When two eighteen-year-old girls go missing in Thailand, their families are thrust into the international spotlight: desperate, bereft, and frantic with worry. What were the girls up to before they disappeared?
Journalist Kate Waters always does everything she can to be first to the story, first with the exclusive, first to discover the truth—and this time is no exception. But she can’t help but think of her own son, whom she hasn’t seen in two years, since he left home to go travelling.
As the case of the missing girls unfolds, they will all find that even this far away, danger can lie closer to home than you might think...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Fiona Barton
SUNDAY, JULY 27, 2014
he call comes at three a.m. The jagged ring of the bedside telephone tearing a hole in our sleep.
I reach out a hand to silence it. “Hello,” I whisper.
Static whispers back to me. I press the phone harder to my ear. “Who is this?”
I feel Steve roll over to face me, but he doesn’t speak. The hissing static fades and I hear a voice.
“Hello. Hello,” it says, searching for me.
I pull myself up and switch on the light. Steve groans and rubs his eyes.
“Kate? What’s going on?” he says. “Who is this?” I repeat. But I know. “Jake?”
“Mum,” the voice says, the word distorted by distance—or drink, perhaps, I think uncharitably.
“Sorry I missed your birthday,” it says. The line fizzes again and he’s gone.
I look at Steve.
“Was it him?” he asks.
I nod. “He’s sorry he missed my birthday . . .”
It’s the first time in seven months that he’s phoned. There’ve been
three e-mails, but our eldest son told us early on that he wouldn’t be contactable by phone. Said he was freeing himself of all the stress that constant calls would bring. He’d stay in touch with us.
When he last rang, it was Christmas morning. We’d hoped he would be there with us, pulling crackers and making his lethal mulled wine. We’d suggested and then pleaded by e-mail, sending money by Western Union for a plane ticket when he seemed to weaken. He’d picked up the cash. Of course he had. But Jake had stayed away, man- aging only a ten-minute call on the day. Steve had answered the phone and spoken to him first while I hovered beside him; then he’d asked to speak to his little brother, Freddie, and finally to his mother.
I’d hugged the phone, as if I could feel the heft and warmth of him, and tried to listen, not talk. But he’d remained distant as the seconds counted down in a phone booth somewhere and I’d found myself turning inquisitor.
“So, where are you now, love?” “Here.” He’d laughed.
“Still in Phuket?” “Yes, yes.”
“And are you working?”
“Yeah, sure. Doing this and that.” “But what about money?”
“I’m managing, Mum. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
“Well, as long as you are happy,” I’d heard myself say. The coward’s way out.
“Yes, I am.”
After I’d put the phone down, Freddie had put a glass of prosecco in my hand and kissed my cheek.
“Come on, Mum. He’s fine. Having a brilliant time lying around in the sun while we’re sitting here in the slush and rain.”
But I’d known deep down he wasn’t fine. His voice had become wary. And that nervy laugh. He didn’t sound like my Jake anymore.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15, 2014
esley searched the inbox again. Just in case she’d missed it. She knew she hadn’t, but to stop looking would mean they had to act. They’d agreed. Malcolm stood behind her, watching her every move. She
could feel the tension radiating off him. “Anything?” he asked.
“I’m ringing the police.”
She nodded. They’d never had to ring the police before in all their married life. The police belonged to another world—the world they saw on television or in the papers. Not theirs. She was shaking as Mal- colm picked up the phone. She wanted to tell him to wait. To give it another day. Not to start this. Not to bring this into their home.
“Mal,” she said, but he looked at her as he dialed, silencing her. She could hear the hum of the fridge and a car passing by outside. Life going on.
“Hello, I’d like to report my daughter missing,” she heard him say.
That life was over.
“A week. We haven’t heard from her or the friend she’s with for almost a week,” he said. “Her A Level results came out yesterday, but she still hasn’t been in touch.
“She’s Alexandra O’Connor.
“Eighteen. Her birthday was in May.”
Icing that cake, Lesley thought. Didn’t look anything like Ed Sheeran apart from the red hair, but Alex had loved it.
