She was going to die.
The sharp blade of the hunting knife had already pierced her throat; a shocking, stinging taunt, nothing more. The burning sensation contrasted with the cold, clammy sheen of fear that suffocated her. The expression on the hideously damaged face just inches from her own resembled that of a wild animal, ready for the kill. The smell of his excitement and body odour flooded her heightened senses, overwhelming the mustiness of the old cabin.
She had to get free.
She sawed at her bound wrists. The more she rubbed, the more she bled. The more she bled, the slipperier the knots became. She was panting, the instinct to survive encompassing her whole being. She couldn’t die like this, tied to a wooden post. Wouldn’t.
‘I’m gonna hurt ya, Mia,’ the Devil spluttered, his distorted image hovering in front of her as perspiration blurred her vision. He winced as he adjusted the cloth over the wound she’d inflicted to his face moments earlier. ‘Ya almost killed me with my own knife. I reckon you’re the only woman I’ve ever come across that’s got that kinda guts. Shame ya weren’t born with a pair, ya could have made a good hunter.’
‘Cops are coming!’ warned a gravelly voice over the two-way. Rob Littleton spun and glared at the radio, then paced towards it swearing violently. He stopped short, snarling, his shifty eyes moving with whatever thought was racing through his perverted mind. Those eyes swung back to her. What she saw in them was calculated and terrifying.
A smile slid slowly across his face. ‘I got a problem.’
He leant in close, too close, and ran a finger lightly down her arm. ‘I can’t kill ya—I’ve been ordered not to. I can’t take ya either, you’ll give us away. So what should I do with ya?’
Her stomach rolled. ‘Get your filthy hands off me!’
‘Or what, Mia? Just what are ya prepared to do, I wonder, to make all this go away?’ He moved closer, his lips to her ear. ‘Because I promise ya, by the time this is all over, you’ll know what it’s like to kill, or you’ll know what it’s like to die.’
The pretty little yellow cottage sat in the middle of the clearing, defiantly neat and ordered against the countless acres of wilderness surrounding it. The sun reflected off the white railings of the veranda, contrasting with the heavy, dark leaves of twin magnolia trees. Golden shrubs and brightly coloured flowers, a rocky garden border, bird baths and feeders to attract native birds, including tiny wrens and finches that flew in flocks so large they appeared like solid waves of colour. If she put out some fruit, the brushtail possums were bound to keep her awake with their squabbling and trampolining on the tin roof. They were as settled here as she hoped to be one day. The kangaroos still kept their distance, but an ancient wombat often shuffled along the drive as though she were the intruder, and owed him right of way. She supposed she did—he’d been here much longer than she had.
Park-like acres dappled with light through the gums flowed out from the cottage garden to untouched virgin scrub; an almost impenetrable wall. Only the driveway she now stood at the end of fought against the wilderness; the driveway and a little track that veered left for a quad ride to her sister’s farm and right to the river.
It had been Old Gus’s place for so long the locals still referred to it as such, even though Old Gus would never again sit whittling on the veranda, or bring home freshly caught fish for his tea. Mia Morgan had never been one to spook at ghosts. If she had been, she might have thought twice about moving out here. But the cottage had needed a caretaker, and Mia had needed to be near her sister. It was a practical solution, and almost perfect.
Except that these days, Mia was a little more likely to spook at just about anything. So when thirty kilos of excited dog startled her out of her reverie by leaping at her back, she was four freaked-out bounds towards her cottage before her mind kicked in.
‘Jasper! You know better!’
Completely oblivious to the scolding, the uncoordinated, overgrown puppy fell onto his back, groaning happily and rubbing his way along the grass, before bouncing up and dropping his head to bark playfully. Jasper was Mia’s shadow and she often had difficulty remembering life without the awkward, goofy dog. After the long trip back from Sydney where she’d been working as a photographer and graphic designer, he was happy to be home. Of course they went for a daily jog in the city, but those brief spurts of on-leash exercise, combined with hours spent tied up while she worked, came in a poor second to endless acres of paddocks and the inviting river. Nothing topped Jasper’s scale of happiness like a swim or a lope after rabbits in the long grass, followed by a long nap.
