Lawrence watched the clock in the corner of his computer monitor count down the seconds to five o'clock. If it went any slower it would go backwards, he thought morosely as 4:46 ticked over. Figuring it would take him at least a few minutes to pack up, he stood with his coffee mug and wandered into the kitchen to wash it up. He dawdled back to his desk, realised only a minute had passed, and morosely hit the send/receive button on his email. Nothing. He heaved a sigh, and then decided to shut down his computer anyway. Elouise wasn't here, she would never know. He happily clicked his mouse, instructing the machine to shut down. The jingly, electronic tune of the machine's shut down process was music to his ears and, looking around furtively to see if anyone was paying any attention, he grabbed his empty briefcase and headed for the door.
The walk to Central station was a short stroll through a trendy shopping precinct, and Lawrence arrived on Platform Twelve just as the 4:59 pulled up to the station. Thanking his good fortune, Lawrence jumped onto the train, along with what seemed like hundreds of other commuters, all just as willing to get home slightly early as he was himself. The train was packed to the rafters and the chance of finding a seat was next to non-existent. Lawrence didn't bother, he wedged himself into a corner near the exit doors, and let his eyes drift into the unfocussed, dreamy gaze of a regular commuter.
Almost completely oblivious to his surroundings, only barely taking in which stations they were stopping at and tuning out everything else, Lawrence began to think about some of the stuff that had happened since the weekend. What a crazy day! Late on Sunday afternoon, he had wandered back around the block to his own flat from his mate Ben's place, and had stayed up pretty late playing Halo 3 on X-box. He had woken this morning feeling a bit tired and run down from the party, but the worst of the headache had gone. He still couldn't remember much of what had happened at that party - there had been a lot of people there, not all of whom he'd known - not all of whom even Ben had known, he suspected. Not that that was particularly unusual, Ben had a flair for throwing pretty wild parties that seemed to end up encompassing more people than anyone ever expected.
He had gotten to the station and caught the 7:56 into the city, arriving at the office shortly before half past eight, which was his designated starting time. Of course, that was when things had started to go really pear shaped. The phone in Elouise's office had rung and rung and he had been relieved when it stopped, transferring back to reception, and the pressure had been off him to answer it. But then it had started again and Lawrence had figured he'd better answer it. Elouise was rarely in much before nine, so there was no chance she was in her office ignoring it. And if it was important, she would be irritated if he hadn't gotten a message. So he had stepped, somewhat nervously, into Elouise's office, picked up the phone and spoke to Elouise's daughter Kasey, who had seemed upset and out of sorts, but who had not given him any information whatsoever. He thought it was strange that Kasey had seemed so surprised when Elouise wasn't in her office. Elouise had told him in the past that she usually caught the 8:23 into the office in the mornings, so she should have left home around about the time Kasey called him in the office, unless he had miscalculated somewhere along the line.
But then Elouise had finally arrived, right around the normal time, received a phone call on her mobile just as she walked into the office, and then had appeared all dreamy and worried and nervous, and had fled again. Lawrence hadn't seen or heard from her for the rest of the day, which was strange. In the two months Lawrence had been working with Elouise, he had not known her to even take a lunch break, let alone a whole day off at no notice.
Something familiar in the scenery made him snap out of his thoughts, and he realised that the train was beginning to pull into Redton station. He elbowed his way through the press of people and stepped through the doors as they opened onto the platform. A stench rolled off the air and hit him like a fist in the face as he did so, and he took a small involuntary step backwards before regaining his composure and his balance and starting to move toward the southern end of the platform, intending to duck through the narrow gap in the fence and through the car park towards his flat. As he neared the usually long grass, he thought at first that it had been mown, but then realised it had been trampled flat. The smell seemed to get worse as got closer to the edge of the concrete platform, and when he stepped through the gap in the fence onto the trampled grass, a fresh wave assaulted his nasal passages. The smell was remarkably similar to the kitchen bin in his house just before he got up the energy to take it out, and he guessed that an animal had died in the grass overnight, the heat of the daytime sun putrefying the flesh and creating the smell. Finally, he got to the car park, where he crossed the street and continued on his way. At least the air was a bit clearer here.