She tuned back in to hear her husband apologizing.
“Sorry, I thought I said. She’s in Thailand, backpacking with her friend Rosie Shaw. Her last text message said they were still in Bang- kok.”
t took another twenty minutes for Malcolm to explain the situation, give his details, and listen to the advice. When he put the phone down he rubbed his eyes and kept his hands there for a moment.
“What? What did they say?” Lesley said, the panic making her voice loud and unlike her usual tone. “Who did you talk to? Tell me!”
Her husband jerked his head up and looked at her as if to reassure himself this was his wife, shrieking in their kitchen.
“They took down all the details, love. You heard me. I spoke to a woman officer. I wrote it on a bit of paper.” He reached over to the counter and picked up a Post-it note.
Lesley brushed it aside so it floated to the tiled floor.
“Never mind that. What did this woman say? What are they going to do to find Alex and Rosie?”
Malcolm stooped to pick up the piece of paper and put it back on the counter. Lesley wanted to hit him.
“Sorry, love, but we are going to need this.” He spoke slowly, as if she were an elderly relative. “She said she’s going to pass on the details to Interpol and we should ring the British embassy in Bangkok. That’s what they advise. But she said this happens a lot; young people going traveling and forgetting to contact their parents. She said it was early days and that we should try not to worry.”
“So she thinks it’s going to be all right?” Lesley willed him to say yes or nod. Let it be all right . . .
Malcolm shook his head. “She doesn’t know, love. We’ve to ring her if Alex gets in touch—or if she doesn’t in another week.”
“She will, won’t she?”
Malcolm pulled her to him. “Of course she will. She’ll want to know her A Level results. Tomorrow or the next day. She’ll turn up, like a bad penny.”
Lesley wiped her eyes with a paper towel and tried to look hopeful. “I’d better ring Jenny back,” she said, grateful there was something practical to be done. “I told her I would as soon as we’d spoken to the
police. She got a bit funny about it yesterday.”
“I think she’s as frantic as we are. Rosie’s her only one. And Jenny’s on her own.”
“Okay. What are you doing?”
Malcolm was tapping at the keyboard of the laptop. “The police want a photo. I said I’d send one. Then I’ll find the number for the embassy.”
Lesley looked over his shoulder. He’d picked the one Alex had sent of her and Rosie in a tuk-tuk on the day they arrived, grinning madly into the selfie, their surroundings a blur.
“At least they’re together,” Lesley said and wept, her head on her arms on their kitchen table.
B A N G K O K D A Y 1
( S UND A Y , JUL Y 2 7 , 2 0 1 4 )
https://www.facebook.com/alexoconnor.333 Alex O’Connor
July 27 at 0500
. . . is here. It’s brilliant. The adventure starts now . . .
Her fingers danced over the keys of her phone, posting the selfie of her standing in front of Suvarnabhumi Airport with tired eyes and a silly grin on her face. She’d planned this photo on the plane. She knew what it would look like but she hadn’t factored in the noise and heat as the terminal doors slid open. The heat had shaken her physically. She’d known it would be hot—Google had told her—but not like this. It was wet on her face and she could taste it on her tongue. She put her backpack down carefully, trapping it with her feet to keep it safe, and stretched her arms above her head, feeling the first buzz of freedom.
Alex had looked forward to this for a year, fantasizing about places, people, adventures, while she stacked shelves and pulled pints to earn the money.
She’d looked forward to everything about it, starting with the flight—she’d always loved the sensation of suddenly rushing down the
runway toward something new. And she’d felt the same thrill as the engines revved high at the start of this, her first long haul taking her across the world. But the sensation had worn off quickly. It was eleven hours sitting in a middle seat, trying not to touch the arms of those hidden under thin blankets like corpses.
Rosie had had three glasses of wine with her hideous airline meal— “The chicken or the pasta?”—and Alex had warned her she’d get de- hydrated. Her friend had rolled her eyes and made a big show of flirting with the man in the next seat before falling asleep and snoring gently. Alex had tried to sleep, too, squirming in her narrow seat to find a comfortable position, pulling up her blanket and uncovering her feet, fidgeting with her safety belt to stop it digging into her hip. In the end she’d sat in the dark and watched films on the tiny rectangle in front of her until her eyes stung.
