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Maslin[A] tight, nerve-racking exercise in coolly Hitchcockian suspense...a formidably suspenseful thriller...
—The New York Times
He hadn't meant her to die. It was a cruel trick of fate that she had; that in spite of all his efforts her head, with its stiffly lacquered dark hair, lolled helplessly when he tried to move her, and that the half open dark eyes gazed, slyly-bright, into nothingness. He had thought at first she was shamming; taunting him some more; reminding him of things he wanted to forget, not remembering that it was unlikely that she should even know about his past. He had shaken her till his arms had ached, but it hadn't altered anything. The slyly-bright eyes didn't open and her slack red mouth refused to utter so much as a protest.
He urged her, "You're fooling, aren't you? Say it's all right. You made me crook and if I got rough you asked for it, didn't you? You did, didn't you?"
She wouldn't answer.
In the end he got slowly to his feet, standing there, suddenly trembling hands thrust deep into the sheepskin-lined pockets of the leather jacket.
Her black stockings had a small hole in the left leg, just above the knee. He could see the white flesh circled there, stark and bare, where the red skirt had ridden up a little. There was a long streak of dirt across the red of the skirt, too, and her black twinset was crumpled and twisted round her thin body. He didn't dare look at her face any more. His gaze flickered up and over the stiffly lacquered hair. It seemed someway indecent to him that in spite of her crumpled, soiled appearance the hair was still tightly correct, as though she was waiting for another date; as though as soon as he turnedhis back she would get up and go away
Deep in his dazed brain he knew that he had to move and get right away from her and from the lake and the carpeting red leaves on which she lay. He had to go right away before he was found there and they locked him up for what had happened.
But he hadn't meant her to die. He said it aloud, his voice a harsh whimpering croak in the stillness of the place. He hadn't meant her to die. It was her own fault it had happened. He hadn't meant it to happen that way at all.
He had been out for fun that Sunday. He had seen her waiting at the bus stop and had known, right away, that she wasn't waiting for any bus. You could tell it about the girls like her. They never stood right at the yellow stop—just a little to one side of it, so they could pretend, when a bus did come along, that they were just there waiting to meet a bloke or some other sheila, who was coming along any minute.
What they were waiting for in reality was a bloke in some car who would pull in and give them the time of day, parrying words with them while their calculating gaze ran over the car and its owner, deciding just what they were worth for a date.
He'd seen it happen dozens of times. He had tried it himself, only it wasn't often one of them accepted his offer of a lift and a coke or coffee somewhere. He had only the motor-scooter and scooters didn't rate highly with the sort of girl who stood just to one side of a bus stop. Their bright eyes were on the lookout for cars, the bigger, the shinier, the better, or bright new bikes. A scooter was a small thing to them.
But he'd chanced his luck that day when he had seen her waiting. The street had been quite deserted except for himself and the girl and a ginger dog harrying a flea, and she had looked so gay and bright in the red skirt, with the red bow stuck in the mass of upswept black hair—gay and bright against the grey contrast of the quiet, dull-skyed Sunday.
He'd pulled up beside her and said, "Well?" and after a minute the blue-shadowed lids of her eyes had blinked down over her calculating stare.
She had asked, "What do you want?" but when he had laughed at the question and told her to come off it, she had suddenly laughed too. It had been easy after that. He'd been pleased, with a warm happiness under the leather jacket, right where her slim hands had pressed as she had held on to him as the scooter had travelled towards the lake. He'd even whistled a little, thinking of the hours ahead.
But everything had turned sour later on, when she'd realised he just wanted to talk; to tell her about all his ideas—all the jumble that pressed and burned in his brain and to which no-one would ever listen. She had said at first, "Well, you're a queer one, aren't you?" and tried to break across his talk, but he hadn't let her and after a while the red mouth had turned down. She had even started to hum, to sing half under her breath, the drone of it hiding the words, annoying him.
When he had told her to be quiet and listen she had retorted flatly, "Who says I got to? I didn't come to sit and freeze and listen to you. You're silly anyway."
He'd been angry then, and she'd grown angry in turn. She had called him silly again and told him he ought to be locked up and blind fury had taken over his actions. He'd wanted only to shut out the words: to stop the taunting, when he had caught her by her slim throat.
