Ben had realised that he might have a bit of a problem when he had been idly surfing the internet late on Monday night. He had an assignment he was supposed to be handing in the next day. He was officially working on it, but in reality he was procrastinating - the internet was always good for procrastination. He told himself that he would just quickly check the headlines and then would go on to write another few hundred words. He didn't believe himself, but he went ahead and checked the headlines anyway. When he spotted the headline "Murder Victim Found at Suburban Rail Station", he thought it sounded moderately interesting, and his interest was piqued further when he realised it was a train station on the same line as the one that was only minutes walk from his house. He read on, and all thoughts of further essay writing left his head entirely when he saw the name of the murdered girl - Ariana Mathers. He was certain there had been a girl named Ariana at his party on Saturday night. He had never met her before, she had arrived with the gate-crashers, and she hadn't told him her surname, but how many Arianas could there be in the world? The coincidence was a little bit too peculiar for an Ariana to be at his party, and another totally different Ariana to show up dead at the railway station only two stops city-bound from here, wasn't it?
Ben had racked his brains all evening, trying to work out if it could possibly be the same girl. He stayed up all night, surfing the web, looking for references and trying to track back the events of the evening, work out if it could be the same girl. He had learnt a lot during the night. Ariana Mathers was the real person behind the fantasy author A. M. Alston, she was in her mid twenties and lived alone in Tallen Heights, the adjoining suburb to Redton where her body was found. He had even been able to read the first few pages of a couple of her books, thanks to Amazon.com. They weren't the kind of thing he generally read, he couldn't get his head around elves and dwarfs and all the names were unpronounceable.
He had been sitting on the couch, his computer warm on his lap, when he had looked up and noticed the sun was up, light pouring through the glass sliding door to where he sat. He was still too wired and nervous to be able to sleep and had instead decided to start calling people who were at the party to see if anyone else could shed some light on the situation. The first few numbers he had dialled were switched off or rung out. He glanced at the digital clock in the corner of his computer screen and realised that it was only barely eight o'clock. That would explain people's reluctance to talk to him, he guessed. He stared for a while at the clock, his mind almost completely blank through fatigue and stress, when a thought hit him like a bolt of lightning. Larry had been chatting up some girl, Ben could remember him crapping on about how lovely her tits were later in the night. Ben had a suspicion it could have been this Ariana girl, and he reached for the phone again.
Ben had been about to hang up when Lawrence had answered breathlessly. Ben didn't really care if Lawrence was going to be late for work, he needed to know the name of the girl. When Lawrence had fobbed him off with the name Aalia, Ben had felt a strange mix of relief that maybe it hadn't been the murdered girl, and suspicion that the name was just a bit too similar to Ariana for his liking.
The assignment had been forgotten entirely and Ben spent the rest of the day alternating between pacing around the house like a caged animal, running to the computer to check another half remembered fact, and dozing on the couch. He had started ringing Lawrence's house again around three o'clock, quizzing his flatmate until Damien lost his temper and stopped answering.
Then when Lawrence had finally called him and Ben had convinced him to come around, Lawrence had recalled Damien going off with her and group of others. They had talked around the implications for most of the rest of the day and eventually Ben, deciding to take action, had jumped up off the couch to find the phone. He picked it up and dialled a number from the memory in the handset. He stared at Lawrence as the line was picked up at the other end, "Hello?"
"Damo, mate - it's Ben. Sorry about yesterday afternoon, ringing like that."
Damien grunted in reply, still obviously pissed off about it, "What do you want, Ben?" he snapped.
"Uh, well, Larry is here at my place now and we've been having a chat. We've got something we need to tell you, it's pretty urgent. When do you knock off work? Can I buy you a beer?"
There was a pause as Damien considered the offer, and he answered cautiously, "My shift doesn't finish until half past five. But if you can come to the hospital at ten I'll take a break. You've got fifteen minutes." With that, he hung up in Ben's ear.
Lawrence looked at Ben, one eyebrow raised, as he waited to hear from him how Damien's side of the conversation had gone. Ben looked straight back at him. We're going to the hospital at ten, go home and get changed and I'll pick you up at a quarter to."
Shannen hadn't moved from Ariana's dining room table all day. She had heard Grace wake up, had thanked her when she brought a cup of tea in, carefully clearing a space amongst the papers on the table for it to sit. She hardly registered it, but throughout the day in the background had come the sounds of Grace moving around the house as she packed things up, made arrangements with the funeral director, called Ariana's publisher, broke the news to her friends from Ariana's notebook by the phone. Grace had not questioned what Shannen was doing, intuiting that it was, on at least one level, the same as what Grace was doing - packing up the remnants of a life cut short too soon, a life that was not ready to packed up, still seemingly brimming with life.
Shannen had started with the papers, trying to sort them into some kind of order. At first, she had been sorting them by what was written or drawn on them - placing sketches of characters together, maps together and notes on language together. Then, as she examined each piece, she realised that the sketches and notes related to a few different stories. So she had picked up the piles she had created and started again, this time sorting them by storyline. More than once, as she worked, she cursed herself for never having found the time to read Ariana's books. Of course, she owned every one, each having been a gift from Ariana when the first editions had hit the shelf, but she had read one and then had never quite found the time to read the rest. She thought of the pristine row of six books on her shelf at home, feeling guilt wash over her, but then buried the emotion like she had buried so many other emotions that day, by concentrating on her seemingly banal task.
