Watcher’s Web is one of the first novels I wrote. It went through many reincarnations before its current form. The story of Jessica, however, remained the same. I just ended up cutting a lot of the backstory for the final version. The event described in this original prologue has shaped much of Jessica’s life.
Jessica grew up in a fictional country town in New South Wales called Barrow Creek. The photo above shows the type of landscape in this area. The town itself does not exist, but would probably be comparable with Cowra or Forbes. A few thousand people, a single street of shops, a park, a pool, a pub, a river that’s dry most of the year. Her father was one of the town’s police officers.
Brought here as I wrote it in 2005.
What really happened with Stephen Fitzgerald?
Jessica turned her eyes to the sky in a dreamy expression. ‘Alright – what about we start with something like this:
The sun sets in oceans of blood
While ashen trees claw at the sky
Like so many begging hands—’
Something made a loud clunk.
Jessica glared sideways, hot irritation rising up in her. ‘What?’
Claudia had put her milkshake container on the table. The last rays of sunlight gilded her mousey hair and turned her eyes into pools of gold.
Jessica repeated, ‘What? Do you want me to help you with this or not?’
Claudia’s mouth twitched. ‘Mr Finney said, “Write a poem about the drought.”’
‘And? Isn’t that what we’re doing?’ Jessica brushed strands of black hair behind her ear.
Claudia shrugged. ‘Well… I don’t know. To me it sounds like you’re describing something horrible, like, I don’t know, Hell, with all these dead things and blood and—‘
‘And yes, that’s what’s a drought’s about. Dead things. Dead grass, dead trees, dead animals, blood red sky. It’s called mood.’ Jessica clutched her work book to her chest and glared at the table.
A faint breeze brought a smell of lucerne hay from down by the bridge, where her neighbour had been winnowing his crop when she walked past on the way into town. Where she longed to sit and daydream on bales of hay wrapped in blue plastic, or hurl rocks at the opposite river bank. Alone. She’d felt irritated all day. Cooped up. Impatient. Angry. And she had no idea why.
Claudia gave her a wary glance. ‘You know what? Sometimes you scare the creeps out of me, Jessica.’
Jessica grabbed her container and sucked at the straw, but she had long since finished her milkshake. She contemplated getting another one, but she didn’t want to give Claudia an excuse to stay any longer than necessary.
Claudia had placed her work book on the table, next to her half-finished milkshake. She looked up at Jessica as a diligent student might look at a teacher. ‘So-what do I write?’
Jessica breathed in to say something like ‘I thought my suggestions weren’t good enough,’ but the sound of a roaring engine cut her off.
And around the corner tore a ute, the cabin black and gleaming with polish, images of flames licking the bonnet and sides. A wave of thudding music preceded it down the near-deserted main street. The car screeched to a halt in front of the take-away shop, honked the horn. Neil Fitzgerald, hair gelled back from his face, hung out the passenger seat. His younger brother Stephen sat behind the wheel. Jessica pulled a face at him. What an idiot. He was only sixteen.
He gave a wolf-whistle.
Claudia giggled and turned away. ‘Don’t look at them.’ But a blush had spread over her face.
Jessica cringed. Claudia and her stupid infatuation for Stephen Fitzgerald. All the way from Barrow Creek to Pymberton on the school bus she’d have to hear about it, and then again on the way back. Whatever Claudia saw in the stupid, bullying—
The two boys jumped out of the car, leaving the doors open and the engine running. Neil stalked to the take-away counter, while Stephen sauntered past the girls’ table, his grey eyes meeting Jessica’s. ‘Hey, Dracula.’
Jessica returned his gaze squarely. ‘A very nice day to you, too Mr Will-lose-licence-before-I-even-got-one.’
‘Very funny.’ Stephen crossed his arms before his chest, showing hands rough with stains of grease and oil. The last rays of the sun gilded his ruffled sandy hair and faint stubble on his chin. Leaving school to work in his father’s garage had made him older. Much older. Almost a man. He raised one eyebrow. ‘Oh, and you’re going to report me to your policeman Daddy, are you?’
Jessica pressed down a wave of irritation at the faintest thought that the way he stood there, and the way he had sat behind the wheel of the car, had stirred something in her. ‘My policeman Daddy has better things to do.’
Claudia tugged her sleeve. ‘I said – ignore them.’
