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Behind The Smile...

Guest WYN100

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Story Title: Behind the smile

Story description: Does lightening strike twice...or 3 times..?..

Type of story: long fic

Main Characters:Rachel, Tony, Belle, Drew, Ric, and more

BTTB rating: G]

Does story include spoilers: no

Is story being proof read: yes, BY ME

Any warnings: Sexual content, violence, language - NO

Summary: Hard to summarize, as it deals with disparate incidents in the lives of a cross-section of Bay characters that may...or may not...converge as the story develops


"Doctor Armstrong, could you get that blister of high adrenaline phials from store - they need them in crash, and from the sound of it , - like five minutes ago !!"

Julie's call from the far end of the corridor had been clear, urgent and precise, so Rachel instantly dumped the files she'd been poring over behind the reception desk , rose rapidly - though not without a quick intake of breath, and swept into the adjacent storage area. Gathering the mini set of three steps, she placed it in front of the wall containing shelves thickly populated with boxes, bottles and other relevant receptacles and began the micro-climb. Typically, the strong adrenaline Julie had referred to was on one of the higher shelves and half a hand's grab away. Ascending to the third step, and with tongue becoming marginally visible at the fringes of her lips, she stretched upwards - and the earlier intake of breath became a full-blown wince as a searing pain shot up through her lower leg like a bolt of internal lightening.Leaning against the shelves momentarily to regain her composure and clutching the adrenaline she'd somehow managed to grab despite the discomfort, she bit her lip and breathed in deeply, until...

"Rachel... ? Everything ok...?"

Julie's shadow had fallen across the doorway of the supply area, and her insistent question, delivered with a slightly probing edge to her voice, re-clarified the moment for Rachel - helping those currently at risk in crash was far more urgent than anything else, so - assembling a determined expression on her face she eased herself back to floor level, and handed the small parcel to Julie, saying "Yep, no prob - just couldn't set my eyes on it straight away !!" Nodding shortly and delivering a tight smile, she swept away towards crash, while Rachel gingerly eased herself back behind the main desk. For what seemed like the ten thousandth time, she turned over the circumstances in her mind - the whole disastrous chain of Kim - Lewis-Henk emerging from the woodwork - the whole mess with Roman reaching its head - - followed by THAT surfing lesson - as low in spirit as she'd been, she simply couldn't BELIEVE she'd accepted that offer from Tony - but he'd been SO eager to please. It was still something of a blur, but the pain of the snapped ligament after a suddenly spiteful swell had deposited her unceremoniously on a rockface at high velocity had been - and still was - more than real enough, as had just been proved. And POOR Tony - beside himself with apologetic guilt - her text alert bleeped suddenly and a rueful smile wandered accross her troubled features - yes, Tony again, checking how she was doing - and this a considerable number of weeks after the accident. Yes, how WAS she doing ? Her mind told her she was doing well, and it would just be a matter of time before she was good as new - but her body was giving her vastly different signals. She glanced at her handbag , pulled her gaze away to carry on writing a few more lines on her daily report sheet, then stopped short, reaching over to extract a box marked "Oxycodone - high strength painkillers" The familiar list of dire "extreme case scenario" warnings on the folded sheet of paper inside was headed by some lines in black bold type that read "THESE ARE HIGH POTENCY NARCOTIC-BASED PAINKILLERS - IT'S IMPERATIVE TO ADHERE TO THE PRESCRIBED DOSE - CAN CAQUSE ADDICTION"

That, stated the sticky label on the front was - "Two tablets once a day when required" Wrinkling her nose in thought she spoke aloud to the invisible audience we've all performed before at one time or another, "Well, it can't do much real harm, can it ? I mean hey, I AM a doctor after all, aren't I ? And I should KNOW, shouldn't I ? Bringing the glass of water to her left into play, as the small digital clock behind the desk flipped over to show 2pm , Dr Rachel Armstrong swallowed her seventh and eighth oxycodone tablet of the day....

Belle was giving a series of excited mini-hops from one foot to another in the small side room alongside the main exhibition area at the Summer Bay Town Hall. Every so often she'd reach across to drew- attired in unfamiliarly smart jacket, shirt and tie- and give hi, a squeeze of steadily increasing strength, repeating one of a short repertoire of questions designed tp elicit a reassuring respomse..

"Drew it WILL be ok, won't..."

"OW - TAYLOR !! - you were close to pinging a rib there !!", he exaggerated slightly, taking a deep gulping breath and theatrically rubbing his ribcage in mock annoyance at her over-enthusiastic embrace.

