Thursday, May 19, 2005

Missing Persons

As she entered the Ferris Row police station, Fiona Peterson experienced the strange sensation of having stepped across the threshold of another world entirely and she almost turned around and walked back out to the safe familiarity of the street. She actually halted for a second or two before shrugging off the feeling, putting it down to a slight disorientation brought on by worry and lack of sleep. God knew she had plenty to worry about. Later, she would be fretting a thousand fold and regretting bitterly not reacting instinctively and fleeing while she had the chance; but with the benefit of neither hindsight nor clairvoyance she carried on along the dark, tunnel-like corridor towards the sergeant who sat bathed in light at the far end behind the venerable wooden monolith that was his desk.

According to the Missing Persons Helpline, over two hundred thousand people are reported missing every year in England, and while it's true to say that the vast majority of them turn up safe and sound about ten minutes later, there are still several thousand who don't. The disturbing truth is that people simply disappear, never to be seen again.

Most, I suspect, have their reasons. They have financial and/or marital problems and find the prospect of a fresh start with a new identity rather attractive. Some, I would hazard, having made themselves unpopular for one reason or another, lie in shallow graves in the great forests to the east or beneath the cold grey waters of the Channel. And then maybe there are those who've been cut into little pieces and fed to the pigs on a farm just outside Abergavenney. But I wouldn't know anything about that.

"Good morning to you, pretty lady. Now let me guess. You've lost something. Am I right?" The sergeant looked down patronisingly from an imposing height upon Fiona Peterson, who was so unused to being addressed in such an inappropriate fashion that she turned around to see who might be behind her.

"What? No, I . . . how dare . . . who the . . . well yes, look, I suppose I have."

"I can tell by the sadness in your pale blue eyes, my lovely. Tell me now, was it stolen from outside the library, was it? That's the usual place, you know."

"What? Stolen? No. It's my husband. He's been taken away. Kidnapped. Abducted." The sergeant actually laughed.

"By them old aliens was it now, Missus?"

"No it wasn't! It was by four men in white coats, actually! They burst into our house! They said they were taking him to the Clapham Lunatic Asylum! On the authority of His Majesty the King!"

She spat out the ridiculous words, painfully aware of the hysteria in her voice, knowing that the sergeant would by now have taken her for the lunatic. But the mocking humour died in his eyes, to be replaced by an oleaginous courtesy worthy of an undertaker angling for a handsome gratuity.

"I'm sorry. Please, Madam, come this way." He came around from behind the desk, almost bowing as he gently and solicitously took her elbow. He led her through a door, along a corridor and round a corner, before ushering her politely into a windowless room with a table and two chairs.

"Please wait here, Madam." He closed the door and she heard the metallic clanking of a key being turned. She tried the handle but it wouldn't move. She was locked in.

She pounded her fists repeatedly against the cold, unyielding metal of the door, shouting until her voice was hoarse; but no-one came and she heard nothing by way of a reply, just the faint and distant echo of cruel, masculine laughter.