At first she had looked astonished, then angry, then her expression had changed to fear and panic and pain. He could remember, looking down at her, the way it had kept changing till suddenly there had been only blankness left.
But he hadn't meant her to die.
In sudden terrified revulsion he tugged at her, managing, his breath coming in sobbing gasps, to drag her to the edge of the incline overlooking the grey, undisturbed waters of the lake. With a last shove he pushed her and stood watching, his mouth open in heaving gulps of air, as she rolled slowly downwards into the water.
She didn't cause an upheaval or loud splashing. The red of her skirt simply mingled with the red reflections of the flame trees in the grey water, the black of her twinset and hair looking like shadows across it.
He was half sobbing as he stumbled away. The leaves that carpeted the ground under the trees seemed to cling to his boots, as though they were trying to hold him, stopping him getting away. He went blundering through them, heavy-footed only one urgent thought now with him—to get back to the motor-scooter and get right away, back along the rutted dirt road to the highway and the town.
Then he saw them.
He saw the child first and stopped dead, standing there with his hands thrust again into the sheepskin-lined pockets of his jacket, thought turning from the urgency that pleaded with him to get away, to the knowledge that he hadn't been alone in the reserve.
He stood staring, taking it all in in a slow sweep of his blue eyes, from left to right. He could see the trees, some of them bare-branched, some of them still leafed in flame and orange, the gums still green in the foliage they would hold all through the Australian winter. And below them the child running, dancing.
She was wearing a brown skirt and yellow coat—the skirts of it twirling out round her as she moved, her plump arms out-thrust as she twirled on the toes of her brown strapped shoes. Her pigtails moved too—two thin out-thrusts tied with brown ribbons at the sides of her round solemn face. She was quite intent on what she was doing, unaware of him as he stood there, and after a moment he took a step backwards.
Then he saw the woman.
She had the same light brown hair as the child, but hers hung straight, brushed back from her pale forehead, with a brief upflick at the ends of it. She was wearing green slacks, her long legs curled slightly under her.
And she was watching him.
He turned slowly, meeting her eyes. His wits couldn't cope with the unexpectedness of seeing them there. He'd heard nothing, yet all the time she and he had been ... his thoughts baulked and stopped.
He said, whispered, "Hello."
* * *
Rachel had been feeling pleasantly relaxed and at peace. She never minded coping with nine-year-old Ann. She had said so that morning to Deidre, when her sister-in-law had rung and gone into one of the breathlessly involved explanations that seemed to have no ending and which were particularly her own.
She had propped herself comfortably against the cushions of the blue couch, tucked the phone under her chin and gone on painting her nails, waiting for Deidre to come to the point. When that had happened she had said, "Of course. I don't mind. Ann's never any trouble."
She had refrained from adding that in her private opinion her niece was a small edition of her solicitor father, Roger Penghill, who had rarely, when he and Rachel had shared a nursery together, summoned together the necessary devilment of character to get into even the mildest of trouble, and had added, "I'll collect her in an hour and we'll picnic. I'll trot her back this evening. Just keep calm."
"It's all very well ..." the heated protest had made Rachel laugh.
She had said gently, "I know. I don't realise the stresses and strains of married life. Let's thank God for it and not get on to my on-the-shelf condition. I'll trot her back this evening as promised, or wait on ... do you want me to rally round this evening as well? How long is this shindig of yours going to last?"
"That's the rub, I simply don't know," Deidre had wailed. "But tonight's all right, because we were meaning to go out anyway, and I've got to cancel that now and it's going to be frantically awkward because Wilma always does something elaborate and being Sunday she'll have fixed most of it yesterday probably and then there'll be just the two of them to eat it ... oh and the dog of course ... but you couldn't feed a dog on duck say, without feeling guilty I should think ... but anyway I'd arranged for Sandy to come in."
"The Purple Peril?" Rachel had murmured, contemplating her gleaming nails with satisfaction.
"What? Oh well, she is rather, isn't she? All those horrible purple clothes and that make up ... but she is responsible. I wouldn't pay her four shillings an hour otherwise and she's coming this evening, so if you'll bring Ann back and wait around till Sandy comes up I'll be eternally grateful."
