Vanished, page 2
But not for this woman.
‘Have you been following me for long, Julia?’
She shook her head. ‘No.’
I believed her: I’d spotted her straight away in the restaurant, and seen her the second she started to approach me. If she’d been following me for any length of time, it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. Tailing was an art. If you followed someone, you had to stay invisible at the same time.
‘I’ve read about you,’ she continued, nodding at the printout. ‘I mean, you can see that. I read about what you did when you found that place up north. How they tried to hurt you. What …’ She stopped, looking down at the scars on my fingers. ‘What they did to you. Then I saw another story about you in the papers last year. To do with that man the police found. The one who took those women. When I saw those stories, I thought, “That’s a man who can help me.” ’
‘Do you believe in fate?’
I shook my head. ‘No, I don’t.’
That seemed to stop her in her tracks. But then she found her feet again. ‘I saw you and your …’ Her eyes drifted to the restaurant. ‘Your friend. I saw you walk past me. The man I’d read about on the internet. So when you passed me I couldn’t help but see it as fate. And I suppose I lied a little. I did follow you – but only after I saw you tonight. I followed you to the restaurant because I wanted to be sure it was you. And when I saw that it was, I realized I needed to speak to you.’
‘What do you want, Julia?’
‘I want you to find my husband,’ she said, pausing and kneading her hands together. For a moment she seemed to shrink into the shadows: head bowed, shoulders hunched, protecting herself in case I turned her away. ‘Six months ago he got on to the Tube at Gloucester Road. And he never got off again.’
Twenty minutes later, we were sitting in a café on Long Acre. Liz had taken my car and gone home, doing a good job of disguising her curiosity. She’d seen enough in the eight months we’d been dating to know this wasn’t how it normally worked. I liked some sort of plan in place before I met the families; liked to know who they were, and where they were coming from. But, with Julia Wren, there was no plan. She was a blank.
We ordered coffees and sat at the window, neon signs smeared in the drizzle, the sky black and swollen. She laid the printout on the table, manicured hand across it as if scared it might blow away. Often, they were caught halfway between expectation and fear: expectation that this might be the moment their loved ones came home; fear that it would be in a body bag.
She glanced at me, tucking a cord of red hair behind her ear. I couldn’t tell yet if she was naturally timid or just nervous. ‘I read that you used to be a journalist.’
‘In a past life.’
‘Did you enjoy it?’
‘It definitely had its moments.’
‘You got to travel, I expect.’
‘I got to see a lot of the world, but it was more like a busman’s holiday.’ I smiled. ‘With added warzones.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘The States on and off for five years. South Africa before and after the elections. Israel and Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan.’
‘You must have seen some things.’
An image formed in my head: running for my life through a South African township, bullets ripping holes through the air, bodies scattered across the road, blood in the gutters, dust and debris and screams of pain. ‘Let’s just say you gain an appreciation of what people are capable of.’
She paused. Rocked her head from side to side as if sizing up her next question. I knew what was coming. ‘Did you give it up because of your wife?’
‘Yes.’ I didn’t offer anything more. ‘Why don’t you tell me about your husband?’
She nodded and produced a photograph from her bag. ‘This is Sam.’
He was in his late twenties, had bright blue eyes, fair hair and a nose that seemed too big for his face. He was unusual-looking, but not unattractive. In the picture he was dressed in a black suit and red tie, and standing in the front room of a house. At a guess, he looked about five-nine, but a little underweight. The suit didn’t fit, and there were minor hollows in his cheeks where his skin seemed like it was pulled too tight. I made a note to ask her about that later: people were underweight either because they were ill, weren’t eating enough – or had something to worry about.
‘When was this taken?’
‘Six months ago. Tenth of December.’
I pulled the photograph in closer. There was a Christmas tree reflected in one of the windows. ‘How long after this did he disappear?’
‘He was gone six days later.’ She paused. ‘The sixteenth.’
About two hundred and fifty thousand people went missing every year in the UK, and while two-thirds of them were kids under eighteen, the next commonest group was men between the ages of twenty-four and thirty. Sam Wren was a perfect fit for the statistics. The reasons why adult men went missing were often predictable – relationships, financial issues, alcoholism, mental illness – but the resolutions normally weren’t. Many were reported missing long after they’d disappeared, when it was impossible to pick up the trail. And even if that wasn’t the case, even if they were reported missing within a day or two, they had often planned their escapes in advance, given thought to their route out, and had a fair idea of how to cover their tracks. Sam had been gone six months and, as I looked at the photograph, I imagined – at the moment it was taken – he’d already firmed up his exit strategy.
I gestured towards the picture. ‘Tell me about the day he disappeared.’
She nodded but then paused. This is where it started, where it began to unravel, where the road split, and eventually she was either lying next to him in bed again or standing over him in a morgue.
‘He left a little earlier than normal,’ she said, starting quietly. ‘Usually he was gone by about 7.20, 7.30. That day, it was 7, 7.10.’
