Roy was sitting behind the wheel as Emma and I jumped in the car. He looked at me challengingly, as if expecting an argument from me but I just buckled in and told him to drive. A quick look behind me reassured me that Michele and Jessie were okay. I fished out the mobile phone and rang Kaye's number. My anxiety started to increase with each ring.
"Hello, Kaye speaking."
"Kaye!" I released a breath I didn't even know I was holding.
"Hello Lori!" I heard the surprise in her voice. I rarely rang her while I was at work so she immediately knew something was up.
"Where are the kids?"
"Playing in the gutter out front. You know how they love getting wet and dirty." Didn't I ever. I closed my eyes in relief.
"Kaye, I need you to do something for me. Go bring all the kids inside, lock the doors and windows, close the curtains and stay quiet. Can you do that?"
"Of course." She replied briskly. That's the wonderful thing about 40 years of sisterhood - I didn't need to waste time convincing her of my trustworthiness or sincerity. "Can you tell me what's going on?"
"Not right now, Kaye but I will when I get there."
"All right." She paused. "Whatever's going on - stay safe, okay?"
"You too, Kaye." I whispered. "Give my babies a kiss for me." She promised to do so, and I reluctantly hung up.
I looked out the window for a moment, gathering my focus as Emma took the phone and rang her house. It rang out unanswered. She bit her lip but smiled tremulously. "They're probably not even there. Mum loves to go to Rusty's Markets on Fridays..." She stopped suddenly as the realisation of what that might mean for her family struck home.
Roy glanced over. "Uh, isn't that only a block away from Central?"
"We don't know anything yet, Emma." I interjected firmly, glaring at Roy over her shoulders. "They might just be working in the garden." Her face flooded with relief at the thought and she smiled tentatively.
Emma's street looked untouched by the dramas in town. As we pulled up beside her parents' home, we looked carefully for any sign of trouble but there was nothing that hinted of danger. The woman next door was unloading groceries from her car while a couple of doors down, an elderly man walked his little dog.
The neighbour looked askance at our ambulance as we jumped out. "Emma? Is something wrong with your mum or dad?"
"Oh no," Emma assured her. "Just, ah, hitching a lift with a colleague." She met my eye and shrugged infinitesimally as if to say 'it was the best I could come up with'.
The neighbour nodded agreeably and started carrying her bags into the house.
"Oh, Mrs Moore, have you seen my mum or dad today?"
"Well, I saw your Dad this morning when he was collecting the mail. He made one of his jokes about how he wouldn't have anything to read if it wasn't for all the junk mail he receives."
I grinned. That sounded like Emma's Dad.
"And I think your mum went out somewhere. I saw the car leave a few hours ago."
I saw the tension in Emma's shoulders on hearing that, so I reached over and squeezed her arm reassuringly. Stepping back, I looked at Roy as he watched us from the driver's seat. "Keep a sharp eye out, Roy. Don't let anything sneak up on you and the kids."
He nodded abruptly. "Trust me. Ain't no one sneaking up on me!"
The door was unlocked. Exchanging a tense look, we stepped into the house. I immediately tensed. The house seemed way too quiet but more than that, it felt...wrong. I could tell Emma felt it, too, as her breath quickened. Carefully, we peered in the living room but there was no one there. I jerked my head towards the kitchen and silently we moved down the hall.
The small, normally cosy, kitchen stood empty and chilly. I touched the kettle. Cold. My tension immediately ratcheted up several knots. Emma's parents drank tea like it was water yet this kettle hadn't been used in hours. Don't be ridiculous, I scolded myself, you're letting Emma's anxiety affect you. Her parents may be visiting friends for the afternoon or something. I didn't succeed in convincing myself one little bit.
As I passed the sink, I saw the steel parang sitting in its block. Emma and I had bought one each four years ago on a trip to Malaysia. The heavy hatchet favoured by the infamous headhunters of Borneo worked a treat cutting through boney pieces of meat, like chicken. Quietly, I slipped it out and grasped it firmly. It's might come in use later, I assured myself, but I was careful to keep it behind my back and out of sight of Emma.
We headed for the bedrooms, placing our feet carefully on the hallway's wooden floorboards. My heart started pounding like a drum as we neared the master bedroom. Please, please let there be no one there, I prayed fervently. I could see Emma's hands shaking as she slowly pushed open the door.
The room appeared empty, but before I could breathe a sigh of relief, I heard a familiar sound that sent a knife through my gut. It was the sound my old dog used to make as he gnawed on a bone.