Vanished, p.5

Vanished, page 5

 

Vanished
 



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  In her face I could see the financial burden had weighed heavily on them both, but I expected the bitterness she felt at him leaving her on her own weighed even heavier. I saw the logic in everything she was saying; knew how a big mortgage and big bills could grind you down and spit you out, especially if you were down to one wage and that wage couldn’t cover everything you needed it to. But I had become good at reading people and, when I looked at Julia Wren, it was obvious there was more to it than that.

  I decided to play hardball. ‘What aren’t you telling me?’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘You know what I mean.’

  She stared at me, eyes locked on mine, but I knew I was right. If I’d been wrong, she would have been indignant; instead there seemed a kind of sad resignation to her, as if she felt I’d outwitted her.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said quietly. ‘I wanted to tell you last night but I just …’ Another pause. She looked up. ‘I feel responsible. Guilty.’

  ‘About him losing weight or leaving?’

  ‘Both.’

  ‘Why?’

  She shrugged. Another long silence. This time I could see her trying to put it all into words. ‘Our marriage was good. Great. That part wasn’t a lie. We’d been together seven years, married for four, and I can honestly count on the fingers of one hand the amount of serious fights we had. One, maybe two. And usually they resolved themselves pretty quickly. We just seemed to be on the same wavelength.’ She paused and laced her fingers together. ‘But in those last months, it became different. We started fighting. Niggly stuff at first, and always about his work. He just seemed to have become consumed by his job. I think he felt, because I wasn’t bringing anything in, and because his wages had been frozen and his bonuses phased out, he had to single-handedly find a replacement for the money we were missing out on.’

  ‘And how was he going to do that?’

  ‘Sam was one of those people who always felt like he needed to be doing more. He was his own harshest critic. If he wasn’t improving, going further, earning more, he saw it as some kind of failure. He hated standing still. So, the longer he went without the bonuses, the longer his wages remained frozen, the more it started to frustrate him, and the more hours he was clocking up while trying to put it right. That was when the niggly stuff started: I’d ask him what the point was of working long hours if he knew there wasn’t going to be a reward at the end of it.’

  ‘And what did he say?’

  ‘Nothing, really.’

  ‘He didn’t tell you why he was still working so hard?’

  She shook her head. ‘I was living the life of a single woman, feeling him slip into bed at eleven, and back out again at six. Some weeks we probably weren’t saying more than a couple of words to each other. It wasn’t a marriage any more.’

  ‘And it was never like that before?’

  ‘No. I mean, he always worked hard. He did his fair share of late nights. But there was always a compromise. We’d get away at weekends, or he’d come home early one day to make up for working late on the others. But not in those last six months.’

  ‘He never talked to you about it? The exact reasons why he was working so late all the time, who his clients were, that kind of thing?’

  ‘No.’ She brought her tea towards her and held it below her chin. ‘He’d always talked to me before. I knew his clients by name, I knew who they worked for and what he thought of them, because he always came home and opened up. He’d laugh about them, talk about the jokes they’d shared, the things they’d discussed, the places they’d been for dinner. He’d share his day with me. But, at the end, when I asked about why he was working so hard all the time, he’d just fob me off.’

  ‘By saying what?’

  ‘He didn’t want to bring his work home.’ She looked at me. ‘That’s all he kept saying to me: “Leave work at work.” So, I tried to come at him from a different angle. I tried to bring it up at weekends, casually, when we had a little time together; when the office wasn’t open. But he just refused to discuss it.’

  ‘But he wasn’t bringing any more money home.’

  ‘No.’

  ‘So, do you think he was working harder and longer hours because it was just the type of person he was – the type you just described him as being – or because he had some other venture on the side?’

  ‘Oh, I’d say the first.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘We had a joint account which I checked regularly when things began to change. There was no extra money coming in.’

  None he let you know about, I thought. I took down some notes, and then realized there was no easy way to phrase the next question, even though it was an obvious place to head. ‘Did you think he might have been seeing someone else?’

  For a moment she was taken aback, her eyes widening, her cheeks flushing, but she must have asked herself the same question. ‘Because he was working so many hours?’

  ‘Right.’

  ‘I really don’t think so.’

  ‘You never had any reason to suspect him?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘You didn’t entertain the possibility?’

  ‘I thought about it a lot at the start. I checked his email, checked his phone, but Sam just …’ She stopped, shook her head, then glanced up at me. Her cheeks coloured a little. ‘For a man, he didn’t have much of a sex drive. I mean, most men, it’s all they ever think about, right? The men I was with before Sam, they were always angling for it. But Sam was never like that, right from before we were even married. We used to have sex a couple of times a week to start with, but then it dropped off after that. By the end, we weren’t doing it at all.’

  I nodded and let her compose herself in the silence.

  ‘So why is it you felt responsible for him leaving?’

  She shrugged. ‘We fought.’

  ‘Everybody fights.’

