In the ambulance’s passenger seat, paramedic Tessa Kimball pretended to gag. ‘That was revolting.’
Carly Martens didn’t answer. She was watching the back of the ambulance in front, the one into which they’d just helped load the obese amputee that Tessa was complaining about. The Erskineville laneway was so narrow that she couldn’t get their own vehicle past, so she sat with the engine chugging and her foot on the brake. The Monday morning sun poured down and the spring growth in the hedges either side of the lane was impossibly green in the light.
Tessa sniffed her uniform sleeve. ‘Can you smell him on me?’ ‘No,’ Carly said.
‘So disgusting. How can people live like that?’
The ambulance in front eased out and Carly followed. Working with Tessa was always like this. She whined about everyone. Carly couldn’t wait for their ten-week roster to be over. Twelve more shifts. Plus she had a headache from last night. She pressed a thumb into her eye.
‘I mean, how hard is it to have a shower?’ Tessa said. ‘Put on clean clothes?’
‘The guy’s wife died and he’s got no help,’ Carly said. ‘How is he supposed to get himself upstairs and into the bathroom?’
‘Have a wash with a cloth, at least. Wet wipes. Something. And stop frickin drinking so much.’ Tessa sniffed the air. ‘I’m sure I can still smell him.’
‘Just call in, would you?’ Carly said. At Hannah’s birthday drinks last night Tessa had downed more than any of them, yet she seemed fine. Not fair.
Tessa lifted the microphone from the dash. ‘Thirty-nine is complete.’
‘Copy that, Thirty-nine,’ the controller answered. ‘Head to Marrickville station for cover, thanks.’
‘Copy,’ Tessa said, then slammed the mike down. ‘Marrickville. Jesus. I wanted to go back to The Rocks and change.’
‘You don’t smell,’ Carly said.
‘It’s probably on you too, so you can’t tell.’ Tessa grimaced at her uniform trousers. ‘Oh god, look.’
‘This spot.’ Tessa lifted the fabric gingerly off her thigh. ‘Ugh. Body fluids. On me.’
Carly couldn’t see anything. ‘Squirt a bit of Hexol on it.’ ‘But then it’ll soak through and really be on me.’
‘Use a wipe then.’ The smell hadn’t been pleasant but Carly had known worse. It didn’t matter anyway. She felt for the guy: depressed, isolated, fallen through the cracks of the local health system, an alcoholic clearly embarrassed by his situation. ‘I was just about to wash those,’ he’d said when she’d walked into his kitchen to collect his medication and seen a sink full of fungus-covered dishes. ‘You should see my place,’ she’d said in reply. She hoped he hadn’t seen Tessa screw up her face when they’d lifted him out of his sweat-sticky chair.
Tessa poured a drop of Hexol onto a tissue. The smell of the alcohol filled the cabin as she dabbed at her leg. ‘Ugh.’
Carly looked at her, wondering how she’d lasted three years in the job, how much longer she’d go.
Tessa met her gaze and raised her chin. ‘Linsey get her shit together yet?’
Carly pressed her thumb into her eye again, harder this time. Tessa’d overheard her talking to Alicia about Linsey’s struggle to come out to her family, and now brought up the issue every opportunity she got. ‘She’s fine.’
‘Hey, I’m just saying,’ Tessa said. ‘I wouldn’t like it to be me stuck in a secret relationship.’
The ambulance in front turned onto Erskineville Road and Carly braked at the corner to wait for her own gap. A bus lumbered towards them. She held her breath as it passed, letting it out when she saw that the ads on the side and back were for a real estate agency and personal training college. She’d been told the ambulance ads might appear anytime in the next two weeks. It was going to be excruciating.
‘They reckon love conquers all, but I guess that’s not true.’ Tessa put a musing tone into her voice, like they were old pals watching a sunset while considering the big questions, not colleagues in a prickly and deteriorating work relationship. ‘Cos if it was, she’d tell them and be damned.’
Carly blinked a red haze from the oncoming traffic. ‘It’s not like that.’
‘I’m just saying,’ Tessa said. ‘If I really loved someone I’d put them first.’
