What was it about the full moon that turned the emergency room into an overfull level of Hell? This was madness.
Already Nadine was dreaming of the end of her shift and going for a run. Running was her escape. In that hour, she was free, and all she had to do was breathe. For half a second, she let herself drift away from the chaos.
A nurse tapped her on the arm. "Nadine, you're wanted in triage."
Nadine frowned. She didn't work the front counter. "Why?"
"Dunno, I was just told to find you." The nurse was already moving away, leaving Nadine with no choice but to see why she'd been requested.
When she saw the cop, her stomach tightened. Police never brought good news. What had her father done now? He'd barely been out of prison for two weeks. She crossed her fingers by her side and sent up a prayer.
She gave the cop a tight smile and forced herself to be professional. She wasn't five, and she had nothing that could be taken away. "How can I help you?"
"I've got a man with a head injury who doesn't seem to speak English." The officer gave her a quick glance. "Can you help?"
Nadine looked past the cop to his partner, standing next to a sitting man who looked like he'd crawled out of a third-world jail. Blood ran down the side of his face and stuck in his shaggy hair. He was covered in dust or ash, almost as if he'd been pulled from a collapsed building. His loose-fitting tunic was worn with age, as were his pants and boots. But the cut was somehow wrong, as if he were wearing castoffs from another age. His gaze was firmly fixed on the floor, shoulders slumped as if defeated by whatever struggle he was facing.
"He's having some kind of episode. Freaked out when we brought him in."
"What did he do?" She had no intention of being attacked by a psychiatric patient, yet he didn't seem dangerous...just lost, locked in his own world. She'd seen that look before on a returned soldier who wasn't coping.
"He was being a nuisance." The cop paused, then leaned a little closer.
"And?" Nadine prompted.
"Waving a sword," the officer said quietly.
Right. A sword, of course. She glanced at the man, but he hadn't moved. "How'd he get hurt?"
"No idea. He speaks gibberish. Look, I don't want to take him down to the station. He needs medical attention. Can you get him a psych consult and help with his injuries?"
"Are you going to charge him?"
"He's been no trouble since we picked him up. He's unarmed. Will you at least check out his head and make sure it isn't serious, and see if you can make sense of what he's saying?"
If she said no, the scruffy man would spend the night in lockup with real criminals and be back on the street by morning no better off.
"I'll have a look at the wound, but unless he speaks French"-Nadine doubted he spoke her father's Sudanese language of Nuer, so she didn't mention it-"he'll have to wait until we can get a proper translator in." A serious head injury could explain his lack of proper speech.
Yeah, off the cop's hands and into hers. If the man needed admitting, they'd have to make room for him and that would take some rearranging. "Will you wait while I examine him?"
Nadine grabbed a pair of gloves, went through the security door and into the waiting room. She cast her gaze over the people waiting to be seen. Some looked fine. Some were ill but having to wait their turn. Bleeders got seen fairly quickly-even if it was their own fault.
Prospective patients watched her. Even with the police officer at her side, she didn't feel safe. Despite the warning posters that violence toward staff wouldn't be tolerated, people did strange things when they were desperate. This was why she didn't like working at the triage counter. All she had to do was assess the man and decide if he needed to be moved to the ward-her ward.
The second cop pulled the scruffy man up from his hunched-over position. The man's gray eyes focused on her. Shadows she didn't understand gave him a haunted look, as if he'd seen too much. She couldn't leave him in the care of the police; he was already traumatized.
The man spoke, but his words were unintelligible. Fast and fluent. Definitely not gibberish. It had the rhythm of language. Just not one she'd ever heard.
Nadine bent down so she was at eye level, but far enough back to be out of range if he lashed out with his feet. His hands were cuffed behind his back-even though the cops claimed he wasn't a threat. Still, she had to try something even if she didn't get a response.
"Monsieur, parlez vous francais?" She smiled encouragingly while she held his gaze and studied his eyes. The pupils were even and they weren't dilated.
The man's eyes darted between Nadine and the cops. His forehead furrowed, as if he were trying to make sense of her words.
His voice was quiet but strong as he spoke again. This time in a different language.
"Pardon?" Nadine moved closer as she listened.
He inclined his head at a crying baby and repeated the same words more slowly, as if she were simple.
She glanced at the baby and then at the man. He was talking about the crying child. Infans. It was only a small jump to English infant. But what was he saying? And in what language?
Nadine pointed to the shaggy man's bleeding head. "You're bleeding."
