In the ambulance’s passenger seat, paramedic Alex Churchill checked his mobile. There was no text from Mia. He sent her another: I’m calling Frances in five. ‘Sixty-three to Control.’ The voice burst over the radio with the sound of screaming in the background.
The hairs rising on his arms, Alex looked through the rain-speckled windscreen. His partner, Jane Koutoufides, turned in the coffee shop and met his gaze. People in the shop around her stared at the portable radio in her hand.
‘Go ahead, Sixty-three,’ Control answered. ‘Urgent backup, please. We have four code nines and one of those unconscious, six walking wounded, one car leaking fuel.’
The screaming grew louder. Alex had been there; he knew how it made you feel. He could feel it again now in the hammering of his heart.
‘Copy that, Sixty-three,’ Control said. ‘I’ll get rescue and more cars on their way.’
Alex leaned forward, ready to grab the microphone. In the shop, Jane moved towards the door. They’d heard Sixty-three dispatched five minutes ago to Botany Road, near the airport.
Although they were in Glebe, Alex had done longer runs many times. You never knew how many ambulances were tied up on cases between here and there. Jane was still looking at him. He glanced away. He understood her concern, but also felt belittled by it.
At the start of the shift, she’d said in a distinctly gentle voice that they could work however he wanted, swap roles back and forth between driving and treating as often as he liked, he just had to let her know. He’d nodded, uncomfortable. This was his second week back, and sure, on a shift last week he’d had a humiliating panicked few minutes at a car accident in which a twelve-year-old girl had been trapped, but he’d pulled it together. They’d got her out, she was going to be fine. He’d hoped that this morning – his first shift with Jane since – he could walk in like nothing had happened. But perhaps it was unreasonable to expect that. She’s just trying to be helpful.
The seconds ticked by and Control didn’t call. Alex knew there were crews on closer stations being phoned and dispatched. He gestured. Jane gave a thumbs-up and faced the counter.
Alex sat back in the seat. The psychologist had talked about bringing yourself back to the present, being aware of your surroundings and breathing. He put his hand on his stomach and took a deep breath. The rain had stopped and sunlight poured through a break in the clouds to sparkle in the drops on the windscreen. He stared at the colours. It helped.
He looked at his phone again. Mia was fourteen going on twenty-one, and she’d done this before: delayed texting him back even though she was already with her after-school carers, Frances and Donald. He remembered being fourteen and feeling like he was always being told what to do and when to do it, and finding little ways to exert his own bit of control. But rules were rules, and he’d seen too much to let them be bent.
Jane opened the driver’s door and handed across his coffee. ‘You okay?’
Something crossed her face at his tone. She climbed behind the wheel, then nodded at the phone in his lap. ‘No response from Mia-mouse?’
‘Last time I called her that she said “I’m fourteen, not four”,’ Alex said.
Jane angled her cup towards him in salute. ‘The joys of parenthood.’
‘Yours were teens once,’ he said, feeling better now they’d changed the subject. ‘How do you survive?’
‘It’s like being a patient in a major trauma. Some of it you blank out, the rest of the time you take drugs.’ She sipped her coffee. ‘And you’re in rehab for a long time afterwards.’
‘That good?’ Alex said. ‘Perhaps I should have another.’
‘Thirty-five,’ Control said.
‘Damn,’ Jane said.
Alex grabbed the microphone as adrenaline thumped into his bloodstream again. ‘Thirty-five’s on Glebe Point Road.’
Not the screamers. Please.
‘Got an MVA for you,’ Control said. ‘Car into a pole on Wattle Street, Ultimo, outside the park, opposite the school. Cross is Quarry. Person still in vehicle, query code nine.’
‘Thirty-five’s on the case,’ Alex said.
‘Damn,’ Jane said again.
She dug a cardboard tray out of the centre console and tucked their cups into it while Alex clipped in his seatbelt, trying to calm his heart.
Jane started the engine and hit the lights and siren and pulled out into the traffic. Cars lumbered out of their way and the sun shone silver on the wet road. ‘When we get there, let me know if you want me to treat,’ she said.
He gave a terse nod. ‘I’m guessing Mia’s probably at a friend’s.’
‘Yeah,’ she said after a moment, with a sideways glance. ‘Probably. My kids were always doing that – nicking off somewhere after school and saying they forgot to let me know. You’d think the bollocking I gave them would make them remember next time, but it never did . . .’
