He stopped in the doorway opposite the bar and looked around. The inside was dimly lit. Pools of light seemed to barely lift off the tables, only just illuminating faces shaded in various stages of inebriated animation. He looked up at a laughing shout from a table near the back and he recognised the bulk of Darren. Anthony was next to him. He took half a step forward then stopped. They’d turned their heads towards the bar and were grinning. He followed their gaze; they were looking at Ellie. He watched her, heard her calling to them, saw the half-smile on her face. Darren and Anthony laughed, and their eyes followed her back to the table. Craig watched as Anthony stood to help her with the drinks, Anthony’s hand reaching out to touch, yet not touch, her back. Darren made room for her and she sat down between them. Shouts, and jumbled conversation, and above it all, he heard her laugh. He saw her face in profile, saw her push her hair back from her face. He felt the distance between them and knew that he was no longer in on the joke. Time to go.
He turned and let the bar door wing shut behind him. His phone rang. He looked at the caller ID.
‘Hey,’ he said abruptly and walked away from the pub, turning into the laneway to the carpark.
‘Where are you?’ Her voice was low and deep; it sounded like she’d been drinking.
‘On my way home.’
‘Oh…really? I heard you were at the pub.’
He moved the phone away from his face, swore, and looked around.
‘I decided not to, Karen.’ He was tired of this new take on the relationship. ‘Why do you care?’
‘You know why, Craig,’ and there it was again, that something in her voice. It irritated him.
There were muffled noises on the other end of the call. He was suddenly alert. ‘Karen? Is someone there?’ But he knew who was there. A muffled struggle, Karen cried out and then Mirko spoke into the phone.
‘Ahhhh, Craig. My favourite son-in-law,’ Mirko drawled. ‘I’m not sure I believe it, but my daughter might actually have fallen for you. It’s not good for business, Craig. Unless…’
Craig caught Mirko’s tone. This he definitely didn’t like. Wary now, he wondered what the hell was going on. Was Karen now part of this? Somehow that first trimester had changed things, changed Karen, and god knows what would have happened if she’d carried to term. Who knew whose it was? He sure as hell didn’t have patience for the change of heart that followed. Mirko’s husky laugh came through the phone.
‘Craig. You know you should be home with your wife. You should spend some time with your father-in-law, too. We have things to discuss. There’s no time for work drinks…so what if it’s Ellie’s first day back.’
The blood in his veins turned to ice. In a terrified frustration, he slapped the side of his head. He looked up and down the laneway, to the street, to the carpark. He could see no one. In his panic, he felt his heart beat through his rib cage, felt the sweat break out on his skin.
Ellie was back from leave. Of course Mirko would know. Mirko knew everything. Knew she’d been hospitalised, knew she’d nearly died, knew she’d been diagnosed with PTSD, the endless counselling. And now he knew she was back on the job, knew where she was, and he realised: she was in trouble. And it was all his fault. It all came rushing back, came like body blows and he cowered under each one. Craig shut his eyes, trying to shut it all out. Frustrated, enraged, he roared his anguish into the phone and then threw it against the wall. It fell in pieces to the gravel. Shaking, blinded by anger, he stalked through the fading light to the carpark.
He didn’t see them coming. The hood went over his head, he was hit in the stomach then on the side of his temple. Groggy, he went to ground. They dragged him behind a D-Max and took turns kicking him: head, face, stomach, groin, chest, back. They were efficient, wasted no breath or effort on words. It might have lasted for only five minutes; he started to feel as though he was drifting away along the gravel, away to the edge of the carpark, away to the edge of time. Finally, one of them grabbed his chin and his hair through the hood, pulled the side of his head close to their mouth. ‘Fix it,’ the voice grunted, ‘or this time she’s done.’ They lifted him higher off the ground before a rush of vertigo and the hard gravel of the car park rushed up to crack the back of his skull.
He lay there, unmoving, the night air coming down on him. The D-Max was parked against the brick wall of the realtor’s office. He was invisible to anyone else in the car park, anyone in the laneway, anyone on the highway. He started to come to, felt something welling in his mouth and coughed blood against the inside of the hood they’d left over his head. There was a searing pain in his chest. His head swam. Nothing coherent occurred to him for some time except the sound of Mirko laughing, then Mirko’s face taking shape before him. How he hated that face. He could feel his own face constrict in a rictus of hate and cried out in pain. His jaw was on fire. From somewhere far away, he realised it was probably broken. Just like Ellie’s jaw had been broken. He had found her. And them. They’d beaten her. She’d been shot. She was lying on the floor, her face was a bloody mess. He’d told her not to go there, he’d given her false leads…he’d lied to her, time and again. How had he done that? How had he lied to her? Her? He moaned and tried to move towards her but his ribs were on fire. ‘Fucking bastards,’ he tried to say to her. ‘Fucking Mirko,’ and Mirko’s face filled his vision again. Blood welled in his mouth again, and again he spat it out. Gingerly he raised he hands to touch the hood and groggily he remembered the gravel of the carpark. How he had got here…
Mirko had given him an out. A well-orchestrated but simple way out of his gambling debts. He’d lured him in with Karen. Had prostituted his own daughter. To get a cop. A cop on the inside. Put me in his pocket, he thought desperately, and he grimaced at his own desperate choices. But it wasn’t about him so much anymore. No. It was about…he had to call someone. He had to warn her. Slowly, he moved his arm again, this time looking for his phone. His phone. Fuck. Then he remembered, and realising, he stifled a hopeless curse. His phone…back in the laneway. The only way would be to go find his car, get in it and go. He tried to sit up and a wave of nausea pushed him back against the brick wall. Got to get into the car, he thought, and winced again. Groggy. So groggy. She’s so groggy, he thought. ‘Ellie. Stay with me.’ He was hoarse, now. He kept repeating it over and over. ‘Ellie, stay with me!’ Now he was running, carrying her in his arms, to his car, racing the blood that was leaving her body, ‘Ellie, no, don’t do this, don’t die, don’t die, it’s all my fault.’