Shannen twisted the key in the lock and pushed the door of her apartment open. It swung inwards, revealing her lounge room. The furniture was old, sourced from op shops and second hand dealers of dubious integrity, but the room was neat and clean. Shannen stepped over the threshold, placed her handbag on the old fashioned hall stand where it belonged, and went to the kitchen for a cup of tea. She had already switched the kettle on and reached up to the overhead cupboard for a mug before a thought suddenly hit her - alcohol would be so much more welcome right now, surely discovering a corpse on the way to work was enough to justify a Monday afternoon drink. She put the mug away and grabbed down a glass instead, then went to the top shelf of the pantry for the Baileys. She poured a good measure of the smooth smelling liquor into the bottom of the glass, hesitated, then sloshed in another fingerful, before recapping the bottle and returning it to its place. She topped up the glass with milk from the fridge and then took the glass to the balcony.
The sun was low on the horizon, although still about an hour away from setting. Shannen sat down on the low couch, which was wedged into a corner of her tiny balcony, and pulled her legs up to her chin. She had put the drink down on a small table beside the couch, and now she wrapped her arms around her legs, resting her chin on her knees. She closed her eyes, but the only images dancing behind her eyelids were of a filthy blanket-wrapped body, a pink painted toenail, and the distrustful faces of police officers. In despair she opened them again, and watched the wind chime turn lazily in the only barely there breeze. The chime was unusual, the product of a lazy Sunday morning searching the more obscure markets held along the beaches south of the city. It had blown glass tubes in varying, swirled colours that produced a high pitched yet pleasant chime, but the most interesting part about it was the feature hanging from the central ball. It was a glass phoenix, wings lifted as it eternally rose from unseen ashes. She had bought it for its slightly quirky charm, but in the past twelve months it had come to symbolise a lot more to Shannen. The traditional symbolism of the phoenix represented rebirth and new life, and indeed the purchase of the chime had represented a new chapter in Shannen's life. It had ended the part of her life that had been concerned only with drinking, partying and general hell-raising, and had heralded the current chapter, where she had gone back to university, gotten and held a steady, albeit menial job, regained contact with her mother. She still missed the partying - not so much the drugs and alcohol, it was a refreshing change to wake up with a clear head in the morning - but more the social aspect, the friends (although many had turned out to be not so good friends in the end), the constant, yet often unsavoury, company. She craved the daily interaction with others, yet still somehow coveted her own space, which had made her very difficult to spend time with in recent years. She had had a boyfriend for a few months, on more than one occasion, but had been unable to reconcile time spent with a significant other and time spent alone, and the relationships had died rather natural deaths. Shannen had chalked them up as learning experiences. Through the confusion of departing false friends and strained personal relationships, one friend had risen up above it all, though. Ariana had offered her a hand up, a shoulder to cry on and most of all love, right when she needed it most. Many nights had been spent over endless cups of tea, and the occasional glass of wine, and the two had formed a strong bond as together, although it was an unspoken pact, the two young women tried to make some sense of their lives and rise, like the phoenix, from the ashes that their own teenaged selves had created.
When Shannen had started down this path of betterment and self-awareness, she had known she would face some hurdles. She knew that false friends would tempt her, that the partying would exert its pull, that the pills would call her name. And so they had, frequently, sometimes irresistibly. She hadn't always managed to stay away from the temptations, but she had always managed to get back on the ladder. It may have been a few rungs lower, but she never found herself right back at the bottom. Although all these things had been expected, that many battles had been fought and most had been won, she had never expected that being drawn into a murder investigation would be among them. The thought of drinking herself into oblivion, of finding a little something to take the edge off, of sinking into that wondrous world where everything sparkled and even strangers glowed with love (except for when they didn't), teased her, and she pushed the thought back down. Struggling a little at the moment, knowing the struggle was only going to get worse as the night wore on, she wondered what to do. If she could keep busy, maybe that would keep her mind occupied. If her mind was occupied, she wouldn't be thinking how she could obtain some pretty little pills, she wouldn't be thinking about the bottle of Bailey's in the pantry, or the gin stashed in the back of the cupboard.
