Authors: Katherine Howell
Katherine Howell is a former ambulance officer.
, her first novel, introduced Detective Ella Marconi and has been published in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Russia. Katherine lives on the New South Wales north coast and is currently working on her third novel.
For Bronwyn, Phillip, Mum and Dad.
Selwa Anthony and Selena Hanet-Hutchins for advice, enthusiasm and kindness, particularly during my own dark hours;
Cate Paterson and Kylie Mason at Pan Macmillan for inspired editing and comments;
Adam Asplin and Bruce Guy for answering my countless questions on police matters;
Ambulance friends Mel Johnson, Col Benstead, Allan Burnett, Jenni and Steve Flanagan, Garry ‘Syd’ Francis, Warren Leo, Justine Petit, Alan Smith and John Wood for all kinds of cheer squad work, including patience and good humour at photo shoots, and Graeme Strong, winner of the
launch party lucky door prize;
The Mphil and sf-sassy groups, especially Graeme Hague and Kate Morton;
My family, especially my brother, Phillip Guy.
Most of all, thanks to my husband, Phil, for many things but especially his constant smile and positive outlook. Ditto to Ralph.
he wind howled between the buildings like a creature from an arctic nightmare as Lauren peered into the wreck, then turned to the cop beside her. ‘He’s dead.’
The cop gestured to the rescue squad. They’d all known, of course; when half the man’s head was missing it didn’t take a medical expert to figure it out. But waiting for a paramedic’s say-so was just one way in which the services worked together, and Lauren liked it like that. This sense of professional courtesy was the same reason why she didn’t get back into the ambulance but stayed out in the cold with the fire officers – who kept their hoses charged in case the crashed car burst into flames – and the general duties cops who were there to guide the patchy 2am traffic past the scene.
Lauren shifted from foot to foot, chin tucked inside her parka and hands deep in her pockets. Sydney winters weren’t that bad really, but tonight that wind worked its way down her neck and up her trouser legs and eventually blew straight through her as if she wasn’t even there. She left the lee of the ambulance and tried the shelter of the police rescue vehicle, then finally stood right up close to the fire truck, which was putting out heat from its pump-running engine.
Still, she ached from shivering by the time the police lifted the dead driver out onto the body bag and the government contractor’s white van pulled into view. Freed from the possible need to transport the body, she said a quick goodbye and floored the ambulance over to Gilly’s all-night café on Broadway.
With the precious coffee steaming in the holder between the seats and the heater whirring at top speed under the dash, she then backstreeted her way over to stand-by at Paddington station. This was the lot of the officer working single for the shift – you were prime choice if a body ever had to be transported and you got sent all over to fill in spaces when crews were busy. She didn’t mind being one-out; it was better than working with some officer who was all pissed off about being dragged in from the western suburbs. Best of all, of course, was working with Joe Vandermeer, her shift partner for the last two years, but he’d called in sick tonight.
She kept the wheel straight with her knee for a moment so she could press her hands to the heater vents. With a bit of luck she’d get to stay at Paddo for a while, dozing in the warmth of the station, though the way the radio had been going off she doubted–
A man bolted from an alley on her left and she grabbed for the wheel and hit the brakes. A thought flashed through her head –
this won’t look good coming so soon after the accident with the bus, hitting a pedestrian, oh Jesus stop stop STOP
– as the weight and momentum of the ambulance kept it moving forward, but then the man was out of the way and running down the street. With her stomach at the back of her throat and the smell of spilled coffee in the air, Lauren hit the button to drop the window and yell at him, but then a second man shot from the alley entrance. He skidded into the gutter and fell over.
‘Pair of idiots,’ Lauren said, shaky from the fright. Hazard lights blinked as a car was unlocked down the street and the first man leapt inside. He took off, no lights. Lauren flicked on her high beams but couldn’t make out the numberplate. The second man struggled to his feet and onto the footpath. Lauren assessed his stance and actions, then picked up the microphone. ‘Thirty-four.’
‘Thirty-four, go ahead,’ Control said.
‘I’m in Smithy’s Lane in Surry Hills, needing back-up, please. Looks like I have a patient: a male with shoulder injury.’