  ‘But these weren’t just fights. These were screaming matches. I wanted to know what was going on; why he was working so hard when he knew there was no chance of earning any more money. So I kept chipping away at him, but the more I tried to find out what was happening, the more angry he got, and the more we fought.’

  I nodded, as if her reasoning were sound, but the reality was he wouldn’t have left because they were fighting. If you fought with your partner, you separated or moved on. You didn’t engineer your disappearance.

  ‘What about when you didn’t discuss his long hours?’

  ‘That was the weird thing: as long as we didn’t talk about it, as long as I didn’t try to find out what was going on, we got on brilliantly.’

  ‘How was he with friends and family?’

  ‘Exactly the same.’

  ‘No problems?’

  ‘Speak to Rob, his brother. See if he says anything different. Sam may have said something to him – you know, brother to brother – but somehow I doubt it.’

  I changed tack. ‘He didn’t ever complain about feeling unwell?’

  ‘In what sense?’

  ‘In any sense.’ I nodded towards the last picture she’d taken of him, thin and pale. ‘I just want to be sure I’m not missing anything.’

  She shook her head. ‘Sam didn’t get ill much. And when he did, he rarely let it affect him. He even went into work when he had shingles.’

  ‘Any favourite places you guys used to go to?’

  She thought about it, but not for long. ‘Not really. At least, not the kind of place he might disappear to. We liked to holiday, but that all stopped after I lost my job.’

  ‘Did he owe any cash to anyone?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Any problems with alcohol or drugs?’

  ‘Definitely not.’

  ‘Anyone he fell out with in those last six months?’

  Again, she shook her head.

  I’d been through the list of names she’d given me, and the two best angles seemed to be his brother and his work. Julia had painted a picture of a reliable, de
cent man, one not prone to big mood swings or changes in character. Yet something had altered. In his work, in how he dealt with his wife, he changed completely in the half-year before he vanished. He got secretive. Stressed. Lost weight. And, ultimately, whatever had been eating away at him was enough for him to leave one morning in the middle of December and never come home again.

  10

  At the top of the stairs, there were three doors. The first opened up into a small, smartly decorated bathroom, all black slate tiles and chrome fixtures. Adjacent to that was a spare room that probably looked the same the day the two of them moved in: plain cream walls, curtain poles without any curtains attached, no furniture except for a desk and a leather chair, and a PC. The third was their bedroom. It was small but unusual: the ceiling was slightly slanted, dropping down the closer to the window it got, and a series of shelves had been built into a V-shaped alcove on the far wall. The room looked out over angled red roofs to a residents-only park, gated and locked, and dominated by huge oak trees. It was hot and stuffy: the window was closed, and sunlight was streaming in across the bed.

  All of Sam’s clothes were still in his wardrobe, but everything he’d once owned was a mess: shoes were piled up at the bottom, clothes were half on hangers. Julia had left it exactly as it was; all she’d done was close the doors and seal it off from the world. I turned to his bedside table. Inside one of the drawers were four different novels by four different authors, each with a bookmark about halfway in. In the next drawer down was a shoebox full of gimmicky boy toys: corkscrews, alarm clocks, beer mats, battery-powered lumps of plastic that looked like they’d come from an expensive Christmas cracker. She’d called him spontaneous – but, in missing persons, spontaneity meant you didn’t place a lot of importance on routine. It meant you were impulsive, moved around, started things but didn’t finish them. Four half-finished books also suggested he was finding it difficult to concentrate.

  Sam wasn’t a creature of habit, and that would immediately make him harder to find. People who thrived on routine left a footprint: the same route in and out, the same stop-off’s along the way. It seemed likely he’d thought about disappearing in advance, because you didn’t just walk away from a marriage, a home and a job on a whim. But I doubted he’d made the decision to actually follow through with it until he got up on the morning of 16 December. There were big question marks, though: why didn’t he take any money with him? Why was he working so late for no obvious reward? And how did he exit a train without being caught on film?

  Underneath the bed were some empty suitcases, a box of dusty LPs and a pile of photo albums. I pulled the albums out and started to go through them. They were the trips abroad Julia had mentioned: New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Prague. Not a beach in sight. City breaks would have suited Sam’s working life as they’d mean less time out of the office. They probably also suited the type of person he was. Seven days on a sunlounger would have driven him insane.

  Sliding the albums back under the bed, I did a last circuit – going over everything again – and then made my way across the landing to the spare room. Thankfully, it was cooler. Sam’s PC was Alienware, built for gaming, and on top of the hard drive were a pile of games. I sat down and booted it up.

  On the desktop was a folder, created three months before, where Julia had placed all of Sam’s files. Word docs, spreadsheets, gaming software and a couple of illegally downloaded films. I fired up the web browser and started going through the history. Most of the recent pages shared a similar theme: my cases. A tabloid account of one I’d had the October before showed a picture of me emerging from my house:

  He’s a private investigator who doesn’t waste his time trying to trap cheating spouses and get to the bottom of insurance scams. Instead, publicity-shy Raker is an action man who has been labelled ‘Mindhunter’ for his ability to track down some of the country’s most vicious criminals.

