Authors: Jacqueline Ward
I know all the backdoors. I should do. Up until five years ago, I was responsible for closing them. I was originally brought in to monitor internal wrongdoing, and I learned all the little tricks of the trade that way. I learned advanced surveillance techniques. I know this area like the back of my hand.
I know where every camera is, where the holes in the mobile networks are. And by association, I know how they can be avoided by people who don’t want to be seen or heard. I’ve honed my skills. I never imagined in my wildest dreams I’d ever use them.
Right on cue, I get a call from Jack asking me for a report about the incident earlier, Ney Street and Bessy. I feel the tears return as I think of Bessy dying alone in that stinking mess.
‘Funny how you were right there, Jan, isn’t it?’
I nod. Even Jack knows my daily habits and the reason for them.
‘Right place at the right time. I’ve filed the report already. And before you ask, the back door was unlocked. That’s how I got in. Not even a break and enter without a warrant.’
‘Funny that, though, who leaves their back door open in this day and age? Great. Oh, by the way. We found further human remains at the property.’
I feign amazement now.
‘You’re joking. Who is it?’
‘A baby. Newborn, it looks like. Forensics are there looking for anything else.’
I panic for a moment, and go over me stealing the money again in my mind’s eye. What if one of my eyelashes had dropped onto the shawl? What if a stray hair had dropped in the bedroom? They can even detect tiny snot globules. Shit. I’m an opportunist thief, no better than the fucking lowlife working for Connelly.
‘Bloody hell. That poor woman was bad enough.’
‘That poor woman’s probably a child killer. So don’t feel too sorry for her.’
I take a breath and then let it out. ‘Innocent until proven guilty, Jack. Who says it’s her baby? You’re making big assumptions there.’
‘Yeah. I suppose. Anyway, I might need to talk to you further about this.’
‘OK. But just so you know, I’ve been assigned to Operation Prophesy. You know, with Special Ops, so I might not be available. All hands on deck.’
Except you, Jack. You don’t work with the big boys here at HQ, do you?
The silence is palpable and eventually he breathes out.
‘OK, Jan. I’ll be in touch.’
Aiden surfaces in my consciousness again and I make a plan. The money. The opportunity. Everything’s in place now. Everything I need to find Aiden. In only six weeks everyone’s forgotten him. No body, Mum and Dad divorced, area with high youth crime statistics, so everyone’s assumed that he’s just another teenage runaway. Everyone except me.
I’ve settled into a pattern of living that involves putting on a front at work, basic eating and sleeping, and an underbelly of deep grief over his disappearance. Two lives, merging into one in my nightmares about Connelly and his threats.
I feel bad about the money. I can’t put it back now, no matter how much I want to. It would probably have gone to Bessy’s son, the one with the Manchester United bedroom. Or would that be her grandson? Her son would be too old now to have a room like that. I don’t know, but I’ll keep my promise to find out what happened to her. It won’t take much interfering to find out about the baby and her life. Someone’s probably onto it, saving me the trouble.
For now, I’ve got to keep up the façade of Operation Prophesy. It’s going to be difficult, because, underneath it all, every waking moment is focused on getting my son back.
I wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. I go downstairs and get a drink of milk, because something in milk helps people to sleep. Something in mother’s milk helps babies to sleep. That’s what the midwife told me when Aiden was very young and screamed all night.
I look through the kitchen window and into the garden, where he used to play with Ruby, our little Jack Russell. Ruby’s gone now, and so is Aiden. His cat, Percy, is sitting on the wheelie bin and jumps down when he sees me. I let him in and bury my face in his fur. He’s all I’ve got left that’s Aiden’s. I pour some of my milk into a saucer and he laps it up as I stroke his head.
It’s two o’clock. I check my phone and there’s a message from Sal. Aiden’s dad. My ex-husband. The reality trickles back into my sleepy brain as I remember what has happened. Aiden had stayed over at Sal’s for the weekend while I worked overtime on a tricky case. I’d spoken to him on the Saturday morning; he’d been nagging me to get him a pair of expensive headphones. He’d told me that he was going out later, with some friends.
There had been a silence.
‘Just some mates.’
‘Anyone I know? Maybe you could give your dad a contact number?’
