It was the dripping that woke her. And the smell.
In the dark – it might have even been night, though it was always dark – she couldn’t isolate the sound. She decided it was important to know this, if only because it barricaded her from her usual first thought on waking: He’s back.
Steady and rhythmic on the concrete floor: plink, plink. Not rain. Rain was the sound of fingers thrumming on a car roof, an almost underwater echo, down here.
Plink. Plink. Plink. Not rain.
Her left arm was draped out of the bed; she wondered if she’d finally managed to . . . if the drip was coming from her wrist. She’d thought about it once, but failed for courage. He’d found her cradled in a corner, shard in hand, skin unpierced. Too scared to do it, he’d said, and taken the bottles away.
The bottles were gone now. Plink. Plink. Not that either, then.
The dripping sped up. Individual drips blurring together in a spatter. He’d pissed in the corner once, on the floor. Her pulse quickened. Had he come —
— No. That had been loud. And hot. Steam rising from the puddle as if he’d pissed acid. She rubbed her forehead, a near-physical memory: the condensation, the way it had settled, sticky, on her brow. Not that. It was cold now. It was always cold down here.
She thought it was coming from her right. Elevated, from the roof. A pipe in the ceiling maybe. But she’d scoured the bare walls and she remembered no pipes. Besides, pipe water didn’t smell so cloying.
She sat up. Now the dripping seemed to be coming from in front and behind her. More than one leak, then. She put a foot on the floor and gasped. It was freezing. Wet. Tendrils of liquid snaked in between her toes. She stood up, shrugging her blanket off. Shivered. The dripping was getting louder, all around now. Was she imagining it?
It was hard to keep track of things. The time, the day, the most obvious markers. How long she’d been there. Sometimes she began to lose even the most certain things. Who she was. Who she used to be. In the dark, it was easy to lose yourself.
What was her name again? Sometimes she wrote it down. Traced it in the condensation on the walls. Just to remind herself. Others used to write her name, too. Journalists. Detectives. That sort of thing.
She took a step, felt beads of liquid pool at her heel, tumble down the arch of her foot and suicide off her toe. Near the centre of the room it was drier. The residue on her feet peeled off with each step. Shedding skin.
Her name would be gone from the papers now.
In the centre of the room hung a long piece of thick cord with a knot at the end. It turned on a single, dull light. She swung her arm, missed, rotated her torso and tried again.
Maybe her name would pop up again. Perhaps an obituary (though the memory of the shard of glass, useless against her pale skin, suggested that particular mercy was out of reach). Maybe one of those retrospective crime shows. Yes. In a couple more years, maybe, someone would write her name again. Until then, she had to remember it. In case no one else did.
She felt the cord bounce off her forearm. She wished she had her shoes on. Her feet were gently stuck to the floor now, the fluid tacky and deepening around the sides of her feet.
Her name. She tried to focus on that. What did it start with? She knew her parents’ names – Malcolm and Helen. But she’d lost their faces now. Her mother’s had been the first to go. Her father’s soon after. She still had images of them in her head, sure, but those images were distorted. They were the cinematic versions of her parents – missing the moments that made them real, a slight bruise on an elbow, the black tooth at the back of her mother’s jaw you could only see when she laughed: those human flaws. In her mind her dad wore a suit – he hadn’t worn a suit since he’d retired – and a tie he didn’t own. His face was a kaleidoscope, composited from a fragmented collection of memories. There was only one face she remembered now.
She shook her head, went again for the cord. The liquid sounded as if it was gushing down the walls all around her now. The sickly sweet smell had crept into the back of her throat. She tried to remind herself of these simple facts often. Malcolm and Helen. Plink. Malcolm and Helen. Simple concepts, her mind wrestling them into reality. No one could take those from her. Not even him.
