He watched the house from the dark beneath the old eucalypt that grew near the wall, waiting for the lights to go out. The shade was deepest right by the laneway gate where the broad trunk blocked the gleam from the street lamp beyond. Inside the house she moved listlessly, her silhouette thrown onto the blinds like shadow puppet shows from when he was a kid.
He couldn’t believe his luck when she showed up at the shop. He had spotted her several times, on the checkout at Woolies, pale and slight and oh, so vulnerable. Perfect. It had been easy to head Tim off, distracting him, playing to his arrogance.
‘Can I do the keys? There’s a guy with a Breitling, he wants a new battery and I can’t get the back off.’
‘Bloody useless,’ Tim had muttered as he had handed the keys over and slipped on his greasy smile.
Got ya, Sucker!
‘How can I help, Miss?’
‘I just need spare keys cut for my house.’
‘New house is it?’ Keep it light.
‘No, just new locks.’
‘Oh, you weren’t burgled?’ Perfect level of concerned citizen there, nice.
‘No,’ She flushed and looked away.
‘You alright, Love?’ Don’t push too hard now…
‘Yes, um sorry. I’ll come back for the keys if that’s alright.’
‘Sure, give me ten minutes.’
He had cut two copies of each, pocketing the first set when no one was looking. Finding out where she lived had taken a while, not hard, it just needed patience. The first evening he had followed her to the bus stop and watched from an adjacent bay to see which one she took. A few days later he got to the bus stop ahead of her and got on first, this time dressed as a tradie, scuffed work boots, high-vis shirt and navy pants, the broad brimmed sun hat and sunnies camouflaging his baldness. He took a seat at the back so he could see where she got off.
Then a week went by before he made his next move. Dressed in a dirty mac, ancient urine stained baggy trousers acquired from his grandfather’s wardrobe and with an old woolen beanie over his head, he had timed his Oscar worthy performance to coincide with the arrival of the bus at her stop. Walking stick in hand he had shuffled along the pavement, allowing her to pass him and lead him home. She hadn’t even said good evening. Stuck up bitch. He was invisible, invincible.
One evening he had even managed to slip in through the back door, just after dark and take a look around. It wasn’t a big house. The only photos were of the girl; there was just one toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet and the wardrobe held only feminine clothing. It was tempting to stay then, wait for her to come home, giving him longer to indulge. He resisted the urge; it was too big a risk. What if she brought someone with her?
All this waiting had only built the anticipation. He grinned, arms wrapped tightly about himself, hunkered down in the dark watching. Not long now. Inside the light went out in the lounge. Seconds later the one upstairs winked on. She briefly appeared at the window, looking out into the night, scanning left and right before drawing the curtains. Ten minutes later the whole house was dark. He waited, absorbed by the movement of the hands on the illuminated dial of his watch.
That first time, he had nearly ruined it, his need so urgent it had driven him to move too soon. All his careful planning almost wasted because the voltage charging through his veins made him itch with potency. He had not given the redhead enough time to drop into that deep sleep from which the shock of waking is the worst. He wasted the potential for prolonging his pleasure. Her waking was not disoriented with that slow realisation registering across her face, the fear replaced by the dawning despair that fed his need. He barely had time to slap the wide silver tape across her mouth, her wild eyes flickering, legs thrashing as he pinned her down, straddling her waist, knees each side of her breasts, each writhing buck of her hips increasing the thunderous pressure in his groin.
Cable ties secured wrists to bed head, then the ungainly clamber to get off of her and secure those feet. She fought, lashing out at his face, her screams strangled to muffled moans by the glutinous tack of the tape. She kicked out, her foot connecting with his cheekbone. Metallic spit flooded his mouth. He swallowed and stepped back from the bed. From his pocket he drew a knife.
‘Kick me again, I’ll cut you,’ he whispered. He walked to the head of the bed and placed the ice-cold blade against the soft hollow of her throat. His heart raced at the dull sheen of moonlight on the cinereal steel. Her legs became still.
There was no footboard so he fashioned trusses from her discarded stockings, exalting in his ingenuity. He tied her ankles to the legs of the bed, opening her up, but again he rushed. The overwhelming drive to exert his dominance forced him on top of her. No slow measured joy in preparation, no close inspection of his prize. Inside his gloves his fingers were slippery with sweat. He fumbled in his pocket for the condom but couldn’t open it. Holding it one handed he tore the packet with his teeth, the rubbery circle slipping onto her bare stomach. He fumbled it on and spread her thighs wider and thrust. All control left him; his power surged out leaving him limp.
He climbed off her and wiped himself, pocketing the tissues and the used condom. With the initial driving impetus satisfied, he now had time to immerse himself in the rush.
