The Vanishing Game
Lena Cartwright’s son Peter had gone away for a weekend, on the pretext of staying with an ex-school friend, and when the two mothers met in Lena’s kitchen Karen Fenton suggested that her missing daughter Melanie might be with him. Lena’s response was to call Peter on his mobile. It could be heard ringing unattended in his bedroom.
Lena snapped her ‘phone cover shut in irritation. “No. No, it’s very unlikely they’re together. If you start thinking in that way, you might equally ask where Howard has gone. That would be ridiculous.” Lena instantly regretted the blunder: “Oh s**t, what made me say that? Karen I’m so sorry!”
“Don’t worry, I‘ve wondered that too – about Howard.” Karen acknowledged glumly. “I mean, bloody hell, that’s all you can do when you are in my situation; wonder and invent until paranoia takes over completely. And it has, believe me. Oh Melanie, where the hell are you?”
The friends stayed together for the duration of Lena’s sherry bottle. After they had parted Lena climbed the stairs to Peter’s room, checking his ‘phone for any tell-tale messages and trying to pick up the threads of her day. All she picked up, though, were seeds of doubt. Karen was unbalanced: it was palpable nonsense, wasn’t it, to suggest that Melanie and her son had absconded together? Yet, he had been so uncharacteristically secretive about his intentions before he left that morning, and it was so, so unlike Peter to go anywhere without his mobile. More and more ‘what ifs?’ stacked up before her, question upon unanswerable question. She indulged herself with twenty or so minutes of wanton self-destruction before returning to break into the reserve sherry bottle. By the time Bob returned from his parish duties that evening, she was almost leglessly drunk.
The train-ride was a long one. When he alighted at Manchester Piccadilly, Peter was already tired from the jostle of weekend travel, befuddled by his early morning awakening, and tense with expectation. The email had offered very little in the way of detail. What the hell was he supposed to do? He checked in his ticket and followed the stream of the disembarked as it moved towards the foyer. Everyone else had somewhere to go – taxis to take, buses to catch. He knew nothing about this northern city, had no idea where to go and only just enough money for a fast food lunch.
“Only one of you?” The voice behind him was cool and clear. “You must be Peter. I am honoured to meet you.”
The words belonged to a woman of about his own height: she was mature, possibly in her late forties, and dressed casually in autumn colours of camel and brown. “I’m Janice;” She explained in a comfortable voice; “I’m supposed to look like your mother.”
Janice did not waste time. Guiding Peter with a gentle yet insistent hand, she threaded through the crowded station and out into clear air beyond. The taxi stand was queued up with people waiting for rides, most of the cabs having already gone. One, however, with its “Out of Service” sign illuminated, stood at the back of the rank: it drove forward as they approached.
“This is ours.”
The taxi whisked them from the station into the troubled traffic of the city. Janice did not seem excessively alarmed at the absence of Melanie, although she took care to confirm that she had left no-one behind.
“Have you eaten?” She asked Peter.
They pulled over outside a Burger Restaurant. As they alighted from the taxi, Janice asked its driver: “Anything, Ben?”
‘Ben’ looked in his mirrors before giving a brief nod. “One.” He said.
Inside the restaurant Peter found a table while Janice paid for tray meals which they consumed, mostly in silence. Janice asked a few pleasant, meaningless questions: how were his studies going, what did he want to do when he left university, did he like living by the sea? Peter responded with small-talk answers that he hoped were appropriate. There seemed to be no real attempt to communicate, and no reference was made either to where he was going, or why he was there. Eager as he was to discover these things, Janice’s demeanour seemed to stall such questions. He doubted if she even knew what his final destination was.
“Now,” she said, when they had finished eating, “I think I need the loo. I expect you’ll be wanting to go, too, by now?”
Peter protested that he was not particularly in need, but Janice was emphatic.
“You have a long journey in front of you…”
“The message said it wouldn’t be far.”
“Nevertheless…. I’ll go first. You can go when I come back.”
Left alone in the restaurant, Peter wondered what the next move would be. Obviously his guide felt he could be trusted not to leave, or could it be that he was still being watched? How had Janice recognised him at the station? How many people, like the taxi driver, apparently, were involved in organising this journey; who were they, and were there more of them here? He looked around the busy tables, packed and clambered over mostly by children on their Saturday family routines, for someone or something which looked out of place, but everything, and everyone, looked normal. Harassed parents, groups of teens in animated conversation: one very fit-looking girl who caught his eye and smiled…
“Your turn.” Janice was back.
