Two Man Station (An Emergency Services novel)
This title is part of the Emergency Services universe.
Gio Valeri is a big city police officer who’s been transferred to the small outback town of Richmond with his professional reputation in tatters. His transfer is a punishment, and Gio just wants to keep his head down and survive the next two years. No more mistakes. No more complications.
Except Gio isn’t counting on Jason Quinn.
Jason Quinn, officer in charge of Richmond Station, is a single dad struggling with balancing the demands of shift work with the challenges of raising his son. The last thing he needs is a new senior constable with a history of destroying other people’s careers. But like it or not, Jason has to work with Gio.
In a remote two man station hours away from the next town, Gio and Jason have to learn to trust and rely on each another. Close quarters and a growing attraction mean that the lines between professional and personal are blurring. And even in Richmond, being a copper can be dangerous enough without risking their hearts as well.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The dusty ribbon of the Flinders Highway stretched west from the Coast, frayed edges crumbling into the red dirt that clumped in the wheel arches of Gio’s Mazda 3, and packed hard as clay into the tread of the tyres. The drive from the Gold Coast took two days. Gio had started out on Monday, and overnighted in a cheap hotel in Emerald, sharing the shower stall with a dead cockroach before falling asleep with the TV blaring. Tuesday had been more of the same: another ten hour stretch behind the wheel, the dull ache of homesickness tugging at him with every kilometre that clicked over on the odo.
Gio stopped every hour or so to stretch, to pace for a while, to break the hypnotic power of the never-ending highway. He’d never seen country like this before. Never been this far west. Slow, lazy flies buzzed around him, drowsy with heat.
The drive was red dirt, chips in the windscreen that caught the blazing sunlight, and mirages that shimmered on the dips in the road. The car shuddered whenever a road train roared past in the other lane.
Gio reached his destination just after four on Tuesday afternoon.
At the edge of Richmond, the road branched. The highway continued left, bypassing the centre of town. The road curved right and swelled into a main street. Gio drove past a bank, a supermarket, two pubs, and the RSL. There wasn’t a single building over two storeys high, as though the weight of the endless blue sky had squashed everything flat. No clusters of steel and glass towers, their floor-to-ceiling windows facing the beach and reflecting the thin stretch of sand and the breakers that rolled in endlessly from the ocean. This—the dust, the heat, the small town, and the empty sky—was a different planet.
Gio turned left at the tiny hospital, following a sign, and found the police station a block back from the main road. A riotous crimson bougainvillea bush half obscured the sign out front of the low-set cement building.
Gio pulled over and turned the ignition off. He tapped his fingers against the steering wheel, drawing a deep breath as the heat bled into the car. He’d been running from his nerves since leaving the Gold Coast, and now that he’d finally stopped, they’d caught up with him.
He could still remember his first day in the job. Four years ago now, Southport station. It was a big station, always busy no matter the time of day or night. Gio had been so nervous he hadn’t trusted himself to eat breakfast before starting his shift. Better getting light-headed than throwing up, right? Caffeine and adrenaline had carried him through to lunch.
Gio was nauseated now as well, his stomach roiling. He sat for a moment longer, until the heat became unbearable, and then opened the car door to let the breeze in. His hand shook as he unclipped his seat belt, and he drew another deep breath of hot dry air before getting out of the car. The sun burned his shadow onto the cracked cement path as he walked towards the front entrance of the station. The doors rolled wide when he reached them, and a chill blast of air-conditioning ushered him inside.
The small foyer was empty. There was nobody behind the counter. The grill was pulled down.
Gio pressed the buzzer and heard it sound somewhere out the back. Moments later, the door behind the counter opened, and a woman appeared. She was short, round, and middle-aged, and she wore her grey hair in a pixie cut.
She peered at Gio over the half-moon glasses perched on her nose. “Can I help you?”
“Hi.” He slid his badge under the grill. “Gio Valeri.”
The woman’s expression faltered for a moment. The smile that followed seemed forced. “I’ll get Sergeant Quinn.”
“Thank you.” Gio pulled his badge back and shoved it into his pocket again. He studied the posters on the noticeboard. Domestic Violence. Child Safety. Drugs. The usual stuff.
“Jason?” the woman called as she headed into the back rooms of the station. “The new guy’s here.”
The door behind the counter snicked closed, muffling any response.
The new guy.
Gio had no doubt that his reputation had preceded him here. And he didn’t kid himself that it was a good thing. He fixed his gaze on the curling edges of a Police Recruiting poster, and on a thin crack in the paint job on the wall underneath it.
The new guy.
It wasn’t the worst thing she could have called him.
Gio had told himself all the way from the Gold Coast that he was a good copper, and that none of the shit that had happened on the Coast mattered out here. Which was total bullshit, just like Gio’s reputation.
Gio straightened up when he heard the click of a lock disengaging. A moment later the door to the foyer swung open and the sergeant stepped through. Gio moved forward and stuck his hand out, his heartbeat quickening.
