Charlie Peace spotted the man he had come to talk to before he even got to number seventeen. It must have been policeman's instinct, or experience of parents whose children have suddenly left home. The man was approaching down the dingy street of terraced houses from the opposite direction. He was in his early fifties, and had a slightly dog-eared look: his shoulders were stooped, his moustache droopy and unkempt, the thin head of hair was uncombed. He was carrying a copy of the Sun. He looked the sort of man the world has not been kind to, and one who has not had the drive or personality to carve his own way in spite of it.
Sure enough he turned into number seventeen.
The man turned and looked at him, his hand still holding the key to open the front door. Charlie waved his ID card close to his eyes, which were bleared. When he had scanned it, the slack face registered surprise.
'Oh, I didn't expect --'
'A black copper?' said Charlie genially. 'Quite a lot of us around these days.'
The face appeared aggrieved.
'I didn't mean that. You're taking me up all wrong. I meant I didn't expect anyone from the police to come around. Ronnie Withers down at the Railway Arms said the police never bothered with missing teenagers. Said there were too many of them, and there was nothing they could do.'
'Well, Ronnie Withers was wrong, wasn't he? Do you mind if I come in?'
'No, mate, come on through.' He let them in through the front door, and led the way down a dim hall into a back room that abutted a kitchen. Yesterday's Sun was on the floor beside the easy chair, and yesterday's pots and pans were still on the draining board in the kitchen. The place was thick with dust and with food smells. 'Haven't had a chance to clean up,' said Mr Coughlan, clearing a place for Charlie by removing the TV Week from the other easy chair. 'The missus has been knocked for six by this, I can tell you. Just can't get over it. She'll be in bed still. Don't need her, do you?'
'I expect you can tell me what I need to know,' said Charlie, settling into the chair. 'By the way, your friend Ronnie Withers wasn't entirely wrong.'
'He's sharp, is Ronnie,' said Arthur Coughlan, with an air of acknowledging a pub guru. Charlie leaned forward in his chair to explain what parents always found it difficult to accept.
'Normally there's not much that we can do when teenagers take off, and beyond putting them on a register all we can advise parents to do is wait and hope.'
He had put it as tactfully as possible, but Arthur Coughlan looked even more depressed.
'What's different about Alan, then?' he asked. 'The fact that he's so young?'
Charlie shook his head.
'I'm afraid sixteen isn't all that young, Mr Coughlan. There's kids a lot younger than that sleeping rough in Leeds, and hundreds that age under the bridges in London. No, it's the fact that we had two reported disappearances more or less simultaneously from the same school. That is unusual.'
Arthur Coughlan nodded.
'Is that Katy Bourne? The headmaster asked us about her. His mum and I didn't even know the name, I'm afraid.'
That Charlie had found out already. But the ignorance of parents whose children had left home about even the most mundane aspects of their lives was boundless, in his experience.
'Were there any signs that Alan had a serious new girlfriend in the weeks before he took off?'
'Not that we noticed,' said Arthur Coughlan, positively, for him.
'And you always do get told?'
'It's always clear. He wouldn't sit down and tell us outright. But Alan isn't like some of the kids these days.'
'What exactly do you mean?'
'He has girlfriends. But he isn't the kind who's been sleeping with girls since he was thirteen. That happens, you know. I think it's disgusting. The girls find themselves pregnant before they're anything but children themselves. How can you expect kids to make proper mothers and fathers? Anyway, Alan isn't like that.'
'I didn't say he was, Mr Coughlan. In any case, even if he is having any kind of relationship with this Katy Bourne, it would be unusual for the two of them to go missing together.'
Arthur Coughlan's expression was obstinate.
'I don't think they have gone missing together. Like I say, we never heard the name. We know if Alan has a girlfriend. He'll bring her home, and they'll go up to his room and play records, go to a gig. Then after a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, there'll be a tiff, or they'll both just lose interest. Just like we used to do at his age, Mr Peace.'
Charlie was disconcerted by being classed with a fifty-year-old. Perhaps being a policeman had aged him in people's eyes. He smiled a sort of acceptance, however.
'So for you and your wife, Alan is just a normal teenager?'
'Alan is just a normal teenager. And nicer than most.'
'How would you describe him? Describe his character?'
This stumped him.
