The Darkest Hour
The 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. Waiting for a paramedic’s say-so was just one way in which the services worked together, however, 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 2 am 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 that was putting out heat from its pump-running engine.
Still, she ached from shivering, and the police had the dead driver out on the body bag, by the time the government contractor’s white van pulled into view. Freed from the possible need to transport the body, Lauren said a quick goodbye and floored the ambulance over to Gilly’s all-night café on Broadway. Now the precious coffee sat steaming in the holder between the seats. The heater whirred at top speed under the ambulance dash and Lauren kept the wheel straight with her knee for a moment so she could press her hands to the vents. Time enough to sit in the well-warmed truck and sip at leisure once she backstreeted her way over to Paddington. Such was the lot of the officer working single for the shift--you got sent all over to fill in spaces when crews were busy, you were prime choice if a body ever had to be transported, and you--
A man bolted from an alley on her left and Lauren hit the brakes. A thought flashed through her head¾this won’t look good coming so soon after the accident with the bus, hitting a pedestrian, oh Jesus stop stop STOP¾as the weight and momentum of the ambulance forced it 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, 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, and Lauren flicked on her high beams but could not make out the numberplate. The second man struggled to his feet and onto the footpath. Lauren narrowed her eyes, assessing 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 stood on the footpath and 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 street 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 like 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. Lauren 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 jeans’ legs, then 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. ‘Thomas?’
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 European 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 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 described all the right symptoms too.
‘Man chased me.’ Thomas rubbed the side of his jaw. ‘Pain here too now.’
Lauren was torn. He really did seem to be having cardiac 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 jailed, or deported back to Austria, or whatever it was they’d do. 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 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.’
She felt his weight lift off her and heard him run 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 here 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 ‘Go’ 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 neck in case any bruising started to emerge there.
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 Lauren. 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.
He knows. 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, did she see anything or anyone? It would be okay. Tell the truth, just not the whole truth.
She pointed into the alley with her thumb, and they walked together, the cops with the barrels of their four-cell Maglite torches resting on their shoulders.
At the body the officers stared at the face.
‘It’s him all right,’ the shorter cop said.
‘No great loss,’ his mate said, shining his torch beam straight into the dead eyes.
‘No loss at all.’
His mate shone his torch around and down the alley. ‘See anything?’
‘Two guys ran out, that’s why I stopped,’ Lauren said. ‘Young one, a prostitute by the look, ran down the street, and an older one jumped in a car and took off.’
‘See the model, the plates?’
She shook her head.
‘Hang around for the Ds, give a description of the men?’
She stuck her hands in her pockets. ‘Sure.’
The officer looked at his shorter partner, still staring at the body. ‘Call it in, would ya?’
* * *
Lauren pressed her back against the ambulance while the police set up around the crime scene. She finished what was left of her coffee but kept the empty cup in her hand, something to hold on to. Her throat was sore but she’d climbed into the ambulance and checked her face and neck in the mirror, on the pretext of getting something out of her eye, and she knew she looked okay. Five detectives, recognisable by their civilian clothes, stood on the footpath talking, then one came her way. ‘Lauren, is it? What station’re you at?’
She nodded. ‘Lauren Yates, from The Rocks.’
The man scribbled in a notebook. ‘I’m Detective Lance Fredriks. The officers said you saw two men running away?’
Lauren told the story. The detective’s eyes never left her and Lauren felt self-conscious about her words and the way they came out of her mouth. Did lies look different to the truth? When she described the young man as a little taller than her, about twenty, with dark hair and a limp, could the detective spot the misdirection? The last thing she wanted was for the young man to be found, because he might have seen Miles or the dark shape, and then the police would come back to her with their eyes and their questions once more.
The older man who’d run out of the alley was easier; she said what she’d seen, which was close to nothing. Older, heavier, with a car. No way he’d be found, or come forward.
‘You saw nothing else?’
‘Not a thing,’ she said, crumpling the cup in her hand.
The rest was rigmarole: come to the station in the morning for the formal statement, I’ll be in touch if there’s anything else. Lauren nodded and smiled.
‘Thanks,’ the detective said.
* * *
Five months later, on a bright morning in early summer, the Coroner declared Stewart Blake’s death a homicide carried out by persons unknown. The unsolved case would be relegated to a file drawer somewhere, to be taken out by an officer now and again, the pages flipped through, the cover signed and dated, then the thing shoved back into the dark once more.
Her uniform damp with sweat, Lauren walked from the Glebe Coroner’s Court past the media crews. She wanted to forget the whole thing, forget the way that one lie led to another, then another, and next thing you were holding the Bible and swearing and hoping like hell you could remember the words you’d scribbled on the Gilly’s paper serviette as soon as you’d left the scene, of how you described the men you saw running away, because lies were harder to remember than truth. She’d studied those words for half an hour that morning then burned the paper in the bathroom, flushing the charred remnant, opening the window afterwards and watching the smoke blow out.
Felise had come in, nose wrinkled. ‘Tom’s dad smokes in the bathroom too.’
‘I wasn’t smoking,’ Lauren said, reaching for the brush, smoothing it over the thin silky hair on Felise’s narrow head. ‘I think the smoke came in from outside. Somebody must have a fire in their garden.’