Sergeant Quinn had a firm handshake. “Giovanni?”
“Gio,” Gio corrected.
“Jason,” Sergeant Quinn said. He was in his mid to late thirties, maybe. He was an inch or so taller than Gio, and in good shape. Tanned too. The faint lines at the corners of his blue-grey eyes deepened when he smiled. He had light-brown hair, the tips sun-bleached. He was younger than Gio had expected. Hotter too, but Gio was careful not to let his appreciation of that particular trait show in his expression as he shook the sergeant’s hand. The sergeant gestured at the middle-aged woman. “And this is Sandra.”
Gio looked past him to where the woman stood in the doorway. She twisted her chequered lanyard around her finger. Her ID card jiggled against her bosom.
“Come on through,” Sergeant Quinn said. “I’ll give you a tour of the place.”
There wasn’t much to the Richmond Police Station. A holding cell, a narrow storeroom, and an even narrower armoury. The small dayroom contained two desks. One was empty and, presumably, Gio’s. The other one was occupied by a kid wearing a faded maroon Richmond State School polo shirt, with his homework spread out around him. The kid was skinny, like a half-grown pup. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten.
“Finished your homework, mate?” Sergeant Quinn asked him.
The kid smiled at him around the pencil shoved in his mouth. He had tousled light-brown hair, eyes the colour of storm clouds, and a spray of freckles across his nose. A mini version of Sergeant Quinn. “Yep!”
“Sure you have,” the sergeant said wryly, like a man who’d heard that lie a million times before. He glanced back at Gio. “This is my son, Taylor. Taylor, this is Gio, Dan’s replacement.”
“Hi,” Gio said.
Taylor’s smile grew into a wide grin. He ducked his head and the pencil dropped out of his mouth. It rolled off the desk and onto the floor, and Taylor scrambled to retrieve it.
The tour continued.
“My office,” Sergeant Quinn said, gesturing to a door. “And the kitchen and showers and toilet are down the hall.” He dug into the pocket of his blue cargo pants and pulled out a clump of keys. He flipped through them. “Station, armoury, cell, property room, your locker, the safe, and . . .” He turned the last one over. “Your house.”
He dropped the keys into Gio’s palm.
Gio closed his fingers around them tightly. The teeth dug into his flesh. He cleared his throat to find his voice. “Thanks, Sarge.”
He really was stuck here, wasn’t he?
* * * * * * *
The highset house sat on a quarter-acre block behind the station. It was built on an elevated slab that made Gio wonder if flooding was a concern. Sergeant Quinn’s house shared the block. There was no fence between the houses, just an expanse of scrubby grass that seemed to blaze like fire as the sun went down.
The house smelled musty. Gio opened the windows and turned on the ceiling fans. His furniture wasn’t due to arrive until tomorrow, but he’d planned for that. He unrolled his air mattress out on the lounge room floor, and walked through the house again, opening and closing the cabinets and cupboards.
The three-bedroom house had been built for a family, not for a single guy. Gio didn’t have enough furniture to fill this many rooms. It wouldn’t feel like home here.
There were cleaning products under the kitchen sink that the last resident hadn’t bothered to pack. Half a bottle of detergent. A pack of green scourers. Insect spray. A can of silver polish. Who the fuck had silver these days? And who the fuck polished it? Gio took the can out and set it on the bench beside the sink to remind him to throw it out as soon as he bought garbage bags.
His phone buzzed in the pocket of his jeans, and he dug it out. The number was blocked. Gio didn’t answer it. Probably just a telemarketer, but he didn’t feel like pushing his luck right now. He ignored the way his heartbeat picked up. Just a telemarketer. No need to answer and find out it wasn’t. Gio had driven two days to get to Richmond. He wanted to believe, for as long as he could, that all the shit on the Gold Coast hadn’t followed him.
Gio shoved his phone back into his pocket.
Jesus. What the hell was he even doing here? This wasn’t his house. This wasn’t his life. There was nothing here that resembled the future Gio had so carefully planned. He curled his fingers around the edge of the bench. Stared at the instructions on the back of the can of silver polish, as though he might find all the answers there. He’d searched in stranger places, hadn’t he? Put his faith in dumber things. And look where it had got him. Still, he was somewhat unsurprised when the secrets of the universe failed to reveal themselves via a can of Silvo.
He smiled wryly.
Okay, so he was tired, and he was miserable, and he was homesick, but at least he wasn’t totally crazy, right? That seemed like something worth holding on to.
He took his phone out of his pocket and unlocked the screen. He scrolled through his contacts. Hundreds of names there, and the only reason Gio hadn’t deleted most of them was that he wanted some warning if any of them called him. He wanted to see a name instead of a random string of numbers. He wondered if any of them was the blocked number.
Probably just a telemarketer.