When the lights came back on an hour before landing, she’d un- buckled and gone to the toilet. Her face in the mirror looked weird. Eyes red-rimmed and mouth slack with sleep deprivation. She’d yawned at herself and wrestled with the unfamiliar door to get out, suddenly panicky.
There’d been a boy standing waiting when she burst out. She’d laughed at herself—“They’re a real nightmare to unlock, aren’t they?”
He’d smiled shyly back and let her past.
nd now she was here. Bangkok. She picked up her backpack and swung it heavily onto her shoulder and staggered slightly, dizzy from the sudden movement. She felt stiff and spacey, as if her feet
didn’t quite touch the ground.
Strangers were asking her to come with them. Small men with wide smiles and insistent hands.
“You need a taxi?”
“I know good guesthouse.”
“You want to see temple?”
She stood, the choices drumming on her skull. It was five a.m., dark, hot, and she wanted to lie down somewhere.
Come on, Alex—let’s go, she told herself. Where’s Rosie?
Her friend had wandered off, looking for something for her head- ache.
“You shouldn’t have had all that wine on the plane. Didn’t you bring any paracetamol?” Alex had said, reaching to unzip the side pocket of her bag.
“No,” Rosie had snapped and marched off.
Alex hoped it was going to be all right. Anyway, it was too late for doubts. They were here. And it was brilliant. Well, it would be.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15, 2014
S Zara Salmond was treading so lightly around DI Bob Sparkes that morning, it felt like he was being stalked. Her presence was always just out of sight, but she couldn’t have been more intrusive if she’d been holding up a neon sign reading “The Boss’s Wife Is Dying.”
Eileen’s cancer had come back two months ago, blowing new holes in her, murdering her slowly. “We can beat this,” he’d told her after the latest results came back. “We’ve done it once; we can do it again.” The kids had cried with him at home, away from their mother.
Now everyone was being strong for one another, the effort exhausting. It was all he could do to get out of bed some mornings.
Work had been fantastic, his bosses urging him to take as much time off as he needed, but Sparkes could not settle at the hospital or at home. He needed something in his life that was not about cancer. He needed to pretend that a normal life was possible for Eileen’s sake and to distract his aching heart.
But he had clearly forgotten to brief DS Salmond.
He knew she was keeping the rabble in the incident room from his door out of kindness, but Sparkes lost it when he overheard his detec- tive sergeant telling a colleague, “You’ll have to come back later. He’s not having a good day.” He could picture her caring look and shouted, “Salmond, get in here.”
When she put her neatly groomed head round the door, he wiped the smile off her face.
“You are getting right up my nose, Salmond. Stop telling people to leave me alone. Go and do something useful. I feel as if I am being quarantined.”
The DS tried to laugh it off, but Bob knew he’d been too rough.
He stood to stop her leaving.
“Sorry, it’s just when you are talking about me, you sound as if you are dealing with a jumper on a bridge. I’m all right.”
“Okay, boss. Point taken. I’ll leave you to it. I’ve got reports to finish.” “Tell me what you are up to.” He pointed to a chair.
Salmond sat and crossed her arms. Still defensive, Bob thought. “Come on, Zara. Remind me.”
“Well, I’m chasing up the final results on the drugs bust out at Portsmouth.”
“It’s a bit slow, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Well, people have been off for the summer holidays.” “Anything to worry about?”
“No, all looks tidy. Oh, and we’ve had a report of two girls from Winchester going missing.”
“Missing? How old?” he said, immediately on full alert. “When did this come in? Why didn’t you tell me straightaway?”
“They’re eighteen and missing in Thailand.”
“Ah,” Sparkes muttered, his mind slipping away to the meeting with Eileen’s consultant later.
“Bit off our patch, but I’m up for it if you want to send . . .” DS Salmond said, a shade louder to show she’d noticed his eyes glazing over.
