The House at Wood End (Short Story!)
This was the kind of thing you saw in CSI-Miami, not here. Things like this didn’t happen in Australia, they weren’t meant to.
A plastic bag with a single bullet sat atop two overflowing manila folders. This wasn’t just a crime lost on the third page of the Upper Yarra Mail, this was a real person, a girl, someone young, like I had been when—
The voice belonging to Detective Hunter Harris jolted me back to the room.
He’d always been the nice guy even when no one else was.
My eyes lifted meeting his gaze.
The three-piece suit he had on was far too formal for a country town, too formal for the guy I knew when we were sneaking cigarettes in the old shaft behind the school in year ten. His observant whiskey eyes fell on me, assessing my every move.
‘You still with me?’
‘Good. I was explaining the specifics of the murder.’
The murder. Shifting uncomfortably, I looked at the bullet, it was all so impersonal, so cold.
‘I understand this is difficult, but you knew her.’
‘Jessica…. her name was Jessica Lowe.’
‘Yes, I’m aware.’
‘Then you’re aware that I’m just a counsellor.’
‘It’s not your position at the school that I’m hoping will help us.’
He gave me a knowing look and then pulled opened the other file.
‘I know what happened in year twelve.’ He paused for a moment, ‘I tried to call, see how you were…’
‘I wasn’t in a good place.’ I looked away from him.
‘I know, and I also know that the nightmares come regularly and that you take a laundry list of drugs to help you sleep.’
‘They’re all legal.’ I snapped.
A dark brow rose but he continued flicking through the file, ‘Your PTSD stops you stops you from holding down a full-time job.’
‘What has that got to do with anything?’
'You understand Jessica,’ he changed the subject and glanced down at the file with the autopsy report and photographs. ‘You can help me understand.’
I ran a hand over my hair and nodded.
‘Okay,’ He continued. ‘This killer only attacks at risk girls.’
‘She was found with several milligrams of methamphetamines in her system.’
‘No.’ I said, ‘She didn’t mess with that.’
‘Maybe something changed.’
‘No, not with her.’
‘Tori, this is similar to—’
‘No,’ I snapped. ‘It isn’t.’
‘Look, I know you’re here to do a job. But this isn’t that.’
Hunter nodded yet I didn’t get the impression that he agreed with me
‘Why did they call you here?’ I asked.
‘Because I know this town.’
‘Right.’ I turned my attention on the file, my file. ‘Why do you have that?’
‘Your history can help us.’
‘I was held and drugged by a psychopath, God knows what else he did to me, I became an addict and moved to the city. How exactly can that help?’
‘You were already taking drugs, weren’t you?’
My cheeks burned. It was hard growing up in the house I did. Guess it was inevitable.
‘You’re right.’ I said quietly.
He glanced down and I pulled the file towards me. Pictures of a lost and broken girl stared back—pictures of my bruised body and face, my ripped clothes and the very long list of addictions and problems I developed were outlined in red and black.
‘You can help because you went through it.’
‘I got away.’
‘He held you in that house for three days.’
‘I remember.’ I bit, clinging to my bag.
‘Then help me.’ He urged, taking the file back.
My heart kicked up recalling memories I’d worked hard to bury. I slipped my hand into my bag and reached for the bottle of Xanax, but quickly decided against it.
A bullet for the head, right between the eyes, no more midnight sins, no more midnight cries.
God, it’d been six years.
‘Why do you think it’s him?’ I asked.
‘Same MO; holds them in a house for three days—'
‘And then dumps them at the end of the woods.’
For a moment, neither of us said anything. Then he closed both files, packed them up and nodded to the door.
‘Enough for today.’
‘I want to help.’
‘I’m taking you back to school, we’ll talk on the drive over.’
I followed him to the car and got in, when we pulled into the flow of traffic, he glanced over.
‘Jessica Lowe isn’t his first victim here. Samantha Martin died three years ago and Courtney Taylor—'
‘A year ago.’
A flicker of fear shot through me. I remember. I read about Samantha, and Courtney died the same week I moved back here. Hunter pulled into the parking lot stopping beside my car.