Chastened by the woman’s insistence, Peter wound his way through the throng to the restrooms. In doing so, he had to pass the girl, who gave him a shy glance. The facilities were partitioned from the seating area by a door opening into a short lobby with an expected but pervasive odour of disinfectant. Three clearly labelled doors lined the lobby’s left-hand side: ‘Baby Station’, ‘Women’ and’ Men’; a ‘Disabled’ bathroom was accessed from the right. A single fire exit door with a panic bar formed the end of the lobby. As Peter approached the Men’s Room a firm hand gripped his shoulder, propelling him forward. Alarmed, he tried to turn, allowed only a second in which to catch a glimpse of his assailant, a small, weathered man in a boiler suit, before he fell into, and through, the fire door.
Over his initial surprise, Peter recovered his equilibrium with lightning rapidity. In one sweeping turn he dislodged the invasive hand and rounded upon its owner, thrusting him back against the nearest wall and all but lifting him from his feet. The weathered-looking man raised one defensive hand “Whoa! Whoa! It’s alright, lad. Don’t worry! You were being tailed, see?”
Peter did not see, not immediately, but what he did see when he relinquished his grip was. the weathered man place the fire door’s detached panic bar and its fittings against the wall (“it were only on wi’ double-sided tape, like”) then strip the ‘Fire Exit’ transfer sign rapidly from the open door panel and substitute a smaller door plate from his pocket which read ‘Janitor’. A few curious eyes from within the lobby might have watched, but the process was so rapid and the door closed again so fast very few had a chance to take it in. Once latched back into place, the leathered man threw home three steel bolts.
“Take ‘em a while to get through those,” He said grimly. “Come on, lad!”
They were in a narrow, dimly lit stairwell with walls of naked brick. The stairs from it led only down.
Approximately a hundred metres from the fast food restaurant, parked very illegally, a van claiming to belong to a logistics company was not all it seemed. In the back of the van, Melanie’s putative step-father Howard had set up a temporary office. Wearing a Bluetooth set and perched upon a tiny stool, he was watching a pair of monitors.
“What’s happening?” He asked the screens.
Down the street a girl in a blue overcoat appeared to be searching for something in her purse. “Nothing. He went to the bathroom. He’s still in there.”
“She hasn’t come out. She went back into the restrooms a couple of minutes ago. Maybe she’s forgotten something?”
“Or she’s getting a bit worried because he’s been ten minutes…”
“Well, it could be um….?”
‘No,’ Howard thought, ‘it isn’t. I know this sinking, stinking, black feeling of failure all too well, and it isn’t number bloody twos!’ And he switched to the other screen with its view of an alley behind the restaurant. “Tom, anything?”
A huddle of clothes against the alley wall moved as the tramp wearing them acknowledged: “Nope, nothing.”
“OK, people;” Howard sighed. “Let’s go in. And I want the woman as well as the boy!”
Janice had waited for a precise measure of time before returning to the restrooms. She had, she knew, very little margin to complete her task successfully: but it had been rehearsed many times, so she was confident. She even managed to smile, distantly, at the fit girl who, because of her interest in Peter, also noticed her passing.
Two minutes later a dishevelled and tattered creature looking like a mad prophet barged through double doors into the open plan restaurant kitchen, to a concerted “Ooooh!” of surprise from crowds of Saturday diners. Simultaneously a woman in a blue coat entered briskly through the customer entrance, pushing between tables towards the restroom area. The prophet leapt with surprising agility over the counter to follow her, so swiftly that in a moment both had disappeared into the lobby, closing the door behind them. In the eating area, nobody spoke for a few seconds. Then, as the necessary activity of eating ensued, conversation crept back too. It was as if nothing had happened.
Meanwhile the blue-coated woman and the prophet were outraging public decency by slamming open doors to each of the private areas, questioning anyone they found. In the last of these, the Men’s Room, the blue-coated woman surprised a fair-haired man in a leather jacket, standing at a urinal. He glared at her:
“Wrong one, love. Yours is next door.”
“There was a tall teenager in here.” The woman rapped; “blue sweater, grey chinos. Did you see him?”
The blond man shook his head. “No. In here I tend to concentrate on what I’m doing. Are you deaf, love? Feck off, will yer?”.
Outside in the corrido woman and prophet coferred.
“It’s locked. We’d need a ram for that one.” They exchanged hopeless shrugs. Opening her handbag – something she seemed to have to do abnormally often – the woman said quietly: “He’s not here.” A series of expletives rang in her ear, so loudly that the man in the leather jacket, brushing past her on his way out, could actually hear them.
The prophet shrugged philosophically, “It’ll be a while before ‘Branch’ gets here,” he said, “Let’s do lunch.”
They returned to the restaurant, where, although they checked thoroughly, there was no sign of either Janice or Peter. The leather jacketed man, having apparently concluded his meal had left and it was a normal, busy weekend lunchtime, a milling chaos of young and old. The doors to the street were opening and closing constantly as a steady string of new supplicants to the broiler god entered, and sated worshippers returned to the street. The tramp inched into a space beside the fit girl, who glanced nervously at him and moved aside to provide more room. She was engaged in a mobile ‘phone conversation, which, had he listened, might well have interested him. The woman in the blue coat braced her shoulders as she left, preparing for her rendezvous with Howard.