It had been a bumpy ride in for her little car and she suspected the shock absorbers had handed in their resignation. Now that she was calling Hunters Ridge home, she really needed to look at investing in something more suitable for the country roads. She swung her laptop bag onto her shoulder, grabbed the camera and photo cards. The shots she’d taken at the jewellery shoot would need working on tonight—there wasn’t a lot of leeway on the deadline. Juggling everything, she walked onto the veranda and stood in front of the French doors that opened into the cottage. She loved the way the glass let in the light and showed off the property. Large windows framed the doors and more had replaced the smaller ones throughout. Such large windows wouldn’t work in her Surry Hills terrace—it didn’t allow for much privacy—so she’d been determined to put them in here, to enjoy the countryside from wherever she was in the house. And after they’d been installed, she’d spent one long, nervous night in the cottage wondering if anyone was out there, if anyone was watching. The next day she’d gone straight into town and bought heavy curtains to wrap the cottage up tight. Once Rob was caught, once it was all over, she’d take those curtains down for good.
She wrestled with her bag for the key and let herself in. The brightly furnished living area greeted her. She walked through the small hall, just long enough to take her past the little bathroom and into the open-plan kitchen and dining area. Her sister had obviously been in, there were fresh flowers in a vase on the table, from Ally’s garden, she guessed. Bread in the pantry, milk and the local brand of fresh juice she liked in the fridge. A check of a sealed container revealed dinner had also been taken care of.
‘I’m supposed to be helping you, Al,’ she muttered. With a baby on her hands, and work always waiting at the farm, Ally had enough to do without looking after Mia. She’d go see her soon, let her know she’d arrived back safely. Since baby Chloe had been born almost three months ago, Mia had spent at least nine days a fortnight here, more when possible. Ally appreciated the help, and with a serial killer still on the loose, Mia liked to stay close by. Just in case.
Two bedrooms sat at the end of the cottage, and she’d turned one into a home office. It was the only cluttered room in the house and not exactly perfect for what she needed. She put her things down on a little wooden desk. No internet, not yet, though Cam and Ally had it on just up the road, so she knew, when she had time, she’d be able to organise it. No mobile phone reception—probably not for the foreseeable future—so she diverted her mobile to the landline. Otherwise she had to head up the hill to Cam and Ally’s place.
A floorboard squeaked underfoot as she moved across the room. Strange how the floors had been redone and that one spot still groaned. That particular spot. Her eyes dropped to the floor as she felt that familiar roll in her stomach. She hadn’t seen Gus’s body, and perhaps the scene she’d conjured in her mind was worse than the reality had been, but Gus Littleton’s body had been right under her feet: murdered and shoved into a manhole in the floor by Rob Littleton, or as he liked to call himself, the Devil. The same man who had tried to kill her sister, who had taken so many other young women for the highly organised, professional crime ring that had used them as prey in expensive, exclusive hunts. Old Gus, sweet, friendly old Gus, had simply gotten in his way, and paid the price. The manhole was gone. The reminder of it would stay. Houses had their own ways of remembering. On her way out she carefully walked around it.
She changed into her workout gear because the idea of getting her afternoon exercise done early was inviting, and by running to Ally’s she could cut out the laps around the overgrown boundary of her fence line and see her sister at the same time. Ally and Cam’s driveway was like Everest and she’d been meaning to test herself on it. A good challenge. One she wasn’t sure she could accomplish. So she started on some stretches, followed with some bench presses. She didn’t need much space in her lounge room, which was good, as exercise equipment took up most of it.
When she was done, she called, ‘Let’s go, Jasper.’
She started out slow and had built up some pace by the time she reached Cam and Ally’s driveway. A glance up it almost had her reconsidering. The house was a long way away and the climb wasn’t gradual. Even Jasper wasn’t convinced. He stopped at the bottom, looking instead across the road to Ally’s farm. ‘Not that way. Come on, mate, up we go.’
The burn in her legs wasn’t going to be ignored. She was the fittest she’d ever been but her body was threatening to strike as she pushed past halfway. Rob could come back at any time. I need to be fit. I need to be strong. It got her a bit further, a bit further again. No, not could come back. He would come back. She just didn’t know when. She had to be prepared.
