The strangest memory of my childhood concerns my father's disappearance.
This is what I remember:
It was late September. I was nine years old, and my sister Heather was seven and a half. Although summer was officially over and we'd been back at school for weeks, the weather continued warm and sunny, fall only the faintest suggestion in the turning of the leaves, and nothing to hint at the long Midwestern winter yet to come. Everybody knew this fine spell couldn't last, and so on Saturday morning my mother announced we were going to go for a picnic in the country.
My dad drove, as usual. As we left Milwaukee, the globe compass fixed to the dashboard--to me, an object of lasting fascination--said we were heading north-northwest. I don't know how far we went. In those days, car journeys were always tedious and way too long. But this time, we stopped too soon. Dad pulled over to the side of a country road in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing but empty fields all around. I could see a farmhouse in the distance and some cows grazing in the next field over, but nothing else: no park, no woods, no beach, not even a picnic table.
"Are we here?" asked Heather, her voice a whine of disbelief.
"No, no, not yet," said our mom, at the same moment as our dad said, "I have to see a man about a horse."
"You mean dog
," Heather said. She giggled. "See a man about a dog, not a horse, silly."
"This time, it might just be a horse," he said, giving her a wink as he got out of the car.
"You kids stay where you are," Mom said sharply. "He won't be long."
My hand was already on the door handle, pressing down. "I have to go, too."
She sighed. "Oh, all right. Not you, Heather. Stay."
"Where's the bathroom?" Heather asked.
I was already out of the car and the door closed before I could hear her reply.
My father was only a few feet ahead of me, making his way slowly toward the field. He was in no hurry. He even paused and bent down to pick a flower.
A car was coming along the road from the other direction: I saw it glinting in the sun, though it was still far away. The land was surprisingly flat and open around here; a strange place to pick for a comfort stop, without even a tree to hide behind, and if my dad was really so desperate, that wasn't obvious from his leisurely pace. I trailed along behind, making no effort to catch up, eyes fixed on his familiar figure as he proceeded to walk into the field.
And then, all at once, he wasn't there.
I blinked and stared, then broke into a run toward the place where I'd last seen him. The only thing I could think of was that he'd fallen, or maybe even thrown himself, into some hidden ditch or hole. But there was no sign of him, or of any possible hiding place when I reached the spot where he'd vanished. The ground was level and unbroken, the grass came up no higher than my knees, and I could see in one terrified glance that I was the only person in the whole wide field.
Behind me, I heard shouting. Looking back, I saw that a second car had pulled off the road beside ours: an open-topped, shiny black antique. This was the car I'd noticed earlier coming along the road from the other direction. My mother had gotten out and was now in agitated conversation with a bearded man in a suit, a woman wearing a floppy hat, and two girls.
My mother called me. With a feeling of heavy dread in my stomach, I went back to the car. Heather was still in the backseat, oblivious to the drama. Seeing me approach, she pressed her face to the window, flattening her nose and distorting her face into a leering, piggy grin. I was too bewildered to respond.
"Where's your father, Ian?"
I shook my head and closed my eyes, hoping I would wake up. My mother caught hold of my arms and shook me slightly. "What happened? Where did he go? Ian, you must know! What did you see? Did he say anything? You were with him!"
"I was following right behind him, then he wasn't there," I said flatly.
"Yes!" The cry came from the woman in the old-fashioned car. She nodded eagerly. "That's exactly what happened! He just winked
out of existence." She snapped her fingers in emphasis.
"I was watching the road, of course," said the man, sounding apologetic. I had the feeling he'd said this before. He cleared his throat. "So I didn't exactly see what happened. But I had noticed two figures in the field, a man and a boy, and when I looked again--just after Emma here cried out--there was just the boy."
My mother's face settled into an aloof, stubborn expression I had seen before when one of us kids, or my father, was being difficult. It meant that she wasn't going to waste time on argument.
"Take me to him, Ian," she said. "Show me exactly
where he was when you lost sight of him."
I did what she said, although I already knew it was hopeless.
We searched that whole field, over and over again, at first quietly, then, in increasing desperation, calling loudly for "Daddy!" and "Joe!" The people in the other car, the only other witnesses to what had happened, stayed with us to help.
Finally, when it began to get dark, we gave up, driving to the nearest town to report my father missing. Here again the people in the old-fashioned car were helpful: the man was a judge called Arnold Peck, his wife was a Sunday school teacher, both of them well-respected pillars of the local community--even their two solemn, pretty little girls had a reputation for honesty--and so the impossible tale of my father's disappearance was treated seriously. Search parties were organized, with dogs; a geologist was summoned from the university in Madison to advise on the possibility of hidden underground caves or sinkholes beneath the ordinary-looking ground.
But no trace of my father, or what might have become of him, could be found.
It's strange, after all these years, how vividly I still recall the events of that day: the heat of the sun on the back of my neck as I plodded around that desolate field; the smell of earth and crushed grass; the low buzz of insects; the particular shape and hue of the little yellow flower that my father stopped and picked before he started his endless journey; the despairing sound of my mother's voice calling his name.
What's really strange about it is that none of it actually happened.
My father did
disappear--but not like that.
My "memory" came from a book about great unsolved mysteries, which I'd been given as a present for my ninth birthday, just a few months before my father vanished. One of the stories in the book was about David Lang, a farmer from Gallatin, Tennessee, who disappeared while crossing a field near his house in full view of his entire family and two visiting neighbors one bright sunny day in 1880.
How long I believed I'd seen the very same thing happen to my father, I don't know. At least I seem to have had the good sense not to talk about it to anyone, and eventually the fantasy fell away like a scab from an old cut.
But there's another twist in this tale of unreliable memory.