He tuned her out as he pulled gloves onto his already clammy hands. Roads got slippery after rain. Skid, bounce up the kerb and into a signpost, minor damage, driver’s freaked out and not got out of the car yet. The way the call-takers’ computer system worked, they had to ask if the person was still in the vehicle, and if the answer was yes it automatically came through to the controller as a query trapped. Better safe than sorry, but it meant most code nines were fixed by merely opening a door. That’s all it would be this time.
‘We laugh about it now, of course,’ Jane said, doglegging through to Bay Street and popping out halfway along Wattle. ‘I tell them, wait till you have kids of your own, because then . . .’
Alex looked left and saw the accident: a silver late-model Mitsubishi sedan head-on into a power pole. Cars had stopped behind it and a couple of people stood by the driver’s closed door. The powerlines were intact, nothing was on fire. The people by the vehicle looked concerned but weren’t panicking. It’s okay.
Jane pulled up next to the car. Alex saw a thirtyish man in a business shirt in the driver’s seat, his hands white on the wheel, his forehead pressed to its top. There were no passengers.
‘He in one piece?’ Jane said.
‘As far as I can tell.’ Alex picked up the microphone. ‘Thirty-five’s on scene, will report shortly.’
‘Thanks, Thirty-five,’ Control said.
Alex grabbed the Viva out of the back and went to the driver’s door. The window was up, the lock button down. He tapped on the glass, but the man gave no indication that he’d heard. His shoulders shook as if he was crying.
Alex checked the back door, but it too was locked, as were both doors on the passenger side. He started as a truck crunched its gears on the road behind him and covered it up by turning to the four bystanders. ‘Has he been like this the whole time?’
‘First he was looking around, all panicky,’ a woman in her late teens said. She had a round face, wore jeans and a frilled white top and held a blue handbag by the strap. ‘We kept asking him through the window if he was okay, whether he could get out, but he didn’t answer. Then he just hid his face like that.’
The others nodded.
Alex looked up at the powerlines again, then down at the car. The bonnet was crumpled but not badly. It had been a fairly low impact. He shielded his eyes from the sun and leaned close to the window, peering into the car, checking what he could of the man’s body. There was no visible blood. The dash wasn’t pressing against his knees. The airbag had gone off and now lay sagging on his lap, but it was clean and bloodstain-free. He could hear the man’s weeping. He rapped on the glass again.
‘No joy?’ Jane said behind him.
He shook his head. ‘Ambulance,’ he said, close to the glass. ‘Will you please open the door?’
The man let go of the wheel and covered his face with his hands.
‘Thirty-five,’ Control called, loud and clear from the portable on Jane’s hip. ‘What’s your status?’
Crap. Alex needed this guy to unlock the doors. Until then, they couldn’t be completely certain that he could get out, and they were obliged to tell Control, who’d have no choice but to call for rescue, probably diverting them from the Botany Road job where they were really needed.
He knocked on the window with a hard fist. ‘Mate, open your door.’
The man didn’t move.
Jane leaned close to the glass. ‘C’mon, buddy, we just want to make sure you’re okay.’
Down the street, somebody blasted their horn and the man started and looked up. Alex felt the jolt of nerves too, but knocked on the window again. The man glanced at him, his face full of fear. Alex smiled and motioned for him to lower the window. The man stared wild-eyed past him at the people watching on the other side of the road.
‘Thirty-five,’ Control called again.
‘We just want to make sure you’re all right,’ Alex said to the man. ‘Then we’ll leave you alone.’
The man said something, his voice muffled by the glass.
‘Show you what?’ Alex asked.
‘He wants to see our IDs,’ Jane said. She lowered her head as she undid the button on her shirt pocket. ‘As if our uniforms and the whopping great truck behind us aren’t enough.’
Alex got out his wallet too, and they held their ID cards to the window.
‘Okay?’ Alex said.
The man hesitated, looking past them again, then reached for the button by his shoulder. The rest popped up with it.
Alex opened the door. ‘Do you have any pain? Can you move your legs?’
The man didn’t answer. His face was angular, his eyes red from crying. He wore grey trousers and a blue business shirt, the sleeves roughly rolled up, the collar unbuttoned, no sign of a tie. His hands trembled on his knees and he smelled of sweat and fear.
‘Sir?’ Alex said, knowing how that felt inside, and sympathetic, but still aware of the people who were really trapped. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m all right.’
‘Can you turn sideways and put your feet on the road?’
The man did so easily, still staring at the people across the street. There was no hint of pain in the anxiety on his face.
Jane stepped away to tell Control they had good access and no backup was needed.
‘Let me check your neck.’ Alex leaned into the car.
‘Don’t.’ The man’s voice was full of panic. ‘I can’t see when you get so close.’
‘I’ll be quick.’
