered if this job was such a good idea. Once the nausea passed he sat up and waved Jarrod to drive on. ‘I’ll be okay,’ he muttered.
‘Well good. You know you don’t have to come with me. The less people at a scene the better.’
Angus silently agreed with him. After a moment he asked, ‘how did you get to be so good at doing…what you did?’
‘Like I said psych nursing taught me heaps, and then I did a stint at an aged care place in Alice Springs. Some of those dementia patients could be a real pain unless you knew how to handle them.’
‘So you handled them?’ Angus gazed at Jarrod who shot back a smile.
‘I sure could handle them. Whenever there was a problem the staff would come and get me.’
Angus gagged and heaved onto the floor, but only a thin rope of saliva came up.
‘Jesus mate! You need to take something for that. I don’t need you chucking up in my car.’
Angus remembered his Gran singing Amazing Grace in church when he was a boy. She’d had the voice of an angel. Sometimes she had hummed it to him at bedtime. He remembered her pink candlewick dressing gown, so soft to cuddle up against. He also remembered that she always wore pyjamas. Had she died like that? He’d been told she went in her sleep, but maybe she’d cried out, and struggled against death, and soiled herself, and taken long gasping last breaths. Maybe she’d died badly, maybe everyone did.
He shuddered and gazed out at the black night.
They drove the rest of the way in silence.
‘Wow, this is a really nice place,’ Ellie said as she walked into the kitchen.
‘Thanks, I like it. Are you feeling better?’
Ellie felt her face begin to heat. ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t think I’d get sea sick. I’ve been on a couple of cruises and I was fine.’
Nick shook his head as he handed her a beer. ‘It’s a different thing in a small boat. There is so much more movement, rocking from the waves.’
‘I feel like an idiot.’
‘Well don’t. It made a change, me being the nurse for once.’
‘I felt better almost as soon as I got off the boat. Sorry to just leave like that.’
‘It’s fine. Next time I’ll bring along some seasickness tablets.’
‘You’re a horse rider aren’t you?’
She looked confused but nodded.
‘You have to get back on the horse don’t you?’
She grinned. She really didn’t want to commit to going back on the boat when the horror of puking her guts up was still so raw.
Nick must have sensed her discomfort. He changed the subject. ‘Come and sit in the lounge room. I’ve got a fire going.’
‘That sounds inviting.’
Ellie looked at the two recliners but chose the sofa instead. She smiled at the sound of Nick Cave’s deep crooning that emanated from both side of the room.
‘You like Nick Cave?’ Nick asked.
’Love him. Murder Ballads is my favourite album.’
Nick laughed and said, ‘It’s mine too. All the killing is a bit over the top but it’s a classic.’
He came and sat beside her and she shrunk away.
‘I don’t bite,’ he said.
‘I know. I just…’
‘I can sit over there.’ He gestured to the chair.
‘No. Sit here please.’ She held his hand but her eyes took a moment to meet his. ‘I haven’t stopped thinking about you, and…it’s scary. I never felt this way about Jack and I was sure I loved him at first.’ As her face heated she realised she’d said the ‘L’ word, and nowhere in her pre-planning of this conversation did that eventuality arise. She clenched her fists and fought down the urge to run from the house. This time she didn’t look at him. ‘I think we should make love.’
Nick was staring at her but hadn’t moved. She dragged her fingers through her hair as panic engulfed her. She’d gone to far, moved to fast. She was scaring him away. As her eyes closed and she shook her head with frustration, she felt his fingertips on her cheek. Her eyes opened.
He held her gaze, nodded and stood, holding out his hand to her. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time; instead she followed him to the bedroom.
For a long time they just kissed, and between kisses stared into each other’s eyes. It was strange that his body, the image of which had become part of her nightly dreams, went almost unseen. She could feel it’s heat against her, and her hands touched almost every inch of it, but even through the all-consuming ecstasy her gaze could not be torn from his. She’d never been under someone’s spell before.