Jessica pushed Claudia’s hand away. She would have an argument when she bloody well liked it. To be honest, she had felt like having an argument all day and Stephen Fitzgerald, with whom she had fought all the way through school, was the perfect candidate.
Stephen chuckled and imitated Claudia’s voice. ‘Ignore them.’ He chuckled. ‘Would you ignore me if I offer you a lift home?’
The colour drained from Claudia’s face. She stammered, ‘I… my parents… I’m supposed to…’
Stephen snorted. ‘I guess that means no.’
Claudia gulped, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, looking like rose wilted before Valentine’s Day.
Stephen shrugged and shifted his gaze to Jessica. ‘What about you, Dracula? Does your policeman Daddy tell you bad stories about us, too?’ A look of familiar challenge lay in his eyes, a look to which she had responded often enough: to climb the roof, to jump the fence, to fight him. And win. All through her primary years, she had been so much taller than other kids, sheer size gave her the advantage, even though Stephen was two years older.
Neil walked back to the car, a newspaper-wrapped parcel in his hands. ‘Coming, bro?’
Stephen jerked his head at the car, his gaze still on Jessica. ‘I’m serious. Want a ride home?’
Behind him, Neil was getting into the driver’s seat.
Jessica almost felt the wind in her hair and the roar of the engine beneath her feet. Five minutes and she would be home, away from Claudia and her stupid remarks. She shrugged.
Claudia leant over. ‘Don’t be stupid, Jessica.’
Jessica pushed Claudia’s hand away and grabbed her work book. ‘I can’t see what’s stupid about it. Neil’s allowed to drive—‘
‘But we haven’t finished our homework.’
For a moment, Jessica’s eyes met Claudia’s. Her anger resurfaced. Homework? ‘We’re not going to finish this. Every time I suggest something you say it’s too creepy. I’m sick of it. I’ve given you enough suggestions to fill six poems. Besides, I did tell my mother I’d be back before dark.’ Under Claudia’s horrified gaze, she pushed her chair back, grabbed her bag and crossed the footpath.
The inside of Neil’s car smelled of polish and smoke. Music boomed from the loudspeakers, making the floor vibrate. Neil drummed his fingers on the wheel, a cigarette in his left hand. A tendril of smoke curled out the window.
Jessica lifted the parcel of fish and chips onto her lap so she could sit, jammed between the brothers on the bench. Stephen slammed the door shut. Neil revved the engine to a deafening roar.
For a moment, Jessica met Claudia’s eyes through the windscreen. Deep inside, Jessica knew she would regret this. On Monday when the anger had worn off and she was back to her normal, quiet self, she would be sorry. And have to apologise. But that made her only more angry.
Damn Claudia, damn Stephen, damn everything.
Neil released the handbrake and the car shot backwards. He shifted gears with a crunch. The tyres screeched; Jessica was pushed in her seat. Shops, parked cars and trees passed in a blur; the speedometer went up to ninety. Just as well her father and his partner were somewhere patrolling the main road.
Neil turned left at the end of the street, crossed the bridge. After that, her house was just a few hundred metres on the right. But he didn’t slow down.
Jessica turned her head as they passed, her mother’s flower garden a haze of colour. ‘Hey, that’s my house. Where are we going?’
‘Somewhere we can eat this,’ Neil grunted over the thudding of the music, jerking his head at her knees, where the newspaper-wrapped parcel sat like an overheated cat.
‘But you said you’d take me—‘
‘We will. Aren’t you hungry?’
‘Suppose…’ She shifted away from the ash falling from his cigarette.
Shit – this was not at all what she had wanted.
Not long after, Neil turned off the main road and followed an unpaved track along the river. Jessica knew it led to Finnegan’s lookout, a spot where young men often gathered with cars and motorbikes, to hang out, talk and show off their wheels. Finnegan’s lookout, where girlfriends were blond and voluptuous, not tall, androgynous and pale, or going by the nickname of Dracula. And here was she, coming with the Fitzgerald brothers, who were considered to be the hottest spunks in town. Everyone would be surprised, and ogle at her and tomorrow the girls would all be all be dying their hair black, straightening their curls and covering their tans under layers of powder…
Except when they crested the rise of the low bluff in a bend of the river, the picnic area was deserted. Excitement made way for relief – she hadn’t seriously wanted to face all those popular girls and their ridicule – and it in turn faded for anxiety. Why the hell hadn’t she demanded that Neil drop her off at home?
