"Well," said Allison, her grin wide and content. "That was nice. Wasn't that nice?"
Eyes closed, she rolled her head across the headrest to aim the dopey grin in her husband's direction. They were alone in the car, well fed and comfortable. The sharp taste of good wine still tingled on her tongue. Joe laughed at her.
"That was nice," he agreed, amused and fond. "Pity we can't always eat so well."
Eyes closed, Allison listened to his hands shuffling over the wheel as he turned a corner.
"Maybe we could sell one of the kids?" suggested Allison.
"Nah," said Joe airily. "They wouldn't be worth enough. Not for Benny's."
"Not even for one night?" she pleaded, eyeing him through half-closed eyelids.
"Not well behaved enough to even pay for an entree," said Joe sadly, his mouth slipping into a grin.
"Be nice," said Allison, yawning.
"Don't fall asleep on me now," objected Joe, poking her in the shoulder.
"This anniversary is just getting to the good bit."
"You're the one who kept filling my wine glass," pointed out Allison, shutting her eyes again. "You should know better."
"Well, I figured all the better to have my wicked way with you when we get home."
Allison stretched her arms as far above her head as she could get in the confines of the car. She let her arms fall back into her lap, huffing sleepily.
"Assuming," she said, as if there hadn't been a gap in the conversation. "That the girls are already in bed."
"Which would be a good assumption if, say, your good old husband was smart enough to promise the babysitter an extra twenty if this could be accomplished," said Joe.
She opened one eye to regard him approvingly. He glanced away from the road to smile at her.
"I don't know if my husband's that smart."
"Are you sure? I think he is, in fact, exactly that smart."
"Well, genius husband of mine, you just missed the turnoff to our house."
He looked crestfallen, hair flopping in his eyes. Allison couldn't help laughing, slouching further down in her seat. Her limbs felt heavy and boneless, partly due to the good meal she'd just enjoyed and partly due to the two weeks of sleepless nights that had been spent pursuing a serial killer. The killer was caught and for the moment life was good. Allison rubbed her hands over heavy eyelids and straightened up from her slouch. There would be time for sleep later. It was when she opened her eyes again that she saw them out of the passenger-side window. A woman in jeans and a blue shirt sprinted across the road several hundred yards ahead of them. She darted into the grounds of a warehouse. Joe slowed the car, even though they were nowhere near enough to risk hitting her. A second figure ran out onto the road, in a gangly-legged pursuit. Seeing the pursuer's long ponytail, Allison assumed it was a woman. However, as Joe got closer, the headlights illuminated the squarer shoulders and a distinctly masculine waistline. It also glinted off the knife in the man's hand.
"I see them."
Joe accelerated the car, easily overtaking the man and pulling into the grounds where they'd last seen the woman.
Ariel rolled over onto her back and blinked. A wide blue sky stretched out above her, the colours so bright they hurt her eyes. She rolled onto her side again, her hand searching automatically for her doona. Her fingers sank into softness instead and she jerked upward, trying to blink herself away from what she was seeing. She seemed to be curled up in a pleasantly humped mound of snow. Ariel had never seen snow but she had a feeling that the genuine article wasn't as comfortable as this. The landscape around her was streaked in shades of white and icy blue all the way out to the horizon, where the sunlight blazed mercilessly through clean air.
Ariel stood up, the snow imitating cotton wool balls under her bare feet. Her mother's voice snapped harsh and panicky in the back of Ariel's head.
"Get in. Come with us!"
An emperor penguin stood several feet away from her, back oddly straight and stiff as it eyed her through beady eyes. It was as tall as Ariel's waist and it flexed its toes against the snow as if bored.
"Where are you, Mom?" asked Ariel, not sure if she was addressing the penguin or not.
The penguin opened its beak and out came her father's voice.
"Allison. Allison, are you crazy? The man has a gun."
"Daddy?" yelled Ariel.
The penguin tilted its head to regard her with eyes that were as lifeless as marbles. The bird looked away again and Ariel marched towards it determinedly.
"Look at me," said Ariel, with a courage she didn't feel. "Where are my parents?"
It ignored her. She kept walking towards it, trying to walk in front of its eyes where it couldn't pretend not to see her. She hit a glass wall, pain flaring in her nose as she bounced back to land on her rear in the snow. The snow began to melt around her, soaking her skin in lukewarm water.
