Attending a court case, Dr Jonas Wallace decided, had to be the biggest waste of time ever conceived. As a witness, he’d been asked to show up at the beginning, to maybe be called sometime during the day, and meanwhile to sit outside and not hear a damn thing just in case his evidence was prejudiced by what he heard.
He shifted on the chair for the hundredth time, wincing as he heard something crack. As a doctor, he could probably have identified the bone if he thought about it, but some things should remain a mystery. He leaned back, sighed deeply and wished a certain patient had never come into his surgery. Out here in the main area, there wasn’t much to watch, because in a town of 1000-odd people, almost nothing ever bloody happened. Nothing interesting, at any rate. But whether it was or not, when it hit court, the town’s only doctor would inevitably be called if medical evidence was needed.
The courtroom door creaked open and a blast of voices tumbling over one another came out, followed by the people making them. Jonas checked his phone for the time and sighed deeply again. Must be lunch time. He saw the lawyer who’d summonsed him making a direct line and tried to wake up a little. Rosamond Davies was bright, beautifully turned out and sharp enough to make anyone bleed; good qualities for her profession. Jonas knew her from her fairly frequent visits to Winston’s local courthouse.
“I’m sorry, Jonas, I still don’t know when we’ll get to you,” she greeted. “You know Janice’s husband is self-represented and the judge keeps having to tell him off for the way he's cross-examining her.”
“So Janice is still being interrogated by that prick?”
“They don’t put it quite that way, but yes,” Rosamond agreed.
“Look, do you think they’re going to get to me at all today? I’ve probably got bodies piling up at the clinic.”
She couldn’t say.
Two hours later, the judge adjourned the court. Belatedly as all hell, Janice Adams’ husband, he who had knocked her around an hour before she’d shown up at Jonas’ surgery, had decided to get a lawyer.
“There’s Chris Adams’ lawyer,” Rosamond murmured, ten minutes into their wait the next morning. “At least things should move along now, Jonas.”
“Mmm.” Jonas glanced up as the man passed. And kept looking. “What’s his name?” he asked casually.
“Malcolm Fraser, would you believe?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Malcolm Fraser – who probably hoped no one remembered his parliamentary namesake – was as smartly turned out as Rosamond Davies, in a fine dark suit Jonas was willing to bet cost as much as his own entire wardrobe. He was stockily built, maybe a bit shorter than Jonas, with short, well groomed dark hair and a short beard, slightly hooded eyes and rather Spanish good looks. He glanced back at them, saw Jonas watching him, smiled slightly back and continued on his way into court.
Jonas carefully eased his shoulders back, hoping Rosamond hadn’t seen his reaction. Not that he cared if she knew he was gay, but probably not the thing to be seen checking out the other side’s lawyer, however hot. Besides, Fraser would be off back to Perth by tomorrow; hard to believe even Chris Adams could delay things much more, and Jonas would be left with the available talent of the town of Winston, ex timber town and onetime popular tourist destination. That one time, Jonas thought, was probably a weekend last century.
Still, he thought cheerfully, Fraser had to cross-examine him at some point.
He did end up enjoying that more than witnesses probably did as a rule, smiling cheerfully back at the somewhat nonplussed lawyer while he answered his questions. It wasn’t like he was personally involved; all he needed to do was confirm he’d seen Janice Adams and knock back Fraser’s suggestions that the injuries could have been from causes (unspecified) other than being beaten up. It was over in half an hour and he was sent back to his life, expecting that to be the end of it. The judge reserved his decision, wanting to think over the evidence, but Jonas suspected Chris Adams was not at all going to like it. Too many folks knew about the way he’d treated Janice and they’d been happy to tell the court so.
He dropped into the bar for a quick drink and maybe a catch up with a few people afterwards. Maybe five minutes after he sat down, someone appeared at his side and proved to be Malcolm Fraser, who sat down next to him and gave him an amiable nod. Jonas gave him a quizzical look. “Don’t mean to make you feel unwelcome, but why the hell are you still here?”
“Fire,” Fraser said.
Jonas examined the distinct lack of conflagration in the bar, though the few other patrons did look up at the word.
“Yeah, there’s an outbreak along the main highway,” someone commented. “They’re not letting cars through for a bit.”
