Quiet End

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Chapter 8

Erica tugged at Ellie’s sleeve. ‘Come on, we need to clear, there is nothing we can do here.’

But Ellie hesitated, scanning the scene for any detail that looked out of place. The old lady had one foot on the floor, as though she was getting out of bed. Her Webster pack on the night table had some of it’s small windows open, as if the woman made a desperate attempt to take a tablet that may have helped her. There was no sign of a struggle, just a tired old lady who’d breathed her last.

‘Come on Ellie!’

‘Do you think everything looks normal?’

‘What? Let’s go. The old girl is dead and we need to go.’

‘I know, but, do you think this scene looks suspicious?’

’Crikey Ellie! Have you been watching too much Midsummer Murders again? Of course there’s nothing suspicious. The poor old love’s had one foot in the grave for the past couple of years. The cops are here and we need to go.’

Ellie glanced out the window but she didn’t see Nick. It didn’t matter, she told herself there was nothing out of the ordinary. She wasn’t feeling that creepy feeling. Erica was right; the old girl had died and it was no surprise.

‘Okay, let’s go.’

Ellie and Nick went to Sylvia’s for dinner that evening. It was a warm night, a taste of the summer to come, so they sat outside on the patio, taking in the jasmine scented air.

Sylvia put steaks on the barbeque and then went inside to gather salads. By the time she returned Nick was turning the meat with long handle tongs.

‘You need to keep an eye on this Sylv,’ he said.

Sylvia smirked. ‘I knew you would fall for my cunning plan. You’re doing a great job; keep at it. I’ll get you a beer.’

Sylvia sat beside Ellie at the table and poured them both a glass of Chardonnay. They clinked their glasses together and made faces at Nick who returned their gesture with his upright middle finger. ‘Very funny,’ he uttered.

‘So how’s work going Sylv?’ Ellie asked.

‘Good, much better since that weird carer quit. That guy freaked me out. How about you? Have you decided what you are going to do for money?’

‘No, not yet. I had an offer to work as a Jillaroo at a property in Queensland. One of my old pony club friends is the manager and she says I can have work whenever I want. The pay is pretty crap but it would be fun for a while.’

Sylvia gestured to Nick. ‘But you wouldn’t leave him?’

‘Oh, no way. It was a job I would have taken in a heartbeat when I was a kid. It was nice to get the offer. I miss riding.’

‘You need a job to get a horse.’

‘That’s right.’

‘How about nursing?’

Ellie pulled her hairband from her hair and shook it, and then replaced it to neaten up her ponytail. She sipped her drink and said, ‘I get enough of medical emergencies on the ambulance. I find general nursing a bit mundane.’

‘But it pays the bills.’

‘Yeah, I don’t need reminding about that. I’ve used the last of the trust fund money dad left. All I can do now is sell his car and caravan, after that I’m officially broke.’

‘It’s a cushy number where I’m working. I can put in a good word for you.’

‘Yeah, okay, that sounds good.’

‘It would be great to work together again.’

‘I’d love it. I’ll miss doing so many ambo shifts but I have to be realistic.’

‘Well you won’t be accumulating any superannuation while you work for free. And I know you like to help your community but I think they’ve had their fair share of you. Let someone else step up.’

‘You sound like Nick.’

‘Well at least he has a sensible outlook.’ Sylvia glanced in Nick’s direction and then waved her hands in the air to disperse the cloud of smoke. ‘What are you doing Nick? You aren’t supposed to cremate them. We don’t want beef jerky!’ She was on her feet and wrestled the tongs from Nick’s grip. ‘Go and sit down. Bloody Hell, they’re almost black!’

‘I guess you won’t trust me to cook again Sylv.’ Nick had a sly look on his face. ‘What a shame.’

‘I knew you were a shifty bastard!’ Sylvia laughed. ‘Serves me right for trusting you.’

They feasted on steak, snapper and a variety of salads. The wine ensured the conversation flowed and the laughter was frequent. Dessert was crème brulee and brandy snaps with chantilly cream, and although the common consensus was that they couldn’t eat a morsel more, it was finished off swiftly, as were the cheese and olives that followed.

It was almost midnight by the time Nick and Ellie arrived home. Nick had probably had one beer more than he should have, considering he was driving, and Ellie knew she had drunk way too much wine. She staggered slightly as they walked from the car. They were staying at Ellie’s house tonight and all three dogs greeted them at the gate.

‘It looks like they’ve had fun together,’ Ellie said as she spied the chewed broom by the back door.

Nick pointed to the ruined mop bucket. ‘Lot’s of fun,’ he agreed.

‘Let’s have a nightcap and maybe this mess won’t seem so bad.’

Ellie poured them both a whiskey liqueur and they sat on the front porch, away from the destruction. Nick kicked off his sandals and rested his feet on Ellie’s lap. There was music playing at the property next door. The air was so still they could make out the chorus rifts. If Ellie was asked to imagine a perfect scene; it was this one.

But after a minute or two she knew she had to ask, ‘is there any news on the old man in the bathtub?’

