The body had stayed hidden under the gnarled root of a weeping willow tree for over a year. It was never supposed to be exposed, but the heavy rains of summer had shifted and pushed against the embankment until a huge chunk had given way, disturbing the resting place of some poor girl who had found herself murdered. At least that’s what Elizabeth Crawley had assumed when she’d first heard about the remains discovered down by Macintyre River, uncovered by a group of young local boys no less. Some people in town were saying that they had found the body a few days earlier but had kept it secret and had even organised paid tours of the site for other curious kids. It wasn’t until a diligent mother became suspicious of her son’s whereabouts that the awful truth was finally uncovered. Elizabeth knew of the mother, Pam, who was a regular fixture at the local beauty salon and unmissable with her silver-blonde highlights and daring blue eyeliner. Pam would often boast about her strapping young sons, and despite the youngest being only four years of age, were both reported to be extremely gifted with higher than average intelligence and fine motor skills. Elizabeth enjoyed picturing Pam’s surprise when she stumbled across the girl’s dead body. Pam’s mouth would have gaped like a startled fish, eyes bulging and wide. And her scream, there definitely would have been a scream.
While a murder in her home town was indeed disturbing, what Elizabeth had found most chilling was that the body had been found only meters away from the jogging track she regularly utilised, along with many of the other residents of her small, laid-back country town. And then the news came out that the body had been there for an entire year and no one had noticed. Elizabeth had known the exact corner of the river the body had been found, recognised it on the local news and had sucked in a deep breath, her husband squeezing her knee in sympathy. She’d been taking her kelpie, Banjo, for daily walks right past that exact same weeping willow, oblivious to the decomposing remains only a stone’s throw away. And the stench. Surely there must have been a stench? When she’d dug into her memories, she could only pull up a vague recollection of a dead kangaroo, although she couldn’t remember what the kangaroo had looked like, only its stink. Perhaps that had been the girl? Newly shoved into her grave? She’d mentioned this to her husband but he’d laughed at her, shaking his head and pointing out that the girl had been buried deep beneath the ground, and it would have been impossible for her to have smelt anything.
They’d made love for the first time in a long time that night, as passionate with each other as if they were newlyweds again, something about a murder making them feel reckless and wild. We could be here one day and gone the next. She’d muttered into her husband’s ear, and he’d grabbed her round the middle and thrown her onto the bed. It was later that night, a sliver of moonlight falling over her husband’s back, that she’d traced a hand along the ridge of his shoulder blade and dreamed of their future together. To think after all these years, they could still have such desire for each other, the thought had made her weak and faint with relief. He loved her. She, Elizabeth Crawley, a former nobody, was loved and adored by her handsome, well-educated, doctor husband. But what of that poor, dead river girl? Who had loved her?
And it turned out that she had been murdered, though the shocking confirmation of her premature end had barely caused a ripple in the town’s collective consciousness. Of course, she’d been murdered. The lady who owned the news agency had whispered to Elizabeth, adding a curt nod as if to demonstrate her inside knowledge. What we really want to know is… who is she? It was the question that would fuel countless debates and endless discussions at late-night dinner parties throughout the district. It would inevitably come up when dessert was being served. Elizabeth had witnessed it happen more than once. What was it about the dessert that made people think of murder? Or could it be the two to three glasses of Barossa Valley Shiraz that finally loosened people’s tongues?
Only last night they’d had dinner with a couple of their close friends under the stars, the glittering fairy lights and hanging branches of an old willow tree making the setting both romantic and full of cloying expectation. When the topic of conversation had inevitably meandered round to the poor, dead river girl, the Mayor and his wife had expressed their concern about the mental well-being of the boys who had found the body. What type of mothers allowed their young sons to run around town like wild hooligans, dredging up dead bodies from the river bank? Elizabeth had been forced to hide her laughter at that point, her husband glancing over and giving her a stern glance, though his eyes had been twinkling mischievously. No one in town, that they knew of, was missing. Could it be a runaway teen from the big city, passing through town only to be murdered gruesomely and dumped along the river by a pissed off boyfriend? A battered woman, of course, that makes sense. The Mayor’s wife had added, head nodding in fake concern.
Again, after their guests had departed, Elizabeth’s husband had grabbed her by the waist and pushed her up against the kitchen sink, eventually turning her around so he could unzip and peel off her tight, black evening dress. She was both startled and turned-on by her husband’s obvious delight in her body. To think only last year they’d gone six months without even touching each other, all over some stupid fight they’d had about moving. Her husband had announced that he wanted a transfer to a bigger city, but Elizabeth had refused to even entertain the idea of leaving her childhood home, with its weeping willow trees at the end of the garden, its old sand tennis court and long, wrap around verandas. She belonged here, just like her grandpa’s hand-made rocking chair belonged on the back porch.
After her husband had finally entered an exhausted slumber, she’d found herself scrolling through endless missing person reports on the national register. The latest news report had indicated that the dead river girl was estimated to be anywhere from 18-25 years old, of medium height and possibly slim build. There were a handful of missing girls matching that description who had disappeared around the time the poor river girl had been murdered. There was a twenty-year-old girl with startling blue eyes and a long, swan-like neck. She was a stunner, with thick blonde hair, and a full face with a ruddy complexion. Another thirty-something girl had a wide smile and almond-shaped eyes and looked like someone Elizabeth would be friends with. What was her family thinking? Did they miss their daughter, their wife, their sister?