  It was a complete lie. No one had ever called me that or was ever likely to, but I understood why Julia Wren needed to believe it.

  As I continued to move through the internet history, there was a jump of three months, presumably between the first time Julia had started searching for someone to help find Sam, and the last time Sam had used the computer. He’d custom-set his internet history so that it remembered the last 350 pages, regardless of how far back they were logged. The date of Sam’s last session was 11.12 p.m. on 15 December – the night before he vanished – and the last site he’d been to was an Arsenal fan forum. Not exactly indicative of a man contemplating his disappearance – if he was even contemplating it in the first place. There was always, in the background, the possibility that something else had happened to him. An accident. A desperate decision. Something worse than both. No evidence supported those theories, and nothing so far backed them up. But, as I scanned the rest of the links in his internet history, the idea didn’t entirely fade.

  11

  Once I was back home, I returned to the CCTV footage. This time, rather than watch it in Quicktime, I opened the Gloucester Road video in a custom-built film-editing suite Spike had passed on to me during one of my first cases. In that one I’d been trying to spot a woman entering her place of work in some footage I’d shot, but she’d been so far away all I could see was a vague blur. The software, built by Spike, allowed me to select a portion of the video and zoom in for a closer look. The quality of the recording didn’t become better – in fact, it became much worse, which was the reason I didn’t use it a lot – but, once you’d pinpointed the person you wanted to track, it allowed you to follow them more easily, even if all they were at that kind of magnification was a blur of pixels.

  I selected the area around Sam and then used the zoom function, stopping about 50 per cent of the way in. The quality of the recording deteriorated, and his features became less defined, but by cutting out the noise around him – the other people, the detail of the Tube station – I was able to follow him on to the train before he disappeared from view. This was the point at which I’d lost him the first time. Now, though, the zoom function allowed me to identify a thin red tag on his briefcase – little more than eight or nine pixels in length – and a couple of seconds after vanishing, the briefcase, along with the red tag, reappeared: Sam was standing midway inside the carriage, hidden behind a sea of legs.

  But he was there.

  The briefcase and his legs were all that was visible, which was why I’d missed it the first time: his trousers were the same colour as 95 per cent of those around him, and without the red tag it would have been impossible to tell which briefcase belonged to him. I inched the video on a frame and the doors started to close. At the very last minute another commuter made a dive for the doors and managed to sneak on, and after that Sam finally did disappear from view: his legs, his briefcase, any indication of where he was in the carriage. My impressions from the first watch were right: there was no way he could have moved from where he was. There were too many people around him, too much traffic either side to transfer between carriages, which meant, when he moved between stations on the Circle line, he would be in the same place. And I’d have the red tag.

  At South Kensington and Sloane Square I struggled to make him out, but when the train pulled into Victoria I picked up the briefcase again. He’d shifted position, closer to the doors. He was half turned, luckily with the red tag facing out towards the camera, but he was definitely still on the train, standing still as people got off and on around him.

  I moved on to St James’s Park.

  And that was when he disappeared.

  The carriage was still packed, so – again – it was unlikely he could have swapped to the ones either side of his, but I couldn’t see the tag, or anything recognizable as Sam. I moved to Westminster: played it and replayed it, magnifying the open doors of the carriage further with the zoom function. Nothing. At Westminster there was more going on – a bigger crowd, Tube staff funnelling protesters, then the fight – and, a
t one point, Sam’s carriage even emptied a little as people stepped out to see what was going on further up the platform. That was the point at which he should have been visible, even without the zoom on.

  But I couldn’t see him anywhere.

  I paused it and moved between passengers: those at the doors of the carriage looking out at the fight, and then the clumps of protesters stepping around them. Beyond that, a few remained inside. A man in a suit, his face buried in a book. Another demonstrator in a red shirt with checked sleeves, reaching down to pick up a protest sign. A woman with headphones on, blissfully unaware of everything. Through the scratched, reflective glass of the carriage, it was difficult to make out their faces, but I knew instantly neither of the men left behind were Sam. Both of them were taller, weightier and older, dressed differently with different colour hair. And as the footage moved on, the second man – the protester – left the carriage anyway, sign hoisted up, moving quickly to catch up with the others.

  Somewhere, somehow, I’d managed to lose Sam.

  As I got to Hammersmith for the second time with no further sign of Sam, the house was starting to get dark. I glanced at the clock: 9.30. I was fried. I closed the footage and shut down the Mac, then showered. As the cool water ran down my face, my mind rolled back once again to what I’d seen, and then over everything Julia Wren had said earlier. I didn’t need to have seen him on the footage to move things on: I already had Sam’s work, his brother and the obvious loss of weight. The case was already shifting, and would do so with or without the recording. But the video was a useful starting point and, in an odd way, a symbolic one; a means of zeroing in on Sam’s physical location that day, and – in the moment he exited the train, wherever that might have been – a way to get inside his head.

 

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