In the small, close-knit village of Oakhurst, residents aren’t willing to believe that one of their own might be a brutal murderer.
So when young women begin to die – their bodies found with accusatory words carved onto their skin – suspicion falls on the newcomer to the village. Charming Zack Wild, author of violent crime novels and possessor of a dark history, seems like a perfect suspect.
As they investigate, Sergeant Mitchell and Constable Turner are increasingly unwilling to believe that someone they know could be responsible for such heinous crimes. But will this affect their judgement, allowing the real killer to escape?
Georgina Ryder hit the muddy ground heavily after falling out of the Land Rover. Under other circumstances she would have worried about the mess she had made of her dress; just then, however, she had other things to worry about. Chief among them was the grasping fingers that she had just managed to avoid, and the man they belonged to, the man who wanted to hurt her.
She didn’t understand what had happened. The evening had started so well but things had changed when he brought out a bottle of wine, which she had declined; he had drunk nearly all of it and then, when it was getting on towards time for her to go home, he had moved in for a goodnight kiss. She had had no objection to the kiss, only to what he tried to do while kissing her.
He was a little tipsy by that time and paid no attention when she asked him to stop. Even if she had been willing to go further than kissing, he was too rough; she felt as though she was being mauled and was sure that she would wake with bruises on her breasts. No matter how she pleaded with him to stop and tried to push his hand away, he continued with his mauling.
It was only when he moved his hand to her leg and began to slide it up, that she took more direct action. The sharp slap she landed on his cheek startled them both – it was completely out of character for her to do something like that, and it was hard to say which of them was more surprised by it.
Georgina sat there for several long moments, too stunned by what she had done to move, while he pulled back from her, a hand at his cheek even though the blow had not been hard enough to either cause any real pain or leave a mark. It was only when he reached for her again, this time with something other than lust in his eyes, that Georgina found the impetus to move.
She fumbled the door next to her open and tumbled out of the four-wheel drive vehicle. Once on her feet she looked around a little wildly, searching for a means of escape. To her right, was the farmhouse the yard they were in belonged to; there was no-one there to help her, for the house was a burned out ruin. To her left was the drive that led from the yard to the road, and from there to the centre of Oakhurst; going that way would mean going past him, which she was too afraid to do.
The third option open to her was the overgrown field in front of her, on the far side of which was some woods. There was no help to be had in that direction, if anything it led further away from help rather than towards it, but it also led away from the man she now feared, and that was more important.
All of that flashed through her mind in about a millisecond, too quickly for her to really be aware of it, and then she was off. She wasn’t the fastest runner but she was faster than her pursuer; she reached the fence, climbed it, and was ten yards into the field before he was even half way to the fence.
“Get back here, you bitch!”
The shout – so harsh, cruel and loud – was so unexpected that Georgina couldn’t help slowing and looking back over her shoulder. If the shout was a surprise, the look of insane rage on his face was a shock, she had never seen anything like it. She had thought she was scared when she scrambled from his Land Rover, now, though, she knew what it was to be terrified. Her heart pounded so fiercely she thought it was going to burst from her chest, her vision narrowed until all she could see was his face, and all she could hear was the pounding of his feet as he chased her through the knee high grass of the overgrown field, and beneath the mud that coated her hands she could feel her palms sweating.
So intent was she on what was behind her that she stumbled on the uneven ground and went down. Terror and shock made her want to scream, before she could do so, however, she hit the ground, burying her face in the mud and grass.
Georgina was almost on her feet when he caught up to her, crashing into her like a rugby player desperate to keep the opposition from scoring. He knocked the air from her lungs and crushed her to the ground with his weight. The weight disappeared after a moment as he moved so he could roll her onto her back, but before she could refill her lungs he had a hand at her throat, choking her.
“You fucking bitch, look what you’ve made me do,” he snarled, screaming the words even though his face was barely a foot from hers. “All I was doing was copping a feel. Why’d you have to overreact?”
A darkness crept into the edges of Georgina’s vision as she gasped for breath. She couldn’t believe what was happening to her; he had never been violent before, and she couldn’t understand what had set him off this time.
She was a passive person usually, but when he began pawing at her, as he had back in his car, she found the courage and the strength to fight. She clawed at the hand that groped at her breasts and tore at her dress, and then at the hand was that squeezing her throat. When she failed to stop him that way she reached up to his face, searching for his throat or his eyes.
He continued to tear at her dress and grope at her with one hand, while he took the other from her throat so he could keep her hands from his own. Once, twice, three times he pushed her groping hands away, until finally he got angry – angrier since he was already angry – balled his hand into a fist and punched her.
