It was unusual for Anne not to leave the outside light on for me when I came home from work after dark, but I decided she must have forgotten this once. I parked the car in the driveway, making use of the glow from the living room lights to find my way up the flight of steps to the veranda. Only then did I hear the dog.
A purebred Rottweiler bitch I had trained myself, she never made a sound without a good reason. Right now she was raising hell. Not barking so much as a kind of frustrated howling.
I ran to the door and fumbled for the right key amongst the bunch on my chain. “Anne,” I yelled. “Anne, where are you?”
All that achieved was to set the dog off even more.
“Okay, Tessa, hold on. I’m coming!”
I finally found the right key for the deadlock I had recently installed and slipped it into the lock. I had also fitted a safety chain inside the door. If Anne was inside and unable to let me in then I would have to break the chain from its moorings. With this thought in mind I put all my weight behind the door as I swung it inwards.
The house was just a tiny two bed roomed weatherboard into which we had invested all our savings. The front door opened directly onto the living area and it was only a short distance to the small coffee table. My momentum carried me across the gap with energy to spare. The table collapsed under my weight as I came to a painful stop.
I gazed around in bewilderment. Why had the chain been off? Anne was normally so careful about such things. The suburb we lived in consisted almost entirely of holiday houses, empty except at weekends and during summer holidays. Working shifts as I did meant that she was alone in the house with no neighbours to call on should she need help – hence the deadlock, the chain and the dog. Yet, suddenly, she seemed to have foregone all the precautions.
Still no response. By this time Tessa was threatening to break out through the laundry door. Why she had been shut in there, I couldn’t guess. It was just one more piece in the puzzle. I opened the door and all thirty-five kilos of Tessa’s solid, black-and-tan body came hurtling out past me.
She ran around the room for several seconds before coming to a halt at the outside door, growling menacingly.
“What is it, Tessa? Where’s Anne? Where is she?”
The dog stopped growling, but continued to stare at the door. I didn’t understand any of it. Normally, when asked where Anne was she would race off to the bedroom, shower or wherever and bark loudly to advise me of my wife’s location. Just a silly little game we played sometimes.
I tried again.
“Where’s Anne, Tessa?”
She leapt at the door, whining loudly.
Shit! What on earth had happened?
I turned and entered the empty bedroom. The spare room proved to be equally unenlightening. I checked the message board in the kitchen, but it was blank.
I made myself a coffee, sat on the couch and lit up a cigarette. Tessa settled restlessly at my feet. I smoked the cigarette slowly, absentmindedly rubbing Tessa’s thick neck with my left hand as I considered the possibilities.
God knows there were few enough.
No matter how hard I tried I could not come up with a reasonable explanation for Anne’s absence. It was close on midnight – too late for her to be visiting, even if there had been anyone in the area for her to visit – which there wasn’t. If there had been an accident surely someone would have contacted me at work or Anne would have left a message.
I grabbed the phone off its stand and, after consulting the list of emergency numbers I kept beside it, dialed the local police station.
“Police. Can I help you?”
“Yes. I’ve recently returned from work and my wife is missing. There’s no trace of her – no message, nothing. I wondered if she might have had an accident.”
“Your name, sir?”
“Preston. Doug Preston.”
“Your wife’s name?”
“And the address, sir.”
“Twenty-three Beach Drive.”
I hung on while he presumably checked the night’s accident reports. I lit another cigarette, fidgeting as I waited.
I almost dropped the phone. “Yes?”
“I’m afraid I have no report of your wife being involved in an accident this evening. Have you any reason to suspect that she might have been injured?”
“No, not really.”
“Could she be visiting a friend?”
“There’s nobody nearby that she could be visiting. Besides, we’re new to the area, only moved in recently.”
“I shouldn’t worry, Mr Preston. I’ll ring the hospitals, just to be sure. Could your wife have driven herself in?”
“No, she doesn’t drive. Anyway, we only have one car and I was using that.”
“You were at work, you say?”
“Yes, at Maddox’s plant. I’m a security officer there. I’m on the afternoon shift this week. Three to eleven.”