‘Easy to say when you’ll never be in her position,’ Carly said. Tessa really had no clue what she was talking about. Love and coming out weren’t related. Not necessarily. And there was no doubt that Linsey loved her.
‘It doesn’t seem fair to you, that’s all,’ Tessa said.
Carly didn’t want to fight with her again. She’d seemed unhappier than normal lately, and they’d already spent two shifts in the last fortnight not speaking. She rubbed her forehead.
She just wanted to get through the day, go home and fall asleep in Linsey’s arms.
‘Thirty-nine,’ Control said.
‘Fingers crossed it’s back to The Rocks.’ Tessa reached for the mike. ‘Thirty-nine’s on Erskineville Road.’
‘Thanks, Thirty-nine,’ Control said. ‘Head to 12 Smith Road in Sydenham for a woman collapsed, query code four.’
The hair stood up on the back of Carly’s neck. ‘Thirty-nine, do you copy?’
Tessa looked frozen. Carly grabbed the mike from her. ‘Uh, that’s Officer Bayliss’s address. Was she the caller?’
There was a short silence. ‘Repeat, please, Thirty-nine?’
‘That’s Officer Alicia Bayliss’s house,’ Carly said.
‘I have no further info here,’ the controller said, now sounding uneasy too. ‘I’ll ring the caller and find out more, and send police and backup.’
‘On our way.’ Carly flung the mike at Tessa and punched the lights and siren switches, swung onto the wrong side of the road and accelerated.
Tessa sat clenching her hands.
‘It won’t be her,’ Carly said over the siren. ‘She’s doing CPR on a neighbour and she asked someone else to call.’
‘Then why didn’t she give more details?’ Tessa said. ‘Why would it come through like that? She’d know whether it was code two or four and she’d say so.’
‘It won’t be her,’ Carly said. It can’t be. But Tessa was right – Alicia would’ve given all the details in the world, even if she had someone else phone triple 0. ‘Maybe the person she got to call was in a panic.’ Maybe. Please.
The world around her was a blur. She barely braked at lights. The siren screamed, her hands ached on the wheel, the cars in front dawdled and dithered. Look at this idiot, oh my god, yeah that’s right, the median’s the place to go, move, why can’t you move, you fucker!
Tessa gripped the door.
Carly swung into Smith Road to see a woman of about forty in gym gear hugging herself outside Alicia’s gate. Beyond her Alicia’s front door stood open, a dark space.
‘Oh no,’ Tessa said.
‘She might be inside,’ Carly said. ‘She might’ve had a visitor who collapsed.’ But Control hadn’t called them back.
She turned the engine off with a cold hand.
The crying and trembling woman opened her mouth like she was trying to speak but Carly went past at a run, Tessa on her heels.
‘Alicia?’ Carly said at the door.
No answer. A pink ribbon fluttered from the key in the front door lock.
She stepped inside. The house was narrow, a gloomy hallway down the right side, rooms opening off to the left. Carly had been here a number of times, for a new year’s party last year, a summer barbecue, laughing late nights. The first room was Alicia’s housemate’s – had been; it was empty now, Dave had left last week. Carly glanced in to see bare carpet.
The second room was Alicia’s. The door stood open. Blood stained the carpet in the doorway and spattered the white paint of the doorframe. Alicia’s black high heels lay on the floor just inside. Carly went in, Tessa right behind.
The red quilt had been pulled up to the top of the bed, the shape underneath motionless and unmistakeable. Carly’s heart hammered. She and Tessa went closer. One corner of the quilt had been turned down, exposing part of Alicia’s face. Her long blonde hair lay glued to the dried blood on her forehead and cheek, her blue eyes were open and dull. Her skin was waxy and dead.
Carly’s breath stuck in her throat. Tessa reached down.
‘Don’t,’ Carly said. ‘She could be –’
‘She’s not.’ One glance was enough. She knew Tessa knew it too. ‘Don’t touch her. It’s a crime scene.’
Tessa pulled the quilt back anyway. Alicia was still in the black dress she’d been wearing the night before. Her lips and the skin around her eyes were split, drying blood everywhere, a front tooth broken, dark and rounded-edged bruising on her face. Carly had seen bruising like that before and knew it was caused by fists. She felt a pain like a cramp in her chest.
