Missing is a standalone short story, featuring DI Ray Stevens and DC Kate Evans from I LET YOU GO. I hope you enjoy it.
DI Ray Stevens glanced at the couple sitting beside him. ‘Okay if we take questions now?’
Maxine Adler nodded, but her face was ashen. She hadn’t once taken her hand away from her husband’s, whose own face was entirely devoid of emotion. Ray knew this was a reaction to stress, but it wouldn’t help speculation. Maxine and David Adler had been eliminated from enquiries, but when a child went missing it was always the parents under the spotlight.
‘Suzy French, Bristol Post. Are you treating this as a murder investigation?’ The reporter’s pen was poised expectantly above a spiral-bound notebook, waiting for a headline.
‘We’re not ruling anything out,’ Ray said, ‘but the focus is on finding Caitlin. We’re appealing to the public to call the incident number with any information.’
‘We just want our baby home for Christmas,’ Maxine said, breaking into sobs. Ray willed David Adler to put his arm round his wife, but he sat in silence, only the whites of his knuckles betraying any emotion.
‘Will the press conference make a difference?’ David asked.
‘Anything that keeps Caitlin in people’s minds is a good thing,’ Ray said. He and DC Kate Evans were at the Adler’s large five-bedroomed home in Clifton, surrounded by family photographs and unopened Christmas cards. A tree stood in the bay window, its twinkling lights switched off.
The CID office was flat out with a fatal hit-and-run over in Fishponds, and with Caitlin’s disappearance he and Kate had worked the last five weeks without a break. Ray had promised his children he’d be home early so they could choose a tree together – a Christmas tradition – but it was already six p.m.
Fifteen-year-old Caitlin had vanished from home between 10 p.m. on 12 December and 8 a.m. the following morning. Despite a nationwide appeal there had been no sightings. None of Caitlin’s clothes were missing and her mobile phone was by her bed; proof, according to her parents, that she hadn’t run away.
‘She was welded to her phone,’ David Adler had said, ‘and her iPad, before she lost it.’
Ray could believe it. Caitlin’s Instagram account was filled with pictures of the pretty teenager pouting at the camera, often with her sister Amber. Caitlin was a popular girl at the private school she attended in Clifton, and teachers could throw no light on why might run away. Ray feared the worst.
‘See if Cyber Crime have got any further with Caitlin’s laptop,’ he said to Kate, when they were back at the station. ‘Who’s she been talking to online?’
‘Boss, you need to see this.’ Kate passed Ray her phone and he recognised the familiar Instagram logo. The hashtag #findcaitlin had been started by Amber; photos of the missing girl flooding the internet.
At first glance the photo looked like every other Instagram picture Ray had ever seen. A golden glow, and those blurred edges everyone added to their snaps nowadays. But the text in the centre wasn’t a recipe, or a motivational quote, and Ray’s blood ran cold.
£5,000 to see Caitlin again.
‘The account’s just called “I_have_Caitlin”,’ Kate said. ‘There are no other posts.’
‘I’ll ring the Chief. We’d better brief the FLO to break the news to the family.’
‘Too late,’ Kate said, tapping on her phone. ‘Amber’s already picked it up and replied. She’s regrammed it, and it’s all over Twitter and Facebook.’
‘Get the family back here. All of them. I don’t want them saying anything else to the abductor.’
Ray notified the Chief Constable and requested a hostage negotiator, then he rang home. The Christmas tree was going to have to wait.
‘Why can’t we just pay it?’ David Adler demanded. An untouched cup of machine coffee sat on the low table beside him. ‘It’s hardly a fortune!’
The sum of money was troubling Ray. Kidnap was a serious crime. Why risk a life sentence for £5,000? It didn’t make sense. ‘The chances are he won’t release Caitlin straight away,’ he said. ‘There’ll be another demand, and another.’
‘We’ll pay whatever it takes,’ Maxine said.
‘The negotiator has advised us to ask for proof that Caitlin is…’ Ray paused. Is alive, he wanted to say. ‘…that Caitlin is with him. Are you okay to post that message?’
Amber nodded. ‘What shall I say? “I want proof you’ve got Caitlin?”’
Ray watched her tap out the message. Minutes later, Amber’s phone pinged with a notification.