Over the past year he had refined his technique. The first experience had honed his vision. The biggest high was the fear, watching the panic flood their faces above the silencing tape. How eloquent a pair of eyes could be. The liquid luster of an iris beneath tears, the pupil darkly dilated. The longer he stretched those moments the greater the torrent of omnipotence became and the still calm peace that followed it. It was artistry, his performance. The greater the control he exerted over himself, the deeper the gratification.
Under the tree an hour had passed.
Time to go. Following the path so as to leave no tracks on the grass, he moved towards the house, pulling on the latex gloves from his pocket. The door key, slick with oil, slid home noiselessly. He turned it and slipped through leaving the door on the latch in case. Lamplight from outside cast the room in a palette of greys, enough to navigate it silently. The door to the hall was open, no danger there. He paused at the foot of the stairs, his blood fizzing through his body like a shot of heroin, every nerve attenuated.
No carpet on the stairs to muffle his steps. He took them slowly reveling in each one. His breaths came shorter, the tautness in his gut more intense. Half way up the tread creaked as he set the ball of his foot down. He froze, listening, then lifted his leg and stepped up over the loose board. He paused and counted the steps to the top, and then grinned again, silence on the way out would be unnecessary. Invincible.
The bedroom door was halfway along the landing. In three slow steps he was there. His fingers caressed the cool brushed steel of the handle, savouring the moment, before turning it slowly and pushing.
The house had its own language at night, the wind ransacking the roof space or lifting the curtains with a sigh. Sometimes the walls creaked as the air cooled, like old bones settling into a comfortable chair. In the beginning each time that happened she had freaked, her stomach shrivelling into a tight knot, so heavy it pinned her to the bed.
Since Luke moved out, furious at her for volunteering, she had slowly become used to the altered night-time soundtrack, growing aware of it’s idiosyncrasies and mourning the loss of the small comforting sounds he made that she had never noticed when he was there. She still hoped he would come round. Their last conversation came flooding back.
‘Can’t you understand why this was so important?’
‘I do understand, for God’s sake Bel, I profiled the guy.’
‘So you know why we need to catch him!’
‘Of course I do, just not this way.’
‘How else would you suggest?’
‘I don’t know. I hate you putting yourself at risk.’
‘I’ll have back up the whole time.’
‘Psychologically, it’s going to scar you, it may be weeks before he makes a move. You’ll be alone in the house, every night just waiting. Why does it have to be you?’
‘So it would be okay if some other female copper stepped up, just not me?’
‘You’re missing the point.’
‘I actually think I’ve nailed the point.’
‘I’m not staying around to watch. I can’t.’
Belinda waited in the dark, even knowing that back up was one click and two minutes away did nothing to lessen the fear. Over the long weeks of the operation she had come to appreciate Luke’s concerns. Images from previous crime scenes seemed imprinted on the undersides of her eyelids, every time she closed her eyes they were there. The careful deep wound, always the same, life had leaked out slowly. All those girls would have been aware for long moments that their lives were done. Had he watched, reveling in his dominance? Talked to them maybe. Luke had said so.
The first time she had seen the photos she had run to the bathroom and been sick. They were looking for a single white male in his late twenties to early thirties, intelligent, methodical, who found sexual gratification through the inflicting of fear and pain. They had DNA, one scrap of skin found under the first victim’s toe nail, but the potential suspect wasn’t in the system and might be from a casual encounter, the girl was a prostitute after all. Luke had asked the labs to push the DNA to the limit looking for anything that might help them. They had come back with Caucasian male with HLA-E polymorphism, which could indicate that he had alopecia. Some smart Alec in the squad room had asked why they couldn’t just bring in all the alopecia suffers in the vicinity but the chief felt the losses outweighed any possible gains. It wouldn’t look good to be portrayed by the press victimizing a minority group, particularly one with such a devastating affliction. That morsel of information and the fact that the shopping mall they had targeted was in the centre of the area demarcated by the triangulation of his previous crime scenes had been all they had to go on. Now though, hopefully they had a chance.
Each night she climbed into bed, wondering if the bastard would come. Sleep came fitfully if at all, no wonder her skin was grey with strain, deep bruise coloured smudges beneath her eyes. The air was so still, she felt that the house had become infected with her fear, it too seemed to be holding it’s breath, waiting.
An infinitesimal thread of sound crashed across her conscious. She lay rigid, frozen in place, holding her breath, would it come again? It sounded like the door of the lounge room shifting. Nothing. She couldn’t hold it any longer. Parting parched lips she let the air whisper out, took a long slow in breath and waited again. She turned her head on the pillow inch by inch, eyes straining toward the door of the bedroom. The frame glimmered palely against the dark of the walls in the dim glow from the street lamp outside.