It had been a year now since Belle had taken up the photographic cadetship at the Summer Bay News and it had been an upward cycle of success for her ever since. In retrospect, the Reverand Hall photo controversy had done her no harm whatsoever, and she'd assembled a compelling portfolio of "on the edge" photos since including the evacuation of residents by the fire department through top floor windows at the Sands Resort after a major blaze had struck there, plus some striking close-ups as environmental protestors had faced up within inches of oncoming diggers anf wrecking equipment after the council had approved the felling of trees and demolition of a listed building on the link road between the Bay and Mangrove River.

And so it had continued until the paper's editor Greg had decided to organize this exhibition of her work to back up his decision to enter her in the state's annual "Young Journalist of the Year" award. He's also told her to look out for the publishing group's Corporate Executive Alice Hills who he'd invited along, and who - he said knew "plenty of people in high places". And now with the 2 o'clock start time having passed, here they were, entering the main hall, Drew still complaining about the tightness of his tie round his neck and the bruised state of his ribs, while Irene was floating around like the proud mother hen - pointing to the photos and then Belle to let the groups of enthusiastic minglers she'd already encountered just how close and integral she was to the life of the exhibited subject.

For Belle, the afternoon was spinning past in a warm haze of compliments, praise and pats on the back, both literal and verbal. Two things only were slightly exploring the corners of her mind as she finally had time to sip at the corner of the glass of non-alcoholic wine Irene had " thoughtfully" provided for ger as an alternative to the standard Australiam Chardonnay the other guests were given a complimentary glass of just inside the main door ads the y arrived. Firstly, she'd lost sight of Drew - though she did hasve a vague suspicion as to why - secondly she'd seen no sign of Alice Hills yet, though there was still time, of course.

Indeed there was, for even as she drained the last drop from her glass, she was approached by a short - attractive in a somewhat indefinable way - lady with a blonde bob haircut, wearing a high fashion jacket, and state-of-the-art designer shoes that Belle immediately calculated would cost at least 200 dollars.

"Belle - SO sorry we're late - roadworks you know, isn't it ALWAYS the way -" she continued to pump Belle's hand and pump out the words in energetic rhythm , - "But from the little look I've had so far, I can tell Greg was NOT exaggerating - - this is some SERIOUSLY good stuff !"

Belle's already glowing heart seemed ready to burst its banks with positive and ambient energy - "Thank you SO much Alice, " she responded with as wide a smile as she remembered wearing for many months, "..it's just SO good that you were able to come and have a look, I REALLY appreciate it.."

"But it may not end there !" - Alice's flow was continuing energetically - "I've brought a guy with me who's becoming one of THE top picture agents in the business, and after very little time in the job too - relatively speaking of course - but he's already landed several page spreads in some of THE top glossies - he'll be well worth meeting - he's just parking the car !"

"I'd certainly love to meet him, " said Belle, turning to balance her glass a little precariously on a nearby shelf behind them, - as she did she heard some footsteps approaching and a greeting being exchanged, then the voice of Alice immediately chiming across to her "Belle, I'd love you to meet Carl Richards...!"

Belle turned, minus her glass, but plus an even wider smile than she'd worn previously. Extending her hand instinctively, she found the smile had a short shelf-life indeed as her eyes rose to meet the newcomer's face - she flinched, and as her mouth gaped open involuntarily, it allowed one word t o escape,,,"Dom....!!!"

It had all started out as a bit of a joke - a dare, even. Yet another new reality show , entitled "Grand Prix Glory" had been trailed as hitting TV screens - in which the prize would be a place among the pit lane crew of the new Australian Formula One team called Blue Zone, and almost a year's worth of travelling round the world to the mix of glamorous and exotic tracks that hosted the prestigious races,

Ric Daulby had seen the trailers and been mildly interested, even quite looking forward to seeing the show when it finally arrived.

What he hadn't been prepared for was the relentless campaign that evolved among his work colleagues at Ray's garage to enter. Ric steeled himself to endure many an orchestrated chant of "Daulby's Got no bottle, Daulby's got no bottle- na na na na.." that rang out across the workshop, and many was the time that Ray raised his head from worksheets at his office desk with a semi-indulgent smile at a spontaneous outbreak of chicken noises - until Ric FINALLY cracked !

Shouting into an upturned oil funnel in place of a megaphone he yelled "Ok, Ok, OK - I'LL DO it - but you just watch - I'll get NOWHERE FAST in it !!"

As their jubilant cheers died away, so did his thoughts on the subject - but Ric's pessimistic assessment of his chances was wrong - - very wrong. Through the initial "cattle-herd" - type auditions through the "Pit Lane" - this show's version of Boot Camp, Ric kept getting picked by the judges- who included former English F1 Champion Damon Hill - and now he'd come through seven weeks of public phone votes to be standing on the podium at the race track on the edge of the city as one of the final three bidding for the glittering prize.