‘I said don’t.’ The man dodged his hands and peered across at the crowd.
‘Okay then, you keep watching and I’ll reach in from behind you.’ He opened the car’s rear door and leaned in to examine the man’s neck. His skin inside the shirt collar was slippery with sweat under Alex’s gloves. ‘Any pain? Tenderness?’
Alex checked the man’s head too. See, you’re managing fine. Everything’s going to be okay.
The way the man was acting suggested a head injury, but he had no swelling or lacerations. Alex pressed the man’s scalp with his fingertips. ‘Does this hurt?’
Alex came back around to crouch inside the open driver’s door. ‘What’s your name? Do you remember what happened?’
But the man’s eyes were glued on something in the distance, this time further down the street. Alex glanced that way, but couldn’t see anything other than the usual gawkers. ‘How about we get in the ambulance? We can talk on the way to hospital.’
Still no reply.
‘Sir?’ He touched the man’s hand.
The man flinched and tried to pull the door closed.
‘Hold on a second, mate.’ Alex glanced over his shoulder at Jane. Some patients responded better to men, some to women. It was worth a try.
Jane crouched inside the open door. ‘Hi, I’m Jane.’ Her voice was warm and calm.
Alex took the gear to the ambulance and stowed it, then stood listening to Jane murmur to the man and looking down the street to where the man had stared. There was nothing to see but people, some in suits, a few kids with their parents, maybe fifteen or so all up, and the number starting to dwindle as they realised there’d be no dead bodies or blood. His thoughts slipped to the night when there had been bodies and blood, but he caught his mind and hauled it back. Stay in the present.
Jane motioned him over with her head. She’d taken off her gloves and was holding the man’s hands. He’d hunkered down into the seat and was peering up over the dash, not only at the shrinking crowd but in all other directions too.
‘Marko,’ Jane said to him, ‘Alex is going to step in next to you and take your left arm. I’ll be here holding your right. We’ll stand up together, then walk across to the ambulance and climb in that door on the side.’
Alex stepped in close. Marko’s eyes jittered to the open door then back to the street. Alex felt for him.
‘Nobody can hurt you,’ Jane said.
‘He can see,’ Marko said.
‘Not once we’re in the ambulance,’ Jane said.
‘It’s dangerous for you as well,’ he said.
‘Nothing bad’s going to happen,’ Alex said. His own mantra. He hoped it sounded more believable to Marko’s ears than it ever did to his own.
‘You don’t understand.’ Marko pulled his hands out of Jane’s grip. ‘You’re both putting yourselves in danger just by talking to me. You don’t know what he’s like.’
‘Who?’ Jane said.
‘If I tell you his name things will be even worse.’ He stared sideways down the street. ‘He’s probably watching now. He can find out things about you so easily. It’s like he can read your mind.’
RPA had a good psych unit. They just had to get him there.
‘So let’s go,’ Alex said. ‘If things are that dangerous, we need to move.’
Jane took Marko’s hand again, and he resisted for a moment then got to his feet and half-crouched between them.
Alex grasped his other hand. ‘You’re safe between us.’
‘I’m not safe anywhere,’ Marko said.
‘You will be in a moment,’ Jane said. ‘Ready?’
They ran the three metres to the ambulance and Marko leapt inside. Jane followed him up the steps.
‘I’ll check the car,’ Alex said.
Alex left the side door open so he could keep an ear on what was going on while he walked around the car. To trigger the airbag Marko would’ve had to have hit the pole at around twenty kilometres per hour. There was no damage apart from the crumpled front end, and no skid marks on the asphalt. He pressed the boot release button and looked in. It was empty.
The bystanders who’d been at Marko’s window were on the footpath now.
‘Did any of you see it happen?’ Alex asked.
‘I did, sort of,’ the woman in the frilly top said. ‘I was walking further down when I heard a horn blast, and I glanced around in time to see the car drive right up the kerb into the pole.’
‘Could you tell whose horn it was?’
‘Did you hear any kind of collision before he hit the pole?’
‘How about the rest of you?’
‘I was driving behind him,’ one of the three men said. He wore navy blue workshorts and his knees and boots were crusted with dirt. ‘A couple of cars back. It looked to me like he drove into it almost deliberately. I mean, he wasn’t fishtailing or anything beforehand, the street’s dead straight, and none of us were going fast. I don’t know how he could’ve lost control.’
The other two men, older, grey-haired, in suits and ties, had been in buildings across the street and had come over at the sound of the crash to see if they could help.
‘And none of you noticed any other vehicles that might’ve been involved?’ Alex said. ‘Or who blew their horn?’
