For readers of The Dark Lake and The Dry, comes this taut psychological suspense set in a dramatic Tasmanian landscape from bestselling author Sarah Barrie.
A lonely widow, a sinister act, a remote mansion with a dark past…
After the violent death of her husband, Callie Jones retreats to a cottage in the grounds of an old mansion in Tasmania. The relative remoteness of the place and the wild beauty of the Tasmanian landscape are a balm to her shattered nerves and the locals seem friendly, particularly horseman Connor Atherton and his siblings at the nearby property, Calico Lodge.
But all is not well: the old mansion has a sinister past, one associated with witchcraft and murder. As Callie is threatened by odd events in the night and strange dreams overtake her sleep, she begins to doubt her own sanity. What’s really going on beneath the surface of this apparently peaceful town? Are her friends and neighbours really who they seem? As events escalate, Callie starts to realise that the mansion may hold the key to unlocking the mystery, but the truth might have as much power to destroy as it does to save.
‘Utterly addictive suspense and riveting storytelling set in a darkly gothic Tasmania.’ – bestselling author of The Dark Lake, Sarah Bailey
Hunter Valley, New South Wales, 2017
Callie leant against the solid warmth of her husband and sipped her coffee. From the back deck they looked over the sparkling pool to the long, neat rows of vines and the sun rising over the lush green mountains beyond their estate. Birds sang their first songs of the day in the blue gums that dotted the grounds, while the sweet scent of daphne caught on the warming breeze. Dale rested his head against hers. Callie could feel her eyelids drooping as the tranquillity seeped into her, even as the coffee slid down her throat.
‘Quiet day today?’ Dale murmured.
‘Not so much.’ He played with a curl of her hair, letting it slide through his fingers. ‘How did I end up with such a beautiful wife?’
She lifted a hand and tucked the auburn curl back behind her ear. ‘What do you want?’ she said with a laugh.
He smiled against her forehead. ‘Do you think you could update the prices on the wine catalogue for me? It needs to go out.’
She contemplated the request, took another sip of her coffee. ‘Sure. Do you think you could bring one of those 2008 vintage merlots back after work to fix the headache it’s going to give me?’
He chuckled. ‘Deal. We’re a pretty great team, you and I.’
‘I think so.’ Rosellas flocked to the grass by the property gates, catching her eye and reminding her, ‘I think I want to put in another garden bed where that tumble of rocks sits near the front gate. It could look really great with the right plantings.’
‘I was going to take them away with the backhoe.’
‘You’ve been going to do that for the last five years.’
‘Things keep getting in the way.’
She tipped her head back to smile at him. ‘Right. So, I should plant it out.’
‘You can take the girl out of landscaping, but you can’t take the landscaping out of the girl.’
‘I don’t think that makes sense.’
‘I think you’re right. Go ahead. It’ll look spectacular.’
‘Paisley’s back today, right?’
‘Yeah. Should be. If she’s managed to tear herself away from Tassie.’
‘It’s a nice part of the world.’
‘Maybe we should find time to zip down there one of these days. You could show me where you grew up,’ she suggested.
‘I think we’ve got enough to do, don’t you?’ Dale asked.
As though in agreement, the office phone rang. Callie groaned, untangled herself from the warmth of her husband and walked through the pair of glass doors to the cosy kitchen, snatching the cordless off the bench. It was unlikely the call would be business at seven in the morning, but habit had her answering, ‘Highgrove Estate, may I help you?’
Silence. Then a mumbled … something. Dial tone.
‘Have a nice day,’ she grumbled as she replaced the handset on the charger. She picked up Dale’s mail, which was stacked by the phone. He was hopeless with correspondence. Unless she put it in his hand the mountain would only continue to get higher. A black envelope amid the more businesslike white collection caught her eye and she pulled a face. That one had been sitting there for close to two weeks. She carried it out along with the rest and dropped them in front of him.
‘Oh, ta. Who was on the phone?’ he asked.
‘Wrong number, I think.’ She sat down beside him. ‘What’s the black one?’
A flicker of irritation flashed across his face. He shrugged, got to his feet. ‘Just something from an old school friend.’
‘Who is this old friend?’ she pressed, because his reaction was odd.
‘Not someone I want to renew ties with.’ He dropped a kiss on her forehead. ‘I’d better get moving.’
‘Do you have to start this early today?’ She caught him behind the neck before he could straighten, pressed her lips to his. ‘I could make breakfast … or …’
‘Witch,’ he groaned, removing her hand before kissing her fingers. ‘You know I do. And you need to look over that catalogue.’
‘Hmm.’ She sulked into her coffee.
‘I’ll make it up to you later.’ He leant in and kissed her until her toes curled. ‘We’ve got forever to look forward to lazy breakfasts.’
‘Okay … But take your mail!’ She reluctantly finished her own coffee as he scooped up the letters and his cup and disappeared into the house. She heard his car start up, the engine noise fading as he headed down the drive towards their winery. She stretched, took one last appreciative look over the grounds, over what they’d achieved in just five short years. Forever, she thought, sounded just perfect.
Callie started on the catalogue right away, eating a slice of toast as she altered prices and checked her calculations. Assuming her assistant, Paisley, did get back today, she’d have her give it a final once-over before sending it out.
