Chloe - Lost Girl
The bus arrived fifteen minutes before the hour, hissing to a stop, thick breeze pulsing ahead of it. He turned his eyes away and noticed the silhouette of a woman against the moonlit ruins. She appeared agitated, waiting for someone. Lengthening his stride, gaze narrowed and shoulders hunched, he felt a rush of adrenalin as he loomed towards the frail figure.
What next? That’s what I love most about this job, he told himself. Every day a different one, every investigation a new opportunity to demonstrate my adeptness at enforcing the law. I’ve made mistakes, true, but my record on paper is unblemished. It’s only a matter of time before the men who matter sit up and take notice.
On closer inspection he saw that the woman was older than her phone voice had conveyed. Fifties? Late forties at best. Even so, her glowing make-up and the vibrancy in her eyes did much to hold back the years.
After what seemed like an eternity, she said, ‘Dryden?’
He nodded. ‘I’d say it’s a pleasure, though from what you told me on the phone – ’
‘No time for niceties. Come with me.’
He followed her along the riverside to woods providing shelter from the rain. They found a fallen bark to sit on and she offered him a cigarette. Then she told her tale. He asked if she would mind if he used the voice recorder on his phone. She did mind very much, so reluctantly he settled for the Notes app. Dryden had two smartphones, a smartwatch and some smart sunglasses. His colleagues nicknamed him Inspector Gadget. Irritating. But it didn’t gall him. Gadget always solved the mystery. Eventually.
Forty minutes later the interview was over. They shook hands and went their separate ways, the woman deeper into the woods, Dryden back to the main road, her final words ringing in his ears.
‘Can you be trusted?’
He hadn’t answered at first; didn’t know how to. Could he keep his word… and not say a word to anyone else? In the end he’d chosen no words. Just a simple nod.
He glanced at the luminous dual-dial on his Tag Heur – a gift from his fiancé. The next bus was due any moment. Quickening his long stride, he reached the road at the same time as the bus. It began screeching to a halt. He swiftly crossed the A65, got behind the three other customers waiting at the abbey. Hopped on the bus, flashed his return ticket at the weary driver, considered for a moment before chancing his arm on the top deck. It should be quiet up there, the other passengers settling for the seats below.
Climbing the stairs two at a time, he took a seat at the front, got out his iPhone X and read the few notes he’d managed in the shade of the woods. Best to fill in the gaps while things are still fresh in my mind, he thought. Seconds later came footsteps behind him, someone emerging from the top of the stairwell.
He stole a glance. The man was one of the passengers who’d got on the bus with him. Wearing black from head to foot, the nondescript coat and trousers reminded Dryden of his darkly clad boss. Someone wanting peace and quiet too, he guessed.
Back to the notes. Who? When? Where? And crucially, why? Why murder? And why the cover-up? He dug into his pockets for the Post-It she’d given him containing the all-important address, but he couldn’t find it. Maybe he’d dropped it. Not to worry. It was permanently printed on his memory.
Then came more footsteps. Two pairs of them. Dryden glanced over his shoulder. A young man and woman were climbing the stairs. Hadn’t they boarded the bus at the abbey too? He couldn’t be sure, but it was puzzling-stroke-annoying all the same. Why come up here when the bottom deck had seats aplenty?
Unperturbed at unwanted company, he began keying in names and descriptions, dates and times, all the while drawing on recall training he’d recently undertaken at police college. With so many details buzzing around his head, he swore he heard a swarm of bees close by. Then he looked out at the drizzly darkness, the copper and yellow leaves clinging to the trees. Wrong season, he told himself.
He directed his gaze back to his phone, deep in thought about something the woman had said. That she was related to the girl was undeniable; and anyway, why spell out the whereabouts of the evidence – indisputable evidence – if the whole saga was a hoax or a set-up or some wild conspiracy theory?