'He's a nice lad.' Feeling the inadequacy as well as the repetitiousness of this, Mr Coughlan stumbled on. 'He's quite bright at school -- expected to do well in his GCSEs. And he's had no particular advantages, because his mother and I have never had much of an education.' He gestured around him. 'It's not a bookish household, as you can see, and that usually makes all the difference, they say. He's never been any trouble -- well, you can never say that, can you? Wouldn't be natural. We've had rows, had to lay down the law now and again, but we wouldn't have it any other way, him being a teenager. It's more difficult for them today than it was when I was growing up, with all the nastiness being thrown at them from the television and the newspapers. But Alan's a good lad...a good lad.'
He faded into silence. Charlie said gently:
'You'd had a row just before he left home, hadn't you?'
Arthur Coughlan looked at the floor.
'Oh, nothing out of the ordinary. Just about cleaning up his room...The normal.'
Charlie's instinct told him this was a lie. He decided to let it be for the moment, till he knew more of the circumstances. He wanted to keep Coughlan on his side.
'Was that on the Friday night?'
'Yes. I don't believe that was why he left home. He was quite normal Saturday breakfast time.'
'But it was Saturday he took off, wasn't it?'
The man nodded, sadly, uncertainly.
'Yes...I always go and help out at the Railway Arms Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes. I've been unemployed two years and more, you see, and any little bit of money helps. Used to be a warehouseman at Pickerings, till they went bust.'
'Had your being unemployed caused problems?'
He shook his head emphatically.
'With Alan? Not so you'd notice.' Then he thought for a moment. 'Well, I suppose we did get on each other's nerves in the holidays, but not badly. His mother has a cleaning job with Lloyd's Bank, so she's out early evenings. It's not as though we're all three of us here all the time.'
'Sorry -- I interrupted,' said Charlie. 'What happened on Saturday?'
'Well, I went down to the Railway. His mother went to do the weekly shop at Morrisons, then called in at the Railway for her lunch. That's usual. We came back after two, when things quietened down at the pub. Alan wasn't here, but we thought nothing of it. He didn't have to clock in and out.'
'When did you start worrying?'
'When he didn't come home for his tea. It was shepherd's pie, his favourite, and he knew that. We rang Darren Sorby, his friend -- he hadn't been at theirs. Then we went up to his room.'
'How much had gone?'
'Not everything -- not by a long chalk,' said Coughlan firmly. 'That's why I'm sure he means to come home. But all his favourite clothes had gone, quite a few records, some books -- including some school books. So I'm sure he intends to go on with school, do his A-levels, like he said he wants.'
Charlie wondered whether he might be clutching at straws. Still, taking books and records did not suggest sleeping rough.
'Doesn't sound as if he thought he'd be on the streets,' he said, encouragingly. 'What did he take all this in?'
'His rucksack. He had a hiking holiday in Northumberland last summer. Was going to take another one this summer.'
'So he didn't take a case?'
'No. Well, he wouldn't. A case to a teenager looks sort of elderly, doesn't it?'
'I suppose so. But somehow it doesn't look as if he expected to stay away for a long time.'
Something in his words aggravated an itching worry in the man's mind.
'Expected...A lot of things can happen that you don't expect, if you're sleeping rough.'
'We don't know that he's doing that,' said Charlie, urgently. 'In fact, I'd say it was pretty unlikely. Do you have a recent photograph of him?'
Arthur Coughlan got up and rummaged in a drawer.
'There's his passport photograph,' he said, handing over a European passport. 'It's two years old now. We took him to Spain with us. We didn't care for the place, but he enjoyed it. Oh, and there's this.'
He took a colour snapshot in a cheap frame from the wall unit. It showed a teenager in shorts and short-sleeved shirt, rucksack on his back, smiling into the camera -- fresh-faced, a lock of hair straggling over his right eye. Charlie thought it bore out his father's description of him -- a nice lad: likeable, responsible.
'Was this on the walking holiday you mentioned?'
'So quite recent. I'll take this. Does this mean he was on the holiday with a friend?'
'Oh yes. We wouldn't have let him go otherwise. As it was, his mother worried herself sick. He was with Darren Sorby, from his form at school.'
'Perhaps I should talk to Darren. Are they still good friends now?'
'Oh yes. They're mates. Darren's very worried, but we couldn't get anything out of him we didn't know already.'
Charlie took his leave. He had no doubt this man had been a good parent by his lights, but he found both the man and the house dispiriting. He thought he should try to speak to Katy Bourne's parents before he went to the pair's school. She lived a mile and a half away in a little box on an estate of little boxes, built in a hideous orange brick, with a sign at the end of the street saying Pelsett Homes and showing there were still some for sale. These were houses for the newly-married, the newly-divorced, and the old. Katy's box had come out in a rash of lead-lighting. He rang twice and got no answer.
