“I’m just glad you’re taking me seriously,” Megan said as she sat in a side-room at the police station. “I was worried you’d dismiss me out of hand.”
In the distance, phones could be heard ringing.
“We’re going to help you find your aunt,” the female officer replied as she made a couple of notes on the form. “Are you aware of any health problems she might have been experiencing lately?” She paused for a moment. “I guess I’m trying to find a tactful way to ask about dementia.”
“She was sharp as a pin,” Megan replied. “Sharper than anyone I know, actually. Besides, she was only sixty.”
“It can hit at any time.”
“She wasn’t losing her mind.”
“What about financial issues or lifestyle problems?”
“Anything that might have affected her mood. Money, family arguments…”
“She wasn’t suicidal.”
“I had to ask.” Making a few more notes, the officer turned the form over. “You were right to come to us. From what you’ve told me, I can understand why you’re worried about your aunt. At the same time, I want to assure you that nine out of ten people who vanish end up being found safe and well. The cases you hear about on the news are just the worst case scenarios, the ones that go badly. Most people do come back.”
“Even sixty-year-olds who’ve been gone for weeks?”
The officer forced a smile, but it was clear that she knew the odds were low.
“I can have someone come out to take a look at the flat this afternoon,” she said. “The first stage is to ask around, see if anyone saw anything. If your aunt has email addresses or social media accounts, we can check to see if they’ve been accessed recently, and we can do the same with credit cards and phones. Can you give me the address?”
“It’s flat 801 at Marshall Heights.”
“Marshall Heights?” The officer looked up from the form and fixed her eyes on Megan, and in a split second something about her demeanor seemed to have changed. “Did you say Marshall Heights?”
“You know it?”
“I…” An uncomfortable pause followed, before she put the lid back on her pen and got to her feet. “Would you mind waiting here for just one moment?” She pushed her chair back under the desk, letting the legs scrape against the floor in the process.
“What’s wrong?” Megan asked, but the officer was already at the door and she headed out into the corridor without saying another word. “Hey -” Megan called out, but it was clearly too late.
Sitting back, she took a deep breath and tried to organize her thoughts. Reporting her aunt missing was the right thing to do, she knew that, but it also formalized everything and made the situation much more terrifying: something was really wrong, and she was starting to wonder if the situation might have been different if someone had come to check sooner. She thought back to the discussions that had taken place a week earlier, when her mother had first asked her to take a trip to London so she could check up on Patricia.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” she remembered telling her mother. “There’s no need to panic.”
“I know, but this isn’t like her,” her mother had replied. “Please, Megan, you’re the only one I trust to do this.”
“I can’t go today,” she’d insisted, “or tomorrow. Maybe after that.”
A shiver passed through her body as she found herself wondering if that small delay might have made all the difference. If only she’d dropped everything and headed to London sooner…
“Ms. Booth?” said a voice suddenly.
Turning, Megan saw a male officer entering the room, while the female officer remained out in the corridor, watching with a concerned look in her eyes. It was as if the mention of Marshall Heights had caused her to bring in the heavy guns.
“Hi,” Megan said as the male officer sat down. “I guess you’ve been told what this is about.”
“I have,” he replied, taking the half-completed form and looking at it for a moment, before turning it over and setting it down as if it was no longer relevant. “Your aunt is missing from her flat at Marshall Heights, I believe.”
“She’s been gone for a while now.”
“You must be very worried.
“I am, and -”
“It’s a difficult situation.”
“But there’s nothing we can do to help you.”
She stared at him.
“I’m sorry?” she said after a moment.
“The situation as you described it to my colleague doesn’t merit a police intervention at this point in time. I hope you’ll understand. I hope you find your aunt soon.”
“But she just -” Looking over at the door, she briefly made eye contact with the female officer before the woman slipped away along the corridor. Turning back to the male officer, Kate was shocked by the determined, blank stare in his eyes, and she felt as if an immovable obstacle had suddenly been placed in her way. “What is it about that place?” she asked finally.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Do you just refuse to investigate anything that happens at Marshall Heights?”
“We have a statutory duty to investigate any and all reports that are -”
“I saw what just happened,” Megan continued, interrupting him. “I was getting help until I mentioned Marshall Heights, and now suddenly the door has been slammed in my face. It’s like you’ve both just shut down shop on me.” She waited for a reply. “I want to speak to someone else.”
“You’ll get the same answer.”
“Why? Are the people at Marshall Heights somehow subhuman and not worthy of protection?”
“Ms. Booth -”
“My aunt is a sixty-year-old woman,” she continued, trying to quell the panic that was sweeping through her chest, “and she’s out there somewhere. She might be hurt, or lost, or worse, and you can’t just ignore her. She might be dead in a ditch somewhere, or wandering confused and alone…” With tears in her eyes, she waited for the officer’s stony countenance to change, but he seemed impervious to her pleas. “You can’t ignore this,” she said finally, desperately.
“No-one’s ignoring anyone. When did you last see your aunt?”