He should phone Sophie. Let her know he’d got here safely. Except a text would work as well, and that way he wouldn’t get pulled into another argument about how selfish he was. It was Gio’s fault they argued. He hadn’t told her everything. He couldn’t bring himself to admit to her that the transfer had been pretty much forced on him. He’d never told her how bad things had gotten. The late-night phone calls where nobody had spoken. The slashed tyres and keyed panels on his car. The can of dog food left on his desk. The threats. It had seemed somehow easier to pretend that moving to Richmond had been his own idea, and to bear Sophie’s anger rather than tell her the truth and admit that he was scared, or to make her scared too. He needed some corner of his life that was still untouched by this shit-storm, and he wanted to keep his big sister in that corner too. He didn’t want her to see how screwed up everything was now. How screwed up he was.
He texted. Here safe. Call you in a few days.
It wasn’t enough, probably. It’d piss her off more than total radio silence, absolutely. Gio was used to being the bad guy though.
Fuck, he was tired.
He set his phone down on the countertop and twisted the tap on. A blast of hot water hit the bottom of the sink. It took a minute for it to run first lukewarm, and then cool. Gio splashed some over his face and wiped his face on his shirt.
Footsteps clomped up the back steps, and a moment later the handle on the security screen rattled. “Hello?”
Gio crossed to the door.
Taylor’s face was smooshed against the screen. “Your door’s locked.”
“Yep,” Gio agreed.
Taylor rattled the handle again. “Dad says he’s taking us to the pub for tea.”
Gio unlocked the door.
Taylor wrenched it open. “Do you want to come? I’m supposed to ask, not just tell you. In case you’re tired.”
Gio figured he was hungrier than he was tired. He pocketed his phone. “Yeah,” he said. “That sounds good.”
* * * * * * *
They ate in the restaurant attached to the front bar of the Royal Hotel. Occasional bursts of loud laughter drowned out the tinny electronic music of the pub’s row of three poker machines. The pub did cheap, good food. Chicken schnitzel, chips, and salad for fourteen bucks, and it was better than anything Gio could have cooked up for himself.
Sergeant Quinn ordered them both a beer. A light.
Taylor got a Coke.
Sergeant Quinn went through the roster with Gio. There were only so many hours in a day that two blokes could fill. They wouldn’t cross paths much between Sunday and Wednesday. One of them would work the day shift while the other was on a day off. From Thursday through until Saturday they worked overlapping shifts, trying to cover the afternoon until past midnight when it was more likely they’d have to deal with disturbances and domestics.
“Anything that crops up when you’re rostered alone that you need backup for, you call me out,” Sergeant Quinn said. “And I’ll do the same to you. It’s not like the city. This is a two-man station. If things turn to shit, it’s just us. Even coming lights and sirens, the nearest backup is about two hours away. Longer than that if they’re on the other side of their division.”
“Yeah,” Gio said. “That’s gonna take some getting my head around.”
The sergeant’s mouth quirked at that, and Gio could hear the unspoken judgement: city boy.
Evidently, so could Taylor. The kid dragged a chip through a puddle of tomato sauce, and regarded his dad with a grin.
“It’s a different style of policing out here,” Sergeant Quinn told Gio. “Has to be.”
Gio nodded. “It’s, ah, it’s a lot to learn.”
He felt like a first-year constable again, earnest and respectful. Like he was performing a cheap pantomime, when he knew exactly what Sergeant Jason Quinn thought of him. Jesus. The assistant commissioner and the HSO had called Richmond a fresh start, but Gio knew what it really was: “Get that fucking dog out of my sight.” Which had been a real kick in the guts especially coming from Jonesy, the boss who’d handpicked him for the team only eight months before. Richmond wasn’t a fresh start. Richmond was punishment. Banishment. Richmond was seventeen hundred kilometres from the life Gio had built for himself on the Gold Coast. Seventeen hundred kilometres from civilisation. And Gio was stuck here for two years.
Two fucking years.
He ate his meal, and listened attentively while Sergeant Quinn spoke, and tried to remember why the hell he’d ever thought he was too proud to quit.
* * * * * * *
Thump thump thump.
On Thursday, Gio awoke with aching muscles and a vague sense of unknowing. It took a moment for him to recognise the pattern of sunlight slanting through the blinds onto the wall, and a moment longer to remember what that meant. Richmond. This was his home now.
He’d spent all of yesterday shifting his furniture around. However he’d arranged it, it was too thinly spread. The third bedroom held nothing but his two bookshelves. Which was the closest Gio would ever get to a dedicated library, he supposed. Might as well enjoy it.
He had a couple more boxes to unpack today before he started his first shift at the station. He could have unpacked them last night probably, but he’d resisted. Didn’t want to make it seem so real by having everything put neatly away, like he actually lived here now. Stupid, because he did actually live here now, and at some point he was going to need his plates and cutlery unpacked.
Thump thump thump.
Gio climbed out of bed, hitching his track pants up. He treaded down the hallway, into the kitchen, and then pushed open the screen door and stared out into the backyard. Taylor was standing there, smacking a cricket bat against one of Gio’s discarded packing boxes. He must’ve dragged it out from under the house.