Ariel sat bolt-upright in her bed, the darkness of her bedroom disorientating. The landscape of endless white still lingered on the back of her eyelids. She was covered in sweat, her pyjamas clammy and stuck to her skin. She scrambled out from under her covers and out into the living room. The babysitter, Jeannie, was sitting at the kitchen table with her chemistry homework arranged around her. She didn't turn at Ariel's approach, her thoughts focused on something called oxidation. She jumped when Ariel tapped her on the shoulder.
"It's almost 11:30," said Ariel. "Why aren't my Mom and Dad home yet?"
Jeannie slid her headphones out of her ears and frowned at Ariel's dishevelled appearance.
"Where are my parents?" repeated Ariel.
"I'm sure they'll be home soon, sweetie," said Jeannie, her matronly tone at odds with her teenaged awkwardness. "They said they might be home late."
"I think something might be wrong," said Ariel tentatively.
Jeannie looked confused for a moment before she blinked in understanding.
"Bad dream, sweetie?" asked Jeannie, trying to look open and understanding but closely resembling an actress in a badly-acted midday soap opera.
"Do you have a number you can ring, please?" asked Ariel. "Just to check that they're all right?"
"I'm sure they're fine, sweetie. Come on, you've got school tomorrow."
"Do you want a shower first? You're soaking wet."
Ariel let herself be steered into the bathroom. After all, even the Dubois women were occasionally prone to ordinary, non-supernatural bad dreams.
Bridgette loved swimming and being in the water. She sunk under the surface and opened her eyes, bubbles streaming out of her nose. The bottom of the pool was shiny and bright, if a little blurry. She must have already have been swimming for a while because the chlorine wasn't even stinging her eyes. She waved her hands in front of her face, feeling the water slow her movements.
A burst of bubbles came from below her, floating up past her legs and tickling her skin. She looked down to see a button nose, whiskers and shiny black eyes barrelling up towards her. Gulping in water, Bridgette kicked her way up to the surface. She wiped the water out of her eyes, trying to make out where the closest pool edge was. Beside her something large broke the surface of the water, flopping down to spray her with water. She kicked furiously and managed to keep her head up. A large dark head peered at her curiously. It was a seal, with a mottled dark grey back and a lighter underbelly. Its light throat was peppered with black spots. It quirked the edge of its mouth up in an amused grin, revealing pointy teeth.
"Fish," said Bridgette. "You eat fish."
The seal's eyes creased as if it was laughing and it dipped its nose down to flick water at her.
"Hey!" protested Bridgette. "That's not nice."
The seal tossed its head and dove towards her, headbutting her in the stomach. Bridgette reached down and grabbed its flippers, trying to push it backwards. The seal wriggled and dived downwards, dragging Bridgette with it. Bridgette could barely keep her eyes open with the water rushing past her face. She caught glimpses of the tiles on the pool floor rushing up to meet them and then they were gliding along the bottom, heading for the pool wall at speed. She bumped bodily into the seal's body as it swerved upwards at the last minute to launch them both into the air.
They broke the surface of the water, Bridgette shrieking as soon as she could breathe. Her stomach quivered as they flew through the air to crash down on the pool deck, barely missing poolside chairs. Bridgette landed on top of the seal, its backbone digging into her ribs. "That was cool," said Bridgette, hiccupping. "Can we do it again?"
The seal twisted its neck to grin at her smugly.
"Joe, nobody knows where we are."
Bridgette looked up, looking for the voice. An outdoor table sat on the other side of the pool chairs, her parents curled up underneath it. Her father tightened his grip around her mother's shoulders.
"It'll be okay. Someone will come looking for us when we don't come home."
"Joe, they'll have no way of finding us - and just before the weekend? It could be days before anybody stumbles across us."
"Mom?" called Bridgette.
Her parents didn't seem to hear.
"Mom! Where are you?"
Her mother burrowed further into her father's arms. Bridgette turned to the seal. The seal shrugged apologetically and then burst apart, showering her in stuffing and fragments of thread. A marble-shaped eye rolled to a stop against her foot. An intact flipper bounced into the water, a stitched seam like the one on her favourite teddy bear struggling to hold it together as it sank.
