MOST PEOPLE are ordinary people, living ordinary lives. Their trials and challenges are ordinary too, yet they absorb them totally. Take Vinnie Canterbury as an example. You’d think with the half-Italian, half-English heritage he’d have a life different to others, but he doesn’t. He gets up every morning, showers, eats breakfast, and goes to his job as an assessor for an insurance company. At the end of the day, he goes home, eats, watches TV, and goes to bed. On the weekends he jogs, cleans his house, and goes out with friends. Once a month he has dinner with his mother. Very ordinary.
So how do you explain what happened to him last Thursday?
THE BODY was found at the Gold Coast’s Pink Lady Motel. Vinnie didn’t know anything about it until the manager let the police into his room.
Sudden light pierced his fragile eyelids. The yelling that accompanied it reverberated around in his head like a stone in an empty drum. Vinnie groaned.
The swish-click of sidearms being drawn and cocked penetrated his consciousness and Vinnie sat up, his heart pounding, breath gasping in his dry throat. The bright copper stench of blood turned his stomach. He stared at the man he’d been sleeping on, his gaze drawn to the wide red slash that had been his neck. Vinnie lurched sideways, away from the obscene image in front of him, and vomited all over one of the cop’s shoes.
“Police! Don’t move!” a man yelled.
“Hands on your head!” That voice was female.
“What? What’s going on? What’s…? Oh God!” The room spun around Vinnie, the blue-clad police officers around him blurred like cars going too fast on a rainy night.
“Fuck! He’s… eew!”
“Hold your position, Laramee.” Vinnie twisted his head to see the owner of the imperious voice. She was small. Vinnie blinked again and watched her grow and pulse. Soon, the eerie sci-fi music would begin. His head grew too heavy and he let it droop over the edge of the bed again.
“Hold your position!”
Someone grabbed Vinnie’s hair and dragged him off the bed. They pushed him facedown into the sticky, stinking carpet, gripped his wrist, and twisted it behind him. Vinnie whimpered, breathed in the stench, realized why the carpet seemed warm under his cheek, and retched again. Nothing came out this time except stringy slime.
“Aah. He did it again.”
“The paramedics are here. Laramee, you go with them.”
Vinnie used the bed to climb to his feet. Slime trailed from his mouth and slapped cold against his chest. He stumbled and would have fallen if a broad hand hadn’t been holding his arm. His head pounded, and his stomach churned again. He squinted against the light coming through the door.
“Wait for the paramedics, sir. They’ll take you to the hospital.” The deep voice sounded like it was inside Vinnie’s head.
“Wait.” He swallowed and tried again. “Wait.” Vinnie lifted his head and peered around the room. “Where am I?” His gaze landed on the bed: white skin, red blood. “Oh God.” He moaned and closed his eyes again. His head filled with white noise like a soft down quilt protecting him from everything outside.
A voice broke his clouded thoughts. “Do you want me to get his clothes?”
There was a pause before the response. “Nothing here. Check the bathroom.”
“Where are your clothes?”
Vinnie opened his eyes again. Clothes? He looked down and noticed the cool air over his skin for the first time. He was streaked with something dark and damp. He moved his arms, flailing and uncoordinated. He couldn’t cover himself. “I’m naked.” He looked at the policeman next to him, then turned his back to the bed. “Where am I?” His breath rasped in his throat and his heart pounded. “What’s happening?”
The grip on his arm tightened. “Come on. Let the paramedics help you.”
He took a few tottering steps toward the door, but stopped, digging his heels into the gritty carpet. “I can’t go outside. I’m naked. I’ll get arrested.”
“You’re already under arrest, sir.” The policeman with the spew on his shoes, Laramee, tugged again on his arm.
“Arrested? But why?” Vinnie bent over as pain rolled through him. Vaguely, he realized the pain had been there since he woke, but standing made it worse. “Oh God, I hurt. What happened?”
“Laramee, arrange for the usual drug tests.”
“Drugs? I don’t do drugs. I’m an insurance assessor.” Vinnie tripped over air as he was pulled inexorably onto a low bed. Heavy fabric slapped across his chest. Other people were hovering over him, talking to him, but he sought the eyes of the vomit-man. Vinnie watched the ceiling come closer as he floated off the floor. There was a click and he stopped moving. “You go left,” said a voice near his feet, and then he drifted through the doorway.