“In your dreams, Zara. Anyway, you’ve just been away.”
“Hardly a holiday, boss. When Neil said Turkey, I thought sun loungers. We spent most of the time looking at ancient latrines for his Year Ten’s project. In one-hundred-four-degree heat.”
“Latrines? Excellent. Any photos?”
Salmond laughed. “Neil’s got loads. I’ll ask him to send you a se-
“Yeah, no hurry. What about these girls, then?”
“It’s only been a week but the parents are twitchy. Girls are away for
the first time and didn’t ring for their A Level results yesterday. The dad
of one of them phoned it in this morning and I’m passing on the details
to Interpol, but my bet is they’ll be on a beach somewhere. Lucky them.”
“Yes, lucky them. Well, let me know any updates. The media will
be all over this if it develops—you’d better brief the press office.”
And he winked to let her know they were all right.
campaign already running—the family are doing it.” Sparkes pulled a face.
“It’s a good idea, sir. That’s where kids who might be sitting in a bar next to Alex and Rosie will be looking.”
“Yes, them and every weirdo and glory seeker on the planet, offer- ing fake sympathy and sightings just to be part of the drama. And then there’ll be the trolls, blaming the parents for letting their kids go traveling, calling the girls sluts and whores. God, who opened the microphone to people like them? At least before social media you didn’t have to hear this stuff. They could sit in the snug of their local pub, or their front room and spout their bile.”
“Anyway . . .” Salmond said. “Moving on . . .” “Yes, let’s.”
parkes was looking at reports on-screen, his head elsewhere.
He leaned back, stretched out his arms to touch the computer, and then took them over his head, making his back click. There was a
metallic taste in his mouth and he could no longer get out of his chair without an involuntary groan. He felt old. Really old.
Eileen had said he needed more sleep that morning when he’d gone in to see her, but he’d waved her concerns away. “I’m fine, love. Why are we talking about me? Let’s concentrate on you and getting rid of this stupid infection.”
She’d lain back on her pillow. “I am trying, Bob.”
He tried to focus on the words on his screen, but his head was full of the growing fragility in his wife’s eyes. They were sinking into her head away from him. It was as if she was being hollowed out. He flexed and clenched his fingers.
Not now. Can’t think about it now. It’ ll be all right.
He tapped the touch pad to awaken his screen and a photo ap- peared. DS Salmond had uploaded images of the missing girls and the link to the Facebook page the O’Connors had set up.
Sparkes looked at their faces and sighed. He clicked and began reading, starting with the girls’ last Facebook post and e-mail home on Saturday, August 9.
Alex O’Connor . . . is planning to celebrate (R!) her A Level results with her bezzy in Ko Phi Phi, “gazing out at monolithic
rocks in an azure blue sea” according to Lonely Planet . . .
FROM: Alexinnit96@yahoo.co.uk TO: email@example.com SUBJECT: Results
Hi Mum and Dad,
Still in Bangkok—so much to see, we’ve decided to stay longer—but planning to move on in time for the results! Everything crossed that I get into Warwick. Will ring like we said about 12noon your time (1800 here) to open the envelope together. Like the Oscars! Text me if the post arrives earlier!! Love you, Alex xx
Ps Seeing elephants tomorrow. Another bucket list item ticked off . . .
The SOS was then sounded by Alex O’Connor’s brother, quietly at first. More of a nudge, really.
Hi Alex. Haven’t heard from you for a few days. Where are you now?
We can’t get through on your phone. Mum’s a bit worried. Can you message us.
FFS ALEX. CALL!!!!!
The capitalized scream marked the tipping point when the gentle reminders became a full-throated roar of panic.
It’s been 4 days since anyone saw my sister and her friend. Please keep sharing and posting.
It’s been 5 days. 6 days.
And the “community” had kicked in:
Let your families know you are OK, Alex and Rosie. Please.
Was that you I bought a drink for last night in Oxxi’s Place? Ring your parents.
They just want to know U R safe.
Don’t be so selfish. Contact your family.
The parents will give them such a rocket when they turn up, he thought. Causing all this fuss. Bet they wish they’ d never agreed to let them go.