“Go to court and miss all the fun news,” Jonas muttered. “Are the judge and Rose Davies and the rest of them stuck here too?”
“No, they moved fast enough to make it out before the road was closed,” Fraser answered, not appearing bothered by this fact. “Me, not so much.”
Jonas grinned at that. “Want a beer?” he asked.
They chatted for a while, soon moving to Mal and Jonas rather than last names. Presently Jonas told Mal that the steaks here weren’t too bad. So they got some dinner and talked some more, until it became late enough for Mal to say; well, he was pretty tired, he might head back, he was staying at the Winston Hotel. This was not precisely news, since apart from a couple of rustic-charm bed and breakfasts, it was the only place to stay, but by that time, Jonas recognised it as the next move in the dance. He walked Mal over “in case you get lost,” and Mal invited him in for one more drink.
“The case is over,” Jonas pointed out from the double bed the next morning. “And I’m a professional witness, right? Everyone knows she came to see me, I just had to say it.”
Mal shrugged, his brief case of conscience already fading. He sat on the edge of the bed to put his shoes on, which Jonas watched with some regret. “I know. I’m just nervous. Not saying I think this was a bad idea.”
“I think it was a great idea,” Jonas murmured. “Maybe I could go help that fire along a bit, just for today.”
He did not mean it, even as a joke, and Mal knew it. No one joked publicly about fires now. If Winston had still been a timber town, surrounded by the tall forests of that era, it was likely they would all have been evacuated out, with the workers coming here on rotation to do their jobs and then leave. Most such towns were down to skeleton populations. Maybe this town was just too damn stubborn to leave.
“Someone said you’re the only doctor in town,” the lawyer said lightly. “What keeps you out here?”
“I’m not that far from retirement,” Jonas answered. “It’s light duties, you could say. I told you I was ex Services.”
“Yeah. Afghanistan, you said.”
“So after that I felt like a bit of a rest.” He snorted. “Right. There’s less than one thousand people living in this town and you would not believe how often they break their limbs, have hunting accidents, bash each other, get bitten by snakes and spiders or crash their vehicles. They make the army seem like such a peaceful, uneventful occupation.”
“I hear you. Perth’s the world’s most remote and one of the most scenic, relatively slow-paced capital cities in the world, but they litigate as though their lives depended on it. Which they usually don’t.”
“Well, if you feel like a break from the crazy at any point – not referring to limbs any more – drop in some time.” It was the last move of the dance, leaving things open, a suggestion that more contact would be welcome. Mal stood up to get organised and Jonas reluctantly got out of bed to farewell him. He wrapped the lawyer in his arms and they kissed thoroughly, making Jonas wish there was time for another round. But Mal had already said he was anxious to get back to the city as there was more work awaiting him for which he was late.
There were a few more, almost random words, and then Mal was out the door to go check out of the room and Jonas followed more slowly, having no particular reason to hurry home.
It was strange, really. They hadn’t exchanged much personal information despite the long chat, just things like snippets about their past; that Jonas had been an army doctor overseas, that Malcolm had worked in Sydney at the beginning of his legal career and moved to Perth ten years ago. The necessary clues that an approach would be welcomed by either side. Jonas didn’t know whether he’d ever been married, had a boyfriend in the city or any such and he hadn’t shared any deeper reasons for his own move than to “escape the crazy.”
But he thought about Malcolm, more often than he had expected to.
A fortnight after that, he answered his phone, cursing whoever was calling that early and it was the lawyer.
“Looking for the sexiest doctor in Winston,” that raspy voice drawled.
“Yeah, well, there isn’t one sexier,” Jonas said automatically, but he grinned. “What’s happening? A sudden drastic murder among my patients which no one has told me about?”
“Thought I might drop in, if you’re free.”
“Lemme check my schedule. Yeah, no broken limbs today, for a wonder. Just one redback bite and the kid will live. When were you thinking of driving out?” Three hour drive, he calculated, so he’ll need dinner when he gets here….
“Erm, I’m outside.”
