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 rocky 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 assumed when she first heard about the remains discovered down by Macintyre River, uncovered by a group of young local boys no less. The local grapevine was reporting in hushed whispers that the boys had found the body a few days earlier but had kept it a secret, organising paid tours of the site for other curious local children. It wasn’t until a diligent mother became suspicious of her eldest son’s whereabouts that the awful truth was uncovered.
Elizabeth knew of the mother, Pam, 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, both reported to be extremely gifted with higher than average intelligence and fine motor skills. Elizabeth enjoyed imagining Pam’s surprise when she stumbled across the dead girl’s body. No doubt Pam’s mouth would have gaped like a startled fish, eyes bulging and wide. And her scream, there definitely would have been a scream.
A murder in her hometown was indeed a disturbing thing, but what Elizabeth found most chilling was that the body had been found only meters away from the popular jogging track she 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 knew the exact corner of the river the body had been found, had recognised the unmissable weeping willow on the evening news and had sucked in a deep breath, her husband squeezing her knee in sympathy.
Elizabeth often took her kelpie, Banjo, for daily walks right past the offending weeping willow, oblivious to the decomposing remains only a stone’s throw away. And the stench. Surely there must have been a stench? Digging into her memories, she could only pull up the vague recollection of a dead kangaroo, although she couldn’t remember seeing its remains, only the stink. Perhaps that had been the girl? Newly shoved into her grave? Elizabeth mentioned this to her husband while they were eating dessert, but he 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, or anyone else, to have smelt anything.
They made love for the first time in a long time that night, as passionate 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 muttered into her husband’s ear, and he grabbed her around the middle and threw her onto the bed. Later on, she traced a hand along the sliver of moonlight on his shoulder blade, dreaming of their future together. To think after all these years, they could still have such desire for each other, the thought making 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?
It turned out that she had been murdered, though the shocking confirmation of her premature end barely caused a ripple in the town’s collective consciousness. Of course, she’d been murdered. The lady who owned the news agency 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 sugary sweetness of the dessert that made people think of murder? Or could it be the two to three glasses of Merilba Estate Shiraz that finally loosened people’s tongues?
On a warm summer’s evening, two weeks after the river girl’s body had been found, Elizabeth and her husband were having dinner with a couple of their close friends under the stars. The glittering fairy lights and swaying branches of an old willow tree threw dancing shadows over their smiling faces, the air thick and heavy with cloying expectation. When the chilled vanilla panna cotta was served, the topic of conversation meandered round to the river girl, the Mayor and his wife collectively expressing their concern about the mental well-being of the boys who had found the body.
What type of mother allowed her young sons to run amuck in town like wild hooligans, dredging up dead bodies from the river bank? The Mayor’s wife declared, eyes wide and eager as she made a point to look at every single person on the table. Elizabeth’s chin trembled as she tried to hide her laughter, not sure if it was because of the way the Mayor’s wife had pronounced the word ‘hooligan’ or her delight over Pam’s dramatic fall from grace. Her ever-observant husband glanced over with a cursory, stern warning, though his eyes were twinkling with mischief.
The conversation moved on from Pam’s delinquent son and onto the river girl’s identity. No one in town, that they knew of, had disappeared recently. Could the dead girl be a runaway teen from the city, passing through town only to be murdered and dumped along the river by a violent boyfriend? A battered woman, of course, that makes sense. The Mayor’s wife added, dipping her head to the side in fake concern, her eyes flicking to the unopened bottle of shiraz sitting in the middle of the table.
After their guests departed, Elizabeth’s husband grabbed her by the waist and pushed her up against the kitchen sink, turning her around so he could unzip and peel off her tight, black evening dress. She was both startled and excited by his 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, the old sand tennis court and long, wrap-around verandas. The house wasn’t worth much, but she belonged here, like her grandpa’s hand-made rocking chair belonged on the back porch.
Later, when her husband slipped into an exhausted slumber, she used the light of the waning moon to tiptoe over to her desk, curling her legs beneath her body and resting her chin on her knee. It didn’t take her long to find the online National Missing Person’s Register and she sat entranced as she scrolled through page after page of missing females, most smiling in free abandon, unaware of the fates about to befall them. There were a handful of missing girls who had disappeared around the same time the river girl was 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, a full face and ruddy complexion. Another thirty-something girl called Sophie had a wide smile and almond-shaped eyes and looked like someone Elizabeth would be friends with. Did Sophie’s family still miss their daughter, their wife, their sister?
Elizabeth was about to close her laptop when another profile caught her eye. There was something eerie about this one, maybe it was the eyes or distinctive red hair styled into a messy, short bob. Allira. She’d gone missing down south last summer, her parents gravely concerned for her welfare, desperate to find their ‘perfect little girl’. She’d 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.
A surprising chill swept over Elizabeth’s shoulders as she peered closer at the screen, thinking how odd it was that the girl had been alive and studying at the same university her husband had been working at. 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 creating an unfamiliar tension within their relationship. When he’d returned his eyes had been burning with 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 stranger with a pair of dark, distant eyes.
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 – a girl with 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 conclusion 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 blackberry pie. To think she’d almost forgotten it was there!
Elizabeth was comparing her photo to the one on the missing person’s register when her husband came up behind her, burying his head into the softness at the side of her neck, nibbling away until he reached her ear. She should have closed her laptop, turned off her phone, done anything but sit there. But she knew it was too late anyway. She closed her eyes as he pulled away, his lips leaving her neck achingly cold and damp. Though her hands and feet were tingling with adrenaline, she was rooted to the spot, back rigid and stiff. What are you looking at? He asked in a soft, hushed voice. 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 Allira had struggled before her. Though his arms were like vices, her legs were strong and she pushed against the desk, sending them both flying back onto the bed. It’s funny the things you remember as you’re dying. She could hear 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. I’ll always love you. 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 burgeoning love. She remembered rolling it out and 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 the stranger staring back. 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, falling to the ground and clutching his chest when the police came to tell him that they’d found his wife’s body, drifting face down in Macintyre River, jogging clothes still on, one of her feet missing a shoe. Banjo was found not long 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 drag him away. For months after the town was abuzz with the 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. There were even twinges of guilt fluttering in his stomach 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 wife deserved. Allira’s violent end, on the other hand, had been both unscripted and bloody. He’d been so fuelled by rage that he’d lashed out with force, surprised at how quickly Allira had succumbed to the blows.
When Elizabeth’s body was released to her husband, she was buried in her family’s cemetery at the back of the old Crawley Homestead, now five headstones in one long row. The branches of a weeping willow 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 known that this was where she would one day spend her eternal rest, arms placed down by her side, hair combed back into a smooth, golden 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.