Ariel was climbing back out of the shower when Bridgette hollered. Her feet slipped and she landed on her hip on the bathroom floor. "Ow," she gasped, tears filling her eyes.
She blinked them back and pulled a towel off the rack. She hurried out of the bathroom, leaving dripping footprints. Jeannie was already in Bridgette and Marie's room, perched on the edge of Bridgette's bed and stroking her hair.
"But nobody knows where they are," wailed Bridgette.
"I'm sure they're fine, sweetie," said Jeannie calmly. "They're just out having a good time. They'll be back soon."
"They're not fine," said Ariel. "Something's happened."
"They are fine," said Jeannie, frowning. "And you're dripping all over your sisters' carpet."
"They aren't fine."
"Sweetie, how often do your parents leave you alone at night?"
"We're not alone. You're here."
"Right, and I'm staying here until your parents get back. They're out, they're having fun on their anniversary and they will be back when they're done."
"I'm calling them."
Ariel turned and marched towards the kitchen, looking for her mother's address book. Her mother's work mobile was sitting on the bench beside it. She flipped through until she found her father's number and dialled on the home phone.
Jeannie reached the kitchen and perched her hands on her hips. Her face tightened angrily and she took two quick breaths.
"Ariel, your parents deserve a night of peace. Hang up, now."
She stepped forwards and Ariel stepped backwards, taking the cordless phone with her. There was a click in Ariel's ear. Jeannie took her hands off her hips and took another step towards Ariel.
"The number you are calling is currently out of range. Please try again."
Ariel clicked the phone off angrily.
"Give me the phone, young lady," said Jeannie, holding out her hand imperiously.
There was no other choice and Ariel handed over the phone. She looked out the kitchen window but there was no sign of her parents' car in the driveway. The microwave clock said it was nearly midnight. Jeannie perched one hand on her hip and pointed towards the bedrooms. She was too skinny to be intimidating but she was shaking with brittle anger. Ariel avoided eye contact as she walked back to her room, her mother's address book tucked inside her towel.
Lee Scanlon rolled over and waved a wandering hand in the direction of the ringing phone. He knocked the phone off its hook and groped around on the floor until he found it again.
"Scanlon, speaking," he rumbled, burrowing his face into his pillow.
He didn't even want to look at the clock.
"I think something's happened to my Mom and Dad."
The voice was young and whispering nervously. He thought female but it could sometimes be difficult to tell with children.
"Who is this?" he asked, sitting up and finally peering at the clock.
It was after midnight.
"This is Ariel Dubois?"
"Ariel? What's happened? What's happened to your Mom?" He was sliding out of bed as he talked, trying to think.
"I don't know. She hasn't come home."
The voice stopped as he found his pants on the back of the chair. He held the phone to his ear with a shoulder so that he could pull his pants on with both hands.
"Are you there, Ariel?"
"Where are you?"
"I'm at home."
He spotted a relatively clean shirt on top of the laundry pile and pulled it on, one sleeve at a time. "Ariel, why are you whispering?"
"I don't want the babysitter to know I'm calling you."
Lee hesitated, wondering whether he should ask why the babysitter didn't want her calling.
"What makes you think your Mom is in trouble, Ariel?" he asked, calm and professional as he scooped up his wallet and keys.
"I... have a feeling. I had a dream, and so did Bridgette."
"I'll be over in fifteen minutes," said Lee, grabbing his gun. "You can call me back if you hear from your Mom, alright? Do you have my mobile number?"
"Yes. I have Mom's address book. Hurry."
He waited for Ariel to hang up first and then he was out the door, buttoning his shirt one-handed as he headed for his car. He knew that normally he would be waiting for something more than a feeling or a dream. He didn't even know what the situation was, but this was the Dubois family, and life was never normal when they were involved.
When Bridgette found herself sitting on the grassy hill, she knew she was dreaming again. The grass was tall and stringy, hanging dead and still in the midday heat. There was a noise in the grass and two small shapes charged out towards her. When she saw the ears, her first thought was rabbit but the ears weren't long enough. The larger of the two animals stopped in front of her and rested on its hind legs, the claws of its forearms scratching at the fur on its exposed tummy. It had a pouch. The smaller animal hopped a few feet away, barely able to control the force of the springs in its legs, and began nibbling and sniffing the grass.