“What the hell?” Belatedly Jonas realised his outburst possibly wasn’t the most welcoming in the world and he hurried out of his house, dropping the phone on the couch to be lost amid the cushions. There, sure enough, in another expensive looking suit – but no hat - was one very out of place looking lawyer. Jonas realised he was wearing boxers and a T-shirt. Well, too late to worry about his lack of sartorial splendour now. It wasn’t, as the saying went, revealing anything Mal hadn’t seen before.
“Mal! Get inside, you dope. Have you never heard of UV? Even this early, it’s dangerous these days. And get that jacket off. Who the hell wears a suit jacket in these temperatures?”
“Nice to see you too,” Mal replied, bowing his head graciously as he obeyed instructions. Jonas glanced at the small suitcase he was wheeling.
“Planning on staying for a few days?”
“Yeah – maybe. It’s complicated.”
“Coffee,” Jonas muttered. “Mal, it’s barely gone seven thirty. When did you leave Perth?”
“You might want something stronger. Look, I happened to overhear something rather odd….”
“Hey, don’t go telling me lawyer secrets,” Jonas said, alarmed. He did not, after all, really know this guy who left a case in his hallway and followed him into the kitchen. A visit was great, but why the cloak and dagger? The case was over and even if Mal was here to warn him – and why would he? – that there was an appeal afoot, there was no reason for any urgency. To be here now, he had to have set off at dawn and even if that was his private vehicle – which wasn’t all that common since the new anti-emissions laws, the journey would have taken at least three hours.
His jacket off, Mal was revealed to be wearing a fancy white dress shirt, whose sleeves he rolled back, and perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, while Jonas moved about, mechanically making coffee and getting eggs out of the fridge. “You live on your own here?” the lawyer asked.
“Great time to ask me that, but yeah,” Jonas said, then relented. “Sorry. I’m not at my best before my morning coffee fix. One day I’m going to develop a device to drip-filter caffeine right into me while I lie in bed.”
“I’d buy one,” Mal muttered, eyes fixed on the coffee maker.
“So come on. What did you hear? Maybe they’ll let us share a jail cell.”
“It’s insane,” Mal sighed. “I overheard Judge Halliday – he did our case, if you want to call it that – and another judge. They’d just gone into an elevator and I was walking past, so it was sort of involuntary eavesdropping.” With an effort Jonas didn’t comment, hoping that that would encourage Mal to actually get to the point. “Halliday’s companion said it, clear as day. “It’s been decided. The Federal Government is at the wall. They’ve decided to cut the State loose.”
Jonas frowned, placing a steaming white mug in front of him and turning to fill his own. “Can’t say that makes a whole lot of sense, Mal. It’s too vague to be scary. Cut loose about what?”
“Halliday said, “So the status downgrade is through then?” And she – the other judge – said yes it was and something about, “They had to do that before they could issue the evacuation order.”
“And the door closed.” Mal carefully picked up the mug and tested the heat, breathing in the fragrance.
“Come on, that can’t be all. You don’t even know what emergency they were talking about re evacuating people. There are fires all over the damn country every year, Mal, it doesn’t seem to stop. Hey, that could be it, the status of a fire situation?”
“That was two days ago,” Mal said, looking straight ahead but not seeming to see him or the small, neat kitchen.
“So I did some checking. Looked around online to see if there was anything about large scale moving of vehicles, people being moved out of certain areas, whatever….”
“Because that’s not vague at all,” Jonas murmured, more intrigued than irritated now. He sat down on the other stool beside the lawyer and spent a few moments drinking the coffee.
“ You know they’ve closed most of the towns?”
“Come on, how can ‘they,’, whoever ‘they’ are, shut down a town. Remember what happened – well, not remember – but do you know about the town of Wittenoom and its asbestos mine? Place was officially shut down, services withdrawn, residents instructed about health risks, asked, then told to shift? I believe there’s still half a dozen diehards there to this day. When I was working in Perth, I got to do some media thing with a bunch of other doctors talking about the dangers of asbestos, mesothelioma and so on. And that didn’t shift the diehards. Some government bods coming and saying oh, we think you should move; that went down like a lead balloon. Hell, look at Winston. This place survives on passing tourist trade and supplying interstate trucks. We are literally a truck stop. And people still live here.”