Nick nodded. ‘Cut and dry. It looked awful,’ he paused and patted her knee, ‘but there was nothing that the doctor thought warranted further investigation. He suspected the bloke had take too many sleeping pills, apparently the carer hadn’t hidden them as well as she should have, but as far as the bath was concerned, it is more common than you’d think. The bottom line was that the fellow would have been admitted to the nursing home two weeks ago. It was held up by red tape of some sort. All in all it was just unfortunate timing. He needed to be safe from his own actions, but it didn’t happen.’

Ellie frowned and admitted, ‘I am becoming paranoid.’

‘No Ellie, you care, there’s a big difference.’

‘Thanks Nick. I was just so sure…’

They sat in silence for a while, immersed in the warm air and music.

‘You don’t talk much about your past,’ Ellie said.

Nick gave a short laugh, ‘it isn’t that interesting.’

‘I’m interested.’

‘You’d be bored.’

‘Try me.’

‘I grew up in Cabramatta, as you already know. My dad died when we were young so we helped mum out in the shop. I moved out of home and went to Uni. I studied economics for a year and a half…’

‘And that’s were you met your wife?’

‘Ex-wife. Yeah.’ He gave a shrug. ‘Things didn’t work out and we split. I needed a change of scenery so I travelled around the country, working in bars mostly, and when I got sick of that I applied to join the police force. I trained at Fort Largs…’

‘Why South Australia? You were a long way from home. You could have trained in New South Wales.’

‘As I said, I still needed a change of scenery. I wanted to stay in this part of the world.’

‘What happened to your ex-wife…if you don’t mind me asking?’

‘Oh, she’s okay now. She remarried. She has all the money she needs, and kids.’

‘Are you happy for her?’

‘She’s not making me unhappy, so I guess I am happy.’ He leant forward and caressed Ellie’s arm. ‘I am so happy I’ve met you.’

‘What’s her name?’

Nick moved his feet from her lap and stiffened in the chair. ‘Do we have to talk about her?’

Ellie felt her face flush. ‘I’m so sorry…I didn’t mean to…’

‘No, no, I’m sorry. I’m just so glad to put all that crap behind me. I know you’re curious, that’s completely normal, it’s just that I wanted to have a good time tonight, and forget about all that stuff.’ He moved beside her and hunkered down, kissing her arm all the way to her shoulder. ‘I didn’t mean to be short with you. Is it okay if we leave that discussion for another day?’ He kissed her neck.

‘Sure.’

He kept kissing her until she moaned. When she offered him her hand, he pulled her to her feet and led her inside.

*

Yalda and the children caught the bus to the city and from there took another bus to the airport. Ahmed was relieved that he didn’t have to drive them, not so much from the boredom of the four hour round trip, more because the Mazda had recently snapped a timing belt, and although now fixed, Ahmed was waiting for the next thing to break on the aged vehicle.

In fact he distrusted it so much that he walked the kilometre and a half to watch the house where he suspected Morris’s killer lived. It was just on dusk and the few streetlights on the road glowed dimly. It would be a dark walk home so he carried a small LED torch. He circled the block, pausing once to say “hello” to an old lady who was watering hydrangeas in pots by her front fence. If she thought him suspicious, she kept it well hidden. She was happy to chat, and he felt if he stuck around long enough he’d hear her life story.

He paused at the back fence, screened from the roadway by a shaggy line of pencil pines, and visible only to anyone who may be in the house. He ducked down as low as he could. There was a man inside. Ahmed hid from view when he heard the screen door slide open. The person stepped out and hung a pair of jeans and long sleeved T-shirt on the clothesline. Ahmed took a quick glimpse just as the man was turning to go back inside. The man hesitated, just for a split second and then returned to the house.

Ahmed ducked down once more and had to work hard to control his ragged breathing. Logic told him he should walk away, maybe even run, but part of him was curious, and he’d come this far. He took another peek over the fence but the yard was empty and the light in the rear of the house had been switched off. He’d decided to wait for a few minutes more when he was struck on the back of the head.

The pain shot through his skull and his eyes blurred for a second as something hard knocked him off balance. His scalp felt hot where the glancing blow had struck, and a trickle of something sticky ran down his neck and back. He tried to call out but the sound was stopped as a huge arm encircled his neck and squeezed. He jabbed backwards with his elbow but the body he hit was hard and the pressure on his throat increased. His eyes were bulging as he fought to breathe. His vision was swimming and his limbs felt weak. He tried to say “please” just before everything went dark.

Something felt wrong when Ahmed’s eyes finally opened again. He had not taken many drugs in his life. Once when he broke his arm playing soccer as a boy he’d been given tablets to help with the pain. He hadn’t liked the feeling of disassociation; he had that same feeling now. When he tried to speak his tongue wouldn’t comply; it felt fat and gummy.

He rolled onto his back and tried to make out his surroundings. Linoleum floor, a stove across the room; it was a kitchen. He fought to sit up but as he sat taller his head spun; the vertigo making him nauseas. He lay flat and swallowed the saliva that had pooled into his mouth. There was a metallic taste and when he touched a hand to his lip it came away bloody.