Twinkling street lights of town spread before them in a simple grid, lined by the ribbon of white trunks of the gum trees by the creek. The sun was a sliver of red at the horizon. The car came to a stop in a cloud of dust.
When Neil turned off the engine, silence was complete.
He stepped into the dust, dragging on his cigarette, and blowing smoke out his nostrils. Stephen took the parcel of fish and chips, stepped over the low fence and sat down on a boulder. Jessica followed. The sun-warmed, lichen-covered granite felt rough under her skin.
Neil sat on her other side. They ate. Jessica didn’t know what to say.
The brothers joked and laughed, passing the greasy parcel of fish and chips back and forth across her lap until Neil announced he had enough.
‘Want some of this?’ He held a bottle under her nose. Covered in a brown paper bag, Jessica couldn’t see what it was, but the smell of it made her gag; she shook her head. ‘Look, could you please…’ No, she was not going to beg. Otherwise they’d be joking about her for the next two years.
Stephen grabbed the bottle from his brother’s hand, unscrewed the top and drank deeply.
He belched. ‘Just sit here for five minutes then we’ll take you back, won’t we, Neil?’
Neil grunted, heaving himself to his feet. He muttered something about having a piss and slouched off, peeling the cellophane off another packet of cigarettes.
Silence reigned. A group of cockatoos screeched by the river.
Stephen reached inside the newspaper wrapping, still on Jessica’s lap, now no longer feeling warm, but cold and stale. His chest touched her shoulder when he did so. Her gaze went to his forearm, where a thin scar shone white against his bronzed skin. Jessica remembered blood spurting out that arm after she had pushed him through the window on her first day at school. How he had changed. He was not much shorter than her, and then his shoulders and arms… broad and muscular. She had never known he did weights.
‘Not hungry?’ he asked, meeting her eyes.
She shook her head, embarrassed, aware that he knew she was staring at him. She cast about for something to say. ‘You’ve… changed.’
He scrunched up the parcel with the remaining fish and chips and set it aside. Again, he grabbed the bottle. ‘Sure you don’t want any?’
And again, she shook her head.
Liquid sloshed against glass as he drank. He put the bottle down and gave her a thoughtful look. ‘You know – you’re not really pretty like the other girls. I mean – if I didn’t know any better I’d say you were one of those fucking… what do you call them – these men turning themselves into women. But I do know better, and I know you’re just weird and…’ The warmth of his hand covered hers. ‘You’re not like all those other bimbos. And I like that. A lot.’ His fingers caressed the back of her hand. ‘So what do you say to that? Truce?’ His breath tickled in her neck.
Jessica froze and stared at him, heart thudding in her chest. He had to be kidding! After having bullied her most of her life. A wave of irritation, the kind she had felt all day, welled up in her. Made her want to jump up and hit him in the face, or kick him somewhere more sensitive.
But she did nothing. He came closer, lifting his hand and caressing the skin on her cheek. The stench of stale alcohol and sweat was overpowering. She tried to push him away. ‘Stephen, stop it. You said you were going to take me home.’
‘Later,’ he whispered. And then he pushed her down on the rock, and his mouth smothered hers, forcing his tongue between her lips like a wet slug. The taste of bourbon exploded in her mouth. Paralysed with shock and revulsion, Jessica barely dared breathe. She wanted to push him away, but felt the strength in his arms and realised she could do little. Damn. This was her own fault, her own stupid fault.
Blood roaring in her ears, she stared up past the tufts of his hair at the first stars in the sky, waiting for him to release her, forcing herself not to gag, squirming away from his questing hands.
Finally he let go, wet lips parted. He gave a crooked smile and jerked his head. ‘I better go up to the car. I’ve got some… uh…’
Oh no. That was it. That was definitely it. Jessica pushed him aside and sat up. ‘No, I’m going home.’ Her gaze roamed the ridge of the lookout. The car stood there, doors open. But where was Neil? Damn it, where was he?
Stephen’s arm slithered over her shoulder. ‘Who’s gonna care about five more minutes? I won’t take long. I promise. Neil will look the other way. Unless you’ve never…’ He chuckled. The revolting smell of stale alcohol washed over her.