She scanned emails and online bookings, and paid the latest assortment of bills, then, satisfied the office work was under control, decided to reward herself with time in the garden. She snatched her cap from the stand by the door and tucked her hair up underneath, then walked out into the sunshine. After a quick trip to the gardening shed, she pointed the wheelbarrow towards the wide, winding drive lined with rose hedges. Most of the roses were finished and required deadheading. White blooms looked so lovely, but the brown mess that was replacing them did not. She worked quickly, humming to herself.
‘That’s quite a job you’ve got ahead of you,’ a friendly voice remarked.
‘Mrs Bates, good morning,’ Callie said to the woman staying in room five. ‘How are you enjoying your weekend?’
‘Everything’s perfect, dear. Which is why we come back every year—well that, and to restock the wine cellar,’ Mrs Bates said, eyes full of fun.
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to make you some breakfast this morning?’
‘We’re eating on the fly, but I’ll take you up on one of your delicious omelettes tomorrow.’
‘The gardens always look so beautiful here. You do a remarkable job.’
‘I enjoy it,’ Callie said. ‘Landscaping used to be my job but then I married and—’ she smiled, added a little lift of her shoulders, ‘—plans changed.’
‘Well, I just think that’s wonderful. A husband to love you, a beautiful home and business, and all these incredible gardens to play with. You’re living a fairy tale!’
‘I pinch myself occasionally,’ Callie agreed. ‘How is Gerard doing?’
‘Getting fat!’ Mrs Bates said of her son. ‘Being one of the top food critics in the country certainly doesn’t help the waistline! Did you happen to catch his review of that new restaurant down the road from here?’
‘Yes,’ Callie said and bit down on her grin. ‘It was a little rough.’
‘It was abysmal,’ Mrs Bates corrected. ‘I told him he would have been better off coming here.’
Callie laughed. ‘For bacon and eggs?’
Mrs Bates chuckled and gently touched a still fresh flower. ‘I do love these roses. I have a few at home. Haven’t managed to find one quite as incandescently white as this one, though.’
‘These are Icebergs. Make sure I give you some cuttings before you leave.’
Mrs Bates’s face lit up. ‘I’ll do that. Thank you. Oh, here’s my ride,’ she said as tyres crunched behind them. ‘Never let it be said women take all the time in the shower. We’re off to McWilliam’s to stock up on their muscat. Marvellous stuff.’
Callie sent the couple a friendly wave as they drove away. What would she and Dale be like together at that age? Still happy? In love? She hoped so.
Her gaze fell on the pile of earth and sandstone that would soon become her next garden. She planned it in her head, mapping out what would go where. Some pretty groundcovers would crawl among the cavities in the smaller sections of rock, spilling over them in vibrant splashes of colour. Brightly coloured flax could fill the deeper holes. She’d include deciduous trees: a lime green robinia, and perhaps something red—a prunus?—to go with it to provide some shade in summer. There was a perfect spot for a pond in the low corner, so she’d measure it out.
Callie had worked her way around most of the drive when she heard the hum of a car engine. She looked over her shoulder. A dusty silver Audi crept along the otherwise empty road. At the gate, the driver touched the brakes, once, twice, then drew the car to a stop. Idled.
She wasn’t expecting new guests today, but she pulled off her gloves and tossed her shears on the pile of cuttings in the wheelbarrow. Smile in place, she moved around the hedge and approached the car.
‘Hi, can I help you?’
The woman was too thin, dressed in casual clothes that spoke of a good fashion sense and a healthy bank balance. But even through the woman’s designer sunglasses Callie could see the edgy stare in the eyes framed by untidy bottle-blonde hair. The woman’s hands clutched the steering wheel, and one leg jigged up and down in a nervous staccato. ‘I’m looking for—’
A quick beep from behind them made Callie look up. Paisley had pulled into the drive. She waved. Callie sent her a distracted smile and returned her attention to the woman now staring into her rear-view mirror.
‘Looking for?’ Callie prompted.
The woman’s eyes darted back to Callie and her head shuddered from side to side in an erratic negative action. ‘Doesn’t matter.’
The car jerked forward. ‘Hey!’ Callie jumped out of harm’s way, then watched the car speed off down the road. ‘What the hell?’
‘What was that about?’ Paisley called.
‘No idea. But there was something wrong with her.’
‘The maniac driver I’ve never met before.’ Callie sighed and shook her head, glad her toes hadn’t been run over, and walked over to Paisley’s Pajero. ‘How was your trip?’
Her assistant’s mouth twisted. ‘Eventful. Got time to hear about it?’
‘Yeah, I could do with a break,’ Callie decided, with one last glance back at the road. ‘I’ll catch up with you in the office.’ She followed Paisley’s car through the gates, picked up the wheelbarrow and steered it down the drive. By the time she put everything away, Paisley was on the phone, so she went through the office and into the house, made some cold drinks and took them back.
‘If you want coffee, I’ll go get you one. I felt like something cool.’
‘All good, thanks.’ Paisley made a note on the computer, then took a glass, sipped, and smiled. ‘Everything run smoothly while I was away?’
‘Of course. I’ve just updated the wine catalogue. You probably should do a last check.’
‘I’ll do it now.’