It was late in the afternoon when Shannen finally stared at three neat piles on the scratched and worn dining room table. The first, and smallest related to Ariana's fifth book, "The Legend of Venai". The second was for her sixth, "The Iveteff Mystery and The Journey to the Realm of the Titans". The third pile, and by far the largest in size, was for, it seemed, a work in progress. Shannen had found eight different characters, represented in close to two dozen hand drawn pictures from different angles, wearing different clothes and holding various implements - weapons and tools, charms and jewels. There were close to a hundred different maps, depicting countries, states, regions and provinces, each named meticulously and coloured with pencil. There were pages of notes on six different languages, describing dialect, slang and customary usage. There were sketches and description of taverns, weapons, animals and creatures of different species. All together, there were hundreds of pages describing a world that survived only in Ariana's imagination. Shannen felt as though she was poking were she did not belong, like she had seen Ariana suddenly and unwillingly bare, walked in on her in the shower, and for a moment she wanted to abandon the project entirely. She was about to gather up the papers, prepared to dump them all into a shoebox and pack them away in Ariana's cupboard where they would not be found, when her eyes took in Ariana's laptop, sitting lid closed on the corner of the table. Shannen had moved it out of the way, knowing that the interesting stuff would be in the papers. Ariana had always planned out all her novels in sketches and hand-written notes before sitting down to write, but, once she started writing, she did it almost entirely on her laptop.
Shannen became aware of a sudden desire to find out if Ariana had started work on the novel she had so meticulously planned out. She placed the pile of papers back down on the table, straightened the corners, and reached across to the laptop. She opened the lid, found the power button and waited while the machine booted up.
It didn't take much navigation through the simple file system on the machine to find where Ariana had stored her novels, and Shannen double-clicked on the one name that she was unfamiliar with: "The Grantoff Quest and What Happened When They Got There". The file opened with an electronic flourish, and Shannen was staring at the opening line, "Back in the days when he had been young, Laboeg Fairfox had gone on many adventures. But his adventuring days were over now, or so he had thought ..."
Shannen read on, enthralled.
As they traipsed through the sterile halls of the sprawling public hospital, looking for the ward where Megan's great uncle was housed, Dalton tried to place his misgivings behind him. He had gotten home this afternoon and Megan had swept him off his feet with her breathy announcement that she had gotten in touch with her Great Uncle Walter. "Who?" Dalton had questioned, perplexed, and Megan had explained it all while fussing in the kitchen over cups of coffee. Finally, she had come back to the table where Dalton was sitting, a steaming mug in each hand. She pushed one across to him and as he lifted the strong smelling coffee to his mouth she had announced sweetly, "Visiting hours finish at 6."
Dalton set the drink down heavily on the table without drinking, "Are you serious?" he questioned.
"Of course. I think that he should know about the baby. Don't you think he would be touched?"
"I don't know. He might be estranged from your family for a reason." Dalton pointed out pragmatically, "I'm not sure that this is a great idea, Megan."
But, in the end, Megan had gotten carried away with the whole romantic notion and Dalton, unwilling to hold her back with unfounded fears, had traipsed along with her. Now, as they rounded the corner that led to the general practice ward, and Great Uncle Walter's room number loomed ahead of them, he began to wonder why he had given in so easily.
Brianna hadn't been able to stop thinking about this cousin that she had lost before she even knew that she had one. She was lost in thought and sitting in the last carriage of the train. Kasey was beside her but for once they weren't deep in conversation. Kasey appeared pre-occupied also and so the two sat side by side in companionable silence. Brianna had managed to get a hold of her Aunt Grace's telephone number by hassling her father until he gave in. He had told her that they weren't on speaking terms anymore, not through any incident or falling out, he had hastened to explain, but simply because they no longer got along as well as they had - they occupied different worlds now. Subsequently, he had never met Ariana and, it seemed, held no desire to. He had told Brianna that should she decide to contact Grace to pass on his regards, but to not attempt to reconcile them. Brianna had been astonished at his passivity, but unsurprised. Her father lived in a world ruled by science and anything that did not fit in to that, sometimes very narrow, world view, was simply dismissed. It seemed as though Grace and her offspring had been successfully removed from his emotional capacity, and it renewed fears in Brianna that one day, too, she would join them in her father’s eyes. Nevertheless, she had a phone number, and she was slowly working up the courage to call it. When the train pulled into Redton station, the two girls got up and after exchanging casual farewells and promises to meet in the morning, Brianna watched Kasey wander away up the street. Instead of heading to her own home, though, Brianna came to a decision. She was going to phone Grace. She sat down on the curb at the drop off point in front of the station, fished her phone from her school bag, and very deliberately dialled the number she had scratched on a slip of paper in her pocket.
The phone at the other end of the line rang, and continued to ring, and just as Brianna was about to give up in disappointment the line clicked and a recorded voicemail message answered. Brianna had already decided not to leave a message, when the recording gave a mobile number. Brianna hung up immediately, found a notebook and a badly chewed ballpoint, and called the number again. This time she waited impatiently through the endless ringing, through the beginning of the message and then hurriedly scrawled the number as it was announced. She cancelled the call before the tone could sound for her to leave a message, and called the new number quickly, before her confidence could dissolve. It was only three rings in when a soft voice answered, "Hello?"