In a rush of pain, he pushed off the wall and shouted, ‘it’s all my fault!’
He heard something close by, a noise. He struggled to focus, tried to listen. Yes. Footsteps. Maybe. He strained to hear. He tried to look to see where he was. For the first time, he realised he was slumped against a wall, a hood over his head, next to a car. A big car. No, not a car. A ute. His ribs hurt. His head swam. The pain in his groin and abdomen…it hurt to breathe. But no, there it was again. Footsteps, now. Coming towards the ute, coming around the back. He started to shake his head.
No, no, no, no –
‘Anthony! Anthony! I found him,’ a hoarse voice, Ellie’s voice, shouted back into the car park and then she was there, and she was on the ground beside him and she took his head in her arms, lifting the hood away, used it to wipe blood from the gashes on his face, across his cheekbone, over his eye, in his hair. She said his name. She said it again. He turned his swollen eyes to look at her, her face a shadow framed against the night sky, her eyes finding his.
‘Craig,’ she said again. He saw Anthony loom up behind her. He looked back at her, wanting to touch her face. He blacked out.
He opened his eyes in a hospital ward. Gray light and shadows filtered down through the blinds and onto the bed. Light snores came from the bed next to him. He had the feeling of being watched. Probably not uncommon in a hospital. He turned his head slowly towards the sounds of snoring, testing out his range of movement, and wondered bleakly about an ambush there on the ward. His gaze strayed past the next bed to the door. No ambush: Ellie. Standing against the doorway to the room, coffee in hand.
Looking at him.
On his first day, she’d looked at him like this. Gary Sutton, Captain, had walked him up the stairs and the first person he had laid eyes on was her. Ellie. Her desk was close to the windows, and the fresh morning light was falling on her head as she bent over the keyboard, black hair hiding a pale face and dark eyes. Gary had said her name and she looked up, then stood. There was something in her features that had caught him off guard, caught him by surprise – same thing that caught at him now, here in the ward, here after everything that he had done, when there was no longer any hope. Always something wild and bright and frank in the way she looked him up and down. She had nodded to him, had reached out her hand to shake his, and those dark eyes had locked on him, taking him in–
‘Craig.’ She was beside his bed now, and touched his hand, lightly.
Slowly, he focused on her face. Their eyes met ‘Ellie.’
They were quiet for long moments. Finally, she sat.
‘It’s, it’s um…’ he started. ‘I tried, Ellie,’ he added, and then stopped. He held her gaze, for as long as he could.
He faltered, looked away, weighed down by more than the pain of the welts and bruises. ‘I can’t,’ he said simply, hoarsely. ‘I’m in too deep. I don’t know how.’
Ellie looked down at the coffee cup in her hand, and began shaking her head. ‘Craig-‘
‘Ellie, he’ll kill you this time.’
‘Look at you, Craig!’ She slammed the coffee cup into the bin and gestured at the tubes and the machines and the bandages. ‘He almost killed you! This was him!’
‘It doesn’t matter about me, Ell-‘
‘Noble’s not your colour, Craig,’ she snapped back.
He was stung. ‘Yeh, well thanks, but it’s me he needs. You’re just a pain in his arse.’ She caught her breath and looked down at him. The light and the shadows hung between them, dappling on the bed, the shadows growing darker. Realisation dawned on her face but it was long moments before she spoke.
‘You don’t want to leave,’ she breathed.
‘No, that’s…Ellie – ‘
‘Wait. Anthony said something about Karen. Is this about Karen, now?’
‘Ellie, for fuck’s sake – !’ he reached out and grabbed her wrist. ‘Ellie, because of me you almost died.’
She stopped and looked at him and he could hardly face her. The pain faded to nothing under this fresh hot wake of self-loathing. But he needed to push to the end. He was here now, it was this moment and this moment only where it could happen. He took a breath and it burst from him. ‘Ellie, they knew you were coming, they knew because of me. They had everything they needed, and they – ‘ he stopped, his chest was bursting, he gasped for air.
She just stood still, looking at him. Her face was paler than usual. The tension in her wrist scattered. He watched her face, felt her sway for just a second, then she steadied herself. He dropped her arm. It fell slowly to her side.
‘Ellie, I’m…I’m so sorry.’ She looked at him. Her face was smooth, her expression unreadable. God his chest hurt. ‘Ellie…’ and as he reached out, she nodded noiselessly at him, and backed away, hands in her back pockets. She opened her mouth as if to say something, then changed her mind. She stopped still for a moment, looking at him, and held his gaze. Her eyes were shining in the fading light and the corners of her mouth turned down. The shadows and the shadows and the shadows fell between them. She pressed her lips together. She turned and walked away.