Night Security Call, by Gordon Adler

When Sergeant James Pidcock arrived on the medical ward of the hospital at midnight, accompanied by two junior constables, he did not like what he saw. Why is it, he wondered, that when things go wrong in a hospital it always happens in the middle of the night?

He was greeted by medical registrar Roger Courtney, Junior Resident Alan Taylor, Staff Nurse Lorraine Goswell, several medical students and a couple of worried-looking ambulant male patients in night attire. It was Taylor who had called the police.

Courtney explained.

“We have here a guy here who’s making a lot of trouble. Lorraine heard him muttering something about cutting his wrists, so Alan thought it prudent to put him on suicide watch in the single room. He’s been threatening nurses and trying to break down the door. In my opinion he’s homicidal.”

Pidcock cast a glance at the twenty-three year old nurse. A bare five feet in height, in her first year after graduation, she had reason to be scared.

“What’s the story with this guy? What does he do for a crust?”

“He’s a student in some Mickey Mouse course at Uni.”

Pidcock’s antennae were raised in an instant.

“Is he on drugs?”

Courtney nodded.

“He’s been on a rehabilitation programme. He was admitted yesterday under Dr. Sullivan for assessment. We can’t let him out while he’s threatening violence, now can we? Let’s hope he’s cooled down by the morning.”

His words were followed by a loud hammering on the door of the isolation room.

Pidcock cast his eyes around at the faces before him with mounting disquiet. What did they expect the police to do? Arrest the obstreperous inmate and cart him off to the cells for the night? The young junkie might be a nut but that didn’t make him insane. What was insanity, anyway? Nearly all the most hideous crimes were committed by perfectly ordinary people who showed no evidence of either madness or remorse. Like the bastard who dropped his three-year old son off a bridge to drown in the river just to get even with his ex. Or the guy who strangled his girl friend and stuffed the body parts into a neighbour’s wheelie bin, then got acquitted on grounds of insanity because he said he couldn’t remember s thing about what happened. Most crimes of violence resulted from sheer bloody-minded, uncontrollable rage, often beginning as a dispute over trivialities.

“What’s the matter, Sergeant? You look worried.”

“Well, frankly, Dr. Courtney, I am. It’s not going to be easy to deal with this man.”

“Why not? You and your team carry some pretty deadly-looking artillery.”

“If he’s off his head, as you say he is, he’s not going to be deterred by guns. And, of course, we can’t use them in a confined space. We might hit someone else by mistake!”

“What about the straitjacket? Aren’t three of you enough to subdue him?”

“If we can get at him. But, as you can see, he’s in the cell and we’re out here. We might be the ones who have to break the door down!”

At that moment the loud hammering on the door was renewed. Courtney strode across to confront the inmate, standing immediately outside the cell.

“Mr. O’Neill. You’re being a bloody nuisance. You might at least consider other patients and stop making all that din!”

Pidcock winced, covering his ears. Courtney’s rasping tone was beginning to irritate him. At this moment Senior Night Administrator Joan Bleazel had arrived on the scene.

“What’s happening?”

The registrar’s response was curt.

“Nothing’s happening, Sister. Everything’s under control.”

He had barely finished his sentence when a loud crash rent the air, the sound of breaking glass.

“What the hell is that?”

Nurse Goswell placed a hand over her mouth, appearing alarmed.

“I just remembered. When I cleared out his room I left a bottle of methylated spirits on the floor beside his bed. He must have smashed it!”

Courtney clicked his tongue in disgust, turning to the young nurse with a piercing glare.

“Now, that’s just lovely, isn’t it! He’s got the means to kill himself, and he’s got you to thank for it!”

The nurse reddened, covering her eyes with her hands. Pidcock shook his head slowly in silent disapproval at the registrar’s outburst. This young cockerel was too full of himself. He needed taking down a peg or two.

The Night Supervisor was worried. She proffered a suggestion.

“We’ll have to lure him out. We can’t leave him in there with all that broken glass.”

Courtney’s tone was caustic.

“And just how do you suppose we can achieve that?”

“He wants to go home. Tell him he’s free to leave whenever he wishes.”

“Not on your life. He’s a menace to the public.”

“Well, he won’t come out otherwise.”

“I’ll get him out,” Courtney declared darkly.

It was time to intervene. The situation was turning nasty. Courtney’s confrontationist attitude was having a negative effect. Pidcock placed a gentle restraining hand on the registrar’s arm.

“Doctor, the longer this man is held in solitary confinement, the more dangerous he will become. Something a little more subtle might be needed.”

