|“Jamie?” She sounded lost in the shadows. “Are you there?”
“I’m here, Katie darlin’.” Jamie had been lounging in the shadows of Boozey Lane, waiting. “I thought you might have changed your mind.”
She put her arms around him. “I could never do that, Jamie, I love you too much to back out on you now.”
“I know, luv, me too. Did you bring it?”
She let go of him and reached into the cheese sack she had brought with her. “Yes, I have it right here.” She drew a bulging purse from the sack and held it out to him. “I found nearly forty pounds in Father’s workshop.”
He took it, and weighed it in his hand. “It’s a pretty penny alright. I think we might go far, you and me.”
Even in the dark alleyway, Jamie could see her smile. He liked her smile. He particularly liked that fat little purse of hers. He passed it back to her and watched her return it to her bag. “Well, we had better get a wriggle on darlin’ girl, your da might get a wee bit stirred when he finds his only girl is a runaway.”
She giggled softly, and let him lead her further into the dark of the city.
When they came to a widening in the street a few minutes, Jamie halted. Katie sidled close to him. “What’s wrong?”
Jamie shushed her without taking his eyes off the open area ahead of them. “Bloody rozzers come this way on their beat. We don’t want any questions til we are well out of town.”
They waited together, and shrank back into the darkness as they registered weighty footsteps approaching on the uneven roadway. In a moment, a weak glow filtered through the murky night. A constable passed the mouth of the alley. As the spot of bright yellow light from his lantern flashed across their faces, they held their breath certain the policeman would see them.
Blackness filled the laneway once more and the constable’s heavy footfalls were already diminishing into the night before they dared breathe again.
“Wait here, Luv, I’ll have a little looksee.” He slipped off into the gloom before she could answer.
He navigated the small square by memory. Twenty soundless steps later he was peering into the brick bounded mouth of a public cistern. He couldn’t see the water, but the feeling of cool damp emanating from the well told him it was deep. Deep enough.
He drew the yellow Thuggee sash from his coat pocket, allowing himself a moment to enjoy the smooth silk. The coins sown into the ends drooped as he silently padded back to the darkened mouth of the laneway.
When he was a few paces away from the alley, he paused. With practiced movements, he gripped the sash’s weighted ends, taking most of the slack from its length. At the opening, he peered around the roughly bricked wall, barely making out Katie’s slim figure waiting in the murk.
“Katie darlin’” he whispered as gently as he could. “Grab your swag, we better get moving.”
She started at the sound of his hushed voice, but did exactly as he said. When she did so, Jamie stepped forward quickly and threw the sash around her neck. She let out an involuntary gasp, a half squeal of terror before he crossed his hands to double his grip.
Dropping her bag, Katie Donnell clutched impotently with both hands at the band of silk that dug into the skin of her throat. Her panicked screams for help were strangled by the smooth sash, emerging only as ragged gasps.
Jamie gripped the silk garrotte with his full strength. He pulled Katie back against his own body, gaining leverage by lifting her struggling body enough that her thrashing feet left the ground. The heels of her boots thumped painfully into his shins. He ignored the impacts, and pulled the silken belt tighter. He heard his own breath, violent grunts from deep in his chest.
A thrashing fingernail caught him by surprise, opening a cut in his left eyebrow. “You feckin’ bitch.” He pulled his head back.
In that moment, she pulled almost clear of his grip. He caught the sash quickly and threw her face first into the rough brick wall, stunning her long enough for him to push her to the damp alley floor.
Katie Donnell was no longer struggling against him when he knelt on her back and wrenched back on the sash so forcefully that her neck snapped with the wet crack of a green twig. Relief pulsed through him in waves that matched his heaving breath.
He knelt there a moment, letting the lightheaded feeling pass. When he felt his shaking legs would carry him, he rose and peered around the small square, eyes and ears searching for signs of coppers or any other person who might interfere.
