CHAPTER ONE

The Disappearing Act

Sydney. The Best Friend

Mia Sheffield isn't panicking. You mustn't let the brown paper bag and hyperventilating fool you, nor must you think that her scampering from one end of the shop to the other, crying fool you. Really, anyone who mutters 'I am not panicking, I am not panicking, I am not panicking' as many times and as fast as Mia, can't be lying.

What is there to panic about?

So her boss is a little late- only by half an hour. So nobody has seen her since that awful business with her fiancé'. It's fine. So what if Mia has never run the shop without her and she's left thirteen messages and heard nothing back? Nothing to panic about. So maybe she got the pin number wrong and the alarm is screaming at a pitch so high it could curdle milk. Big deal. Nothing another deep breath into an inhaler can't fix.

Upon finding the book with the pin number and its instructions, Mia almost cries a little and hugs it. She scampers as fast as her little five foot and a half body can go to the alarm and stabs at buttons, coaching her way through it as she goes.

"Push in pin!" she yells to herself over the alarm. She does as she says and puts it in. "Hold down red button!" she yells again. She does so and the screeching stops. "Well done!" she yells to herself over the alarm that's still ringing in her ears.

As she attempts to calm herself she see's a couple of customers coming to the door. Before she even knew what she was doing, Mia is on the floor, crouched out of view. This is when the phone makes a different ringing sound.

"I am not panicking, I am not panicking, I am not panicking. . ." Mia mutters as she begins to move her teeny tiny frame across the floor. Had there been mud under her and a net over her, it wouldn't have looked strange at all.

She picks up the receiver and ducks under the counter, pushing herself into the corner as much as she can.

"Susie?" she answers.

"Uhh, is this the Darling Foundation Second-Hand store?" Somebody who isn't Susie asks. Mia hangs up and scrunches her legs into the corner with her.

"I am not panicking, I am not panicking, I am not panicking."

After a moment longer of not panicking, Mia picks up the receiver and lets her finger linger over the phone. Speed dial one or speed dial two, she wonders. The idea of both makes her shudder. Both in a different way. She thinks of speed dial two and her heart hits her tonsils a few times like those games you play with the hammer and the bell at carnivals.

No, she will not push that one unless totally necessary. She closes her eyes and pulls the phone to her ear after pushing speed dial one.

"Oscar speaking."

"Oscar, it's Mia. . ." she says, her nose screwed up. There's a long silence.

"Who?" he asks. A little bee of disappointment stings the area where her heart was before it made it way to her throat.

"Mia. . . Susie's best friend."

There's a crackling sound, a bang and the phone goes dead.

"Oscar?" she asked to no avail. She puts the phone down and closes her eyes. Speed dial number two will have to be called. There's no way around it. She is not panicking, she's not panicking, she's not panicking.

"This is the Darling Foundation, your speaking with Ronnie." The ever efficient voice of Veronica Lennox answers. Even though it's a phone call, Mia already feels like a cornered furry animal.

"Hello, Veronica. It's Mia here," she says in exactly the way a small, frightened furry animal would greet something that is about to eat it.

"Yes?" she demands back.

"Um. .well, you see, the thing is . . . you haven't happened to. . . by any chance.. . ."

"I'm attempting to run a business here. Full sentences might help."

"Right . . . we'll it's just that, I um. . ."

"Goodness, Mia- if a full sentence is too much to ask for, then put Susie on."

"Well, you see, that's the problem. She's not here."

"Then get her to call me when she is." Veronica sighs, sounding impatient. She always sounds impatient when she's talking to Mia. She does everything extremely well and very fast- this includes her speech.

"I can't . . . she doesn't seem to be picking up her phone. In fact, I um, I haven't seen her since . . . she had that breakdown thing."

"That was two weeks ago!" Veronica hisses down the phone. Despite the fact that there is no more corner to back into, Mia tries anyway. "Who's been in the shop?"

"Nobody. She told me she wanted it closed so she can clear her head."

"And you haven't heard from her!?"

"No." she squeaks. There's a sigh. "Have you?"

"No. I tried but. . . Argh! Susie what have you done?! Right! Have you called Oscar?"

"Yes, but he hung up so I called you."

"Go to her place, see if she's there and call back." The phone then goes dead leaving Mia, in her corner with nothing but the sound of a dead phone to keep her company.

In futile desperation, Mia dials Susie's number again.

"You have reached the voice mail of Susie Darling of The Darling Foundation. I'm so sorry I can't take your call but if you leave your details, I will definitely call you back as soon as I can. Thank you."

Her voice sounds sweet and kind: the opposite to the mess of a woman she saw two weeks ago. She sniffs and wipes her terrified eyes. She knows she'll have to do what Veronica said or she'll be eaten then spat out all over again. She crawls out from under the counter and stands up. "Not panicking." She straightens her blouse and skirt. "Not panicking," She wipes her eyes and tucks her hair behind her ears. "Not panicking."

Wollongong, Australia. The Brother

When Oscar Darlings' phone goes off he finds himself stuffing his chips into a draw.