He’d never had to struggle with that decision. His children hadn’t been the adventurous sort. He couldn’t even remember discussing gap years with them. His son, Jim, had been set on going to university and getting on with his career in accountancy, and his daughter, Sam, had already fallen in love, so she wasn’t going anywhere.
Wonder if their lives would have turned out differently if they’ d gone to Thailand, he mused, idly scrolling back through the messages. Kate Waters’s son had gone. She’d confided in him when they’d last met to discuss a case. He didn’t normally get into personal stuff with report- ers, but Kate had clearly needed to talk, telling him about the silences from Jake stretching into months. And how she secretly worried he was struggling but didn’t want to admit it.
Sparkes hadn’t liked to say his secret worry about his son was that he was getting old before his time. He was only in his thirties, but his hair was thinning and he wore slippers in the house.
“They’ve got oak flooring,” Eileen had said when he’d mentioned it. “He’s fine.”
But he was never going to go to a Full Moon Party.
Perhaps they’d got off lightly. He flicked back to look at the laugh- ing faces of the missing girls. Fresh faces. Lost children.
Where were they? He’d ring Kate later and tell her about the story.
Get things moving.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15, 2014
oe Jackson is sitting in my chair to watch the newsroom television and I swat him as I pass, catching his shoulder.
“Oy, Jackson! Out!”
He grins up at me and pushes back from the desk, freewheeling out of my way, and I see Jake in my head, messing around, hair in his eyes, teasing me.
“Get on with your work,” I growl.
“I’m making calls.” He shows me his mobile as proof, jumps up, and pulls my chair back into position. “Nothing much to tell, yet. I’ve got a bit of time before the Sunday-for-Monday news meeting. I hope Terry doesn’t call it early.”
As if by magic, the news editor appears from the Goldfish Bowl, his glass-walled cubicle of an office.
“He’s bugged our desks, hasn’t he?” Joe murmurs, and I nod. “What are you whispering about?” Terry shouts across. “It’d better
be a story. Your hit rate is a joke, Jackson.”
As the youngest staff reporter in the newsroom, Joe Jackson is an easy target for so-called banter. Bullying, if we’re being honest. Joe and I had had a prickly start when he’d been assigned to me for work experience—I told Terry I didn’t have time to run the office crèche, but the editor had insisted—and he’s grown on me. I know the other
reporters call him my “office son” or “the chief reporter’s bitch,” but I ignore it. I hope he does, too. I keep telling him they’ll get bored and find another game.
“Here, put this up to Terry,” I say, slipping a cutting across the desk. “It’s got follow-up written all over it.”
“Thanks. I owe you another one.”
“Put it on the slate. Now make a call on it so you’ll sound like you know what you’re talking about.”
I flick a quick look at Terry. He’s heard it all. He hears everything. He pulls a face. “Soft touch,” it says. I shrug back and pick up my phone to avoid talking to him.
I scroll through the contacts, looking for a likely target, and stop at DI Bob Sparkes. I see his name most days—I’ve filed him under his first name to keep him near the top of the list. But today I don’t go past. I press it. I need a friendly voice this morning. And he might have a story.
Bob Sparkes and I have enjoyed—or maybe he’d say endured—the sort of forced intimacy that working on difficult cases brings. It’s a fact of life that detectives and reporters find themselves knocking on the same doors in search of the facts and cooped up in the same pubs, courtrooms, and canteens.
For some officers, reporters are a cross to bear and they make us sweat for every piece of information, but Sparkes is a generous copper. He knows what we need to tell the story and is usually happy to oblige. He doesn’t play games.
“Suits all of us to work together,” he said once. “The police get the publicity they need for the investigation—and some recognition for the work done—and you get your story.”
And he deserves the recognition. He works his socks off to get a result.
I’ve seen him do it. Eight years ago, in the Bella Elliott case, he
spent every waking hour looking for the missing toddler, thinking about her. He said he dreamed about her, too. And even in cases he wasn’t running, he’s acted as my touchstone. When I was trying to find the identity of the remains of a baby’s body found on a London building site in 2012, he’d been there on the end of a phone. He didn’t have to do it, but I’d relied on him for grown-up advice when I got too involved. Too close to see what was in front of me.