‘I think Dale was hoping you’d run straight over to the winery and help him when you arrived. He’s got a lot on today.’
‘Then I’ll be quick with the catalogue.’ She flicked through it. ‘We don’t have any check-ins today?’
‘No. I think I might go tree shopping. I want to play around with the front area by the gate.’
‘The boulders,’ Paisley guessed. ‘I knew you’d get to that one day.’
Callie smiled. ‘Dale’s all for it.’
‘So he should be. You love it, and you’re damn good at it. This whole place looks like a magazine cover.’ The computer pinged with a new email and Paisley read it.
‘What is it?’ Callie asked when Paisley’s brow shot up.
‘Next door has put another offer in writing.’
Callie pulled a face as she took a long sip of her lemon sparkling water. ‘The place is not for sale. Besides, Dale hates them and would rather die than see them turn this place into a hundred-room concrete monstrosity. I’m inclined to agree.’
‘It’s a lot of money.’
Paisley turned the computer monitor around. ‘Look at it.’
‘Fine.’ She looked, and choked on her water. ‘Wow.’
Paisley nodded. ‘Good. I like my job here. Had to show you, though.’
‘So … Tasmania?’
Callie regretted the question when Paisley’s eyes lost some of their spark.
‘It was freezing, as you’d expect at this time of year, and my welcome wasn’t a hell of a lot warmer. You know Dad and I haven’t been in each other’s company much over the last few years.’
‘But he asked for your help, didn’t he?’ Callie asked, confused.
‘No, Ned told me Dad needed my help,’ Paisley said. ‘They are two very different things. And he’s right. Dad’s having trouble managing out there. He’s always been fine on his meds, but dementia’s kicking in and he keeps forgetting to take them. His moods are all over the place with the bipolar and he’s paranoid someone’s out to get him because of the schizophrenia. He had a fall recently and whacked his head. Luckily, Ned turned up to mow the lawns. It’s only going to get progressively worse. He won’t be able to stay out there on his own forever.’
‘They have a good relationship, don’t they? Can’t Ned convince him to move into care?’
Paisley leant back in the office chair. ‘Ned can’t cope with the heavy stuff. He has the emotional strength of a wounded deer, and his IQ isn’t exactly up there, either. You know the story.’
Callie nodded slowly, remembering Paisley’s parents had taken Ned in because his mother was very young and didn’t want him. ‘Your mum was a psychologist, right?’
‘At the asylum down there. Pretty much ran the place—and ran Dad. If they’d stayed together, everything would be a lot different.’
‘Mmm.’ Callie silently wondered how Eileen Waldron could have worked with the mentally ill all day then come home to a mentally ill husband and raise someone else’s child with issues of his own. An amazing woman. Though she’d left, eventually. Perhaps she’d had nothing left to give.
‘Anyway,’ Paisley continued, ‘I’ve organised for a community nurse to check in on Dad a couple of days a week. That should buy him some more time.’
‘Well, that’s something.’
‘Best I can do. Dad’s digging his heels in, refusing to leave, and honestly, packing up would be completely beyond him. He’s a hoarder. Not as bad as some of the ones you see on the TV but he’s got fifty years of stuff in piles around the place—rubbish everywhere.’ She chewed on a fingernail, thinking. ‘I might have to try and get down there a bit more regularly to tackle it. I’ll need the money from the house to fund his care so it’s going to have to be done. Otherwise no one will ever buy the place.’
‘If it’s as lovely as you say it is, surely someone will see past a bit of mess?’
A hint of wistfulness touched Paisley’s expression. ‘A huge old home on acres, right on the River Derwent. Completely buried in junk as old as it is. Tell you what,’ she said brightly, ‘why don’t you buy it as an investment property?’
‘Ha. No. Sorry.’
‘It’d make a gorgeous bed and breakfast. If we clear away a foot or two of mess in the kitchen we might even find some of the original pots and pans.’
‘As much fun as that sounds,’ Callie replied, ‘I’ve already got my hands full. And speaking of—you’d better look at this catalogue before Dale realises you’re back.’
‘Can do,’ Paisley said, spinning her chair back around to the monitor. ‘I’ve also got to go over the new artwork for it with Dale. I sent some ideas across before I left last week but I bet he hasn’t looked at them.’
‘I bet you’re right.’
‘I’ll make a note.’ Paisley pulled up another screen, frowned. ‘I think I forgot to tell you the couple coming in tomorrow requested a bottle of bubbly and a cheese platter on arrival. They’re celebrating a wedding anniversary.’
‘That’s okay, I’ll do a supply run this afternoon. We’re now officially out of that quince paste and low on the triple brie.’ She glanced up. ‘Uh-oh,’ she teased as Dale’s car stopped out the front. ‘Sprung.’
Paisley groaned good-naturedly. ‘I’ll go through the rest at lunch.’ She got to her feet. ‘I’ll see you—Hey, that car’s back.’
‘What car?’ Callie followed Paisley’s gaze out the window to where the silver Audi sat. ‘It’s that woman again! What the hell could she possibly want?’
‘Dale’s heading over,’ Paisley said.
They both watched from the office window as Dale approached the car, leaning in the driver’s window. There was some sort of conversation. Then the car slowly pulled away. Dale’s expression was exasperated as he removed his cap and dragged his hand through his hair.