He let his eyes close and wasn’t sure if he slept or not, but when he opened them again he was in a different room. There was a cupboard only a meter away to his left. His head throbbed as he turned to the right. He could see boxes stored under the bed and the carpet was itchy against his cheek. He sneezed. There had been a cat in here in the not too distant past. He could feel his eyes begin to swell.

His nose was running and he moved to rub it, but his hands were now restrained behind his back. The door swung open and the light in the hallway silhouetted a solidly built man. Ahmed groaned as the man stepped closer.

‘Okay mate,’ the man said, ‘you want to tell me what the hell you’re up to?’

‘I’m…sorry.’ The words caused pain to his throat. Some of it was due to the swelling from his cat allergy, but most was from the pain in his face and neck. He’d copped a hiding.

’Of course you’re sorry now! You got caught didn’t you? But why were you spying on me?’

‘I shouldn’t have.’

‘Ya think?’

Ahmed caught the sarcasm in the man’s tone. ‘Sorry,’ he said again.

‘Sorry isn’t an answer. What were you looking for?’

‘I don’t know.’

The man rubbed the side of his face, biceps bulging with the movement. ‘I guess you’ll be staying here until you do know.’

‘Police,’ Ahmed suggested. ‘You could call them.’

The man threw him an incredulous glance as he left the room. From the doorway he said, ’you will tell me.’

Ahmed heard the scrape of the key in the door lock. ‘Yalda,’ he whispered, ‘what have I done?’ He felt the hot tears sting his swollen eyes.

*

This was not a meeting that Lawrence gladly anticipated. Jarrod was a thug whom both he and Nam had known since childhood. They had all gone to school together. Jarrod’s mum had hooked up with one of Nam’s cousins, and although the bloke consequently dumped her after a couple of years, she remained living in the neighbourhood.

She raised Jarrod, but he was both neglected and abused. There were many stories about the atrocities he’d endured; some of them must have been true. Lawrence wondered if his sad life was a factor in Nam helping him out by giving him periodic work. To Lawrence, Jarrod was like a dog that has been beaten too often. He would do as he was told but it didn’t pay to turn your back on him.

It was raining, not heavily, but enough to keep the tourists and dog walkers indoors. Lawrence twirled his umbrella as he walked to the end of the jetty. The playful motion was at odds with his serious mood. He didn’t plan his words today; sometimes he did, but only when preparing to speak to someone rational. Jarrod did not fall into that category.

He could see a figure sitting on the far side of the shelter. As he drew closer he sighed with disappointment. He was hoping Jarrod wouldn’t show.

‘Good morning Jarrod,’ he said as he rounded the timber wall.

He got a grunt for a reply but he hadn’t expected anything more.

‘I hear you’ve been keeping up the good work. Excellent results so far. Nam is very pleased.’

Jarrod stared at him, not bothering to hide his contempt.

‘You know,’ Lawrence began, ‘that’s what I love about you Jarrod. I always know what to expect.’

‘What do you want to see me for?’

Lawrence didn’t sit; he stood leaning against the jetty railing, hoping his towering height would bolster his courage.

‘What do I want? Let’s see.’ He took a few seconds to gaze at the waves breaking on the rocks. ‘I want what Nam wants. Do you have any idea what that is?’

‘I’m doing my job. I’m getting results.’

‘So you are. But we have a small problem with the way you are getting them.’

‘Did that bastard Angus dob on me?’

Lawrence feigned confusion. He loved acting. It didn’t take much to fool a buffoon like Jarrod. ‘Angus? What has he got to do with anything? No Jarrod, Nam intercepted a police report about one of your jobs. Something about an old man being half-cooked in a bath-tub. Ring any bells?’

Jarrod’s bottom lip jutted out.

‘And Nam was concerned about the timing of the incident. You see he was pretty sure that you and Angus were told to carry out these jobs at opportune times. I would have thought while most people were sleeping would have been ideal, not while everyone in Moonta is awake and watching TV.’

Jarrod picked at the gunge under his fingernails. He refused to look at Lawrence.

‘Fine, now that we have that cleared up. What can I say to Nam when I speak to him? Shall I say that Jarrod is aware of his error and won’t be doing anything silly again? Or do I have tell him that you haven’t learnt your lesson?’

Lawrence let a few minutes go by. He took deep calming breaths while Jarrod stubbornly stayed silent.

‘I’m pretty sure you will do the right thing because we wouldn’t want Nam to get angry would we? We’ve all heard the stories, we know he loses his cool and gets a bit nasty. I’m pretty sure I can rely on you to do the right thing from now on. Keep up the good work Jarrod.’ He turned on his heel and fought down an urge to harpoon Jarrod in the face with his umbrella.

‘This bloke has been spying on me.’

Lawrence stopped in his tracks and wondered if he’d heard right. ‘What?’ he asked.

‘This bloke. I saw his car parked across the road. He was watching my house. Then I caught him outside, spying on me.’