‘Any reason why?’
‘He just said he had a lot of work on. That wasn’t unusual. He’d often head off at that time on the days he knew were going to be busy.’
‘What did he do?’
‘He worked for an investment bank in Canary Wharf. He advised people on where to put their money – stock, shares, that kind of thing.’
‘Which company was that for?’
‘It’s called Investment International. I2 for short. It was set up a few years back by a guy Sam worked with at J. P. Morgan. They’d been to university together. Sam had originally gone into the graduate programme at HSBC but never really liked it, so his friend helped him make the move to JPM, and then got him involved at I2 as soon as it got off the ground.’
‘Was the company doing okay?’
She rocked her head from side to side. ‘Not great. They’re a relatively small company, so the recession hit them pretty hard. Sam’s wages were frozen at the end of 2010, and so were his bonuses.’
‘Did he still like his job, despite that?’
‘It was a bit stressful, but I’d say he liked it about as much as any of us like our jobs. He’d come home sometimes and tell me he’d had enough of it, but the next day – if things went well – he’d be completely different. I didn’t really look harder than that, to be honest. We all have ups and down, bad days and good days.’
I glanced at the photo of Sam again: the gaunt, thin features, the suit hanging off him, a faint look of disquiet in his face. Maybe there were more bad days than good.
‘So, he didn’t seem any different the day he disappeared?’
‘No. And, if he was, it was so subtle I missed it.’
‘You two were getting on okay?’
‘Fine,’ she said, eyes flicking to the window and then back to me. She didn’t elaborate. Instead she just sat there, looking for me to pick up the conversation and move it forward, the muscle tone changing at the side of her face; tighter and more rigid, like she was clenching her teeth.
I let it go for the moment, and decided to come back to it when I had a better feel for who she was and why she might sidestep the question.
‘Where do you live?’
‘Half a mile from Gloucester Road Tube station,’ she said. ‘We bought a place in a little mews about five years back. This was when Sam used to get bonuses.’
‘Are you still there?’
‘Yes.’ But there was a forlorn expression on her face now, like she didn’t want to be living alone in a house they’d bought as a couple. ‘I used to be the manager at a deli in Covent Garden, so most days, as long as he wasn’t too swamped with work, we’d walk to the Tube together.’
‘You don’t work at the deli any more?’
‘I was made redundant in March last year.’ She paused; and then her cheeks started to colour, as if she thought she’d second-guessed me. ‘Don’t worry: I’ll have enough to pay you. I’ve got another job now, at a restaurant in Bayswater. I’ve got some savings; money we kept for a rainy day. I figure this is the day we were talking about.’
‘I wasn’t worried about the money,’ I said.
But she just nodded.
‘How long were you unemployed?’
‘Almost eleven months.’
‘So you started working again early this year – January time?’
‘January the sixteenth.’
Thirty-one days after her husband disappeared. I wondered, for a moment, how that must have felt: starting a new career, a new part of your life, while the biggest part of your old one had vanished into thin air.
‘How did you both cope financially during the time you were out of work?’
She shrugged. ‘Sam’s bonus helped buy that place, but we’d still been lumbered with a massive mortgage, even by London standards. Suddenly we were in a situation where his wages had been frozen, he wasn’t bringing home anything extra and I wasn’t bringing home anything at all. You can cut out the restaurants and the clothes and the weekends away, but you can’t do without your home. Defaulting on our mortgage was the thing that worried us the most.’
‘What about now?’
She frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Can you pay the mortgage on your own?’
‘Sam didn’t take any money with him the day he disappeared, and he hasn’t taken any out since. So my rainy-day fund will last me another three or four months.’
‘And after that?’
A humourless smile. ‘Well, I guess I’ve just got to hope you find him.’
If she thought finding her husband would solve all their problems, she was going to be disappointed. If he’d gone for a reason, he’d purposefully removed himself from his marriage, his job and his life. There was no instant fix. If I found him, if he was even alive, things would never be the same as they were before.
I changed direction. ‘So, his commute was Gloucester Road to Westminster and then change to the Jubilee? Or did he get the DLR from Tower Hill?’
‘He changed at Westminster.’
‘The Circle or District?’
‘He never got the District?’
‘One of the reasons he left HSBC was because he didn’t really like the guys he was working with there. It wasn’t any massive conflict of interest, more that Sam just couldn’t take to them, and the way they worked. You know how you meet some people in life who, from minute one, you just know you aren’t going to see eye to eye with?’
‘That’s why he started looking for a way out of there, and that’s why he ended up moving to JPM to work with his friend from university.’ She looked at me, and could see the question in my face: Yeah, but why did he never get the District line? ‘Three of them lived in Wimbledon,’ she said.
‘So they used to get the District line.’
‘But the chances of them bumping into each other must have been minimal.’
She shrugged. ‘Sam got into a routine with the Circle.’
