Karrie Roman © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Noah had been here before. People didn’t have sporadic stints of living on the streets and expect to escape the occasional bashing. An assault could come from anywhere—another rough sleeper, a junkie, pimp, or sometimes from some teenage twat who thought they were being hilarious beating the shit out of someone whose life had already kicked them in the teeth. When someone was homeless, they were either invisible or a goddamn target. The fucking irony.
This was different though. This wasn’t some son of a bitch grabbing the nearest body and laying his fists into them. Noah had been stalked. He’d watched this bastard skip first one and then the next rough sleeper he’d come across in the alley until he’d spotted Noah.
Noah recognised what the man wanted, could tell by the tense set of his shoulders, the white knuckles of his clenched fists. He wanted to make Noah hurt. Sensing danger became heightened when surrounded by it day and night with no locked door to offer even the illusion of safety. So, when he’d first spotted this man, Noah had wanted to run, he’d never wanted to run so desperately in his life. But he had nowhere to go. He’d chosen poorly the night before—a rookie mistake, though he was no rookie to sleeping on the streets.
He’d been so damn exhausted, when searching for a spot to lay his head, he hadn’t cared that there’d been no second exit, no escape route in this alleyway. He’d trapped himself, and a monster had walked right into his trap. But Noah was the one caught in the deadly snare.
Noah could fight. He was scrappy, no finesse, no training, but he could throw a half-decent punch. He was capable of delivering a hit to make his opponent think twice about going after him, and if that didn’t work, he knew how to bite, kick, scratch; hell, he’d go for the balls if he had to. Another thing learned on the street if someone wanted to survive was to use every weapon in their arsenal.
The monster coming for him was tall, not the biggest man Noah had ever seen, but definitely the biggest one he’d ever had to fight. The darkness shadowed his features, but he knew the eyes were bleak, cruel; he’d seen a flash of them in the streetlight near the top of the alleyway, or maybe his imagination was making the man’s physicality as sinister as his demeanour. Noah felt those eyes on him. Glaring. And he wondered what the hell he’d done to this guy to piss him off so badly.
Noah stood, legs wide, shoulders high, chest out, trying to make himself appear as big as possible. From the man’s bearing and manner, it was evident he had next to no chance of scaring this guy off, but he had to try. Any fight he didn’t end up actually fighting was a win.
Much of his time on the street Noah was alone, but never more so than when some fucker decided to take a potshot at him. He didn’t really blame anyone for their indifference. They lived in a don’t-get-involved kind of world and when no one had their back having someone else’s could be very hard.
The man kept coming. He was close now, close enough to allow Noah to see him more clearly. His eyes were as cruel as Noah had thought, but the rest of his face he’d describe as a baby face, soft, almost sweet-looking. His cheeks were puffed as though full of cotton wool, a perfectly shaped snub nose sat above rich red cupid’s bow lips pulled into a sneer. Without more light he was unable to pick accurate skin and hair colour, but he’d guess fair for both.
Noah raked his gaze quickly down the man’s body. He was muscular but not hulk-like. He had no obvious weapon, though from the size of his hands, Noah suspected he’d be able to do plenty of damage with those alone.
He wondered if the man would speak. Sometimes they did, especially the arsehole teens who, for whatever reason, felt the need to justify why they were beating the shit out of their victim, all while bragging amongst themselves about how tough they were.
Faster than he’d have thought possible, the man lashed out. Noah’s head snapped back, and a spray of blood bloomed from his nose, the sickening crack turning his stomach. He hadn’t had a chance to move. The stranger’s speed and accuracy confirming to Noah this man was no amateur—and Noah was in big trouble.
Before his head had even righted, he took a blow to his stomach, the force of it doubling him over. He gasped for air, trying to suck in big gulps through his mouth. The man’s knee connected with his already broken nose before he could catch his breath, and the follow-up blow to the back of his head sent him to his knees.
Noah didn’t stand a chance; he understood how dire his situation was now. This man was a professional—he knew what he was doing.
His vision was darkening, tiny purple-black spots making it difficult for him to see clearly. He lashed out with a fist, connecting with what he thought was the man’s thigh. He wondered if his attacker even felt the blow there was so little power behind it.
The man aimed for his head again, but somehow Noah managed to dodge backwards so the blow was only glancing. Unlike in the movies, Noah knew a normal person couldn’t take too many direct, powerful hits to their head without substantial damage or worse. His focus was scattered, not sharp enough for him to decide what to do about the punches raining down on him though. Did he duck and cover, hope to ride out the attack while protecting his head? Or did he try to get up and fight?