He was not, precisely, trying to shut Mal down, and it was true he didn’t know the current situation beyond Winston at the moment. The last time he’d travelled to another town to see a patient who couldn’t be moved had been months ago, but there certainly hadn’t been any exodus from that town then. Rather, he hoped to spike a bit of definite information from the lawyer. But now Mal seemed so troubled and confused that the words weren’t emerging in any coherent fashion.
“I’ve talked to people about it as well, people I figured I could trust. Tried to give them the idea I already knew about it; you know the routine.”
“Yeah. Your buddy has already confessed, we just need you to confirm what he’s said.”
“Er, yeah, something like that. So it was more a bunch of questions and what’s-all-that-about until yesterday evening, when I was in my office. And Judge Halliday came to see me.”
“The judge. Came to see you? Didn’t think it worked that way.”
Mal laughed. “No. It’s more like there’s a summons from on high and you present yourself in his or her chambers. But Halliday came in and he said, well, he’d heard I was asking around and who had told me about these things? I acted cagey but he got it out of me that I’d overheard him and the other - who was a judge I’d seen but I can’t recall her name - and was curious, because who shuts down a state? You just said how crazy it was that anyone could shut down a town, but I’m telling you the state government has. Maybe on orders from the Feds, though we know State don’t like taking orders from Federal. But they can withdraw services and they have, from a dozen small places dotted around the southwest. Over a period of maybe five years, people have been leaving the smaller centres outside of the cities. In the bushfire areas, which we know is most of it, they’ve been compensated for leaving. That is one shitload of money, as you might say. But they’ve paid it. That was what they didn’t do with Wittenoom.”
“Touche,” conceded Jonas. “Back on track, counsellor, you’re digressing.”
“Sorry. So he said look, I was on the list to be brought into the confidential group, but I needed to keep quiet about these matters for now.” Mal fiddled with his beard in a nervous fashion, then picked up his mug again. “So I said sure, your honour, as you do, but then can you tell me what it means, that the Federal Government wants to cut the State loose? Does it mean actual independence, because that would actually be really popular. The last referendum in Western Australia….”
“I know. That close.” Jonas held up thumb and forefinger nearly touching. “And the polls since suggest it would now be a landslide. “
“Halliday said no, not exactly, that the State was now more of a drain on the resources and the infrastructure of the country than ever before. The sweep of fires, every year, coming earlier every year so there’s no time to clear out the fuel load. The Eyre Highway, the only surfaced lifeline between the states, being cut off so many times that some importers went bust and there are a lot of things that just don’t get trucked to WA any more. The brain drain to the east. Perth is the only city now losing population to such an extent that some of the outer suburbs are now ghost towns.”
“Ring cities,” Jonas murmured. He had first heard the term perhaps seven years earlier. It referred to the suburbs position as an outer ring around Perth and also to the ancient practice of ringbarking a tree to kill it. “That’s mostly due to the vehicle curfew and fuel use limitations.”
“Sure and that’s because of the decreased availability of fuel, not any green conscience, whatever they say,” Mal shot back. “Anyway, apparently some bright sparks in Canberra asked would it save money if there was no city, that workers simply were flown in from the east to work in the mining industry and whatever else was still essential?”
“Jesus F. Christ.”
“No city.” Jonas contemplated this in stunned silence.
“You know there was only a city in the first place because the governor and the British authorities in Sydney were afraid that the French would lay claim to Western Australia? With the Napoleonic Wars done, there were all these ships exploring and mapping and naming.” Mal managed a grin. “Told you I’ve been researching. “
“Mmm.” Jonas heard what he thought were the sounds of a vehicle outside. Well, it was nearly surgery hours, he thought. For convenience and cost savings, his surgery was actually attached to his house, like a granny flat. “Hang on a minute, let me see who that is.” He went to the front door and glanced out, surprised to see a large and very shiny black car, not a vehicle belonging to any resident, surely. Nobody would have the fuel credits to run such a monster. As he looked, the doors opened and two people as suited up as Mal Fraser got out and spoke to one another. Jonas shook his head at the sight. Nearly summer, already fire conditions and still there were people who seemed not to notice.
“You expecting anyone else from the city?” he called back.
“No….” Mal followed him and shrugged when he saw the car.
“They must have been right on your tail,” Jonas concluded. The lawyer began to look nervous. Well. More nervous. The two people were heading from the front door. “Mal, I think we need to give them some other reason for why you’re here, in case they ask.”