‘Don’t,’ she said again.
‘Punched the crap out of her.’ Tessa touched Alicia’s cheek. ‘Fuck this shit.’
‘Go outside and call Control,’ Carly said.
Tessa walked out of the room but squatted on the floor in the hallway, arms on her knees, head on her arms.
Carly pinched the inside of her wrist for a long moment, then took out her mobile. She dialled the control room.
A woman said, ‘Ambulance.’
Carly took a breath. ‘It’s Carly Martens. I’m at 12 Smith Street in Sydenham. Confirming code four of Officer Bayliss, in suspicious circumstances.’
‘Oh,’ the woman said. ‘Oh, Carly. Wait a sec.’
Carly heard her cover the phone with her hand and tell someone. The pain in her chest grew. In the hallway, Tessa was crying. In the bed, Alicia stared at the ceiling.
Detective Ella Marconi walked up the footpath in the bright spring sunshine, thoughts of Callum and tomorrow’s troublesome party already gone from her mind. Detective Murray Shakespeare walked in silence beside her. People whispered on the porches and in the gardens of the houses along the street, then fell quiet as they passed. Ahead, two uniformed officers and a plastic-overalled crime scene officer waited on the footpath, and an ambulance was parked haphazardly by the kerb, the back door open and a paramedic sitting on the step with her head in her hands. Ella made a conscious effort to lower her shoulders and calm her mind. The victim was twenty-six-year-old Alicia Bayliss. A paramedic. The second paramedic to be murdered in a month, with the earlier death still unsolved.
The house beyond the blue and white crime scene tape was narrow, like its neighbours. A white hatchback with pink numberplate surrounds and a pink ball attached to the aerial sat in the driveway to the left of the house, while a path of bare dry dirt led along the right. The patchy front lawn was no bigger than a picnic blanket, and two empty cane chairs stood on the tiny verandah above it while a cobwebbed wind chime dinged from the eaves. The light on the wall was off.
Ella felt the eyes of the silent constables on her as she looked around. The street was a cul-de-sac with four houses between Bayliss’s and the dead-end. Two houses faced back down the road and flanked a weedy asphalt path.
‘Where’s that go?’ she asked.
‘To the next street,’ the older constable said.
‘We’ve got it on our list to check,’ the scene officer said.
Ella and Murray ducked under the tape. The house’s front doorway yawned. Ella glanced away to see a second female paramedic watching dully from the ambulance’s passenger seat.
‘Who found her?’ Murray asked the constable. ‘Neighbour who saw her through the window. Christine Geary, DOB nine eleven seventy-three.’ He nodded across the street to where a woman in running pants sat on the doorstep of a small neat grey house, chin on her fisted hands. Even at this distance Ella could see that her eyes were squeezed shut.
‘They were supposed to meet for a walk,’ the constable said. ‘Geary came over and knocked on the door, then went down the driveway to the window. She saw what looked like blood on the floor and wall, and a shape in the bed. She knocked on the window and when the shape didn’t move she went home and got Bayliss’s spare key and let herself in. The quilt was pulled up right over Bayliss’s head. Geary said she turned it down just enough to see that Bayliss was dead.’
‘And the ambos?’ Murray asked.
‘They said they went in, turned the quilt down more, found that she was cold, and came back outside. They’re friends of hers. They were all out clubbing last night, so we’ve kept them separate.’
Ella turned to the scene officer. ‘Okay if we take a quick look?’
He handed them gloves and paper booties, and Ella and Murray pulled them on.
The first room on the left appeared to be a recently emptied bedroom. Ella noted marks in the carpet from the feet of a double bed, a skinny built-in with a mirrored door, plain beige curtains drawn back at the closed window, and an old stain on the grey carpet.
The next room was Bayliss’s. Ella stopped before the doorway, crouching to examine the smears and spatters of blood low on the doorframe and on the carpet. ‘Is there more?’
The scene officer pointed to a few tiny spots midway up the opposite wall. ‘Cast-off.’
Murray mimed punching someone on the floor, the backward movement of his fist showing how the blood would be flung behind. ‘Right? If he’d used a weapon with downward blows it’d be on the ceiling.’
‘Unless he was swinging from the side,’ the officer said.