He kind of roll crawled to put some distance between them but the man charged relentlessly after him. Noah kicked out with his leg. He tried to aim for the man’s knee, but his head was spinning worse than the one time he’d had way too much whisky. He wasn’t sure where his foot ended up connecting, but his attacker only grunted and kept coming.
Noah curled into a ball, pulling his head down to his chest and wrapping his arms around the vulnerable area. He felt a sharp hard kick to his back and then another. He tried to roll to his knees, but the bastard wouldn’t relent even a little.
“Hey! You there!” A booming voice called.
Noah’s attacker stopped immediately. He heard running footsteps and glanced out from beneath his arms just in time to see the man sprint down the alley, barrel into a man and woman at the opening, and keep right on running. He didn’t have the energy to move, much less chase after him or even call out for help. He closed his eyes and groaned.
He wasn’t quite sure what happened to time then—it either slowed down or sped right up. He was too out of it to know which. He heard voices, vaguely registered they were occasionally talking to him, but he couldn’t be fucked answering. He wanted to sleep. His eyes were welded shut—they had to be—but lights flashed continually behind them. There were more voices and then some arsehole was poking and prodding at him. It was the strangest thing—as though he was there but wasn’t.
One minute he was curled up on the cold, filthy concrete and then suddenly, he was being jostled around in some kind of vehicle. Ambulance, probably—at least he hoped it wasn’t a cop car. He smelled pee and knew it was his, but he didn’t have the wherewithal to be ashamed. He was amazed he was capable of smelling at all, given he was sure his nose must be shattered in a million pieces. Mixed with the acidic pee was the coppery stench of blood.
Someone was asking him for his name. He thought his name was Noah, but everything was a bit hazy. He couldn’t for the life of him think of his last name.
“Can you tell me your name?” the voice asked again.
“Shh. I’m sore,” he replied, though the words were so slurred he didn’t know if he’d be understood.
He heard a soft chuckle and then that damn voice again. “I know you’re sore, but can you tell me your name.”
“Noah,” he groaned, so the voice would shut up.
“Noah, do you have any allergies?”
Jesus fucking Christ, didn’t this idiot know he just had the stuffing beaten out of him? He didn’t give a shit about allergies. He groaned again. The fucker could take his whimpered reply however he wanted.
“I’ll take that as a no. I’m going to give you a shot of morphine. Have you had anything to drink tonight?”
“Don’t drink.” Fuck, the slurring was getting worse. He shook his head no to make sure this guy would understand him. He felt like his goddamn brain was rattling around in his skull.
“Okay, good. Here we go then, just a small pinch.”
Noah felt a bite—a fucking painful one—in his arse cheek. “Fuck,” he spat. Small pinch my arse.
“I know, sorry. Morphine shots kinda hurt.”
“Arsehole,” he groaned. Every part of him hurt, but hopefully the morphine would kick in soon. He knew he was being taken to a hospital but wished he wasn’t. He wished he could talk them into letting him out now. With his veins full of morphine to dull the pain, he’d be okay. He’d find somewhere to curl up for a while and sleep it off. But they had their duty of care and blah, blah, blah. He’d sign something to say they did all they could, and he’d happily take the blame if he died from his injuries on the street.
He hated hospitals, loathed anywhere really that put him on the radar. He was no criminal, and he wasn’t on the run, but the idea of anyone knowing exactly where he was sent shivers up his spine for no particular reason except that’s just the way he was made.
Hands busied themselves all over his body. He had neither the energy nor the ability to open his eyes and watch what they were doing. From the noises being made and the sensations on his skin, they were putting in an IV and attending to his wounds. Noah floated happily on his morphine cloud, content to lie back and let those hands have their way with him. He still wished he wasn’t headed for a hospital, but he’d keep the worry for when the drugs wore off.
He felt the cold air rush in when the doors of the ambulance were yanked open. His body was jostled around when the stretcher was pulled from the back, though he knew they were trying to be careful—that pesky duty of care. He really tried to peel at least one eyelid open when he heard voices gathered over him, discussing him as if he wasn’t there. He heard them say assault and concussion and lucky. He didn’t care about any of it. He was in no pain now, and all his other worries seemed far off, silly, unimportant.
He heard them say something about topping the dose, and then even the haziness in his brain faded as he drifted away.