Howard himself found it – at the back of the Men’s Room stall. Forced into a small cabinet which concealed the lavatory cistern was a supermarket carrier bag containing a wig, handbag, camel-coloured woman’s sweater, dark brown skirt and block-heeled shoes. The bag also contained a liberal amount of toilet-paper smeared with a fine, greasy mixture of make-up foundation and removing cream.
“We lost him.” He tried to imagine the expression on Jeremy Piggott’s face as he framed a reply.
“How?” Piggott rejoined quietly.
“A janitor’s cupboard door in the restroom area. We had to break it down with a ram eventually. It led to a basement car park. We followed when we realised, but he must have been long gone. He had an accomplice.”
“So, do you have the accomplice?”
Howard swallowed hard: “No, we lost her, or him, as well.”
That afternoon, Jeremy Piggott strolled in a peaceful Surrey garden with a silver-haired grandee, a senior who had long retired from the organisation he served. Maurice Shelley was a man in whom he occasionally confided, a cool head he turned to for advice whenever the regular channels of command were lacking. Now well into his seventies, Maurice had served a lifetime with the service as soldier, agent and coordinator. He was tall, still unbent by the ravages of time, with a hundred campaigns etched into each line of his craggy visage. His mind was as needle-sharp as it had ever been. He was the Old Man of Hoy: a rock standing steadfast in a moving sea of politics and intrigue, and Jeremy was one of many who still sailed, from time to time, to his door.
As Jeremy retold the failures of his day, the old man nodded sagely once in a while, listening without interrupting. A thoughtfully placed wooden bench hid among trees at the end of his garden, with an advantage from which it was possible to overlook the roofs of neighbouring houses. These were older, established houses, with gardens wherein older, established trees bore witness to the changing season. The leaves were just beginning to fringe with autumn yellows and browns.
“The colours are so subtle, aren’t they?” Maurice suggested they rest on the bench; “Tell me what you actually have on this boy?”
“Specifically? A sequence of events in which he appears to be pivotal. There was the picture….”
“Ah yes, the portrait from the sky…” The old man sighed, barely disguising his scepticism.
“…that first led us to him. Then our operative found the original file on the girl’s computer, implicating her, but nothing more. Enough to justify surveillance, which we did, of course, unproductively, for quite a long time – to a point where I was just about to pull the plug. I mean, maybe the whole falling paper thing was just a coincidence?”
“What altered your mind?” Shelley asked.
“Our operative inside Amadhi, who got wind of the Anzac Day assassination attempt, was terminated. She kept an audio diary on flash drives; her killer probably has one of them, but it might have been quite new. We found an older one which links her to our boy – she met him – and to a Rock guitarist, Vincent Harper. She kept those associations from us.
“There are other curious irregularities, A second girl – Lesley Walker. She’s very into our boy, and her background doesn’t scan. There’s his association with the first girl, who’s also disappeared and now we have a transvestite with a very professional organisation in Manchester – who could have abducted the girl as well, for all we know.”
“I would guess he’s just a stepping stone.” Maurice mused, “Is Amadhi directly involved?”
“None of the hallmarks. Only, I suppose, because it was their hit he fouled up. No, someone else wanted to draw our attention to the boy. There’s definitely a pattern behind it all, but I’ve no clue what it is!”
Maurice smiled. “I imagine you want me to tell you what I might do?”
“I’d value your opinion.”
The old man shifted his position: the wooden seat was hard and his bones not as well padded as they once were. “First, I’d ask myself why I wanted to do anything. Does this boy present a threat? Has a crime been committed, or is he likely to commit one? Or is this merely unsatisfied curiosity; in which case there are better uses for Service funds? Either way, there’s nothing you can do until the boy or the girl surface – as they will, eventually, one way or another. Then I suppose you might pull them in, apply a little pressure and see what they have to say for themselves. I’d try that. Evading surveillance is suspicious but it’s hardly a crime, so I’d only be pursuing enquiries and that picture links them pretty stoutly to the assassination attempt, doesn’t it?”
Jeremy considered. “And hold them for what? If I get nothing…” he shook his head.
Maurice asked quietly, “Why do you want them Jerry? Why, especially, do you want the boy?”
“Honestly? I think he has something important to tell us. He’s a messenger. Alice was trying to tell me about him before she was rubbed out, but her machine was too badly smashed to make out much…”
“So it’s a hunch, isn’t it? Hunches are notoriously unreliable old boy; even yours.”
“Not this time, Maurice, Not this time.”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
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