- Published: 22 January 2019
- ISBN: 9780143793366
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 448
- RRP: $19.99
There were predators beyond the wire. I knew they were there, although in the months since my incarceration I hadn’t yet seen one. My evening ritual was to come down to the shore and look for the ominous rise of two dead eyes above the surface of the water, the flick of a spiky tail. Feeding time. Half a tonne of prehistoric reptile lolling and sliding beneath the sunset-lit water, separated from me by nothing but an old, rusty fence. I looked for crocodiles every day, drawn to the bottom of my isolated property on Crimson Lake by the recollection of being one of them. Ted Conkaffey; the beast. The hunter. The monster in hiding from whom the world needed to be protected.
I couldn’t stop myself coming down here, though holding the wire and watching for crocs brought up the comparisons, the dark thoughts, all those scary old memories of my arrest, my trial, my victim.
She was never far from my mind. Claire would come to me at the strangest times, more vivid than she possibly could have been when she first etched herself into my memory, standing there at the bus stop by the side of the road. Every time I thought about her, I saw something new. Gentle wind from the approaching rain tossing her almost-white hair over her thin shoulder. The glaring outline of her small, frail body against the blue-black clouds gathering on the horizon.
Claire Bingley was thirteen years old when I stopped my car beside her on the ragged edge of the highway. She’d stayed at a friend’s house the night before. Her backpack was stuffed with pyjamas, half-eaten bags of lollies, a brightly coloured magazine; little-girl things that would in a few short hours be spread over an evidence table and dusted with fingerprint powder.
We had looked at each other. We’d hardly spoken. But on that fateful day, the backpack would stay by the side of the highway while the girl came with me. I snatched her right out of her beautiful little life and pulled her, kicking and screaming, into my depraved fantasy. In a single act, I ruined everything that she ever hoped she could be. If all my plans had come to fruition, thirteen would have been her last birthday. But she survived the fiend that I was. Somehow, she crawled back out of the woods where I left her, a fractured remnant of who she’d been when she stood before me at the bus stop.
At least, that’s what everyone says happened.
Only half of that story is true. I did stand before the child at the bus stop that day, impossibly taller and broader and stronger than her, opening the back door of my car, watching her nervous eyes. But in reality, I’d only pulled over to shift my fishing rod off the back seat where it sat leaning against a window, tapping irritatingly on the glass as I drove. I’d spoken to Claire Bingley briefly, but what I’d said wasn’t an invitation to come with me, a plea or a threat. I’d made some stupid comment about the weather. Cars full of witnesses had whizzed past us on the road, looking out, photographing us with their suspicious minds, knowing that we weren’t father and daughter, that something was wrong here. Premonition. I’d got back in my car and driven away from Claire, forgetting her instantly, having no idea what was about to happen to her. Or me.
Someone did abduct that little girl, just seconds after I’d been there. Whoever he was, he did take her into the woods and violate her, and he did make that awful decision, the worst a person can make – he decided to kill her. But she survived, too traumatised to know who the hell had done this to her, too broken to put anything much about the crime into words. It didn’t matter what Claire said anyway, in the end. The public knew who’d done this. Twelve people had seen the child, seen me standing not far from her, talking to her, the back door of my car yawning open.
I’d heard the story of Claire’s attack described so many times across my trial and incarceration that it was easy to see myself doing it. There are only so many times you can hear a lie before you start living and breathing it, actually remembering it like it was real.
But it was not real.
I’m not a killer or a rapist. I’m just a man. There are things I am, and things I used to be. I used to be a cop, a new father, a devoted husband. I’d been someone who could never imagine myself wearing handcuffs, sitting in the back of a prison van, standing in the queue for chow in a correctional facility food hall, a wife-killer in front of me and a bank-robber behind. There had been only one little girl in my life, my daughter Lillian, whose existence on the earth I was still measuring in weeks when I was arrested.
I used to read voraciously. I drank red wine, and I danced in the kitchen with my wife. I regularly wore odd socks and I often left beard stubble in the bathroom sink. I was an ordinary guy.
Now I was a runaway living on the edge of nowhere, looking for crocs, watching the sun disappear beyond the mountains across the lake. Wandering back up the hill, my hands in my pockets and bad thoughts swirling. When an accusation like that comes into your life, it never leaves. The story of what I had done to Claire Bingley played on and on, in the minds of my ex-colleagues, my friends, my wife, Claire Bingley’s parents and the barrister who prosecuted me before my trial collapsed; they saw it just as vividly as I saw it. An unreal reality. A false truth.