Thump thump thump.
Hell if Gio could figure out what he was doing.
“Hey,” he called out.
The kid spun, wide-eyed, mouth open, the picture of guilt.
“What’re you doing?”
Taylor shrugged his skinny shoulders.
“Where’s your dad?
“Asleep.” Taylor hefted the weight of the cricket bat from hand to hand and squinted worriedly up at Gio.
“Right.” The sergeant had been working until two, hadn’t he? And it couldn’t be much past six now. “You’re gonna wake him up if you keep bashing that box.”
The kid’s guilty expression intensified, and Gio wondered if that was what he secretly wanted. He was bored, probably.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at school?” Gio asked him.
Taylor looked scandalised. “Not for ages.”
“If you want something to do,” Gio said, “you can help me finish unpacking.”
Taylor’s hesitation lasted for about half a second. Then he dumped his cricket bat and walked towards Gio’s house.
“I am great at unpacking,” he said confidently, climbing the steps.
After the third broken coffee mug, Gio begged to differ.
But it was better than silence, right?
When Jason Quinn woke up, Taylor was gone. There was a half-finished bowl of cereal in the kitchen sink and the milk had been left to slowly curdle on the table. The back door was open.
Jason was too tired to panic. He was still half sunk in sleep when he was climbing the new guy’s back steps, and by the time he’d pulled himself into a state approaching wakefulness, he could already hear Taylor chattering away inside.
Time to remind Taylor that boundaries were a thing that existed. He’d been the same with Dan and his family. At least Dan and Gabby hadn’t minded having Taylor underfoot all the time. Taylor had liked coming over to visit Gabby and the baby. He’d been inconsolable when Dan had put in for a transfer to Cairns.
“Who’s coming to live here now, Dad?” he’d asked one night, sniffling into his pillow.
“I don’t know, mate.”
Taylor had scrubbed at his eyes. “Will they have kids maybe?”
“Maybe,” Jason had told him, tousling his hair. He’d hoped whoever got the spot did have kids, for Taylor’s sake. Jason had just wanted someone he could work with as easily as he could with Dan. Someone he could trust to have his back.
Turned out they’d both been shafted, hadn’t they?
Jason knocked on the screen door and then opened it. “Taylor? You in here, mate?”
Taylor poked his head around the kitchen doorway. “Dad! I’m helping Gio unpack!”
“You’re supposed to be getting ready for school,” Jason reminded him.
“What time is it?”
Jason squinted at his watch. “Eight thirty.”
“Shit!” Taylor’s eyes went owlishly wide.
And it was probably time for a refresher course on appropriate language while they were going over that boundary thing again.
“Go and get your bag and your shoes,” Jason said. “And your lunchbox is in the fridge.”
“Can I get money for tuckshop?”
Taylor’s face split with a grin.
“Bye, Gio!” he yelled, pushing past Jason to get to the stairs. “Bye, Dad!”
Gio appeared in the kitchen doorway, leaning on the frame. He was wearing track pants and a faded Green Day shirt. “Sarge,” he said, nodding.
“Morning. Sorry about . . .” Jason made a vague gesture that he hoped encompassed Taylor’s lack of boundaries, Taylor’s lack of polite language, and pretty much Taylor himself.
“It’s no problem.” Gio’s expression was impossible to read.
“You settling in okay?”
“Yeah.” Gio didn’t hold his gaze. “Fine.”
“Okay,” Jason said. “First shift today, huh?”
“I’ll see you at two.”
Gio lifted his gaze again. “Yes, Sarge.”
Jesus. The guy was an absolute fucking delight, wasn’t he? No wonder they hadn’t been able to wait to see the back of him down the Gold Coast. Jason was tempted to ask him which telephone box they’d held his farewell party in.
“Okay,” he said instead. “I’d better get Taylor to school.”
He was halfway down the stairs again when he heard Gio locking the door behind him.
* * * * * * *
When Jason arrived at the station just before two, Gio was already there.
“How’s it going?” Jason asked, pulling the back door shut behind him. The blast of air-conditioning chilled the sweat on the nape of his neck.
“He set the alarm off trying to get in,” Sandra said, walking past with a stack of court briefs. “Twice.”
Jason snorted out a laugh.
Gio ducked his head, but not before Jason saw his lips quirk in what might have been a tentative smile.
Jason grabbed the car keys off the board. “Time for a grand tour of town, Gio?”
“Yes, Sarge,” Gio said, and Jason didn’t think he was imagining the relief in Gio’s voice. Sandra had probably ripped him a new one for setting the alarm off. She was . . . set in her ways. She’d been the AO in Richmond for the past twenty-three years. She ate coppers for breakfast.
Gio followed Jason outside to the LandCruiser.
“Don’t drive these on the Coast, do you?” Jason asked.