‘That’s weird,’ Callie muttered, and went to the door to meet him as he came back. ‘Who was that?’
‘In the car? Just a lost tourist,’ he said. ‘Hi, Paisley. I need you at the winery.’
‘To look at the artwork for the catalogue or go over my advertising proposal that you’ve no doubt forgotten about?’ Paisley asked.
‘You’ll be surprised to learn,’ Dale replied smugly, ‘that just last night I marked up some ideas. It’s all back in my Dropbox folder.’
‘Surprised is an understatement. Thanks, boss. Will I go ahead and order the material?’
‘Not until you’ve taken in the comments I made—and I’ve seen the new costing.’ His grin was there, Callie noted, but there seemed to be an underlying tension from speaking to the woman on the drive.
‘Dale, that woman you just talked to was here earlier. She looked upset when I spoke to her.’
‘You spoke to her?’
She didn’t expect the snap in his voice.
He turned to Paisley. ‘What did she say?’
Paisley shrugged. ‘Don’t look at me, I didn’t talk to her. Cal?’
‘She was jittery and upset. I think she was looking for something but I didn’t get a “lost tourist” vibe.’
‘More like a lunatic vibe!’ Dale took a calming breath and wrapped Callie in a hug. ‘I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to jump down your throat. I didn’t want to worry you, but she was strange. I don’t think she’ll come back. But if she does show up again, call me.’ He straightened and looked her in the eyes. ‘Don’t go near her again, okay?’
‘Ah … Sure.’
With a nod, he let her go. ‘You right if I pinch Paisley?’
‘Go ahead. I’ll need her back after lunch.’
As they left, she looked past them to the gate and the road beyond. Was the stranger likely to come back or had Dale scared her off for good?
Paisley dropped her bag lightly on the desk. ‘Morning.’
‘Hi,’ Callie said, jumping to her feet. She’d been waiting for Paisley to arrive so she could go out. ‘We have three couples turning up this afternoon and because Dale ended up keeping you all day yesterday, I didn’t have time to pick up the stuff for that fruit and cheese platter for the wedding anniversary.’
‘Want me to go get them?’
‘No—thanks. I’ll do a full shop while I’m out.’ Callie grabbed her jacket from the back of her chair and swung it around her shoulders.
Paisley took a water bottle from her bag and placed it on the desk, before taking off her coat. ‘So Dale’s not in today?’
‘Playing in the backhoe. They’re prepping the south paddock.’
‘How is it coming along? Will it be ready for planting next season?’
‘Hopefully. We’ll see.’
‘I’ve costed out his suggestions for the promotion. I was hoping he’d okay it today.’
‘He’ll tell you it’s not until September, not to stress,’ Callie said.
‘Yeah. You know when he okayed the Mother’s Day one?’ Paisley said. ‘Ten days before Mother’s Day.’
Callie grinned. ‘And yet you pulled it off.’
‘I feel so taken for granted,’ Paisley said dramatically. ‘You’d better grab me a nice triple brie while you’re out to make me feel better!’
‘You can share it with me this arvo by the pool. It’s a gorgeous day. I’ll open one of our chardonnays to go with it.’
‘I can’t get you in that pool in summer, let alone winter.’
‘No.’ And she never would. ‘But it’s nice to sit by it.’
Callie was still smiling as she drove into town. She did all the running around she needed to and made time to call in at the nursery to order the trees for the new project. Then she turned the car towards the Hunter Valley Cheese Company.
The place was busy, and a minibus was held up at the entrance waiting for a car to reverse out. As she scanned for a spot she noticed the outdoor tables held a good scattering of tour group couples and families. And—
Surprise then disbelief had Callie accelerating around the minibus then awkwardly pulling up further along the road, bumping the gutter distractedly before coming to a messy stop. She looked in her rear-vision mirror, then adjusted it until she got a better look at what she hoped she hadn’t seen. But she had seen it. Dale. With that woman.
Unwilling to believe the mirror, Callie spun around in her seat and peered over the headrest. She’d know Dale anywhere and though the blonde’s face was obscured by distance and sunglasses, she was sure it was the same woman. Who else could it be?
Reasons and excuses skidded through her mind but none stuck. None of them made any sense. What was going on? Had Dale lied about not knowing the woman? Had they met since yesterday? As Callie watched, Dale lifted his hands from under the table, placed them over the woman’s and ducked his head towards her. Callie’s stomach lurched. Nothing about that gesture screamed, We just met.
She started to shake. Even as she told herself she didn’t have the first clue what was going on, she struggled to deny the most obvious reason for this that came to mind.
The pair leant back as they sipped drinks, then the woman reached for Dale again.
The lurch in Callie’s stomach churned into one long, nauseating roll.
Her phone rang and she fumbled to answer it. ‘Yeah?’ she asked, her voice hitching in her throat.
‘Don’t forget the—what?’ It was Paisley.
‘I’m at the cheese company.’
Paisley’s voice turned sharp. ‘Callie, what’s wrong? Have you been in an accident or something?’
‘I could be overreacting,’ Callie said. ‘It’s just—no, it’s not nothing. They’re holding hands, Paisley. They’re talking all close and intimate.’
‘Dale! And that woman!’