After his appalling injury on the night of the hunt, she’d hoped he’d died. He’d looked so damaged before he’d fled. It was wrong, she knew it was, to wish someone dead. But while Rob lived, others would die. Had been dying: a few weeks after the hunt, the killings in the city had begun. Prostitutes were being murdered and Rob wasn’t bothering to hide his tracks. Fingerprints, DNA—he left evidence and death wherever he went, entertaining himself until he was ready to come for her. To hunt again.
One foot in front of the other, keep going, keep going. Even thinking hurt. Her breath was a weak wheeze in her throat, the air difficult to move in and out. The exercise schedule she’d had herself on for the last few months was rigorous, and still this was almost too hard.
Another agonising few metres and she reached the front of Cam and Ally’s lovely country home. Jasper fell on the lawn, panting like a steam train. Mia climbed the two front steps before collapsing gratefully onto the veranda.
The door opened almost immediately. Ally’s big blue eyes bulged as she registered Mia’s state of exhaustion. ‘What the—did you run? Tell me you didn’t run up this driveway?’ Her shoulder-length blonde hair was pulled back in its standard ponytail, the well-worn jodhpurs and branded polo shirt suggesting she’d taken time for a ride on one of the horses down at the farm.
‘I may never run again,’ Mia panted. ‘Or walk. Water?’
Cam appeared beside his wife, his tall, masculine frame a startling contrast to the soft little bundle he was carrying. Her niece was dressed in pink frills, sleeping soundly, head back, lips parted. ‘Forever falling at my feet,’ he teased. ‘Hi, Mia.’ He extended his free arm and pulled her up. ‘You’ve obviously gone mad. Come in. Tell us more about this mental breakdown you’re having.’
‘Shower first. I want to play with the baby when she wakes up. You’re driving me back.’
Mia dragged her jelly-like legs to the shower. Afterwards, she borrowed a pair of her sister’s jeans and a T-shirt, and found Ally nursing Chloe in the lounge room.
‘Hi, baby,’ Mia crooned at the sleepy-eyed little girl. She brushed her fingers gently over her forehead and those dreamy eyes blinked slowly. A hint of a smile touched her lips.
‘She’s just about done,’ Ally said. ‘Get yourself a drink and relax.’
‘I’ll get it,’ Cam offered from the kitchen.
Ally looked her sister over critically. ‘Are you trying to kill yourself?’
Mia flopped onto the lounge opposite and shrugged. ‘I could ask what’s with the constant harassment over it. I’m just toning up.’
‘You’re a bit beyond just toning.’
‘What’s the big deal?’
‘The big deal is my sister, as much as I love her, is a lazy, pizza-eating gymophobe. Who are you and what have you done with her?’
‘I still eat pizza.’
‘Good, because in case you’ve forgotten, it’s your turn to buy on Friday night,’ Cam said, placing an iced tea in front of her.
‘I thought Ebs and Lee were picking it up.’
‘That was last week. You weren’t here.’
‘Oh, that extra trip I did into the city. I forgot.’
‘Did you get everything done this time?’ Ally asked, sipping her own drink.
‘I did. Though I might need to do another trip in again next week. One of my bookings has been moved forward.’
‘Are these all graphic design shoots? Are you working on advertising for all of them?’
‘Companies seem to like the idea of not having to hire a separate photographer and ad designer. It saves them a bit of money and a lot of hassle.’
‘You’re going to need help.’
‘I’m thinking about it. It wouldn’t hurt to have another photographer on board so I don’t have to personally oversee all the shoots. Then I could get the images sent and work on them without having to leave Hunters Ridge.’
‘That will save you a lot of time and travelling. Can you afford to?’ Cam asked.
‘I can’t afford not to. I knocked back a good contract last week—I just couldn’t fit it in. It’s going to take me at least as long as I’ve got here this time to catch up on the two jobs I’m behind with, and for the shoot I squeezed in today. On top of that, the gallery down the road from my place wants some more framed photos for consignment. The ones I took of the creek behind the cottage sold in a week and the commission sales are too good to be true.’