They didn’t get much sleep.
The next morning there was none of the awkwardness Ellie had felt with past lovers. Nick brought her coffee and lay on the bed next to her. There was no time for questions or discussions about what the consequences of their actions meant. Instead they made love again.
A week had passed and Nick and Ellie had spent every spare hour together. It hadn’t been said because they didn’t need to say it; they were together, and it felt like nothing could part them.
Ellie pulled up her trousers and tightened her belt. It was heavy with the gadgets that she used regularly on jobs and they tended to weigh her pants down.
‘You look good in that uniform.’
‘Oh don’t be ridiculous Nick. Nobody looks good in these green bags.’
‘You do.’ He sat up in the bed and looked at his watch. ‘You have five minutes to go.’ He patted the empty sheet beside him.
‘Very funny. It would take me ten to take all this stuff off again.’ She pulled on her boots. ‘I have to go brush my teeth.’
He gave a disappointed groan.
‘I’ll make you a coffee,’ she said as a conciliatory offer.
‘I suppose that will have to do.’
She wasn’t sure if it was a mock sulk or not but it was irritating. ‘It will have to do because it’s all you are getting.’ She exhaled and the stuffiness left her voice. ‘Why can’t we ever seem to have the same days off?’
‘I don’t know but it’s damn frustrating.’ He wriggled back down in the bed and pulled the sheet over his head.
‘What are you doing tonight?’ she asked.
‘My shift starts at four today. We have a training session early.’
‘Okay. I guess I’ll go to the gym with Sylv then. She’s been at me for weeks to come back. Now I have no excuse.’
‘How about Friday night?’
‘Sure. I’ll be off shift at seven, as long as we don’t get a late call.’
‘I’d like to cook for you.’
‘Really? Can you cook?’
Nick pulled an incredulous expression and shook his head.
‘Is that sulking?’ she asked.
‘I can’t believe you don’t think I can cook.’
’I didn’t say that. I just asked if you could. So what are you cooking?’
‘What sort of topping?’
‘What do you like?’
‘Um…barbeque chicken or seafood.’
‘Are you making the dough from scratch or are you phoning for a delivery.’
Her eyes narrowed as she watched him but he gave nothing away. ‘Well?’
He sunk back into the pillow and muttered something.
‘Delivery,’ he said as he pulled up the sheet.
Ellie threw a pillow at him and went to the bathroom.
Ellie’s first page came through just after nine. Things were hectic for a few hours but had slowed by three-thirty in the afternoon. Ellie used the opportunity to finish some on-line courses that were part of her continuing education. Just before seven Sylvia phoned to ask if she was going to the gym, and they planned to meet just before the eight o’clock circuit class.
It was a tough workout and both women were slick with sweat as they entered the small coffee shop by the exit doors. Ellie sat down and hooked her feet around the chair legs, mopping her face with a hand towel. Sylvia hit her chair so hard it screeched loudly on the tiled floor.
‘That woman is a sadist!’ Ellie complained as she rolled her cold water bottle over her brow.
‘It was supposed to be a light to medium workout, not bloody boot camp,’ Sylvia said.
They thanked Andre as he brought their coffees to the table, and looked away from his leering stare. He walked sidewards to maintain his gaze on them, his lips curled, his expression lascivious.
‘God he gives me the creeps,’ Sylvia whispered.
‘He gives all women the creeps, possibly a few men too.’
They giggled quietly, both aware that Andre was not quite out of earshot.
Ellie frowned and said, ‘speaking of the creeps, I’ve had something bugging me all day.’
‘An ambo job?’
‘Yes. A deceased patient this morning.’
‘Mm. It was sad but possibly a relief for the lady. She had a terminal illness.’
‘So what was so creepy?’
‘Well, she was way past help; there was lividity on her back and the backs of her legs. She’d been dead for a while. We didn’t intervene. We stayed back until the police arrived and while we waited I noticed how spotless her house was.’