It’s not exactly Holmes and Watson, but we rub along.
Of course, it means that he knows far too much about me. I know I overshare sometimes, telling him my private thoughts and domestic problems, but I trust him.
he phone rings. “Kate!” the voice says sharply, startling me.
“Good grief, Bob—have you been issued with new psychic pow- ers? I was just about to ring you.”
“Ha! Must have been thinking about each other at the same moment.”
I can feel myself blushing. For Christ’s sake, get a grip, woman!
“Thinking about me? In a good way? Or cursing me?”
“In a good way, Kate,” he replies evenly. He doesn’t do flirting.
Never been a swordsman.
I try not to smile—he’ll hear it in my voice. “Go on, then. What were you thinking?”
“I’ve got an inquiry that you might be able to help with. Two teen- age girl backpackers in Thailand have been reported missing by their families. They haven’t been in touch for a week, so it’s early days, but they missed getting their exam results yesterday and their parents are very anxious. My sergeant thinks they’ll probably turn up with a hangover, but a story might winkle them out of whichever bar they’re sitting in. Anyway, I thought of you. And Jake.”
Bob Sparkes knows about Jake. How he dropped out of university and the row it had caused—I’d told him after the result in the Build- ing Site Baby case, when we’d had a quiet drink to decompress. He’s got adult kids, too. He knows how god-awful being a parent is some- times and he listens carefully. He always listens well, Bob. A trained ear. But he hasn’t told me about Eileen’s illness. I found out about the cancer from another copper. I was shocked—more that Bob hadn’t confided in me than the cancer, if I’m honest. I’ve tried to prompt him to tell me since then, mentioning Steve and his work in oncology a
couple of times. But Sparkes has never taken the bait.
Sure. How old are the girls? Are there photos? Where are they from? Can I speak to the parents?”
“Good grief, Kate. Slow down. You’re like a greyhound out of the
traps. They’re eighteen and from Winchester. Look, I’ll send you the details as soon as we get off the phone.”
“Great. Are you putting it all round?” I have to ask.
“Yes, the press office is writing something to put on the tape at the moment.”
“Any chance you could give me a couple of hours’ head start, Bob?” There’s a pause. I wait him out.
“Go on, then,” he says. “It’s hardly breaking news. I’ll ask them to hold on to it until after lunch.”
“Brilliant. Thanks, Bob.” “Anyway, how is Jake?”
I’ve forgotten my son, pushed past him in the rush to write about someone else’s child. What sort of mother are you?
“Er, not sure. He rang in the middle of the night a few weeks ago—first call for months—but it sounded like it was from some jun- gle outpost and I lost the line.”
“What a shame. Still, he did call.”
“Yes, he did. I have to be grateful for that, I suppose.”
“The parents of Alex O’Connor and Rosie Shaw would be, Kate.”
I can hear the edge of censure in his voice and try not to react. I scribble down the names.
“Yes, well . . . okay, send the missing girls’ stuff as soon as you can—I’m sure I can get it in the paper. There’s nothing else happen- ing. And, Bob, thanks for holding it. I appreciate it.”
open my laptop to wait for his e-mail. My inbox has filled again. It’s only been half an hour since I weeded through the overnight mass mailings, but there are a dozen new PR puffs for television shows and celebrities selling ghosted memoirs with promises of “amazing reve- lations.”
“I don’t know why I’m getting so much showbiz dross,” I regularly grumble to Joe. But actually I do. My name has joined a list of journos who write the celeb stories. I’m a marked woman. I used to be a serious reporter, whatever that means these days.
I spent yesterday afternoon writing a “heartwarming”—in my head I am raking the air with ironic quotation marks—picture story about a dog adopting ducklings.