‘Tori. There’s something else.’
‘I think he came back here for you.’
‘You got away.’ He said. ‘He’s never lost anyone before.’
Jesus. I shivered. I’d become obsessed with the case, I read whatever I could get my hands on and Hunter was right—I caused him to break his pattern.
Logic told me he was right, fear denied it. I pushed the door open and as I got out, he grabbed my arm.
‘Be careful.’ He handed me a card. ‘I’ve assigned an officer to you; he’ll be nearby at all times.’
I looked up and spotted the officer who nodded at us.
He left as soon as I convinced him that I was okay, and I crossed the road joining James. He was the boss everyone wanted, he was genuine, and kind and I owed him a lot. When I’d moved back here twelve months ago to look after my mother, he’d encouraged me to become a counsellor and he gave me a job the second I had the Diploma in my hand.
Most importantly, he was patient when those days I couldn’t bring myself to leave my bed, prevented me from coming to work.
‘How was the interview?’
‘Awful.’ I sighed. ‘Things like this shouldn’t happen.’
‘No, they shouldn’t.’ He shook his head, ‘If you need some time off, Tori, please let me know.’
‘I’ll be fine.’
After an exchange detailing the following day’s procession, I said goodbye and unlocked my car. The beep that normally alerted me to the disengagement of the alarm failed to sound, I clicked the button again only to realise the car was already open. I looked around and then back at the keys. Cursing under my breath for forgetting to lock it, I got inside. I drove straight to the gym and left the car out front waving down the other girls in the class.
A long, sweaty hour later, we were done, and I was ready for a glass of rosé.
When I pushed the door open and sucked in the fresh air, I stopped abruptly when I saw a man standing by my car. I’d seen him a few times, but I couldn’t recall where.
‘Hi.’ He smiled.
I readjusted my bag. ‘Can I help you?’
‘At the risk of sounding like a total creep, I saw you pull in here while I was driving past, your indicator’s out.’
‘Oh.’ I looked over the car and subconsciously readjusted the keys in my hand like I’d been shown in self-defence. One key poking out through my knuckles and the fist balled.
His eyes shot down to my hand and then he backed away. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you, just wanted to let you know about the light.’
‘It’s fine.’ I lied. ‘Thanks.’
‘No problem, might see you at work.’
‘I’m the new PE teacher.’
‘Oh, right.’ My pulse settled. ‘Adam.’
‘Yeah,’ he smiled, ‘Recognized the car from the teacher’s parking.’
‘Not hard, there’s only a handful of us.’
‘Small school.’ He mused.
‘Anyway, I’ll see you around.’
When he got into his own car and drove away, I went to unlock the door and once again, there was no beep which meant it was most definitely broken. Great. Another thing I had to spend money on. I tossed my gym bag in the back and got in. As I pulled the visor down, I jerked back when a post-it-note fell into my lap.
“Yoga suits you.”
Fear raged to the surface. My eyes darted around the empty parking lot.
With shaking hands, I found Hunter’s card and dialled the number on it. In the time it took him to answer, I was already speeding out of the school.
‘He left me a note!’
‘What? Where?’ He asked.
‘In my car!’
‘Tori calm down. Take a breath.’
‘He was in my car, Hunter, he was here.’
‘Drive home and I’ll meet you there.’
A few short minutes later the tires hit the gravel drive and I sped towards the garage. I got out and left everything the way it was.
In less than ten minutes, I saw Hunter’s car coming down the drive. I paced, habitually chewing my nails. The second he got out, I felt something I hadn’t in years. Hope. I hugged him before I could even process what I was doing. But thankfully, he returned the gesture.
‘Where is it?’ He asked pulling back.
I pointed to the passenger side. He took a few shots and then plucked it out with a tissue.
‘Have you got a Ziploc bag?’
‘Yeah, I’ll get one.’
‘I’ll get it, I’ll check the house too.’
‘Okay.’ I stopped at the door, ‘It’s just down the hall to the left.’
He was gone for a few minutes and then he was back.
He nodded, ‘Talk me through what happened. Where were you?’
