Ellie didn’t want to cry and she bit her lip until it bled in an attempt to stop the flood of emotion. Nick had arrived home from Sydney just a few hours before and he hadn’t expected her to visit until the following day. He seemed pleasantly surprised to see her standing on his doorstep, but she saw the frown of concern.
‘What’s wrong Ellie?’
She rushed past him before she blubbered, and held her breath until she was in control. He followed her to his kitchen and stood in silence, waiting for her to explain. She sat at the table, chewing her fingernail while she chose her words.
‘I had a nasty job last night.’
He pulled out a chair and sat opposite.
‘I covered a night shift to fill in the time until you got back. We had a death, and…it was awful.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
Ellie nodded and continued. ‘He was an old fella with a few problems. It seems that he took a bath but didn’t check the temperature first. By the time we got there it was too late.’ She stared at the table-top. ‘The smell was so bad. He had dementia, but he still must have suffered.’ Ellie held her head in her hands. ‘I can’t get the smell out my nostrils, it was like cooking…it was hideous.’
Nick rose from his chair and embraced her. Ellie gave up trying to hold it in. She let the tears flow. It took a few minutes before she could speak.
‘I had another dead patient only two days before.’
‘Oh no! I wish I hadn’t gone away and left you.’
She shrugged and sighed. ‘It would have been hard to deal with either way.’
‘Do you think any of these deaths are suspicious?’
‘Well…no, I guess not, or maybe they are.’
‘What about autopsies? Do they show anything strange?’
‘We don’t get told anything like that. Not unless the relatives directly choose to tell us what happened. But all of these older patients have problems, problems that are potentially fatal. It’s just a bad run we are having. The doctor signs the death certificate and they are in the ground or cremated within a week. I doubt any of these cases get to the coroner’s department.’
‘I can look at the files and make sure they don’t require further investigation.’
Ellie wiped her cheeks and shrugged. ‘I remember my first winter on the ambulance, hearing that the nursing home lost twelve people with influenza in just three weeks. It happens with old people, they die.’
Nick went to the fridge and brought back two beers. He offered Ellie one and she took it with a weak smile. ‘Thanks.’
‘Maybe you should take some time off?’
‘I really can’t. There aren’t enough volunteers as it is, and if I get a paid job I’ll have to cut back on my ambo hours. I’m going to hate doing that.’
‘You have to look after yourself. You’ll be no use to anyone if you burn out.’
She took his hand and kissed it. ‘I love that you care. I really am fine. It’s just been too much in a short amount of time.’
‘Will you stay here tonight?’ Nick asked.
‘I’d love to but I’m on call early.’
‘I can set the alarm early. We won’t have a late night, I promise.’
She felt choked up but refused to break down. She was sick of tears. Instead she held out her beer bottle and Nick tapped it with his.
‘Thank God you’re home,’ she whispered.
Nick smiled but it soon disappeared. ‘There is something wrong isn’t there?’
‘It’s just a feeling. Something about some of the deaths recently has the hair on the back of my neck rising, not all of them, just some.’
‘Ellie…you don’t strike me as melodramatic. You are practical and logical. If you feel strongly that something is not quite right at these scenes you need to report it. If the officer present doesn’t show any real interest you need to go a bit higher. I don’t think you should involve me, just because we are an item, but I think you need to take it further. I mean, what if there is something more sinister going on? You wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if you ignored it, would you?’
‘No,’ she said quietly. After a minute or two of wool-gathering she said, ’we had a case a few years ago which involved an ex-ambo and his mother. I didn’t know him very well; he’d quit by the time I started.
‘We were called to an unresponsive patient. She had died. We knew the lady; we had treated her chronic respiratory condition and taken her to the hospital many times. It should have been a blessing that she went peacefully at home but I sensed there was something wrong.’ Ellie paused to sip her beer and to gaze at Nick; he was listening intently. ’If there are enough resources on a priority one call we will get paramedic back up, if not, we can leave the scene if the police are in attendance and they wait for a death certificate from the doctor, and then the deceased is moved by the undertaker.
