When private eye Pamela Andrews and her daughter, Anna, are chosen to investigate a high-profile case concerning the whereabouts of a missing girl, they wonder why. They're hardly household names and no one really expects them to succeed. Then the penny drops - they've just been cast as headline-grabbing eye-candy. With no help from the police and nothing much to work on it soon becomes a daunting mission. Hunting down an abductor is one thing, becoming the next victim is quite another.
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By Mike Uden
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2013 Mike Uden
All rights reserved.
WELL, YES, OF course I've heard of her.'
And so started my involvement in the very strange case of Su A; or, perhaps, the very strange case of the disappearing Su A. This was a missing person case that, having immediately hit the local press, had briefly gone national, featuring in a documentary where a furrowed-brow investigative journalist had suggested, controversially, that the British police put greater resources behind missing Brits – particularly white, middle-class, attractive ones – than missing blacks, Asians and foreigners. After that she'd slipped slowly out of the nation's consciousness, turning up briefly on another crime-time special about young runaways and then a couple more times in the local press. Since then, nothing.
And there I sat, some three months later, in my little office-above-the-shops, with an impassively faced Korean in front of me, asking if I'd heard of her. So yes, of course I'd heard of her. What I hadn't said, of course, was that she was probably dead by now. Most girls who go missing for that length of time turn up – assuming they ever do turn up – as a decomposing corpse in a shallow grave.
Su A Kim (the 'A' was not an initial, but part of her name – and pronounced softly, as in 'cat') was a twenty-four-year-old South Korean student attending an English-language school in South London. On a wet Saturday in September she and five of her friends had taken the bus from Kent House to Bromley, before spending the afternoon traipsing around The Glades shopping centre (CCTV footage available), walking to the Market Square, sitting in Costa sipping coffees, then walking back to the bus stop (more CCTV) and taking the bus back home. Except Su A, that is. She'd said goodbye, then walked around the corner towards another bus stop, for the 162. This bus takes a far less direct route, but does drop off nearer her landlady's doorstep, and it was tipping down at the time. Unfortunately, although the 162 should have had CCTV, this one didn't. All we do know is that she never arrived home.
No one had been charged; no one had even been detained. Precious little in the way of evidence too, forensic or otherwise – just the disappearance. Could she have absconded? Unlikely. She was a foreign student with very little English and no local connections. In fact, apart from her landlady and a few fellow students – all also foreign – she knew no one. Girls like that just didn't disappear. Unless ...
There was just one, very tenuous lead. After she had left her student friends, one of them – a fellow Korean called Chen Choi – had allegedly received a frantic phone call from her. The single Korean word, mudang. This, apparently, means fortune teller. And this may well have been the main reason it was newsworthy in the first place –'Missing Su in Fortune Teller Mystery' being a headline writer's dream.
You may notice that I said Chen Choi allegedly received this mudang call. This is because he then left his mobile on the bus. Brilliant.
'But, er, Mr Hye ...'
'Hyeon-gi,' he prompted, before spelling it out letter by letter, then suggesting I just call him Ko.
'Yes, well, Ko, why would you want me to look into something the police are still in the middle of?'
'In the middle of?' he laughed. 'Sixteen weeks is hardly "in the middle of", is it?'
'Well, these things do take time.'
'You sound like the police.'
'Maybe that's because I was once. And once a copper ... Seriously, though, they may be closer than you think – often are.'
'And often aren't too. In this case, anyway.'
'What makes you say that?'
'Because I represent her family and if anyone knows, they do.'
I thought for a while: 'OK, but I'm honestly not sure getting me involved would be helpful. Or appropriate.'
'Well, while the case is still open, I mean. While the police are still working on it.'
A slight flicker of irritation, a tiny stiffening of his jaw, told me that my taking the police's line on this didn't exactly please him. 'What you mean, Ms Andrews, is that your police are sooo wonderful –' He was slightly hamming an American accent for the sooo wonderful '– that we foreigners should just trust you all implicitly.'
'Well, that's not exactly what I meant, no ...'
'You know, when a young English girl goes missing abroad –' He then looked at me, paused, and added '– in Portugal, say. There doesn't seem to be such reticence, does there? Your investigators are on a plane within the week.'
'OK, fair point,' I said. 'But why me?'
'Why not?' he asked, shrugging. 'You're local, you're a private investigator, and as you said – you're ex police.'
Again, fair point. But there was still something that didn't quite ring true about this guy. Perhaps he was just a little too smug. Or it could even have been what he was wearing. You may laugh, but character-wise, these things count. You see, I sort of mistrust collarless tops. Don't know why, but it's clearly not just me. Cat-stroking Bond villains, Nazi storm troopers, bogus mystics, dodgy clerics – not a collar between them. And this Mr Ko Hyeon-gi, under his expensive jacket, was wearing a collarless shirt, with mother-of-pearl buttons – done right up to his neck.