Vinnie’s eyes watered as the strobe light pummeled his retinas. He twisted his head away from the police cars and ambulance parked in front of the room. Shadows shifted outside the room next door, and light flashed before Vinnie realized it was a person with a camera. He whimpered.
There was a bump and the ceiling of a van moved overhead. A man in dark clothing climbed in beside Vinnie and closed the door against his heels. Vinnie turned his head into the blessedly cool pillow, and breathed something other than vomit and blood for the first time since the hotel door opened.
The peace didn’t last long. The man who’d climbed in with him began prodding the back of his hand. “Can you tell me your name? Do you know if you’re allergic to anything? I’m going to insert a cannula to give you some fluids.” The man shone a light in Vinnie’s eyes, making Vinnie flinch and squinch his eyes closed.
Almost immediately, he opened his eyes. “I don’t feel so good.”
“Let me know if you’re going to vomit again. I’ll give you a bowl.”
“I don’t know what’s happening.”
“Alcohol will do that to you.”
Vinnie shook his head. “I haven’t been drinking. I was home.” He paused; the pounding in his head made it impossible to think. “No, I was at work.”
THE CELL was dank and dark. There was a metal bed with a threadbare, lumpy mattress and a toilet that smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned since the First World War. Other inmates, rancid drunks with missing teeth and straggly hair, clanged their enamel mugs back and forth along the bars as they howled their displeasure.
Actually, they took him to the hospital.
“OKAY, LET’S see what we have here.”
Vinnie kept his eyes closed and teeth clamped together, but it didn’t stop the shivering. They’d taken the blanket from him as soon as they got him onto the narrow examination table. The thin sheet they put over him was cold too.
Cool fingers pressed his wrist. “Sir? Can you tell us your name? Can you open your eyes?” The fingers moved to Vinnie’s temple, and he flinched before he opened his eyes and blinked against the light above. He turned away from the light and looked at the young doctor beside him. Her kind brown eyes crinkled at him, but she was too close. Vinnie shifted his focus to the straight flyaway hair escaping her utilitarian ponytail.
“Mmm hmm. That’s probably a reaction from the drugs.”
“I don’t take drugs.”
“I don’t. I’m an insurance assessor.” He cringed when he heard the words.
“What’s your name?”
“Vinnie.” The sound rolled off Vinnie’s tongue smoothly, like a song. He tried it again, just to hear the tones. “Vinnnnie.” He peered at the doctor beside him. “I wanted Vincenzo… Vinnnchennnzo… but they wouldn’t let me. Don’t you think Vinnnchennnzo sounds better?”
“You’re an insurance assessor?” asked the doctor. “Nurse, start the paperwork for him, run the whole gamut of toxologies, and get the forensic nurse down here with a rape kit. What’s your last name, Vinnie?”
Vinnie ignored her. “Forensic? But I’m not dead.”
“Where did all this blood come from, Vinnie? It isn’t yours.” As the doctor lifted each of Vinnie’s limbs, she prodded impersonal latex-covered fingers into various muscles and tendons.
“What blood?” Vinnie lifted his head and stared at the rusted mass streaked over his body. It was smeared over his chest and ran, dark and thick, down his breastbone and under the sheet they’d pulled over him. He scrambled backward as if sitting up would get him away from it. He brushed his hands over his torso. The thinner streaks, already dry, brushed off in a shower of rust, but there was a pool of gluggy maroon in his belly button that swiped wet and cool over his abdomen. “Oh God, it’s blood. It really is. Oh God.” He kept swiping and fought the hands that grabbed his arms. The doctor’s hands were small and thin, latex gloves loose and wrinkled over them. Other gloved hands, larger and stronger than the doctor’s, grabbed him too. Warm, real skin pressed on his shoulder and made him pause.
“You have to stop this or they’ll sedate you.” The words were close, in his ear, familiar. No, the words weren’t familiar. The voice was. Vinnie turned his head toward the sound and inhaled the sweetness of cinnamon, maple syrup, and… vomit? He snapped his eyes open to find vomit-shoe man—what was his name? Oh yes, Laramee—leaning over him, holding his shoulders down. Gray eyes were inches away, plump lips still moving, saying words Vinnie didn’t hear. He lifted his chin higher, closer to those lips, breathing in the waft of sweet air coming from them as they spoke.
“Okay, that’s better. Let’s get this done.”
Vinnie jumped as the doctor’s voice intruded, and the lips he’d been so close to kissing moved away. “Don’t go.” He reached out a hand toward Laramee. The policeman frowned at him but stayed closer than he’d been before.