’On this particular callout the paramedic who attended mentioned that they had been followed by the lady’s son. The man had driven dangerously, following the ambulance at the same speed on the highway, which, as you know, is thirty kilometres over the speed limit. Apparently the man ran another car off the road in an effort to keep up.
’Now, I got it that the bloke was upset, it was his mum after all, but when he got to the scene he was yelling that no-one was to touch his mother. I was checking her at the time, and about to get an ECG readout just as a matter of thoroughness. He came stomping into the room and told me to get away from her. He said she had an Advance Care Directive stating that she was not for resuscitation. She was too far-gone for that any way, but he wouldn’t listen. He also blamed the hospital for letting her die. He said that she’d been suffering with pneumonia and had been discharged too early.
‘I walked away and joined everyone else outside. We let the man have the time with his mother. We cleared the job and left, but something about what had happened disturbed me. I mean, how did this guy know an ambulance was on its way to his mother? The district nurse had found the dead woman. The nurse said she had rung the ambulance only and not the woman’s next of kin. I knew this because I had spoken with her just after we arrived.’
‘Maybe,’ Nick offered, ‘he was keeping an eye on the emergency services scanner page. I have the app on my phone.’
Ellie nodded. ’Sure, that’s possible, except, the jobs pop up all the time. You would need to watch it constantly. What are the odds of looking at it randomly and spotting that particular call out? If it weren’t for the fact that it was named as a retirement village, it would have just come up as a job in Moonta, but even so, why would he assume it was his mother when there were dozens of other people living there. Unless of course you knew it was going to be your mother. He had to get there fast just in case she was still alive. He had to stop us in case we managed to resuscitate her.’
‘So what happened?’
Ellie smiled, ‘I’m getting there.’ She drank down the last of her beer and adjusted herself in the hard backed chair. ‘I found out later that the man was charged with his mother’s murder. While we waited outside that day, he hid the drugs that she had been given by the hospital. She hadn’t taken any of them. Her infection had gotten worse and the tubing to her oxygen supply had been disconnected. The poor thing would have really been struggling at the end.’
‘How did the police find out?’
‘The district nurse had noticed the oxygen tubing and mentioned it to the police. When they asked the woman’s son to hand over all of her medications he refused. His behaviour was odd, even for a grieving son. At the time they didn’t press him because of the sad circumstances but they ordered a coroner’s inquest. The woman had not been treated with antibiotics or her diuretics, and she had high amounts of her prescribed sleeping medication in her system. Her lungs were full of infection and fluid. Faced with the overwhelming evidence, her son cracked and admitted his guilt.’
‘Were you involved in any way?’
‘I did chat to the district nurse that evening. I had to. I couldn’t get it off my mind.’
‘You persuaded her to speak to the police?’
Ellie nodded and stretched her hands out on the table. ‘It was just a gut feeling. Unfortunately I have that feeling again.’
Nick sighed. ‘Where do you want to start?’
‘With the man who was half cooked last night I guess. As far as I could tell he had no family. If the police were suspicious they would ask for an inquest.’
‘Who were the attending officers?’
‘The big bloke, Tom I think his name is. I’m not sure who the other fellow was.’
‘I can talk to Tom. He’s a good person.’
Ellie sighed and felt layers of tension dissipate. She lifted her hands from her knees; they no longer trembled. ‘You don’t think I’m overreacting?’
‘I really hope you are Ellie, I mean, that would be the best outcome wouldn’t it? I hope nothing untoward has happened to the poor old man, but if it has we need to know and find out who is responsible. I totally agree that the case needs further investigation.’
Ellie took his hand and squeezed it. ‘That’s what I needed to hear, that you don’t think I’m losing the plot. Thank you Nick.’
Lawrence didn’t like rural areas. He felt like a fish out of water anywhere but big cities. He’d spent most of his adult life living in either Sydney or Melbourne. The barren landscapes and huge distances between towns made him jumpy. The drive to Moonta was as unnerving as he’d imagined. So much of the land was flat and barren and the rest was made up of fields of wheat that went as far as the horizon. For more than twenty kilometres he didn’t even see another car. By the time he did he’d begun to hyperventilate.