A sudden constriction in his throat made Lawrence cough. ‘What did you do to him?’ He was fairly sure he didn’t want to hear Jarrod’s answer.

‘I caught him. He’s at my house.’

’You’ve taken a prisoner?’

‘He’s a spy.’

‘Jarrod, this isn’t a fucking Tom Clancy novel.’

‘Why is he spying on me? I want to know what he wants.’

‘Can he speak? He is alive… isn’t he?’

Jarrod shrugged and then nodded. These were not reassuring gestures.

‘Have you hurt him?’ Lawrence couldn’t disguise the panic in his voice.

‘No, well, maybe a little. He won’t die. I drugged him.’

‘Shit!’ Lawrence wiped his brow with a trembling hand. ‘I want to see him. We need to figure out what to do. Let me think.’ He paced back and forth three times, his left hand slapping his thigh as he moved. ‘Okay. You go back to your place and make sure the man is all right. Give him water, and food, and don’t hurt him or drug him anymore. I will come by just after dark. I’ll park a block or so away. Once I talk to him we’ll decide what to do. Do you understand Jarrod?’

It took a moment or two but eventually Jarrod nodded.

‘Good. Don’t talk to him, just look after him. I’ll sort this out.’

Lawrence strode down the jetty, a panicked urgency to his gait. He had been prepared for rudeness, stubbornness, and of course stupidity from Jarrod, but nothing had readied him for this massive cock-up. A prisoner, a hostage, what the hell was Jarrod thinking? This was a new level of dumb.

Lawrence jogged straight past his car and headed for the toilet block at the rear of the car-park; the rain and his limply held umbrella forgotten. His guts were roiling with panic. He retched at the doorway and only just made it to the cubicle. He puked so hard his stomach ached. He cursed Jarrod and his stupid whore mother for giving birth to him, but it didn’t make him feel any better.

*

Yalda was crying again and that made Lilith cry too. The other children had left the room; they played Xbox far away from the din. Felicia tried to console her friend but the tears had gone on now for over an hour. Yalda’s phone, the object of all this grief, sat on the coffee table between them. Felicia cursed the phone so loudly that her grandmother shouted from the kitchen.

‘Sorry Nonna,’ she called and then turned to Yalda. ‘Please stop crying. You are driving me insane.’

Yalda sat straight on the sofa and wiped her eyes, but beside her Lilith cried out, ‘I want my daddy!’ and the flood of tears began again.

Felicia made the sign of the cross over her ample breasts and rushed from the room. She passed her grandmother in the kitchen, brushing against her as she grabbed her handbag, and fled to the quiet of the patio. Her hands shook as she selected her husband’s number, and she sniffed back her tears as it rang.

‘Hello baby,’ he sounded happy.

‘I’m so sorry Nam,’ she wept.

‘Jesus! What’s wrong? Has something happened to Franco?’

‘No, no, no! Not Franco, Yalda.’

‘Yalda?’ There was a pause, ‘The Syrian woman?’

‘Yes, yes, my friend Yalda.’

‘What happened to her?’

‘Her husband, he doesn’t answer his phone, not for two days now.’

Nam frowned. This didn’t make any sense. ‘Did she phone you and tell you that?’

‘No, no, she’s here.’

‘There? You mean she’s in Sydney? What the hell is she doing there?’

‘I asked her to come to the Festa. It wasn’t going to be any fun without her.’

‘Felicia she wanted a new life, a new identity. She can’t just flit back to her old life. That wasn’t the bloody deal!’

Felicia began to wail and her grandmother shouted from the back door. They yelled at each other in Italian and Felicia howled even louder.

‘Felicia stop it! Calm down,’ Nam said.

She cried even harder, and then broke into pitiful sobs.

‘I’m sorry my love. I didn’t mean to shout at you. Please, talk to me!’

The sobbing subsided a little, and in a few minutes she caught her breath.

‘Tell me my love, what happened?’ Nam’s voice was gentle this time.

‘I didn’t tell you that Yalda was coming because I knew you’d be angry.’

‘Okay baby, I’m not angry. We can’t do anything about it now. Tell me what happened.’

‘She has been trying to phone Ahmed for two days. He doesn’t answer. She’s worried that he’s sick or hurt.’

‘But maybe it’s nothing. His phone may have broken.’

‘Maybe he’s found another woman.’

‘No Felicia, don’t say things like that, it isn’t helpful.’

‘But it could be.’

‘Yes, but to say something like that would just upset Yalda.’

‘Upset her? She won’t stop crying. She’s driving me mad and the Festa is on tomorrow.’

‘Is she there now?’

‘She’s inside.’

‘Put her on the phone. I want to talk to her.’

‘Why?’

‘To sort this out. If she is happy then you can enjoy the Festa together.’

Felicia pouted her lips but said, ‘okay.’ She yelled at her grandmother to get Yalda, and drummed her long fingernails on the table top until Yalda appeared.

‘Nam wants to talk to you.’