Even with that settled k had taken Deidre another ten minutes before she was satisfied everything was fully agreed. Rachel had already ceased to listen long before she replaced the receiver. She was simply sitting there debating what to wear and where to go. She had decided on green slacks and the thick russet pullover that was warm if not exactly beautiful, and was pondering the thought of a lake picnic by the time Deidre hung up.
As she had known would be the case, Ann was no trouble. The child agreed to the lake and to suggestions of what they would eat with a calm affability and sunny smile and had made only one request of her own—that they should stop off and buy a new box of crayons for her drawing-book.
She had settled down happily in the reserve to draw the autumn scene, leaving Rachel to her own thoughts and the soft music of the low-tuned radio beside them. She had hardly noticed Ann leave the book finally and go dancing away under the trees. She was quiet, absorbed in the faint music, the slow flutter of leaves from the flame trees and the tingle of slowly chilling air on her face.
It was the last fact that was penetrating her thoughts when she saw him. She was beginning to wonder if they had better return home; whether it was going to rain; whether they could find a warmer spot in the deserted reserve, when she realised there was someone else there. Someone besides Ann.
When she looked round he was watching the child, so intently, her own gaze turned in quick anxiety to look at the dancing figure. Reassured that nothing was wrong there, she looked back at him, taking in the bulky-looking body—a bulk not altogether due to the heavy leather coat, she was sure, but to fat as well; the butter-yellow hair flopping over his forehead; the youth of his half averted face.
Then he turned, looking full at her with round blue eyes. He said dully, after a moment, "Hello."
"Why, hello to you, too," she said briefly.
She thought, now that she could see him full-face, that he wasn't as young as she had thought him at first. Twenty-one or two, or even a bit older, she reflected, then wondered why she bothered to notice. She was suddenly angry that he had broken into her pleasantly peaceful mood. She hoped he didn't intend to stay around, talking inanities, or even in an immature way, trying to pick her up. She was sure, gazing at him, that anything he tried in that line would have immaturity about it. Then she reflected, half in amusement, half in relief, that Ann's presence was a guarantee against him even trying. One didn't, however gauche, try to pick up a woman who was towing a child around.
But abruptly she found herself wishing he would say something more. His stare was becoming disconcerting, his rigidity a little unnerving. And then she thought in amazement, "Why, he's sweating. On a day like this. At the tail end of autumn. In a place like this. How odd." Because she could see the fine sheen of moisture on his pale face.
Even while half of her was still listening to the music, she was thinking of the oddness of it, wondering if he had been running, even of what he might be wearing under the thick leather jacket.
Then abruptly he made a strange choked sound deep in his throat and went stumbling away, his blundering feet sending little spirals of disturbed leaves into the air behind him. Uneasiness touched her, the uneasiness that went with an oddity unexplained. She went on sitting there, the music forgotten now, reflecting on his sudden appearance, his dulled voice, his stare, and the blundering departure, and then moisture touched her face, gently at first, then stingingly on her bare skin.
She called "Ann!" and saw the child was already moving. She called again, "The car—run for it!" and grabbed at the radio, the rug and the picnic basket, hugging them all awkwardly to her slim body as she tried to run after the child.
There was dampness on her shoulders and face and she could smell the tang of dampness in her hair, too, when she scrambled into the car at last, leaning over to drop the things onto the back seat.
She was turning the ignition key when she asked suddenly, "Ann, did you see that man?"
The child looked back blankly, her round face solemn.
"It doesn't matter," Rachel told her and then so suddenly that she actually laughed, she thought of the reason for his rigidity, his brief speech, his blundering departure. He had meant to try to pick her up of course, and then he had seen Ann dancing. Disappointment had dulled his wits for a little and then he had blundered off in angry impatience.
It would be something, she reflected in wicked amusement, to tell to Deidre. Dear, but at times thoroughly exasperating Deidre, who regarded her sister-in-law's twenty-nine-year-old spinsterhood as an affront to nature and common-sense.
"I might be fading rapidly," she would declaim dramatically, "but I'm not beyond getting a pass or two ..."