He didn’t believe that Angus had seen Nam, but before he returned home he felt the need to take a look at the towns of the Copper Triangle. He was compelled to know if there was a reason, and not just chance, that Nam had chosen this place. Lawrence arrived in the small town just before dark. He gave a sigh of gratitude as he reached the limits of the meagre civilisation; this place was better than the nothingness of the countryside.
There was plenty of accommodation available at this time of year and he chose a cliff top apartment near the Moonta Bay jetty. It was far superior to what he’d expected. The food in one of the local pubs was passable and the barista in the main street served wonderful coffee. All in all, the little place wasn’t so bad.
Lawrence woke early the next morning and drove around to see some of the points of interest he’d found in a guide book left by the toaster in his apartment. He visited the areas where the Cornish people had mined for copper in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although he’d never had a passion for history he had to admit he found it interesting. And he even felt a degree of sympathy for the hard lives the townsfolk had suffered.
On his walk through the old mining area he stopped at the remains of an old pump house. He circled it and paused to fan his sweating brow with his straw hat. A pigeon flew from the old ruin, loudly flapping its wings as it passed by. Lawrence turned his head and stared. He’d seen this place before, this very same view. The tall limestone building with the even taller round chimney beside it, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember where he’d seen it.
By two o’clock that afternoon he’d had enough and he drove back to his apartment. He was meeting up with both Jarrod and Angus, at separate secure destinations, the following day, and after that he would travel home. His teeth ground with anticipation.
Jarrod applied the burn lotion to his hands, wincing as he touched the burst blisters. He would get no sleep tonight, again. Things had gone wrong because of his lack of a decent nights slumber. When this job had started it had been easy to sleep during the day and work in the wee hours, but somewhere along the line his body clock had ceased to be compliant. He found himself staring at the ceiling while the sun rays found their way past chinks in the curtains. Sleep became elusive. Once the darkness fell his eyes would grow heavy, and he needed to set the alarm to get the job done at the correct time. Now he felt tired all the time. No wonder he’d thrown caution to the wind.
He took a swig of scotch and another Tramadol, his third, to ease the pain this morning, and he cursed the old man who’d caused this mess under his breath.
The job two nights ago had gone like clockwork at the beginning. The old bloke had taken his overdose of sedatives without hesitation and Jarrod had sat with him while they took effect. The lounge room was cosy so Jarrod sat and watched the television for a while. It was the cooking show that gave him the idea of putting the old boy in the bathtub. He’d always wondered what a body would look like cooked.
It had been like an experiment, not something sick.
The old boy was no longer conscious and his pulse was weak, so Jarrod filled the bath. He slung the man over his shoulder, he was light, Jarrod guessed it was because of his advanced bowel cancer. There was no sign of life when he slid the fellow into the water, but the next thing the old man was thrashing and wailing. Jarrod was so shocked that it took him a second or two to respond. The flailing man was trying to get out of the tub so Jarrod had no choice but to hold him under the water.
He’d drowned an old girl once in Alice. She’d wandered into the physiotherapist pool, which was strictly off limits for unaccompanied patients, so it was a perfect opportunity. She’d taken more than five minutes to stop fighting against him.
The old man had taken less than two minutes to stop moving, but that was an eternity when the water was scolding hot. Jarrod had felt like screaming. And now his hands throbbed mercilessly.
It had been a major clusterfuck because just when things seemed once more under control, someone was knocking and hollering at the front door. Jarrod had escaped unseen, but he was shaken. It was a close call and it was difficult to concentrate whilst driving to his house. Then to add to his worries, a strange car was parked across from his driveway. He wasn’t sure if he was being paranoid, or being watched. He had the wherewithal to take down the number of the car, and to notice that the plates were from New South Wales, but it was one more concern he didn’t need.
He dialled Angus’ number.
‘Jarrod? This had better be important. You aren’t supposed to phone me unless it’s urgent.’
‘I know that! I’m not stupid.’
‘Meet me at the place,’ Angus said before he hung up.
‘What’s with the gloves?’ Angus asked. There were no pleasantries today.
Jarrod spilled out the whole story and endured at least five minutes of stony silence. ‘Well? Can’t you say something?’ he asked. ‘Just look at my hands!’
‘You put him in a hot bath? How could you?’