“No.” Gio settled himself into the passenger’s seat, and then twisted around to check the gear in the back seat. “This is a lot of stuff.”
“Wet season’s coming,” Jason said. “Last year I got stuck between two flooded creeks for three days. Fuck if I’m doing that again without camping gear and supplies.”
“Are you serious?” Gio asked, eyes widening.
“You’re a long way from Cavill Avenue now.”
“Yeah.” Gio’s answering smile was a little hollow. “I’m starting to get that, Sarge.”
Jason turned the key in the ignition, and the engine rumbled to life. He glanced at Gio as he checked for traffic before pulling out onto the road, and wondered exactly how this was supposed to work.
On balance, Jason would prefer not to know what sort of cloud Gio came to Richmond under. Then again, given that Gio was the sort of arsehole who had Ethical Standards on speed dial, forewarned was forearmed, right? Jason didn’t know the specifics of what had happened on the Gold Coast, but he knew enough. It could have been managed in-house, without bringing Ethical Standards on board, but Gio had apparently had an axe to grind. Because the guy whose career he’d sunk hadn’t just been a colleague, they’d also been fucking. And the way the entire situation had been handled was bullshit. Jason had heard from at least three different sources that it was all bullshit, but Gio had pulled the discrimination card, and the bosses had been falling over themselves to prove how unprejudiced they were. Too scared they’d be called bigots and sued if they’d told Gio to go fuck himself. So some guy had lost his job and had his entire future ripped away from him, and Gio had got a promotion to senior constable out of the whole deal. Senior constable at twenty-six, and the guy had the audacity to look pissed off about it.
They drove slowly through town, and Jason pointed out the landmarks. The pubs, the motels, the supermarket, the banks, the post office, the hospital, the school. They went by the servo on the edge of town.
“The coffee’s terrible,” Jason told Gio. “But it’s the only place open after midnight.”
He stole glimpses of Gio’s profile as he drove.
Gio was a good-looking guy. Probably got a lot of action some place like the Gold Coast. Probably wouldn’t in Richmond. The girls would be all over him though, with his olive complexion, his dark eyes, and his generous mouth. There were going to be a lot of disappointed women in town when it turned out the new, hot, single copper was playing for the wrong team. Jason wondered if he was out, or if having fucked that bloke he worked with down on the Coast was supposed to be a secret.
Jason and Gio toured a few of the shit addresses in town, the ones that Gio would need to know, where there were disturbances and domestic violence incidents as regular as clockwork. They stopped in at the Ferguson house. It was early enough that everyone was still sober. Their welcome was grudging, but at least it wasn’t hostile.
The house was a mess, which was par for the course with the Fergusons, but it wasn’t the worst Jason had seen it. There were holes punched in the walls, and the broken window from last week still hadn’t been fixed. The place stank of cigarettes.
“Janey, how come the kids aren’t at school?” Jason asked, looking at the kids sitting in front of the TV.
Janey Ferguson tugged her threadbare dressing gown around herself, and glared at the kids as though she’d only just noticed them. “Hey! You kids! Go to fucking school!”
The kids scattered.
“Is Harvey around?”
“Not since last week when you locked him up.” She chewed her cracked lower lip.
“I told you, you can’t invite him around. That’s what the order says. He’s not allowed to come over.” He kept his voice even.
Janey huffed and rolled her eyes, like Jason was the bad guy here.
“You know I’m keeping an eye on him,” Jason continued. “If I find out he’s breached the order while he’s on bail, he’ll be going to prison.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Janey lit a cigarette and looked Gio up and down. “This the new guy?”
“This is Senior Constable Valeri,” Jason told her.
“Whatever,” Janey mumbled, sniffing.
Gio was quiet while Jason asked after Janey’s mum down in Gympie and about Janey’s plan, the last time they’d talked, to move there with the kids. Gio’s gaze took in the house: the cigarette burns on the peeling kitchen linoleum, the overflowing nappy bucket in the corner by the fridge, the loaf of bread mouldering beside the sink. Jason wondered what he was thinking, but his expression didn’t give anything away. A professional mask or he just didn’t give a shit?
Janey unfurled a little as she spoke with Jason, becoming less guarded, more animated. It was like pushing water uphill, but maybe one day he’d actually convince her to go, before she and Harvey killed one another.
“So,” Jason said, stepping over the busted fence as they left, “that was Janey Ferguson. I’m sure you’ll meet her other half soon enough. She’s the aggrieved in the DV, but when she’s drunk, she’s as bad as Harvey. She’s a biter too.”
Gio cast a look back at the house.
“And there’s usually a shitload of Harvey’s family turning up to drink as well,” Jason said. “Any callouts you get for the Fergusons, wake me up too.”
“Right.” Gio crunched a clump of red dirt under the toe of his boot. “How long ago did the last senior connie leave?”
“About three weeks.” Jason climbed into the driver’s seat of the LandCruiser and pulled the door shut behind him.