“Can you tell me your name?”
Vinnie focused on the doctor but kept glancing at Laramee. “I’m Vinnie. Not Vinnnchennnzo,” he sang mournfully.
“What day is it, Vinnie?”
“Wednesday.” Vinnie glared at the stupid doctor.
“What time on Wednesday?”
“It’s… um… I don’t know.”
“Okay, Vinnie. This is what’s happening. We have to find out what’s going on with you, but you aren’t in a position to tell us. We’ve started the paperwork to make you a temporary Ward of the State so we can treat you.”
“No! I’m not going back there.” Vinnie kept his eyes on Laramee, his gentle eyes and full lips a soft contrast to the breadth of his shoulders and the chiseled badassness of his body in the blue uniform. “I’m a grown-up now. They can’t make me—”
The doctor stepped to the side and a nurse moved up, a needle held in her hand.
“I’m just going to take some blood to see what drugs you took. Then we’ll run a few more tests to make sure you’re okay.”
“I don’t take drugs,” Vinnie said as he shifted on the bed. “I don’t like needles.”
Vinnie snapped his head to see Laramee standing closer.
“Let the nurse do what she needs to do. It’ll be over before you know it.”
Vinnie shook his head even as the doctor straightened his arm. “You don’t understand,” he whined. “I hate needles. They make me feel funny.”
Vinnie whipped his head around to see the doctor placing a white tape across a cotton ball inside his elbow.
“That’s done. Soon you’ll be ready for the next lot of tests.” She held Vinnie’s gaze. “Some of the tests are going to be uncomfortable for you. I saw no visible evidence during my initial examination, but we have to make sure you weren’t sexually assaulted.” Before Vinnie could begin to process what she was talking about, she turned to Laramee. “The blanket he came in with has been bagged and will go down to the lab with the rest of the samples. I’ll make sure the toxicology and other reports are e-mailed to your station. He’s dehydrated but otherwise seems fine. I expect the rest of the tests to confirm that. We’ll keep him here until he’s cogent. Give him some water.”
THE DAY slipped away, but Vinnie kept searching for the man in blue. He didn’t know who he was—the shadows always hid his face—but Vinnie knew the man in blue would keep him safe.
“WE’LL ORGANIZE a bed for him soon. Initial results aren’t alarming. He should be fine, but until he can tell us his name and where he lives, we’ll keep him here.
“No,” Vinnie said. “I’m not staying here.” He pushed the covers off and rolled off the bed. He would have kept rolling if Laramee’s solid hands hadn’t stopped him. Cool air wafted over his bare legs where the gown they gave him gaped in the back.
“Vinnie, it’s best if you stay here.”
Vinnie shook his head forcefully, his feet stumbling from the impact. “No. I’m not staying in the hospital.” He pointed an accusing finger at the doctor. “She said I’d be all right. I want to go home and sleep. I want to go home. You can’t keep me here.” Hospitals weren’t good places to be. Vinnie had to get out. Get out. Get out, now. He pushed against Laramee’s firm hold.
The doctor turned to Laramee. “He’s not cognizant, but he’s also not in any danger. If you can get him home, he should be fine to sleep it off. It would be better to have someone check on him every couple of hours, though.”
“Okay, Vinnie, let’s go down to the station and see if we can find out where you belong.”
“Station?” Vinnie had been so focused on watching Laramee, he’d forgotten why he was here. He looked around the curtained cubicle. He didn’t know why he was here. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”
Laramee still held Vinnie’s arm above the elbow. Vinnie looked down and gasped. “I’m naked.” He wasn’t really. There was that horrid gown they put on him, but it didn’t cover all the…. He sucked in a couple of frantic breaths. “And covered in… in….” He shook his head. “I need to have a shower. Where are my clothes?”
“He can shower here. I’ll get someone to show you where.” A nurse disappeared through the curtain, leaving Vinnie alone with Laramee. Vinnie swayed on his feet and Laramee tightened his grip.
“I love your lips,” Vinnie said as he leaned closer to Laramee.
LIFE ISN’T ordinary at all. Life is a series of images that flash through your consciousness. At first it seems like the images are in slow motion, but then you realize, once you’ve moved on and can no longer see those things, it’s actually all fast-forward. Just glimpses into other people’s lives as you whizz along on the roller coaster. Totally out of control.
Fast-forward to the police station.