‘I thought he was dead.’
More silence. Angus’ mouth had fallen open and he gazed out to the shore.
‘Jesus Angus, aren’t you going to help me?’
‘I think I’m being watched. You need to help me. I need to find out what this guy who’s watching me wants and get rid of him.’
‘I think you are being over reactive man. This botched job has made you jumpy.’
‘I didn’t botch it. The guy is dead.’
‘You boiled him alive. You were supposed to give him an overdose.’
’Old people with dementia do get into hot baths. If anything it probably makes it more realistic.’
‘Have you ever wondered whether you are insane?’
‘There’s no need for name calling.’
‘Okay Jarrod. I’ll see if Lawrence can do a numberplate check on the car. We’ll find out who this dude is, and please, for the next job just stick to the drugs. I don’t care about your sick fetishes, just do the job you were asked to do.’
‘It was an experiment.’
‘Jarrod, shut up!’
Jarrod began to protest but Angus raised his hand and shook his head. It wasn’t fair. Jarrod did the job he was supposed to do and he’d injured his hands in the process, but Angus didn’t even care.
‘Fuck you Angus,’ he said.
‘Grow up Jarrod. We have a job to do and although it is straight forward, there are risks. We minimise those risks by sticking to a plan and…’
‘Don’t lecture me Angus. I was doing this work before you came along.’
‘Then you of all people should realise how careful you need to be! What if someone had busted down the door and seen you?’
Jarrod heard his knuckles pop as he clenched his fists. ‘I would have dealt with them.’
‘How? You would have dispatched them?’
‘If I had to.’
‘We are not here on some murder spree Jarrod. We are here to gently euthanize a few old people who are dying anyway. You can’t start killing random witnesses, you know why?’
Jarrod didn’t answer. He jutted out his chin and looked away.
‘I’ll tell you why. Because we don’t need to if the job is done properly. You were told to arrive at the old man’s house at two in the morning, weren’t you?’
Jarrod buried his hands in his pockets but he really wanted to punch Angus in his self-righteous face.
‘Is there a reason you arrived at eight pm instead?’
Angus endured a minute of silence and then continued. ’Perhaps you needed to by home in time to watch My Kitchen Rules, or maybe the Bachelorette?’
Jarrod mumbled an obscenity.
‘Pardon Jarrod? I didn’t hear you?’
‘I was tired. I needed an early night.’
Angus hissed between his teeth and shook his head. ‘So by not sticking to the procedure time you disturbed the old man’s neighbour, and then became so paranoid that you suspected you were being watched. But maybe if you’d done the job at two in the morning you wouldn’t have been watched, which I don’t think you were.’
‘I want to know who owns that car.’
‘You shouldn’t be making demands Pal. You really need to pull your head in.’
Jarrod put his hands on his hips, his chin thrust upwards. ‘Or what?’
Angus put a finger to his lip in pretend contemplation. ‘Hmm,’ he began, ‘Or, I guess you would be out of a job. Do you have any idea what being an out of work hired-killer’s future would be? Or should I say, one who has fucked up big time?’
Jarrod frowned but remained silent.
Angus held his finger in the air, aping a light-bulb moment. ’Oh yeah, I know! It would be sweet-fuck-all. There is no future for you after this job. Don’t you get it?’
‘Yes there would,’ Jarrod insisted. ‘They would still need me.’
‘Not if there are any more mistakes. If you get back to work and do only what you’re supposed to I will put this little incident behind us. But any more stuff ups and Lawrence and Jackie will have to know.’
‘You better not dob me in.’
‘You better not stuff up.’
‘Didn’t. Don’t just walk away from me. I need to know who that car belongs to. Angus, come back. Angus…’
Jarrod kicked the sand and swore under his breath. He would find out who was watching him. He would make Angus sorry he made those nasty threats.
Ahmed fell silent. He had been standing at the kitchen sink dividing up frozen cockles. It took a moment to grasp Yalda’s words. He had trouble making out what this request could mean.
‘Does Jackie know that Felicia asked you to go to Sydney?’ he asked after a moment of processing.
Yalda shrugged and chewed her bottom lip. ‘I guess so.’