He has no need to feel guilty. One or two French fries aren't going to undo three years of dieting. He's not going to wake up to find himself 20 kilo's heavier. No need to feel guilty at all. It seemed to him to be the safe thing to do, though. If it's Ronnie, she'll be able to smell the chips through the phone.

After a moment of wondering why it had to be his needles and bobbins draw he stuffed them in, he picks up the phone.

"Oscar speaking."

"Oscar, it's Mia." a small voice says. He wheels back in his chair. He's been dreading this call. Sure he doesn't know what the call is about but she's called. Unless it isn't her. Maybe the fact he only saw her a couple of weeks ago is making him think it's her when it's not. No need to be hasty.

"Who?" he asks to be sure.

"Mia. Susie's best friend?"

The phone, as though frightened of how he's going to screw it up this time, fumbles in his hand, rattles across the table and straight out the open window, into the garden. All he can do is watch it happen,

Another opportunity . . . gone . . . out the window, just like all the other times. He removes his glasses and drops his head into his hands, keeping them there for a while. On the positive side, even he has to admit that was still better than the last time they talked. He managed three words this time. Three more than last time. He shakes his head at himself and pulls open the drawer with the chips in it, his head still in the other hand. Even with his glasses off he can see they've got bits of string and fabric fluff all over them. He closes the drawer again and rubs his eyes. Serves him right. He should know better than to break his diet. These are his first French-fries in about two and a half years and even though not having French fries isn't one of the ten commandments, he felt the need to apologise out loud before buying them. Oscar has always obeyed the rules, even when he was a little kid. Perhaps Thou Shall Not Eat French fries should be a commandment. He'd be more willing to follow it.

A moment later, he hears his garden ringing. He pulls his head out of his hands, startled, knowing it could be Mia again. He dives over the the table and out the window, hanging half out of it to reach the phone. Oscar is by no means a small person. Sure he's dropped a lot of weight but no amount of dieting is going to stop the fact he is a six foot three, broad-shouldered fully grown man. His nieces call him Uncle Baloo for a reason!

With the ringing phone still a fraction out of reach, he lets himself slide straight out the window and into the Camellia bush.

"Yes? Oscar here?" he asks, elbow in a Marigold.

"What took so look?" demands his eldest sister. He flops further into the garden, disappointed.

"The phone was . . . out," he says quietly.

"What do you mean out?"

"I dropped it ."

"Then why did you say it was out?" she sighs.

"I dropped it out the window." he reluctantly admits feeling a lot smaller than he could ever be. There's another sigh from Veronica. She's known for her impatient sighs.

"Of course you did and why did you hang up on Mia?"

"I didn't. The phone went out the window."

"Again?"

"No, I . . ." he rubs his head.

"Shoot Oxy. You're making less sense than Mia. Look, have you heard from Susie?"

"No." he sighs, sitting up a bit and rubbing his eyes. "She's not picking up."

"She isn't for me either," Ronnie says, making Oscar roll his eyes. Of course she isn't. Ronnie is the last person she'd pick up for. "I think something has happened. Mia is going to go check up on her then get back to me. Keep your phone on!"

The phone goes dead and he closes his eyes. Now would be a great time to go back to those French-fries. Susie's mad spiel two weeks ago has been worrying him sick and is the reason why he bought them in the first place. It was so unlike her. She's always been the sweetest, mildest of the three siblings. Who he saw was someone completely different. Heartbreak does strange things to people, though.

After a moment longer of just sitting in the garden, Oscar gets up, covered in mud and dirt. It's moments like these he appreciates how far away from Veronica he lives. With the addition of a couple of oceans and continents, he could almost even feel safe.

He looks himself over, knowing he can't walk through the shop in this state. He pushes his curls out of his face and sighs. "Back through the window for me."

Canberra, Australia. The Sister

After hanging up with Oscar, Veronica Lennox closes her eyes, fighting the urge to bite her nails. She hasn't bitten her nails since she was sixteen so she doesn't know why the urge to do it is coming now.

She has a very bad feeling about this. Susie has always been the last person Ronnie has had to worry about. She's always known what she's doing, she never has to worry about people hating her. She was born with a built-in halo that girl. Veronica taps her long, unbitten fingernails on the table in wait of Mia's call, trying not to worry too much. She could have just turned her phone off and crawled into bed. She refused anyone's offer to go stay with her, including Oxy which is strange. She always tries to drag him over to Sydney.

The door opens and Ian steps in.

"Everything alright, hun?" he asks, closing the door behind him. She smiles a little at the sight of her husband and shakes her head.

"Don't know. Can you call your parents and see if they're free for the next few days to take the kids. We may need to go back over to Sydney. Not sure yet though but I want the plan there in case."

"Sure. Susie not going too good?" he asks, putting a hand on her tense shoulder.

"Don't think so. Oxy hasn't heard from her- if I know him, he'll be back on the munchies with all the stress, poor thing. Mia probably locked herself in a cupboard. God knows they have hearts of gold but they couldn't organise a full sentence between them."

"Not everyone can be as efficient as you, my sweet. I'll just make this call. The Donald's will be here in half an hour to talk about this charity run too."

"Yes. I'll be there."

The phone rings and half a ring in, Ronnie picks it up.