A marked police car pulled up behind them and two officers got out.
‘Is the man all right?’ the woman in the frills asked.
‘Looks to be fine.’ Alex smiled at them. ‘Thanks for trying to help him.’ They nodded, and Alex stepped away to speak to the police, listening on the way for the low murmur of Jane’s voice in the back of the ambulance. There it was. She was fine. And so am I.
‘Injuries?’ the younger cop said.
‘Possible psych,’ Alex said. ‘We’re going to RPA. You want to speak to him before we go?’
The cop shook her head. ‘We’ll catch up with him there.’
Alex looked into the back of the ambulance. Marko lay on the stretcher under a blanket and Jane sat in the seat beside him, talking and holding his hand again. She smiled at Alex.
He nodded and shut the door.
The breeze rustled the leaves of the fig trees in the park and the sun was warm on the back of his neck as he walked around to the driver’s side. RPA was just a few minutes away. Nothing bad had happened. He got behind the wheel, checked the rear-view and saw that Jane and Marko were still talking, then called Control and told them they were departing.
He started the engine and pulled out, looking over at the corner Marko had been so focused on. Now only a few people remained: a child in his father’s arms pointing at the ambulance, two young women talking and looking past him towards the scene, a man with his hands in his jeans pockets and dark sunglasses covering his eyes. Alex waved to the toddler as he went past.
The lights at Bridge Road were red and Alex checked his mobile. No text from Mia. What did you do when they were like this? Eleven years of parenting her on his own and he still sometimes felt as lost as he had back at the start. There was a chance she was at Frances and Donald’s place; they hadn’t called to say she was late, after all. But with the way she’d been lately – with what had happened to him too – he needed to know for sure. He glanced at the lights and could see the oncoming traffic slowing. He was about to get a green. He’d have to wait and call after the case.
Five minutes later he backed into RPA’s busy ambulance bay, turned off the engine and met Jane’s eyes in the mirror. ‘Stretcher?’ Mobile patients often walked in.
He went to the back door, checking his phone again as he went, though he generally always heard a text arrive. Sure enough, the screen was blank. He lifted the door to see Marko had hidden himself completely under the blanket.
Jane tucked the case-sheet folder under her arm and climbed out the back and patted Marko’s feet. ‘Few clunks underneath you now,’ she said, and she and Alex pulled out the stretcher then wheeled it into Emergency.
Two crews of paramedics with occupied stretchers waited ahead of them. Trudie, the triage nurse, a slender woman in her twenties with lots of make-up and jet black hair, frowned over a wad of paperwork. Marko lay motionless.
Alex spoke to Jane in a low voice. ‘Mind if I step back out to check on Mia?’
‘Go for it,’ she said.
Outside the automatic doors, Alex called Mia’s mobile. ‘Hey, it’s me,’ he heard his daughter say. ‘You know what to do.’ Beep.
‘You were supposed to text,’ he said. ‘We’ll be talking about this tonight. Again.’
He hung up and rang Frances’s mobile.
‘Alex,’ she answered. ‘How are you?’
He could tell from her tone that everything was okay, and turned his face into the breeze. ‘Checking in, you know how it is. She’s there?’
‘She was a little late, but she’s here all right,’ Frances said. ‘Would you like a word?’
‘One or two,’ he said. ‘Thanks.’
Mia came on the line. ‘It wasn’t my fault.’
‘We have these rules for a reason.’
‘It went flat,’ she said. ‘I told you I need a new charger.’
‘I’m not going to argue about it now,’ he said.
‘How am I supposed to stay in touch like you want when I can’t charge my phone properly? You expect me to do these things but then you make it impossible. It’s not fair.’
He heard raised voices inside the department. ‘I have to go. Do your homework and be good for Frances. We’ll talk about this tonight.’
‘Why do you always talk to me like I’m five?’
‘I have to go,’ he said again. ‘Love you.’
She hung up. Alex put his phone away with his teeth on edge but the rest of him reassured and hurried back through the doors into Emergency.
‘Let me go!’ someone screamed further inside the department. ‘Get off me!’
Jane stood by the stretcher with her hand on Marko’s blanketed shoulder. As Alex came up, he heard her say, ‘It’s okay. Just somebody having a bad day.’
Marko clutched the blanket over his face. ‘I shouldn’t have come here.’
‘It’s all right,’ Jane said.
Trudie sent the other paramedics and patients on their way and bustled over. ‘What’s up?’
Jane told her the story.
Trudie’s frown deepened. ‘Can he sit in the waiting room?’