‘But you don’t know. I think you need to ask her. We are supposed to keep our identities secret because we have a new life now. Going back to Sydney, back to where we were different people…it doesn’t sound right. If Jackie knows and is okay with it, then I suppose you could go.’
Ahmed saw her tentative smile, just before she rushed forward to hug him.
‘Only if Jackie says it’s okay!’
‘Yes Ahmed, thank you! I will call her now and find out.’
Ahmed nodded as she fled to the bedroom. He went and sat at the outdoor table under the shade of the Jacaranda tree, which was finally breaking out in purple blooms that heralded the beginning of warmer spring weather. He and Baltasar were going to the jetty first thing in the morning. They prepared their fishing rods and bait. Baltasar was shaking a plastic container to see the gents inside the mounds of sawdust.
‘Don’t do that you’ll damage them,’ Ahmed said distractedly.
He knew that Yalda was excited by the prospect of this holiday, but Ahmed felt it was unlikely that Jackie had knowledge of this trip. He conceded that it was possible. From what little he’d heard of Jackie and Felicia’s marriage, it appeared that Felicia got most things that she asked for. He’d witnessed first hand Jackie’s resolve crumple under one of her displays of melodrama, at the hospital the day their son fell ill. He didn’t remember what the issue was, but he saw Jackie quickly give in. At the time Ahmed found it amusing.
And would it be such a bad thing if he were alone for a few days? He’d been observing the man he believed was responsible for Morris Harrop’s death. It was strange but Ahmed felt responsible for the old man’s demise. The man had not been his father, but somehow he felt an ownership, and a desire to get revenge on the old bloke’s behalf. Ahmed shook his head with the silliness of the idea. He would observe, that was all he would do. If the man truly was a murderer, then he was a danger. Ahmed would keep his distance. He just needed to know.
As he fastened a small hook above the sinker, Yalda rushed out the back door. Ahmed looked up and the barb stabbed him, drawing a speck of blood. He sucked his finger; his gaze remaining on his wife. She was beaming from ear to ear.
‘It’s okay. Jackie said we can go!’
Lilith had followed her mother out into the yard and Yalda clasped the girl’s hands and spun her around. ‘We are going to the Italian Festa!’ she cried.
Lilith giggled and Baltasar muttered “awesome” from beside him. Ahmed nodded; it was good to see the family happy. He finished preparing his fishing rod and packed it in the car for the following day.
In the bathroom, while he washed his hands, the sounds of chatter and laughter about the Festa were contagious. He smiled at his reflection in the mirror, wishing the nagging doubt would leave him. He’d become a worrier and he couldn’t seem to shake it. He splashed his face with water and patted it dry with a hand towel. He set a smile on his face and went to join his jubilant family.
Angus found the prepaid phone in the side pocket of the bag given to him by Lawrence. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It was only to be used in dire situations. Angus was pretty sure this was one. If only Jarrod had taken him seriously about performing every job to the letter, but rather than feeling confident after chastising him, Angus felt less assured. He had the niggling sensation that Jarrod would stuff something else up just to spite him; so Angus too would lose credibility. He’d seen that look on his partner’s face, the one that said; you think you have one over me, but you’d better watch your back. Jarrod couldn’t be trusted so Angus rang the number.
‘What?’ Lawrence answered.
‘Trouble,’ Angus said.
‘I’ll come to you.’
‘I’m not far away. I was coming to see you anyway.’
‘Is something wrong?’ Angus wondered why he felt guilty.
‘No I just happened to be in the area. I’ll meet you. The directions are on the page.’
The damn page! Angus didn’t like using social media, and he especially hated the Buy and Swap Bee Gee’s Memorabilia page that he’d been made part of. It was a closed group with about fifty members, but Angus had a feeling that there were significantly less. And he found the cryptic wording of the posts a pain in the arse to interpret.
Angus wondered if he was making too much of Jarrod’s actions. Maybe Lawrence would find it amusing and tell him to get a grip. But he doubted it.
They met at the cliff top site, which Angus had deduced was the location from the recent comments about Cliff Richards and The Four Tops on the dreaded page. It made sense, but still he had groaned. He had never been one for puzzles and riddles.