‘Don’t know when I’ll have somebody free,’ Control said. ‘I’ll send the boys in blue your way in the meantime.’
‘Appreciate it. I think this guy was up to no good,’ Lauren said.
She drove to the side of the road, her stomach taking its time to settle. The young man sank back against the wall, his face contorted and his right arm clutched to his side. She pulled on gloves then got out with the torch in one hand and portable radio in the other. ‘You okay?’
He was crying. She saw he was more a boy than a man. ‘Don’t call the coppers.’
‘They might turn up.’
‘Shit.’ He pushed off the wall and started to stumble away.
‘You need your shoulder checked,’ she said. ‘It looks dislocated, and it can keep popping out if you don’t get it treated properly.’
‘It does it all the time.’
She followed him. ‘Let me help you.’
He muttered something she didn’t catch. She glanced around for her back-up. ‘What’s the problem?’ she said. ‘Don’t want to get busted for chasing that guy? You trying to mug him or something?’
‘I wasn’t chasing him,’ he said. ‘We were running away.’
He nodded back towards the alley. ‘I’m not getting involved.’
He increased the pace of his shuffle. Lauren watched him go. To try to physically stop him was asking for a smack in the head. He was of sound mind, more or less; he could refuse treatment if that was what he wanted.
She went back to the alley. It was dark and the light from her torch was a narrow beam. She flashed it along the walls then on the ground, and spotted a man lying on the asphalt.
She played the beam over the motionless body. There was blood on his head. She glanced up and down the street but there was no sign of the cops. The area was empty, the glow of the orange streetlights cold and alien. She shivered in her parka. If she’d taken the body from the prang she’d be sitting in the morgue having a cuppa now instead of worrying about her safety in some piss-stinky alley. She shone the torch around the alley again, then started in.
Close up she saw two things: she knew who he was, and he was dead. Stewart Blake was a former schoolteacher, a convicted paedophile and murderer of a twelve-year-old girl, and his photo had been all over the news since his recent release from jail. Now his mouth hung open, and his pupils were fixed and dilated. The back and left side of his head were beaten in and dark blood pooled around him. Somebody had taken their revenge.
Lauren crouched for a token pulse check, then heard a slight noise further down the alley.
She whipped the torch beam around that way. The alley was silent. Cat, passer-by, killer, or another victim, not yet dead? Lauren crept along the cracked asphalt, torch out in front as if it could protect her.
The alley turned a corner. Lauren hesitated between a broken streetlight and the wall and shone her torch into the darkness. On her right a skip bin overflowed with builder’s rubble, and beyond that a dented car with no windows, no wheels and no numberplate was up on broken concrete blocks. She listened, shining the light along the car’s chassis, squinting at the dark shape that seemed to be hunkered down beyond it, then a groan from close by made her skin prickle.
She edged along the skip. The torch beam lit up two blood-spattered sneakers, then jeaned legs. When she peered around the corner of the skip she saw a man slumped against the wall, his hands clutching his chest. His eyes were squeezed shut against the torchlight but she recognised him just the same.
‘Thomas?’ Her stomach went into freefall. ‘
She kicked his shoe. ‘Open your eyes.’
‘Lauren?’ Like he didn’t know it was her. He cracked one eye open. ‘Help me.’
His brown hair was shorter than when she’d last seen him, five years ago, but his Austrian accent was as strong as ever. There were specks and smears of blood on his hands but none on the shirt he was grabbing. ‘Open your eyes,’ she said again.
He grimaced. His forehead was shiny with sweat. ‘Chest pain.’
In the distance a siren wailed.
His fingers pulled at the cloth of his blue shirt. ‘Can’t breathe.’
‘Heavy weight here.’ He clenched a fist over the centre of his chest.
Was it Lauren’s imagination or was he going pale? And it was a cold night to be so sweaty. He was describing all the right symptoms for cardiac pain.
‘Man chased me.’ Thomas rubbed the side of his jaw. ‘Pain here too now.’
Lauren was torn. He really did seem to be in pain, and she should treat that, but the Thomas Werner she knew was not to be trusted.
‘Once the police get here I’ll help you,’ she said. ‘Okay?’