So what if she was a virgin? ‘No, Stephen. I don’t want that. You’re drunk.’
His breath felt hot in her neck. ‘You make me drunk.’ He stroked her cheek, his eyes wild and unfocused. Jessica inched away, but he held her arm and pulled her closer. ‘I want you, Dracula. I want to fuck you – badly. Now.’ His breaths came like pants. ‘So, just wait here, while I– ’ His gaze went up to the car, which still stood deserted.
‘No, I said, listen to me: No!’ She pushed his arm away, scrambling to her feet. Before he could do anything else, she slid down the rock, landing hard in the bushes below. Tripping and stumbling, she made her way down the scrub-covered slope, branches tearing at her clothes.
But Stephen was no longer a skinny boy. He jumped after her and caught up with her just as she scrambled onto the sandy river bank. He pushed her into the trunk of one of the gum trees, panting. ‘You’re gonna play hard to get? Good. You should know by now that I enjoy fights.’
‘Stephen, you’re drunk. Don’t do anything stupid. I’m serious: leave me alone.’
He laughed. ‘You’re clamouring for me. Look at you, look at how you shiver. Think I didn’t see how you ogled at me back there at the take-away? I’m not stupid. Here. Feel this.’ He pushed himself against her, rubbing the bulge in his crotch over her thigh. ‘You want me – I want you. What’s the problem?’
God. Jessica gagged, her eyes scanning for a way out. His weight pinned her against the tree, while his hands slid under her shirt up the naked skin of her sides. His touch sent shivers through her, waves of hot and cold sensations that twirled and curled under her skin.
Stephen breathed heavily. ‘I won’t hurt you. I promise.’ His hands now fumbled with the button on her jeans.
The sensation of waves over her skin increased, now more hot than cold. Jessica grabbed at his hands, but she trembled so much that her grip had little strength. ‘Stephen, stop it.’ Shit – what was that feeling, the trembling, the heat?
He laughed again. ‘You want me – I can see it in your eyes. Come on – admit it.’ Too drunk to undo her button, he undid his own. ‘Come on – feel this.’ He grabbed her hand and forced it into slimy wetness of his crotch.
Jessica struggled against his grip. ‘Stephen, don’t.’ Her hand shot free. She pushed him away, but he grabbed her by her shirt. A hot wave went over her back as if someone tipped hot water over her. God – this strange feeling was getting worse. ‘Help! Help me, Neil! Anyone!’ Her voice echoed in the stillness of the evening. The waves of heat now travelled down her legs, and then up again. She yanked at her shirt. ‘Let me go. Help! Help!’
‘Shut up, fucking bitch.’ He hit her square in the face.
And Jessica saw red.
An explosion of red spots whirled before her eyes. Red hot anger welled up riding waves of heat that came from somewhere inside her, hundreds, no thousands of times worse than what she had felt a moment ago. The skin of her arms burned with flares of sparks, which flowed from her skin like fireworks, dissolving in mid-air.
Stephen gasped. ‘Holy…’ His eyes met hers.
For a moment, an uncontrollable, unspeakably evil urge washed over her to become Stephen, to devour his very being.
Something ‘connected’ inside her mind. A sense of wider being, of heightened experience.
Stephen’s face slackened, assuming an expression of surprise. Before him floated a small dot of light, as if made by a powerful glow worm. He let go of her shirt; the light drifted. Mesmerised, Jessica extended a hand. The light floated towards it, settled in her palm and was absorbed by her skin.
And inside her, a burning pain exploded. Her hand lit up orange, sending waves of sparks swirling under her skin. Jessica screamed and clutched her chest. Then, realising Stephen no longer held her, she turned and ran, and ran, and ran. Ghostly shapes of tree trunks passed in a blur. She leaped fences, and outran the neighbour’s dog, down the drive, through the vegetable garden, up the steps…
Her mother stood in the kitchen, her back to the door. Rows and rows of jars with steaming water filled the bench.
At the slam of the screen door, her mother turned. ‘Jessica!’ An expression of horror came over her freckled face. She abandoned the pan she was stirring and, still wearing pink rubber gloves, swept Jessica into her arms, enfolding her with the smell of raspberry jam. ‘Jessica, dear, what is the matter?’
But Jessica could only cry over incoherent shards of speech, while she collapsed in a kitchen chair. Her mother made some tea, although her hands shook when she set it on the table.