Satisfied that all was clear, he went back to the body. “Sorry, Katie darlin’,” He whispered. “You did your bit like an old pro, but there’s no room for a woman where I’m headed.”
Though she was only a slight girl, Jamie found dragging her body across the square difficult, and he was panting heavily by the time he reached the well. After a short struggle, he manoeuvered Katie’s lifeless body over the bricked lip of the well.
The splash from below was much louder than he anticipated. Jamie froze, waiting for a voice to challenge him, or worse, that bloody constable to come running. He needn’t have worried. The wet sound faded quickly and Jamie retreated to the alleyway, smiling. No one ever hears anything, he thought as he picked up the dead girl’s cotton bag.
He strolled casually across the square again. At the well, he took out the bulging purse and weighed it in his hand. “Forty Quid, thank you darlin’ Katie. I’ll think of ye often.” He tossed the cotton bag into the well, and walked away carelessly, heading toward “Carter’s Row”, knowing he would get a ride out of town.
James Killen lounged on the veranda at Curlew Downs one January evening, a snifter of Brandy loosely held in one hand while he absently stroked his sandy moustache with the other. Despite the late hour, the heat of the day still hung over the neatly trimmed lawn. Many things had changed since he had walked down the gangway of the clipper Plataea five years ago.
His wiry body had benefitted from the long days of toil in the Bendigo diggings, though the calluses on his hands had long since disappeared. As exhausting as the diggings had been, the hard labour had been extremely lucrative. He had bought the derelict grazing property with these earnings.
While further hard work had transformed the abandoned homestead into the most productive sheep run on the Murray River, good fortune allowed him to court Angela Carnegie. Her father, Angus, a successful local merchant, had recently given his consent for James to wed his only daughter. The store in the growing township of Sandy Bend would make a very nice addition to his assets one day.
One of the few things that had not changed was his love of the night. As a youth, he had relied on the shadows to conceal his profession robbing drunks, now he simply enjoyed the familiar predatory anonymity of darkness. Often, he would unlock the cabinet that held his deadly collection and stare at the ornate blades, gleaming, some inlaid with centuries old gold and gems.
Often he took his favourite piece, a gleaming Indian Katar from the cabinet and silently stalked Kangaroos among the billabongs along the sandy river bank. The edge of the dagger’s elaborately patterned blade was usually bloody when he returned home.
“Will you be requiring anything else, Mr. Killen?”James was startled from his reverie. He half turned, Bridie, his housekeeper was at the screen door. “If that is all, I will retire for the evening.”
“Thank you, bridie darlin’” he answered, “I am quite satisfied for now. Good night now.”
“Good night, Mr. Killen. If you should require anything later, please let me know.” She turned and walked inside, brushing a loose wisp of golden hair from her face, just the way Katie Donnell had, so long ago.
“For now, darlin’” he said under his breath as he watched her go. He sighed at the thought that his late night visits to her cottage would not be so frequent after the wedding.
He slowly rose and walked into his study to refill his glass. Katie Donnell, what the hell made me think of that silly trusting girl? He snorted a half laugh at the thought and began pouring.
He almost dropped the decanter when a jolt of pain stabbed at his forehead without warning. “Damn it” he said as he put the crystal carafe down on the sideboard.
The sting subsided as quickly as it struck making James wonder if he had imagined it. He picked up the half full glass and took a sip, then stopped. Something wasn’t right. It took a moment to register. Silence. The cicadas had stopped chirping. Frowning, glass in hand, he walked to the screen door.
A dark figure stood on the lawn. Bloody blacks thought James as he pushed the door open and strode out on to the veranda. “Go on Jacky, push off.” He said sharply. “I told you lot. You don’t come here at night. Come in the morning, Simon will find something for you to do.”
He received no answer, and the visitor made no motion to leave.
“Go on, piss off.” He motioned dismissively with his free hand.
The shadowy caller remained motionless in the murky yard.
A vague mist of unease settled over James. “You cheeky bastard.” Putting the glass on the wrought iron chair, he snatched the lantern from its hook. “I’ll teach you some bloody manners.”