‘Do you think these guys had anything to do with Sam’s disappearance?’
She shook her head: absolute certainty. ‘No. It wasn’t anything serious. They just rubbed each other up the wrong way and it started making Sam unhappy.’
I noted that down. ‘When did you report him missing?’
‘The evening of 16 December. He never came home, I couldn’t get him on his mobile, and his boss had left a message on our answerphone wondering where he was.’
‘He hadn’t turned up for work at all?’
‘You went to the police?’
‘Yes. They were pretty thorough: wanted to know about his friends, relatives, his medical history, his financial details. They came to look around the house too, and even took away his toothbrush to get a DNA sample. When I told them that he hadn’t turned up to work, the officer said he’d check the CCTV footage from the stations too.’
‘But he didn’t find anything?’
‘No. He called and said they were in the process of requisitioning the CCTV footage from the Tube. A couple of weeks passed and I heard nothing. So, I chased him up and he returned my call a few days later. He said they hadn’t found anything.’
‘He said Sam didn’t get off the train again.’
‘And that didn’t bother him?’
There was a bleakness in her face. ‘I don’t know.’
‘What was the guy’s name?’
‘PC Westerley. Brian Westerley.’
They weren’t exactly bringing out the big guns for Sam’s disappearance, but then he wouldn’t have raised many flags at the Met: a man in his late twenties, good job, solid marriage, just about in the black, no history of mental illness. There wasn’t an obvious reason for him to go missing, which meant more manpower and more resources would be needed to find him. I’d seen the full force of the police emerge in the aftermath of a disappearance on another case, when a seventeen-year-old girl vanished into the ether. But she’d ticked three big boxes: white, female and a minor. Sam was different, his circumstances different. There was no media pressure and no headlines. The Met had palmed off his case on a PC, and it had been allowed to drift.
Despite that, there was still one massive question mark over this whole thing: how exactly did a man get on to a train and never get back off again? It might not have bothered Westerley enough to pursue it to its conclusion, but it bothered me.
‘I’ll call Westerley and see what he says.’
‘I hope he’s helpful.’
I doubt he will be. The last thing the police wanted was an outsider sniffing around trying to solve one of their cases, even if it was a low-priority one like Sam Wren. A detective I used a lot during my days as a journalist used to have a shelf in his filing system marked ‘DGAS’; as in ‘Don’t Give a Shit’. That was where the low-priority missing people, the drug addicts and the repeat offenders got stashed and forgotten about. But I’d never met a cop who didn’t start giving a shit the minute an outsider stepped into view.
‘Does Sam have any family?’
‘A brother. Robert.’
‘Is he here in London?’
‘He works here. But he lives in Reading.’
‘I’ll need his address,’ I said.
She reached into the handbag and brought out a diary. She’d prepared for this day; prepared for the questions I was going to ask. She leafed through it, found the page she was looking for and then ripped it out of the book. She set it down in front of me. It was a list of names – numbered 1 to 15 – of the most important people in Sam’s life. Each name had full contact details.
‘That’s everybody I could think of,’ she said.
Each name had an entry after it, headed ‘Relationship to Sam’. His brother was top, followed by friends and work colleagues. ‘This’ll work,’ I said, smiling.
I folded the piece of paper up. ‘I’ll need to have a look around the house.’
She nodded. ‘Whenever you need to.’
‘I’m working the morning shift. I’ll be home about two.’
‘I’ll be there for three.’ She gave me the address and I noted it down. ‘Can I take this?’ I asked her, and touched a finger to the photograph of her husband.
I nodded my thanks and pulled it towards me. Part of the reason for going to the house – apart from the fact that it was one of my routines; a way to understand the person better – was to find out if there were any older photographs of him. I wanted to see how he looked; if he had always been as thin as he was at the end.
My watch beeped gently. Eleven o’clock.
‘One last thing before I go,’ I said. Outside the rain had stopped and with it had come a strange kind of silence. No drizzle drifting against the window any more, no people passing in the street. She studied me expectantly. ‘If I start looking into this, there can’t be any secrets between us.’
Her eyes flicked to her coffee cup and up again. ‘Secrets?’
‘Any secrets, any conflicts that existed between the two of you, any problems Sam might have been having, I need to know about them. I’m not here to make a judgement on you. I’m here to find Sam.’
I let that sit there for a moment.
But she didn’t take the bait.
If she was lying to me, the lie would surface eventually. They always did. Usually families lied out of some misguided belief that it might affect how I did my job; as if my performance was based on how picture-perfect their life was. But the truth was, no life was perfect. Everyone had secrets.
It’s just some were buried deeper than others.
I walked Julia Wren back down Long Acre and then watched her disappear into the Tube station at Covent Garden. The streets were starting to empty now, the noise drifting away, a different, softer city emerging from the shadows. I took out my phone and thumbed through the address book until I got to the name I wanted: Ewan Tasker.
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