Belle's instinctive thought had been correct - Drew had slipped away home to watch the semi-final - and he, Luke and Jack all watched, fidgeted nervously and then erupted in yells of joy, dancing and punching the air as - after the regulation drum-roll and extended pregnant pause, the host announced "Ric - I'm afraid - - - you'll have to come all the way back next week !!!" They didn't care who'd been eliminated - - and nor did Ric, as - still in a stunned haze as the show went off the air, he wandered to the production area at the side. He'd only wandered a few steps when he felt an arm round his shoulder. He blinked up at a man in a crisp, three piece suit, who was congratulating him - seemingly...

"Ric, - that's an awesome thing you've done getting to that final - - now I think if - or should I say WHEN you win this competition - we could do some serious good for each other...all those countries you'd be going to.."

Ric semi-pulled away from the man's grasp - there'd been a very strange - and not altogether open - look on his face when he'd mentioned the bit about the other countries..

"Um - I'm not sure exactly what you're talking about mate, but firstly, I haven't won this tournament yet - and even if I DO - I'm not in it to do 'serious good' or whatever it was you said, for anybody but myself - so I think we'll forget we had this conversation, ok..?"

The man's face darkened and hardened distinctly as he stood across Ric's path and said in low, terse tones "Maybe you'd like to reconsider my kind offer, Ric..."

"No I wouldn't, MATE.." snapped Ric, prodding the guy on the chest with his index finger - "and who the hell ARE you, anyway..?"

Standing his ground firmly in front of the increasingly irate Ric, the man hissed "I'm a very close friend of Mr Noel Anderson - you'll remember him - - the stepfather of YOUR baby ? Now I can tell YOU.." - as he reversed the index finger treatment - "In business he only backs DEAD certain winners, if you know what I mean...??" The way the man had emphasized the adjective had sent something of a smuggled shiver down Ric's spine - within minutes, the high adrenaline of his latest success on the show had been thoroughly damped and diluted by this man's intervention and the sudden rearing from the shadows of the whole Viv , Noel and the baby issue. His head was pounding, as - seemingly temporarily frozen to the spot - he eyed the pinched and uncompromising features of this unsettlingly anonymous but darkly threatening man...

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Rachel giggled - it felt good - and very overdue - to be giggling again. To many, Tony's unflagging campaign of self-blame and worry-laden enquiries about her health may have proved irritating, but to her it was proving to be a bright beacon of normality in her life. Her record with men was not an auspicious one - the miscarriage of her baby with Lewis had certainly shone a probing light on that less than glittering corner of recent years.

"Tony, you cook me many more dinners and I'll be sizing you up for an apron alongside Irene at the diner !" she smiled - but then, more seriously "..truly though Tony, I really do appreciate it !"

Had Tony been a tragic hero in the Shakespearean mode he'd probably have plunged a dagger into his breast by now and bade a woeful farewell to a world he'd stained beyond repair by his "mistake", but instead he'd chosen the less extreme option of arriving at the hospital with warm croissants and takeaway cappuccino along with an invitation to dinner at his place that evening.

"Well, seriously, dinner would be very nice indeed, kind sir...."

"Doctor Armstrong to theatre immediately please...Doctor Armstrong...." cut abruptly and invasively across their conversation. She rose quickly from her seat, pausing almost as swiftly with a "Whoa.....!!" as she jammed her hand against the desk for support.

"Rachel...?...you ok...?" asked Tony, his face registering predictable concern as he placed an arm around her to steady her.. "Yes, yes..." came the quick if slightly less than convincing reply..." just felt a bit light-headed for a moment.."

She smiled a little falsely.."Must be all the romance !!.. now I really need to go...". She bustled off up the corridor, leaving Tony's quizzical face betraying more than a trace of concern.

That concern was inflating quickly inside Rachel's own mind into real worry as she picked up speed and shot round the corner towards the operating theatre, where a further double jolt was awaiting her. The first shock as the orderly read out the name of the person awaiting the neccessary rapid surgery, the second as, having washed and donned her surgical gown, she opened the theatre door and the scene within began to swim dramatically before her eyes....

Fitzy breathed in, counted a silent ten, then turned from her desk to face the blustering McGrath. At exactly what stage - she wondered - had it been when she'd seemingly become a hybrid of Jack Holden's keeper, guardian angel and well-adjusted elder sister ?? The truth was she didnt personally view herself in any of those roles - far from it, in fact - but the truth was that any time something happened relating to Summer Bay's most issue-laden law enforcement officer, it was seemingly always her that received the raw end of authority's tongue.