For a few moments when he woke up, Noah had no idea where he was or what had happened. Having experienced homelessness, he was kind of used to not quite knowing where he was when he first woke up, but this time was worse. His brain was foggy, his memories dull. He was sore but not overly so. His limbs felt heavy, leaden, as though the pain had been blunted by drugs.
And then he remembered the man. The man in the alley who had stalked him, sought him out for a beating. Not just a beating, however. Noah was convinced he only stopped because those people had shown up and yelled at him. He believed the man would have been happy to see him dead. Why, he didn’t know, other than there seemed to be something cruel and purposeful about him.
“You’re awake again, hon?”
Noah turned to the voice and found a woman who looked a lot like the grandmother he’d always imagined for himself would look. She had shoulder-length curly grey hair, and not a scrap of make-up on her round face, though she didn’t need it. Her warm smile gave her all the beauty she needed. She was short, maybe a smidge over five foot, but her body looked strong. She wore pale-pink scrubs with a collection of pens, scissors and other tools of her trade spilling from a chest pocket.
“How’re you feeling?” she asked as she fiddled with tubes and cuffs and fuck only knew what else they had him hooked up to.
“Good,” he croaked. He cringed at how bad he sounded and hoped the nice grandmother lady would believe his lie.
“Good my foot. You look like a steam train ran over you. Don’t lie to me. I need a scale of one to ten on your pain so we can give you the right dosage.”
“Why a steam train?”
That seemed to give her pause from her fussing, but only for a brief moment. “You know, I’m not sure. Could have been a semi-trailer I guess, but steam train seems more exotic, I guess.”
Noah huffed a laugh, then winced when pain shot up his spine. Grandmother nurse glared at him and he knew she’d get what she wanted from him. How did you argue with someone who looked like a sweet nanna but was actually made of steel? “It’s not bad right now. Maybe a five. I’m achy but its bearable.”
“Mm. Five, hey? Well you had your morphine an hour ago, so your five tells me you’ll be in quite some pain without it. I’ll let doctor know you’re awake again.”
“Wait,” Noah called as she turned to leave the room. “Awake again? I don’t remember. Can you tell me where I am? What happened?”
“You’re in the Royal Brisbane. You woke up a few hours ago, but you didn’t make much sense at all. They brought you up here from emergency. I gave you an orange juice, walked you to the bathroom, and then you went straight back to sleep. You’d been attacked, knocked around pretty badly. Do you remember anything about your attack?” Her eyes softened on the word attack.
“Bits and pieces. Did they get him?” Noah had the strangest feeling if the answer was no, he would burst into tears. The man who attacked him scared the hell out of him, but what frightened him worse was the gut feeling he had the man would keep coming back until his job was done.
“I’m not sure, hon, but there’s a crowd of cops who want to talk to you. I’ll give them a call, too, let them know you’re back with us. I’m sure they’ll have answers for you.”
Noah nodded and watched her leave. He wished she’d stay with him. It’d be nice to have someone by his side for once. He didn’t remember waking up earlier at all. Maybe he had amnesia; he was pretty sure memory loss happened a lot to bashing victims.
Grandmother nurse was replaced by brusque doctor. She poked at Noah and asked him questions. Nothing too personal. She asked what day it was and who was Prime Minister. She asked what his last name was, who won the latest league match, and how much a loaf of bread cost. She asked questions Noah wouldn’t have known the answer to even if he hadn’t had his brain knocked around in his skull last night.
“You seem to be doing okay, Noah, but I’d like to keep you for another night. You took quite a beating, so I’d like to keep an eye on you a little longer.”
He was already on the radar; he was so damned nervous about simply being here, so it wouldn’t really hurt to spend another night in a warm bed with a few hot meals.
“Sure, I guess. I don’t remember waking up before. Is that normal?”
“Can be. You were given morphine on the way to the ED, and sometimes it can scramble our brains a little when coming off it, makes things a little hazy. Let the nurses know if your pain increases or if anything changes. For example, blurred vision or feeling nauseous.”
Brusque doctor scribbled in her chart and then turned to leave. She got a few steps from his bed and then stopped. “Oh, I called in the social worker. She’ll pop in later this afternoon to see you.”
“Why?” Noah sat up, more alert now, sweat dampening his skin at the mention of a social worker. He’d had social workers up the wazoo for years. Most of them had done everything but help him. He’d been a number to them, something to put on their time card to show everyone how terribly busy they were. Few were seriously interested in helping him. And those who were hadn’t got past his defences anyway. He wasn’t interested in talking through his problems with anyone. His life was what it was. He made the best of it.