“I live in Cornwall so -”
“Hundreds of miles away. So you have no first-hand proof that she’s missing at all.”
“All her things are still in her flat.”
“Ms. Booth -”
“Her purse is there!”
“Maybe she has two.”
“She’s an adult,” he continued. “Adults are free to do as they wish, and they’re under no legal obligation to inform family members of their movements. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh but, well, it’s true. Unless I see something to suggest that she’s in danger or that something untoward has happened – and I see absolutely nothing to suggest that, by the way – I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. My hands are tied.”
“And you’re wasting police time, Ms. Booth.”
“I’ll…” Pausing, she realized that there was no way he was ever going to help her. “I’ll be back,” she said finally, glancing at his badge. “I’ll remember your name, too. If you think you can get away with this, you’re wrong. I’ll be back and when I can finally prove that something has happened to my aunt, I’m going to put in a complaint about you.”
“That is your right,” he replied with a forced smile, “but let me ask you one thing, Ms. Booth. Why now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why have you suddenly started caring about your aunt?”
She stared at him, barely able to believe what she’d heard.
“You said your family hadn’t heard from her for weeks,” he continued. “Seems to me, none of you cared about this woman until it was too late. Maybe if you’d made more of an effort, if you’d bothered to keep in touch regularly or to come and see her from time to time, things wouldn’t have progressed so far.”
“She lives in London,” Megan stammered defensively. “The rest of us are in Devon and Cornwall. It’s a five hour journey.”
“I know it’s hard,” he added, leaning back in his chair with a faint smile, “but still, I’m sure she would have appreciated the effort. From what I can tell, your entire family seems to have left this woman to rot, and now you feel guilty.” Getting to his feet, he took one final look at the report form before tearing it down the middle. “You can’t ignore an old woman for years and then report her missing just because she’s not where you thought you left her. Maybe she stopped waiting for one of you to give a damn, and she went and got on with her life. Maybe she didn’t bother to let you know because she realized the truth. You didn’t care.”
Stopping as she walked away from the police station, Megan turned and saw to her surprise that the female officer was hurrying after her.
“I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry,” the officer said as she stopped. Glancing back at the station for a moment, she seemed nervous, as if she was worried she was being watched. “It wasn’t my choice to turn you away like that,” she continued, turning back to Megan. “It’s just… as soon as Marshall Heights gets involved in any case, we kind of treat it differently.”
“We just do.”
“But why?” Megan asked, her frustration starting to show once again. “What the hell is wrong with that place?”
“It’s just developed kind of a reputation,” the officer explained. “When we got calls about Marshall Heights in the old days, we’d go out there and…” She paused, and once again she looked back to check no-one was watching her, before turning to Megan again. “There are some things that maybe just need to be left alone, if you know what I’m saying. I’m so sorry that your aunt is mixed up in this, but you have to understand that there is no way that looking into this is going to bring her back. When people disappear from Marshall Heights, they…”
Megan waited for her to finish the sentence.
“I’m not saying it’s right,” the officer continued after a moment. “I know it’s not, it’s wrong, it’s terrible, but… There’s really nothing to be done.”
“How can you say that?” Megan asked. “You don’t know what’s happened to her, she might be dead!” She paused as she noticed the look of concern in the officer’s eyes. “Or do you know what’s happened?”
“Ms. Booth -”
“Do you know? Or do you at least suspect something? Either way, you have to tell me.”
“I don’t know anything,” the officer replied uneasily, “except that bad things happen at Marshall Heights and it’s best not to poke that hornet’s nest too hard in case more bad things happen. I know that means people get hurt from time to time, but maybe that’s just the price we have to pay, you know? Maybe that’s how things have to be.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this,” Megan told her. “I thought you were supposed to help people.”
“We do, and one of the best ways of helping people right now is by leaving Marshall Heights alone. You should get out of there too.”
“Or the boogeyman’s gonna get me in the middle of the night?”
“Or you might regret it, that’s all. Ellis…”
Megan waited for her to finish.
“Ellis… what?” she asked finally.
“I’m trying to help you,” the officer replied, taking a step back. “I’m sorry, I have to go before someone notices I’m out here, but whatever’s happening at Marshall Heights, you can’t fix it. People have tried before, but it’s best to just leave it be and accept that some things can’t be fixed. If you want my advice, you’ll get away from that place while you still can, and you’ll try to persuade as many other people to go with you as possible. If there’s anyone left there, at least.”
“But that doesn’t -”
Watching as the officer hurried away, Megan realized she seemed to have stumbled into something that had the entire local community terrified. Reaching into her pocket for her phone, she figured there was only one person who could tell her the truth. Before she could bring up the number, however, she felt another hint of discomfort in her belly, as if something was gently making its presence felt. She waited for the sensation to pass, and as soon as it was gone she told herself that there was nothing to worry about.
In the back of her mind, however, a nagging voice kept telling her that maybe, just maybe, a miracle had occurred.
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