But his head dropped forward onto his chest and his arms slipped to his sides. She stared at his chest. He wasn’t breathing.
She waited. If he didn’t take a breath for three minutes, she’d know he wasn’t faking.
But if he really was in arrest, each passing minute killed brain cells. Whatever he’d done here, she wanted him to face the consequences. She didn’t want him dying and getting out of it.
She kicked him in the knee with the toe of her boot, then kicked him again, harder. He didn’t move. She swore under her breath, and glanced back at the street where the ambulance was parked, where all her gear was. A fleeting thought suggested she just leave him there – her and Kristi’s and Felise’s lives would be so much the better for him being dead – but she knew what she had to do: confirm the cardiac arrest, call for back-up while running back to the truck and grabbing the defib and drug box and Oxy-Viva, then get back here and start saving the bastard.
She put the torch and portable radio down, squatted beside him and reached for his carotid pulse.
His arms came up and her heart jumped and her mind screamed
I knew it!
but there was no time to scramble away. He knocked her onto her back and threw himself on top of her. He wrenched a handful of her shirt and parka up under her throat, forcing her chin back, pressing into her neck. ‘Go,’ he said.
She couldn’t breathe or speak. She pushed at his shoulders but he only leaned further into her. She felt her ribs bending under his weight.
His fist was so hard up against her chin she couldn’t even nod. His face and the night behind it and the wall were disappearing in a swarm of white spots.
‘You say one word of this and you and Kristi and the kid are in for it. Nod if you understand.’
He loosened his grip a little and she sucked in the cold night air and nodded.
‘Even if they lock me up, I have contacts everywhere,’ he said in her ear. ‘I will get you.’
She could smell his sweat and the blood on his hands. She nodded again. He got off her, then grabbed her shoulders and roughly rolled her over. He pressed her face against the asphalt, his hand spanning the back of her head. ‘Don’t move.’
He gave her head a final shove then was gone. She heard his feet slap away down the alley. She lay spread-eagled, fighting back tears, the pounding of her heart seeming to reverberate off the asphalt, and her mouth full of the dull, sour taste of anger and hatred and self-reproach.
The siren drew nearer.
If the police found her crying, they’d know something had happened. She struggled onto her hands and knees, then hauled herself up against the skip and hung onto the lip, breathing the odours of cut wood and broken plasterboard. She looked down the alley but it was empty. The torch lay on the ground against the wall, its beam shining uselessly under the skip, and she grabbed it and turned it to the abandoned car. Had there really been something – someone – there? Was that who Thomas had said ‘
’ to? There was nothing there now.
The siren was close. Lauren picked up the radio and stumbled back along the alley. She stuck the torch under her arm and ripped off her gloves, stuffing them into her pocket. She touched her face, feeling for grazes that might make the police wonder. Her cheek was tender but felt intact, not even bruised enough to be noticed. She wiped her eyes on her wrist then shakily shone the light down onto her parka and trousers, brushing off dirt and sawdust. There were no rips, and any blood from Thomas’s hands was invisible on the dark navy fabric. She couldn’t see her shirt collar, but tucked it well down under the parka, then pulled the zip right up to her chin in case any bruising started to emerge on her neck.
The street at the end of the alley was lit with red and blue flashes, and a police car drove into view, its spotlight shining into the alley and momentarily blinding her. She flashed her torch off and on a couple of times, and walked back past the body without looking at it.
‘Thirty-four,’ she said into her radio.
‘Go ahead, Thirty-four,’ Control said.
‘Cancel that ambulance back-up.’ She took a breath and tried to steady her voice. ‘I have one patient code four. Police are on scene now.’
‘Copy, Thirty-four. Call me when you’re clear.’
She met the officers in the alley’s entrance. She knew both by sight but not by name. They were young and blond.
‘Body for you.’ She was trembling. She shoved her damp hands into the back of her belt for support.
. But of course he didn’t, couldn’t. Lauren cleared her throat. ‘The dead guy’s Stewart Blake.’
She nodded. The shakes were going, a little. This was how to do it. Concentrate on something else. Sooner or later they would ask if she’d seen anything, anyone. It would be okay. Tell the truth, just not the whole truth.