We watch ‘Zack’ hug Erin, who stands there with arms out to the side as she looks shocked. My protectiveness kicks in & I step forward to pull him away. Erin sees & signals for me to stop. I do, but stay prepared to intervene at any moment. ‘Zack’ pulls back.
“Why… why are you here?” Erin asks him.
“He didn’t tell you?”
She looks even more confused. “Who?”
“Uh… Jarrod Rebecchi.”
“I’m going to call him,” I say, reaching for my mobile.
“No, don’t, Mark,” Erin replies. “This is Zack.” She steps closer, & continues softly, “Just give me a few minutes to find out what’s going on. And then you can go all cop & investigate.”
I sigh, trusting her. I nod. She smiles, before stepping back over to Zack.
“Why did Toadie- uh, Jarrod. We call him Toadie. Long story. Why did he… Just explain everything.”
“I got this call last night from Jarrod Rebecchi,” Zack says. “He was asking me questions, trying to verify who I am. And then he finally told me what had been going on with you.”
“But… but you were in Afghanistan.”
He shakes his head. “They pulled my unit out late last week, & brought us back to the base near Darwin. I was planning on coming down to Adelaide to see you & Felicity. But then I got the call.”
Erin nods. “I… I was told… you-”
“Were dead? Mr Rebecchi told me everything.”
“Wait, Toadie knew about what the text was about before me?” I ask.
Erin holds her hand up to silence me.
“It’s why he tracked me down,” Zack says. “He said he had a feeling that something wasn’t right about it, & wanted to confirm that I was dead… or not dead.”
“So why would they call me & say that you were?”
“I think that’s why he wanted me to come down. So we can find out.”
“And they… they let you come down? So quickly?”
“I was supposed to be going to Adelaide. I was scheduled to fly out at dawn, but I changed my flight to Melbourne instead.”
“I’m going to call Toadie,” I say. “He needs to come in & talk to us.”
Zack frowns. “We can't just go see him at his office?”
Erin shakes her head. “I’m not allowed to leave the hospital.”
She hesitates. She glances at us & then sighs as she looks at Zack again. “I’m… Under suicide watch. For the next few days, I have to stay here.”
“Hey, Toadie, thanks for coming,” I greet him as he walks up.
“Hey, Mark. Happy to come chat with you all.”
“Before we head in to the others,” I reply. “Would it be okay if we talked for a few minutes?”
“Sure. What's on your mind?”
“How did you exactly find Zach?”
“Well, when Erin told me about the army informing her about him, I found the timing really odd,” He replies. “I knew it might just be a coincidence, but… It was a feeling that didn't sit right. So I reached out to Nate, knowing he has military contacts.”
“You don't believe it's him.”
I sigh. “I don't know what I think,” I reply. “Both Erin & Felicity say it's him, but… I can't shake the feeling that something's not right. Maybe I’m just overly wary given the last few days, but… I just can't trust him.”
He nods. “I understand your concern,” he replies. “I’m sorry that I didn't tell you he was coming. I was expecting he’d check in with me first.”
“It's okay. He was obviously wanting to see that Erin & Felicity are okay.”
He nods. “How did Erin react?”
“Shocked. Relieved, once the shock faded,” I reply. “We're all trying to figure out what's going on. How the army could mistakenly inform her he was dead.”
“Hopefully I can help get those answers.”
I nod. I then gesture to Erin's room, & he follows me over. I open the door, stepping inside & holding it open for Toadie. Zack is sitting on Erin's bed, at the foot, playing with Felicity & her toys. Erin is sitting crossed legged at the head of the bed, smiling at Felicity, but she looks up at me & Toadie as we come in. Paige is sitting in the chair at her bedside, Aaron & Tyler in others by the windows.
“Hey, Erin,” Toadie says. “How are you?”
“Hey Toadie. Better than I was last time we talked.”
Zack puts the toy down & stands. He steps around the bed to Toadie.
“So you're Rebecchi,” Zack says. “It's nice to finally put a face to the name.”
“Same,” Toadie says, extending his hand out. “It's nice to meet you.”
Zack & Toadie shake hands.
“Thank you for calling & telling me what happened,” Zack says.
“No worries. You deserve to know.”
He nods. “Indeed. Like I said to Erin, I’m sorry that she received the phone call that she did.”
“I was actually hoping you’d be able to explain what went on with that.”
"After your call last night, I reached out to my friend who works in the offices. It's part of his job to contact family members to inform them of any officer's life-threatening injury or death,” Zack replies. “Unfortunately he was unable to access our digital records straight away, but he texted me while I was on my flight saying he’d dug around for me. I called him as soon as I could, &… There was no record of contacting Erin.”
I look at Erin. She's shocked.
“But they called!” Erin says. “I have the number in my phone's address book. It was them.”