THE BLOOD was gone, thankfully, although Vinnie swore he could still smell it. Was it up his nose? He almost gagged. “Do you have tissues?” he asked abruptly, looking around the large room filled with desks and police officers as if a box of Kleenex would magically appear and he could grab them.
The officer on the other side of the desk where Vinnie sat reached into a bottom drawer before shoving a box of tissues toward Vinnie.
“Thanks.” Vinnie took one and blew his nose. Dried red flakes scattered on the tissue. “Eew. It’s up my nose. I breathed it in.” He surged to his feet, looking around frantically for a bathroom. “I breathed it in. I swallowed it. It’s in my lungs.”
Vinnie spun around to find Laramee standing beside the desk, a frown creased his forehead.
“Laramee.” Vinnie charged at him and grasped his shoulders. “It’s in my nose.” He waved the dirty tissue in front of Laramee’s face. “Look! I breathed it in.”
Laramee blinked slowly before he turned to the officer sitting at the desk. “I’ll take him to the bathroom.” He scooped up the box of tissues before grabbing Vinnie’s elbow and pulling him through the room. “Come on, Vinnie. Let’s get you cleaned up so you can focus on telling us who you are.”
“I knew you’d understand. It’s just… blood. Not even my blood, but someone else’s.” He gasped. “It’s blood. In my nose. Could I get HIV from that? How thick is the membrane in your nostrils? Do you know? Who can I ask? Did you get the number of that doctor? I could call her. Or hep C. Oh God.”
Laramee pushed the bathroom door open, strode over to a sink, and turned the water on. “Wet a tissue.” He plonked the box of tissues on the edge of the sink. “And clean out your nostrils.”
Vinnie slid into the room and peered under the doors to the cubicles. “Are you sure? It’ll be pretty gross. I don’t want anyone to see me doing it.”
“I mean, I’ll be sticking tissues up my nose. I know you see that sort of thing on TV all the time, but this is in person and it’s really—”
Vinnie stopped and stared at the exasperated expression on Laramee’s face.
“Clean up now, Vinnie. I’ll make sure no one interrupts you.”
“Thank you. You’re very kind.” Vinnie fluttered his eyelashes, although he wasn’t sure it worked. His great-grandmother always said that was the most appropriate way for a proper young lady to indicate interest in a gentleman. Vinnie wasn’t a lady, but Laramee was certainly a gentleman, so it couldn’t hurt.
“Is there some in your eyes too? They should have noticed that at the hospital.”
Vinnie humphed and turned to the sink. He knew his great-grandmother was full of shit when he was five. Why he decided she knew what she was talking about now, he didn’t know. He pulled out a handful of tissues, wet them, stuffed them up his nostril, and twisted. Then he gagged and coughed. “Oh, disgusting.” He coughed some more, then dragged some more tissues out of the box.
IS THIS guy for real?
James Laramee leaned against the wall beside the door and watched Vinnie stuff wet tissues up his nose, gag, grimace, swear, and then do it all over again. When he finally finished, he disposed of his rubbish, loaded his hands with soap, and washed them. Three times. The disgusted grimace remained on his face until he turned to James.
His smile was blinding, and he did a weird fluttery thing with his eyes that made him look like he’d been caught in a sand storm.
James shook his head as he watched the younger man walk toward him. Vinnie’d woken up on top of a dead guy, been taken—naked and covered in blood—to a hospital, given clothes to wear, and then transported to the police station. They were still trying to identify him and he was… what?… flirting with James?
He was either a totally clueless twink, the drugs were still in control, or he had balls of steel. James wasn’t sure which. He followed Vinnie back to Murray’s desk. James was on babysitting duties until the sergeant decided he’d be more useful elsewhere. Still, if he had to babysit someone, at least it was someone entertaining—and with a bitable ass.
Once they were settled again, Murray resumed questioning. “Vinnie, can you tell us something about yourself to help us work out who you are and what happened to you?”
“I already told you. I was at work.”
“When was this?”
“Tuesday. No, Wednesday. Yes, it’s Wednesday because I had dried tomatoes on my sandwich.”
“So you were at work at lunchtime on Wednesday.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m an insurance assessor.”
“With which company?”
“I had dried tomatoes because it was Wednesday.”
“What did you do after lunch?”
“I worked. I… I….” Vinnie’s brow furrowed like one of those cats that don’t have any fur. “I don’t know.”
“What did you have for lunch?”