Struck with an idea suddenly, Shannen got up from the couch and trotted into the lounge to snag the cordless phone from its charger base. She dialled the number from memory as she stepped back outside, and watched the sun dip its bottom edge below the horizon as the phone rang in her ear. It was picked up mid-ring, and Shannen opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again as she heard the pre-recorded voice, "Hi, this is Ariana's phone. I'm not answering, so leave a message. If you're sexy I'll call you back." The slight tinkle of laughter that came after the message was abruptly cut off by a jarring beep, and Shannen did as Ariana had instructed, "Hey, girlfriend. I was hoping you were free for a bit tonight. I've had an absolutely shitty day and the bed bugs are bitin'. Give me a call back, ok?" Shannen hit the button that terminated the call, laid back along the length of the couch, and hoped that Ariana would call back soon. Slowly, the sun sunk in the sky, and as the last few rays of light shone over the horizon, Shannen resigned herself to having to fight her demons alone. Resolutely, she got up, grabbed the glass of Bailey's and milk, and carried it into the kitchen. She poured the contents of the glass into the sink, watching the milky concoction swirl down the plughole, leaving a scummy trail behind it, then ran the tap for a few seconds to clear the drain. Shannen turned to the kettle, hit the switch with a vengeance and grabbed down a mug. She plopped a teabag in and waited for the water to boil.
Elouise lay in bed, wide awake, mind reeling. Rob was asleep beside her, lying on his side, her back to his wife, his breathing heavy but not quite a snore yet. Elouise was, as usual, thinking about Zach. This time though, it wasn't a pleasant recollection of the times they had spent together, the time they had spent together this morning, the way his eyes undressed her, or the way his touch sent sparks into her groin. This time, she was trying to think what to do about the whole sorry mess. The events of this morning had completely disarmed her; she had been so totally unprepared, so completely wrapped up in her invincibility. The charm that had surrounded the affair from the beginning had always seemed to extend to the possibility of being found out. She had been so sure that she wouldn't slip up, that the only way Rob would ever find out would be through her own doing, that the possibility of it occurring through something as random as a murdered stranger and as simple as a phone call, something she had absolutely no control over, was almost mind boggling in its obviousness. Elouise realised that she had become complacent, and the thought of Rob finding out chilled her to the bone. However, the thought of breaking off the affair filled her with dread. How would she get up in the morning, without the thought of Zach meeting her at Central? How would she get through the day at work, without the memory of the morning she had spent with him, the animal scent of their sex still lingering on her skin? How would she get through the menial evenings as dutiful wife and attentive mother, without the prospect of doing it all again tomorrow?
She had been with Zach for so long now, had led a double life so successfully for so many years, that she wasn't sure if she would be able to go back to being what she thought of as 'normal'. Her choices, though, were limited. She could call it off with Zach tomorrow morning at Central, walk away as though the past three years had meant nothing, and go back to being wife to Rob, mother to Kasey, the morning commute suddenly a painful, endless chore. She could spill the truth to Rob, tell him all, beg him for forgiveness, and hope that they could salvage some love, some trust, some pitiful scrap of their relationship, their marriage. She could choose Zach instead, dump Rob in a blazing argument over his lack of attention, his dirty clothes on the floor, his resistance to going out for dinner more than once a month - any excuse would do - and then announce to Zach that she was all his, forever more. Elouise sighed under her breath, covered her face with her hands. None of those options were suitable. What she really wanted was to continue the way she had been - indefinitely. But after this morning, she knew that she had to make a decision - before a decision was made for her. Because in a flash of realisation today she had come to the conclusion that a decision surely would be made for her. And she knew that whatever that decision was, she probably wasn't going to like it.