“Do you remember if they said where they were calling from?” Zack asks. “It's protocol during those calls for them to identify the base they're calling from. Darwin is our main base. I’m there when I’m not overseas.”
Erin thinks. “I… I don't remember.”
“Is it possible for the station to trace the call?” Toadie asks me.
“I’m not sure,” I reply. “We might have to contact her phone provider & get information from them. But there's a problem.”
“Mark got himself a suspension today because he refused to go in for his shift,” Erin replies.
“Uh… What?” Paige asks.
“My sister is more important right now,” I reply.
“I told you to call Sarge, but you were too stubborn.”
I sigh. “I thought you had agreed to leave it be.”
Erin shrugs. “Can still chastise you.”
“Alright, you can’t do it cause you’re on suspension,” Toadie says. “However, together we can present it to Sarge, & he can give us clearance.”
“Good!” Erin replies.
I press my lips together tightly. “That will be a good talk.”
“He should be more understanding of your situation,” Paige says. “The suspension is ridiculous.”
“How do we know that he is this… Zack Freeman?” Sarge asks Toadie & I, as we stand outside the interview room, where Zack sits.
“Erin & Felicity Brennan have both identified him,” Toadie replies.
“So I’m supposed to take the word of a toddler & a woman who is mentally unstable?”
“Erin’s current mental state is due to the huge amount of pressure & stress she’s been under the last few days,” I reply. “And I don’t appreciate you referring to her like that, when you’ve been a major role in causing it.”
“I’m merely pointing out the facts, Constable.”
“About my family.”
“Which is exactly why you need me to be the unbiased voice in this situation,” Sarge replies. “You are both personally invested in this. You need someone to look at just the facts. Like the fact that this may not be the man he’s claiming to be.”
“That’s part of what we want to find out,” Toadie says. “The phone call that Erin had, to notify her of Zack’s death is questionable. We need to determine the authenticity of that call. And to do that, we need access to Erin’s records, which we cannot get from her phone provider without your assistance. It’s not the sort of thing that we can obtain without the police. If we can uncover the truth about that call, we’ll be able to confirm that Zack is Zack.”
“Well, your argument so far isn’t convincing me so far,” Sarge replies. “You’re basing it on a hunch.”
“Mmm yeah, like you did pushing murder charges on my sister.”
“The evidence supports her being innocent, however, given her confession, I can’t release her from police custody.”
I frown. “What?”
“I’m sorry, Constable. But until we can verify that her confession was under duress, especially given that it was provided voluntarily without police influence, I cannot simply drop the charges,” Sarge replies. “I want to drop them & apologise to you & Erin, however I’m bound by red tape.”
“Finding out the truth about him,” I reply, pointing to Zack through the window. “Will help you break that red tape. So help us.”
I briskly walk through the hospital corridors, tightly holding onto the folder with the information from Erin’s phone provider. I slow down as I approach her room. I open the door, finding that Tyler, Aaron, Paige & Felicity are still there. They all look at me as I close the door.
“That’s the smile that I love seeing,” Erin says. “You have good news.”
“It’s somewhat good news,” I reply, stepping over to her.
I open the folder, placing it on her lap.
“Your phone provider willingly provided us with all the information that we needed,” I reply, as Erin picks up the top page to read. “It proves that the text & phone call that you received, notifying you that Zack was dead… it didn’t come from the Darwin base.”
She looks up at me, shocked. “Seriously?”
I nod. “It wasn’t even from Darwin at all.”
“So where did it come from?” Aaron asks.
“According to their records,” I reply. “They have it listed as originating from here.”
“Here?” Erin asks.
“Melbourne,” I reply. “They weren’t able to determine an exact location. Their system was unable to do so- they believe there may have been a scrambler used.”
“If that’s so,” Tyler says. “How do they know that it was from Melbourne?”
“They were able to determine part of the location. Just the city. Apparently there was some way they can do that. Something technical that was unable to help them break through whatever stopped it from giving a more specific location.”
“So basically someone was messing with me,” Erin says. “Someone wanted to break me.”
I look at her & nod.
She stares at me for a long minute. “You know who. Don’t you?”
I slowly nod. “I have a suspicion.”
She clasps her hands over her mouth & nose, & struggles not to cry. After a minute, she brings her hands forward, so they’re in front of her, her lips pressed against them like she’s praying.
“I think I know too,” She replies. “There’s only one person that would want to break me down the way I have these last few days.”
She drops her hands as she looks up at me. And, for the first time in days, I see the feistiness in her eyes again. That determination, that fighter.
“You catch him,” She says.
“Catch who?” Tyler asks.
“Even if it means that you put a bullet in him,” Erin says. “Do whatever it takes to make him pay for this. Make it impossible for him to hurt anyone ever again.”