Several seconds ticked by as Callie kept watch. She couldn’t take her eyes off them.
‘Ooh. The car woman? Are you sure?’
‘Are you kidding?’
‘Okay, sorry. Of course you’re sure. Shit. Okay, just … stay calm. Let’s approach this rationally. There must be an explanation. Where are they?’
‘One of the outside tables.’
‘Do you really think Dale would risk doing anything underhanded out there? Everyone knows him.’
Paisley had a point and yet, there he was. ‘One way to find out,’ Callie said. She’d rather do almost anything than approach them, but she needed to know.
‘Wait!’ Paisley snapped. ‘You can’t confront them while you’re as upset as you sound. If you storm over there and there’s a perfectly acceptable explanation, you’re going to look stupid and everyone’s going to think you’re a nut.’
‘Okay, granted. But—’ She looked down at her hands and clasped them tightly. ‘God, I’m shaking—a minute ago I wanted to run and hide. Now I just want to go over there and demand answers. Why would he go behind my back like this?’
‘And,’ Paisley continued, ‘if you storm over there and there’s not an acceptable explanation, you’re still going to look stupid and everyone’s going to feel sorry for you. Do you really want either scenario flying around town tomorrow?’
Not an acceptable explanation? Could it really be possible Dale was cheating on her? Not Dale, no. Their marriage was so perfect. But as Callie watched him with that woman, doubts crept in. Damn it, why did Paisley have to make so much sense?
‘So what I just … leave them here?’
There were a few seconds of silence, then: ‘Tell you what. Come home. I’ll shoot out there and “accidentally” run into them, introduce myself to the woman so I can find out who she is—and suss out Dale’s reaction to me finding them there.’
Callie took some deep breaths. Paisley was right; she was in no state to confront anyone. ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll be there in ten.’
She was there in five. The drive home had done nothing to calm her down. Dale had said yesterday that he didn’t know the woman. He’d lied. If there was a reasonable explanation, why would he lie?
Paisley came out before Callie could get inside. ‘I’ll let you know,’ she said, then she was in her car and reversing out of her spot, tearing away.
Callie unpacked the groceries, trying to focus on drawing up the layout for her new garden. One of the expected couples checked in and—damn—she realised she still didn’t have the cheeses she was meant to buy. It didn’t seem important now.
When the phone rang she pounced on it.
‘Sorry, Callie. Are you absolutely sure the woman was with Dale?’ Paisley asked. ‘I couldn’t see them anywhere. I checked the café, did a drive around looking for his car then went out via the new estate and there he was, working with Gavin. He certainly looked as though he’d been there all afternoon. Still in the work clothes he’d been in this morning.’
‘He was in them when I saw—’ She broke off as a car sent gravel flying in the driveway and jerked to a stop. Callie stood slowly. ‘Ah, Paise? That woman. She just arrived.’
‘She’s there? Sit tight. I’m two seconds out!’
The woman got out of her car and ran towards the door.
‘What do you want?’ Callie demanded.
‘Where is he?’ the woman asked.
‘Where is Dale? You should know, you were just with him!’ Callie heard the edge of hysteria in her voice and willed herself to keep it together. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m not supposed to talk to you.’ The woman’s head was shaking from side to side almost like a tic. ‘I need to see him.’
‘Wait!’ Callie grabbed the woman’s arms and held her back as she prepared to walk behind the desk and into the house.
The woman took two steps back and twisted her hands together in front of her. Everything about her was nervous energy and urgency. When she swayed, Callie thought she was going to fall over.
‘Would you just stop! You need to calm yourself down.’
‘I have—I have some …’ The woman shakily delved into her bag. Most of the contents, including a pill container, spilled out onto the floor.
‘Bloody hell,’ Callie muttered as the woman scrambled to open the container and popped a pill in her mouth. Callie bent to pick up more of the woman’s things. Her hand hovered over a folded black envelope. ‘Is this Dale’s?’ She unfolded it and saw the name Lisa, before it was snatched back.
‘No. No, it’s mine.’ The woman shoved it inside her bag.
‘What is it?’
Lisa snatched Callie’s hand much as she had the envelope. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered again. ‘You seem to have such a beautiful life. I don’t want to wreck that. But it’s all a lie.’
‘What?’ Callie said, her vision tunnelling.
Paisley burst through the door. ‘What the hell?’
Lisa’s distressed stare moved from Callie to Paisley. ‘I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.’ When she again made a grab for Callie, Paisley leapt between them.
‘My cat’s dead! I need to tell. I need to end it.’
‘End what?’ Callie asked.
‘All of it.’
‘Okay,’ Paisley said, unimpressed, ‘I’m not sure what you’re on, but you and your dead cat can go be on it somewhere else.’
‘But I need to—’
‘What you need to do, lady, is leave,’ Paisley ordered. ‘Or I’m going to call someone to remove you.’
Something akin to confusion crossed Lisa’s face before her eyes widened. ‘Of course. Okay. Of course. I’m sorry.’ With a nod she ran back to her car. She drove away, wheels spinning.
‘Did she hurt you?’ Paisley asked, checking Callie over.
With a quick shake of her head, Callie dropped into her chair and stared at the floor. She hugged her arms around herself, rubbed her hands up and down against the emotional chill the woman had left in her wake. ‘I never question what he’s doing, where he goes, what he’s up to. I’ve never seen her before yesterday. Have you?’