Fitzy had in fact been secretly enjoying an afternoon doing the paperwork that most officers considered an unwelcome burden. She however hadn't slept all that well the previous evening, was hatching the suspicion of a summer cold, and would have been happy for once to take a step back from the cut and thrust of daily policework while self-medicating with hourly hot coffee and copious doses of paracetamol. That ideal self-sketched scenario for the day suddenly seemed to be receding quickly into the background as the door behind her was pounded open onto its long-suffering hinges, and the very familiar voice barked the even more familiar question - -

"Fitzy- where the HELL is Jack ??"

After concluding the patience-salvaging count-up, she nobly resisted the temptation to select an inappropriately sarcastic response for her boss , she opted instead for an acceptably neutral "Don't know Sarge, -why, what's happening ?"

It was less than a handful of seconds before she realized Darren McGrath was less than mollified by the reply - -

"Oh that's a BIG help, why does no-one ever know ANYTHING round here ?? I'll TELL you what's happening - I am right that Pillings Hill is in Jack's sector, correct ?"

She nodded, still really none the wiser.

"Well , a girl's been knocked down by a car there this morning, and while the ambulance arrived, there was no answer at all from the police patrol in the area and what the hell am I supposed to SAY to people..."

Fitzy breathed in ready to parry the verbal volley back over the net to McGrath, but was halted by the combination of a strident phone blast from inside his office and his outstretched palm as he diverted back inside the door.

Smothering a sneeze, Fitzy waited , drumming her fingers against the desktop as her boss spoke - in tones fractionally below audible. Eventually even that low hum came to a halt and she moved forward to resume the conversation. She halted though, gazing curiously at the man's face which was just a shade paler than previously..."Sarge... everything ok..?"

"Ah...yes.., " he responded...then, looking up..."I just found out who the girl in that car accident is....."

"Well, Dom.." said Belle, with a small but genuine smile, "I have to say I'm impressed ! You said you'd go away and sort yourself out, and now....!"

Dom gave a short, jerky nod of acknowledgement as she continued."Picture agent, that's just SO cool - how the HECK did you score for something like that...?? - and I never even knew you were INTERESTED in photography...!!...still... " - flashing him a winning smile - "I'm sure we've got plenty of time to talk about all that...!"

"Hmm, right..." - his response and overall reaction wasn't QUITE what she'd imagined .

"Well, I guess life doesn't always go the way we think it will...or hope it will..." he said tossing his head a fraction to one side - though on its way past, favouring Belle with a glance the nature of which she couldn't instantly work out.

Wrinkling her blow slightly, she breathed in and attempted to start again.

"ANYWAY Dom - you up for telling me how exactly you got this ace job, and - uh - what you're up to - like, - ah - today, or whatever...?"

Placing his large, leather-bound diary and cellphone on a side-table, Dom side-stepped - or as Belle judged, ignored her question, responding rather with one of his own - "Drew not here with you for this ?" Belle gave a slight start. His question had made her think. . Yes, where exactly WAS Drew ? Not exactly at her side supporting her through every minute of one of the biggest days of her life, was he ? Suddenly her attention

was caught by a peal of laughter from the other side of one of the display vases in the middle of the room. Craning her neck slightly, she could see the laugh's creator and owner, a striking strawberry-blonde girl of around 22 or so, pushing Drew away in mock reproach at some apparent joke, while he beamed enthusiastically back.

Brows tightening in instinctive annoyance, Belle acted instinctively. Linking his arm, she declared "Dom, I fancy a breath of fresh air !! How about you come with me and tell me about that job, and what's happening with you out of work hours these days ..!"

Seeming to accept the plan, albeit with no great enthusiasm, Dom picked his belongings back up and headed for the door- their arms still linked. Within seconds, the bulk of one of her earlier general questions to Dom was answered as he said "Works out quite well for me actually as my partner's due to arrive any moment - she was held up in the traffic before..." Belle's eyes widened involuntatily as she thought words to the effect of 'Wow, Dom with a top job and a car-driving girlfriend..!! This day just MUST start getting less freaky - mustn'.....' As we've all done on occasions. she rolled her eyes in long-suffering realization at having spoken too soon - - seeing Jas's car turn off the street and into the townhall carpark, before manoeuvring into a space before switching off and getting out. She held a brief internal cerenral wrestling match, before deciding it couldn't be let go without comment.

Folding her arms with the pugnacious manner and aspect she was feeling.

"Now look Jas, I don't know what you're hoping to......"

She felt however a wave of real anger loosed inside her as Jas walked straight past where she was standing - 'Oooh - if that woman thought she could......'

