The Police Doctor's Secret
Dr. Alistair Benn needs help. A light plane has crashed near isolated Dolphin Cove. There's a dead pilot, missing passengers, and a mystery he can't solve.
But when Alistair asks for help he's sent forensic pathologist Dr Sarah Rose! Alistair once loved Sarah, but she was engaged to his twin brother when tragedy struck - and Alistair has always held Sarah responsible. Alistair has never forgiven her... or forgotten her.
Now, as they race to save lives, they must also confront the past, their own feelings, and the secrets Sarah has kept for so long.
Forensic pathologists weren’t supposed to be cute.
Nor were they supposed to be Sarah.
Dr. Alistair Benn stared at the crimson and white vision bouncing across the tarmac toward him and he felt like leaving town. Now.
Leaving. Ha! As Dolphin Cove’s only doctor, Alistair was responsible for the health of the entire community. As well as that, there were the unknown passengers of a light plane found crashed just south of town. People were missing but the signs were that they were badly hurt. To leave was impossible.
Sarah was here?
He’d requested police, trackers, medical back-up. Real help. It hadn’t been forthcoming. There’d be someone sent soon from the aviation authority to check the crash site, he’d been told, but a request for additional assistance had been refused because of lack of resources. The authorities had decided there was no evidence it was needed.
But he was sure it was. He couldn’t understand why the pilot had died. He was sure the blood in the cargo area wasn’t the pilot’s.
So they’d sent Sarah?
`Hi.’ She was beaming, as if she was really pleased to see him. That concept was crazy - but she was certainly beaming. She smiled brightly at him and then she smiled at the pilot of the plane that had brought her here. She smiled her gorgeous, wide smile at the luggage carrier and he smiled right back.
She beamed at everyone and they were all totally transfixed.
Well, why wouldn’t they be? She was just the same as she always had been. Sarah.
Five feet two in her stockinged feet and petite in every aspect, Sarah’s diminutive appearance had never stopped her making an impact. Her auburn hair which floated around her shoulders in a riot of curls. Her perpetually twinkling, green eyes were huge. Her rosebud mouth complemented a cute snub nose with just the perfect amount of freckles. She wore – she’d always worn – short, short skirts and shiny, frivolous shoes. Gorgeous shoes. The spotted and high heeled footwear she wore now was bright crimson to match her neat little business suit.
She might be wearing a business suit but she didn’t look corporate. Not in the least. She looked...
She looked like Sarah.
Alistair felt his gut clench in disbelief. And something else. Something he didn’t want to examine.
`Aren’t you going to say hi?’ She was grasping his hand as if nothing lay between them. No history at all. Her smile said that maybe they were even old friends? His fingers automatically curved around her small, soft hand and then, catching his breath in incredulity that this could possibly be happening, he released her as if it hurt to touch. He took an instinctive step back.
`What do you think you’re doing here?’ As a greeting it needed some finesse, he conceded, but if he was poleaxed he might as well sound poleaxed.
`I’m with the police force. I’m the forensic pathologist you requested.’ She was still smiling. Maybe he was imagining it but he thought suddenly, her smile is forced. She’s as shocked as I am.
She couldn’t be. Sarah was never shocked. She was a woman in charge of her world. She danced through life as if it was hers for the taking, leaving a wave of destruction behind her.
`You’re supposed to be a paediatrician,’ he told her – which was also a stupid and definitely ungracious thing to say, but Sarah’s smile stayed determinedly fixed.
`You haven’t seen me for six years, Alistair. I’ve changed direction.’
`From paediatrics to forensic pathology?’
`It’s a quieter life.’
`Quieter? In the police force?’
`Believe it or not, yes.’
He tried to think that through. Paediatrics was emotionally demanding but police work would be anything but peaceful. And anyway, it didn’t make sense. `I can’t imagine you ever wanting a quiet life,’ he told her.
`People change, Alistair,’ Her smile faded then, just a little, and the look she gave him was almost challenging. Then she seemed to regroup, bracing her shoulders and refixing that gorgeous smile. `Now, what have you got for me?’
`I beg your pardon?’
`Your accident victim,’ she told him with exaggerated patience. `The pilot. I assume you haven’t hauled me out to this back-of-beyond place for nothing.’
`No.’ He took a deep breath and fought for control. `You are the police pathologist?’
`I am. The report says you have a dead body, a crashed plane and a mystery. The local police officer sounds out of his depth and you lack the necessary expertise.’