She said, still half laughing, "It's no use stopping out in the rain. We'll go home—play cards if you like or anything else you fancy. Will that do?"
* * *
The black fear that had settled down on to his mind couldn't be washed away by the rain trickling down his face. He had made no move to start the scooter. When it had finally dawned on him what he'd done he had been incapable of doing anything. All he could think of was that the woman had seen him. Not only that, she had looked at him full-face. For a minute. Two minutes maybe. He couldn't think straight of how long it had been. But she'd gazed full at him.
As soon—as soon as she was missed and searched for and found—the woman would describe him. Wouldn't she? He wondered frantically how he had looked to her—if his shaking hands had been in her sight—if she'd seen in his face all the horror he had felt.
But she hadn't cried out, he reasoned desperately. She hadn't looked anything except faintly annoyed at him being there, so he couldn't have looked odd, could he?
But she'd seen him. That was the point he had to face up to. Soon she was going to be able to talk to the police and describe him. Wasn't she? They'd know it was today the girl had disappeared and they'd want to know who'd been by the lake and they'd learn about him. All about him. He could smell the sourness of sweating fear along with the damp of his clothes. They'd take him away. Lock him up ...
He could hear the thin voice again, "You're a queer one. All that talk's plain silly. Belt it up, silly. You ought t'be locked up, silly."
* * *
They were talking of the rain as they drove away from the reserve. They laid bets with each other that it would stop just as suddenly as it had started, by the time they reached the first turn-off on the long, rutted dirt road that led from the backwater of the lake to the highway and the town. When they reached the turn-off that led to one of the farms it was still raining and they laid another bet that the second turn-off would see it finished; then by the time they reached the goat's head sign that led to the farm where the two women kept goats.
It was still pouring by the time they looked up at the white sign. There was a fine mist blowing towards them into the bargain. Only the few flame trees along the road gave any colour to the greyness and shabbiness of the scene.
Rachel said on impulse, "What would you say if we went up to the farm and asked to see the baby kids? The women couldn't be busy out on the farm in the middle of this weariness, so they wouldn't really mind us coming, would they? Think not, Ann?"
* * *
He didn't know what to do. He sat in the coffee-room, as far from the other people in the place as possible. That meant he was a good way from the oil heater and the pleasant circle of warmth near it, but he didn't think even Hades could have warmed him. He was cold with a chill that he knew had little to do with the late autumn day, or the pouring rain outside, or the wetness of his clothes and hair.
He ordered coffee, but when it came he made no move to drink it. Only when the steam rising from the cup blurred his vision did he warm his hands round the china. He drank thirstily then, bending his head to the cup, barely raising the latter from the saucer. It was poor stuff, a fact that irked his already hard-pinched nerves.
If he hadn't been so intent, so determined, to avoid notice, he would have protested in a spate of the angry, sarcastic words that flowed easily from his lips when he suspected he wasn't being given what he was entitled to. Over the years, since he had learned his physical limitations, he had perfected the defence of words both to shield himself and to bludgeon a path for himself.
But words wouldn't help him now. He began shivering again and in a thick rasping voice he called for more coffee, forgetting for a minute that he didn't want attention drawn to himself. But no-one looked round and the age-wearied eyes of the woman in charge of the coffee urn were interested only in his shilling and not in himself.
He drank the second cup hardly pausing for breath. The warmth seemed to seep into his mind, releasing the frozen rigidity of thoughts that had centred on his stupidity in letting himself be seen.
Deliberately he tamed his mind back to the lake and what had happened there with the girl. Rose, that was her name. Had been her name. That fleeting reminder, piercing his recollection, reminding him she was dead, almost unnerved him all over again.
Her name had been Rose. She'd told him that. And she was dead. And the woman had seen him and could describe him. They were facts. So what was he going to do?
Make it seem that Rose had died somewhere else? Some place a long way from where he'd been seen?
He knew after a little that it wasn't going to work out. He remembered the way Rose had rolled over into the water, becoming a part of it. Even if he could reach her and manage to drag her out, what was going to happen then? To shift her he'd need transport. Not the scooter. That was useless. He'd need a car and he didn't have one.