I couldn’t see him, but I could imagine him standing in Sal’s flat, frowning.
‘I doubt it. I’m not a child. I don’t need you telling me what to do.’
It had been my turn to pause. I’d thought about saying that I only cared because I loved him, and I wish I had now.
‘Yes, you are, Aidy. You’re fifteen.’
‘I’m sixteen next week.’
Sixteen. He’d reminded me that he was sixteen the next week then vanished. That was the last time I spoke to my son. Sal had called me on Sunday morning asking to speak to him, demanding to know why neither of us had bothered to let him know that Aiden was coming home that night. We still called this house home, all of us. It was home to all of us at one time. Now it’s just mine.
I’d waited until Sal had finished his shouting and accusing; I know how to handle him. Then I’d quietly stated my own case.
‘But he didn’t come here, Sal. He’s not been home.’
He went off on a tangent about teenage girls and Aiden’s friends and didn’t I know where my own son was. What kind of a police officer was I? What kind of a parent was I? All questions that I have continually asked myself ever since. But it’s futile when he’s like this to call him out now and remind him that he had Aiden that weekend. When the bickering finally stopped, Sal was silent for a full minute then spoke.
‘So where is he? What do we do now?’
I remember my mouth being very dry and feeling faint.
‘We should wait until teatime, give him a chance to come back. If he’s not back by then, we should phone the police.’
‘Yeah, great. But you
the police. Aren’t you going to do something?’
I did do something. Even though I knew it would be fruitless, I called all of Aiden’s school friends’ parents. I called my family and Sal’s family. At three o’clock, I heard a knock on the front door. He’d forgotten his keys. Been in a fight? Been mugged? Was he hurt? But it was Sal, all angry. I told him whom I’d phoned and we looked at each other, strangers now.
‘I suppose I’d better ring it in then.’
‘Yeah, you ring it in. Make a report. If anything’s happened to him I’ll . . .’
‘What? What will you do? Eh?’
My tolerance for Sal’s threats is zero. I’m used to being blamed for everything, but I don’t have to take it. We couldn’t even pull together with a crisis looming. He’s all red and huffy now, a sure sign that any minute he’s going to explode.
‘You. That’s the problem. You. Your fucking job. He’s probably run away because of you. You drove me away and now you’ve done it to him. Shit, Jan, this is down to you.’
If I were a different person I might have taken this on board and felt guilty, but I’m so used to Sal’s blame and shame routine by now that it bypasses me. I watch as he reaches into the fridge and pulls out a bottle of wine. He goes to the cupboard and gets one glass and pours. I turn away and dial the operation room number.
‘Hi. It’s Jan Pearce. Can I speak to Ian Douglas, please?’
The call is transferred and I wait. Eventually he answers.
‘Ian, it’s Jan. I’ve got a bit of a situation.’
Ian is the missing people guy at the station, the one who coordinates the searches.
‘Hi, Jan. You do know it’s Sunday, yeah? Only I’m round at family.’
I suddenly stepped back into reality.
‘I’m so sorry, Ian. Look, I’ll get uniformed out and file a report that way, maybe you could have a look at it tomorrow?’
I can hear children in the background, laughing. And music.
‘Report? Why? What’s happened? Are you OK?’
I’d swallowed back the tears. Someone asked if I was OK. The first time in ages anyone has bothered to ask.
‘No. Not really. Aiden’s gone missing. He hasn’t been home.’
‘Right. How old is he? How long’s he been gone?’
‘He’s been gone since yesterday teatime. He’s fifteen. Sixteen next week.’
I heard Ian walk into a silent area.
‘OK. And has he done this sort of thing before?’
‘No. Never. He’s never spent a night away from at least one of his parents. He’s round at his dad’s a lot. There was one time, after an argument, between me and Sal really, not him, that he stayed out at his friends but . . .’
There’s a silence as we both mentally latch onto the word ‘runaway.’
‘Any problems recently? Drink? Drugs? Arguments?’
I think. I hadn’t noticed any signs. I hadn’t noticed anything.
‘Not that I know of. What can we do?’
Sal’s on his second glass of wine and I need to get him out of here before he gets drunk. Ian pauses and then replies.
