Chapter One: First Page
The leading cause of missing girlfriends – their boyfriends.
He knew that’s what they were thinking. From the detective’s tacit line of enquiry, to the stony wall of silence that had descended between Craig and his once-welcoming in-laws. Three months now, and they all suspected he’d played a part in Sophie’s disappearance.
Only Courgette believed him, and she was a cat.
Scratching his stubble, he ground up the sliding window and wedged it open with a length of bamboo. Down below the street was quiet. It was still early on a Sunday morning, the watery orange glow of the lamps not yet replaced by that of the rising sun. He had never woken this early in the old days. Never, and doubly never on a Sunday.
The old days. Three months and it might as well have been another lifetime already.
It wasn’t for the view that he’d opened the window. The apartment stank. Empty beer cans and crumpled packets of cigarettes lay strewn across the carpet, polka-dotted with various food stains. Each day he stared at the cleaning agency advert pinned to the corkboard, and each day he couldn’t muster the will to call them. What did it matter if the apartment looked – and smelled – like crap? He’d probably be in a cell soon anyway. He’d seen enough TV dramas to know that if the police couldn’t find evidence, they could always plant it. Finding answers for other people mattered more than finding answers for him, because there were more of them.
Courgette rubbed against his leg and mewed.
“Where is she, darling?” he asked. “Where’s mummy?”
The cat looked thoughtful for a moment, then began licking its paw.
General Sir Merrick McFarlan, Chief of the General Staff, sat in bed not sleeping. His wife, Nora, lay beside him snoring lightly and occasionally twitching. Over his thirty-eight years of active service, General McFarlan had seen people lose limbs and lives in the theatre of war, a term he detested, as though it were all an act and the actors might get up off the floor and go home afterwards.
As a result, he rarely slept soundly. For Christmas five years ago, Nora had bought him a bedside lamp in the shape of a luger. You turned it on by pressing the trigger. The lampshade resembled the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb.
Beside the bed was a pile of new and second-hand books. Some bought, some gifted, some read, many not. That particular night he was two-thirds of the way through Death and Destruction, the latest bestseller by the internationally renowned espionage writer Hugh Perrin. McFarlan had always enjoyed his work, but this particular novel disturbed him.
The story centred on Blane Jackson, a renegade UK Special Forces operative whose high jinks in Afghanistan and Iraq had proven a page-turner in the previous four books of the series. McFarlan’s finger hesitated over the pages of this one, though.
He read to escape. By all rights he should have reached for a Mills & Boon, not something which hit so close to home. In Death and Destruction, it seemed the author had taken his inspiration almost prophetically from current events. Blane Jackson was busy trying to rescue a BBC reporter from the clutches of a corrupt political regime hours before Britain and her allies pushed the red button on its capital city.
All week, McFarlan had been in meetings with the Secretary of State for Defence. Three journalists, two British independents and one Al Jazeera, had been kidnapped in Islamabad. Nobody was entirely sure what had happened to them, and most of the world’s media were distracted by ISIS’s attempt to blow the breasts off the Sphinx, claiming indecency. Close on the heels of the kidnappings, an unspecified number of extremists had stormed the Central Jail at Rawalpindi, decapitating half the inmates and releasing the other half if they promised to repent their sins and join the cause.
Time was running out for the journalists as it was running out for Blane Jackson. McFarlan felt an uncanny sense of empathy with Blane’s plight, and didn’t want to get to the end of the book in case the outcome was less than favourable. Despite telling himself bestsellers were bestsellers because they always had a satisfactory ending, he couldn’t ignore the cold prickle at the nape of his neck, the creeping suspicion that Perrin’s plot and his own were intertwined in some cosmic way.
Nora farted beneath the covers and McFarlan lowered the book, using his finger to keep his place. Tomorrow was going to be a long day, he really ought to get some sleep.
Perhaps just one more chapter…
Suzan stood in the car park, clutching Stephen King to her chest. She’d read it cover-to-cover, along with Elements of Style and 100 Ways to Write Badly Well. She knew the theory, but the big question was, could she practise it?
A steady trickle of students made their way through the doors of Clayton College. The girls looked young and willowy, the men retired. Family life kept women from literature at a certain age, but what brought men to it in later years?
Taking a deep breath, she headed towards the door. Lingering summer light made it feel much earlier than seven o’clock, transporting her back to her own days of college, meeting with girlfriends beneath the old oak in the quad, sharing a sneaky joint behind the janitor’s hut and dreaming of careers in human rights, hospitals in Africa, and expressive arts.
With the strip lighting of the interior came the stark realisation that most of her friends had swapped tie-dye for pinstripes and now ran the institutions they had rebelled against in their youth.
Well, this Head of Administration still had a streak of rebellion left in her.
“Hello,” she said to the girl on reception. “I’m here for the creative writing class.”
“B-thirteen,” the girl said, without raising her eyes from Facebook.
“Which way is—”
An arm shot up, one anorexic finger jutting down the hall, jerking twice to emphasize.
“Thank you,” Suzan replied, though she wasn’t sure she meant it.