But the day had another new and thoroughly unpredictable ingredient to stir into its recipe. Having strode past Belle, swinging her very expensive handbag in very ostentatious fashion, she approached Dom with a "Hi DARLING - that traffic was a NIGHTMARE !" before kissing him for at least six seconds directly on the lips.

Clutching the wing of one of the dignitaries' cars for support as she turned and looked, Belle was left gaping...

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Belle's tone was icy and utterly dismissive as she cornered Jas on her way into the Town Hall via the car-park side entrance. Dom had disappeared ahead to talk to Alice Hills, leaving Belle the ideal opening to fix her sights on Jas. Flinching a little disdainfully free from the younger girl's grasp as the assault began - "So ?...what the HELL's the story Jas ? Don't make me laugh - you and DOM - what stunt are you pulling this time, then..? This I CAN'T wait to hear...! Don't tell me, you met him in a bar where you'd gone looking for a rich old guy with a full wallet and half an hour to spare...??- or what ?"

Jas remained icily silent for a few seconds , all the time holding Belle in the same even, steely stare that those who knew her well had come to recognize as a sign that trouble had moved to within touching distance.

Arms across her chest in characteristic pose and mouth in a thin, stern line, she rasped

"You finished..? For whatever its got to do with you, I ran into Dominic.."

Belle gagged with involuntary laughter at the rare mention of his full name, but Jas continued imperiously..

"I ran into Dominic at a literary function in the city - quite by chance - and naturally I wanted to discuss that whole misunderstanding between him and Drew and clear the air..."

"Oh naturally...." with a snort from Belle

"....and the longer we talked, the more I realized we had in common, so, one thing led to another, and..well." ended Jas with a knowing gesture indicating that Belle should use her imagination.

Spurning the opportunity to take that somewhat less than attractive mental journey, Belle instead provided her own no-nonsense conclusion to the sentence...

"Yeah yeah yeah and the Prince and the ugly sister lived happily ever after....yadda yadda yadda - - you are completely incredible Jas, and I WILL find out what you're up to here - that's a promise ..!!"

She was having to project the last part of the sentence as Jas - having swept away - was already entering the Town Hall through the side entrance. Belle followed, her eyes still firmly fixed on Jas as the seething uncertainty over what she'd just been confronted with continued to pump inside her.

Jas was- typically- already in a little group of men, her false and over-loud laugh already piercing the usual sedate atmosphere of the location.

Belle watched intently, and her heart started to pump a little quicker as Jas was offered a glass of wine and as she readily accepted, one of the men gushingly helped unload her purse-style handbag from her grasp to clear her grip for the Chardonnay and the exhibition programme that had been thrust into her grasp by one of the other men- - and now - as Belle's mental wheel began to spin feverishly, the first guy began to stride the 30 or so paces towards her - - holding the bag. A quick surge of inspiration told her he intended taking it to the cloakroom, situated just behind her in the small access corridoor off the car-park.. Switching on her most shattering smile, Belle moved slightly in front of him, and - knowing the group further up the room all had their backs to where she was, said -wide eyed - "Oh - that's Jas's bag isn't it..?" - and - to deflect any reluctance on his part, " ...she's my friend - and I'm just going to take mine there now - I'll save you the effort and take it, shall I ?"

Clearly anxious to resume buttering up Jas before the other 2 guys got too well-established he thrust it at her with a brief "Cool, that's great - thanks !" before scuttling back.

Sliding quickly through the door into the passage , Belle had no clear plan in her mind as to what value the bag may hold in hunting down her new and raw suspicions of Jas - but fate was to lend her a hand. From within the bag came a short strain of ambient music, overlaid by a robotic voice calling "Message Darling, ..Message Darling..." that was clearly her text alert. Belle needed no second bidding. Swiftly unclipping the bag, she grabbed the phone and jabbed the message button.Hoping against hope it may shed some light on this whole Dom situation, she gave an involuntary gasp as she read "Hey u...how's it all going... this will b SO awesome if u pull it off- Summer Bay look out !! lol....call me l8r ...!!! "

Belle's mental merry-go-round began to hurtle round at breakneck speed...inclining her head automatically towards the hall door , the burning question flared ever more strongly in her mind.....just what the HELL was going on....??

It was as if Ric had been carrying round his own personal black cloud of angst since being accosted by Noel Anderson's 'heavy' backstage at the motoring reality show.

It had certainly percolated through to Matilda, increasing Ric's frustration at the whole situation, which seemed to be spiralling out of control. As he's told himself seemingly several hundred times, he'd never wanted to go in for the darn thing in the first place - only badgered into doing so by the jibes of the other guys at Ray's garage , but what he wasn't about to do was dump the whole mess - including the veiled threats that had been made to him- on Matilda's shoulders.