Gio sat in the passenger’s seat and tugged his seat belt across his chest. “So how have you dealt with the Fergusons in the meantime?”
Jason hesitated for a moment. “Well, you just have to manage.”
The largest place Jason had worked was Mount Isa. He’d been a country copper ever since graduating from the academy in Townsville. It was sometimes hard to remember that there were cities that had a constant stream of radio chatter, and their crews went from job to job to job, and had help only minutes away if it all went to shit. The pace was a lot slower out here, but so was the backup.
“Right,” Gio said, squinting out the windscreen. He worried his lower lip with his teeth. “You manage.”
Jason pulled the car off the wide dirt shoulder and back onto the road. “Yeah, you manage.”
And if you don’t, you can fuck off back to the Gold Coast.
But that was probably better left unsaid.
* * * * * * *
Jason left Gio at the station when he went to collect Taylor from after-school care.
“Can you put the siren on, Dad?” Taylor asked, slinging his school bag into the passenger seat and climbing up after it.
“Have I ever said yes to that?” Jason asked him.
“Today might be the day!”
“It isn’t,” Jason told him, but flicked the radio over to the Mount Isa channel so that Taylor could hear what was going on there. Not too much, as it happened.
“What’s a three-one-four, Dad?” Taylor asked, listening avidly nonetheless. “A disturbance?”
“That’s a three-one-three.”
“Drunk!” Taylor exclaimed. “Is it a drunk?”
“It’s a drunk,” Jason confirmed.
Taylor raised his arms and cheered.
Jesus. The kid spent way too much time at the station, no question. And now with Dan and Gabby gone . . . “You manage,” he’d told Gio. You manage.
Sandra pursed her lips when Jason dropped Taylor off at her house, but she didn’t say anything. She’d save it for when Taylor couldn’t overhear.
“See you at ten, mate.” Jason scruffed Taylor’s hair.
“Okay,” Taylor said, his face falling. “Bye, Dad.”
Jason was managing. They both were.
The afternoon passed quickly, burning away into the sunset. The insects came out with the evening, shifting in glittering swarms around the streetlights. Jason did a few patrols through town, just to show the flag, and then returned to the station to take care of some paperwork before heading out again, this time with Gio.
Thursday night in Richmond. There was a fight at the pub that was the work of minutes to sort out—nobody seemed particularly invested in continuing once the coppers showed up—and someone smashed the front window of the bakery. The Fergusons were suspiciously quiet, but Charlie Grant and his brother George around on Racecourse Road picked up the slack for them by having a screaming match in the street. Jason watched the way Gio approached them. A little more aggressively than Jason would have—this was small-town policing, not riot control—but then Gio looked over at Jason and took his lead from him. Relaxed his posture, held one palm up in a conciliatory manner, took his other hand off his spray. It was easy enough after that to get the pair of them separated. They drove George to another relative’s house in town for the night, and told him to come to the station tomorrow when he was sober if he still wanted to make a complaint against Charlie for punching him.
“Any reason we didn’t bin him for drunk, Sarge?” Gio asked as they headed back to the station.
“Yeah,” Jason said. “There is. It’s almost ten o’clock, and I don’t want to spend half the night watching a drunk snore in the cell. If that’s how you want to spend your time off, feel free to arrest him next time.”
Gio nodded curtly.
Fine. The next drunk job they got, Jason would let Gio take the lead. He’d figure out soon enough that the aim of the game out here was to not arrest anyone unless there was no alternative. The first time he had to drive a prisoner all the way to Townsville because Charters Towers was too busy to assist with the transport . . . well, that ten-hour round-trip would cure his enthusiasm for binning people. Gio would quickly learn to appreciate diversions, notices to appear, and arrests by appointment.
“You went in a little hard tonight,” Jason said as they pulled up behind the station. “With the Grant boys.”
Gio’s expression shuttered.
A single spotlight attached to the back of the station illuminated the small car park. The spotlight created a wide column of light that was thick with long-winged flying ants and buzzing, iridescent Christmas beetles. Jason waved a few away from his face as he stepped out of the car.
“I’m not having a go.” Jason dragged his vest out of the back seat, the plates in it heavy enough to pull his arm down. “But you go in like that, like you want a fight, you might get one. And this isn’t the Coast. You don’t have twenty other coppers right behind you ready to back you up.”
Gio slung his backpack over his shoulder, and his vest over his arm. He slammed the door of the LandCruiser closed and snorted. His eyes narrowed. “Yes, Sarge.”
Jason couldn’t read his expression. “Gio?”
Gio straightened up. “Sorry, Sarge. Understood.”
He followed Jason inside the station, and they finished up the rest of the shift in near-silence.
* * * * * * *
Taylor was a dead weight in Jason’s arms as Jason carried him upstairs. He was getting too big to carry, but Jason didn’t have the heart to wake him. He snuffled partly awake when Jason set him down on his bed and started carefully tugging his shirt over his head, and he wriggled out of his shorts himself, but was asleep again before Jason could get his pyjamas on him. It was hot enough that he didn’t need them anyway. He could sleep in just his underwear. Their last trip to Charters Towers, they’d gone to Target, and Taylor had insisted on getting boxer briefs the same as Dad’s. Although Jason’s didn’t have dinosaurs on them.