More than twenty years later, when I'd gone about as deeply into the subject of mysterious disappearances as it is possible to go, I discovered that the story of David Lang's disappearance was a complete fiction, probably inspired by a short story by Ambrose Bierce, but certainly with absolutely no basis in fact. It first saw light as a magazine article in 1953, and was picked up and retold in dozens of other places. Although later researchers conclusively proved that there never was a farmer named David Lang in Gallatin, and that everything about him and his mysterious disappearance was made up out of whole cloth, the story still survives, floating around on the Internet, popping up in books dedicated to the unexplained, while other, genuine, disappearances are forgotten.
Although David Lang did not exist, real people vanish every day.
Let me tell you about some of them.Charpter Two
At the time, it felt more like the end, but looking back, I think this was the beginning:The body of a woman found in a South London park at the weekend has been identified as that of Linzi Slater, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who went missing more than a year ago.
As I read those words on the Guardian's
Web site, a terrible numbness spread through me. I read the opening paragraph again, more slowly, but it was still the same. Linzi Slater was dead.
The old leather office chair creaked as I leaned back, turning my eyes away from the screen. I wasn't ready for the rest of the sordid details. I stared, unseeing, at the wall of books to my left and heard the sounds of life that filtered into my dusty, cluttered office from the world outside. Laughter and applause from my next-door neighbor's television, the screech of air brakes from an HGV on the street outside, the more distant rumble and whine of a train approaching the nearby station. Life went on as usual. Of course, I had suspected for some time that Linzi was dead, but suspecting is not the same as knowing.
My throat ached. I found it hard to swallow. I felt sorry for the young girl I'd never known, sorry for her mother, and, more selfishly, sorry for myself. I had failed Linzi and her mother.
The police, it was true, had failed them, too, with less excuse. At least I could say I had tried. The police, with far more resources than I could hope to muster, had preferred to believe Linzi was in little danger. They had decided she was just another runaway. Young people go missing every day, and most of them vanish by choice. They run away from difficulties at home, or they go in pursuit of some barely understood dream. Linzi was sixteen, rebellious, moody, often truant from school. She had been seen last on a winter's evening within half a mile of her home, leaving a corner shop where she had bought a pack of cigarettes. After that, nothing, until a few days ago, when an unlucky dog walker had stumbled across a decomposing body under a bush in Sydenham Hill Woods nature reserve.
I'd been there often myself, since a school friend had mentioned it was a favorite hangout of Linzi's. She'd enjoyed the gloomy romanticism of the paths that wound past ruined houses and a disused railway cutting. I remembered the dim winter light, the smell of damp earth and leaves, the eeriness that always attaches to a place once settled and civilized, but now reclaimed by the wilderness. Reasoning that if she remained in London, Linzi might return to at least one of her old haunts, I had gone there several times. And as I'd tramped along those shaded woodland pathways I felt I was getting to know her, that just being there was bringing me closer to her. As it turned out, I'd been right, only not in the way I'd imagined. I must have walked past her hidden body more than once. She might have been dead within hours of vanishing. Almost certainly there was nothing I could have done to save her by the time her mother came to me three weeks later.
I read on, fearing, but needing to know how she had died. Murder? Suicide? An accident, even? Sydenham Hill Woods was a strange place to go on a winter's evening. It was a long walk--more usually, a bus ride--from Linzi's home, a destination for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon when the sun was shining. Still, people did do things on impulse--teenagers, especially.
Had it been arranged? Had someone asked her to meet him there, intending to kill her?
Another image came to my mind: a girl crawling through a low, hidden opening, into a cavelike space. I recalled reading about an early suicide attempt by Sylvia Plath: after leaving a note saying she was going for a long walk, she had crawled into the tiny, almost inaccessible, space beneath the house, with a bottle of pills, and huddled there, entombed, to wait for death.
Had Linzi been suicidal?
Her mother hadn't thought so. Janis Lettes, Linzi's mother, was convinced Linzi had no serious problems. Sure, she wasn't terribly happy at school, but there was nothing bad enough to make her run away. She'd been insistent that theirs was a close relationship, that she would have known if Linzi was depressed. As I recalled it, Mrs. Plath, too, had believed her relationship with her daughter was exceptionally close. But there would always be secrets even the most loving daughter didn't share with her mother, whether casual experiments with drugs and sex or the careful plans for her own death.
I heard the bubble and hiss of the coffeemaker in the next room and thought of getting myself a cup. Instead, I forced myself to read on, anxious to know how and why the girl had died.
But that was something no one knew yet. Forensic examination was under way. The next sentence shocked me.Police say they have not given up hope.
Linzi was dead--how could there still be hope?
I was soon enlightened. Despite its lead, this story was not about Linzi Slater. Not really. The great newspaper-buying public had never heard of her. Linzi's disappearance had been a local story. It never made the national news, never lodged within the general consciousness as some crimes did. Maybe, if she had been a couple of years younger, or prettier, with a matched set of middle-class parents, the hacks might have turned her into a cause celebre instead of ignoring her. But the press had not been interested in Linzi Slater when she vanished, and they weren't much more now. The point of this story was not that Linzi Slater's body had been found, but that someone else's hadn't.
This story was about the Nicola Crossley case.
Nicola Crossley, a fourteen-year-old from Kent, had vanished two months ago on her way home from school. Her parents had not come to me, or to any other private investigator, for help: they didn't have to. The police had made finding Nicola Crossley a top priority, and the media and public had responded. Her parents had made an emotive appeal for her return on television, her last-known movements had been reconstructed on a special episode of Crimewatch
, and her brother had set up a Web site devoted to gathering information he hoped would lead to her return. But, so far, every hopeful new lead had come to nothing. When an early-morning dog walker in South London stumbled across the decomposing body of a young girl, every journalist in the country had thought of Nicola Crossley.
Copyright © 2005 by Lisa Tuttle. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.