That he seemed to understand, but he shook his head, spoke, and looked at the baby, adding extra sentences filled with force. Yet his words were formal and he stumbled over some, as if it wasn't his first language. It was no one's language anymore. The realization rocked her back on her heels, and yet she was willing to bet all of tonight's pay he was speaking Latin.
She straightened up and looked at the cops. One raised his eyebrows as if expecting a miracle. She was fresh out of them, and all she had was a puzzle. The cops weren't going to like her answer-how were they supposed to get a translator for a dead language? Who was this man? "I think he's speaking Latin." As she said it aloud, it didn't seem possible. Maybe she was wrong and he was speaking an obscure dialect of...of what? Not Italian. Breton? She glanced at the dust-covered man again.
"Who the hell speaks Latin?"
"No one." Nadine frowned. He must have studied it at school and somehow the knock on his head bought it forth. "It's a dead language." And the man speaking it looked like he should be dead but had refused to quit. Yet he must have been someone once to be educated in Latin.
His gaze lingered on her, gray and endless. There was something about him...a half hidden nightmare glided through the back of her mind. The child nearby began wailing in a higher pitch. The noise cut through Nadine's thoughts. The man shook as if he couldn't bear the sound. Tears pooled in his eyes, and he hung his head as if to hide them, repeating the same line about the baby over and over.
She wasn't going to get anywhere with the man while the baby was crying.
"The baby." She turned to the cop who had come up to the counter. "Take the woman and baby up to triage and get them seen faster. The crying is making him worse...and it's a baby. She shouldn't be waiting."
She hated seeing children in distress. It brought back too many memories of her own childhood and the other foster children who'd been in and out of the homes she had lived in. Some of them made her odd habits seem normal, and that was saying a lot.
Nadine touched the man's shoulder to get his attention. He lifted his head as if expecting reproach. She smiled and softened her voice from the orders she'd given the cop.
"Look, the baby is getting help." She pointed at the mother and child, now getting fast-tracked through emergency. "Can I take a look at your head?" She pointed to his head, not sure how much he was understanding. But he didn't seem disorientated or confused. He just didn't understand the language.
He stared at her for a moment, then watched the woman with the baby as she was taken behind the doors. He blinked, but his tears had already tracked a line through the gray dust coating his face. Once the woman and child were gone, he nodded.
She brushed aside his hair to get a better look at the wound-and him. It was impossible to tell his age. While his skin was covered in dust, his hair was full of the gray powder and it clumped together in uneven chunks. Even his beard was full of it. Is that why his eyes had been watering? Was it concrete powder? She looked closer at his skin but saw no evidence of chemical burns where his tears had mixed with the dust.
"Where did you find him?" Nadine asked the cop.
She nodded. There were lots of luxury apartments being built down at the east end of Perth. "Construction site?"
"No. On the street."
"What's he covered in?"
The head injury didn't look too bad. His skull seemed undamaged, but she couldn't ask if he'd lost consciousness. For all she knew, his brain was bleeding and swelling. He should get a scan or be admitted for observation at a minimum. She covered his eyes with her hand, then removed it and watched to make sure his pupils reacted evenly to the light. They did. He didn't appear drug affected, and he didn't smell of alcohol. He smelled of nothing. Which was odd. Everyone had a smell, and given his appearance and well-worn clothes, he should have at least smelled unwashed. She sniffed again to be sure, but there wasn't even the scent of skin. Odd.
If he spoke no English, or remembered none, it was no wonder he was having an episode when the cops dragged him in. He had no idea what they were saying or where they were taking him. Yet he'd had enough compassion to ask that the baby be seen first. That said more about the man than anything else.
"Uncuff him and I'll bring him through to the ward for a proper examination." The cop gave a visible sigh and freed the man. For a heartbeat, the two cops and Nadine all waited to see what he'd do. He looked at her, smiled, and said something that had the tone of gratitude. He might not speak the language, but he understood some of what was going on.
He rubbed his wrists and she noted the fresh grazes and cuts, but they didn't bother her as much as the gray coating and possible damage to his eyes, or his lack of regular language. He was obviously educated. So what had happened to him to bring him here in such a state?
She noticed a gold broach holding the cloak over his shoulders. It was a beautiful piece, two wolves chasing each other in an endless circle. If he'd been living on the streets, that would've been stolen. And he'd been picked up carrying a sword. Nothing about this man was adding up.
She shook her head. "Who are you?"