‘At the gym.’
‘And you left your car unlocked?’
‘No, I think it’s broken.’
He frowned, ‘And you’ve not had it checked out?’
‘It just started playing up yesterday, but I could have sworn I locked it.’
‘Okay, what else?’
‘There was a guy beside my car.’
‘What did he want?’
‘He said my indicator was out. Do you think he had something to do with it?’
‘I don’t think so.’ He considered what I’d told him and then exhaled. ‘But I don’t think you should stay here tonight.’
‘I can’t do this again.’ My voice was so small I barely recognized it.
‘The officer will stay here and watch your house.’
‘What if he comes for me again?’
‘He won’t.’ A line in his jaw tensed. ‘Stay inside and don’t leave unless the officer clears it.’
‘I can’t believe this is happening.’
‘I won’t let him hurt you again.’
Again. Tears pricked my eyes.
‘It’ll be okay,’ he smiled, ‘You’ll have a tail on you at all times.’
When I agreed, Hunter waved over the officer and introduced us. Once all the instructions were given, he left, and I made my way inside. I leaned on the sill of the bay window and lowered my forehead to the glass. There was something otherworldly about the way the smoky mountains peeked through hazy clouds on a winter’s day.
The night came and went, and Hunter’s promise repeated itself as the sun broke through the canopy of trees in front of my window and woke me. Just as he’d said, Officer Tomkins was just outside, keeping watch. After a shower and a bite to eat, I greeted him and got in my car when he said it was safe. He’d confirmed that no one had come near the property.
When I got to school, I parked beside James’ car, collected my bag and laptop and found him standing beside the staff entry talking to a student. I stopped and moved behind the cricket cage. They were talking in hushed voices and then they stopped. James placed his hand on her shoulder pulling her closer. A sick feeling unfurled in my stomach. Then, he pulled back and she moved away, shoulders squared.
I found myself walking towards them.
‘Melissa.’ I said.
They both turned.
‘Everything all right?’ I asked.
Melissa looked down and nodded.
‘Do you want to talk?’
‘Maybe we should go to my office.’
I didn’t give her a chance to argue and instead, she followed me in silence. James gave me a quick look, which I dismissed. Whatever that was, I wasn’t going to let it go without finding out more.
‘Have a seat.’ I said shutting the door behind her.
‘Is it true?’ She asked, before I could ask her what happened outside.
‘They said he tortured her.’
‘I don’t think we should be thinking about Jessica like that.’
‘Did he rape her too?’
‘We have a right to know.’
‘And you’ll know when the police release a report.’
‘Are we safe?’
‘You’re safe. This was an unfortunate—’
‘What? Accident?’ She scoffed. ‘No, accidents are when you break a nail.’
My mouth dried up.
‘Why did you get away but she couldn’t?’
My eyes snapped up.
‘I know the story, is that why he’s back? Because you escaped?’ Her eyes glistened with tears.
Before I could even form a thought, she was gone. I dropped into my chair and buried my head in my hands. As I looked down, I noticed that the drawer was slightly ajar. I pulled it out and shrieked.
“How much longer can you play this game?”
My hands shook as I gripped the desk. With each breath, I was breaking.
I had to call Hunter. I dialled the number and got out of my office.
When he picked up, my voice was surprisingly calm. ‘He was here.’
‘In your office?’
He disconnected the call and soon, he arrived with a small team and they began processing the evidence. I stood back watching but not seeing.
A gentle hand fell to my shoulder. ‘You doing okay?’
‘You don’t have to lie to me.’ He said. ‘Come on, let’s get breakfast. This will take a while.’
I hesitated but the warm smile he gave me was enough to agree, I was hungry and tired and scared, and Hunter was a beacon of hope. He led us outside and then stopped abruptly. I looked up and saw that he’d spotted Adam. Adam’s eyes landed on me and a wide smile spread across his lips but when he looked over to my side and saw Hunter, his smile vanished. Hunter moved to lead me away, but Adam started towards us.
‘Hi,’ he extended his hand to Hunter. ‘Adam.’
The two men sized each other up.