‘I’ve been in there,’ Ally remarked. ‘They charge through the nose.’
‘They were happy for more of the same, but I think I’ll take some fresh shots. I have an idea for playing with the light off the river first thing in the morning.’
Ally glanced with satisfaction at the panorama landscape that was hanging on her wall over the fireplace. ‘It doesn’t get any better than that.’
‘No, but you insist that that remain a one-off.’
‘A Mia Morgan original.’ Cam grinned. ‘When you die, we’ll sell it for millions.’
Mia wondered whether that would be as far away as they all assumed and a trickle of anxiety skidded through her system.
‘You’d better watch yourself, Blakely,’ she teased lightly to mask it, ‘or I’ll make sure you’re buried first. Is Rebecca feeding the horses this afternoon?’ she asked Ally to change the subject.
‘Yeah, she’s working every afternoon this week.’
That was a relief; it wasn’t too far off getting dark. ‘Right.’ She kissed Chloe and got to her feet. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ She looked hopefully at Cam. ‘Can Jasper and I catch that lift?’
Cam dropped her at the cottage and she took Jasper inside. She checked every window, both doors and drew all the curtains in the house before turning on the sensor lights. Satisfied, she took her new gun from her bag, loaded it and put it in the top drawer of her bedside table, then sat on her bed to do some work.
Before she turned off the bedroom light, she turned the hallway light on and opened the drawer containing her gun. If she needed it, the .357 Magnum was within easy reach. She never slept heavily these days. Some nights, it was a miracle if she slept at all. She had to be careful.
The tiny pair of overalls was embroidered with yellow daisies and featured lots of lace and two patches of floral material over the knees. It was the cutest piece of clothing Mia had ever seen, and the patched knees were perfect for crawling legs. Not yet, she thought, but it wouldn’t be long before Chloe was on the move. She glanced out the shopfront window and wondered how much longer Ally was going to be. As expected, Mia hadn’t slept well, and she’d accompanied Ally and Chloe into town for the baby’s routine check-up in the hopes that some time with her precious niece would perk her up.
Her gaze moved to a woman at the front of the pretty specialty shop, who was eyeing her with apparent interest. Short, plump, round face, silver perm. She recognised her, vaguely, but couldn’t place her.
With a small smile, Mia tucked the overalls under her arm and spent another few minutes looking through the rack of handmade baby clothes. The main street of Hunters Ridge was one long line of independent stores that stocked all sorts of things you couldn’t get in the city. Even as she browsed, two older women were sitting behind the counter, knitting what would soon be on the shelves.
‘What are you up to?’ Ally asked from behind her.
Mia held up the overalls. ‘Like?’
‘They’re gorgeous, but too big.’
‘Babies grow. How’d Chloe go with the check-up?’
‘Of course it is.’ Mia looked again at the overalls, and noted the silver-haired woman still lurking. ‘I think I should get them. You can put them away for later.’
‘You’ve bought her so much already! She won’t have time to even wear some of those clothes more than once or twice before she outgrows them.’
‘I enjoy it.’ Mia went to the counter and paid for the overalls, handed the bag to Ally and took Chloe, cuddling her close. ‘I just want to pop my head in next door, then we’ll grab some lunch.’
They walked out onto the street and Mia pointed to a set of herb pots in the next window. ‘Those are coming home with me. Let’s go in.’
‘You don’t cook,’ Ally reminded her. ‘Why do you need herb pots?’
Mia examined one. ‘Because I’m going to learn to cook. And because yours look so pretty I want some too.’
‘I suppose if nothing else—and I’m betting on that nothing else—they’ll look nice with plants in them. Until you forget to water them.’
‘Realist. Oh, hi, Cassie.’
‘Hello there, Ally.’
It was the woman from the clothing shop. Cassie smiled at Chloe then looked up to Mia expectantly.
‘Mia, do you remember Cassie?’ Ally asked. ‘Cassie is the Hunters Ridge town historian, and she works at the nursing home—she nursed Mavis. She came to the funeral, remember?’
‘Oh, right. Hi, Cassie.’
‘How is everything?’ Ally asked.
