“In a place where life is cheap, it’s easy for a killer to profit.”
Annette arrived home in the dark. Her car’s tyres crunched on the sand driveway and the brakes squeaked as she pulled to a hurried halt outside the tall metal gate. The heater’s fan was on maximum and the eight o’clock news was starting on the radio. She didn’t have time to listen. Stopping at night was risky. Getting out of the car was even more dangerous, but she had no choice. Pulling the keys from the ignition, with the useless gate buzzer dangling from the bunch, she climbed out.
She hunched her shoulders against the cold, hugging her flimsy work jacket around her as she hurried over to the gate. She passed the “Sold” sign, rattling against the metal stakes that held it in the ground. The wind was blowing hard, sighing and whistling through the long dry grass that flanked her driveway. The growth swayed and parted, and she peered at it suspiciously. For a moment it looked as if somebody was crouched inside it trying to hide.
She saw movement ahead of her, and her head jerked up. Four dogs rushed towards the gate, their shadows stretching out behind them in the beams of the headlights. The lead Alsatian snarled at his followers, defending his position as the others crowded close. Leaping and wagging their tails, the dogs pushed their noses through the bars in welcome.
Annette smiled in relief, leaning forward and scratching their coarse fur. “Hey, boys. Just a minute and I’ll be inside.”
She fumbled with her keys, her breath misting in the icy air. The giant padlock was easy to open because it was new. It was difficult to remove because of its size. It was wedged into the thick steel rings between the gate and the gatepost. She struggled with the stubborn metal, so cold to the touch it seemed to burn. She glanced behind her at the lonely road while the dogs whined and shoved their muzzles against her hand in encouragement.
Finally the padlock jerked free of the gate, pinching a fold of skin on her finger as it came loose. She swore, cradling her hand against the pain. She would have a blood blister tomorrow, to add to the one she had from yesterday.
“Got to get that gate motor fixed,” she told the dogs.
Her car keys dug into her palm as she wrapped her hands around the bars and shoved her shoulder into the heavy gate. The sand and rust that clogged its runners made it a swine to slide open, especially at the start. Once it had been forced to get moving, it was easier. But as she started to push, the dogs tensed and one of them barked. Spinning round, she squinted into the gloom beyond her car. She saw another vehicle pull to a stop in the road. It had approached silently, with headlights off. Its dark body gleamed faintly red in the glow from her taillights.
Annette stared in disbelief as the driver climbed out and strolled round the front of the car towards her, as casual and relaxed as if he was a friendly neighbour stopping to give her some help. But she lived on two hundred acres of land, and spoke to the neighbours twice a year about fencing and firebreaks. If they drove past her place at night, they would have their headlights on full and their feet on the accelerator, gunning their car down the dark ribbon of tarmac, counting the minutes until they reached home.
The man wasn’t a neighbour. And he wasn’t friendly. Once he was clear of the car, he turned to face her and with a heart-stopping rush of terror she saw the shape of the gun in his hand.
“No, please, don’t. Oh Jesus. Help me.”
Her first instinct was to run. But the dark car blocked the road ahead of her, and there were deep drainage ditches in the overgrowth on either side. She turned back to the gate, pushing with panicked strength against its bulk. If she could get the dogs out, she had a chance. It moved a few inches and then jammed, just as it had done the night before. The dogs were all barking now, hurling themselves at the gap in their efforts to protect her. Their noise was a solid force that pulsed against her face, but they couldn’t get through to help her. Sobbing from the effort, her shoulder in agony, she knew she had no more time to try.
She turned back to face her attacker.
“Do you want my car? Here, take it.” Her voice sounded thin and high, and the keys jingled in her unsteady hand as she held them out towards him.
The shadows on the man’s face deepened. He shook his head. He took another step forward and lifted the gun.
Above the clamour of the dogs, Annette heard a metallic clicking sound. She didn’t know much about guns but there was only one thing this could mean.
Her legs wouldn’t move. Her arms dropped to her side. She wanted to plead, to beg him for her life. What good would it do? He had already refused her car. And her throat had become so dry, she doubted whether she could speak at all.
Her fingers brushed against the pepper spray on her key ring. It was her only chance, even if it was a hopeless one. She fumbled with the plastic canister. Quickly now. Lift and spray. Aim high, go for the eyes. Praying for a miracle, she raised her hand again.
The gun fired twice. The first shot got her square in the chest, slamming her back against the gate. As she began to slide to the ground, the second shot caught the side of her neck, ripping it open in a spray of blood. She collapsed onto the stony surface.
The killer waited a moment and watched, then moved over to the open door of Annette’s car, where the heater was hissing and the newsreader was telling listeners about the price of gold and the strength of the rand against the dollar. With gloved fingers, he removed her handbag from the passenger seat. As quietly as it had arrived, the black vehicle moved away. At the gate the dogs continued to bark, their eyes brilliant in the glow from the headlights, their muzzles crimson with blood.