There. That loose board on the stairs. Was it? She had to be sure. Her flesh congealed, but inside her body the temperature soared, her heart pummeling her ribs, blood surging, pulsing in her neck and at wrists and temples. Sliding her hand from beneath the cool cotton sheet she reached for the alarm, gripping it tightly in front of her, her shield.
Another sound, the slow placing of a rubber soled shoe on the timber floor, heel first rolling through to toes, the sandpaper rasp as the stitched seams on jeans collided. The door handle squeaked, the tiny sound splintering the silence. Belinda hit the alarm.
He sat in the interview room, the bright overhead light pulsing into his eyes, adding to the white noise in his head. Two uniformed officers stood to either side of the door ignoring him. His hands lay on the table before him, manacled together, his ankles shackled to the legs of the chair. They had taken his shoelaces and belt and fingerprinted him. He was struggling to assimilate the fact of his situation. For the past hour he had been furiously reviewing every stage of the operation, where had he slipped up? He was invincible, this was not in the plan.
The door opened and two plain-clothes coppers walked in. The burly thug who’d arrested him and a woman in a charcoal pant suit and roll-necked sweater, blond hair twisted up behind her head. He didn’t recognise her at first, the smart clothing, hair and make-up at odds with his longtime vision of her. Then he noticed the slight redness around her mouth and across the lower half of her face beneath the foundation, where the tape had been. Over by the wall, the gorilla was pressing the record button on the tape machine. The uniforms left the room.
‘Interview with Dennis O’Connor at 3.22 a.m. on 3rd October 2015. Detective Chief Inspector David Napier and Inspector Belinda Marriot present. Dennis, you’ve been read your rights; do you understand them?’
‘Yes.’ Dennis sat silent, staring at Belinda, a slight smile lifting his lips.
She began placing files carefully on the desk. Opening the first, she took out a bundle of photos and slowly, deliberately sorted them laying four in a row before him. The rest she dropped one by one into a pile just out of reach. The stack held crime scene photos, proof of his art. Briefly he glimpsed the deep copper of the first girl’s hair, spread wildly across her pillow, until she dropped the next on top. His fingers twitched, he fought the desire to touch. That’s what they wanted him to do, to acknowledge his ownership. He drew in a deep breath and willed his hands into his lap, the left one restraining the balled fist that the right had become. He tried to swallow but his mouth was a desert, the saliva congealed to a tacky paste, gluey in the creases of his desiccated lips. His eyes kept flickering toward the trove on the other side of the desk.
The woman sat down opposite. She raised her eyebrows at him and indicated the first photograph before him, tapping it with her finger. He forced his eyes away from the works of art lying ignored and out of reach.
The red head, skin chalky white, lay beside the first brunette, her once tangled nest of hair now a smooth dark crown. Beside her the blond with the bottomless sea green gaze and lastly the second brunette. What had they done to them? All four now lay devoid of anguish, all traces of terror and pain smoothed away, their eyes closed. Each lay on a silver table, a white sheet shrouding them to the neck. He surveyed his once beautiful masterpieces, each an exercise in patience, control and terror. The images before him offended every part of his being. Slow rage began to roil in his gut. Looking down he drew a deep breath and willed himself to stillness. He had to find that quiet place in his mind where they couldn’t get to him.
‘See how peaceful they are, Dennis,’ she murmured moving her finger from one photo to the next.
Shut up, shut the fuck up! Calm Dennis. Don’t let her get to you. Breathe.
‘Not much of a pro are you? Bloody useless.’
You’re not useless, don’t listen, just breathe, relax. Fucking Bitch.
‘Just a hairless little prick. Real men have hair, Dennis.’ She moved her left hand to the pile of crime scene shots and swept them onto the floor.
Fucking Bitch didn’t even look at them! Tears of frustration squeezed out past restraining lids. He shook his head to clear it, still not looking up. He held both fists trapped between his thighs.
‘Did she laugh at it, Dennis,’ she said tapping the first picture before him. ‘At how pathetic and limp you were? Did you even get it up?’
‘Harder than you could handle.’
Belinda looked toward David leaning casually against the wall of the room and raised her eyebrows. He shook his head and motioned for her to continue. She pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. Walking round the table to stand to his right she trod on the spilled photos on the floor.
Picking up the photo nearest to her she swiveled, foot still planted on the others on the floor and rested her hips against the edge of the table.
‘They’re laughing at you, Dennis.’
His body began to vibrate,
‘Shut up, you don’t get to talk.’
‘But I am talking, Dennis. You can’t make me shut up. You can’t make me do anything. You’re a joke.’
Relax. Stay calm. But she’s trashing them!
‘Do you know what’s really funny? How invincible you thought you were.
You’re contemptible, powerless, pathetic.’
He raised his head slowly and stared at her, flat cold pupils gouging at the wall of calm Belinda had built around her.
‘Take your filthy fucking foot off my art.’