He came out of his daydream, wiping condensation off the bus window with his anorak sleeve and peering out of the semi-circle he’d crafted, though the view hardly improved through the mist and damp. He could see his mirror image smiling back, the chiselled curves of his strong jaw and strapping torso heightened by the dim light. Outside, in the murky beyond, there was nothing to be seen – but what the hell was going on behind him?
From the light cast by the ceiling beams Dryden caught the hazy reflection of someone standing up. It was the man in black. Then, from the other side of his vision, the couple were standing, postures frozen. Instinct getting the better of experience, he turned around in an abrupt movement lacking caution and composure.
The last thing Detective Sergeant Liam Dryden saw with both his eyes was the shining barrel of a semi-automatic pistol – pointed right at him. He never saw the bullet that shot out of the barrel, penetrated his right temple, then went through and out of his skull, shattering the misty windscreen behind him. He felt a terrible pain. His head was singing, whining, popping. His left eye went blind. He could hear his own scream. More shots were fired. Where from and by whom, his fading senses couldn’t fathom.
He knew he was dying, knew he was going to die. It had happened so quickly, so inexplicably, he could barely swallow the reality of his doomed condition. So this was what it felt like to stare into the face of Death. Like crashing a car you cannot control, time suspended, impalpable, lost. But he was no longer afraid to die. He was beyond fear; beyond hope.
Before the end; before his muscles packed in and his grip on life gave up entirely, one last gesture. The dynamite must be exposed. It was too hot to be buried with him. His phone had gone, but he still had a cloudy window to work on.
Resting his left arm on a handrail for leverage, Dryden gradually raised his right hand above his drooping head. Then he thought ‘brevity’ – and fingered a series of numbers on the misty glass, marking a course as clear as water.
He willed his body to carry on, commanded it not to fail. But try as he might to get those numbers etched for eternity, his ultimate number was up, his last ounce of energy sapping dry as he slumped to the floor.
To add insult to mortal injury, he died amid the echoes of an almighty boom.
‘You understand why you’re here?’
The man shrugged and spoke in a deep drawl. ‘No skin off my back, though it’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. Same routine, different day.’
Detective Inspector Carl Sant spat out his mangled toothpick and rubbed the tip of his rugged nose. ‘A bit young to remember that film, aren’t you?’
‘I watched it on the plane to Thailand last year. Nearly pissed myself laughing.’
‘Did you go with Chloe to Thailand?’
‘No, that was before Chloe.’ Jake Downing, nineteen-year-old package of toned muscle, gazed up at the unpainted ceiling of the interview room. ‘Might’ve been Emma. Or was it Emily?’
‘No shortage of girlfriends.’
Jake sat up. His eyes took on a mischievous gleam as they moved to Sant. ‘Eight. Ten if you count the ones I never, you know, got inside. Girls are like taxis.’ He grinned. ‘You ride one, move onto the next.’
‘I’m sure your mother would approve, Mr Downing.’
‘Each to his own, don’t you think? Some lads find the right girl on day one and stick with her through thin and thin. Not me. I’m too young for nonsense like that.’
‘So you and Chloe were never serious?’ asked the inspector, clamping a fresh toothpick between his incisors.
Jake replied by pushing up one shoulder, lazy.
‘Tell us about your… relationship,’ Sant said.
He glanced at the man sitting next to him. Detective Constable Brad Capstick watched Jake without blinking. A studious type, Capstick was forever adjusting his thick-rimmed NHS-style specs, though neither the frames nor lenses were subsidised by the National Health Service. He was fifteen years Sant’s junior and a damn sight better qualified, but a love of textbooks and grand ideas hadn’t exactly equipped him for CID work.
Jake’s expression became wry. ‘How can I put it? We weren’t shy with each other. Let’s just say I got to know Chloe well. Very well.’ He beamed pathetically. ‘She appreciated a man of experience.’
‘But you’re a little younger than Chloe,’ Capstick said, as if the boy needed another invitation to gloat.
‘In the biological sense, yes, but not the carnal.’
‘When was the last time you saw her?’ asked Sant, eager to move on.
Jake tapped the tips of his fingers on the table. ‘How many times have I been asked that question?’