A dense odour that James knew but could not place emanated from the figure as he strode down the veranda steps and across the lush lawn. As his mind attempted to recognize the smell, the figure turned toward him and began to advance with slow unsteady steps.
James felt his pulse quicken, he stopped moving forward and let his weight settle over his spread feet. Though he still held the lantern in his left hand his right fist unconsciously cocked to meet this odd challenge. “Last chance Jac...”
Katie Donnell’s pale face lolled limply atop her broken neck with each shambling step into the light. Dirty water ran from her lank hair in narrow rivulets to the mouldering thuggee sash biting into her throat. It had been yellow, but now it was the same dirty grey colour as the skin it was embedded in. One sallow hand grasped at the band still vainly attempting to break its deadly grip.
James stood transfixed, gasping, the air sucked from his lungs
Her sunken, dead eyes, once clear and blue gleamed with animal hatred in the yellow glow. Her split and swollen lips parted in a predatory snarl, allowing a splash of murky water to gush past broken teeth and dribble on to the grime stiffened bodice of her dress. “Jamie.” She whispered. Swollen fingers reached out to James, close enough that he could see the loose skin at their tips.
The sound of his name was like a slap. “No.” He pleaded. “It can’t...” He backed away, then tried to turn, his grip on the lantern failing. He managed a few steps before overbalancing and pitched headlong onto the clipped grass.
For a moment, he laid there paralysed, heart pounding in time with his gasping breath. The odour of stagnant water bore down on him, threatening to drown him in one fetid wave.
The shrill song of the cicadas in the Red Gums by the river filled the air once more.
The yard was empty now, save for the smouldering remnants of the broken lantern.
James rose tentatively, and staggered inside. Collapsing into the leather chair by his desk, he laughed, a choking relieved sound. He glanced at the heavy decanter, half filled with dark brandy. “Too much of you for one night, old fellow.” His quiet laugh was cut short by the stinging sensation over his eye. He rose and went to the mirror by the blade cabinet. He was a mess, grass stains on his waistcoat and dry scraps of grass in his dishevelled hair. The old scar over his right eye was bleeding.
“What do you think of the construction of a wharf at Sandy Bend James?” Angus Carnegie was looking at him from beneath bushy white eyebrows.
“Well,” James sipped his sweet tea. “It would certainly reduce transportation costs.”
“Yes of course, but think of the riffraff that might come up the river and stop here.”
“Cheap Labour, Mister Carnegie.” James smiled. “You can never have too much.”
The old man was thoughtful. “A definite advantage in pastoral endeavours.”
James stole a glance at Eunice Carnegie. His soon to be mother in law had barely spoken a word since greeting him on his arrival at their home. She looked at him over her steaming cup. He could see a lot of Angela in her eyes, which stood out from her pale complexion by their liveliness.
“This colony,” he said to the old man, “Truly does ride on the sheep’s back. To be able to exploit that fact at a lesser expense would ensure the future of Sandy Bend.”
“Mr Killen, are you alright?” It was the old woman.
“Of course, Mrs Carnegie, why do you ask?
“Your eyebrow, it is...”
As she spoke, a thick droplet of dark blood fell into his teacup. Crimson tendrils swirled briefly before dissolving into the milky liquid. A groan slid from his lips.
“Good god man, you’re bleeding.” The old man was leaning toward him.
Pulling his handkerchief, James began to apologise, “I am terribly sorry...”
Katie Donnell was behind the old woman. Grey skin had grown taut over her fine cheekbones and the full lips he had once kissed were drawn back from broken teeth in a silent snarl. Her eyes, though sunken still burned with animal fury.
“No. It can’t be.” James started to rise.
Reaching up to her throat with a bony hand, Katy Donnell tugged at the rotten sash, pulling it loose from her putrid flesh. Scraps of dead flesh came away with it, exposing the livid weeping wound beneath. She let it hang slack, a gory necklace, and extended her shrivelling hand toward him.