Ouch. He felt his face tighten and he knew that she saw it.
`I mean you lack the necessary expertise in forensic medicine,’ she amended, and he thought, yeah, stick the knife in and twist. Hadn’t that always been the way? Sarah and Grant, looking down their noses at the hick country doctor.
Sarah and Grant...
There was that twist of the gut again. The pain. Would it ever go away?
He didn’t know. It was surely with him still. But for now he could only move forward, and he needed to do that now. He was stuck with Sarah; therefore the sooner they got rid of this mess, the sooner he could be shot of her.
`Let’s collect your luggage and get out of here,’ he said brusquely and she cast him an odd look and then smiled again.
`Fine by me. Let’s go.’
Alistair Benn was not on Sarah’s list of people she wished to work with. Or be with. Ever.
Like his twin brother, Alistair was almost stunningly good-looking. He was tall, dark and tanned, with crinkly brown eyes that spoke of constant laughter, a wide, white smile and a body to die for. Once upon a time Sarah had fallen deeply in love with this smile; with this body. But now... If Sarah could have named all the people she’d least like to see, then Alistair was right on top of her list.
I can’t imagine you ever wanting a quiet life...
Alistair’s words rang in her ears as she sat in the passenger side of his big four wheel drive Landcruiser and headed into town. She risked a glance across at him. His face was set and stern. Judgemental.
He’d always been judgemental, she thought. `A moralising prig,’ Grant had called him and it was only when Grant’s excesses became painfully obvious that she thought; maybe Alistair had his reasons.
But he’d been so harsh.
The last time she’d seen him had been at Grant’s funeral. Alistair’s twin brother. She’d just been released from hospital that morning, and there’d been no time to see them before the service. Even if she had, there’d been no words to explain the unexplainable. So she’d simply appeared. She was distraught, aching with grief for a wasted life, desperately uncertain about the path she’d taken, and desperately wracked with guilt. Alistair had been there – of course - supporting his parents who were so grief stricken they could barely stand.
She’d started to approach them, moving awkwardly on crutches. She’d got within five or six feet of where they’d grouped around the open grave, and Alistair’s words had cut through her grief like a lash against raw skin.
`We don’t wish to see you, Sarah. Can you leave my parents alone?’
He’d blamed her. They all had. Those six eyes, staring at her, with the loss of their loved son and brother etched hard in their faces. She’d stared at Alistair and she’d seen Grant - and the pain had threatened to overwhelm her. Alistair and Grant were identical twins. Had been identical twins. But now one was dead and one was left to haunt her forever. She’d almost collapsed right then but somehow she’d held on. She’d maintained her dignity – just - but she’d stumbled away as if physically struck.
She hadn’t seen them since.
`Do you know what’s happened here?’
Alistair was speaking to her. She flinched at the harshness in his voice, but somehow she managed to haul herself back to the present. It was a mile’s drive into the township. Alistair’s face was set in lines of shock and anger, and she knew he was finding this forced intimacy as impossible as she was. He was staring at the road ahead – not at her.
It was late afternoon and the sun was casting long and eerie shadows along the track. The sun’s rays were deflected by the spindly gums that lined the road. A rock wallaby appeared suddenly from the undergrowth. The tiny creature stared down Alistair’s vehicle until Alistair slowed; the wallaby gazed at him a moment longer as if revelling in its moment of power, and then it hopped away.
This was an amazing place, and in a different situation Sarah could well be mesmerised by its beauty. Dolphin Cove was a tiny settlement hundreds of miles from anywhere. In Australia ’s barren north, it had a reputation for a soft beauty that made it famous, but it was too far from civilisation for tourists to venture. It was too far for anyone to venture.
So why was Alistair here?
Alistair. He’d asked her a question. She needed to concentrate. What had he asked? Did she know what had happened? She did. Or part of it.
`I’ve read a brief report. I was told that there was a plane crash here yesterday.’
`That’s it.’ He still wasn’t looking at her, but concentrating instead on the track as if he feared more wallabies. Which was probably reasonable. But it certainly augmented the tension.
`So what do you know?’ Sarah probed, and despite the tension there was no choice for him but to answer. The only way through this was to be businesslike.