“All right, but what…”
“Get your tie off. Come over here.” When Mal did, Jonas grabbed the surprised lawyer by the arm and hauled him into the living room. He pushed Mal down on the couch while the other man was still trying to unfasten his tie. Jonas pulled at his shirt, breaking several buttons as he yanked at the material. He didn’t really need to do any more about his present stage of undress, but he pulled the T-shirt over his head for good measure and threw it on the couch. “Stay there.”
He answered the door, opening it quickly before the visitors had a chance to knock and standing there, glaring at the elegant man and woman before him. “Yes?”
“I hope so, since this is his house and it’s barely eight o’clock. Surgery hours are from eight thirty and you don’t look sick, so unless you have a dying mate in the car…”
“Dr Wallace, is that your car?” The woman pointed towards the vehicle Mal had arrived in which, while not quite as obnoxiously ostentatious as the black car, was certainly up there.
“No, it belongs to a friend. What’s this about?”
“Is your friend Mr M. Fraser?”
“Are you police?” He put every ounce of annoyance he could into his growl. “Because if not, it’s none of your bloody business. Actually, even if you are.”
“We need to speak to him, please.”
“He’s busy,” Jonas snapped. “I was busy. And we’d like to get back to being busy, if you follow me.”
Their eyes flicked to his shirtless state and then the man said, “Dr Wallace, we’re from the Federal Police and we need to speak to Mr Fraser on a matter of national security.” He touched a hand to his hip under the unncecessary jacket, where a gun would be worn and simultaneously both he and his companion moved forward a little as though to intimidate. Jonas wanted to laugh, but instead deliberately backed away as though it was working.
“ID,” he said. “You should’ve shown that to me right off.”
“Sorry.” The woman seemed annoyed but more at herself, Jonas thought. She produced a handcomp and keyed it, holding the device out so that he could read the information on the card image.
Kosher, Jonas thought, not that he had thought it wasn’t. He turned about and strode into the living room, followed by the two agents.
There was Mal, shirt unbuttoned, loose around his shoulders and his tie thrown over the back of the couch. He had taken off his shoes and socks and shoved them under the couch and looked up with what was probably a genuine expression of alarm. “Er, is this a party?”
“Mr Fraser?” asked the woman after an awkward pause.
Mal hesitated, probably sincerely not wanting to admit it, but nodded. Jonas crossed his arms and glared at the intruders. “So go on, what the hell do you want?”
“We’re from the Federal Police,” the woman repeated. “I’m Brianna Salvador and this is is Michael Barry. We were given a report that you had not attended work today despite being required in court and then that you had driven out of the city.”
Your car’s GPS nailed you, Mal, Jonas thought, listening to this. Now convince ‘em you’re here so I can do the same.
“I wasn’t aware that I was required in court,” Mal said steadily. “That wasn’t the case as of last night and I left before it was light this morning. I needed – wanted to see Jonas. We met when I was here for a matter last week. I’ll be lodging the excess journey as needed and if there’s a penalty fee for the fuel, of course I’ll pay it. The rest of the matter is highly personal, which I trust you can acknowledge?”
He didn’t have to pretend his embarrassment, Jonas thought; it was all over him. There was also the point that he’d apparently dropped his luggage in the hall and he and Jonas had got right to it. Salvador and Barry looked at one another and Jonas smirked, imagining the dialogue. “You ask them the stuff.” “Hell, no. You ask them!”
Barry wimped out; Jonas saw the officer look away from Salvador and then stare fixedly at the planks of the wooden floor. Salvador gathered herself together. “Are you carrying your phone, Mr Fraser?”
“Yes.” Not looking happy, Mal fished it out of his pants and gave it to her. The officer flicked it open, studied the calls record and handed it back. “There’s the notification from Justice Benson’s associate, sent at 7.30 am.”
Mal shrugged. “I was already here by then. I called Jonas from outside the house. That call record is there too. Sorry, I didn’t look at the other calls. And failure to show up for a case isn’t a criminal offence, as far as I’m aware, and I would know. It’s occasion for a reprimand, were I knowingly to absent myself, but I didn’t. I was feeling kind of depressed, wanted to see Jonas and I just went. Like I said, I’ll pay any penalty fee if I’ve gone over my fuel usage, but I don’t even think I’ve done that.”