Jessica told her story in sobs and gasps, but she said nothing about the light; she could never mention the light.
About half an hour later, the screen door clanged and her father stepped into the kitchen.
Her mother gave him a look of despair. ‘David, can’t you do anything? It was Stephen Fitzgerald again. You should tell the Fitzgeralds that we will take this further if they can’t control–‘
Her father pressed his lips into a thin line. His face had a ‘don’t argue’ expression Jessica recognised from the day a doctor had called with the news that his father, her grandfather had died of a heart attack. Only then Jessica noticed he was still wearing his uniform. Blue shirt, navy trousers, black leather belt, the gun at his waist. He had come to the house on duty.
In tense silence, he spoke, ‘Stephen Fitzgerald is dead.’
The four words rang through the kitchen like a gunshot.
Her mother gasped. Jessica just sat there, her mouth becoming so dry she could barely swallow. Dead? But how? And why? And when? And what did they think she—
Her father’s blue eyes met hers and Jessica knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth. ‘I’m sorry, Jess, but you’ll have to come to the station for questioning.’
Jessica scrambled to her feet, feeling as if she wasn’t doing this, as if this wasn’t happening. She felt herself nodding. Of course, I understand. A formality. Best to have it over with. But a black hole opened in her mind, a hole of panic, a hole of knowing.
Her mother jumped forward. ‘David, you can’t do this.’
A pained look crossed her father’s face. ‘I have to, Wendy. It’s out of my hands.’
Her mother yanked off her gloves and slammed them on the kitchen bench. ‘Then I’m coming, too.’
Jessica let herself be led out the door. The police car stood in the driveway. Paul, her father’s partner, had turned on the light inside and scribbled some notes while speaking on the radio.
The engine still ran. Uneven, in need of a service. And Jessica realised she knew what the inside of the engine looked like. Flooded by memories not her own, of hands changing oil and fixing tyres, of lurid jokes told in the dimness underneath a car, she staggered back against her mother, whose hands steadied her. ‘Calm down, Jess. I’m sure it’s only a formality.’ But her voice sounded thick.
Late that night, very late, Wendy Moore stumbled out the kitchen door, her excuse ‘I forgot to feed the chickens,’ still ringing in her ears. She tiptoed across the vegetable garden and undid the latch to the chicken run, her gaze on the frosted glass of the bathroom window. Her daughter, the beautiful girl the Lord had allowed them to take to their hearts when they could not have children themselves, had shut herself into the shower, her face puffy from crying.
Jessica’s tormented cries. ‘It wasn’t me, I didn’t do anything,’ still made her shiver.
And Paul’s stern voice had replied, ‘Yes, I understand, Jessica, and I believe you, but you do understand that this will need to be investigated?’
When both of them could no longer stand to listen to Jessica’s cries, David had taken Wendy aside on the veranda of the police station. His face had been grave when he said, ‘There will be a post-mortem. We can’t make any assumptions until we have the results of that.’ But his eyes looked desperate as if they were asking for all the help she could give.
Which Wendy could.
She opened the door and stepped onto the straw. David was right. Of course there was no point feeding the chickens at this time of the night. They sat in their straw boxes, heads tucked under wings. Besides, the bowl of grain was still half-full.
She dug in the pocket of her cardigan and took out something small and flat that fitted in the palm of her hand. Something she had collected from the back of the laundry cupboard, where it had lain hidden for many years. Please use it only in an emergency – the man had told her. She still remembered his young and sincere face. Black-eyed, with black curls which tumbled unruly around his head, his face pale and still without hair. Yes, he looked enough like Jessica to be her biological uncle. Well, this was an emergency, wasn’t it? Wendy’s trembling fingers turned the ring on the surface of the disk as he had shown her all those years ago, and pressed a button. In a window in the centre of the disk, a weak light flashed, once, twice, three times, then it issued a bright flash.
All around her, chickens stirred and clucked.
‘Shh, it’s alright.’ Wendy slid the disk back in her pocket.
And far away, much further than Wendy would have thought possible, a young man rose from a chair. He shoved aside the lighted screen before him and looked around the barren meeting room, where silence had fallen at the sound of the alarm in his pocket. All gazes were on him. Questioning, annoyed.
He ignored them. ‘I’m sorry. You’ll have to continue without me. Something’s come up.’