Ken McClure

Pestilence

Chapter One

James Saracen carried a loaf of bread in one hand and a carton of milk in the other as he climbed the stairs to his apartment. When he got to the third floor he put the loaf under his left arm leaving his right hand free to search in his trouser pocket for the key. The pocket was empty. “God was it ever different,” he muttered, changing over the groceries. He found the key and opened the door; it swung back like a snowplough, clearing mail behind it. He closed it again with his heel and put down his things before clicking on the hall light and picking up the assorted pile of paper. A card to say that the electricity man had called, a circular from Safeways promising ten pence off washing powder, a brown envelope marked ‘Inland Revenue’ and a white one marked ‘Northampton’ which said it was a Visacard bill. Good, there was nothing to make him change his plans. It was Saturday, it was eight in the evening and he had promised himself something special. He was going to take off his clothes, get into bed and sleep until he woke up.

Saracen woke two hours later but not of his own accord. The bleeper in his jacket pocket had just gone off. “I don’t believe it…I just do not believe it,” he complained as he struggled to free an arm from the bedclothes. He lifted the telephone from the bedside table and balanced it on the edge of the bed while he dialled the hospital number.

“Skelmore General,” said the voice.

“Doctor Saracen, you were paging me.”

“One moment.”

Saracen scratched his head sleepily as the operator did whatever operators do with jackplugs.

“James? I know this is your first night off in God knows how long and I know you have just worked an eighteen hour shift…”

“But?”

“The fact is we need you. A amp;E is going like a fair and now there has been an accident up on the By-Pass. Someone will have to go up there. It’s a Fire Brigade affair.”

“So why don’t you go?”

“I’m the only one on.”

“What?” exclaimed Saracen. “Where is Garten? He is supposed to be on tonight.”

“You know how it goes. Something social cropped up at the last moment and our leader wriggled out of it. ‘Said he felt sure I would cope, had absolute confidence in me, the usual shit before it was Hi-Ho Silver Away.”

“I’ll come in. I’ll go out with Medic Alpha.”

As Saracen turned into Skelmore General he saw Medic Alpha standing outside A amp;E. The vehicle, a white Bedford with appropriate markings, was Skelmore’s latest acquisition and the nearest thing to a hospital on wheels. It was designed for attendance in situations where on the spot medical treatment might make the difference between life and death and had been donated to the hospital by a wealthy local man whose son had died after a road accident.

Saracen saw that the windscreen wipers on Medic Alpha were operating and that the driver was already aboard and waiting. He parked his own car alongside and shouted to the gate porter to park it before climbing into the back of the ambulance.

“Have a good sleep?” asked Jill Rawlings, the Staff nurse who was checking the vehicle’s inventory.

The question had been tongue in cheek. Saracen didn’t reply. He struggled into the jacket that Jill Rawlings handed to him as the vehicle gathered speed and cleared the way ahead with a siren that proclaimed its origins in the streets of San Francisco rather than the English midlands. He had both hands in the armholes behind him when the ambulance lurched to the right to avoid a car emerging from a side street. Saracen crashed against the side of the van, his head narrowly missing an Oxygen cylinder. The driver gave a quick glance back. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly.

Saracen grunted and did up the rest of his jacket.

“Now we all know who we are,” said Jill Rawlings, referring to the white, plastic jackets they all wore. Each carried a fluorescent strip with the designation, Doctor, Nurse or Ambulance according to its wearer.

“I always feel as if I’m part of one of these sets you get when you’re a child,” said Jill.

“Could be a money making idea,” said Saracen. “Any details on the accident?”

“An articulated lorry and two cars.”

Saracen screwed up his face. “Direction?”

“Head on then a rear shunt.”

Saracen gave a low whistle then asked, “Morphine shots?”

“All ready.”

“Cutting gear?”

“All ready.”

The rain lashed against the windscreen as Medic Alpha lost the protection of town buildings and sped out on to an exposed section of the ring road. From where Saracen sat in the back the lights outside merged into blobs of yellow and red in the rivers of water flowing down the glass. Somewhere up ahead blue blobs appeared and Medic Alpha slowed as they reached the scene of the accident. Two fire appliances were present, their arc lights already in position while three police cars sat angled across the carriageway.

Blue lights flashed asynchronously in the night sky as Saracen got out and bowed his head against the rain that was whipped into his face by a malevolent wind. The Firemaster led him into the lee of one of the police cars to brief him but still had to shout above the sound of the generators.

“First car nose-dived under the artic, decapitated the two in the front. There’s a kid in the back; we think it’s dead but we don’t know for sure.”

“And the other car?”

“Driver’s dead, steering wheel crushed his chest. His passenger, wife I think, is trapped by her feet. My lads are trying to free her right now.”

“Is she conscious?”

“No.”

“Staff Rawlings will see to the woman. I want to see if I can reach the child,” shouted Saracen through cupped hands.

The firemaster gave an exaggerated nod to signify that he had understood and indicated that Saracen should follow him. They picked their way through cables and hoses to reach the towering front of the truck, now deformed into a giant mouth that had half swallowed a Ford saloon.

“Your best bet is to go in from the left!” yelled the firemaster against the noise.

Saracen got down on the cold, wet tarmac and wriggled under the front bumper of the truck. He paused to reach out his hand behind him and accept the powerful torch that a fireman handed him then crawled in deeper to search for some breach in the car’s side where he could gain access. The wetness of the road changed to stickiness where blood had poured out from the floor pan to form a puddle. Somewhere behind him rainwater had found a path through the twisted metal to flow steadily on to the back of his legs.

Saracen finally managed to get his arm between the rear door of the Escort and its pillar which had bowed on impact. He levered himself against the inside of the truck’s front wheel to reach in deeper and felt his way along the rear seat until he touched something. It was a hand and it was cold and limp. He tried for a pulse but could feel nothing.

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