Sant leant forward, arching his neck and widening his stare a fraction. ‘Are you going to make life easy for us, or do we make life difficult for you?’
‘Why you got beef, man?’
Capstick felt the steam coming off his colleague and stepped in. ‘You must understand, Jake, that whilst we’ve no wish to start a shouting match, we’re handling a missing person case of the utmost urgency.’ He breathed out. ‘Your cooperation would be greatly appreciated.’
No-one had seen Chloe Lee for over seven weeks. To make matters worse, establishing when the university student had disappeared was proving tough. Usually a time, and sometimes a place, provided a vital marker in establishing a missing person’s whereabouts. But in Chloe’s case, detectives had neither. Students living in shared apartment blocks seldom clocked in like the rest of the human race, so when asked why they’d taken so long to contact the police, Chloe’s flatmates had offered blank expressions and weak excuses.
Chloe’s mother was also missing, though several sources – passport checks included – drew the same conclusion: Vanessa Lee was three months into a six-month round-the-world tour. Vanessa’s Facebook profile had been scarcely touched since her departure, although one recent post hinted at an interest in teaching English as a foreign language. A few photos of tropical forests and temples completed the picture. Perhaps six months was an underestimate.
Chloe’s father was missing in another way. He’d left Vanessa when Chloe was twelve, then moved to York with his second family. He’d been interviewed by detectives already but not by Sant personally, which explained why a prearranged trip to York was pencilled in for the following evening.
‘I’ll make it easy for you,’ said Jake, enunciating each word. ‘The last time I saw Chloe was in July. The twenty-fourth to be precise. She came to a birthday party I was hosting at my digs. I saw her briefly. She left early. Simple. That’s all there is to it.’
Capstick consulted the pocket-sized tablet he carried around with him. ‘These digs you mention. Are you referring to the Moorland Avenue, Hyde Park address?’
‘Correct. I don’t live in Hyde Park now. Moved to Headingley. One notch up the social ladder.’
The constable wrote something on a page filled with his tiny scrawl. ‘And was Chloe in good spirits at the party?’
Jake stared into space. ‘As far as I recall. She was her usual, sober self. But as I said, I hardly saw her that night. We were… losing interest in each other.’
‘So you split up after the party?’
‘I’m not sure if we ever did split up. We’d had the odd argument or two, and needed to get away for a while. The summer break came at a good time.’
‘So technically speaking, you and Chloe are still together?’ probed Capstick.
The young man’s eyes widened. ‘How can we be together when she’s not around?’
‘But if Chloe came through this door now, you’d still assume you and her were a pair?’
‘Suppose. Probably. Depends on Chloe…’
‘Well, you can’t expect me to wait forever, gents. I’ve moved on – ’
Sant stifled an urge to laugh. ‘Enter girlfriend number eleven, Mr Downing.’
Jake didn’t try hard to repress the smirk rising over his solid jawline.
Capstick glanced down at his tablet. ‘Did you argue with Chloe the last time you saw her. At the party?’
No sooner had it appeared than the smirk was gone. The boy was ruffled. ‘Can’t remember… maybe, maybe not.’
Sant wasn’t convinced. ‘A simple yes or no if you don’t mind.’
The teenager shuffled restlessly in his chair, his newfound nervousness not helped by the snoring of the duty solicitor by his side. He peered upwards in search of an answer and then said, ‘Probably. We argued quite a lot, like all couples.’
Sant sensed the unease and jumped on it. He thrust his thick neck aloft, closing in on his target. The stark light from the swaying bulb overhead made the inspector’s suit glow threateningly, though Jake was too busy admiring himself in the reflective glass to notice.
‘What did you argue about? It must’ve been a proper bust-up, Mr Downing, because you haven’t seen your girlfriend since.’
Jake stood up sharply, stirring the lawyer from his slumber. ‘I don’t have to take any more of this harassment. And what’s more, it’s about time I got myself proper legal representation instead of Mr Dozy here.’