Courtney’s eyebrows rose. Who did this nosey flatfoot think he was, trying to tell a doctor how to manage his patients? If that idiot Taylor hadn’t panicked and rung triple O, he, the Senior Registrar, wouldn’t have had to put up with this guy Pidcock breathing down his neck. Taylor, fresh out of medical school, was still wet behind the ears.

Pidcock was not in the least deterred by the registrar’s look of withering scorn. He was used to people pulling rank. He persisted with his behest.

“Perhaps Sister Bleazel has a point. The only way he can be lured out is to offer him something he wants. Otherwise this is going to go on all night.”

For a moment Courtney was silenced. He had no answer to the police officer’s sober judgment. After a long pause he nodded.

“O.K. I’ll tell him he can go home.”

He turned to the junior nurse, re-asserting his authority.

“The moment you’ve cleaned up his room, Lorraine, you’ll have to coax him back inside. Tell him you’ve put his clothes beside his bed.”

Joan Bleazel was sceptical. She was not sure this was going to work. A moment later she heard Courtney shouting hoarsely at the staff nurse, seizing her arm as she pressed her face against the peep-hole to observe what was happening inside.

“Don’t be a bloody fool! Don’t you realise he could have shoved that broken glass in your face?”

Nurse Goswell bore her humiliation in silence, rubbing her arm where he had gripped her. Bleazel turned to her junior, speaking quietly, in a persuasive tone.

“Lorraine, you’re the one he knows best. You’re the one he trusts. We’re relying on you to draw him out.”

Hesitating, reluctant to be involved in deception, Nurse Goswell baulked, only to be reminded by her senior that it was she who was responsible for the broken glass and the dangers that resulted. Cautiously, she approached the little observation window in the door, fearful every moment of what may happen.

“Mr. O’Neill, you can go home now. I’ll fetch your belongings.”

There being no answer, she unbolted the door, holding it open. O’Neill appeared, standing in the doorway for a short time glowering at the crowd gathered in a semi-circle before him, then followed Bleazel to the office at the end of the corridor to sign the form acknowledging that he was departing on his own responsibility. Lorraine hastened to the vacant room with dust-pan and brush. Within a minute she had every fragment of glass swept up and deposited in the bag for sharps. She then laid out O’Neill’s possessions on the bed, calling out to the patient.

“Your things are in your room, Terry.”

O’Neill, still in pyjamas and dressing gown, about to enter the ward office, paused to gaze about him with deep suspicion, then turned abruptly and strode back to the room he had just vacated, slamming the door behind him, changing hastily into his street clothes.

Courtney was exultant. “He’s locked himself in!”

Hastening to secure the door from the outside, his action provoked cries of rage from within. The hammering on the door resumed.

“Just wait till I get out, Dr. Courtney. I’ll fix you. And you, Sister Bleazel, you lied to me. So did that little runt Taylor and all the rest of you.”

At this outburst, Courtney exploded

“Mr. O’Neill. There’s no need to break the door down. We’ll open it for you. Just promise me you’ll leave quietly without making any more fuss.”

There being no answer, Courtney took this for assent, unbolting the door. A long silence ensued. Strangely, the Night Supervisor mused, the obstreperous inmate had made no mention of Lorraine, the immediate instrument of his incarceration.

The three officers of the law stood on alert. O’Neill appeared in the doorway in street attire, bag in hand, ready to leave. Accompanied by the entourage, he proceeded to the Nurses’ station a second time to sign the documents.

The Nurses’ station was a tiny office no more than three metres square. With the patient, Nursing supervisor Bleazel, and the three police crowded into it there was barely enough room to stand. The discharge papers had already been laid out on the desk, but, physically pressed on all sides, O’Neill smelt treachery. Just as it appeared that he was about to sign, from under his coat he produced an iron bar which he swung about him vigorously at head-height.

The three uniformed officers ducked, but Sister Bleazel was not so lucky. The weapon struck her a glancing blow on the forehead, dazing her momentarily. O’Neill broke free and sped along the corridor, pursued by the whole party including a couple of patients who now joined in the chase. It was Nurse Goswell who appealed to him.

“Come back, Terry. There’s no need to run away.”

The panic-stricken fugitive dropped the iron bar, which turned out to be a leg from his dismantled bed. Racing along the corridor, he came to the ward kitchen, paused, then darted inside, emerging with a long-bladed carving knife. Taking off, he disappeared down the fire escape stairs, followed by the staff nurse, Bleazel, Pidcock, his two burly assistants, the registrar, the resident, the two patients, and, trailing the field three final-year medical students. The ward was left unattended. Reaching the ground floor, the pursuers halted. Their quarry had vanished into the darkness of the new hospital block under construction. None of them were equipped with torches.