Opening is car door - as ironically he was en route to do some background filming for the final episode of "Grand Prix Glory" -he reflected on how the whole Viv thing didn't seem all THAT far in the background, and he was far from keen to re-awaken any ghosts that had the 'Anderson' name on their label - let alone with an ominous payload of threats and potential big trouble to come being attached.

Any positive thoughts Ric may have previously harboured about winning the competition and its' associated prizes were now all but obscured beneath this mist of uncertainty and doubt hovering over him since his encounter with the 'heavy.' He couldn't even use today's filming as a means for cleaning it all out of his mind temporarily as the possibility of the guy making another unannounced appearance was always there.

Ric's eyes scanned his surroundings in an idle. distracted way as the car pulled up to the traffic lights. The traffic on the link road he'd now reached was busy and unbroken in both directions, so as his eyes alighted on a car with two wheels propped up to the pavement and with its bonnet up just inside a bus-stop inlet on his side of the road just beyond the lights. He could also now see a girl, - unremarkable and even slightly dowdy looking standing just beside the car with a bewildered, slightly depairing look on her face, arms extended wide at her sides, almost to indicate how little she actually knew about the problem she was faced with. Pulling past the lights and towards the bus=stop, he indicated left and made a gesture to show he was stopping to help her - reciprocated by a grateful smile from the girl. She was clearly out of her depth, and with none of the other self-absorbed motorists looking remotely likely to interrupt the robotic routines of their day to assist her, he felt it was the least he could do.

Having parked as carefully as he could in the cramped bus area, he locked his own vehicle and walked round the other side of the car to where he'd seen the girl standing. "Hi !" he greeted her with a pleasant smile.

That smile however had barely seconds to unpack and settle in on his face as the girl unleashed a high=pitched scream. Moving slightly forward to the small area where the open bonnet obscured her from view via the road, she tugged at the top of her blouse, ruffled her hair , and in shrill, urgent but extremely clear tones . yelled "NOOO, don't TOUCH me again !!" - and as she did, cowering up against the vehicle.

Stunned by this totally unexpected but ominous turn of events, Ric could only respond with a shocked "Whaat,,,why....." He tailed off at the sound of a vehicle stopping behind him. The vehicle wasn't in fact a bus- but a police car - which as Ric thought, seemed to have arrived with indecent haste...

The operating theatre still seemed to Rachel to possess the kind of mist and indefinable shimmer she'd so often noticed hovering over the Summer Bay sea when she'd been out for an early morning walk. But - such visual images hardly held the same allure when set against the backdrop of emergency surgery, and Rachel quickly realized with a cold blast of reality air that she needed to arrange her wits and senses in perfect order in a matter of senses if major and highly uncomfortable problems wereb't to locate themselves squarely in her field of vision.

A quick and extremely cold blast of reality air certainly came her way as through the blur s she perceived that the chief surgeon was Senior Consultant Dr Eric Lewington whose long years of association with the hospital were - she'd often thought - exceeded only by the man's very generous opinion of himself.!

"All well, Dr Armstrong ?" he enquired in his characteristic languid drawl. Now Rachel hadn't yet totally connected her current surge of detachment from reality with the tablets she'd been taking, but caution fortunately from somewhere advised her that a reply of " Well actually doctor I think I may just have overdosed on high potency painkillers" wouldn't have been the wisest career move, but shard reality again pierced her already reeling defences in very short order as Lewington read out the casenoyes for the emergency that had so recently been rushed to the hospital.

"Well Doctor, we have a young lady, age 15 - RTA - possible fractured kneecap - and more trickily, a cracked second rib on the left hand ribcage, which has bent back and could be threatening full lung function - I think we have quite an intricate job on our hands here.."

It certainly sounded so to Rachel, who moved to the small surgery washbasin, took a damp cloth and ran it carefully over her forehead to try and assist the descent from the cloud of sub-reality to which she'd been catapulted on first opening the theatre door. Rachel had never even sampled cannabis in her 27 years, let alone anything stronger like heroin or cocaine - having for example seen the mess it could make of people like Henk - - but she found herself wondering with real disquiet if that was anything like the so-called "high" that users of those substances experienced - -, and if it WAS, then they could KEEP it, thank you very much !

As Rachel finished dampening her forehead and dropped the cloth in the dirty laundry receptacle, she became aware of Lewington regarding her in a slightly curious fashion.

Attempting very quickly to gather her forces in response she attempted as natural an air as possible. Yes, she knew that strictly any doctor experiencing what she had five minutes previously should rule themselves voluntarily out of any close patient -related work, but she knew only too well Lewington's reputation and record for getting colleagues of hers drummed out of their jobs for far less, so - adopting as bright an air as possible she enquired "And do we have a name for this unfortunate young lady, Doctor Lewington ?".