The smell of floor cleaner and pastels assaulted her as she entered the art block. Pinned to the walls were collages and enlarged photographs of student day trips. There was an impressive one where the group seemed to be standing inside the ribcage of a dinosaur, marred by one red-head with a nose ring making the peace sign above her tutor’s head.
Nobody said welcome as she entered the room, though a few looked up and gave that thin smile which says I don’t know what I’m doing here either.
She returned with equal tepidity.
It was a struggle to squeeze behind the under-sized desk, her wide hips pressing painfully against the raised edges of the plastic chair. Age had no place in the dominion of the young. How much nicer it would have been to hold the class at the local library with its plump sofas and coffee shop.
Suzan placed her books in front of her and pulled out a pad and pen from her patchwork bag.
“Good evening, and welcome to the first creative writing class of the summer. My name is Adrianna Briggs, and I am your tutor for the next eight weeks.”
Adrianna was in her forties, weathering well. Her fading blonde curls were tightly moussed, a little lighter at the roots than the tips, but probably not dyed. She had a narrow chin and a pinched nose – everything angular. She clothed her slight figure in a simple black-and-white striped T-shirt with a black jacket and jeans.
She looked like a serious writer.
A little intimidated, Suzan fiddled with her pen and stared at the desk to avoid eye contact.
“This is a class for beginners, as it said in the brochure, so we’re going to take things slowly. There are two elements to writing well: technical finesse and imagination. Your story can be the most imaginative piece ever written, but that’s no good if people can’t get past the second page because of typos and tense shift. Then again, you can be grammatically perfect, but that counts for nothing if you’re boring.”
Suzan was fairly sure her grammar was consistent, but as for her imagination – well, it wasn’t something one often got to test at Barlem County Council.
“Now you know who I am, let’s go round the room and introduce ourselves.”
There were two Mikes, a Jonathan and a Paul, a Silvia, an Emma, and a Phoebe Gelber who had just quit her job working for a disability charity in order to pursue a career in journalism. Suzan came after Phoebe, clutching for enough to say to make herself sound interesting.
“Hello. I’m Suzan Amos. I work for the Council as an Administrative Manager.” God, half the room’s asleep already. “I, um, have a cat called Lewis and live over on Northwich Park. I like to read a lot, especially mysteries, so now I’d like to see whether I can write one as well.”
“You’d like to be a crime writer?” Adrianna asked.
“I’m not exactly sure. Maybe. I’m just exploring. I don’t really know yet.”
And with that, Suzan watched the last shred of interest drain from her tutor’s eyes.
Taking a pile of papers from her desk, Adrianna began walking down the line of tables, distributing one page to each student. Suzan held it up and turned it over, only to find that the sheet was completely blank.
“Tell me, how does this make you feel?” Adrianna asked.
“Terrified,” said one of the Mikes, laughing.
“Nervous,” agreed Paul.
“Excited,” chirped Emma.
“All of the above,” said Jonathan.
“Cull your adjectives.” Adrianna smiled at him. “But, good. You should be wary of the blank page. Anything can happen. This, writers, is where you meet yourself.”
Craig sat behind the wheel of his rust-red Micra, watching the entrance. The dashboard clock read 4:52, and Tara never worked late.
55, and bingo. He leapt out of the driver’s side and sprinted over.
“Tara, hey. Have you got a minute?”
The expression on her face stung. She looked afraid.
“I really shouldn’t—”
“Please, just two minutes, that’s all I’m asking.”
Her eyes darted to the door, now a bolthole back to the safety of her office. He watched that train of thought roll behind her eyes and on to the next station.
“Okay, two minutes. But somewhere else. It’s a dumb place to stand, outside a national newspaper. You know there are people in there who’d take your photo sooner than shake your hand?”
“I know. My car’s just over there.”
“And mine’s round the back.”
He didn’t argue. All those nights they’d been out drinking together, those barbecues at the old flat before he and Sophie had moved, the boozy lunches at Brannigan’s and the annual competition to purchase the most pathetic Secret Santa gift. All those little things that build a friendship, that make you feel safe with a person, that make you trust them – none of it meant anything now.
They slid into her silver saloon and she flicked the air conditioning on. Tara was a big girl. Big and bubbly. Life and soul of the party. She almost always wore red, matching handbag, matching shoes, gossip columnist with a penchant for political kiss-and-tells. Able to get anyone to talk about anything.
“Tell me one more time,” he said.
“Oh, hon. I wish I could tell you something different, really I do. But I’ve told you all there is.”
“Please, just one more time. Anything you remember.”
She sighed and closed her eyes. “Sophie came to work, just like any other day—”
“I don’t know, I can’t be specific. I guess nine-ish.”
“A little before, maybe? I dropped her off on my way to work, and I needed to be in before nine for a conference call. So maybe eight forty-five?”
“Fine, sure. Eight forty-five.”
“We chatted for a while by the coffee machine. Then I had to go. I had some edits to run before noon. She was leaning against the counter, dipping a Hobnob, when I left her. We had lunch together at the Slug and Lettuce, then there was a staff meeting in the afternoon. We were all a little sleepy by that point—”
“Who was at the meeting? Did anyone act differently?”