At that moment Pidcock caught a fleeting glimpse of someone disappearing into the empty building.

“Who’s that?”

At his side, Bleazel sounded worried.

“It’s Lorraine Goswell.”

Pidcock swore. The whole situation was getting out of hand. What had begun as farce now took on an ominous twist. Once the nurse had dashed ahead rashly on her own, he knew he could find himself confronted by an enraged drug-crazed maniac with a knife holding the girl hostage. Images of blazing headlines in the morning papers combined with thunderous accusations of police incompetence floated before his eyes. He had to act quickly.

About him, the posse surged forward, all determined to apprehend the distraught fugitive. Pidcock raced to the fore, arms elevated, voice raised with commanding authority.


His order, so decisive, so unexpected, brought the charge to a sudden halt. All eyes turned on him in perplexity. This was an emergency demanding immediate response, yet here was an officer of the law urging them to stand back and let things be!

Pidcock’s instincts had told him otherwise. The situation required finesse, a calm, tactful approach, and endless patience, precisely what had been lacking until now. If they all charged in together this might very well trigger the violence and bloodshed he sensed brewing. Pidcock had seen it all before. In a split-second decision, based purely on a gut-feeling, he put his trust in the nurse. Knowing nothing of her background or character, there was yet something in her quiet serenity that won his confidence.

Inside the building Lorraine Goswell bumped into wheelbarrows, packing cases, piles of bricks. In all the excitement she had forgotten her torch. The place was pitch dark. She remembered then that the builders had not yet created a rear entrance. O’Neill had strayed into an enclosure from which there could be no escape except the way he had entered. For a moment she faltered, unsure of herself, muscles tensed for the blow in the back. How well did she know this man? Could she really believe in his sanity? Could she be sure he wouldn’t use the knife? What she did know was that it depended on her, and on her alone, to prevent bloodshed.

Outside, all was silent. Not a sound came from within. As the minutes passed, Pidcock sweated. He had seen too much mayhem in the past, too much violence through irrational behaviour, too much personal tragedy, to have any illusions about the gravity of the responsibility he had assumed. If his judgment proved wrong he would bear that cross for the rest of his life.

Lorraine stood still, having no idea which way to turn. She called out, appealing to O’Neill to listen.

“Terry, I’m here to help you. I’m the only one who can. You must learn to trust me!”

The answer came from immediately behind her. Terror froze her limbs. She was now at his mercy. Already she imagined the knife about to be plunged into her ribs.

O’Neill’s reply was caustic, resentful.

“You tricked me. You treated me like a crim. People come into hospital for help, not to be caged like wild animals.”

Lorraine made a supreme effort to sound calm, to quell the fear that raged within her breast. She turned to face him, without being able to see where he stood.

“Terry, I’m sorry for what happened.”

“Why don’t you leave me alone!”

“I don’t want you to come to any harm. Come back with me. I’ll ring Dr. Sullivan myself. They can’t keep you here against your will.”

“Leave me be.”

“Terry, please! Give me the knife.”

The silence from the darkened block was eerie. Pidcock glanced at his watch. It had gone on for too long. And with every minute that passed, fraught with mounting fear that he may have made a ghastly mistake that could never be forgiven, the dread image of what might be happening in that black hole of rubble assumed horrendous intensity.

After another five minutes he could stand the suspense no longer. He had to know. Moving forward slowly, deliberately, he drew his handgun, cocking it for action, every fateful step bringing closer the moment when he knew he might have to kill a man to avoid further mayhem.

At this moment Lorraine Goswell emerged from the rubble, holding the knife in one hand, leading O’Neill with the other. All about her was still. Nobody spoke. Pidcock stood transfixed, his nervous system impervious to further sensory input, overwhelmed by sudden release from the terrible foreboding that had wracked his soul.

As the nurse passed him their eyes met. She smiled. And with that smile, he felt as if he had been raised from the dead. His judgment had not been amiss.   His faith in the young nurse had been vindicated.   Glancing down, he realised that his gun was still cocked.


Gordon Adler is a medical practitioner in the field of radiation oncology, concerned primarily with the treatment of patients with cancer. A graduate of Melbourne University, followed by post-graduate training at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute, Melbourne, he has had many years of experience in both public hospitals and private practice, first in Melbourne and later in Sydney. After eighteen years as Visiting Medical Officer at the Repatriation General Hospital (veterans), Concord, Sydney, and now a resident of Canberra, he is a part-time volunteer guide at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, A.C.T. Gordon is married, with three sons and a daughter.


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