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Why did accidents seem to happen in slow motion?
There seemed all the time in the world to yell a warning, to run down the beach and haul the dog out of harm's way, to get the fool driving the beach buggy to change direction, but in reality Zoe Payne had time for nothing.
She'd been sitting admiring the sunset at the spectacular surf beach five minutes' drive from Gold Coast City Hospital. A tangerine hue tinged the white crests of the breaking waves, the warm sea air filled her senses and the scene was breathtakingly lovely.
She'd also been admiring a lone surfer, far out in the waves.
He was good. Very good. The surfable waves were few and far apart, but he had all the patience in the world. He waited for just the right wave, positioned himself before the rising swell with casual ease, then rode seamlessly in before the breaking line of white water.
The scene was poetry in motion, she'd decided, and the surfer wasn't bad either. When the wave brought him close to the shore she saw him up close. He was tall, sun-bleached, ripped, and the way he surfed said he was almost a part of the sea.
But she'd also been watching a dog. The dog was lying partly concealed among the dunes, closer to the shore than the place she sat. She wouldn't have known he was there, but every time the surfer neared the shore the big brown Labrador leaped from its hiding place and surged into the shallows. The surfer came in the extra distance to greet the dog, they exchanged exuberant man-dog hugs, and then the surfer returned to the sea and the dog to its hiding place.
She'd been thinking she'd kind of like to go and talk to the dog. This was her first week at Gold Coast City and she was feeling a bit homesick, but there was something about man and dog that said these two were a team that walked alone.
Only now they weren't alone. Now a beach buggy was screaming down from the road above.
There was no way a beach buggy should be on this beach. There were signs everywhereprotected beach, no bikes, no horses, no cars.
And this wasn't a local fisherman driving quietly down for an evening's fishing. This was a hoon driver, gunning his hired beach buggyshe could see the rental signsfor all he was worth.
He hit the dunes and the buggy became almost airborne.
She was on her feet, yelling, running, but her feet wouldn't move fast enough, her voice wouldn't yell loud enough.
Oh, dear God, no!
For the buggy had hit the dune in front of the dog and hurled right over. It crashed down, hit the next dune, was gunned to further power and roared off along the beach, leaving whatever had happened behind it.
One minute Sam Webster was paddling idly on his board, waiting for the next wave. He was about to call it a day. Surfing after dark was dumb. He knew the risks of night-feeding marine life, and risk-taking was for fools. Besides, the waves were growing fewer, and the current was taking him out. If he couldn't catch a wave soon, he was faced with a ten-minute paddle to get back to shore.
It was time to head back to the beach, take Bonnie home and head for bed.
To sleep? Possibly not. Sam Webster didn't do much sleeping any more, but hard surfing morning and night helped. His job at the hospital was high-powered and demanding. He crammed his days to the point of exhaustion, but still sleep was elusive. Nights weren't his friend.
But Bonnie needed to be home. Where was a wave when you wanted one? And then
He heard the beach buggy before he saw it, roaring along the beach road, and then, unbelievably, veering hard across the dunes onto the beach.
He was yelling now, paddling and yelling at the same time, but the tide was turning and he wasn't making headway.
Where was a wave? Where was a wave?
The buggy was freewheeling along the beach.
And then the buggy hit the dune where Bonnie lay.
His eyes were locked on the hollow where Bonnie had dug herself a cool spot to lie. He was willing her to emerge. Willing her to show herself.
A figure was running from the grassy verge above the beach. A woman. He wasn't interested. All he was interested in was Bonnie.
Where was a wave?
For one appalling moment she thought it was dead. The great, chocolate-brown Labrador was lying sprawled on the sand, a pool of blood spreading ominously fast.
She was down on her knees.
'Hey,' she said. 'Hey.' She spoke softly. The last thing she wanted was to terrify the dog even more. The eyes that looked up at her were great pools of fear, shock and pain.
But not aggression. Fear, shock and pain sometimes made even the most placid animals vicious, but Zoe knew instinctively that this dog wouldn't snap.
She was beyond it?
The buggy looked as if it had landed on her hind quarters. Her head, chest and front legs looked relatively unscathed, but her left hind leg. Not unscathed.
There was a gash running almost its length.
So much blood.