People passed the story on to each other in whispers as I walked into the court in cuffs. The media printed it. The television stations ran it. The story was so real that it came to me in flashes of light in the strangest moments – while I was showering, while I was sitting alone on the porch drinking Wild Turkey and watching the water. I dreamed about it often, woke sweating and twisted in my sheets.
I am not, and never have been, a paedophile. I don’t find children sexually attractive. I never laid a hand on Claire Bingley. But that doesn’t matter. To the world, I was a monster. Nothing was ever going to change that.
Working on my goose house seemed to drive out the darkness, so I went to the newly erected structure and stood before it, making plans. Around me on the sprawling, empty lawn, seven geese wandered, plucking at the grass, muttering and clucking contentedly to each other. When one settled by my feet, her hunger apparently sated, I reached down and stroked the back of her soft grey neck, the feathers collapsing, weightless, until I felt the soft, warm flesh of her neck underneath. My geese don’t think I’m a monster, and that’s something, at least.
I never planned on being a goose daddy. I spent eight months in prison with no idea if I was ever going to see the outside world again, let alone what I might do if I was ever released. I didn’t have a home to go to. Three weeks after my arrest, my wife Kelly had started to turn her back on me, the weight of the evidence against me and the pressure of the public opinion simply too much for her to withstand. I didn’t make any plans for life after the accusation. I was taken to prison and I tried to survive each day there without going completely insane or getting myself killed. Then, without warning, three months into the trial proceedings, with my lawyer looking more strained and exhausted with every passing day, the Department of Public Prosecutions dropped the charges against me. The legal procedure, a motion of ‘no billing’, meant that I was not technically acquitted. I was not guilty – but I was not innocent either. There simply wasn’t enough evidence to ensure I would be convicted, so they decided to let me go until new evidence could be acquired, if any ever surfaced. With the knowledge that I could be re-charged at any time, I was sent out into a city full of hate. I went home, packed my things and fled north on nothing more than the instinct to hide and terror of the public’s revenge. Kelly wasn’t at home when I left. She refused to see me. I had to borrow a car from my lawyer.
Not long after I’d arrived in Crimson Lake and rented this small, beat-up house, a mother goose with a broken wing had showed up and interrupted my sunset drinking, squawking and flapping on the other side of the wire – the croc side. It was the first time in more than a year that I’d laid eyes on a creature more helpless than myself. The three-foot-tall, snow-white anser domesticus, which I named Woman, had six fluffy chicks trailing behind her, just begging something slippery and primordial to emerge from the dark waters of the lake and snap them up. Since then, Woman the goose and her babies and I had lived together on the edge of the water and tried to heal.
Her babies had grown up quickly, and these were the creatures that surrounded me now as I assembled their new living quarters, approaching at times, examining my bare feet in the lush grass or pecking at my pockets where I sometimes kept grain pellets. Watching, their beady eyes following my hands as I pushed the screws into the corrugated iron roof of the cubbyhouse. Yes, instead of a proper goose coop, I’d acquired a children’s cubbyhouse.
Not the most sensible idea for a notorious accused child rapist living in hiding with no children at home. I’d found the cubbyhouse online, free to whomever was willing to come and pick it up from the nearby town of Holloways Beach. I’d scrolled past it at first. It was a dangerous idea. Vigilantes and gawkers had learned of my presence not long after I arrived in town, and they still drove by my house every now and then, curious about the man who’d somehow escaped justice. And one in three times when I opened the front door to a knock, it was a journalist who greeted me, notebook and pen thrust out like guns. All it would take was for one of these people to spy the cubbyhouse in the backyard to bring the press and the public mob to my front door, pitchforks in hand, once more.
But money hadn’t exactly been in abundance, and the cubbyhouse was free. A genuine goose coop cost anything from $1200 upwards, and all I really needed to do to the cubbyhouse was remove the floor and replace it with wire, and build a ramp to the entrance for Woman and her young. Since I’d found them, the family of geese had settled on the porch of my small, barren house, and I liked to sleep out there on the couch sometimes when the night was hot and loud with the barking of crocodiles and the cry of night birds. More than once I’d been awakened at dawn by the sensation of a goose beak foraging for bugs in my hair. Sometimes the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes in the morning was a curious bird-face inches from mine, waiting for me to hand out the breakfast pellets. Something had to give.
I squatted in the grass and swept away some of the cobwebs from under the cubbyhouse, tested the base with my fingers. I would cut it out with a jigsaw, staple a sheet of wire across the bottom, then fit a steel tray I could unhinge and spray out to keep the house clean. The construction of the cubby was solid and would protect the birds from the foxes and snakes that sometimes made guest appearances around the property, preying on waterhens down by the shore. I went to the front of the cubbyhouse and opened the shuttered windows, tore down the mouldy curtains that some kid had probably spent many years enjoying drawing against the outside world, closing their little house off in privacy for their games. Playing house. My daughter might have enjoyed a cubbyhouse like this. She was going to be two years old in a week. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her in person, held her, warm and wriggling, against my chest.