Paisley shook her head. ‘No. What did she say to you?’
‘Just that she was sorry, but my life was a lie.’
Paisley’s expression softened. ‘Callie … that woman was far from stable.’
Callie’s head shot up. ‘But she knew Dale, and he told me he didn’t know her. He had lunch with her, when he was supposed to be somewhere else. She talked about lies. And he’s lied to me.’
‘We don’t know anything yet.’
Callie walked to the fireplace and plucked a photo of their wedding day from the mantelpiece.
Paisley put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. ‘Talk to Dale.’ Her phone rang, but she ignored it. ‘Just talk to him before you start jumping to any wild conclusions, okay?’
Callie drew in a deep breath. Nodded. She was prone to leaping to worst-case scenarios, but she wouldn’t do that with her marriage, with the man she loved and trusted. ‘You’re right. I should—’
The phone rang again. Paisley swore and checked the screen, then rejected the call. ‘Come and sit down, I’ll get you a glass of something. Take the edge off.’
‘No, I don’t think drinking is a good idea at the moment. I need to think. Calmly.’
‘Damn it!’ Paisley exclaimed when her phone rang again. She silenced it once more and smiled apologetically at Callie. ‘Sorry. It’s Ned.’
‘Go, I’ll be fine.’
‘Are you sure?’
At her nod, Paisley gave her a hug. ‘I’ll be at the winery. If Dale comes in I’ll let you know. In the meantime if you need me, call. I’ll be right back.’
‘If he comes here first, let me know how it goes.’
Callie paced, unable to settle. Paisley rang three times, and three times she’d refused her offer to lock up and come back. When she got tired she sat, staring into space and thinking about the possibilities. Why wasn’t Dale back? She felt sick, her stomach rumbling, making the churning worse. She forced down a sandwich. When the clock hit nine o’clock, she poured herself a glass of wine. At midnight, she caved and called him. He didn’t answer. Nor at twelve-thirty, or at one. Was something wrong? Could something have happened to him? Around two in the morning, another thought crept in. Was he with Lisa?
He couldn’t be. He’d never shown the slightest hint of being interested in anyone else. So where the hell had Lisa come from? When had they met? Callie had known Dale forever. Of course, Dale was quite a bit older than her, but he’d let her tag around with him and his mates when she’d been small, and had looked out for her. They’d been close for so long, moved in all the same circles. When their relationship had developed as adults it was such a natural progression no one batted an eyelid. Callie liked to think it was meant to be. Maybe that was the problem—too much, too soon. Had Dale simply gotten sick of her?
She went upstairs to the bedroom. The bed, with its pretty cream-coloured linen and big, soft pillows, looked anything but inviting. The lace-curtained windows that, of a day, displayed a stunning view over hills and vines, framed only a void as dark as her mood. The whole room, the whole, warm, comfortable room, felt suddenly unfamiliar. Cold.
The vibration of her phone on the bedside table had Callie stirring from sleep. It was still dark, rain pattering lightly, and she turned to see Dale’s side of the bed was empty. Not quite awake, she reached for her phone and turned off the alarm. She had guests to cook for. Head aching and eyes swollen, she dragged herself up, stood for a moment and pulled herself together. She couldn’t afford to think. Just the idea of thinking had new tears springing up behind her eyes.
A noise downstairs caught her attention as she headed for the shower. Someone was moving around. Dale? She wrapped her thick robe around her and silently tiptoed down the stairs. A quick glance outside revealed the outline of his car against the overcast early morning. Another sound: the slide and clink of the filing cabinet closing. What was he doing?
She stayed where she was, plastered against the wall of the staircase while she rallied the courage to face him. More muffled noises, the humming of pipes in the walls. The downstairs shower was running. Needing to keep herself occupied while she gathered her thoughts, she put on coffee. She sorted out the breakfast orders, because regardless of what happened next, the guests would still need to eat.
She wondered what Dale had put in the filing cabinet. It had to be something he didn’t want her to see. And why would he shower downstairs before announcing he was back?
She listened. The shower was still running, so she quietly went into the office. She knew which drawer to check: the bottom one. She tried it and wasn’t surprised she couldn’t get in. Dale kept the key on him with the excuse that all their most important paperwork was in there and she’d never thought to question him over it. Now she was questioning everything. She knew how to get in—she only had to lift out the drawer above. She’d figured that out when she’d needed their passport numbers once.
Removing the drawer was awkward, noisy. After every clunk she stopped, checking for the hum of the shower. When the drawer was finally free she dived in through the space and rifled through files, finding only paperwork. The folders scraped loudly as she slipped her hands underneath them, worrying at any moment Dale would be in the doorway. Then her fingers brushed something cold and hard.
She lifted it out. A thumb drive.
Confused, she flicked open her laptop, inserted the drive and waited impatiently for the system to boot up. While it worked at preparing itself, she slid the drawers back together, relieved when she found it easier than getting them apart.
‘Come on …’ she muttered to the laptop as the file folder popped up on screen. She hovered the mouse over the folder to open it. Then she heard the water shut off with a clank.
‘Shit. Shit. Shit.’ She clicked anyway, too close to give up. Thumbnail images appeared.