“Mr Fraser, have you discussed any confidential matters with Dr Wallace?”
Jonas tensed at that. Going for the jugular a bit quickly, aren’t we? He knew his lying was more than up to the test, but he wasn’t so sure about Mal and hoped his flustered look would be put down to the being caught in flagrante. Surely a lawyer would have better qualifications in the shading of truth. Come on, he urged silently, keep your end up for your profession!
Mal smiled and even Jonas felt a bit embarrassed at that look. “Absolutely,” he said, “but do you really want to hear the details?”
“Let’s leave jokes out of it,” Barry blustered.
“Oh, I wasn’t joking.” Mal’s gaze remained on Jonas for a long, intense, heated moment. “The answer is I haven’t had time. And nor did I plan to, unless the matters were of an extremely personal nature.”
Jonas and Mal were still laughing, almost choking, as they heard the car doors slam outside. Mal wiped his eyes and pulled his clothing back into order. Jonas had to cough a few more times before he could stop. “That was beautiful,” he said sincerely. “Those two are going to be burning rubber back to the city, feeling like idiots and trying to think of the best way to present themselves to their boss. Perfect.”
“They’re going to be terrified that I’ll put in a harassment claim,” Mal said contentedly. “I think I’ll draft one up, just to wave in front of them or anyone else.”
Jonas breathed deeply, decided he was back to what he liked to term normal. Of course, he thought, neither of them wanted to address the fact that Mal had been tailed all the way out from the city because he knew some things his superiors were cagey about. That was not a thing that happened in Australia, or at least was supposed to happen and it was natural that people here weren’t very good at being secret police. But if they got some practice, they were going to get better.
Then there was the thing itself.
He turned his head, saw Mal looking back at him, both of them suddenly quiet. Now what?
Mal didn’t bother to put all his fancy clothes back on, just the trousers and the shirt, unbuttoned. Jonas showed him where he could stow his suitcase in the spare room. “Look, I’m not expecting just to barge in on you…” the lawyer said.
“Is that what the cool kids are calling it these days?”
“Funny guy.” But Mal was clearly uncomfortable. “I was going to book in at the Winston, only this stuff was going around in my head and I needed, I guess, to know if it would sound as crazy out loud.”
“Yeah, it does but it’s more scary, if it’s really what you think. Look, I have to go over to my surgery, talk to my nurse and find out if there’s anyone here to see me. I know I’ve got somebody this afternoon. You can stay here while I do that and then we can talk some more. “
Mal smiled. “Is that what the cool kids are calling it?”
The sun burned, even so early in the day and in the summer. As he had told Mal, it was dangerous now. Always had been, Jonas supposed, but what with ozone hole and climate change, that peril was now acute. Kids in school wore hats and bloody veils or whatever those things attached to their hats were called, to play outside and on some days, outside play was banned completely. Adults also covered up, even farmers and outside workers who had never done so, only ten years before. General temperatures were up by several degrees on what they had been when he was a kid.
Even twenty years ago, some timber had still been processed through the mill here, from the plantation, but now even that was done with and the town was fading. Normally a place like this wouldn’t even have its own doctor, they’d have to travel to a larger town or even to the city for medical care. But Jonas Wallace had his own reasons for being out here and he hadn’t shared those with Mal yet. He could have phoned Claudia, his receptionist, from the house but why should he take all the fun out of her life?
“Whoo hoo, Dr Wallace!” The carolling greeted him when the door was barely open and Jonas sighed.
“That didn’t take you long. What was your first clue?” He walked through the tiny living room that was outfitted as a waiting area, past the benchtop where Claudia Ness leaned, grinning wickedly.
“Auntie Janice saw you leaving the pub on the night after you were in court, with that cute lawyer. Then he’s at your house today.”
“Where the hell was your auntie, behind a street tree?”
Despite his grumbling, Jonas couldn’t help grinning. Claudia laughed again. She wore a brilliantly coloured silk shirt and cotton pants which were not at all the usual wear for a doctor’s receptionist. They made her resemble in large part a rainbow lorikeet or other large, gaudy parrot, except that Claudia’s voice was definitely more tuneful. Her hair flowed in an untamed mane of both brown and sun-streaked golden locks, all natural.