Instinctively, he drew back from her, half stepping, half falling against the long cabinet lining the wall behind him. He braced
“Please, Mr Killen, are you alright?” Mrs Carnegie rose, oblivious to the intruder standing silently behind her.
“Godden.” Shouted the old man as he stood up. “Come quickly.” A young man in shirtsleeves rushed into the room.
“Mr Killen has taken ill, help him.”
The young man, Godden swiftly came to James’s side. James shoved him away. “Get the hell away from me.”
Crashing back against the cabinet once more as he withdrew from the young man, James scrambled to the door. When he chanced a look over his shoulder, the old man was standing, shock and outrage written on his lined face. Katie Donnell was standing behind the Mrs Carnegie, dank water trickling from her filthy sleeve on to the oblivious woman’s shoulder.
Followed by the old man’s outraged yells, he threw the door open and rushed into the hallway. His horse was waiting patiently, reins looped around a fence picket, when James came stumbling down the shady pathway into the harsh sunlight.
Throwing himself haphazardly into the saddle, James kicked the startled horse into motion.
James pushed the horse in a gallop, until the ragged gasps escaping its foaming jaws beat in time with its thudding hoof beats. He peered over his shoulder constantly, expecting to see her appear from the spreading clouds of rising dust. He was within sight of the house when the horse collapsed in the road with a guttural moan, sending him tumbling headlong into the sandy road.
He lay there for a moment choking on the fine dust, ears pounded by the monotonous song of the cicadas. He rose on shaking legs and gazed around, getting his bearings. He staggered to the collapsed horse, whose irregular coughing breaths were growing weaker. Only when the horse finally fell silent did he notice the complete silence descending around him in the growing gloom.
He could see the house a couple of hundred yards further along, shadows creeping across the corrugated iron roof. Not daring to look over his shoulder again, he began running.
Simon was lighting the veranda lamps when James came shambling into the yard. Seeing his master’s bloodied face, he quickly went to him “Mr Killen, are you hurt?”
Barely pausing, James squinted at him, dazed. “What?”
“Your face sir, it’s bleeding.”
Focussing on the grey haired caretaker, James snapped “Get my bloody gun, and then get the hell away.”
“You heard me. Gun and powder. Right away.” He rushed to the house.
“Did you hear me, girl? Water. Now”. He watched silently as she turned and rushed toward the kitchen.
Simon was waiting in the study when James entered, a shotgun held by the barrels in each hand. “Is it blacks Mr Killen?” A copper powder flask and leather shot pouch sat on the nearby desk. Ignoring him, James went to the liquor cabinet, where he poured a drink.
Draining the glass in one swallow, he reached out with his free hand. “Give me that.” He snatched the nearest gun. “Now get out.”
“Sir?” Simon remained, the other gun still in his hand. “What should we do? Bridie and me, I mean.”
“Get the hell away. I will send for you both tomorrow.”
“Yes sir.” Shoulders slumping, the old gardener went to the study door. He stood at the doorway for a moment, before making way for the young housekeeper, who entered quietly with a bowl of steaming water and a towel over her arm. She put both on the side board and waited, wet eyes fixed on him.
“Thank you, my dear. Now go.” The blood on his face was drying, even as more trickled from his brow.
“Jamie,” she said, “Is it me? Did I do something?”
“No. Not at all.” He tried to smile under his gory mask. “Now go.”
When she hesitated, James turned to his gardener. “Simon, take her away please.
He locked the door behind them and poured another drink.
He washed his face and hands, leaving the stained porcelain bowl swirling with dark bloody water. Discarding the soiled, James tied his handkerchief tightly around his brow stemming the dribbling wound. Downing the drink, he sank into the leather armchair, head in his hands.