“Well, Noah, generally when we have a patient brought in with no…community ties, the social worker comes in to see what we can do to help.” Brusque doctor looked everywhere but at him as she spoke. He’d seen it before.
“You mean because I’m homeless? You can say the word. It’s not like I don’t know I’m homeless, and I’m pretty sure it’s not catching.”
“Sorry, Noah.” The doctor winced. Noah felt bad for a moment. Most people didn’t know how to broach the topic of his homelessness without some discomfort, so why should a doctor be any different?
“It’s fine, Doc. I have community ties. I’ve got some friends I stay with sometimes, but I don’t like to be a burden on them.”
“I’m sure your friends don’t think of you as a burden, Noah.” Her manner softened considerably as she spoke, brusqueness turning to gentleness. Most people pitied him for being homeless. He was okay with pity; he understood it. People were terrified of the idea of having no roof over their heads, so it was natural for them to feel sorry for someone living their nightmare.
“Maybe they don’t, but I do.” Noah didn’t have a lot, but he had his pride. That didn’t go away just because things were shitty for him right now. He didn’t want to rely on others. He regularly swallowed the pity of others, but he wouldn’t allow anything to trample all over his pride.
“Perhaps the social worker can get you into a shelter? Help you get back on your feet.”
Noah blew right past her suggestion. He’d been in shelters more dangerous than sleeping rough but wasn’t going to get into that right now. “Do you know if the cops got my stuff?” Noah’s red, white, and blue bag had been behind his body while he slept, to offer what little protection for its contents he could. Inside were two pairs of chinos he’d recently bought from Vinnie’s, three shirts, and a couple pairs of boxers—the entirety of his wardrobe.
“Ah, I’m not sure to be honest. You came up here from emergency with nothing. I’ll get admin to call down to ED and double-check for you.”
“Thanks.” He appreciated the doctor was going to try, but he knew it was hopeless. It seemed unlikely the cops or anyone else had even thought everything Noah owned would be right there with him in the alley. Why would they when all their stuff was tucked safely inside their homes. They didn’t have to lug it everywhere with them. They wouldn’t have looked for his belongings, and by now everything would be long gone—it was finders keepers out there.
“Hang in there, Noah.”
“Thanks, Doc.” He’d say anything to appease her and keep her moving. Chances were good she’d forget him before she made it to her next patient, anyway.
Help you get back on your feet. He thought about what she’d said. Back on his feet. A nice idea, but Noah wasn’t sure how. He didn’t even know where to begin or how he’d got here in the first place.
He’d been homeless on and off since he’d walked out of his foster home. The family had been okay, better than some horror stories he’d heard on the streets, but they’d taken him in for civic duty or to give back, whatever they wanted to call it, which was fine and honourable, but they hadn’t really wanted him as part of their family. He’d always been the poor orphan they were helping, the one they paraded in front of their friends to show what generous and good people they were. But Noah wanted more.
He remembered how it felt to be part of a family. He had vivid memories of his parents and how they’d loved him. He’d wanted a real family again, but what he got was a bed, clothes, food, and education—such as it was—but he hadn’t gotten love or warmth. Noah wasn’t on the streets because he’d been sent to live with monsters—he was on the streets because nobody had paid attention.
He knew if he went to his foster family now they’d take him in, help him out, but Noah needed to do this himself. He needed to find where he belonged. He could go to Alby, but he wasn’t ready to go back there either. So many happy memories shattered and ruined by one awful night. His bullheadedness was keeping him on the streets.
Once the doctor was safely out of sight, Noah shifted his gaze around the four-bed ward room. The two beds opposite him were occupied by a couple of men for whom youth had long since passed by. They were both asleep and looked oddly similar, though one had salt-and-pepper hair while the other had stark white tresses. The bed beside him was empty.
Noah carefully stood. He felt a little wobbly but nothing too bad, so he didn’t think he’d wind up on his arse. He grabbed his IV pole and did an awkward shuffle to the bathroom, using the flimsy pole to steady him as he went. He peed, sighing with relief at emptying his full bladder. He stepped to the hand basin and did his best not to look at his face in the small mirror above it while he washed his hands.
Damn pesky curiosity got the better of him though, and he flashed a glance to the mirror. Just the brief glimpse told him he was a mess. He reluctantly took a longer look. He didn’t recognise himself. His left eye was swollen almost shut, the white of it a vivid red which clashed with the green of his pupil. He sniggered when he thought of the old rule “red and green should never be seen without a colour in-between.”