Lawrence was already seated on the bench as Angus strolled from the Port Hughes end of the bay.
‘You were already here, in Moonta?’ Angus asked.
‘Yes. I needed to get a feel for this place.’
Angus frowned. It wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting. Lawrence had come across as an anti-feeling type of person, but maybe that was just the persona he liked to display. Angus didn’t question his motives; he just sat at the far end of the bench. Lawrence moved closer but Angus said nothing. He had a feeling that the lanky computer geek did it to get a rise out of him, so he didn’t react.
‘So what is the problem?’ Lawrence asked.
‘I um… Jarrod asked me not to dob him in, and…I wasn’t going to…’
‘But, his behaviour is freaky and I think it’s getting worse. He scares me and I think he could be a danger to all of us.’
’He could be dangerous to you if he finds out you grassed on him.’
Angus gave a groan. ‘I know.’
‘What has he done?’
Angus told the story. He didn’t embellish, he just said it as he’d heard it.
‘Jeez!’ Lawrence was silent for some time. He steepled his long fingers in his lap while he thought. Angus was relieved that he appeared so concerned, and Lawrence must have sensed his thoughts. ‘You haven’t overreacted. Jarrod behaved badly. And, as you pointed out, he went against the plan. He should have known that carrying out the job in the early evening was risky.’
Angus stayed silent. There was nothing to say, and the decision, if any, was way above his pay-grade.
‘I want you to keep this under your hat. The next job is due tonight. I’ll contact you before then. I will talk to Nam and we’ll decide the best course of action.’
‘So no clue?’
Lawrence shook his head. ‘I can’t rule out shutting down our operation and getting the hell out of here, but that isn’t solely my call.’ Lawrence gave him a sidelong glance; concern softening his features. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Yeah…yeah man, I’m okay. I mean it’s a bit weird, but I am coping.’
‘Mm. It is a shame that such a simple process should become so…traumatising.’
‘If you sack him, he’ll go off the deep end.’
‘I’m aware of that. Jarrod is a specialist, but his niche is also limited. I don’t see much of a future for him.’
Angus swallowed hard. He’d said as much to Jarrod. ‘Will he…um, have to know that I told you?’
‘No, of course not.’
Angus scratched his closely cropped scalp. ‘I don’t know why you hired someone like him.’ He glanced sidewards to gauge Lawrence’s reaction.
‘I didn’t make the decision to hire Jarrod.’
‘It was Jackie?’
‘Mm. I never did understand why.’
‘Is he a friend of his?’
Lawrence’s lips pursed with displeasure. ‘We’ve known him since we were kids, but I don’t know what Nam was thinking when he gave him a job. He’s good at what he does but he’s a liability.’
‘But Jackie will see reason?’
‘Let’s keep a hold of our horses until I speak with Nam. But should it come to terminating Jarrod’s contract, it will be swift.’
Angus’ mouth went dry. When Lawrence stared at him he found he couldn’t hold the gaze. His looked at his knees.
‘Did you have a question?’
Angus shrugged. His tongue was drying out.
‘I think I know what you want to ask. And the answer is “yes” Angus. You will be the one to terminate Jarrod if it comes to that. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.’
‘How?’ Angus croaked. ‘How can I possibly kill him? He’s so dangerous.’
Lawrence gave a weak smile. ‘Yes he’s dangerous, but he’s also dumb. You will tell him it’s time to move on to the new location. And it will be, but not as he will believe it; a bullet to his head while he sleeps maybe, you could get him drunk first if you like. There will be a proper clean up afterwards. No trace of him will be found, and as he is a man who lives under the radar, popping up only now and again, no one will notice him gone. But as I said, we will worry about that if it happens.’
It sounded easy enough, but it didn’t make Angus feel any better. He realised how expendable both he and Jarrod were.
Lawrence stood and stretched. ‘What a beautiful day, and what a picturesque location. I guess you’ll be sad to move on?’
Angus threw Lawrence an incredulous gaze. He felt bile at the back of his throat and wished he’d never laid eyes on the lanky bloke. But if Lawrence was offended, he didn’t show it.
‘I’ll be in touch tonight.’
Angus almost gagged.