‘I’ll tie these up for now,’ I said, pushing the shutters closed on the windows, showing the geese as the chipped wooden frames clicked into place. ‘But eventually I’ll probably put locks on. You can have them open during the day. You lot are sleeping in here tonight.’ I pointed, stern. ‘You’re not sleeping with me. It’s getting weird.’
Woman, the only white goose, wandered close at the sound of my voice and tilted her small head, eyeballing me. I reached out to pat her but she swung her head away as she usually did, muttering. She’d never been very affectionate, but I’d never stopped trying to win her over.
‘Two shelves for roosting.’ I showed her, levelling my hands halfway up the house, mapping out my vision. ‘And I’ll put in some of that straw you like. Snug and safe, the lot of you. It’ll be grand – probably grander than you need, but I’m a nice guy. What can I say?’
I shrugged, looked for an answer. The goose looked away.
I talked to my geese all the time. Particularly Woman. I recognised that I had started doing it at the same time as I realised it was too late to stop. I talked to her like I would a wife. Updated her about things I’d seen while out and about in the town, chatted to her absent-mindedly, let her in on my thought processes. I would talk to the bird through the screen door to the kitchen while I cooked dinner, throwing things into the pot on the stove, the bird settled on the porch just outside the door, preening. I’d heard that lonely people talk to themselves. I’m not sure I was lonely, exactly, but I sorely missed having a wife. Kelly used to sit at the kitchen table when I was cooking, drinking wine, flipping through magazines, as uninterested in my ramblings as the regal mother bird. You can talk to people in prison, of course; there are no rules against it. But the guards will invariably answer you in single words until you give up and go away, and I was housed in protective segregation because of the nature of my charges. The inmates in my pod were mostly paedophiles, and paedophiles rarely come into the company of others of their kind in the outside world. So they like to talk about what they have in common. A lot. The only feedback I ever got from the geese was questioning looks and indecipherable bird babble – but I never had nightmares about that.
I left the geese and went up the stairs to the porch and into the kitchen. There were cable ties in the bottom drawer beside the sink, left over from some running repairs I had done when I moved into the old house. Deciding I’d use them to secure the windows of the cubby, I crouched and rummaged around in the clutter for them.
I was just slower than my attacker had anticipated as I rose up. If he’d been on point, he’d probably have killed me. But the wooden baseball bat whizzed over the top of my head and smashed into the wine bottles lining the windowsill, spraying wine and glass everywhere.
Emotion whipped up through me, an enormous swell of terror and anger and shock that seemed to balloon out from under my ribs and sizzle down my arms and over my scalp. There wasn’t time to shout out, ask questions. A man was in my kitchen and he was swinging at me viciously with a baseball bat, my own bat, a weapon I’d been keeping just inside the front door to threaten the vigilantes with. He swung again and got me in the upper arm. The pain blinded me. I put my hands up, a reflex. The bat was coming again. I couldn’t see my attacker. It was happening too fast. Shock of blond hair. Black eyes. I bowed and threw myself at his waist.
We crashed into the dining-room table and chairs. Ridiculously logical thoughts started zipping through my brain, caught and pulled down randomly from the whirlwind. The geese were screaming in the yard. The lights were on, and I hadn’t turned them on. There was blood on my hands. The man had hit me in the face and I hadn’t even felt it. I was yelling ‘Fuck! Fuck!’ and he was saying nothing, determined only to hurt me, to bring me down.
He wasn’t bigger than me. Not many people are. But there was a fury in him so hot and wild, he had all the impossible strength of a cornered animal. His anger would trump my desire to survive in this struggle. I knew it, but I kept fighting, kept growling, kept trying to get a hold of any part of him, his shirt, his hair, his sweat-damp neck. He dropped the bat. I pinned him and he bucked and I fell against the cupboards. His fist smashed into the side of my head from low down, a full-arm swing up and into my temple. The floor smacked my face. Hands around my throat, a tight band of fingers crossing my windpipe. I didn’t even have time to fear that I was going to die. I grabbed at his knuckles and then passed out.
From where she sat at the back of the bus, the driver’s death was a confusing spectacle to Emily Jackson.
BookShots are short, high-impact stories by James Patterson and other writers that can be read in one sitting.
She was perfect. And so rarely the perfect ones came, fluttering out of the darkness like moths into golden light. Swift and uncatchable.
I WASN’T PRESENT at the courthouse in Erva, Alabama, on that morning in June, when events unfolded that would suck me into the undertow of Douglas County.