`A Cessna took off from Cairns yesterday afternoon,’ he told her. `The pilot lodged a flight plan that was pretty vague. As far as the authorities have figured, the plane made an unscheduled stop somewhere north of Cairns – no one’s quite sure where – and then came on over to this side of the peninsula. The plane crashed into the rocks on the beach just south of the town. One of the local fishing crews saw it go down but if they hadn’t seen it then it might well never have been discovered. It’s wild country out here. But they were seen. The local police sergeant took a team out – including me - and we found the pilot. Dead.’
She nodded. `You reported that he probably wasn’t killed by the crash.’
`That’s the odd thing.’ He shrugged, still carefully not looking at her. `Oh, sure, he’s been knocked about a bit but it seems he tried to make a crash landing on the beach and he darn near succeeded. There’s a rock sticking out from the sand that he couldn’t have seen from the air. The plane’s wing caught and spun the whole thing into the cliff. So the aircraft is a bit smashed up but not completely. He must have slowed almost to a stop before he hit.’
`He’s lucky it didn’t burst into flames.’
Sarah caught herself. Right. You couldn’t get more dead than dead. Lucky didn’t come into it.
`But maybe someone has been lucky,’ Alistair added and she nodded again, thinking through the brief fax from the local policeman she’d read on the way here. The report on the blood found in the back of the plane. The reason for the rush.
`That’s the bit I don’t understand.’
`That’s why you’re here. It’s why I called for help and why we’re trying to move fast. The local police sergeant – the police force here consists of exactly one – has called for reinforcements and a team of locals is combing the bushland around the wreck. You see, the cargo hold’s covered in blood. It looks like a massacre took place in there. But there’s no one. When we arrived the plane was still cooling. The pilot was strapped into his seat, dead. Everyone else had disappeared.’
`I’d say at least two people have bled in that plane.’ He grimaced. `But then what would I know? You’re the expert.’
She hesitated. This was impossible.
If she’d known Alistair would be here then she would have asked a colleague to come in her stead but she was here now. She had a job to do and she needed this man’s co-operation.
`Alistair, we need to work together on this one.’
`We do.’ His face was grim.
`So can we set aside our... past... and get to work?’
`I’ve never let anything get in the way of my work.’
`Well, bully for you,’ she said with a sudden spurt of anger. `So let’s just keep it that way and leave the personal innuendos alone. Tell me about the pilot.’
`Just tell me about the pilot,’ she said and there was suddenly a wealth of weariness in her voice that couldn’t be disguised. She caught herself, hauling herself tightly together. She’d learned that Alistair Benn was the doctor in charge of the Dolphin Cove hospital only when she was already in the plane on her way here and it was too late to tell the pilot to turn around and go back. She’d seen his name in the report she was reading, and then had spent the rest of the trip schooling her features as she wanted him to see her. She wasn’t about to drop that façade now.
No. He couldn’t see her as she so often felt - so vulnerable she felt raw. She had to turn her weariness to annoyance. `You’re not about to slow this investigation down, are you?’ she snapped and watched his face tighten again.
`Of course not.’
`Then tell me everything,’ she said. `Now.’
There was another moment of tense silence. He was regrouping too, she thought. Good. Control was the issue here. Work.
And it seemed he agreed with her as he began to speak.
`We thought it was a regular plane crash,’ Alistair told her. `But as I said, the pilot wasn’t badly enough injured to explain his death. And the blood in the rear compartment suggested someone – or more than one - had been thrown around and badly injured in the process. The rear’s been set up for storage. There are no seats. No seat belts. If anyone was sitting in the back when it crashed they’ll have been thrown about heavily. But there’s no sign of anyone. We’ve had people searching for almost twenty four hours now.’
`And the pilot?’
`That’s the reason why you in particular have been called in,’ he told her. `We carried his body back to the hospital. Because I couldn’t figure out how he died, I ran routine blood tests on him. I sent the samples down to the city with the mail plane last night and this morning the results came back. This guy has a king sized dose of heroin on board. Huge.’
`It’s not the most sensible thing to do,’ Sarah said slowly, thinking it through with care. `To shoot up while flying.’
`He didn’t shoot this amount up.’ He told her the figures and Sarah whistled.
`So maybe someone stuck a needle into him and shot him sky high,’ she said slowly. She frowned. `Murder by overdose is common. Can you see any needlestick marks?’
`I can’t. As I said, he’s a bit battered. An entry may be hidden by injury. But surely no one’s going to stick a needle into a pilot flying a plane, causing it to crash.’
`So maybe it crashed and then he was murdered.’