Eliza! Her cheeks flushed with the discovery. Malcolm, Helen and Eliza. She couldn’t believe she’d forgotten so much. Her own name fished, thrashing, from the swamp of her confusion. But now she had the name in her head, she couldn’t fit into it. It was as if it were someone else’s name. Someone else’s confidence hitching around Australia. Someone else’s charm talking her into work at pubs and farms and vineyards. Someone else’s brashness cashing in on some good old-fashioned blackmail. Maybe she couldn’t remember her name because that Eliza was dead: nothing but a wisp of lingering smoke from a snuffed-out candle. You’re being dramatic, she told herself. You’re confused from being down here for . . . How long had she been down here?
That was a more slippery truth. She’d begun by counting sleeps, but that proved futile when she started sleeping when she was hungry. And she was always hungry. A few months, though; that sounded fair. Longer? A year? Long enough to not be in the papers. Long enough to lose herself. She felt the cord against the back of her wrist and twirled her hand to catch it.
She thought back to the shard of glass, harmless in her hand. He said she’d been too scared. He was wrong. She hadn’t been scared enough. Eliza Dacey turned on the light. She saw her blood-red footprints leading from the bed. Droplets sputtered from the roof, feeding the dark liquid monster that was consuming the floor. And long, almost-black rivulets ran down all four walls. All a violent, cascading red.
The walls were bleeding.
She was scared enough now.
Officer Ian McCarthy of the NSW Police Force, after having been first duly sworn, did testify:
Direct Examination BY Ms ALEXIS WHITE:
Q: For the benefit of the court, could you state your name and occupation?
A: Officer Ian McCarthy. I am a police officer stationed in Cessnock, and I patrol the surrounding area.
Q: And this area includes Birravale, and the Wade Wines vineyard?
Q: You can just say yes.
Q: And you were one of the first responders to the scene of the murder of Ms Eliza Dacey?
A: Yes. I was driving and Andrew Freeman was in the passenger seat.
Q: Tell us what you did when you got there?
A: Well, we arrived around two a.m. We drove up to the victim. Got out, picked her up and put her in the back of the car to take her to the hospital.
Q: And why would you do that?
A: I don’t - - your honour, I don’t understand the question.
The Court: Rephrase, Ms White.
Q: Why wouldn’t you cordon off the crime scene for a murder investigation? Why did you put her in the back of the car?
A: She might have been alive.
Q: You didn’t notice she was dead?
A: I’m not a doctor. She was a bit blue, I guess.
The Court: Settle down.
Q: Did you look at the body?
Q: You saw a naked girl with two amputated fingers crammed in her mouth and you didn’t think she was dead enough to establish a crime scene?
A: Uh - - Affirmative.
If Eliza Dacey had only had the common decency to wear shoes when she was murdered, Jack Quick’s life would have been a lot easier.
At the very least, he wouldn’t have been picking through shrubbery at two in the morning. And, probably, he wouldn’t be famous.
He pulled foliage aside left and right, bent over at the hip like he was looking for the coldest beer in an esky. He wished he’d brought a better torch – the dull rusty glow only served to blend the browns of sticks and leaves together.
He straightened up, closed his eyes and inhaled. The corners of his eyes were hot, tired. He was beginning to doubt he’d seen it at all. It was a two-and-a-half-hour drive out here. Picture lock was at dawn. Not much time left.
It was a smallish area to search. Most of the vineyard was neat, short grass. Though this section was a small natural garden that backed onto wilder bush past the fence line. He’d strayed too far in, he thought, and took a step back to centre himself against a large gum. He winced. He’d rolled his ankle jumping over the fence.
Behind him, trellises raked down a slight incline towards a homestead. It was a solid, red-wooded, old-fashioned structure with a tin peaked roof and strong wooden door. He knew; he’d knocked on it before. Not tonight, though.
There was a small gravel walk between the house and a much newer building, a circular pontoon from which the vines seemed to splay out like spokes in a wheel. This building sparkled in the sun, three hundred and sixty degrees of curved glass windows. Inside, he knew, were crisp white tablecloths and palm-sized wine goblets, row by row. Tables, glasses, wines, windows, grapes – vineyards are all about symmetry. Only five years old, too; Curtis had built it when he moved in. Only bought the winery off the old owner, Whittaker, on the condition they knocked the old restaurant down first. Didn’t want to be attached to anything old. The new restaurant was a beautiful structure, a bona fide tourist attraction, but Jack hadn’t been able to gawk on the drive in – his headlights had been off since Pokolbin.