“It probably ate them after the photographer left,” I’d told Steve when I’d got home. “God, I hate August. Bloody Silly Season. We are in a news-free zone, scratching around for stories when the whole country has gone on holiday. The editor gave me back one of my old spreads this afternoon. He must have stashed it in his bottom drawer in the New Year. Told me to dust it off so he could put it in the paper. I had to make sure no one in it had died in the meantime.”
Steve had poured me another glass of sauvignon blanc and clinked glasses in sympathy.
• • •
deleted the offending e-mails without opening, my eye automatically on alert for firstname.lastname@example.org.
His e-mails are never in answer to my or Steve’s regular messages. When they arrive, they’re short and to the point—two or three sen- tences, more a telegram than a letter—telling us he’s still alive and, clearly, not thinking about us. We still pore over them, looking for meaning in every word.
It’s been two years since he embarked on his journey “to find him- self ” in Southeast Asia. He should have been taking his bar exams this year. He’d been doing so well at university before . . . We’d dreamed of him becoming a barrister. We were excited for him. I suppose, look- ing back, maybe we were more excited than he was. But he always did relaxed and cool. Used to drive me mad. He was a lucky boy—bright and lucky—but he wasn’t grateful. He had it too easy, maybe. He’d never had to struggle to get top grades, not like his little brother. It was Freddie we worried about. Steve and I tried to hide it from him. We kept our agonized discussions about his future for after he’d gone to bed. Poor Freddie. Always in Jake’s shadow at school. Then, out of the blue, Jake had come home and casually announced he’d jacked in his degree and was going traveling.
He’d said he was thinking about joining a turtle conservancy proj- ect in Phuket and there’d been an almighty row.
I’d raged at him that he was ruining his life, and we were barely speaking when he left for Thailand.
We didn’t hear from him for the first month, and Steve had blamed me. “He thinks you are still angry,” he’d said.
“I am still angry,” I’d snapped back.
“You need to be careful, Kate, or you’ll lose him.”
I’d wanted to shout: “How do you lose a son? He’s been part of me for twenty-two years. I will always be his mother.” But I kept it to
myself. I hid the hurt and pretended to be indifferent to his silence. But fear had taken root inside me, creating lurid images of him dying in a motorbike crash or being brutally mugged.
Being a reporter means I know that these things happen to people like us.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15, 2014
t’s been five minutes and no e-mail. I sit fidgeting with my phone, trying to decide whether to ring Bob Sparkes back and ask when he’s going to push the send button. He’ll hate that, but he said he’d do it immediately. But he’ll hate that. I put the phone down. I’ll have a look myself. Everything’s on the net. And when I type in the names, the missing girls are there.
Bingo. But a blog. I hate blogs.
“Blah blah blah dressed up as journalism,” I’d told Joe once, my guard down.
“God, you sound like my mum,” he’d said. His mother, a recently “retired” editor, had been widely mocked among the wicked press as a Fleet Street dinosaur. That’d shut me up. I wasn’t about to be kicked into the long grass with her.
The blogger is another backpacker sounding the alarm and urging Alex and Rosie to get in touch with their families.
I wonder how many of the thousands of teenagers who set off for a gap year go missing. Must be fewer now everyone has a smartphone and Wi-Fi. But still.
I stare at the screen. My heartbeat feels like it is bruising my ribs. My child is missing, too. At home, we all pretend that it’s all fine; he’s an adult, living his own life, making his own choices. But we don’t
even know which country he’s in, really. I’ve googled the price of plane tickets for Thailand so many times. Just looking, I tell myself. And I’ve secretly e-mailed dozens of conservation projects in Phuket over the last two years, asking for him, but Jake hasn’t registered with any of them. He could be anywhere, but I’ve kept it to myself. No point wor- rying Steve. Sometimes I wonder if he’s done the same thing and is keeping it secret from me.
I write Jake an e-mail straightaway.
Hi, Just wondering where you are and what you
are doing. Thanks for ringing the other night—it was lovely to hear your voice. We miss you. Freddie finally passed his driving test!!! Let me know when you pick this up, mx
I don’t know when he’ll get it but it’s out there when he next logs in. “Kate,” Joe’s saying, “Kate! I asked where you found this cutting.