There were ways of getting one, his thoughts reminded and impatiently he disposed of one idea after the other. Even if he could trust to his small knowledge of cars to use one he'd need to show a licence to hire one and if he knocked one off ...
He knew that wouldn't work. It would only need someone who knew the car to see him in it, or even the police getting the word of it had been lifted and stopping him ...
It would be worse than having the woman speak out. If he was caught with Rose he couldn't deny a thing. Could he? And after all him being by the lake wasn't to say he'd done Rose in. Was it? He could always deny everything and let them try and prove he'd done it. After all he'd never been connected with Rose in any way, had he? And maybe the woman hadn't really got a look at him. Had she? Maybe she'd even forgotten him right then?
He was too frightened to believe in it. He was sure she'd remember. Just so soon as she heard about Rose she'd think of her outing. Wouldn't she? And remember him. And once the police had him ...
And if he dared take a car and chance his luck to shift Rose, where could he take her? He thought of the gently undulating farmlands that stretched away into the distance for miles, trying to convince himself there were plenty of places—in little gulleys, in out of the way spots, where he could leave her.
But he knew what would happen when she was missed. The whole district, farmers, townsfolk, even people just passing through the district, would be out searching. It had happened before. They'd find her sooner or later. They'd still know how she died. Wouldn't they?
But just because he'd strangled a dog once in a raging temper—that wasn't to prove anything, was it? They couldn't prove anything against him if Rose was found a long way away—where it didn't matter that he had been in the reserve that day. In fact, if the woman said he'd been there the day Rose disappeared, that would be fine. Wouldn't it? They'd have to believe he had been by the lake that day, not miles out in the country, on some deserted farmland, on some ...
The sweet relief that had risen warmly in his throat was gone as swiftly as it had come.
He was remembering the time of the previous search. It had been a boy then. A boy who'd drowned in the lake and they'd proved he'd drowned there and nowhere else—though he himself had never understood why they had gone to all the trouble to prove it when the boy had been fished out right there—but it had been in the paper. He remembered poring over it and thinking what a waste of time it had all been, proving the water of the lake had something ... some special content ... he groped desperately in memory. Lime, was it? Yes, lime perhaps. Something that made it distinct from all the other rivers and waters around. There'd been water in his lungs. In his body. In his sodden soggy clothes. They'd known he had died in the lake.
And was there lake water now in Rose's body? Drenched into her clothes? To tell the world as soon as she was found that she'd been in the lake? That she'd died in the reserve?
She'd be found quickly. It couldn't happen any way else. They'd know where she'd died however far he took her. So it wasn't any good. So soon as they knew and the woman spoke out he'd be done for.
But what if he buried her? So deep they could never find her again and then ...
He moved painfully in his seat, anger rising in him, a more bitter anger because for once his tongue couldn't cover his physical disabilities. He lifted his left hand from the table, staring at it unblinkingly, thinking of the arm under the leather jacket—the thin, bent arm that he couldn't lift above his head even. The arm had condemned him long ago to the sort of job where one stood up behind a counter and "yes-madammed" a pack of fool women who didn't know their husband's size in collars, yet expected him to know it without blinking. A good chance his sister Ivy had called the job, and a fat lot she knew about it. But she'd made him take it. She'd threatened what she'd do if he didn't take it and stick to it, and she knew too much for him to buck ... not about the dog and the warder in the home. The police knew about those. They'd put him in a home for six months because of the dog, and then there'd been the warder. And afterwards ... there were other things Ivy knew about.
And she wasn't going to keep quiet if she knew about Rose and the woman who'd seen him. She'd told him often enough, "One more time, Mart. Just once and that's your finish."
But there wasn't any strength in his arm for digging a grave. And that left what?
Gropingly he thought of weighting her and letting her sink out of sight into the bottom of the lake. As slowly he groped it into consciousness, it was gone, because the lake would be the first place anyone would think of when she was reported missing. They'd think of an accident first. They'd drag the bottom of the lake and they'd find her. They'd still know when she had died and how. And the woman would still be waiting to describe him.
But what if she wasn't? What if she wasn't there at all? If she could never say a word?