‘Find a weapon?’ Ella asked.
‘What about forced entry?’ ‘No sign,’ he said.
There was no peephole in the door, and no security screen. ‘So he knocks, she turns on the light and unlocks the door, and either invites him in or he shoves inside,’ she said. ‘Blitz attack,’ Murray said. ‘Hits her straight away.’
‘She runs, and makes it this far.’ Ella turned back to the bedroom doorway, seeing in the blood spatter the struggle, the blows.
‘Like Hardwick,’ Murray said.
Ella had seen the photos of the house of Maxine Hardwick, the paramedic who’d been murdered a month ago. There’d been no forced entry there either. She’d been beaten about the face and head, and had died on the kitchen floor. Three days later a pair of padded gloves had been found by kids in a stinking drainage pond not far from the house. They were the type used by mixed martial arts fighters, with thick padding across the knuckles and the fingers left free and bare. Gloves like that meant a person could hit another without damaging their knuckles and still use their hands to grasp, lift, tuck. Despite the gloves being soaked in pond muck, the lab found Hardwick’s blood in the padding and a tiny scrap of latex inside one palm. Ella imagined Hardwick or Bayliss opening the door, unsuspecting, then seeing the double layer of boxing gloves over latex.
‘No blood anywhere else,’ Murray said, looking further down the hall. ‘It ended here.’
‘And before he left, turning the front light off on his way, he put her into bed,’ the scene officer said. ‘The wood of the door, the frame and the light switch have all been wiped down, the switch especially.’
‘He’s aware of what he’s doing, careful to cover his tracks,’ Murray said. ‘Wary of prints, whether he’s wearing the latex or not.’
Ella went into the bedroom, stepping over a pair of black high heels that looked like they’d just been kicked off. The curtains were half-open, the morning sunlight pouring in. A second crime scene officer was dusting for prints while a third took photos. The click of the digital camera was loud in the silence of the room.
Alicia Bayliss lay on her back on the red fitted sheet. Her face had been badly beaten, blood from lacerations to her lips and around her eyes matting her blonde hair to her skin. Ella remembered punch injuries she’d seen in the past, and the photos of Hardwick’s face. Bayliss’s short black dress had been smoothed down over her thighs and tucked in. Her feet were bare, and her arms were by her sides, her hands already bagged to protect any evidence under her fingernails.
‘She was found like that?’ she said. It suggested that the crime wasn’t sexual. In bed and tucked in was also a significant difference to the way Hardwick was left.
The officer with the camera nodded. ‘We’ve got photos before and after we removed the quilt. It’s bagged now. Might get some trace evidence from the vacuumings off it and the bedsheets.’
A hair to match the ones found at Hardwick’s, Ella hoped. ‘This guy felt bad afterwards,’ Murray said. ‘Hiding her face so she couldn’t “see” him and vice versa.’
‘Suggesting both remorse and familiarity,’ Ella said. ‘Someone who knew her.’
‘Or thought he did,’ Murray said. ‘It could be about the job more than about her personally. Nice lady looks after some creep, who knows what he starts to imagine.’ He rubbed his chin. ‘I’ll update Dennis.’
He went into the hall to phone the office. The scene officers worked on, dusting and snapping. Ella looked around. Inside the open built-in wardrobe, paramedic uniforms were lined up on their hangers next to dresses and tops, while shelves held neat stacks of T-shirts and jeans, and shoes sat on the floor in pairs. Things were well-spaced, suggesting that Bayliss didn’t need to share with anyone. Twin bedside tables held piles of books: a service-issued paramedic procedural folder on one, and two Tess Gerritsen novels, an anatomy and physiology textbook, and something called Emergency Care in the Streets on the other. A lamp on the table closest to where Bayliss lay was switched off. There was no alarm clock or clock radio, and no sign of a mobile phone. Ella crouched and checked the floor but it was bare.
‘The rest of the team’s on their way already, and Dennis has people looking for links between her and Hardwick,’ Murray said, putting away his phone as he came back in.