“What? No. I don’t think so. It was just Jerry, you know him, he’s the chief editor. Shanley and Doreen, they run features. Patrizia from fashion, David from advertising, and Jessica from accounts. No one was acting weird.”
“No one was looking at Sophie, talking to her more than usual?”
“Not that I noticed. Like I said, we were all in the after lunch flump. No one was talking much at all except Jerry, and he never shuts up.”
“Okay, okay. After the meeting, what happened?”
“You know what happened. I went out to meet a source. Sophie stayed home and typed up her article on youth unemployment. She was still at her desk when I got back. She told me it was almost finished by five o’clock, so she picked up some papers Jerry had given her, put her handbag over her shoulder, and said, ‘See you tomorrow’.”
“Only, she didn’t.”
“No,” Tara said, lowering her eyes to her lap. “No, she didn’t.”
“What were the papers?”
“A couple of books and some notes. She’d recently taken over the book review section from Carla, who’s on maternity leave. She was good at it, actually.”
“Yeah, I read that review of Death and Destruction she wrote. I didn’t think it was her kind of thing, but she was up half the night pre-release.”
“Maybe we didn’t know her as well as we thought.”
He let the sentence fade without a response. He refused to entertain the idea that Sophie had some secret, other life. He refused to allow any doubt to enter his mind over who his girlfriend had been. He absolutely refused to believe that she’d left him.
“There’s nothing else at all you can remember? Anything, any small thing?”
“No, Craig. I’ve told you. And what’s funny, the more I repeat the story, the more I begin to doubt I lived it, so stop asking me unless you want my brain to make up stuff that never happened.” He held up his hands in a sign of defeat. “All I know is that she was there that day, but she wasn’t the day after that, or the day after that.”
“Thanks,” he muttered, opening the passenger door.
“Wait,” she said, reaching out to put her hand on his arm. “Where are you going?” He shrugged. “Well, take care of yourself. You don’t look so good. Get some sleep. Maybe a shave? Whatever happened, I’m sure the police will get to the bottom of it.”
She stopped short of saying Call me if you need to talk, though he felt sure she would have said it to Sophie if it had been him gone missing.
He nodded and left.
By the time he reached the block of apartments, an impressive storm was rolling in. He stood before the tower of white tiles and reflective blue glass. Lightning cracked behind and he half expected the building to grow legs and walk off like some dystopian idol.
It was hard to believe this had once been their dream. A swanky new-build apartment downtown. Five minutes’ walk from her newspaper and his office. A view out across the city, and stainless steel everything. They’d saved for months for the deposit, scraping together the means to escape their dingy one-bed studio flat in the burbs. Now, their dream home filled him with dread.
Inside, the lights overhead buzzed fluorescent, but the lift was out. As with all chocolate box apartments, it looked so tempting from the outside, but two months in and they’d started to discover issues. Damp patches and plumbing, mainly.
Taking a deep breath, he started up the stairs.
By the time he got to the top floor, his brow was bathed in sweat. The aching in his calves left him acutely aware of how little he had moved in his new life. He stretched his legs to make them hurt a little more. The pain helped to lift the fog from his mind.
Fishing in his pocket, he pulled out the key he had copied before handing everything back to the estate agent. He couldn’t afford to stay there on a single salary, and he didn’t want to. Every item of furniture, every colour choice, every piece of cutlery reminded him of Sophie. They’d chosen everything together.
Of course, her parents had treated his decision with suspicion.
“You’re moving out so soon?” Valerie had asked. “What if she comes home to find you gone?”
“When she comes home, I’m sure she’ll still remember where her parents live,” had been his terse reply.
Now he wasn’t so sure. Images of Sophie came to him, her blue dress tattered and torn, her pretty afro caked in mud, her bare feet bloody as she clawed at the door. Had she been back? Had she tried to come home to an empty apartment? Was she wandering the streets somewhere, lost, hurt, afraid?
He bit the back of his hand to make the images go away, using his free hand to knock. After a moment he slipped the key into the lock and twisted. The apartment was exactly as he’d left it, though their own scent had been Gladed out of existence.
Strangely, the apartment felt smaller without any furniture. There was more space, yes, but less life.
He stood by the window for a moment. It stretched from the floor to the ceiling, looking out across a network of roads pulsing traffic through the city. He could see a tramline and a railway line, large radio antennae transmitting invisible thought waves to the outer reaches of the metropolis.
Eventually he made a slow sweep of each room. He opened every draw, ran his fingers along every skirting board, and even lifted the lid on the toilet cistern. He didn’t know what he was expecting to find, but it wasn’t there.
Nothing was left of their life together. It had vanished with Sophie.
Pulling the door closed behind him, he walked back along the corridor to the stairs. He noticed the light above the lift was back on, so he decided to risk it. Hell, if he got trapped in a lift and disappeared, who would honestly care?
Thumbing the G button, he watched the glowing red numbers counting down:
Stepping out of the lift, he watched his reflection grow larger in the plate glass door. As he pressed his hand to its cold surface, he froze.
Had that just happened?