Yalda pointed to herself and her bottom lip trembled. She took the phone from Felicia. ‘Hello?’

‘What are you doing in Sydney?’

‘I…ah, Felicia said she asked you. She said you told her it was okay for me to come to the Festa.’ She paused and glanced at Felicia who looked away. ‘She didn’t ask you did she?’

‘No,’ he sighed. ‘She didn’t because she knew I would say “no.”’

Yalda began to cry again. She bit down on a bunch of tissues that she held in her trembling hand.

‘Yalda, it’s all right, please calm down. If Ahmed isn’t answering his phone then perhaps it’s broken.’

‘But it’s brand new.’

‘That doesn’t mean it can’t break. My new IPhone broke twice and I had to get another one.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. Look, I know someone who can call in and check on Ahmed. I’m sure everything is fine. I will call you back once I hear from them, okay?’

‘Oh Jackie, that would be wonderful. I’m so worried. You don’t think he’s found another woman?’

‘No…I really don’t. He loves you. He told me. That’s why he wanted a new life for you in South Australia. When all this is over and you are home again, you mustn’t come back to Sydney, okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘Now, please put Felicia back on the phone.’

Felicia held the phone for a moment before she spoke. ‘Nam?’

‘Yes baby.’

‘Do you still love me?’

‘Of course I do. Have fun at the Festa tomorrow and no more lies, okay?’

‘I…’

‘No more lies baby. I will call when I find out Ahmed is okay.’

‘I love you Nam.’

‘I know you do. Be good.’

Felicia placed the phone on the table and turned to Yalda, who gave her a weak smile. ‘I know Nam would never cheat on me. Let’s hope the same for Ahmed, eh?’

Yalda’s bottom lip trembled again.

*

As his head began to clear Ahmed crawled towards the window, his hand restraints making it hard work. He lay on his side and used his hip and shoulders to inch along. He covered the meter and a half then tugged on the heavy curtain. The chink of light revealed it was daytime, maybe late afternoon or almost dusk, but certainly not night.

The house had been quiet during what he guessed to have been morning, but in the last few hours the noise of a television carried down the hall. When Ahmed edged back to his place by the bed, which afforded him a view of the doorway but kept him mostly concealed from his horrid captor, he put his hand in something sticky, it was the last pile of tablets he’d been forced to swallow.

There had been no way to avoid swallowing them. The man forced so much water into his mouth that Ahmed had gulped everything down, but when the man disappeared from sight Ahmed had used an old hairbrush he found under the bed. He put the end of the brush in his mouth and then inched forward until the thing touched the back of his throat. He gagged and retched. It took three goes but finally he vomited up the pills. He had no idea how long ago that had been.

Ahmed searched the room for something sharp enough to cut through the zip-ties that restrained his hands, but found nothing. From his position near the door he heard footsteps approaching, someone was coming, and he knew exactly who that someone would be. So he used his feet to push himself back to the other side of the bed, curled into his sleeping position, closed his eyes, and let a thread of drool run from his lips just before the door sprang open.

The man crossed the room and kicked at his foot, muttering something. Ahmed stayed perfectly still, fighting hard to keep his breathing slow and even. He heard the man place something on the floor and the door closed again. But he didn’t dare move, and it was lucky that he didn’t, because after only a moment the door re-opened. The man was swearing under his breath this time as he drew closer. From behind his back the man tugged at Ahmed’s hands. He heard a snapping sound, and then another. His hands were no longer restrained. The man walked out and slammed the door this time.

Ahmed could smell food and the aroma was fantastic. But he forced himself to wait for many more minutes, glancing through slitted eyes towards the door. The last thing he wanted was to be caught awake.

On a tray just inside the doorway was a toasted sandwich and a glass of orange juice. Never had such simple food smelled so good. It had to be a trap, he thought. So he waited while his stomach growled angrily. It didn’t make sense. Why would the man undo his restraints and feed him? The only answer he could come up with was that he meant to keep him alive. So maybe he was a hostage and not the man’s next intended murder victim?

Eventually his hunger won out and he wolfed down the sandwich. He took the drink back to the other side of the bed, and sipped until it was finished. The man had given him the juice in a glass and beneath the napkin was a butter knife. Did that mean he wasn’t worried about Ahmed using either of these things as a weapon? Or did it say more about the lack of intellect of his captor? Either way Ahmed had a couple of things in his favour. The bloke still thought he was drugged enough not to be a bother. And the fellow had also realised that Ahmed wouldn’t be able to eat with the zip-ties in place, which probably meant he intended for Ahmed to wake up at some stage.

He thought about the timeline of events and was fairly sure it had been dark when he’d regained consciousness after his beating. He couldn’t be sure but he thought he heard crickets outside the window at the time the man had come into the room and forced the first lot of tablets into his mouth.

He tried to remember any details about the second lot of pills that he spewed up. Although he couldn’t be positive, he thought he could smell cooking wafting from the open door. It had smelled like meat frying, and although that meant that the bloke liked meat and may well have eaten it all day long, Ahmed suspected that most people saved the cooked meal for night time. It was a flawed theory, he knew, but it was the only assumption that came to mind. If he was right then he would be due to be drugged again once night fell again. He had to try to escape soon.