He left my office as civilly, if perhaps slightly creepily, as he'd entered – giving me a damp handshake at my office door.
I went back to my desk, sat down and thought. Should I or shouldn't I? He'd made it pretty clear that if I didn't, someone else would. In fact, even if I said yes, he might still take his trade elsewhere. He was the buyer, I was the merchandise – that much was clear.
I needed to weigh up the pros and cons. Firstly, it would be a massive change to my normal line of work. Like other female investigators – of which there aren't too many – my mainstay was partner surveillance. Stock-in-trade for my market. After all, if a woman suspects there's something dodgy going on in her relationship, it's the one time she definitely won't be trusting men. I could confide with her too, in a way men simply can't. So part detective, part agony aunt. Anyway, send a thief to catch a thief. I've been there. I'm a divorcee.
I slid my notepad towards me, turned to a blank page, drew a line right down the centre, put a plus sign top left and a minus sign in the top right. I then added the word 'Different' to the positive column. I thought for a moment. Is doing something different always a positive? No. So I wrote the word 'Different' in the right-hand column too.
Next consideration: money. What he was offering was crap – totally unrelated to any advertised rates. One whole month of looking into every aspect of a very cold case, with the police obstructing me at every turn. In the real world, there are no Holmes and Watsons. Private investigators don't have cosy chats at crime scenes. Nor do they stoop over bodies in morgues, check forensic evidence through microscopes or leaf through police interview transcripts. In fact, I cannot think of anyone less welcome in a police station than a private detective. Criminals get a better reception! And for this fruitless and frustrating task I would receive the princely sum of one thousand pounds. Thank God for police pensions.
So I wrote 'Money' in the negative column.
On the other hand, it was money – and I had no other work on. So I wrote 'Money' in the positive column too.
Next: publicity. Did I want it; did I need it? Mr Hyeon-gi had made it pretty clear that it was his trump card – why he could offer me, and any another other agent he was chatting up, such a paltry sum. So if I didn't take it, some other private dick (how apt) certainly would. OK, the Su A case was no longer exactly hot news, but it was news. In fact, thinking about it, that could well be part of her family's thinking. Employ an agent, tell the press, and stoke it all up again. But at fifty-four years of age, I certainly didn't need stoking up.
I scribbled 'Publicity' in the negative column. I leaned back on my chair. Outside, bare winter trees shivered against a winter sky. Would it only be negative? I would probably never, ever get a chance like this again. Even if it only made local TV news – me leaving my front door, files under one arm, a briefcase in the other. Would that be so bad? Anna, for one, would be proud. Her old mum making a few waves.
Then a luscious if rather infantile thought flashed through my mind. David. My ex. The same David who had originally left me because he was 'suffocating' and 'in a rut', who 'wanted a challenge' and 'needed extending'. Funny the way men only seem to become extended and de-suffocated with woman fifteen years their junior, isn't it? Especially – and I must confess to a touch of bitterness here – when the so-called suffocater is trying her hardest to keep reasonably fit and young looking – watching her weight, going to the gym and looking vaguely stylish. And especially when the suffocatee has a beer belly and no dress sense. Well, since then, apart from de-suffocating himself with his young 'challenge' on a Goan beach for six months, he'd done precisely nothing – back in Blighty, suntan faded, patchouli evaporated, hippy sex-friend gone. Oh yes, and no house – I get the semi, he gets the bedsit. Childish thought, but delicious. His suffocating little in-a-rut wifey turning up on TV.
So I quickly jotted 'Publicity' on the plus side and looked at the paper. Three pros and three cons. All identical.
I needed some air. I put on my coat, locked up my office, and descended, via the rickety stairs, to the street. The sky was turning from a cold grey to an even colder, if clearer, blue. I walked the short distance to the park, taking the path which climbed quickly and steeply, from the built-up little valley in which I live and work, to the windswept open space at the top of the hill. I had done this many times before – even jogged it – but still found it tough.
Huffing and puffing inelegantly – it really is a steep hill – I flopped down on a bench and, looking up, took in the view. Below me was my suburban valley. Rising from that – in semis and terraces – were a thousand people's lives. You only need a small proportion of them – say one per cent – to screw up so badly to keep the likes of me employed permanently. Perhaps I should simply forget this case. Wait for the next relationship wreck.
I raised my eyes further, to the skeletal peak of the Crystal Palace mast. Not exactly spectacular, but strangely uplifting. You could almost imagine an ancient BBC logo spinning around it and a scratchy newsreel soundtrack.