“Dumbass,” he muttered as he scolded himself for such a ridiculous thought at a time like this but then another old saying popped into his head: if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.
His nose was swollen, broken, but not severely enough to need realignment. All over his face, the mottled blues and blacks of angry bruises were rapidly developing.
He gingerly patted the back of his head where it ached the most. The raised lump felt insanely big. He couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead in the alley. He’d heard news reports of people dying from coward punches. One blow to the back of their heads had killed them. Yet here he was with a lump the size of an actual egg and still on his feet. He remembered his foster dad telling him it was all in how we landed. He’d broken his arm falling off a thirty-centimetre-high school bench a few weeks after falling out of a tree with not a scratch on him. He guessed the same principle applied here.
Noah took a last look at his ruined face before heading back to his bed. He was exhausted, and despite hating being in here, he knew he’d sleep well. He wouldn’t have to keep one eye open to watch for danger while he was in hospital. He pulled the curtain around his space, settled himself on the narrow mattress, and closed his eyes.
Harry Cooper heard the call late last night on the police scanner but had been too tired to follow up on it then. His editor had needed his finished story by eight pm so it would make the presses. Harry had worked through till the early morning hours the last few nights to make sure he got it done. So, when he’d heard the call through the fog of sleep he’d slipped into after submitting his article, he’d had no energy to get up and do anything about it. This was his nightly routine—falling asleep to the garble and static of the police scanner.
His colleague Mike constantly told him to be patient and warned him he had to work his way up to the crime beat or investigative work, but Harry had never had much patience. Besides, he’d landed a job covering finance, which he hated almost as much as pineapple on pizza, and he desperately wanted to move on from it. He was grateful for the job because it was his foot in the door of a major newspaper, but god, finance and economics absolutely bored him to tears. If he’d known the dual degree in economics he’d completed—mostly to appease his parents—was going to land him in this position, he never would have done it.
Crimes, investigations, social issues—they were what got Harry’s juices flowing. They were where the action he so craved was. He wanted to be in the trenches with the worst—and best—of humanity, fighting the good fight. His mother hated the idea, though she should understand it. She was the one who’d instilled his morals and taught him all good people must be in the fight against crime and injustice. His passion for social justice was all her fault—and he loved to remind her of it. Of course, she’d been not so secretly delighted when he’d landed the position on the finance desk of the Brisbane Times. He probably deserved that little bit of karma.
So, until he got to where he wanted to be, he spent his days researching and writing his dull finance features, but by night, he worked on his true passion. He liked to think he was like Batman.
He was in the middle of a feature piece on crimes against the homeless that he hoped to sell to any newspaper as a freelance piece once it was finished. He was relying on the article, not just as a stepping stone to the crime beat but to make his name as a serious investigative journalist.
He remembered hearing on the scanner about the homeless man beaten last night. He’d been discovered somewhere in Fortitude Valley, so they’d have taken him to the Royal Brisbane for treatment. Harry really hoped he wasn’t hurt badly enough he was still there, but at the same time, hoped he hadn’t left the hospital because he wanted to interview him.
He’d managed to talk to a few homeless victims of crime, however they tended to be suspicious—and understandably so. He struggled to imagine the constant wariness people who slept rough must endure. Where was their safe place? Harry was fully aware of the privileged life he’d had. He couldn’t think of anything much more terrifying than having no home, nowhere to go to feel safe.
The shower he had twenty minutes ago had fully woken him despite the early hour. Jackson would be getting off shift in another five minutes, so he wanted to speak to him before he made it home to bed. Making a friend of a nightshift wardsman from the Royal turned out to be quite handy. Maybe not so ethical, but he wasn’t getting any personal information from him, only ward numbers and if the victim was still at the hospital.
Jackson answered on the fifth ring. “Had a feeling I’d be hearing from you.”
Harry chuckled. He’d been calling him for three months and every time, without fail, Jackson had answered his call with those words. “Hey, Jacks, how are you man?”
“Let’s not do the dance, Harry. I’m too tired today. It’s been a long night. Your boy’s still here. He was pretty banged up. I took him up to short stay myself a few hours ago. Poor kid didn’t seem to know what planet he was on.” Jackson was maybe mid-forties, but everyone was boy, girl, or kid to him.
“He’s still in short stay?”
“Yeah. Overheard one of the docs saying they’re gonna keep him tonight, too, j