"This is Veronica."

"It's me." That frightened voice of Mia says.

"And?"

"I just pulled up. The cars not there."

"So. Go and knock on the door. How much mail is in the letter box? Have the lawns been done?"

there's a definite sound of an inhaler being puffed in the background. If Veronica wasn't so stressed about the well-being of her sister, she would feel sorry for Mia but just at the moment, she's irritated.

"Mia!" she says, slamming her fist down on the table and standing up. "Focus. Mail! Lawns!"

"Robbie used to mow the lawns so that wouldn't matter," she says. Finally some sense.

"Mail?"

"Um. . .it's packed. It hasn't been emptied in ages by the looks of it." Veronica swears. "Lazy word." comes the mutter of Mia. Ronnie ignores this and begins pacing in her small office.

"Knock on the door then."

She hears a little whimper and the sound of movement. She hears her knock.

"I don't think she'll come. Stuff has gone from inside. . .photos and that...the neighbours are looking at me weird."

"To hell with the neighbours. What else do you see?"

"Uhhhh. . .there's an envelope by the door. It has hello written in big letters. . .I think it may be Susie's handwriting."

Veronica stops pacing.

"Open it!"

"But. . ."

"Mia. Listen to me! Now is not the time to be a frightened wimp. Susie is in danger. Open the damn envelope."

She hears a sniff and her muttering something about not panicking.

"Um . . .it has a note."

"Which says?" Veronica asks exasperated and starting up pacing again.

"Hello, everybody. I've gone on a permanent holiday. I'll let you know where I end up. From Susan."

"Susan?" Veronica frowns.

"It's her real name." Mia fills in.

"Yes. I know that. But since when does she call herself Susan!? Argh! I'm coming down!" she slams the phone down and growls at the ceiling.

Susie Darling, what on earth are you doing!?

Mildura. The Neighbour

"James!" a worried voice calls out from upstairs. The man himself closes his eyes with a sigh. Not even a second in the door and it starts. After letting his Border-Collie, Biff off her leash, he heads up the stairs to his mother. "Jamie! Quick." he opens the door to his mother's room to see her standing at the window, glancing into the new neighbours back yard again.

"What is it this time?" he asks, going over to her.

"Look, look at what she's doing."

"It's none of our business Ma."

"But look!" she grabs her son's arm and yanks him to the window. He frowns when he see's and leans in a bit.

"Huh. . ." is all he says. He shouldn't really be surprised. Since the new woman has moved in, it has been interesting, to say the least, and his mother has every right to be fascinated. Every day, the woman goes out and throws a plate against the back fence as hard as she can. The other day, she was burning a box of belongings. She's not supposed to and James' mother, Lynn wanted to call the fire brigade but he stopped her.

"It may be a box of her ex-boyfriend's things she's burning. Best to just let her go."

He knew this would stop her. his mother did the exact same thing to his father's belongings when he took off. In fact, they dressed in Indian clothing and danced around it drinking beer. He enjoyed that night thoroughly. Today, though, he's less certain on what's happening.

The woman who can't be older than him is bent over, head in her knees, hacking away at her glorious hair. She doesn't look like she's doing a very great job of it.

"What is she doing? She has such beautiful hair!" Lynn pats her own dark hair and shakes her head. "It makes no sense. Oh now look!" she shakes James' arm and points, in case he forgot where the girl is.

The pretty blond flicks it back and turns to one of the windows to check her reflection. For some reason, she seems pleased with the cut. She then trims a couple of drastically uneven bits and drops the scissors onto the lawn. The woman then pauses and slowly turns to face James and Lynn, obviously noticing them in the reflection of her window.

James quickly steps out of view but Lynn frowns.

"She's waving," she tells her son confused. Lynn waves back. "Oh. .she's going inside."

"Mum, step away from the window."

"That was strange."

"Ma. . ."

"Maybe I should offer her the number for my hairdresser."

"Ma. . ."

"You take it to her. She must think you're rude for hiding."

"Ma, I'm not. . ."

"I'll get his card." she then wanders off not paying any attention to her son. James runs his fingers through his dark hair and rests his head on the wall. Much to his distress, he finds himself smiling at his mother's behaviour. He doesn't know why. Maybe her slight dysfunctions are beginning to rub off on him.

"Here. Take that to her and tell her I said she was better off without the loser."

"What loser?" he asks, head still on the wall. He's just run seven blocks and would love a shower and a lie down right about now.

"The one she was burning the belongings of the other day."

"Right. .can I at least have a shower?"

She smells him and steps back.

"You smell fine." she insists. He closes his eyes unable to help but smile again. His mother talks him into all sorts and this is by far in the bottom half of the most embarrassing so he doesn't mind so much.

After changing his shirt he makes his way back out heading across the lawn. At this very moment, he hears an infuriated scream. He turns his head in the direction of it only to see what looks like a saucer coming directly towards him and very fast. It's safe to assume he remembers very little after that.

A/N: So, thoughts? I am currently writing this book. It it not complete, so holes need to be plugged, reviews need to be given.

Stay tuned. We find out what Susie is up to in the next chapter.