He eased Taylor’s socks off as well, and spread the sheet out over him.
Jason leaned down and kissed Taylor on the forehead before turning the light off and leaving him to sleep.
He headed for the kitchen next, to make up Taylor’s lunch for tomorrow. From the kitchen window, he could see across the yard to Gio’s house. His kitchen light was on too, but Jason couldn’t see him moving around.
Jason opened the fridge to hunt down the butter. He made Taylor a Vegemite sandwich for big lunch, along with an apple and some rice crackers. He threw in the revolting string cheese Taylor loved, a box of sultanas, and some SAOs—again with Vegemite, since Taylor refused to eat them any other way—for little lunch. In the morning, he’d add two juice boxes from the freezer, which would keep everything cold until it was time to eat.
He put Taylor’s lunchbox back in the fridge, and then remembered too late that Taylor had asked about money for tuckshop. He went through his pocket, pulled out a dollar coin, and set it on the lid of the lunchbox so Taylor would find it in the morning. That’d be enough for an icy cup anyway, which was usually what Taylor wanted.
It was late by the time he’d finished up and then showered and changed. He slung his uniform pants and shirt over the end of his bed in case he was called out overnight. He’d throw them in the washing machine tomorrow.
He checked the house was locked up, that his phone was charging, and then crawled into bed. He reached for the book on his bedside table, but the words couldn’t hold his interest, so he gave up and rolled onto his side and jammed his pillow under his neck.
Alana smiled at him from out of the frame on the bedside table.
Jason closed his eyes and drifted slowly off to sleep.
By his second week in Richmond, Gio was certain of one thing only: he was never going to get the hang of this place. Something of his worry must have shown on his face when they got the radio call that Thursday morning, because Sergeant Quinn’s mouth twitched in a grin before he looked away.
“Can you say again, VKR?” Gio asked.
“The elderly caller has a snake in his bedroom.” The voice on the radio sounded half-apologetic, and half-amused. “Unknown what sort of snake it is.”
Gio stared at the radio for a moment while he waited for the punch line. And waited. And waited. Finally, he sighed. “Show us proceeding.”
Sergeant Quinn’s smile grew.
Gio shot him a worried look. “It’s not a gee up, is it?”
“Nope.” Sergeant Quinn flicked the indicator on, and slowed at the intersection of Wills Street to give way to traffic. Which, being Richmond, was a ute, a kid on a bike, and a blue cattle dog with only three legs. “If it’s any consolation, if it was a gee up, they wouldn’t do it over the radio.”
“That’s no consolation at all!”
Sergeant Quinn laughed, his eyes bright. “Are you scared of snakes, Gio?”
“Yes!” And Gio wasn’t too proud to admit it either. “Isn’t this a council job?”
“Nope.” Sergeant Quinn turned the steering wheel, hand over hand before letting it go again as they rounded the corner and straightened up. He had strong hands, with tendons that stood out, and long fingers with blunt nails. Sunlight glinted off the gold of his wedding ring. “The council doesn’t have any snake catchers. Their ranger, he’ll take care of cattle, but he won’t go near snakes.”
“Smart bloke,” Gio muttered, tearing his gaze away from the sergeant’s hands.
Sergeant Quinn laughed again. “It’s okay, I won’t make you go in first.”
The house they pulled up to was an old railway cottage with fibro walls. A cracked concrete path began at the sagging chain-link fence and cut a line through the patchy dry grass of the front garden. Three steps led up to the front door of the enclosed veranda. The wooden louvers were open to let the breeze through.
Sergeant Quinn took his heavy torch with him when he got out of the car. He pushed the squeaking gate open, and a lizard scuttled across the path in front of them, a flash of silver in the sunlight.
The occupant of the house—Jim Brown, Gio remembered from the details Comms had given over the radio—was waiting for them at the front door. Wisps of white hair stood out from his scalp like a halo of dandelion fluff. Toothpick legs protruded from his baggy shorts. The skin of his tanned, wrinkled torso appeared tough as old leather.
The steps groaned and shifted as Gio followed the sergeant up them.
“G’day, Jim,” Sergeant Quinn said, taking off his hat. “This is Gio.”
Gio shook the old man’s hand.
“It’s through here,” Jim said, and led the way.
The house seemed dark at first, and the air smelled stale. It took a moment for Gio’s eyes to adjust. There was a calendar hanging from a hook in the hallway, with the corners curling up. There was a bookshelf underneath it. One shelf was stacked with faded National Geographic magazines. The other two shelves were full of rocks.
Jim caught Gio’s gaze. He reached out a bone-thin hand and picked up one of the pieces, then held it out to Gio. “You know what that is?”