“A sandwich. I always have a salad sandwich. Because it was Wednesday, I had dried tomatoes. On Monday I have beetroot, Tuesday I have eggplant—”
“What did you drink?”
“Green tea. I always drink green tea. On Wednesday, Gary made it for me.” Canterbury smiled his sunny smile.
He nodded. “He’s a colleague of mine, but I think he wants to be friends too. I didn’t think so at first because he didn’t seem to like me. I’m… well not everyone likes to spend time with me. I think I’m a bit too…. Anyway, Gary made me tea and said we should leave work early and go and get a drink, but I told him I couldn’t because I had to finish a report on a major fire. It was complicated because they determined it was arson, and there was a huge claim, but Gary said I should leave it but I couldn’t—”
“What’s Gary’s last name?”
“Smith. He said he’s from the Smiths in Sydney, but there must be hundreds of Smith families around.” He giggled. “Smith Family. Do you think he’s related to the children’s charity Smiths? That would be cool, wouldn’t it, to do so much good for others, but you probably know that already. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”
There was an awkward pause during which James bit the inside of his cheek to stop the laughter erupting. Murray’s face had shut down into her blank “get me the hell out of this madhouse” expression.
“So you stayed and worked after lunch? At the insurance company?”
While they spoke, James sat at his computer and pulled up a list of insurance companies.
“Yes.” Vinnie’s brow furrowed again. “I must have, mustn’t I? Because that’s what I had to do, but I can’t actually remember anything after that.” He looked up at James. “Not until I vomited on your shoes.”
Murray’s lips twitched as she turned to James. “Have any of the toxicology reports come back?” At James’s negative response, she shuffled some papers on her desk. A photo sat on top. Vinnie leaned over the desk to peer at the photo. He coughed as he pushed back in his seat, his hand held firmly over his mouth. Laramee leaned over and grasped his arm. “Bathroom?”
Vinnie shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “I’ll be all right.”
Silence settled around them.
“It’s… it’s Gary. Oh God, what happened to him? Why would someone do that?”
“You’re sure this is Mr. Smith?”
Vinnie nodded. “He has this—” He gestured to his neck. “—this tattoo that shows above his collar.” He swallowed convulsively. “I always thought it looked like he was a bikie or something.”
“Isn’t that what they’re called? Or is it biker? I always get it wrong. Like trekkie and trekker for Star Trek.”
“Do you remember your name, Vinnie?”
“Of course I do. So do you, since you’re using it.” Really, sometimes he thought his grandmother was right about people.
“What’s your last name?”
“Canterbury, of course. I’ve told you that.”
Miller stared at Vinnie for several silent seconds before nodding at Laramee.
“Where are your clothes, Mr. Canterbury?”
VINNIE LOOKED down at the beige cotton pants he’d been given at the hospital and frowned. They weren’t his clothes. The pants, baggy T-shirt, and the thick blue cable-knit cardigan looked like they belonged to an old man. He tilted his head and sniffed. Mothballs and pipe tobacco. His heart began to thud and roaring waves filled his head. He focused on the weave of the fabric so he didn’t have to think about what happened to the original owner of the clothes. The pants were cotton, and the weave was coarse and visible. Some yellow stains spotted the legs of the pants, but Vinnie couldn’t tell what they were. He placed his forefinger and thumb about an inch apart and started counting the threads as sweat trickled down his neck from behind his ears.
A hand landed on his shoulder and he jumped. “Vinnie,” said Laramee. “Where did your clothes go?”
Vinnie lifted his head to look into Laramee’s gentle gray eyes. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “I don’t know what’s happened.” His eyes burned, but he blinked rapidly and looked away as he clamped his teeth together. His chin trembled, but he couldn’t stop it. He sucked in a desperate breath and stared at the fabric under his shaking fingers. “Can I go home now?” His voice was small and tentative. The tremble from his chin obvious, but he couldn’t change it, could only breathe through it and will the screaming hysteria trying to escape down again. Just like he had every other time he’d thought about the body he’d seen when he woke and wondered what happened in the time he’d forgotten.
THE TIME he’d forgotten. It sounded like the title for a science-fiction movie. He could see it now: a huge-ass production like Journey to the Center of the Earth with all the angst of The Philadelphia Story, and Grace Kelly’s clothes. They had to have those floaty gowns and chiffon. Lots of chiffon.
He loved chiffon. Silk and sea-foam green. He’d drape it around his throat and twirl until it floated out behind him like ocean waves. He’d wrap it around his chest and drag it over his body….