‘Tori,’ he turned to me. ‘I’m sorry about yesterday.’
‘It’s forgotten.’ I said. ‘Getting the indicator checked out this weekend.’
‘Excellent,’ he looked sideways at Hunter and then back at me, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow for the PD meeting?’
Adam gave Hunter a curt nod and jogged back to the class.
‘Mind if we skip breakfast, I just want to go home.’
It was hard to get out of the house at the best of times, times like these, I just wanted to curl up and pretend the world didn’t exist.
‘Sure thing.’ He led me to my car. ‘I’ll follow you.’
‘You don’t have to.’
‘I want to check the house again.’
For a moment I wondered whether it was more than that but when he looked away, I shot the idea down. He was just doing his job and I was being naive. He took the bag from me and loaded it in the back of my car. A pang of hurt shot through me. Mum always commented on my lack of self-preservation—ironic considering she spent most of my childhood in and out of rehab. But she wasn’t wrong. I tended to jump on the first man who showed me attention, but this was different. We’d known each other for years. I was this messed up girl with a messed-up past just like him…maybe that’s why we gelled. His sister was murdered when he was sixteen. He left school for months and when he came back, he was different. That’s what made us close, he liked me, and I liked him and then everything happened…
‘Ready?’ He asked.
I drove and he followed. When my street came into view, I turned down the gravel driveway and pulled up leaving space on the right.
‘Is there anything we can order in?’
‘Nothing that won’t take hours.’ I muttered.
‘I’m not in a rush.’
My cheeks flushed. ‘I can make us something.’
He stood aside while I unlocked the door then he checked the doorway and the locks, disappeared inside and came back a few minutes later.
For how long? I wanted to ask. How long would I have to live like this, afraid to enter my own house, afraid to be at work.
‘It won’t always be like this.’
‘I hope not.’ I opened the fridge and pulled out ingredients for an omelette.
‘I need to ask you to do something.’
Leaving the eggs on the counter for a moment, I looked up at him and watched as he walked around the bench and planted himself between me and the counter. My breath slowed in the same moment that my heart started to race. He swept both hands over my arms causing my skin to break out in goose bumps.
‘Please stay away from the PE teacher.’
‘I don’t know what it is about him…’
‘You don’t think—’
‘I don’t think anything yet.’
‘Hunter, we work at the same school.’
‘That’s fine, it’s a public place.’
‘What are you thinking?’
‘He was there when you found both notes, right?’
My muscles tightened and a cold chill snaked through my veins.
I couldn’t think.
‘I won’t let anything happen to you,’ His voice was low, and his eyes took on a hooded quality, ‘But please keep your distance, just until I know more.’
‘I’m done being a victim, I can’t do this. I want to live my life.’
‘I know,’ he brought his hand to my cheek, ‘And you’ve been incredibly strong, I’m in awe of you. But this is dangerous, and I need you to let me do my job.’
‘Okay.’ I whispered, and then his lips were on mine, the heart wrenching fear of the unknown suddenly pushed to the recesses of my mind.
Maybe this is what living was, not being owned by my demons or tethered to the past.
As each of my muscles unlocked, I melted into his touch as he kissed my left cheek, and then my right letting his lips linger. As the minutes turned into hours and the day into night, I reluctantly asked him to leave the comfort of my bed when the officer on duty arrived. This was the first day off I’d had in months and it felt so good. I threw out the unused eggs and caught up on some emails and then changed into my yoga pants and runners. The second I stepped outside; Tompkins walked over to me.
‘You really shouldn’t be going out.’
‘You can jog with me.’
‘No thanks,’ he shook his head, ‘But Stead will,’ he called over his partner.
Stead jogged over to me, ‘Usual route?’
We broke into a slow jog and Stead let me run ahead giving me space when I put my headphones in. The cool night was a welcome relief from the oddly warm November days we’d been having. The breeze coming off the Yarra was soothing as I weaved through the few slower joggers taking advantage of the longer days. When I completed the circuit, I cut through the last bend and slowed when I saw Adam jogging up ahead. Stead caught up to me and placed himself between us.