Jane motioned for her to take a few steps away. Alex knew she’d be explaining the possible psych angle, out of Marko’s hearing.
‘Jane?’ Marko said under the blanket.
‘She’ll be back in a moment,’ Alex said.
‘I’m sorry,’ Marko said.
‘You have nothing to be sorry for,’ Alex said. ‘This is our job.’
‘Not about this,’ Marko said. ‘I’m sorry for anything that happens after.’
Alex put his hand on Marko’s shoulder just as Jane had done. ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’
‘I don’t think it will,’ Marko said. ‘I appreciate that you’re trying to make me feel better, but I truly don’t think it will.’
Alex studied the blanketed form. He sounded less like a psych case now, but if that wasn’t the problem, what was?
‘Marko, what really happened today?’
‘I can’t tell you.’
‘There’s nobody here but you and me,’ Alex said. Jane and Trudie were still talking down the corridor, and from Jane’s pointed gestures Alex knew she was trying to persuade Trudie that Marko needed more care than being parked in the waiting room. ‘Nobody can hear.’
Marko shook his head.
‘Look at me,’ Alex said.
‘Just for a moment.’ Alex tried to ease the blanket down.
‘I want you to see that there’s nobody else here, that you can trust me. I’ve been through some stuff too; I know how much people can help.’
‘It’s all useless,’ Marko said. ‘No one can help me.’
‘We got you out of the car, didn’t we? We got you here with no problems.’ Alex tugged at the blanket again and this time Marko let go. ‘See? Nobody here but us.’
Marko’s face was pale, his cheeks wet with tears. ‘You don’t understand.’
‘Try me, please.’
He shook his head and wiped his eyes. ‘It’s no good.’
The hopelessness in his voice touched Alex.
‘Mate,’ he said, ‘people here really can help you. You just need to tell them what the problem is.’
‘Mr Meixner,’ said Trudie as she approached, Jane furious-faced behind her. Marko tried to pull the blanket back up but Trudie held it down. ‘Do you know where you are?’
‘RPA hospital,’ Marko said.
‘Do you know why you’re here?’
‘I was in a car accident.’
‘What’s the date today?’
Trudie shot Jane a look. ‘Seems perfectly with it to me.’
Jane’s lips thinned further.
‘Are you injured?’ Trudie asked.
‘A bit shaken up.’
‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’
‘What? No,’ he said.
‘You want to see a doctor?’
‘He needs to,’ Jane said.
‘And the police will be expecting him to be here,’ Alex put in.
Trudie didn’t even glance his way. She grasped Marko’s arm. ‘Hop down. You can go to the waiting room.’
Marko resisted. ‘He’ll find me there.’
‘See?’ Jane said to Trudie.
‘Nobody will get you,’ she said. ‘There’s staff out there all the time and security is always close by.’
She tugged his arm and he slid off the stretcher.
‘Surely there’s somewhere in here he can stay,’ Jane said.
‘You want me to sit him on the floor by my desk?’
‘If that’s what it takes,’ Alex said. They’d managed to bring Marko in; the least that could happen now was that he felt he mattered.
Trudie eyed him. ‘I was kidding.’
‘This way,’ Trudie said to Marko.
Alex looked at Jane, but there was nothing they could do. They watched Trudie walk the silent Marko to the doors leading to the public waiting area. When the doors closed behind them, Jane threw the case-sheet folder onto the stretcher mattress. ‘He’ll just get up and walk out of there. You should’ve heard what he was saying to me on the way. He reckons there’s someone after him, that he saw this person in a car behind him and drove into the pole to get away from him.’
Alex wheeled the stretcher outside. ‘That doesn’t make much sense.’
‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘That’s what I pointed out to that woman. She said something about it sounding like a bad excuse for losing control on a wet road.’
‘What’s his medical history?’
‘He said he doesn’t have one.’ Jane opened the back of the ambulance and sat on the step. ‘But all that paranoia could easily be the start of some kind of psychosis.’
Alex’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He took it out to see a text from Frances’s number. I want to be with mum.
‘Everything okay?’ Jane said. ‘Alex?’
He fumbled the phone back into his pocket and tried to collect himself. ‘Was he – did he say who it was that’s after him?’
‘He wouldn’t say. He said we’d all be in danger if he did.’
Alex struggled to pay attention. ‘He was saying similar things to me.’
‘More proof of a developing mental condition,’ Jane said. ‘Who the hell’s so powerful they could hurt not just him but us too? Only a psych patient could dream up someone like that.’
Excerpted from Web of Deceit by Katherine Howell. Copyright © 2013 by Katherine Howell.
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