They went along the hallway. The next room was a combined lounge and kitchen. Medium flatscreen TV on the wall, faded black corner lounge, cheap black coffee table holding a remote and a folded local paper. Framed photos of laughing groups of people on the walls. Clean dishes sat in a drying rack on the sink: one plate, one bowl, one coffee mug. A mobile charger was plugged in on the bench, but there was no phone.
Through the next door was the laundry and bathroom, and beyond them the back door. The handle and surrounding area had already been dusted for prints. Ella stepped out into a yard only marginally bigger than the one at the front. A fold-down clothes line was attached to the wall, with a navy T-shirt and pair of socks, all dry, hanging from plastic pegs. A frangipani with budding leaves filled one back corner of the yard, and pots full of herbs lined the fence in the other. The fences themselves were grey timber palings, and Ella could see the roofs of the houses to the left and behind Bayliss’s block. There were no overlooking windows or gaps in the fence through which someone might’ve seen a person come and go.
Whatever had been on the block to the right had been bulldozed some time before and the rubble was full of weeds. The palings on that side ended near the back of Bayliss’s house, the rest of the fence basic chainlink along to the street. Ella examined the bare strip between the fence and the house. The soil was dry and hard, leaving no chance of footprints if the killer had come this way.
Ella looked around the garden. Birds sang and the sky was bright blue, the spring morning still fresh. It was much too nice a day for this.
‘Let’s talk to the friends,’ she said.
The paramedic in the ambulance’s passenger seat told them her name was Tessa Kimball. She was twenty-five. ‘It was our friend’s birthday yesterday. That’s why we went out, to celebrate.’
She wiped her eyes with a balled-up tissue. Her mascara was smeared, the foundation on her cheeks gone patchy and exposing a scatter of freckles. Her hair was mousy brown, tied back in a tight ponytail. Ella watched her gaze flit from her to Murray, past them to the house, the ground, and the sky.
‘Where did you go?’ Murray asked. ‘Castro’s, on Kent Street in the city.’
Ella had hauled ODs from the toilets there when she was in uniform, had worked fatal assaults out the front since then.
Tessa must’ve read her face. ‘It’s not like it used to be. They’ve cleaned it up. It’s nice now.’
Ella guessed paramedics would know. ‘Who else went?’
‘Hannah Dodds, whose birthday it was. She’s a nurse in RPA emergency. And Kristen Szabo, who works there too.’ She spelled it. ‘And Carly.’
She gestured to the back of the ambulance where the other paramedic sat, out of view but most likely not out of hearing, Ella realised. She motioned for Tessa to climb down from the ambulance and walk with her and Murray up the street.
In the shade of a flowering gum she said, ‘Did anyone harass Alicia or any of you?’
Tessa shook her head.
Murray asked, ‘Were any guys hanging around?’
Ella said, ‘Would you have noticed if there were?’
‘You’re asking if we were smashed?’ Tessa said. ‘No, we weren’t smashed because me and Carly had to work today, and therefore, yes, we’d have noticed if someone was perving or being a pain.’
‘Did anyone take anything else?’ Ella asked.
‘Like drugs? You’re kidding, aren’t you? We see too much of that shit to want to take it ourselves.’
‘How come you went out on a school night?’ Murray said. ‘It was the one night the five of us had free. Shiftwork.’ Ella nodded. ‘Run us through the evening.’
The group had arranged to meet in the club at eight. Kristen got there first and grabbed a booth. Hannah arrived next, then Tessa. Five minutes later Carly walked in, and ten minutes after that, Alicia. ‘That was probably about twenty past,’ Tessa said.
‘Did she say why she was late?’ Ella asked.
‘No. She’s not the most punctual person. I didn’t think anything of it.’
Ella made a note. They’d check the club’s CCTV, see if anyone accosted her at the door or followed her in. ‘Then what?’
‘Then we had cocktails,’ Tessa said. ‘We took turns to shout Hannah. We danced.’ She shrugged and wiped her eyes with the tissue again, and looked at the mascara on it. ‘We had fun.’
‘And nobody hit on any of you?’ Murray said.
‘Nobody even tried.’ Tessa looked at Ella. ‘You know what it’s like working in these jobs. You can get pretty good at sending out the “back off ” vibe.’
Ella knew. ‘What time did you leave?’