She sank like a stone to the chair. Stared.
What was this? What the hell was this? She clicked on the first photo to enlarge it, pressed her eyes tightly closed then opened them. A chill that froze her like ice washed over her and pierced the fog of her clouded mind. It was the woman—Lisa. At least, she was pretty sure it was her. She was dead, staked to the earth, arms and legs outstretched. A red circle surrounded her, candles posted around it. Her clothes, her body, were ripped to shreds. Everything was damaged. Everything was broken. Somewhere under the tangle of hair that covered her face, Callie got the impression of wide, staring eyes, a mouth open in a scream.
‘No.’ It came out as a whimper. This was too much to take in. How could she possibly process this? She dragged her eyes from the image and stared, unseeing, out the window as her mind raced for an acceptable explanation. Maybe Dale had gone back to see Lisa a second time and found her like that. Callie nodded in desperation. He would have called the police—could have been there all night trying to help, to find out what had happened. Yes, that was sure to be it. He’d explain. He wouldn’t want to, but he would. He must be upset, exhausted. He’d need time to gather his thoughts before talking to her. That would be the reason for the downstairs shower.
Callie got her feet under her and walked unsteadily to the kitchen. Because she was bone-deep cold, she tossed another log on the dying fire. The table still held her wineglass, a plate and the remaining half of a bottle of chardonnay, sitting by a fruit bowl. She should tidy them up. She realised her legs were shaking, so she leant on the chair.
Her husband was not a murderer, she told herself again. She would know. He was a kind, generally considerate, brilliant man. What had been done to that woman would challenge the limits of a crazed psychopath. And why the photos? And the thumb drive? If he’d done it, taken pictures, why take the time to store them on a drive? She had this all wrong. She had to have it all wrong.
Dale’s voice startled her. He stood behind her, a towel around his waist. Scratches marred his cheek and a garbage bag was clutched in his hand. He walked past her to the fire, and tossed the bag in. The plastic shrivelled and, with a whoosh, the material within ignited.
‘I didn’t think you’d be cooking yet,’ he said with a smile marred by tension. ‘Early breakfast orders?’
‘What?’ She dragged her eyes away from the fire with difficulty. ‘Where have you been? What happened last night?’
He joined her at the table and placed his hands on her shoulders, a kiss on her forehead. ‘Sorry if I worried you. You knew I was working late. I fell asleep at the winery.’
‘But—your face. And the—’
‘And the what?’ Dale’s expression changed from calm and apologetic to intense, his eyes looking straight into hers. It stopped her in her tracks.
He turned to fill the coffee cups. ‘I woke up about an hour ago, went to call you and realised I didn’t have my phone. I’d been out to the new estate yesterday and decided I should check I hadn’t left it on the machinery parked out there for the paddock development. On the way back, a damn roo jumped out in front of the car. It was still alive so I tried to help it but it attacked me trying to get away. Scratched my face. Made a hell of a mess of my clothes.’
A kangaroo? She studied the marks on his face, tried to believe an animal could have put them there. The image of Lisa on the ground wedged itself firmly in Callie’s mind. It had been too dark to make out anything around the woman, but there was grass and dirt. Lots of it. Much like where they’d dug up the far paddock to plant out the new rows of vines. Callie swallowed the bile rising in her throat as every reassuring excuse she’d come up with faded.
He’s killed her, her mind screamed. Oh, God, no, he can’t have killed her!
She pasted on a weak smile. ‘That’s all good then.’
‘You sure you’re all right, Callie? You look a little pale.’
‘Good. I need to get dressed.’ He stepped back, and his smile was there but it lacked warmth. ‘Could you rustle me up some toast?’
With trembling hands she took out the bread and made herself throw him a quick smile as he left the room. She needed to find the explanation that fit. Any explanation that fit other than the one she couldn’t, wouldn’t, consider. Dale was not a murderer. The photos would make sense. Somehow.
Her laptop. She envisaged it sitting open on the desk. If he—Damn it. She needed to move. She raced into the office, slipped the thumb drive into her pocket.
She spun around to see Dale staring at her darkly, blocking the doorway. She tried for a smile, but noticed he wasn’t staring at her. He was staring at the image still open on her computer.
‘You saw that and didn’t tell me?’ he said, his voice quiet. ‘What were you going to do?’ he asked, his eyes finally moving to meet hers. ‘Dob me in?’
Her head shook vigorously. ‘No! Dale, of course not, just—tell me you didn’t have anything to do with this!’
He swore and snatched the computer. ‘I didn’t want it to turn out like this. I’m sorry. No one can know about this, Callie.’
What did that mean? Her heart gave one large thud and then seemed to stop altogether. She couldn’t breathe for the tight band of worry clenching at her chest. Did she know this man at all? She ducked around him and ran through the door.
He lunged, got a hand on her.
‘Let me go!’ she screamed.
‘Let me explain!’
A bright shock of rage slipped past the fear. She pointed at the laptop in his hand. ‘There’s no way to make that better!’
With a growl, he dragged her with him to the kitchen, then pitched the laptop into the fire to join the clothing. It smashed and began to melt.
‘Callie!’ Paisley thumped on one of the twin glass kitchen doors, eyes wide. ‘Callie? Are you okay?’