“Anybody down for this morning?”
“Not yet,” she said. “You’ve got Mrs Pearson this afternoon.”
“Yes, I remember that. Nobody else?”
“Give them time. So. Deets. Why was there some government car outside your place if they weren’t here to get doctored?”
“Big conspiracy,” Jonas said.
“I mean it,” he said calmly. “They thought Mal was here to give me some secret information he’d overheard, instead of carrying on with last week’s passion.”
“That sounds kind of cool,” Claudia said, disappointed that it couldn’t be true. “You don’t even sound like you’re lying, which is weird because you’re not as good at it as you think. I’ve heard you try to tell Mrs Pearson and some of the other patients that they aren’t bothering you over nothing.”
“Sure. Maybe he’s inspired you. So come on. Is he desperately in love with you?”
“Well, maybe in lust,” Jonas said, making Claudia lose her composure once again. It wasn’t that funny, he thought, slightly miffed. Probably Claudia, like nearly everyone else he knew under thirty, thought old people were past it and if they weren’t, they should be. Prejudice against gays might be lessened, but ageism would always be with them, he was sure. He wasn’t that bad looking for his age and Mal was amazing, of course. “Look, Claudia, you can manage things here, can’t you? There’s a bit of paperwork, answer the phone and call me if anything turns up.”
“I’ll make sure to knock first,” she promised, still giggling.
“No! Just call me on the phone.” He paused in the doorway, gaze meeting hers and Claudia looked back curiously. “Claudia, can you keep an ear out? If you talk to any friends and family, ask them to let you know if they spot those government folks hanging around or see a strange car?”
“Sure, Doc Jonas.”
And her look told him she’d got it, even if she didn’t fully understand why he was worried. Which she wouldn’t unless he told her the damn secret squirrel stuff. Jonas shook his head as he thought about it. Governments were always coming up with crazy ideas; that didn’t mean they got to carry them out.
Three days of nothing, if you were counting actual events, which Jonas wasn’t. Three days with Mal, introducing him to the town – which admittedly didn’t take long – and resignedly letting the townsfolk meet him too. Claudia came up empty with her spy activities and Jonas decided he and Mal had done pretty well with confusing their potential enemies. On the third day, though, Mal got a phone call from the senior lawyer of his firm and after a long chat with her, he told Jonas he was heading back.
“Shit, today?” Jonas asked over breakfast. “I told you the mayor wanted to meet you.”
“She’s met me,” Mal complained. “In the pub last night, remember?”
“Yeah, well, she invited us for dinner, if you remember. Also she was too blotto to remember her own husband last night.”
Mal grinned. “Philip-I-mean-David?”
“That’s the one. Oh well. Why don’t you drive out next weekend if you got time and we can organise something with them then?”
“Sounds good,” Mal said. “Jonas, I just thought; does this mean we’re in a relationship?”
“Hmm. Possibly. Sorry about that.”
He was back in his fancy suit, sans jacket, given that it was too hot for that even according to Mal’s fashion rules. Jonas went out to his car to say goodbye, feeling oddly bereft, even though there were only three more days to the next weekend. “Be careful,” he said. “Don’t piss off any judges.”
“Never a guarantee in my profession, unfortunately.” Mal solemnly kissed him. Jonas stared back at him, not sure what he wanted to say, but knew there should be something. He was abruptly, intensely concerned.
“Yeah,” he said instead and reluctantly stepped back, watching until Mal had driven out of sight. When he was gone, Jonas went slowly back inside. There were patients, but not for some time.
He did not see Mal on the weekend. Mal called, apologetic, and said he’d just been assigned to a major case and needed to start interviewing potential witnesses. “Can you tell me anything about it?” Jonas asked, curious.
“Not really. It’s a homicide. But I think there’ll be news reporting on it, it’s pretty interesting.”
“So tell me what they’re gonna tell me!”
Mal laughed. “I will when it starts. Just look out for headlines such as Attack of the Mole People.”
“What the living fuck?”
“I’ll tell you later, I promise, when I’m able to. Bye.”