Elizabeth had been about to shut her laptop down when another profile had caught her eye. There was something eerily familiar about this one, maybe it was the eyes, or her distinctive red hair styled into a smooth, short bob. Allira. She’d gone missing down south, her parents gravely concerned for her welfare, desperate to find their ‘perfect little girl’. She had only been twenty-three when she’d vanished, her whole life ahead of her. Of all the things she could have been studying, it was medicine. Elizabeth had thought that the chill that had swept over her shoulders was from the cool breeze drifting in from the open window. But her mind had been distracted, thinking how odd it was that the girl had been alive and studying at the same university while her husband had been working there. He’d ended up going away for a few long weeks to teach some young medical students during a special summer program, the separation at the time incredibly taxing on their relationship. When he’d returned his eyes had been burning with a steely determination and he’d admitted he wanted a transfer so he could teach medicine at the university full-time. Then they’d had their fight, and her husband had transformed into someone else – a cold and distant stranger.
During their no-touching period, she’d gone to visit her husband at the practice, forced to sit in the waiting room until she’d come to the slow realisation that he didn’t want to see her. She’d waited a little longer outside in her car, observing the flustered, red-faced girl who had left her husband’s practice and jumped into a small, nondescript white sedan – she’d had red hair and narrow, inquisitive eyes. And, yes! Elizabeth had even taken a photo, being the suspicious wife she’d been at the time. Thinking he was cheating, coming to the awful realisation that he must be. The photo was hidden among a thousand others, between a picture of Banjo and a snapshot of a recipe for a black berry pie. To think she’d almost forgotten it was there.
Elizabeth was comparing her photo to the one on the missing persons register when her husband came up behind her, burying his head into the softness at the side of her neck, nibbling away until a flood of chills darted down her spine. She should have closed her laptop, turned off her phone, done anything but sit there. But she knew it was too late anyway. Instead, she went rigid and stiff, closing her eyes as he pulled away, his lips leaving her neck achingly cold and damp. What are you looking at? But she had no chance to reply, couldn’t even utter a sound as his hands wrapped around her neck.
Elizabeth struggled like she imagined the poor river girl had struggled before her. But her legs were strong and she pushed against the wall, sending them both flying back onto the bed. It’s funny the things you remember as you’re dying. She could hear her darling Banjo scratching at the door to their room, wondering why his parents were making such dreadful noises. Did he know what was happening to his mum? Her head filled with one strong, all-encompassing thought. I love you Banjo. Then they were on the floor, Elizabeth’s back pressed into the antique Persian rug they’d bought together when they’d first moved in – a symbol of their love. She remembered rolling it out, the smug look on his face as he’d made a tantalising suggestion, to which she’d readily agreed.
They’ll find out. They’ll know it’s you. She managed to utter despite her swelling throat. She really thought this might stop him, but when she looked up into her husband’s face she could only see a stranger staring back and a set of blank, dark eyes. It was only then that she knew, with an awful, gut-wrenching finality, that he wasn’t going to stop.
John Crawley played the devastated husband well, eyes misty and filled with tears when the police came to tell him that they’d found his wife’s body, drifting slowly down Macintyre River, jogging clothes still on, one of her feet missing a shoe. Banjo was found shortly after, sniffing along the banks, searching for his owner, his high-pitched squeals bringing a tear to the eye of the police officer who had to forcibly drag him away. For months after the town was abuzz with the morbidly fascinating knowledge that there was a serial killer on the loose, and no one felt safe, not even the Mayor’s wife.
It was to John’s credit that they never figured out it was him. In the watery light of pre-dawn, he’d driven to the weeping willow by the river where the body of his pregnant lover, Allira, had been found. Elizabeth had been alive but unconscious when he’d pulled her from the boot of his car, and he’d almost had second thoughts when he’d caught a glimpse of her peaceful, sleeping face. He had even experienced a twinge of guilt as he’d placed her in the shallows, submerging and holding her head under water for three long minutes. There had been no gurgling or sputtering or struggling, only silence. It was a gentle death, one he knew his dear Elizabeth deserved. Allira’s death, on the other hand, had been bloody and violent. He’d been so fuelled by rage that he’d lashed out with force, surprised at how quickly Allira had succumbed to the blows.
Once forensics were done, Elizabeth’s body was released to her husband and she was buried in her family’s cemetery at the back of Crawley House, now five headstones in one long row. One weeping willow had branches that stretched high above the graves, shading the headstones over the warm summer months and sheltering them during the heavy frosts of winter. Everyone knew how much Elizabeth had loved it there, having spent her childhood playing among the willows at the bottom of the garden. Perhaps in some way her body had instinctively known that this was where she would one day spend her eternal rest, arms placed gently by her side, hair combed back in an unusually smooth bun. Elizabeth’s mourning husband loved the poetic symmetry of it all, deciding that he too, would one day be buried in the plot next to hers.