`You don’t believe it?’ she asked and watched his face.
`Well, you’re the expert. But there was no reason for the plane to crash – or not that we can see. The pilot of the mail plane had a look at the crash site before he left last night. Harry knows his stuff. He said they guy was low on fuel but not so low that it’d crash – the low fuel levels would be the reason it didn’t explode. But everything else seems to be mechanically sound. In fact, Harry reckoned he could probably haul it off the rocks, do a bit of superficial work and have her flying again.’
`But the injuries...’
`A bit of the cliff face came through the windscreen hitting the pilot. Not badly – just enough to give him cuts and abrasions. Maybe it was enough to make him lose consciousness but I doubt it. That’s another thing that doesn’t fit with him being murdered. He hasn’t shifted from where he was where the plane hit and there’s nothing stopping him moving. He was securely belted in. The people in the cargo hold, though... as I said, they must have been flying without seat belts.’
`So where are they? And how many?’
`We don’t know. We’re hoping you might be able to tell us.’
`Right.’ Could she? She sat back and thought about it.
Dr. Sarah Rose was good at her job. She liked it. Forensic medicine hadn’t been her first choice, but once she’d taken it on she found it more and more satisfying. Solving mysteries through medicine. Keeping away from people...
No. Don’t go down that road.
She looked out the Landcruiser window at the dying light, but she wasn’t seeing the scenery. Her mind was on injured people lost in the bush. People who were depending on her to solve a mystery.
She needed to concentrate on work, which was just the way she wanted it. Especially now. Especially when she wanted so badly to keep her mind from the man beside her.
`Do we know who the pilot is?’
`We have his wallet,’ Alistair told her. `There was a passport in the cockpit cabin.’
`What did that tell you?’
`His name’s Jake Condor. Thirty eight years old. Australian. He hasn’t got anyone listed as a dependent. His occupation is listed as pilot. The police have enquiries out now, trying to find where he fits. But one thing we do know – according to his passport he flew in from Thailand yesterday morning on a commercial flight. He landed in Cairns . Then he must have picked up the light plane – which is a hire plane, by the way – and came on here. With a detour. His flight plan logged at Cairns airport shows he flew north almost to Cape Tribulation and then came west, but his flying time suggests he stopped somewhere on the way. Then he flew until he crashed.’
She frowned. It wasn’t making much sense. It was a jigsaw with pieces scattered and pieces missing. That’s how it always was at the beginning of a case, she thought, and often – too often for comfort – those missing pieces were never found. Especially when she was called in late. And here... It was twenty four hours after the event.
`Is it too late to take me out to the plane tonight?’ she asked without much hope and her fears were confirmed.
`Yes,’ he said flatly. `It’s rough county out there and the last section has to be done on foot. We can’t go by sea because the reefs around there are too treacherous to beach a boat. That’s why the fishing crew who saw the plane crash couldn’t get near it to help. Rescuers had to make the trek overland and it’s about three miles of rough country. We have people out there now, looking still, but they’ll give up at nightfall. It’s just too dangerous.’
`But there’s definitely blood in the back of the plane - and the pilot was in the front.’
`You didn’t think to take samples?’
There was a momentary silence and Alistair’s knuckles on the steering wheel tightened. Whoa... She was going to have to tread softly here.
`No,’ he said at last. `I didn’t. I went with the searchers, saw the pilot was dead and the rest were missing, then got a call to say one of my old fishermen patients was having a heart attack back here. So I came back with the body. Without thinking about blood samples.’
`Alistair, you’re a family doctor,’ Sarah said, her voice softening a little. `No one’s expecting you to be a pathologist.’
`Yeah, but I could have thought...’
`Are you completely on your own here?’
`How do you cope?’
`As you can see,’ he said grimly. `I don’t very well. I don’t think of blood samples.’
`Maybe if I was having a heart attack I’d want my doctor to focus on that rather than blood samples myself,’ Sarah admitted. `And there’s still time to analyse them. Can we get them tonight? The searchers out there... do you think there’s anything that can be brought in with blood traces on it?’
`There might be.’ Alistair still sounded tense but at least he was moving on. He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. `If I radio now I’ll catch the search team before they call the search off for the night. But it’ll be a couple of hours before they’re back in town.’
`Then I’ll look at the pilot first,’ she said. `And... given the fact that we might have serious injuries on our hands and missing people... let’s do it now.’