‘It’s okay, he works with me.’
Stead nodded and stepped back .
‘I’m not stalking you; I swear.’ Adam chuckled, ‘Serious security detail you’ve got there.’
‘Yeah, no kidding.’ I glanced back at Stead who was talking on the radio, no doubt telling Tomkins and Hunter about my run.
‘It’s good though.’
‘Yeah.’ I shrugged, nothing about this was good, but I got the sentiment.
Together we walked down the path.
‘How’re the girls doing with the news?’
‘It’s been rough. They’re all dealing with it in their own way.’
‘What about me?’ My guard went up.
‘You’re their shoulder to lean on, can’t be easy.’
Oh. I nodded, ‘It’s fine, I’m just glad I can be there for them.’
When we reached the bend that led to my house, he stopped and looked around, taking in the same view that always stole my breath. Trees as far as the eye could see. Through the wispy trunks, the Yarra wove its way through the earth. The tranquil sound of the gentle water joined the sounds of the forest; birds and cicadas living in the bush disturbed only by the ghosts of the native people.
‘You should stop by after work tomorrow; I can show you the longer tracks.’
‘Yeah?’ He smiled. ‘That would be great.’
‘Perfect, I’ll see you then.’
He jogged off and I hung back for a few more seconds until I saw him run up and over the hill disappearing from view, then I slowly made my way down the long drive towards my house, Stead not too far behind.
A shuffle of footsteps up ahead made me stop. Maybe it was Tompkins, but when I scanned the vicinity and found him inside his car, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I looked around but Stead was already heading back to his partner. Alone, I edged closer to my door. There, I saw the unmistakeable outline of another post-it-note.
“He’s not who you think he is.”
My heart rattled against my ribs and I found myself losing it. The signs of an imminent panic attack came hard and fast. My chest constricted and my throat started closing, as I gasped for air my body started trembling.
With shaking hands, I reached for the note and pulled it free. The door opened, screeching offensively in the silent night.
Oh God, someone was here.
‘Officers?’ I yelled.
Both Tompkins and Stead rushed over.
‘Stand back,’ Tompkins ordered. Together, the two of them disappeared into the house, the blanket of darkness swallowing them up.
Was he still inside?
Was he waiting for me?
I couldn’t just stand out here, he’d be watching, waiting for me to make a move. I stood frozen, staring at the abyss of dark gaping through the half-cracked door and only the broken beam of light from the officer’s torches gave me any indication that something moved in the stillness.
Gritting my teeth, I thought back, there would have been signs, someone would have been around, someone I’d seen, someone who was always there, conveniently available to leave a note.
And when the one name came to mind, I found myself shaking my head.
But he was there at the car…then at work and now…he’d been jogging but he stopped at the bend, did he know where I lived?
It was coincidence. That’s all.
But Hunter said something was off about him, didn’t he? He was trained to see these things.
A violent crash sounded inside the house causing me to jolt, I jerked back and waited, then when a loud gunshot went off, I screamed and without a second thought, I ran, throwing everything into the sprint and nothing into the logic of where I was going.
The footsteps I’d heard earlier got quicker, louder, chasing after me somehow finding their way in the dense dark better than I was. Each metre I put between us was a metre deeper into the dark tree line. My heart hammered wildly against my ribs, pulsing and pounding getting louder and faster. I screamed when my foot hit a tree stump and sent me careering into the ground, my face hit the dirt and split my cheek open causing me to drop my keys. My hands desperately padded around in the grass looking for them and as a shadow moved and stopped up ahead, I froze.
‘I heard you scream, are you okay?’ He came closer.
‘Get away from me!’
‘Hey.’ Adam held his hands out, ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’
‘Get the hell back!’
He stepped over the stump and I scrambled backwards, still searching for my keys.
Hopelessness dawned on me.
‘Easy, I’m here to help, you have to trust me.’
‘Get away from me.’
‘Tori, I’m a—’
His words were cut short when a loud, deafening pop exploded behind me and he went down.
A pair of strong hands grabbed me from behind.
