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.