Sylvia grinned. ‘That is creepy!’
Ellie couldn’t bring herself to smile. ‘She was lying in the middle of the wooden floor which was buffed to within an inch of its life. You could see your reflection in it, but not where she was lying. There were scuff marks all around her.’
‘Perhaps she had a seizure? That would explain it.’
‘She wasn’t wearing shoes or slippers. I don’t think you would get that kind of scuffing from bare feet.’
‘Some seizures are quiet violent.’
‘I know. It just looked… odd.’
Sylvia shrugged and took a sip of her coffee. ‘What did the cops say?’
‘I did mention it to them when they arrived. To say they weren’t interested is an understatement.’
‘I guess they don’t want to make a death by natural causes become something sinister. You have a point, but there could be some simple explanation.’
‘I guess. I just couldn’t shake the feeling though. It felt wrong.’
‘Oh well. Changing the subject for a moment,’ she leaned forward and grinned, ‘how is it going with Nick?’
Ellie smiled back. ‘Really good. He’s such a beautiful bloke, so thoughtful and caring.’
‘I don’t want to hear about the caring stuff, what’s he like in the sack?’
Ellie felt her face heating and she laughed. ‘Mind your own business!’
‘Ooh, he must be good then!’
‘Sylv! Shut up.’
‘You’re blushing and smiling; he must be hot.’
Ellie was giggling so hard that her stomach hurt. From the corner of her eye she saw that Andre had moved to wipe down a nearby table that was already clean. She gestured to Sylvia with her eyes and they both laughed out loud.
‘We better get out of here before we get kicked out.’ Sylvia suggested.
The temperature had dropped outside. The heat of the workout had long since passed, and they shivered as they reached their cars.
‘Hey, I forgot to ask, how’s the new job?’
Sylvia shrugged. ‘I don’t know yet, it’s too early to tell. Come along to the class next week and I’ll give you the low down.’
Ellie was shifting from foot to foot and rubbing her hands together for warmth. ‘See you then,’ she said as opened her car door. ‘I want to hear all about it.’
‘I want to hear all about Nick!’
They were both still laughing as they drove away in different directions.
It was a warm spring morning as Lawrence alighted from the crowded ferry. The Manly terminal was packed with tourists but only a dribble of people were taking the returning boat to Circular Quay.
He was wearing long baggy shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with palm trees. The dress may have appeared casual but he didn’t feel comfortable. Even sitting at a computer working for hours on end he wore a fresh linen shirt and pressed trousers. But today this type of attire felt necessary. He needed to be incognito. As he passed a souvenir shop he purchased a Billabong baseball cap, the brim of which he pulled down to the top of his sunglasses, concealing most of his face. As an afterthought he purchased a butterscotch ice-cream, more for appearances than for flavour.
He strolled along, taking in the beach view, but he didn’t stop walking until he reached the top of the sand dune on the left side of the bay, which at this hour of day was almost deserted. He regretted the ice-cream as he sat with sticky hands and nothing but his clothes to wipe them on.
Ten minutes had passed when he heard a cough from behind him.
‘Angus, nice to see you. Pull up a bit of sand.’
To his surprise Angus chuckled at the joke as he sat beside him.
‘Did you have a good flight?’
‘Do you like Manly?’
‘Yeah man, sure.’
‘And the apartment I rented for you, is it satisfactory?’
‘Yeah, it’s great. It’s not far from here.’
It occurred to Lawrence that Angus liked small talk as little as he did.
‘How are things going in sunny Moonta?’
Angus shrugged but also gave a grudging nod. ‘Okay I guess.’ He gestured to the beach in front of them. ‘It’s nice to be away for a few days.’
‘Are you having problems?’
‘No, not really. We’ve stuck to our quota and have dispatched two so far.’
‘So I saw. Well done. And no hint of trouble? You look a bit concerned.’