“Lie still, you little bitch,” he ordered, hitting her hard in the face and rocking her head to the side. “If you don’t fight, this won’t hurt.” He immediately gave the lie to his words by hitting her a second time, splitting her lip and drawing blood.
Georgina was afraid of what he was now capable of doing, and that fear, and the adrenaline it flooded her system with, gave her the strength to buck and heave like a bronco trying to rid itself of a rodeo rider. It came as such a surprise when the weight of his body on her shifted and lessened that she almost didn’t react in time to free herself.
It was a second or so before she realised that she could move, and when she did she scrambled out from under him; as she did so she kicked out, hitting him in the groin. His face twisted into a grimace of agony, while his mouth hung open, though no sound escaped him, and his hands clasped at his balls. Slowly, as though he was a tree felled by a lumberjack, he toppled over.
Her chest heaving, Georgina rolled onto her front and, with an enormous effort, pushed herself to her knees and then to her feet. She glanced quickly in the direction of her attacker but saw no sign of movement, which was a small comfort to her, and then set off across the field towards the trees. She lacked the strength to run, her face hurt from the blows she had been struck, her throat felt as though his fingers were still around it, squeezing, and her lunged ached from the effort of trying to get air into them while he was strangling her, so she half walked, half jogged, her eyes fixed on the trees that were her goal.
She would have been better off circling round and returning to the yard, from there she could have reached the village in about five minutes. Even if he made it back to his car there was little chance of him catching her, let alone stopping her, before she reached safety. None of that occurred to her, however; her thoughts were fixed on reaching safety and she had already decided that safety lay within the trees on the other side of the field.
“Come back here, you bitch!”
The fear which had been beginning to subside returned at that, and Georgina felt a fresh burst of adrenaline flood her system. She spared a brief glance over her shoulder and saw that he was on his feet again and chasing after her. The sight made her increase her pace and she covered the final twenty or so yards in under five seconds. She slipped between the trunks of the trees nearest to her and into the darkness of the woods. Despite having reached what her mind thought of safety she didn’t stop, not until she had gone another thirty or so yards into them and felt certain he couldn’t find her.
Georgina rested with her back against the trunk of a large oak and took deep breaths to calm herself. It was hard for her to remain calm, though, for every slight rustling noise she heard made her think that he was trying to creep up on her, making her start and her heart to thump a little more rapidly in her chest.
“Where are you, Georgie? Come on, Georgie, where are you? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you like that. Come on, I’ll take you home. I promise I won’t hurt you again.”
Georgina looked left and right, trying to figure out where the wheedling, would-be reassuring voice was coming from. She could hear him crashing through the woods as he searched for her, but she couldn’t tell which direction his voice was coming from. A part of her wanted to go to him, to trust him to take her home, but another part warned her that she couldn’t, that he was lying.
She remained frozen by indecision until the sounds of his approach grew to the point where she was sure he must find her at any moment. She pushed herself away from the oak and sought to slip away quietly through the trees, heading, she hoped, towards the far side of the woods and the river that would lead her back to the village.
Leaves, twigs and branches all slapped and caught at her head and shoulders as she sought to escape quickly. She made no effort to defend herself from them, her hands were busy; her left clutched her torn dress to her chest as though to protect her modesty, while her right went to the belt at her waist, searching for her mobile phone, which she couldn’t find. Dismay joined with her fear as she realised she had lost her phone, and she didn’t know where, or when, except that it must have happened after she fell out of the Land Rover, so she couldn’t call for help.
She had no idea how long it took her to make it out of the woods, but she was relieved when she did so. That relief disappeared as quickly as it had appeared when she saw no sign of the village. She stared all around her as she tried to figure out where she was and, more importantly, where the village was; she should have been able to see the steeple of the church at the least but not even that much of the village was visible. The only evidence of human habitation she could see were the stone ruins of some ancient building atop a hill a short distance to her right.
Georgina had just turned to her left, having decided that her best course of action was to follow the river, figuring that it was bound to lead her to the village eventually, when He came crashing out of the woods ahead of her. His chest was heaving and his hair and clothes were a mess of leaves and twigs, which gave him the appearance of a crazed woodsman from a horror movie – the sight magnified her fear to even greater heights.
“There you are Georgie, I’ve been looking all over for you,” he said slowly as he regained his breath.
If ever Georgina had wondered what it felt like to be a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car, she knew now. Her brain screamed at her to run, the direction didn’t matter so long as it was away from him, but her body wouldn’t cooperate. She was glued to the spot and could only watch as he approached one slow step at a time.