Gio took the rock. It was an odd shape. It was striated. It looked more like plastic than a rock, but it was heavy. “A rock?”
“That’s petrified wood,” Jim said. “My daughter Trish found that back in ’82. It’s a good one.”
Gio ran his thumb over the ridged edges of the wood, marvelling at the texture, and then handed it back to the old man.
“Used to take the kids fossicking all the time,” Jim said, setting the petrified wood down again carefully. Then he nodded towards a closed door at the end of the hall. “I’ll get a shovel.”
Gio glanced at the door warily. There was a rolled-up towel wedged under the bottom of the door, presumably to keep the snake from vanishing elsewhere into the house.
“Any idea what sort it is?” Sergeant Quinn called as Jim vanished for a moment into one of the other rooms.
The old man reappeared a moment later, clutching the promised square-headed shovel. “I didn’t get a good look at it, but it’s brown.”
The sergeant took the shovel and passed his torch over to Gio. “Where’d you see it last?”
“In the bottom of the cupboard,” Jim said. “Gave me a hell of a fright.”
“I can imagine.” Sergeant Quinn put his hand on the doorknob, and drew a deep breath. “Okay.”
He pushed the door open.
Gio followed him through, his hand instinctively going for his firearm. Which, really? Like he was going to shoot a snake? He shifted the heavy torch from his left hand to his right instead. The weight of it was almost comforting.
Jim’s cupboard door was ajar. Gio hoped the snake was still inside, and not waiting under the bed or something, to strike out at him when he moved too close. Did snakes even do that, or had he been watching too many horror movies?
“Give us a bit of light, Gio,” Sergeant Quinn said, edging nearer to the cupboard.
Gio stood shoulder to shoulder with him, angling the torch so that a shaft of light illuminated the nest of shoes in the bottom of the cupboard. Shoes, and—Gio’s breath caught in his throat—a loop of shining flesh coiled around the top of a boot. The torchlight gleamed on the scales.
“Shit,” Sergeant Quinn said. “Okay, so that is not a python. That’s either a brown snake or a taipan.”
“Taipan,” Gio repeated, his voice flat, although a brown snake wasn’t that much of a better option.
“Don’t worry,” Sergeant Quinn said with a smile. “I won’t let you die before bingo night.”
“Okay,” Sergeant Quinn said. “You’re going to hold the torch there, and open the cupboard door for me.”
Gio’s stomach clenched. “I’m not liking this plan, Sarge.”
Sergeant Quinn flashed him that quick smile again. “The hospital’s only about four minutes away if we go lights and sirens.”
“Who’s gonna drive if we both get bitten?” Gio asked, inching forwards slowly. He couldn’t see the snake’s head, only that shining loop of scales. He had no idea how big it was, and no idea how it was actually situated in the bottom of the cupboard.
“We’ll take turns,” Sergeant Quinn said, and it was such a ridiculous answer that Gio huffed out a surprised laugh. The sergeant’s eyes crinkled in the corners, his smile more protracted this time, and Gio’s heart tumbled over a couple of erratic beats that he couldn’t entirely blame on being in the presence of the world’s most venomous snake. “Come on. Open the cupboard for me.”
Fuck fuck fuck.
Gio’s hand shook as he reached for the cupboard, as high up as he could without overbalancing—how high could an enraged taipan strike anyway? The only thing he could remember about taipans was the fact they didn’t only bite once, they struck multiple times. Got their fangs in and just kept biting down. That, and the deadliest-snake-in-the-world thing. He kept the torch angled so that the light bounced off the scales of the snake.
“Okay,” Sergeant Quinn said, his voice low. “Okay.”
Gio tugged the cupboard open, and everything happened at once.
A shoe clattered out onto the floor, the snake moved, and Gio realised too late that he’d been expecting movement from the other end. The head of the snake protruded from underneath a crumpled shirt on the open side of the cupboard, and Gio hardly had a second to step back before the snake was following him at impossible speed. Shoes and boots shifted and tumbled in the cupboard in its wake, and how the hell big was it?
There was a dull knock of pressure against Gio’s left boot as the taipan struck.
Sergeant Quinn slammed the head of the shovel down, and missed. Then, regaining his balance quickly, he moved forward and stepped down on the back of the snake’s head.
“Holy shit,” Gio said, his heart thumping fast.
A good two metres of snake writhed angrily between Sergeant Quinn’s boot and the cupboard, and the tail was still hidden somewhere underneath the pile of Jim’s shoes and boots.
Sergeant Quinn brought the shovel down again. This time he didn’t miss, neatly severing the snake’s head from its body with a resounding thunk.
“Did it get you?” he asked, lifting his boot off the snake’s head at last.
Gio looked down at his boot. There were indentations in the leather, and a shining trail of fluid sliding like a thick tear down towards the tread. Venom. “I’m okay. It got my boot, not me.”
A bit higher though, and his uniform pants wouldn’t have provided any protection at all.