‘Well…it’s just…I can’t say I like Jarrod’s methods. He kind of…takes a bit too much pleasure in it.’
Lawrence steepled his hands on his lap. ‘I thought he might. Do you think it could cause a problem?’
‘It hasn’t so far but I find him repulsive.’
‘Repulsive but effective?’
Angus nodded and gazed at the sand near his feet.
‘I know you would like to oversee all aspects of the jobs, but Jarrod is an expert at what needs to be done. I think once you are sure the site is secure, you should leave the rest to him. Maintaining clandestineness is our major worry and that’s why I hired you.’
‘I understand all that.’
‘Angus,’ Lawrence said quietly. ‘This isn’t an easy thing to do I know. Leave Jarrod to do the dirty work. It will be far easier on you, and probably better for him.’
‘He’s a sicko.’
Lawrence sighed and crossed his legs, resting his elbows on his knees. ‘Of course he’s a sicko, and thank goodness for that. He’s happy to do the sick work, so leave it to him. This job will get done one way or another. I really want you on board but I understand if you want out.’
Angus gave a bitter laugh. ‘Sure, I can just walk away.’
‘Well, of course not. That’s why I think you should stick to what you do best and let Jarrod get on with his work. Symbiosis is what we need from you two.’
‘What does Jackie think of all this? I know he has this dream of helping refugees, for a price, but didn’t he have grandparents too?’
‘Oh, I see. You need to remember that the people we select for dispatch have had their lives. We don’t pick anyone who doesn’t already have one foot in the grave.’
Angus bent his head and scratched his brow, like a frustrated child Lawrence observed. ‘Does that fact make it any easier?’ he asked softly.
‘If you want out I will see if I can get you work elsewhere, but I’d really like you to stick with it a bit longer. You have another eight jobs in that town, just another two months of work and then I can organise a two month break for you up north somewhere, maybe Cairns, how does that sound?’
‘It’s just that the old lady last week…’
Lawrence had the data on his tablet but he didn’t need to look at it. ‘She had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which meant she had a hard time just breathing, Insulin Dependent Type two diabetes, which meant she had to monitor and inject herself twice daily or face a coma or worse, severe osteoarthritis in both hips and one knee, which meant that just the act of walking around was sheer agony, and she was in the early stages of dementia so her future was certainly bleak. If my dog had just one of those medical issues I would have him put to sleep, and I love my dog.’
‘You’re comparing her to your dog?’
Lawrence ignored the question. ‘If you had all of those things wrong with you and someone handed you a loaded gun, would you use it?’
‘That assumes I have a choice. These people don’t get a choice.’
‘It sounds like you want out.’ Lawrence stood and folded his arms across his chest.
‘Not coping,’ Lawrence finished for him. He watched Angus’ face; it grew pale. He was obviously trying to comprehend his options. Lawrence sighed and strode off down the hill at a smart pace. He had almost reached the water’s edge before Angus fell in beside him.
‘Okay, okay. I will let Jarrod get on with his work without me, maybe then I can stomach this job a little better.’
‘Have you checked your bank account this week?’
Angus shook his head. His expression was miserable.
‘I have put in a little bonus which may just take that glum look off your face. Nam is really pleased with your work so far, and so am I.’
It seemed that Angus was not going to be cheered by the promise of more money, nor flattered by compliments.
‘Tell me,’ Angus asked, ’what do you think of Jarrod?’
‘He does a great job.’
‘No, that’s not what I meant. What do you think of him, as a person?’
Lawrence stopped and let the waves lap over his runners. ’As a person? I think he’s insane, totally mad, but is he the best person for this job? Yes, he certainly is.’ Lawrence strode off again. ‘Keep up the good work,’ he said over his shoulder.
The ferry was docking at the terminal and Lawrence was glad to be going home. He didn’t stop to glance at the bathers knee deep in the cool water; not the girls, or the boys. Some days he didn’t really like humanity at all.