*

Lawrence hid from the street view behind a lavender bush and tapped on what he presumed was the living room window. A second later the curtain moved and Jarrod stared at him. The curtain dropped and soon after the front door opened. Jarrod stood on the front porch, chin jutting out and scratching his balls.

‘Jeez Jarrod!’ Lawrence exclaimed as he pushed passed him. ‘Talk about not attracting attention to yourself!’

But Jarrod ignored him and returned to his recliner chair. His eyes were soon fixed on the television set. An old sit-com from the nineties was playing. Lawrence covered the floor in just three steps. He hit the on/off button and the screen went blank, but that didn’t seem to faze Jarrod, he just kept staring at the TV.

‘Okay you can keep playing games all you want but I’m telling you right now that Nam isn’t happy with what’s been going on.’

Lawrence had been unable to reach Nam. He’d put three coded messages on their poetry page but the man had not responded. It was unusual but not unheard of for Nam to be distracted. Lawrence had to lie in the hope that Jarrod would see reason.

‘I’m going to take the man with me. Both Nam and I feel that most men have a price, and this man that you’ve taken will be no different. We just have to persuade him that you meant no harm and then find a figure that will silence him.’

‘Why was he spying on me?’

‘I don’t know and I bet you haven’t found out by beating him either.’ Lawrence had to battle to keep his voice calm, but a minute more of enduring belligerent silence and ball-scratching had Lawrence fuming.

’What the hell is wrong with you Jarrod? Do you want to go to jail? Are you trying to sabotage this operation? And why, because you don’t like me?’

‘Why was he spying on me?’

‘I don’t know, maybe he’s attracted to halfwits who like fondling their testicles!’

‘I want to know,’ Jarrod said.

‘Okay then, here’s a plan! I’ll ask him.’ Lawrence started walking toward the hallway. ‘Where is he?’

But Jarrod elbowed past him, slamming Lawrence against the wall.

‘In here,’ Jarrod said as he stopped outside the second door on the left.

‘He’d better be okay,’ Lawrence warned.

Jarrod fumbled the key in the lock and the door opened on an empty room. Lawrence entered and glanced around.

‘Is this your idea of a joke?’ he asked.

Jarrod scratched his jawline and walked to the window. It was wooden framed and one of the glass panels had been removed. Old putty and a knife lay on the floor below.

‘You gave him a knife?’ Lawrence asked in an incredulous tone.

‘No…well, not really. He was drugged.’

‘You gave him cutlery didn’t you?’

Jarrod stared at the window and poked the dried putty with the toe of his shoe.

‘When did you last see him?’

‘Um…maybe a couple of hours ago. I made him a toasty for lunch. I thought he’d be grateful, not run away.’

‘Yeah, I don’t get it either,’ Lawrence’s voice dripped with sarcasm. ’I mean, you kidnapped him, drugged him and beat him, but you did make him a frigging toasty. What an ungrateful bastard!’

‘Shut up Lawrence.’

Lawrence wanted to taunt Jarrod more, but the tone of the man’s voice matched the spiteful look in his eyes. It was best to tread carefully. This was a dangerous man.

‘What do you know about this bloke?’ Lawrence asked.

‘His name is Ahmed…something. I read it on his driver’s licence.’

‘Ahmed? Really? What did he look like?’ Lawrence’s heart beat faster with this small glimmer of hope.

‘I dunno. Dark skin, dark hair. I don’t think he was from around here.’

‘Was he about your height, clean shaven, a bit on the lean side?’

Jarrod’s brows knitted but after a second he nodded. ‘Yeah, I think so.’

Lawrence exhaled loudly. ‘Oh Jesus thank you! I think we may be in luck. If that was the only Ahmed I’ve ever met, then I think we are safe. But just in case, you need to get out of here. Go to Angus’ place and wait until I call.’

‘But…I don’t know where Angus lives.’

‘Oh, he didn’t tell you?’ Lawrence fumbled with his phone. ‘There, I’ve just texted it to you. Go there and wait.’

‘But I want to know why he was spying on me?’

Three deep inhalations later Lawrence replied. ‘We may have just caught a lucky break. You’ve probably kidnapped the only bloke in this little town who won’t go straight to the cops. Now get in your car and go to Angus’ place. I will find this guy and I’ll be sure to ask him why the hell he was spying on you, okay?’

‘There’s no need to get snooty!’

‘I am very bloody far from just being snooty Jarrod. Now, off you go.’

But Jarrod stood his ground. After a moment he pointed to his chest. ‘This bloke was spying on me, not you, me. You’d better start caring about what happens to me.’ With that he reached forward and grasped Lawrence by the hair.

‘Get away!’ Lawrence screamed as pain seared where the hair had been ripped from its roots. ‘You are insane!’ He clutched his scalp.