Felise wanted to climb onto the toilet to look. They’d stood there, Felise’s thin hot arm around Lauren’s neck, her breath warm against her cheek. Lauren had watched her niece’s wide blue eyes move as her gaze roamed the neighbourhood. ‘What can you see?’ she’d said.
‘The whole wide world.’
Lauren strode away from the court, sure of herself again.
* * *
The same day, Detective Ella Marconi turned to the next page in the print-out and rested her forehead in her hand. Across the room Detective Murray Shakespeare was fiddling with the aerial of an ancient radio he’d dug up from somewhere, and the staticky whine of its poor reception made Ella grit her teeth.
He swung the aerial in a wide arc. ‘Stupid thing.’
‘Do we really need music?’
‘Sit in here all day reading these lists, drive anyone nuts.’ There was a quick blat of sound and he stopped the aerial short, feeling for the spot on the airwaves.
Ella tried to focus on the page before her. Her eyes blurred and the numbers ran into each other. Murray swore under his breath and she felt surrounded, leant in upon, by the stacks of print-outs looming on the desk beside her. Of all the things she’d imagined she’d get to do in the Homicide Squad, searching for three specific phone numbers in a list of thousands was strangely missing.
‘--Eagers think he’s doing?’ The voice shouted from the radio and Murray fumbled for the volume. ‘Zero tolerance is what’s needed in this country, not the namby-pamby softly-softly approach. Next thing Eagers and his cronies in State parliament will be offering to hold the hands of the criminals, offering them counselling to help them deal with the traumatic experiences they had as dealers.’
‘We might need something to listen to but that’s not it,’ Ella said. ‘The Family Man’s rantings are all I need.’
But Murray held the aerial perfectly still.
‘This drug amnesty will do nothing for our country’s youth,’ the voice barked. ‘All it does is get rid of some higher dealers for long enough for the ambitious small-timers, the ones who’ve just been given immunity from prosecution, to move up the ladder and take their places.’
‘Turn it off,’ Ella said.
Murray turned the volume down till the words became indistinct. ‘He’s got a point.’
‘I think it’s a good idea,’ Ella said.
‘You don’t think he’s right about the ambitious small-time dealer?’
‘Better that we do something than nothing.’
‘Not if it makes the situation worse,’ Murray said.
‘How can it be worse? Look what’s happened in just the last few months, with ice. If we can get information on some of the importers, find out how they’re getting it into the country, there’s not only some bad guys locked up but also some channels they can no longer use.’
Murray shook his head. ‘We need to lock them all up, big or small. Freely giving people immunity like this is just wrong. It’s like waving the big white flag: “Do what you want – we don’t care”.’
‘As if getting the small guys off the street won’t then allow even smaller ones to come up,’ Ella said. ‘At least this way we strike some bigger blows.’
Murray switched the radio off and sat down. Ella turned to the next page and bent closer to it, but still her concentration wandered. The bustling Homicide office was three floors down and they were stuck up here in a file room dusty with disuse. Their boss Detective Sergeant Kirk Kuiper said he’d call if he needed them. She leant over and picked up the phone, listened to the dial tone, and put the handset down. Murray watched, then sighed.
They took a break twenty minutes later. Murray stood staring out the window, coffee steaming the glass. Ella got out her mobile and called Detective Dennis Orchard.
‘They’ll call you before they call me,’ he said.
‘Sometimes my reception’s crap up here.’
‘Oh sure,’ he said, a smile in his voice. ‘I’ll send carrier pigeon if they call me first and I can’t reach you, okay?’
She put the phone away. Murray was looking at her. She shook her head.
It had been six months since the shooting and the decision by the Critical Incident Team was due any day. She’d run through it in her mind a thousand times, a thousand times a thousand, seeing the kidnapper outlined against the background of sky and trees, gun aimed at the couple who were curled up together on the grass. Ella remembered her sprint across the slope, her own gun out. Her voice shouting, ‘Drop it! Drop it!’ and then the moment of knowing she had no choice, the kidnapper was about to shoot, and Ella held her breath and pulled the trigger. There was the noise, the recoil, and the sight of the kidnapper falling to the ground. And then she’d reached the couple, sobbing with their arms around each other and the beautiful, perfect, and safe little child between them.
She rubbed her forehead, shielding the dampness in her eyes in case Murray was looking.
She’d thought about that child a lot, and talked about the case at length with Dennis, and read her copy of the statement she’d given to the Team detectives so often the pages were soft and creased. She always came up with the belief that she was one hundred percent justified in the shooting, but still couldn’t be sure the Team’s verdict would go her way. Even with the broom of Strike Force Gold having shifted more than a few officers around and out of the job, clearing sufficient space in Crime Squads for fresh blood including her and Murray to step into temporary secondments, she knew that a poor report from the Team would see her shipped straight back to the suburbs. Even an average report, combined with an average performance during her secondment, would see her gone.
What she needed was a great case. Something open and shut--something with clearly defined good and bad guys, strong solid witnesses, textbook evidence and a good hearty sentence at the end. Something she could get stuck into, proving that she did have skills, that she knew how to work a case and was worthy of a permanent spot.
She stared at the phone.