‘Wait. Just wait and see if he comes home tonight. He might have been to a party, or got in a car and gone somewhere and can’t get back easily. He might phone. Endless possibilities. But if he’s still gone tomorrow, call me first thing, OK?’
Tomorrow. No, not good enough. What about tonight? What if he’s not home by two, out there alone who knows where? I’m trained to stay calm, but I can feel hysteria rising.
‘What about tonight?’
‘Let’s wait and see. Stay there, see if he comes back. Let’s take it from there.’ I hear a voice, a small girl shouting ‘Daddy.’ ‘Look, I have to go now. I’ll speak to you first thing, OK. Don’t worry. He’ll probably turn up with a hangover later on. Bye, Jan.’
He’s gone. Back to his family party. Sal has gulped down the second glass of wine and he’s beetroot red.
‘So what are they doing? Are they going to look for him?’
I shake my head.
‘No. He said to wait, he’ll probably come back later. If he doesn’t, call it in tomorrow and they’ll assess it.’
‘Great. Well, I’m going out to look. Drive round, see what I can see.’
‘You’re over the limit, Sal.’
‘So fucking arrest me, then. Go on. Arrest me, so I can’t go out and search for my own son. Fuck off, Jan. Just fuck off.’
He left and slammed the door hard. So hard the whole house shook. Just like old times. That’s the thing with Sal. He can’t change. He had lots of chances to curb his temper, to stop blaming me for everything, but he didn’t.
I’d been in the police force when he met me, so it was no state secret that I was committed to my job. It was as if he was in direct competition with it from the moment we married, him finding increasingly more bizarre ways to make me stay off work.
When Aiden was born nine months into our marriage, I could sense Sal’s delight as I took a full year off work. He thought I wouldn’t go back, but I did. I couldn’t not. Instead of taking it easy, I worked my way up, juggling for all I was worth, and eventually it paid off. Better job, bigger salary, nice house.
Aiden was ten when Sal finally snapped and walked out. It hit us both hard. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on him to look after Aiden, and Sal tried to punish me by refusing to look after him while I went to work, or bringing him to the station at exactly the time I said I would pick him up.
He tried everything. Going for sole custody, trying to force me to work a nine-to-five. Being unreliable, so I was constantly late or absent. I’d known he would do this, but I also knew that if I weathered the storm, he would eventually do it for Aiden. And he did. He settled into one weekend every two weeks with Aiden, and half the school holidays.
I’d thought it would be a relief, some time to myself, but it was a nightmare. I’d miss Aiden and call him all the time when he was at Sal’s. That’s exactly why I’d called him the night he disappeared. To talk to him because I missed him.
Sal had left the bottle of wine on the kitchen side and I picked it up and smelled it. I’d bought it to cook with, and it smelled cheap and vinegary. I almost took a swig but stopped at the last minute. I needed a clear head. I sat at the table and pulled a green folder toward me.
It was full of receipts and business cards, bits of information I instinctively didn’t throw away. Bits of paper with threats on them, pushed through my door or pinned on my car. All from the same person, same handwriting, block capitals to hide the style, and the same paper, a creamy Post-it–size bond.
I keep them because I work a lot on instincts. It doesn’t make sense, that gut feeling you get, a sinking doom. But it’s real to me, and I felt it that Sunday. Ever since Sal had told me Aiden hadn’t come home I was itching to open the folder and finger the dirty pieces of paper. I knew, deep down, that this was something to do with Connelly.
Like everything that revolved around Connelly, there was no proof it was him. He had his cronies do all the dirty work. On Northlands he was considered some kind of mysterious benefactor, funding this and setting up that, and no one would believe that he was involved in crime. Just a local boy done good, creating jobs and funding community goodness.
But I think it’s him who has Aiden. It has to be. Someone had been threatening me alongside Operation Hurricane and now Aiden was missing. What else could it be?
We did as Ian said and waited until morning, me awake and Sal, who’d returned at ten o’clock, lying pissed on the sofa. I’d tried to get him to go home in case Aiden went to his flat, but he point blank refused, saying Aiden would come here if he wasn’t in.
The next morning Aiden wasn’t home and Sal went out to look for him again. I rang everyone and then I rang Ian.