‘No I’m not.’ Jarrod insisted. ‘You don’t give a shit about what happens to me. I’m the one doing the risky work. I’m the one being spied on. But I won’t be the only one who goes down for these killings if the wheels fall off.’ He held the clump of hair aloft. ’This is my guarantee. From now on there will be a piece of you at every scene. It’s now in your best interest to make sure I’m not spied on again. I go down,’ he waved the hair in front of Lawrence’s face, ’we go down, hand in hand together.’

With a final disgusted glance, Jarrod strode off towards his car. Lawrence leant against the porch post and nursed his head with trembling hands. He was grudgingly impressed by Jarrod’s logic.

*

Nam had been unconcerned about Yalda’s fretfulness over Ahmed’s failure to be contactable. The bloke probably had his phone in his pocket but the battery was dead. The fact that she’d been hanging out with Felicia made him more certain. His wife’s insecurities were bound to rub off on other people. He was still angry that Felicia had lied to him, but with the distance between them he was better off to let the complication go. Before he knew it Yalda would be home with Ahmed, and Felicia would come home too. That was all that really mattered.

So when he received a second teary phone call from his wife, no doubt prompted by Yalda, who he could also hear sobbing in the background, he had an inkling of trouble brewing. Why would Ahmed still be missing?

He then saw the messages that Lawrence had left, via their safe Facebook page, and was filled with hot panic. He fumbled through the phones in his desk drawer and found the one with Angus’ number on it.

‘Hello?’ Angus’ voice sounded tentative, Nam was pleased about that. This phone was only to be used in emergency situations.

‘Hi Angus, It’s Jackie.’

‘Hi, um…wow man. Nice to hear from you Jackie, is everything okay?’ More trepidation.

‘Well, I hope so, but it seems that one of our welfare recipients has gone missing.’

‘Who is he?’

‘It doesn’t matter who he is. I really need to speak with Lawrence.’

‘He isn’t here. I mean, he’s still around somewhere…oh wait! Do you mean that guy Jarrod is holding?’

’What do you mean he’s holding someone? Do you mean he’s taken someone against their will?’ Nam felt pressure in his temple, a sure sign of stress and a moment of panic; a sure precursor to a migraine. He rubbed vigorously at his head. ‘Where is Lawrence now?’

‘He was going to see Jarrod. I can call him for you.’

Nam couldn’t risk phoning Lawrence but he was desperate to find out what was happening. ‘Please, yes, call him for me. I will phone you again in a half an hour.’ He shuffled through his desk and found one of a dozen pre-paid mobiles. ‘On second thoughts it may be better if I speak to Lawrence directly, if that can be arranged. Tell him I’ll call from a safe number.’

He didn’t wait for Angus’ reply before he hung up. Nam limped to the bathroom and took two tablets for his headache. From experience he knew it could become a full-blown migraine if he wasn’t careful. This was the last thing he needed when Felicia was out of town. If she was here she would calm him, she would halt the anxiety before it took hold. He returned to his office and sat heavily in his chair. With gritted teeth he ran his fingers through his hair and took deep breaths.

Only twenty minutes passed before Nam phoned Lawrence. In his head he had played over a dozen scenarios of what may have gone wrong, during what should have been a straightforward assignment. Despite all his relaxation attempts, his head throbbed and his nerves were jangled.

Someone answered the phone but said nothing.

‘Hello?’ Nam asked. He heard a sharp intake of air. Lawrence. ‘Hello Lawrence.’

‘Hi Nam.’

Lawrence was the only person outside of his family who called him Nam. And although Nam insisted on the nickname to separate kin from others, Lawrence had slipped through the net and refused to comply, but that was okay, he was like a brother.

‘What’s happening there?’ Nam asked.

‘Everything is under control.’

‘Ahmed, is he all right?’

‘Um…yes, he can’t have been too bad because he’s escaped.’

‘Have you spoken to him?’

‘No, not yet. I went to his house but it’s empty.’

‘You mean he’s not there?’

‘No, empty as in no one is living there. I was going to contact the realtor because there’s a “For Sale” sign out the front, but Angus called and said you needed to talk to me. Do you, need to talk to me?’

‘Well, yes, of course I do. This problem needs to be addressed. I have had Ahmed’s wife calling me from Sydney. She can’t contact him. In her state I wouldn’t put it past her to call the police.’

‘Oh dear!’

Nam drummed his fingers on the desk. What could be wrong with Ahmed? Why would he go to Jarrod’s house? Were the entire Homsi family nuts?

‘Lawrence, I need you to find him for me.’

‘Sure, I’ll contact the real estate people.’ There was a pause. ‘You needed to talk to me?’

‘I am talking to you.’

‘Oh, just about the job then.’

‘Yes!’

‘Calm down Nam. Don’t get stressed or you’ll get a migraine.’

’I have got a migraine!’

‘I just thought, maybe you wanted to talk, about us.’

’There is no us.’

‘Yeah, I know that. Not us, but… talk, about old times and stuff.’

Nam let out a deep sigh. He hated it when Lawrence was needy. ‘You know we can’t be like other people. We have to maintain distance to stay safe.’

