25-year-old Ariadne coasted to a stop in front of the Real Estate Agency in Misty Creek’s main street. She gave her appearance a quick once over in the rear-view mirror, and applied some lipstick. Turning to the back seat, she patted her mix breed Australian sheep dog on his rump.
“You wait here Dingo. Watch the car. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
She grabbed the pamphlet and her handbag from the passenger seat, cracked the windows and left Dingo in the unlocked car. She stepped into the dim deserted lobby of the Robert Crook’s Real Estate. Her nose wrinkled against the old mould drifting in the air. Her eyes roamed over the fly-speckled photo frames adorning the walls.
Reading the note on the counter, she picked up the vintage brass bell and rang it. A live version of the brill cream capped man, depicted in the biggest photo frame, appeared.
“I am here about the cottage. I phoned earlier.”
“Oh yes. Yes. Let me see. Miss Ariadne Baumgarten?”
“Let me get the paperwork I prepared for you to sign.” Rubbing his hands, he shuffled through a door behind the counter.
Ariadne followed the map Robert Crook gave her. The sun dropped behind the mountain, pocketing the last rays of daylight as she arrived at the cottage. She wrestled with the door lock whilst Dingo inspected the new surroundings, leaving his mark.
She shouldered the stubborn door open, found the light switch inside the door, and flicked it. She squinted at the living area in the dim yellow light of the bare light bulb. The wooden floor creaked as she walked to the bedroom. Opening the second door leading off the living area, Ariadne found an outdated bathroom. She sighed.
“Well. This is home for the next six months.”
She unloaded her car and called Dingo. Reluctant he followed her inside. She closed the door, shutting out the chilly night air. Inspecting the kitchen cupboards, she found a stove top kettle, filled it and set it on the gas top.
Having fed Dingo, she went to the bathroom. The rusty pipes clanged, hissed and sputtered. Sitting on the toilet lid, she watched the yellow-brown water trickling into the bath. She made short shrift of bathing in the tepid water, half-dried herself, and struggled into her winter pyjamas.
Finding Dingo’s lead, she clipped it on and walked him outside. “No running around tonight Mister, we can explore tomorrow” she chided as Dingo strained at his lead.
She watched Dingo snuffling into his blanket. Tiredness enfolded her tight in its embrace. A big yawn cracked her jaw. She switched off the bedside lamp and drew the blankets around her chin. In the woods, a Willy Wagtail started its warning song.
She blinked awake. Her dream scattered beyond her reach. A ray of moonlight seeped through a crack in the curtains. She turned her head. Dingo, his hackles raised, had his front paws on the windowsill.
“Dingo? Come here boy.” She whisper-called. He ignored her, a low growl rumbling in his throat. The luminous dial on her wristwatch showed 3am.
Her heart trip-hammered. She struggled out of the tangled bedding, slid her legs to the floor. Searching with her feet, she found her sneakers and wriggled her feet into them. She stood. Her right heel protested. She bent over, fingering it into place.
She stepped to the window and rested her hand on Dingo’s head. She widened the crack in the curtains and peaked out. Her gaze flicked over the moonlit grass towards the edge of the woods. A movement caught her attention. Dingo quivered, a howl-growl rumbling low in his throat.
A tall stoop shouldered man shambled into view, his elongated shadow dragging behind him. He stopped meters from the window and lifted his head. The moonlight played over his pock-marked face. A wind gust lifted his tattered coat, fanning it out.
Electric pinpricks flared in Ariadne’s cheeks. Panic sucker punched her in the solar plexus. A steel band cinched her windpipe, pushing a wheeze over her dry lips.
A tree branch screeched across the window. Ariadne jumped back, tripping over the corner of Dingo’s bed. Her arms windmilled wildly. She crashed to the floor. A lava of red-hot pain exploded in her tail bone. Her eyes misted.
Dingo whimpered, padded over and stuck his wet nose in her ear. She pushed herself up onto her rubbery legs and leaned against the bed. Reaching for her mobile on the nightstand, a thousand thoughts raced through her mind.
“Misty Creek Police. What is your emergency?”
“There is an intruder…..”
“Please speak up, I cannot hear you.”
Ariadne cleared her throat.
“There is an intruder on my property.”
“What is your name?”
“Yew Tree cottage, Moss Creek Road.”
“Ariadne is it?”
“I assume you are old enough to know that it’s a serious offence to make prank calls to the emergency number you dialled?”
“Please. It is not a prank. I am alone with my dog in the cottage. There is someone outside. He is huge.”
“Calm down. Yew Tree Cottage was demolished over ten years ago. Now give me your correct address.”
“I rented the cottage yesterday afternoon from Robert Crook’s Real Estate.”
“Robert Crook died over a decade ago.”
“But I signed a lease with him. Yesterday…”
“Have you taken any drugs, strong medication?”
“NO. Please. Please. I am in danger. Help me.”
“Then give me your proper name and address, and I will send someone.”
“I gave it to you. Ariadne Baumgarten. Yew Tree Cottage, Moss Creek Road!”
The phone clicked. Unsuccessful Ariadne tried re-dialling the number. The screen on her phone flickered, then turned black.
“Oh, no. No, no, no. Not now. Please, not now.”
Dingo leaned into her legs, whimpering. Absentminded, Ariadne patted his head. She walked into the kitchen area. Sliding her hand along the wall, she moved forward, searching for the key hook. Running footsteps approached. She froze.
The cottage door’s handle squeaked. A thump followed. Ariadne turned around and aimed for the lighter shade of grey. Her hands found the doorframe and she shut the bedroom door.
Ariadne rushed to the bedroom window. Her muscles quivered and strained as she forced the obstinate bottom half of the window open. She slid out through the narrow gap, tearing her thumb nail.
“Dingo. Come boy. Come.” she hissed.
Dingo padded to the window and frowned at her. Ariadne grabbed his collar, dragging his protesting body through the gap.
Behind them, the cottage door crashed open. Ariadne took to her heels. Dingo, needing no persuasion, followed. They made it to the dirt road leading to town before the moon disappeared behind a bank of clouds.
Pumped on adrenaline, Ariadne with Dingo at her heels covered the five kilometers into town in a record time. She stopped at the edge of town, catching her breath. She pinched her left side. Her nose started running, and she wiped it on her pyjama sleeve. Pulling the other sleeve over her fist, she rubbed her sweaty face.
Ariadne stared at the sleeping town. Green-grey mist ballooned around the streetlights, dimming its glow. In the distance, a blue light winked. She ruffled Dingo’s ears.
“We are nearly there, boy.”
Behind them, a branch snapped. Dingo gave a startled yelp and pulled his tail between his legs. Ariadne took off at a sprint. Dingo followed.
She flung open the door of the Police Station. Her foot hooked on the door frame. She stumbled to a stop against the reception counter. Dingo skittered in behind her. The door slammed shut. Echoes juddered through the empty reception. The disturbed air whooshed, expelling a mixture of old wax, burnt coffee and stale paper.
Ariadne pounded the service bell. Footsteps approached. Dingo cowered at her feet. The door at the back of the reception opened. Robert Crook came in, rubbing his hands. Glee spread over his face, pushed up his cheeks and lit up his eyes.
The maw of a bottomless pit of fear opened under Ariadne.