‘No!’ She used the distraction to rip her arm from Dale’s grasp and dodge past him. He lunged again, got a hand on her robe and dragged her back. She grabbed the table, couldn’t hold on but pulled the tablecloth off. The glass, bottle, plate and fruit bowl all shattered on the floor. ‘Let me go!’
‘Don’t go out there!’ The words ended on a violent curse as Dale slipped.
Paisley was still desperately pounding on the glass. Callie needed to get to that door, flip the lock. She felt Dale’s hand around her ankle as she leapt, then the pain of slamming onto the floor as he pulled her foot out from under her. Her hand landed on the broken wineglass and she grabbed it despite its jagged edges and kicked free, lashed out with the glass as he roughly dragged her back. Felt the jarring of it as it lodged in his cheek.
Callie stared, horrified. The shattering of the door as Paisley lobbed something through barely even registered. Dale got up, staggered, reaching for her, then slipped again. This time when he went down, his head cracked with a sickening thud against the bench. He didn’t move, didn’t get back up. She wondered why she couldn’t see, and didn’t realise she was sobbing.
Paisley rushed in, got hold of Callie when she would have collapsed.
‘Callie, are you okay? Are you hurt? What happened? I can’t believe what I just saw.’
‘That woman was dead. And he wouldn’t deny it was him. He just said no one could know.’
‘That woman! She’s dead. Murdered. And he was scratched and he burned his clothes and there were pictures …’
‘Okay, okay.’ Paisley dragged her to a chair and clasped her fingers in her hair. ‘We need to call the police.’ She pulled her phone from her pocket, then stared past Callie back out the door. ‘Callie! Do you have anything to tie him up with?’
‘Tie him up?’
‘Until the police arrive. Do you have anything?’
‘Maybe in the garage.’
‘Go and look!’ Paisley’s shocked eyes moved back to Dale. ‘Go and look.’
Callie got up, then doubled over with nausea at the sight of blood spreading on the floor around her husband. ‘What if he doesn’t wake up?’
‘Seriously, Callie? What if he does? Go out to the garage, get some tape or cable ties or something. Now! Not that way!’ Paisley ordered when Callie somehow moved her legs and would have left through the kitchen. ‘Go through the back. I’m calling for help,’ then into the phone she said, ‘Yes, I need an ambulance and the police …’
Callie ran blindly outside, barely noticing the rain that had started to fall, swiping uselessly at her face, eyes stinging while she fought for every breath she dragged into her lungs. She scanned the garage shelves, knocked most of their contents to the ground as, hand trembling, she struggled to find what she needed. Then she found three cable ties in an almost empty pack. They would do. Still fighting hysteria, she made her legs take her back inside.
The first thing she noticed was Dale wasn’t moving. Paisley was bent over him, every muscle taut.
‘He doesn’t look right.’
The expression on Paisley’s face as she dropped back from Dale to sit on the floor all but answered the question Callie was too afraid to ask. The breath clogged in her throat again, dissolving the strength in her legs. She dropped down beside her friend, drew her knees up to her chin and tried to breathe.
‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’
The soft words were barely discernible even to herself over the monotonous drumming of rain on the kitchen roof. The scene became dreamlike. The horror of the previous few minutes was incongruous with the tidy, brightly lit space, the comforting fire burning in the hearth and the lingering scent of coffee.
She glanced sideways when her friend took a while to answer.
Paisley raked her fingers through her long, blonde hair. ‘Looks like.’ Then, with a heavy sigh: ‘Hell.’
A hysterical laugh broke from Callie’s throat, loud and sharp in the quiet space. ‘I just accused him of being a murderer. Then I did this. I’m as bad as he is.’
‘As bad as he was. Except you’re not.’
Callie clamped one shaking hand in the other. The fire snapped, shooting out another spurt of brightly dancing lights as the laptop continued to dissolve.
The damn laptop. She should have shut it down. Shut it down, or run away. Not this. Anything but this.
‘It doesn’t matter. This isn’t real. I’ll wake up in a couple of hours and he’ll be alive. Right beside me.’
Her stomach threatened to turn inside out as reality crept in on a wave of revulsion. Without really wanting to, she looked at her husband’s prone figure. He’d fallen in an awkward, unnatural position, almost like he was running, horizontally, but his head was backwards, in a The Exorcist kind of way. And the back of that head was dented, bloody. The wineglass stem buried in his cheek glinted under the kitchen light. The pool of blood had stopped a centimetre or so from where she sat hugging her knees next to her best friend, on the polished floorboards.
‘It can’t be real,’ she repeated, just a whisper, and began to rock.
Outside, the wailing of a siren was faint but the flashing red and blue lights cut through the wall of falling water. ‘So … you should probably tell me the whole story pretty quick,’ Paisley suggested. ‘So I can back you up.’
‘Back me up?’
Paisley stood, and with one last, horrified look at Dale’s body, moved to the door. ‘Cops are going to want to know why he’s dead.’
‘Oh, God.’ As the shaking became tremors that rocked her whole body, Callie’s head fell onto her knees. ‘Because I killed him. I killed my husband.’
Devil’s Lair by Sarah Barrie will be available in store and online from June 17th 2019
Posted on June 3, 2019 by harlequinaustralia