You know, there was one very good reason not to take this assignment. It would fail. Definitely. If the police had drawn a blank, given their resources, what earthly chance would I stand? I would end up a failure, if not in the eyes of the public – which didn't bother me – then definitely in the eyes of my old police colleagues – which did. Not only would I fail, I'd fall out with them. And I didn't need that.
So, finally, would I take it? Absolutely not.CHAPTER 2
'I'LL TAKE IT ... if the offer's still open, that is.'
There was a brief, tinny silence on the end of the line.
'Well, yes ...'
'So am I ... I mean, are you still considering hiring me?'
'Well, yes ... yes.'
'Good,' I replied, not entirely convinced it was good. 'I do have a couple of questions though.'
'Well, I suppose they're not so much questions as, well, conditions – of employment, I mean. You see, I've spent a lifetime working for the police, so I obviously know how they ... and I'm not prepared to take this on unless ... unless it's with their full knowledge. I won't say their consent or cooperation, because they won't give either. In fact they'll probably be, well ... unhelpful. But with their knowledge.'
'OK, makes sense. Frankly, we couldn't keep it secret anyway.'
'Yes, exactly. But what I mean is that I'm not prepared to work against them.'
'I wouldn't dream of asking you to, Ms Andrews.'
I told him he could call me Pamela and he reminded me to call him Ko. So all nice and cosy, then.
'The point is I'll only take this on if I'm allowed to disclose everything ... to the police, I mean.'
'Of course – I'd like to think you would.'
'And I promise you I won't – we won't – get anything back. Because that's the way it works. I've been there. I can see it from their perspective – but that won't stop me telling them everything I know.'
'OK, I can understand why you'd want to keep in with your old friends.'
'Never mind old friends, I just want to keep within the law.'
'Quite so. No problem. And er ... was there something else?'
'Yes, you said you had a couple of points.'
'Oh yes. You see, I don't want this to turn into some kind of media circus. If I can do this without it being all over the TV, I'd be far happier.'
(Breathing apart, another long silence.)
'That's going to be a bit of a tough call.'
'I don't see why.'
'Well, simply because ... surely it'll find its way into the papers anyway?'
'Maybe it will, maybe it won't. But there's no need to encourage them, is there?'
Given the silence that followed, yes, apparently there was. I would even go so far as to say that getting the media back on board could be his – and therefore presumably Su A's parents' – prime motive.
And if it was, I suppose I could see their point. First they lose their daughter, now they were losing the public. What had started with sympathy was fading into indifference. And the tragedy is, I can see how and why.
In Britain, as in most places, when a pretty girl goes missing, it tugs at the heartstrings. And in Su A's case, being a foreign pretty girl – here to learn English – it made it worse. After all, she trusted us, she chose us. We feel additional guilt – like hearing that a tourist's been mugged on the Piccadilly line – but far, far worse. We feel partly responsible. So yes, it's newsworthy.
But slowly, something else takes over. The subtle xenophobia. The hidden racism. Su A was different. That face looking back at you from your morning newspaper doesn't look like your daughter's face. And slowly, but not that slowly, she's pushed to the back of our minds.
So where, in this big picture, did I come in? Well, what Ko Hyeon-gi was confirming, despite his best attempts to the contrary, was a little niggle that had been growing in my mind since before I'd decided, after all, to take the job.
Yes, he'd chosen me because I was cheap and probably he'd chosen me because I was local, but mostly he'd chosen me because I was a woman. A woman that (hopefully) looked half-decent, or at least a bit different. That would put it back on the front pages. After all, women detectives are a bit of a novelty, aren't they? And maybe, just maybe, a woman could help push up the ratings, get a bit more airtime. Ideally they'd have gone for a cross between Cheryl Cole and Jordan, but ex-policewomen tend not to look that way. So beggars can't be choosers. If they can't find foxy-chick detectives, they'd go for glamorous grans.
My guess is that he doesn't, for one minute, expect me to get anywhere on this case. Finding Su A, or her body (let's face it, it's a murder by now) would remain the police's job. I was just eye candy – albeit fifty-four-year-old eye candy, if that isn't a contradiction in terms. That was my take on it. Unless I was being over-suspicious – which I have been known to be. It's in my job description, after all.
I could have, perhaps should have, voiced all this to Hyeon-gi – in a very diplomatic way, of course. But I didn't. And the reason I didn't was not cowardice, not even solicitousness. It was because – as I sat there, phone in hand, listening to him going on about some big press conference he wanted to give, while gazing out over winter treetops – my mobile phone suddenly rang.
Illuminating the screen, as it vibrated on my desk, was the most important name in the world: Anna. My daughter. She always came first. So I gave him a half-baked excuse, promised to ring him back, and just about managed to catch her call before it switched to voicemail.
Excerpted from The Sacrifice by Mike Uden. Copyright © 2013 Mike Uden. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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