He bent back over and resumed scratching through the vegetation. Four years was a lot of regrowth. The torch was too dim, useless. He pulled out his phone, flicked the light on. It scorched the earth white. Too bright. A beacon. He shoved it back in his pocket.
He chanced a look back at the house. The lights were off. Good.
It was freezing. Mist cut the sky in half horizontally, as if the world had a ceiling. Most of the vines were laden with fruit, but nearby some of the lattices were empty. He could see their wooden stakes and bald wires, stark in the moonlight. Homemade prison fences. As if there was something in this serene, symmetrical estate that needed to be kept here.
Jack didn’t know a lot about winemaking, but he knew that soil quality was bantered more than footy scores out here. Acidity. That was a word they loved using. He looked at the empty vines. The soil here, perhaps it was spoiled.
He got his phone back out, cupped his hand and angled the light at the ground. The object had been on the right, on-screen. He started at the base of the tree, swept to the right, slowly brought it back in. When he hit the tree, he tilted the phone up and swept to the right again. He hoped he might not have seen it on the screen at all. That he might have imagined it. He leveraged the angle again, swept back out.
There. It was real. He cursed again the dead girl’s lack of foresight. He had a decision to make now. The difference between success, fame, a legacy, and fading away like he always had. This would ruin everything he’d worked for. He knew what he wanted to do. He also knew what he should do. Those feelings were not the same.
The homestead lights switched on.
Crunching gravel bore through the silence. A whistle. A faster patter now: many quick, small steps. A dog.
He didn’t have time to think; he grabbed the object and ran. Get there. Come on. Get there. It was a lopsided run, favouring his left, and he lumbered over the fence hard and landed on his side. Dropped the object. Fuck. The grass was wet against his cheek. The mist had settled, descending ghosts.
A strong beam shot up in the air, cutting through the fog. Unexpectedly, he felt a pang of not fear but jealousy: Lauren had a better flashlight than he did.
He pushed himself up to his knees, patted the ground until he found it. He ran to the car, immediately felt dizzy – too much running on an empty stomach – and leaned against the bonnet for a second. He had a second. Breathed in, tried not to focus on the pain. The dog sounded close now, no more time. He jumped in, tossing his find on the passenger seat, and shot off, no headlights, into the darkness.
The moon was high and bright. Vast quadruple lane bridges spanned canyons hundreds of metres deep. In the daylight, red rock cliff-faces plunged into deep blue glittering water below. But in the dark, the bridges soared over nothingness, long black holes. In between gorges, rock walls loomed – the road a deep wound blasted through each mountain. Not a tunnel, a gash: open to the sky but encased in rock, dark with trickling water, either side. The bridges and cliff walls alternated every couple of hundred metres, giving Jack the feeling he was both in the middle of the air, and deep underground. Safe enough now, he flicked the headlights on.
He gripped the steering wheel so hard his fingers were white and the curve of his bones showed through. He’d always had thin, cold hands. Bad circulation. Vampiric fingers designed to protrude from, curl around the lids of, coffins. Not a man’s hands, really.
He crunched the transmission into fifth. The mist had settled low on the road, illuminated in the headlights. His car broke it apart, sending the rolling vapours back to the gutters, where it stayed until he’d passed, when it crept back onto the road, reforming like it had never been broken.
After a few kilometres he had to pull over. His head was swimming, his vision fuzzy. He took a sip of water. Sometimes that helped, something in the mouth. His hands hurt, peppered with tiny scratches. He’d been looking behind him, but he hadn’t seen any following lights. He didn’t really expect any, having stolen something that wasn’t even supposed to be there.
Stolen. The word tasted bitter. It wasn’t meant to be like that.
What felt worse was that, in his mad dash to the car, he’d run right through her spot. The patch of overgrown grass at the end of the final row of grapes, closest to the road.
That’s where Eliza had been found. Four years ago. Strangled. Two fingers cut off and shoved in her mouth. Naked. Barefoot.
That would definitely have fucked with the acidity.