“I see. Don’t worry, I’ll check it out for you and get back as soon as I can.”
“Thank you, – ?”
“Senior Constable Fletcher.”
“Thank you, Senior Constable Fletcher.”
“My pleasure, sir.”
I gave him my number and replaced the receiver none too gently. Anne must have hurt herself somehow and called for an ambulance. Then she had shut Tessa away so that the attendants could get in to her unhindered. That would explain everything, chain off the door, outside light not on – the lot. In the panic she had not had the time to leave a message or call me.
I exhaled noisily. “That’s it, Tessa. Must be. Come on, let’s get a bite to eat while we wait to hear. Nothing we can do till we know where she is.”
I opened a couple of cans of meat for the dog and rustled up a close approximation of a cheese and onion omelet for myself, washing it down with another cup of coffee. Lighting up a cigarette I sat back to watch Channel Nine’s late movie. It was one of their usual wee-hours blockbusters and I made no attempt to follow the rudimentary plot. Instead, I gazed distractedly at the flickering monochrome images, breaking off at frequent intervals to cast a hopeful glance at the still silent telephone.
In spite of my anticipation its ringing still caught me unawares. I virtually flew out of my seat as I lifted the receiver to my ear. “Hello, yes?”
“Yes. Senior Constable Fletcher?”
“That’s right, sir. Has your wife returned home yet?”
“No, she hasn’t. Have you any news?”
“I’m afraid not. I’ve checked the local hospital and even the larger ones farther out. Nothing at all. No record of your wife being treated anywhere. Not even as an outpatient.”
I slumped in my seat. I was relieved to hear that she hadn’t had an accident, even though it had seemed like the only explanation. Now I didn’t know what to think.
“Are you still there, Mr Preston?”
“Yes, I am but I don’t understand what’s happened.”
His voice took on an appeasing tone. “I’m sure there’s a simple explanation for all this. You know what women are like; forget their own heads some of them. She’ll be back, all apologies for not having left you a note. Gone to visit her folks, or something like that. You’ll see.”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Thanks for your help.”
“No worries, Mr Preston. Goodbye.”
I put the phone down, my concern for Anne unrelieved. How could she have gone visiting? She couldn’t drive even if she had a car at her disposal. Which she didn’t. In addition, we had no friends in the area and her widowed mother lived in South Yarra – nearly seventy kilometres away. Damn!
Tessa flinched as I expressed my frustration by punching the arm of the chair. “Sorry, old girl. Didn’t mean to make you jump. I wish you could talk. You know what happened, don’t you?”
She came over to me and buried her head between my knees, groaning softly. In her own way she was as worried as I was.
I lit yet another cigarette while I tried to decide what to do next. After a few minutes of thought I decided to start at the top and search the house completely. It wasn’t much but, at this stage, it was all I had.
By three in the morning I had investigated every square inch of the property, including the old shed in the back yard. My efforts had revealed that one suitcase, an assortment of clothing, and Anne’s passport were missing.
I returned to the lounge in a complete daze. All the evidence suggested that she had just packed up and left. Without warning, without leaving a note and for no apparent reason.
It didn’t make sense.
We had been married for four years and, in that time, had continued to grow closer to each other. The first two years had been spent in England, where we had met, and when Anne had expressed a desire to return to Australia I had accompanied her willingly.
Life in the land of her birth had gone quite smoothly for us from the beginning. I had landed the security job on the industrial estate and she went back to teaching at the local primary school. Our modest savings had grown steadily with both of us working and we paid cash for our small yet comfortable home on the bay. We had everything to look forward to and had even begun to discuss starting a family.
I cast my mind back to the previous afternoon as I had left for work. Had there been anything different in her manner? Any sign of worry or nervousness? Anything unusual at all? I didn’t think so. We had kissed as enthusiastically as ever.
“Take care, Doug,” she had said. “See you later.”
A common enough farewell and not the comment of someone intending to run out the moment my back was turned.
A dull, gnawing pain started low down in my stomach and spread relentlessly upwards into my entire body. Something was very, very wrong. For one terrible instant I had a premonition that I would never see my wife again.
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