Please, Terry’s about to call the meeting.”
“What? Can’t you look online? Think it was one of the Sunday magazines. Is it on shiny paper? Oh, say the Sunday Express. No one ever reads it.”
“Are you coming in?”
“What time is it in Bangkok, Joe?”
“Er, afternoon or evening, I think. They’re ahead of us, aren’t they?
But I’m already dialing the Post’s Southeast Asia correspondent and waving Joe away.
“I’ll be in in a minute. Just need to check something.”
on Richards answers on the first ring.
“Yes,” he barks, daring the caller to carry on disturbing him. “Don? It’s Kate Waters. On the Post.”
The voice softens to gruff. “Ah, the lovely Kate. How are you? Christ, when did I last see you? Must be ten years ago, when you came to cover the tsunami. That was a hell of a story, wasn’t it? Paid for my new bungalow.”
I grit my teeth. Don’s sensitivity button was disabled a long time ago—“Living out here does it to you,” he’d confessed back then, when we were both drunk and exhausted after weeks of horrifying sights and testimonies.
“It blunts you. I’ve become some terrible old colonial cliché.” I’d
bought us another beer and steered him back to his glory days.
were working on two missing British girls, Alex O’Connor and Rosie Shaw?”
“Well, the backpack network is talking about them. But this hap- pens all the time—the embassy here gets one or two reported every day. Bloody thoughtless teenagers. The families have been trying to make contact for a week, apparently, but kids drift through. They meet someone in a bar, hear about a new place, and go. These girls are probably shacked up with some boys and having too good a time to tell anyone. Anyway, why are you asking? Are you being sent on it?”
I smile. Don can smell the money.
“Can’t see them sending me this early, but I’m going to talk to Terry about it—could be a good story. Every parent’s nightmare with kids all heading off on their gap years at the moment. And there’s nothing else happening here.”
“I’ll send you some copy. You will put me down for a credit, won’t you?”
The cry of the lesser spotted freelance: “Giss’a credit.”
“’Course, Don. Send over what you’ve got and I’ll put a payment
through. Have you spoken to the families? I’m going to give them a call.”
“Only via Facebook posts. The O’Connors from Winchester are making the most noise.”
Terry’s head appears round the door of the meeting room.
“Get your arse in here, Kate. You’re the chief reporter. Set an ex- ample, for goodness’ sake.”
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1.Alex’s thoughts often contradict what she says on Facebook and in e-mails to her parents. Why do you think this is? Do you think the author is making a statement about social media culture? Why or why not?
2.Discuss the relationship between Kate and the families in Part One of the book. How does this relationship change after Kate learns who the possible survivor is?
3.Examine Kate’s relationship with her fellow journalists before and after she learns about the possible survivor and suspect. Do you think she is unfair to them? Do you think they are unfair to her? Why or why not?
4.It is a common perception that journalists often need to detach themselves from a situation in order to do their jobs. At one point, when learning details about the case, Kate thinks, “But this is us. Not some story to be picked over for the best quote.” Do you think the events of the novel will impact Kate’s career in the future? How?
5.A major theme in the novel is that parents might not know their children as well as they think they do. Discuss the ways this idea is explored in the novel. Do you think that this is inherent in parent-child relationships?
6.Similarly, Alex and Jake both end up in trouble because of their unwillingness to tell their parents about the trouble they’re in. Discuss the relationship they each have with their parents. Did their actions surprise you? Why or why not?
7.What role does the media play in the book? As in The Widow and The Child, the media is inextricably linked with the police investigation. Do you think the author is conveying a broader message about the role of journalism and news organizations? If you have read The Widow and/or The Child, do you think that Kate’s being a core part of the story in The Suspect dramatically changes the perception of the media in this novel when compared to the two other novels?
8.Discuss the character of Lesley. What did you think of her at the beginning of the story? Did your opinion change over the course of the novel? Were you surprised by her desired punishment for the person responsible for her daughter’s death? Why or why not?
9.Discuss Kate’s actions at the very end of the novel. Why do you think she chose not to confront her son? Do you agree with her decision?