Elouise sneaked a look at the clock - 11:47, nearly midnight - and sighed. Her body desperately needed the sleep after the series of stresses that the day had dealt her, but her mind refused to shut down, still filled with thoughts. Reluctantly, she got out of bed, ensuring that she didn't wake Rob, and slipped downstairs. She would sit up and watch late-night television with a herbal tea for a while, try and get her brain to shut down for the night.
Robert felt the bed rock slightly and rose slowly into consciousness just in time to see Elouise pad over to the bedroom door and head out to the stairs. He lay unmoving on his side, still climbing through the spider web threads of his dreams, attempting to sort out fantasy and dreams from the reality of the bedroom, his house. He listened to the muffled sounds coming from the kitchen - the tap running, the kettle set to boil, the clink of a cup and saucer. Eventually, the click as the kettle shut off, the liquid sound of boiling water sloshing into the cup, more clinking as the cup was picked up and taken away ... into the lounge room as far as he could tell. Then the sound of the television, too loud at first in the sleeping house, then quickly turned down.
Fully awake now, Robert realised that Elouise must have been having trouble sleeping. A herbal tea and bad late night television was her usual remedy for sleeplessness, although he hadn't noticed her do it in, well, possibly years, he realised. It made him wonder what was keeping her up, but put it down to the confusion and stress of the day. Once Kasey had seen Elouise and the last of the doubt and confusion had been cleared up, the family had spent most of the rest of the morning with the police, both at the railway and later at the local police station. It had been a harrowing day for all of them and all three had fallen into bed early after a quick take away dinner. Robert knew that he had fallen asleep almost instantly, sheer exhaustion taking over. It seemed as though Elouise hadn't been so lucky.
Robert considered going downstairs to talk to her, try and help her unravel her thoughts enough that it would allow her to sleep, but he always felt uncomfortable in the role of confidant with Elouise. She had never been the type to express her feelings to him, put her heart on her sleeve, so to speak. He assumed she did a lot more of this with her girlfriends, but recently, even those seemed to have drifted away. Elouise rarely had time for coffee mornings, casual dinners or telephone gossip sessions with her friends recently, it seemed. Suddenly and for the very first time, he wondered why that was. It had never occurred to him to question it before, put it down to increasing maturity on Elouise's part and a greater commitment to her work since she was promoted a few years ago. But now something niggled at him. With the clarity of hindsight, Rob realised that Elouise had definitely shown a change, and he tried to think back to when this change had occurred. He couldn't be sure, but he thought it centred around the time she was promoted. He guessed that perhaps the promotion could account for much of it, but there were other things that seemed strange, now he analysed it. She had gotten edgier somehow, less tolerant, more prone to fly off for a minor misdemeanour or a perceived slight. Never an early riser, she had started getting up in the pre-dawn hours, taking early trains to work. At first these had been accompanied by excuses - she had too much work on, her boss was coming in early, there was a big presentation first thing in the morning - and eventually it had become the norm, no more excuses given, or requested.
His thoughts jumped to the conversation they had held in his car, stopped at the red light on the way back to Kasey at Redton. At the time Elouise's explanation for her absence - that she had been sitting working on a report in the parklands near Central, seemed entirely reasonable. But now that he could give it more rational, less harried thought, it seemed strange. Elouise had never been an outdoors type. They had gone camping once, in the early days before Kasey was born, before they were married even, and Elouise had done nothing but complain bitterly the entire time. Needless to mention, they had never gone again. Robert knew Elouise well enough through nearly twenty years of marriage to know that she was simply not the type to want to sit in parklands and watch the sun rise over the lake. Unless she was undergoing a sudden want to get back in touch with nature as she got older.
Robert yawned, weariness overcoming him again. He dismissed his disturbed thoughts as paranoia, brought on by a stressful day, rolled over and readjusted the pillows, then closed his eyes and drifted into sleep again. He would ponder this more in the morning, when surely it would seem a lot more rational.