‘I don’t know exactly, but it was after twelve thirty. We all left together and got cabs. Hannah and Kristen live over near Bondi so they shared one. We shared the other. Carly got dropped off first in Newtown, then me in Enmore, then Alicia was coming back here.’
‘So you last saw her when?’ Ella asked.
‘When I got out. I was looking for my keys in my bag. I didn’t even wave.’
‘Any guess at the time?’
‘Around one, I think.’
‘Anyone confirm that?’ Ella said. ‘Flatmate or partner?’
‘I live with my mother but she was asleep.’
‘How about Carly?’
‘She lives alone, so I guess not.’
‘Was someone living with Alicia recently?’ Ella asked.
‘A guy called Dave Hibbins. He moved out last week. Alicia asked him to go.’
Ella’s radar pinged. ‘Why was that?’
‘A little while ago she broke up with her boyfriend –’ Another ping.
‘– and then Dave hit on her. Kept hitting on her too. She didn’t want any of that so she said he had to go.’
‘Where did he move to?’ Murray said.
‘I heard he went to stay with a mate close to work.’ ‘Which is where?’ Ella asked.
‘RPA. He’s a radiographer.’
‘Had she started looking for a new housemate?’ Murray said. ‘She was talking about it, but I’m pretty sure she hadn’t actually started. She told me she’d love to have the place to herself but the rent’s too much. I think she was having a bit of time on her own for as long as she could afford it.’ ‘Tell us about this ex-boyfriend,’ Ella said.
‘His name’s John Morris. He’s a cop, works in the city. They were together maybe six months. They broke up about three or four weeks ago.’
Ella didn’t know Morris and couldn’t tell from Murray’s face whether he did. They weren’t going to talk about it now though.
‘Did she tell you why?’ she asked.
‘Because he got it on with some chick at a party,’ Tessa said. ‘Alicia wasn’t going, then changed her mind. She turned up and saw him in the corner with his paws up this girl’s shirt. She went right over and dumped him on the spot.’
Ella said, ‘How’d he take it?’
‘Apparently he said someone spiked his drink, he didn’t know what he was doing, begged for her forgiveness,’ Tessa said. ‘But that was it for her.’
‘How well do you know John?’ Murray asked.
‘A bit. Alicia’s always trying to set me up with guys she knows and so I went on double dates with them a few times. He’s an okay guy.’
‘Even though he cheated on your friend?’ Ella said.
‘I don’t think she was that in love with him anyway,’ Tessa said. ‘They hadn’t been getting on very well. Like, she’d had recertification exams and he didn’t seem to get how much she had to study. Then when she did free up some time, he went off with his mates instead. She hadn’t seemed happy for a while.’
A magpie started to sing on the roof of Bayliss’s house. Tessa looked at it and then at the open door and teared up again.
Ella touched her arm. ‘Just a few more questions. Had Alicia ever said that she’d been threatened, or someone had tried to break into her home, anything like that?’
Tessa shook her head.
‘How long have you and Alicia been friends?’
‘About two years.’ She was crying now.
‘Where does Alicia’s family live?’
‘Her parents and one brother are in Melbourne. Her other brother’s in Canberra.’
‘Have you been in contact with Hannah or Kristen since you got here?’ Murray asked.
‘Please don’t speak to them before we get a chance to,’ he said. ‘Let us tell them.’
Tessa pressed her lips together and nodded. ‘Did you know Maxine Hardwick?’ Ella asked. Tessa shook her head.
‘Do you know if Alicia knew her?’
‘I’m positive she didn’t,’ Tessa said. ‘We talked about it back when it happened and she said it was awful. She would’ve mentioned if she knew her.’
Ella nodded. ‘Finally, did you or Carly touch anything in the house?’
‘I touched her cheek,’ Tessa said. ‘I knew what I was looking at but I couldn’t believe it. I had to touch her. She was cold.’
Ella squeezed her hand. ‘Thanks.’
As they walked back towards the ambulance and the second paramedic, Ella murmured to Murray, ‘Do you know John Morris?’
‘You make it sound like I should,’ she said. ‘Why?’
He shook his head. ‘I’ll tell you later.’
Excerpted from Deserving Death by Katherine Howell. Copyright © 2014 by Katherine Howell.
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