Leaning across to pick up the clipboard again, he briefly scanned the front page for double confirmation before replying "Oh, a local from here in Summer Bay, I see - ... name of Campbell - - - Miss Annie Campbell..."

With another huge and shapeless surge from the narcotic overload within her, Rachel gripped hard on the work surface, the worrying synthetic clouds massing around her at high speed once again....

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Martha was enjoying the fresh taste of the Summer Bay morning in her lungs as she wandered across the hilltop that ran roughly from the back of the caravan park over to the link road and then the freeway between the Bay and Yabbie Creek. If those who knew her best may have raised half an enquiring eyebrow at her being out of her cherished bed and involved in brisk physical activity before eleven o'clock on a non-workday, they didn't realize the was astutely escaping a significantly more traumatic scenario than work could ever threaten to be.

Clearly inspired to lunacy in her opinion by the recent run of bright and fresh spring weather, Roman and Morag had chosen that day to start wallpapering the house ! Since first hearing of their plans, Martha had tried - and singularly failed - to think of anything worse that she could ever become involved in, and had courteously declined their singular - then combined - entreaties to become part of the happy workers' triangle - her refusals having become slightly more blunt - and fractionally more hysterical as they'd worryingly refused to take no for an answer.

With that in mind, Martha'd wisely bitten the bullet and forced herself to rise early and ghost out of the house lest she was hi-jacked and press-ganged by Summer Bay's apparent answer to the Dynamic Duo. She smiled as she imagined = with some real accuracy as it happened scenes such as strips of glue-moist wallpaper descending limply from the walls within seconds of the worker who'd applied it going back down their ladder - or, even more appealingly, an exasperated dungaree-clad Morag standing with one leg in a bucket of wallpaper paste while demanding of the world in general why she'd ever got involved in the undertaking in the first place.

Suitably cheered by those thoughts, she wandered on, giving a gasp of delight at one point as a striking scarlet-winged butterfly alighted on the palm of her hand as she squatted for a brief breather on a bench thoughtfully provided by the local council at the side of the main walking track, then briefly petting and playing with an energetic small dog that had bustled up to investigate her well ahead of its owners, a sedately strolling elderly couple who Martha knew by sight -the only other people she'd seen that morning on what remained a "hidden treasure " of a walking route for the town's residents.

She flashed them a smile of greeting as they drew level with them, and within a few minutes both they and their pacemaker pup had disappeared from view.

Martha soon followed suit, prising herself up and walking briskly for another 10 minutes or so. As with all walks of course, every yard covered must eventually be retraced, so she began to mentally run through her schedule options. She knew she was approaching the Pillings Hill area where the walking terrain became a little less favourable in any case, but as she reflected further on when to call a halt, her eye was caught by what seemed a very familiar sight where she'd hardly expected to see it.

Around five hundred or so yards ahead at the edge of a popular but secluded small picnic area was - very definitely - a police patrol car, and, leaning against it, staring down where the valley opened out into a rather delicious view for those who knew where and how to find it was.. it WAS him, wasn't it...

"Jack..?" she said questioningly, but as yet, only for her own ears- the uniform-clad figure still being too far away to hear, even if she'd shouted.

It was though only the work of three minutes or so to bridge the gap on foot, and confirm her initial identification.

She wrinkled her nose in curiosity as questions began to surge suddenly through her mind - what was he doing here - how long had he been here, and - ever more pressingly - why was he still looking down across the basin with such a detached, surreal air ? Indeed, having spoken his name 2 or 3 times, she then had to reach carefully forward and tap him on the shoulder to gain his attention. "Jac...." - but even that was met by a major, springing leap from Jack as his seeming semi-trance was broken.

"Whaa...oh, Martha... what are you doing here ?" said the obviously highly discomfited constable, his eyes flitting back across the car before coming to rest on her again.

Suddenly, two things happened that began to convert Martha's perspective from concern to suspicion. Firstly, as she began to shuffle back a little, away from the rather sheer precipice by which he was standing, her hand caught against some rough spikes of metal at the side of the patrol car, and giving an involuntary "ouch", she began sucking at the small droplets of blood that had lept into duty on three of her fingertips as a result.

Secondly, her nose became aware of a distinct but highly inappropriate smell for a solo policeman in charge of his squad car.

"Jack, I can't believe I'm asking this - but have you been ..drinking ..??"