She hauled off her shirt, ripping it, bundling part of it into a pad and using the rest to tie the pad so she got maximum pressure, talking to the dog as she did.
'Sorry, girl, I don't want to hurt you, but I need to stop the bleeding.'
Even if she stopped it The blood on the sand.
She had to get this dog to help. She'd seen patients go into cardiac arrest through blood loss, and this dog was losing so much.
She glanced out to sea. The surfer was frantically paddling, but he was far out and there were no waves behind him.
It'd take him maybe five minutes to reach the beachand this dog didn't have five minutes.
She'd slowed the blood flow. She hadn't stopped it.
There was a vet's surgery near the hospital. She'd seen it the day she'd arrived, when she'd been making her first exploratory forays, searching for a supermarket. It had a sign on it, 'All Hours, Emergency'.
That's what this was, she thought as she ripped and tied her shirt. Total emergency. Her car was right by the beach. Could she lift the dog?
She glanced again out at the surfer. He was surely the dog's owner. She should wait.
And give him a dead dog?
There was no choice. She scrawled one word in the sand. She lifted the big dog into her arms, staggering with the weight, and then, despite its weight, she found the strength to run.
It was the longest paddle of Sam's life.
The long, low waves that had been giving him such pleasure all evening had disappeared. The sea looked millpond-smooth but the tide was surging and the current was almost stronger than he could paddle against.
In a normal situation he'd let the current take him along the beach, travelling sideways to the tidal tug and gradually reaching the beach without this fight. But this wasn't a normal situation.
He remembered the day Emily had brought her home. 'Look, Sammy, isn't she adorable?
She was in the pet-shop window and I couldn't go past her.'
They had been medical students and dirt poor, living in a one-room university apartment. Having a dog had meant moving house, taking on more rent than they could afford and juggling impossible study hours into caring for an active dog, but Em hadn't thought of that.
She'd seen a puppy and she'd bought it. She hadn't thought of consequences.
Which was why Emily was dead, and all he had left of her was her dog, his dog, and his dog had disappeared, carried by a stranger up over the sand dunes to the road beyond and he couldn't see her any more and he was going out of his mind.
And finally, when he reached the beach, things weren't any better.
He dumped his board and ran, but what he found made him feel cold and sick. The hollow where Bonnie had lain was almost awash with blood.
So much blood How could she survive blood loss like this?
Where was she?
He turned and saw three letters scrawled in the sand, rough, as if done with a foot.
Sensible. Dear God, sensible. But where? Where was the closest vet?
Staring at Bonnie's blood It was so hard to think.
There was a vet's surgery near the hospital, the one he normally took Bonnie to. It was the closest. Surely whoever it was knew that.
He was heading up the beach, ripping his wetsuit off as he ran.
So much blood It was impossible that she would survive.
She had to survive. Without Bonnie he had nothing left.
The veterinary hospital was open and amazingly, wonderfully, a vet came out to meet her. Maybe it was the way she'd spun into the entrance, burning rubber. Medics were clued in to hints like that, she decided, because by the time she was out of her car, a middle-aged guy wearing a clinical coat was there to help her.
'Road trauma,' she said, wasting no words, somehow shifting into medical mode. What she must look like She'd ripped off her shirt to stop the blood flow. She was wearing a lacy bra and jeans and sandals and she was smeared with blood from the neck downor even higher, but she wasn't looking. But the vet was looking. He took her arm and hauled her round so he could see her face on, before he even looked at the dog.
'Are you hurt?' he demanded, and she caught herself, realising he needed reassurance. Triage dictated humans before animals, even for a vet, so she needed to waste a few words.
'A buggy hit her on the beach,' she said. 'I saw it happen but, no, I'm not hurt. This is all her blood. She's not my dogher owner's out surfing but I didn't have time to wait for him to get back in. She's bleeding out from the back leg.'
'Not now she's not,' the vet said, and he was already leaning into the car. He could see the tourniquet she'd fashioned with her shirt and he cast her a glance of approval. 'She's Bonnie,' he said, flipping the name tag on her collar. 'I know hershe's one of the local docs' dogs. Sam Webster. You're not medical yourself, are you?'
'I'm a nurse.'
'Great. I'm the only one here and I'll need help. You up for it?'
'Of course,' she said, but he hadn't waited for a response. He was already carrying the dog through the entrance to his surgery beyond.