Queen of the Night

I’m experiencing technical problems with the tape recorder, so no more music reports yet. Instead here’s another opening. This time it’s not part of a series, just a story that insisted I start writing it. It hasn’t insisted I finish it, though…

Dan Calvert was up late, finishing a report for one of his more annoying clients, when he heard a sound from his daughter’s bedroom. He looked up from the keyboard.

He wasn’t sure exactly what to call the sound – a whoosh, perhaps? It wasn’t anything he could identify immediately. It sounded as if it might be caused by a vacuum cleaner or a water pipe doing something peculiar. He was fairly sure that it wasn’t a sound that should be coming from Ali’s bedroom at half past midnight.

He glanced down at the computer. The report wasn’t due until Monday; he just hadn’t wanted it hanging over him during the weekend. It could wait overnight for a final polish. He saved his work, then got up and walked down the hall to the door of Ali’s room, where he put his ear to the painted wood and listened for a moment.

He didn’t hear anything.

Maybe it had been something caught in a vent – but the furnace wasn’t running. Or maybe it had been something falling, perhaps one of the posters over Ali’s bed. Dan frowned, hesitated, then carefully and silently turned the knob.

Ali was sixteen, and as jealous of her privacy as any teenager, but surely it would do no harm to glance in and make sure she was okay. He opened the door a crack and peered into the dark room.

At least it was dark; she wasn’t sitting up late. There was no glow of a TV or computer screen, just her alarm clock’s red digits reading 12:27. Nothing was obviously out of place in the sliver he could see.

He pushed the door open a little wider, and let light from the hallway spill in.

The posters were still in place; there was her bed, nothing on it that shouldn’t be…

But it was empty.

Dan blinked.

Maybe she got up to use the bathroom, he thought. Maybe that was the noise he had heard. He turned and looked across the hall.

The bathroom door stood wide open, and the bathroom was dark. Ali wasn’t in it. He turned back to the bedroom and looked in again, thrusting his head in through the crack.

She was definitely not in the bed; the blanket was pulled up, but no one was under it.

She wasn’t at her desk, or sitting in the chair in the corner, either. Baffled and concerned, Dan stepped into the room and looked around.

Ali wasn’t anywhere.

He flipped on the light, but his daughter did not magically appear; with the light on the bed was still empty, the desk deserted, the chair unoccupied. Ali was not standing in one of the corners.

Both worried and annoyed, Dan crossed the room and yanked open the closet door, revealing a lot of dirty laundry flung on the closet floor, but no sign of his missing daughter.

“Ali?” he said.

No one answered.

Feeling foolish, Dan knelt down and looked under the bed, discovering several forgotten CDs, an old pizza box, and a healthy crop of dust bunnies, but no teenage girl.

She was gone; there was simply no doubt of it.

Could she have crept down to the kitchen for a late snack, perhaps? That would have taken her right past the nook where he had been working, but he had been pretty involved in that stupid report; it wasn’t totally beyond the realm of possibility that she had walked right past him without being noticed. He left the room, turned off the light and shut the door, and walked quickly down the stairs to the kitchen.

No sign of her.

It would seem she had snuck out of the house.

That was bad. That was very bad. It also didn’t seem like her at all – and that made it even worse, since it meant that Dan didn’t know his daughter as well as he had thought he did.

Then an even worse possibility struck him, and he hurried back upstairs to her room, this time not bothering to be quiet about it.

The windows were both securely locked. No one had broken in and dragged her out.

That was some relief, but not much. She had left under her own power – if she hadn’t gone out the window, then she would have had to have gone past where he was working to leave the house, and there was simply no way that could possibly have happened if she hadn’t gone willingly.

Now the obvious question was what he should do about it.

The obvious answer was to wake up his wife and tell her, but he really hated that idea. Ali and Sue hadn’t been getting along very well of late – nothing serious, so far as he knew, just the normal teenage mother-daughter stuff, with Sue worrying about Ali’s friends and grades and behavior, and Ali feeling that she was constantly being nagged and picked on, but still, there had been enough conflict that Dan really didn’t want to wake Sue unless he had to. In fact, waking Sue up for any reason was usually a bad idea; she was not a person who handled disturbed sleep well at all.

And he certainly couldn’t call the police without first waking Sue up and conferring. If he did call the cops, and Ali turned up ten minutes later, or was found alive and well sleeping over at a friend’s house…

But she wasn’t sleeping at a friend’s house, or at least she wasn’t supposed to be. She had eaten dinner with Dan and Sue, and they had all watched “Once Upon A Time” together even though it was a rerun.

That hardly seemed like someone who was about to run away from home, and honestly, Dan couldn’t think of any reason Ali would want to run away. He and Sue weren’t perfect as parents, but they weren’t monsters, either, and the tension between Ali and Sue hadn’t seemed anywhere near running away level stuff.

Slipping out with friends on a dare, or meeting some boyfriend – that, Dan could believe, though he hadn’t known about any boyfriends at the moment. It seemed likely to him that Ali would be back safe and sound later tonight.
That left him two choices – well, more than that, really, but two he seriously considered.

First, he could go to bed and pretend he had never noticed she was gone, and if she was back in the morning he could talk to her privately later and find out what the story was.

Second, he could stay up until she came in, and have that talk right away.
That, he decided, was the way to go. He would get a book and catch up on his reading, there in her room.

Five minutes later he was settled on the chair in the corner with a John Grisham novel.

By two a.m. he was having trouble staying awake; he would find himself reading the same paragraph three or four times. He decided that wasn’t going to work. He got up, stretched, and went down to the kitchen, where he made a pot of coffee. While it was brewing he put the book away and fished yesterday’s newspaper from the trash – working the sudoku puzzle ought to be better than reading, he thought.

He wasn’t very good at puzzles, but an hour later he had finished both the puzzle and a cup of coffee, and Ali had still not reappeared.

He once again debated waking Sue, but now he really didn’t want to – she would demand to know why he hadn’t done so at 12:30, rather than three in the morning, and he didn’t have a good answer.

He drank another cup of coffee and tackled the novel again, and this time made some real headway – either the caffeine had kicked in or he had his second wind, he wasn’t sure. All the same, at about a quarter to five he decided he didn’t care whether the hero won his case, and put the book aside.
He had thought Ali would be back by now. He was not at all happy that she wasn’t. He wasn’t happy about any of this. He had thought she knew better than to do anything like this without at least leaving a note. He stood and stretched, and looked out the window.

The eastern sky was starting to lighten. The sun would be up soon, and his daughter was still out there somewhere instead of safe in her bed. He really should have wakened Sue in the first place, he decided. He turned and took a step toward the bedroom door.

There was a dull thump, and Ali was lying on the bed, wearing a flannel nightgown that had been a hand-me-down from her mother. She was lying on top of the blanket, not tucked in.

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