Suddenly, from enjoying the oxygen and mild adrenaline of a morning stroll - she could now feel the cold, ominous talons of genuine worry beginning to prickle her spine...the dent in the wing of Jack's car - his peculiar and remote behaviour - and that faint aroma of alcohol- - she undoubtedly had questions for Jack - - - but was she going to like the answers....?

Directly on returning from the Town Hall, Belle immediately set to work on unearthing the facts, details and truth behind this situation that had been so directly brought to her attention that afternoon, and which on a variety of levels she found so intriguing, distasteful and most of all - suspicious !. Having fired off a text message she then sat down in front of the computer, drilling away at search engines, newspaper reports and anything else she could think of in order to make such apparently conflicting elements knit together in the incongruous way they were seeming to on the evidence of that afternoon.

Drew in contrast preferred the option of striding up and down in two north-south lines of around seven paces each in difference repeating again and again a very limited repertoire of phrases like "We ll, I thought she'd sunk as low as i was possible to go - but this - - THIS !!" or from a brief range of alternatives " Dom - - DOM - that lowsy....FREAK....!!"

The parade ground manoeuvres and Groundhog Day dialogue made zero impression on Belle, her journalistic antennae already firmly locked in on...something ....she didn't know what - - but she'd find out - - oh, would she EVER find out. !

Leaning back in her chair, she narrowly avoided a direct impact collision with the pacing sergeant-major of outrage, and, thinking aloud, said "Jas just HAS to have made a mistake in all this - doesn't she....??"

Waiting a moment, then easing the chair back into the sitting position, there was still no reply to her semi-rhetorical question, so she twisted round just in time to see the seemingly wannabee squaddie reach the end of the seven steps south,


"Dom...that lowsy....FREAK...!!"

Tutting and rolling her e yes, Belle prepared to resume Internet-scouring when her mobile phone flashed notice of an incoming call from its position just to the left of the PC screen.

"Hello. yes... LUCAS ! .."

The mention of that name caused the first break in many minutes for the carpet-pounding - Drew stopping short and jerking his head to listen.

Belle was continuing with obvious growing excitement - - "Thanks SO much for calling back...yes...you have ?! ...what ??- WOW - and he's....wow again ! - well Lucas you are a total star ! - and everything ok with you ?? - cool ! - anyway, talk to you really soon !!"

As she pressed the hang-up button , Belle tapped her chin with a pencil as she said , eyes sparkling with the light of battle "Well isn't THAT interesting !! - Very VERY interesting...!!"

The atmosphere in the operating theatre was its' usual intense mix of high concentration, medical substances and underlying strains of the kind of high strength industrial disinfectant that the worldwide advent of the MRSA bug had made all the more prevelant in such workplaces.

Dr Lewington's surgical style was clearly one borne of many years' operating at the sharp end of surgical situations. He worked in a cool, methodical fashion, keeping up a regular, informed dialogue with the anaesthetist, the nurse and indeed the unconscious and unhearing patient.

It was a dialogue that Rachel was struggling to keep up with. As Lewington's number two, she should strictly have been at his right hanf - shadowing, furnishing and even pre-empting his every move. It was fortunate indeed then for Rachel that Lewington wasn't the kind of surgeon that preferred- or even tolerated- a professional "shadow" while working in the theatre- hence her withdrawn persona was something of a mercy.

Which - given her current state of being was something for which she too was very grateful.

The jagged thrust of shock on hearing it was Annie they'd be operating on had taken some recovering from, but though Lewington's imposing persona and reputation had been enough to help her battle back from that, another unwelcome and malicious element was beginning to intrude on her contribution to Annie's survival . The ligament she'd shredded in the surfing accident that had led her down the road to the painkillers was now beginning to throb due to the length of time she'd now been standing at the operating table.. This wasn't the standard "I've walked round town and need to take my shoes off"-type throb, this was pain, spiteful, gnawing, explosive pain that only the person experiencing it could ever hope to understand, and only the professional and personal impetus of what was needed to save someone she regarded as fomdly as Annie was enough to keep Rachel going through.

"..., so, Dr Armstrong..?"

She became aware that for once the surgeon had actually been addressing her/

"Uh, oh..ah, yes..."

His eyes narrowed above a face of studied slight disapproval obscured by his surgical mask.

"So, you'll up that dose for me now, then please,,,?"

"Oh, ....sure...."

As Rachel's mind struggled fitfully to escape the restrictively combined fog of the painkillers and her red-hot ligament warzone, she'd failed to grasp the adrenaline pump that Lewington had wanted an increased dose of for Annie's bloodstream, but was instead beginning to inject the teenager with a huge intravenous dose of high-strength surgical morphine that would prove potentially fatal to even a robustly healthy and fully-grown adult within a matter of minutes...


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