‘I’m not working at the nursing home for much longer. I have a bit of a project going. I’m afraid I’m too busy to chat, but we’ll have to catch up another time. Goodbye, Ally … Mia.’
Ally’s brow lifted as Cassie hurried away. ‘She really must be busy. It’s not like Cassie to rush off. Anyway, are you really getting those pots?’
‘Yep. Then we’ll call in at the nursery—I’ll buy some herbs to go in them. Do you want to eat at the nursery’s café?’
The car boot was full when they pulled up at the cottage. ‘We always buy too much stuff. You’re a bad influence,’ Ally teased.
Mia only half heard. She was scanning the property.
‘Sorry? Oh, well it’s fun. I’m not working my butt off to make all this money just to leave it in a stuffy bank.’
Ally didn’t speak immediately. Instead, her gaze moved over the property as Mia’s had. ‘But you’re waiting for something, aren’t you? You think Rob’s coming back.’
‘Why would you say that?’
‘You’re always watchful—cautious. And this exercise thing …’ Ally dropped her gaze to Chloe. ‘I worry about it too. More now because of Chloe.’
Just what are you prepared to do, I wonder, to make all this go away?
‘He comes near her, I’ll kill him.’ She hadn’t meant to say it emphatically enough to startle her sister, so Mia took a breath and smiled. ‘Sorry. That’s not an image I want in my head. But speaking of money, I do want to ask you something.’
‘I want to buy the cottage. Would you sell it to me?’
Ally’s eyes widened. ‘I told you, you can stay here as long as you like.’
‘You also said that when I got sick of it you’d sell it and put the money in trust to pay for Billy’s expenses, because you thought, as Gus’s closest relative, Billy should have inherited the place.’
Ally sighed. ‘Yes.’
‘And I bet you’re paying a lot for Billy’s care because he can’t live unassisted. So let me buy it. You can invest the money for Billy, and his bills are sorted. At least for a while.’
Ally was silent for a few moments, then blew out a breath. ‘All right. I’ll have Cam set it all up.’
‘Great. Let’s unload my stuff from the car, then we’ll pot up these plants.’
Ally took the sleeping Chloe into Mia’s kitchen while Mia put away a few groceries.
‘Are you serious about wanting to learn to cook?’
‘Yep. What are you making for dinner tonight? If it’s not too complicated, I’ll come and help.’
Ally tucked a blanket more securely around her daughter. ‘I was just going to throw together a salad and get Cam to barbecue some steak.’
‘I could do the steak.’
Ally gurgled with laughter. ‘I want to eat it, not turn it into shoes.’
‘Ha.’ The phone rang, so Mia reached for it, unloading groceries with the other hand. ‘Mia Morgan.’
‘You’re running out of time,’ a trembling female voice whispered.
She froze, a bottle of sparkling water halfway to the fridge. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’
Screaming. Tortured, terrified screaming made her jerk the phone from her ear. It came through the line loud and clear enough for Ally to stop and stare, eyes wide. Then there was nothing. The line was dead.
Mia replaced the phone slowly, looking at her sister as she swallowed back the sickness in her stomach.
‘What was that?’ Ally asked.
‘I don’t know.’ And she couldn’t know. Not for sure.
‘Do you think it was a prank, or is someone in trouble? Do you know who it was?’
You’re running out of time. He might have made that poor girl say it, but the message was from Rob. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I think you should call the police, just in case.’
‘And say what? I got a random phone call from an unknown woman and she screamed in my ear?’ She went back to unpacking, cursing her unsteady hands when she dropped the cheese. Who was she? Where was she? It didn’t matter. She was already dead. There was nothing she could do.
‘Are you okay?’ Ally asked.
‘Yeah.’ Mia closed the fridge and sat beside Ally at the table, staring at Chloe’s sleeping form in the carrier. Love washed over her for this beautiful, tiny person.
Just what are you prepared to do, I wonder, to make all this go away?
The woman was dead. She pushed back the guilt at not calling the police.
No matter what, she’d get this right. She had to.
We hoped you enjoyed this sample of Promise of Hunters Ridge by Sarah Barrie!
Coming April 2017! Click here to find out more.