‘I heard you scream.’ Hunter breathed in my ear.
‘What?’ My head was splitting. ‘I don’t understand, why are you here?’
‘Stead called me when he saw Adam.’
My eyes searched his.
‘You okay?’ He tipped my chin up. ‘Did you black out?’
He wrapped his arms around me.
‘Oh God, Hunter. I thought he was going to kill me. You were right, it was him, he was there every time I found a note.’
‘It’s okay, you’re all right now.’
He pulled me against him, holstering his gun.
‘Come on, we need to get out of here.’
‘Aren’t you going to call it in?’
‘I want you safe first.’
As he led me away, I turned back, looking at Adam’s body. How had I been so easily fooled?
But as we moved through the woods getting deeper and further from my house, my heart spluttered. The adrenaline was fading, and clarity was kicking in.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked as we passed yet another back path to my house.
‘Hunter, I want to go home.’
‘I am taking you home.’
‘My house isn’t this way.’
His change of tone chilled me. I stopped, pulling my arm free.
Instead of the warm man I’d invited into my house, into my bed, the man looking back at me was cold, devoid of emotion.
‘You?’ My heart slowed.
‘Yep.’ He smirked. ‘We’re finally here again… I’ve waited so long. Six years in fact.’
My eyes darted around, and sickness filled my stomach. There, through the darkness a rickety old cottage illuminated by a single streetlamp beckoned.
His wide grin shut down every logical thought.
‘Here we are, the house at Wood End.’
As I opened my mouth to scream, his hand shot out and reached for my throat. Instinct kicked in and I launched my knee into his groin.
A muffled grunt sounded giving me a head start, I took it and ran. These were my woods; this was my home and I was not going to be his victim anymore.
‘I’ll always find you!’
Running as fast as I could, I kept my eyes ahead, searching for a clearing. As the Yarra Walk path came up, I ran past it knowing he’d probably expect me to search for a way out.
With each breathless meter I put between us I heard him gaining and keeping pace and finally when my legs threatened to give out, I ran behind a tree and stopped. Tears spilled onto my cheeks, stinging the burning skin.
‘I thought you enjoyed spending time with me?’
I clamped my hand over my mouth stifling a sob.
‘I enjoyed feeling your body against mine when it wasn’t rigid with fear, have to say, it made it a little more interesting.’
I was going to be sick.
‘It’s a shame you didn’t listen to me, now that poor innocent man is dead.’
Oh my God, Adam.
I doubled over as nausea poured through me but when I shifted, my foot slipped from under me and my heart stalled.
‘Found you!’ He jumped out, stunning me, he slammed me back into the tree. ‘A bullet for the head, right between the eyes, no more midnight sins, no more midnight cries. Remember that?’
Kicking and screaming, I bucked and shouted, but there was no give in his hold. All the memories that were locked away, came back in full terrifying clarity. Rational thought disappeared and all I could do was scream, or at the very least try against the steel fist around my throat.
‘Now we’re going to finish this.’
‘Because I wanted to.’
Tears splashed onto my cheeks.
‘You remind me of my sister, I think she would have liked you.’
My eyes snapped up to his, oh God, oh no.
He dragged me towards the house.
‘She cried a lot too.’
‘She also said that a lot.’
And in that split second where I knew I had to make a decision, I remembered the underground shaft running through this area, I threw my head back in an act of desperation. He released me and I ran.
As it came into view, I threw all my energy into the sprint and leapt. For an eternal second as I soared through the air, I prayed that whatever happened next, would be quick. I landed with a rolling thud. He did not. The rotted wood gave way and he dropped into the pit breaking the quiet night. My scream broke the silence as I cried out in relief and with each second that went by, I recalled every moment from when I was seventeen to now. I survived. I got out. I made it.
‘I should’ve stopped it before it got to this.’
My eyes shot up. Adam stumbled towards the embankment and looked down the shaft, peeling off his bullet proof vest which I now saw had a police badge attached to it.
‘I’m so sorry.’ I whispered.
‘Don’t be.’ He smiled, ‘You’re safe. You beat the Wood End killer. It’s over.’