"Kangaroo?" said Bridgette.
The first animal rolled its eyes as if to say `close enough'. It was smaller than the kangaroos Bridgette had seen on television, its twitching ears barely a foot above the ground. A fly landed on its nose but was dislodged by an impatient headshake.
"Wallabies are like kangaroos," said Bridgette, brightening. "But they're smaller."
The animal puffed out its chest proudly, twitching an ear to deter another fly.
"Do you know where my Mom and Dad are?"
The wallaby tilted its head and frowned at her. There was more rustling in the grass and the wallaby turned sharply and began a low barking cough. The smaller wallaby came bounding back on awkward legs, nearly sending itself headfirst into the ground. The larger wallaby leaned forward, flopping open her pouch and the smaller one dove head-first inside. The larger wallaby sat back up, her pouch bulging awkwardly as her joey wriggled about to get the right way up.
"What's wrong?" asked Bridgette.
The wallaby gestured its head at the long grass further down the hill and settled back on its hind legs, watchfully. As Bridgette stood and walked down the hill, the wallaby licked its joey's head absently. Bridgette had only taken two steps into the long grass when she felt something underneath her shoe. She looked down to see a human hand. She jumped backwards, stumbling. Nothing in the grass moved. Bridgette stepped forward again and parted the grass. A woman in jeans and a blue shirt lay in the grass, her neck bent at an impossible angle. Bridgette screamed.
"I'm very sorry, Detective," said Jeannie nervously, fiddling with the lock on the front door of the Dubois home. "But there's nothing wrong."
Ariel appeared behind Jeannie, looking miserable and guilty but determined.
"All the same, I'd like...," began Lee.
He didn't get much further because that was when Bridgette screamed. Jeannie jumped and as she turned to look, Lee shouldered his way in the front door and followed Ariel down the hall to her sister's room. Bridgette was sitting bolt upright in her bunk, tears streaming down her cheeks. Ariel clambered onto the bed, nearly knocking heads with Bridgette.
"What is it? Is it Mom and Dad? Where are they?"
Bridgette continued to bawl as Ariel fired questions at her. Lee paused in the doorway, uncertain. This time it was Jeannie who shouldered past him, zeroing in on the bed and hugging Bridgette fiercely.
"It's okay, Bridgette," she cooed. "It was just a dream."
"It was a woman," sobbed Bridgette. "And she was dead. She hurt her neck and she's dead. And nobody can find Mom or Dad because nobody knows where they are."
"There was a penguin," said Ariel, looking at Lee like it was the key to the mystery. "A penguin in a box."
"And a seal," wailed Bridgette to the room at large. "A seal that had stitches that broke. And a wallaby with a joey. She showed me the body."
"Woah, woah. Slow down," said Lee.
"It was just a dream, sweetie," said Jeannie.
"It's not, it's not just a dream," snapped Ariel, throwing one of Bridgette's pillows at her babysitter.
"A zoo?" asked Lee. "Could they be in a zoo?"
"The zoo doesn't put penguins in boxes," shouted Ariel, heaving another pillow at Lee which fell short of its target.
"A museum, then. Animals on display."
"Broken animals," said Bridgette, calming down to a sniffle. "Because they needed stitches."
"Let me make some calls," said Lee, pulling out his phone.
He pointed at the babysitter, "You, stay here and watch them."
Allison dozed against Joe's chest, unwilling to open her eyes and see the body at the bottom of the stairs. It was almost two dark to see it, anyway. It had certainly been too dark for the woman to lead the way down the stairs without breaking her neck. Literally. The entire room was filled with bizarre animals, stuffed and frozen in a mimicry of life. A giant emperor penguin was slotted into a cracked glass case behind them and a giant seal was apparently in the process of being restuffed on the desk across the room. There was a pounding on the door at the top of the stairs.
"Go away!" bellowed Joe. "Leave us alone!"
"Mr and Mrs Dubois?" called a familiar voice.
"Lee? Lee, is that you?" asked Allison.
She pushed to her feet and scrambled to the stairs, clambering over a mounted wallaby and her joey.
"How did you find us?"
"Let's just say that extremely good luck runs in your family."