‘He says he’ll post a photograph of her,’ she said, her voice trembling. Ray moved closer to Kate, who was refreshing her own Instagram feed.
‘Oh!’ Maxine started crying.
‘She doesn’t look hurt,’ Kate said. ‘Whoever has her could be looking after her.’
Caitlin didn’t seem maltreated or undernourished. The photo was cropped tightly to her face and shoulders, like a police mug-shot. Wide eyes, as if trying not to cry; lips pressed tightly together. Just in frame was a copy of today’s paper. There was something curious about the picture; Ray tried to pin it down, but it was too elusive.
The caption read: At midday tomorrow I’ll tell you where to leave the money.
Ray looked at his watch. His children would be in bed by now. He felt another wave of guilt that he’d broken his promise. ‘It’s late. Try and get some rest.’
Ray worked till midnight, going home to a silent house and leaving again before his wife Mags stirred. He was back at his desk by six thirty, Kate arriving shortly afterwards with two takeaway coffees. She fished her phone from her pocket. ‘I’ve been thinking about these Instagram posts. What do you notice about this picture?’
Ray stared at the photo of Caitlin. ‘It’s been bugging me all night.’
‘If I’d been kidnapped,’ Kate said slowly, ‘I don’t think putting make-up on would be my number one priority.’ They looked at each other. ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’
Ray nodded. He found the Adler’s phone number and reached for the landline on his desk.
‘When did Caitlin lose her iPad?’
‘A week before she went missing, I think,’ David said. ‘I was furious – she’d only had it a month. Why?’ Ray had already ended the call, and was striding through the station.
‘Tablets have unique identifiers, right?’ Ray asked, when he found Darren Bryce, the force’s IT guru.
‘All devices do. It’s called a MAC number; like a postal address for computers and phones. When you log onto the internet your device leaves a record of its MAC.’
‘If you looked at Caitlin Adler’s internet posts could you get the MAC numbers of devices she’s used?’ Ray outlined his suspicions, and Darren swiveled his chair to face his screen, fingers flying over the keyboard. ‘Once we’ve identified the MAC for that iPad I can ask the networks to tell us whether it’s been used since Caitlin went missing. When do you need the information?’
‘Yesterday,’ Ray said grimly. His phone vibrated and he glanced at the screen to see a message from Mags: Kids really upset about the tree. Ray put it back in his pocket without replying. If he and Kate were on the right track, Caitlin could be back home by the end of the day.
An hour later Darren knocked on Ray’s office. ‘You were right, boss, there’s activity from Caitlin’s lost iPad since she went missing. The times correspond exactly with the kidnapper’s Instagram posts.’
‘Can you tell me where they were posted from?’
‘The device was used to log onto the Cloud at a YMCA hostel on the outskirts of Bristol.’
‘Nice work. Come on, Kate.’
‘Shall I call Uniform?’
‘No. I have a feeling we won’t need back-up.’
The receptionist didn’t recognise the photo Ray showed her. ‘We have sixty rooms,’ she said apologetically, ‘people come and go all the time. But the Wi-Fi only works in the lounge. You’re welcome to wait there. I’m afraid I can’t let you into the rooms.’
‘We could get a warrant.’ Kate said, as they headed for a communal area, where a group of Spanish teenagers sat chatting.
‘The message is due at midday,’ Ray said. ‘It’s just gone eleven. Let’s wait. If nothing comes of it, we’ll start knocking on doors.’
It was ten to twelve when Caitlin appeared, her long hair tucked under a baseball cap. She blended in so well it wasn’t surprising no one had identified her as the missing teenager.
‘Why do you think she did it?’ Kate said, as they watched Caitlin sit down and open her iPad.
‘Who knows? Boredom? Some weird way of getting back at her parents for something? Either way she’s in a whole heap of trouble now.’
They walked over to her and Ray flashed his ID.
‘It’s time to come home, Caitlin.’ He thought she might run, but she looked almost relieved. Her eyes filled with tears.
‘I didn’t mean it to get so out of hand.’
Kate drove; Caitlin sitting in the back seat, sobbing. Wasting police time was a serious offence, but at least she was safe. There were a lot of loose ends to tie up, not least between Caitlin and her parents, but in the meantime Ray had another high priority job. He sent a quick text to Mags: get the tinsel down from the loft – Operation Tree starts tonight.