The striking of the clock startled him into sweating wakefulness. He gazed around while his eyes focussed in the pale lamplight, catching a glimpse of himself in the small mirror next to his blade cabinet. A faint hint of red was already slowly seeping through the handkerchief swaddling his pallid brow. He smoothed his sandy moustache a long night with Bridie Carlin will fix you right up Jamie my boy. That or kill you properly. He laughed at his glass twin, a hollow mirthless sound.
The brittle sound was still on his lips when his mind snapped to attention. Footsteps, light but discernable outside, on the deck of the veranda.
“Jamie.”A whispering voice. Hers.
His widening eyes followed the footsteps as they moved slowly toward the door to the yard. The air sucked from his lungs when he saw it was unlatched.
His pulse throbbing, James looked to the shotgun, leaning against the cabinet near the cooling china bowl. The powder and shot still lay where Simon had left them on his writing desk.
The voice again “Jamie, are you there?”
Fighting to keep his breath from fleeing in panic, James slipped quietly to the blade cabinet. The deadly collection usually filled Jamie with the joy that comes with the knowledge of life and death. Tonight though, the sight of the ornate inlaid blades and decorated wooden and ivory handles filled him with dread of spilled blood. Quickly, he grabbed the Assiniboine tomahawk. It’s simple iron blade wore no decoration. On the butt end of the plain wooden haft hung a shock of stiff black hair, the scalp lock of a victim of the previous owner.
The quiet footsteps stopped outside the door. “Jamie, are you there?” The door handle rattled as the door swung open.
Hefting the tomahawk in his right hand, he strode toward the opening door. “Oh, I’m here, Katie darlin’”.
Barging through the opening, he swung the tomahawk in a wild arc. The blade struck with a wet smack. Ignoring the spray of crimson blood, he twisted his body around and frantically delivered two more strikes, revelling in the sensation of bone splitting under the force of his blows.
His ragged panting breath finally gave way and he could not raise the gory tomahawk to strike again. Gasping, he wiped his blood soaked sleeve across his wet face, smearing sweat and thick blood across his stinging eyes.
Blinking the wet haze away, he said “I’ve killed you twice now you stupid bitch. Now stay dead.”
“Jamie...why?” The voice, though struggling and weak, was suddenly familiar.
Bridie looked up at him with one bulging eye, the other stared blindly from the wreckage of her head. Her entire body shuddered violently, spreading the pooling blood over the wooden deck. She said his name once more then was still.
Horror-struck, Jamie let the tomahawk slip from his grip. The clatter of the weapon hitting the wooden veranda broke the hypnotic spell he had fallen into. He reeled back, striking the wall of the house before rushing madly through the broken doorway into his study. Sinking into the depths of the leather armchair, his breath came in violent sobs. “What have I done?” he moaned, as he clutched his head with bloodied hands.
The smell of stale water made him look up through teary eyes. She stood a few feet away, her sunken eyes studying him with predatory interest. Dry lips peeled back from her jagged broken teeth as she deliberately formed the words, “I love you too much to back out now.”
Rising unsteadily, James saw that the thuggee sash was no longer hanging around her scabrous throat. She raised a desiccated bony hand from her skirts. Hanging loosely in her shrivelled palm was the yellow sash, the weighted ends dangling free of her grasp.
Panic gone, he reached out and took the sash from her outstretched hand, remembering the smooth silken feel of it on his skin.
She watched him silently with grey eyes as he worked without emotion for the next few minutes. When he was ready, he looked down at her as she waited for him. “I’m sorry Katie darlin’”. He whispered and stepped off the edge of the desk.
As his weight dropped on to it, the noose he had tied in the thuggee sash bit savagely into the flesh of his neck. Gasping, James’s entire body flailed against the choking grip, boot heels thumping madly against the desk drawers.
As his body twisted at the end of his silken noose, he caught sight of Katie Donnell through dimming eyes. Brushing a stray wisp of blonde hair away from her deep blue eyes, she smiled lovingly at him with full red lips. “I love you, Jamie,” She whispered.
He ceased struggling and let darkness overtake him.