‘I know…I just thought, seeing as how we are already having a conversation, that…’

‘No Lawrence, we aren’t having a conversation. This is damage control. Find Ahmed and get Angus to call me back once you have him. Bye.’

During the phone call Nam had inadvertently pushed his damaged foot against the leg of his desk, now it throbbed. He removed his slipper and gently massaged his toe stumps. He was beginning to regret this whole venture. Felicia had tried to talk him out of it, now he wished she’d been successful. This grand mess was his brother’s fault. Nam knew he should have curbed his hatred and need to get even. But higher on his wish list was the need to humiliate Ty. He would have his revenge, it would be served cold, but it would be served.

*

Ellie dropped down the bonnet of the ambulance. She’d topped up the wiper water and checked the oil. She’d changed the battery in the stretcher too.

‘You must be bored,’ Erica called out from the office.

‘I guess I am. It’s been so quiet today,’ Ellie replied as she locked the ambulance keys away. It was three o’clock and there were still four more hours of their twelve-hour shift. They both arrived at the depot for a job that was promptly cancelled, and since then they’d found tasks that needed attention. Erica had been auditing case notes but had reached the end of the pile. The long day was dragging.

‘You can wash my car,’ Erica suggested.

‘That’s not a bad idea, but not your car. I think I’ll give mine a wash.’

‘Yeah well I’m parked behind you so wait until I move. I’m going for a coffee, you want to come?’

‘It’s okay, I really do need to wash my car ; I haven’t cleaned it since that dust storm.’

From the storeroom Ellie took a bucket and the soft broom. Erica waved as she drove away while Ellie filled the bucket from the tap at the front of the depot, but as she turned towards her car, she did a double take. There was a man rushing furtively down the street, ducking below the roofline of the parked cars as he ran. Ellie recognised him. He was the man with the distressed child from the medical centre; he was Morris Harrop’s son.

As he passed she called out to him. He seemed to hesitate and then bolted across the road towards her. The mechanic working in the garage across the street stood watching from his driveway, and Ellie gave him a reassuring wave just before Ahmed reached her. The man was sweating and clearly agitated, his dark hair plastered to his skull, his glances darting up and down the road.

‘Are you okay?’ she asked.

‘Please, Miss, can you help me?’

‘Of course, is it your little girl? Is she sick again?’

‘No, no, she is safe, but…I think someone wants to hurt me.’

‘Oh dear! I have a friend in the police force. I can call him if you like.’

The man’s dark eyes grew huge. ‘No! No, no!’ He began to back away from her.

‘Please, he won’t hurt you. He’s a good man.’ But her reassurances fell on deaf ears. The man stumbled away. A passing motorist tooted her horn as the man passed within inches of being hit by the front fender. Ellie called out to him to come back, but he ran, no longer bothering to stay concealed or on the relative safety of the footpath. He fled in the direction of the mines.

Ellie phoned Nick. She explained the incident and Nick told her he could come once he’d finished the job he was on. He was at least twenty kilometres away.

‘I don’t know if you’ll be able to find him. He could be long gone by then.’

‘Is he a mental health patient, someone you recognise?’

‘No, but his daughter is a patient at the medical centre.’

‘We can talk to them. If they remember him I can get his address. He may go back to his home and we can talk to him there.’

‘Thanks Nick. He looked so terrified, he may be delusional, but he seemed fairly normal the day I spoke to him. I’ve never seen anyone so scared.’

‘I’ll see you soon.’

‘Sure, I’ll message you if I get a call-out, otherwise I’ll see you here.’

It took Ellie fifteen minutes to wash her car, clean the windows and trims. She had just finished as the patrol car pulled up out the front. Nick grinned as he approached and squeezed her hand. She responded to his gesture with a kiss to his cheek.

‘I haven’t seen him pass this way again,’ Ellie said. ‘He could be anywhere by now.’

Nick shielded his eyes as he looked down the roadway. He pointed. ‘He went that way?’

‘Yes. He followed the highway until he disappeared from view. I guess he could have hitched a ride. I offered to call the police for him and he really panicked.’

‘I’ll take a look, but there are only a couple of hours of light left and I have to be back in Kadina by five. If I haven’t found him in the next hour or so I’ll have to resume looking in the morning.’

‘Oh,’ Ellie couldn’t hide the disappointment.

‘Sorry Ellie, it’s the best I can offer without a real reason to think he’s in danger.’

He moved in closer, perhaps to kiss her, but Ellie’s pager went off and it made her jump.

‘Sorry, I have to go.’ She kissed his cheek once more and turned to go. ‘Good luck. I hope he’s okay.’

While the roller door rattled its way to the roof Nick drove away. And only a minute later Erica zoomed back into the driveway. Soon they were speeding away to attend a domestic accident at a home by the bay, but despite the drama of the job; an amputated finger, Ellie couldn’t get the man’s frightened eyes out of her mind. There was weird stuff going on and she had a feeling that the bloke on the run was a part of it.

*

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