I nod. “I promise.”
I sit down next to her, wrapping my left arm around her shoulders. She leans against me, her head resting on my shoulder. I kiss her forehead.
“I promise I’m going to make him pay for all of it,” I tell her. “For everything he’s done. Not just to our family, but to everyone.”
“Wanna catch us up, bro?” Tyler asks.
“Dennis Dimato,” Erin replies.
Two days later
There’s a knock on my hospital door, a pause & then it opens. Mark peers in, & smiles this big, goofy grin that makes me laugh.
“How are you?” he asks, as he comes in.
“Feeling a lot better than the start of the week.”
“That wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with the fact that the charges against you have been dropped so you’re gonna be coming home, is it?”
I smile. “That’s part of it,” I reply. “Getting to sleep with Felicity again is the best part of getting out here.”
He smiles. “I love seeing you this happy.”
“Well, it’s all thanks to you.”
“Just wanting to make sure that my baby sister doesn't end up in jail when she's innocent.”
“You found the truth.”
“Technically Toadie did.”
“He found Zack, but you were the one to convince Sarge to pursue the line of investigation that led to my charges being dropped,” I reply. “You’ve been there for me. You never gave up, even when I completely shut you out. So thank you.”
“I’ll always be there for you, Aer.”
“Don't make me cry,” I say, holding back tears.
He steps forward, enveloping me in a hug. I wrap my arms around him tightly.
“I love you, Aer.”
“I love you too, Markie.”
After a few minutes, we part.
“Mmmhmmm!” I reply with a nod. “My things are packed, Karl's given me more bandages to get me started for the next few days… And my discharge papers are all signed. So I’m officially a free woman!!” I raise my right arm straight up & my left to the side as I say ‘woman’. “In every sense of the word ‘free’.”
He smiles, chuckling a little. “You're definitely back to your normal self.”
He laughs. He then reaches for my bag on the end of my bed.
“Come on,” he says. “Let's go.”
I grab my handbag, put it on & we head out, he wraps his arm around my shoulder as we walk through the corridors.
“You know what I’m gonna do when we get inside?” I ask Mark, as I step round to the back of his car.
He shuts the back door & steps round to meet me with my bag.
“What are you going to do?” He asks.
“I’m going to take a nice, long, uninterrupted hot bath.”
He smiles. “Would you like me to run it for you?”
“That would be perrrfect!”
“Big brother, at your service!”
“I’ve missed you!” I reply, putting my hands on his cheeks.
This squished his face, by accident, & I smile. I run with it, moving my hands up & down to move his face.
“Stop it,” he says, muffled slightly.
“Erin!” Toadie says.
I drop my hands & turn to see Toadie walking up our driveway.
“Am I… Interrupting?” Toadie asks, waving a document between Mark & I.
“Actually, you were saving me,” Mark replies.
“Good,” He replies. “We need to talk.”
“Oh, this is bad!” I say. “You have a serious face.”
Toadie hesitates. “We should go inside.”
“Good idea,” Mark replies. “Follow us.”
“No,” I reply.
“I’ve been through hell pretty much three times this week,” I tell them. “I’m sick of everyone delaying telling me things, tiptoeing around my emotions & coddling me! So if you have something to tell me, just tell me. Right here.”
Toadie looks at Mark.
“Nuh uh,” I say. “No more looks. Just come out with it, Toadie.”
He sighs, before handing me the document. Frowning, I take it & start to read it. The front page is confusing, so I flip to the second page & read that. Very quickly, my confusion turns to shock. As my jaw drops, I look at Toadie.
“Erin?” Mark asks.
Tears burn my eyes. Mark steps towards me, but I just want to escape. I shove the document into his hands, seeing his confusion as I turn. I run over to the stairs, barely keeping back my tears.
“Erin!” Mark calls as I climb the stairs two at a time.
“Erin!” I call out, watching her reach the front door.
She yanks it open & disappears inside. Confused, I look at Toadie.
"What's going on?” I ask.
Toadie presses his lips together tightly. “You should read that.”
I look down at the document & read it. It's a printed out letter. From Zack.
Dear Mr Rebecchi,
I am writing to you because I know you will handle this the best out of all of you who know Erin.
I am asking you to please pass the attached document on to Erin. Legally, I can't do it myself. As you are a lawyer, you will understand why.
Please tell her that I’m sorry, but this is the best for everyone.
I turn to the next page, knowing that's what upset Erin. I don't have to read far to know why. It's a request for full custody of Felicity.
I pull the front door open & run through to my room. I grab Felicity's favourite big teddy bear & sink down in front of the closet. I pull my legs up to my chest, bury my face into the teddy’s tummy & let the tears out.
I’ve just got my life back on track.
And now it's falling apart all over again.