'She won't be back till four,' came a voice. 'She works at the post office in Morley Road.'
There was an elderly couple working in a little scrap of garden next door, and bumping bottoms every time they took a step backwards. It seemed an act of faith to plant anything natural in such an environment. No doubt they had bought the house on retirement, wanting a place where everything was new, and everything would go on working for their lifetime. Fifty per cent right. Charlie strolled over to the knee-high fence.
'Thanks. Is there a Mr Bourne, by the way?'
'No,' said the woman, pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. 'I'm not sure there ever was. There was a man -- I'm pretty sure he wasn't a husband -- when they moved in here, but he took off soon afterwards -- matter of weeks, so far as I remember.'
'I see. Do you know why?'
'Just said he'd had enough.' She hesitated, then lowered her voice as if the secret police might be listening. 'She's...well, not a very sympathetic sort of person.'
'Right. I'll bear that in mind. And the daughter?'
'Oh, very quiet. Don't see much of her. She's not in any trouble, is she?'
'I hope not,' said Charlie, moving off.
The school he drove to, parking with the teachers' cars, was so familiar to him he hardly gave a glance to the peeling paint on the board walls, the ill-fitting windows, the litter-bestrewed playground, and the general air of neglect, as if children would soon be a thing of the past and it wasn't worth spending money on them. The headmaster had been alerted in advance, and was waiting for him.
'I thought you'd want to speak to their best friends,' he said, almost the moment Charlie came into his study, 'so I've alerted them. Darren Sorby and Sharon Reilly.'
'Excellent. But what about you?'
The headmaster, who obviously wanted to shunt him on immediately, spread out his hands.
'We have four hundred pupils here. The most I get is an impression, unless they're problem students or very bright. I've talked to the form teachers though. Alan seems -- or seemed, before this -- unproblematic: quite good at his work, not a great one for games, hot on the environment. It may not go very deep, but it's a step in the right direction.'
'Sure. And Katy Bourne?'
'Ah, there may be some problems there. Rather a lonely child -- adolescent, I should say. It wasn't easy to find a friend of hers. I would say a distinctly unhappy young woman.'
Charlie thought for a moment.
'Unhappy because she's lonely, or lonely because she's unhappy?'
'I think you may be the best person to find that out. You're closer to their age.'
He had made available an unused classroom. There seemed to be plenty of them: school rolls were declining. When the two friends came in Charlie took a desk by the window, through which a fearsome draught beat on his neck, and sat them in two desks on the other side of the aisle.
'Now,' he said, looking first at Darren Sorby, 'I get the sense of Alan Coughlan being fairly bright, well adjusted, with a lot of interests -- would that be right?'
Darren Sorby nodded.
'So what went wrong, or what happened? That's not the sort of person who suddenly goes missing as a rule.'
Darren screwed up his mouth.
'Well, he never said anything to me.'
'Had he been any different these last few weeks -- or perhaps just the last few days?'
Darren considered this.
'Maybe a bit quieter like. Sort of thoughtful. But you see, we'd just done our GCSEs, so I thought that he was probably worried, or had been overdoing the studying.'
'He was going to stay on at school if he did well?'
'Yes. Or maybe go to the Jakob Kramer College.'
'Did he have any reasons to think that he might have done badly?'
'No. At the time he seemed quite happy with the papers.'
'So how long had he been quiet and thoughtful?'
Darren considered again. He was a slow considerer.
'Difficult to say, really...Just a few days, so far as I remember. He was rather quiet on the Wednesday before he took off. We'd been intending to go into town to The Last Knight, but then he said he wasn't in the mood.'
'Without giving a reason?'
'No. I'd have said if he had.'
'And you have no reason at all to connect him with Katy Bourne?'
Darren shook his head vigorously.
'No. So far as I know he'd never heard the name. Certainly he'd never mentioned her to me. And he would've if she was his girlfriend, or if he was even interested.'
'She was younger than him, wasn't she?'
'Yes, a year younger. But he's had girlfriends in lower years before. It wasn't that.'
Charlie transferred his gaze to Sharon Reilly. The girl was a little overweight, not pretty, but with sharp eyes.
'She never said anything to me. But --'
'But you're not all that close,' supplied Charlie.
'No. And...she never told you things. Especially not things like that.'
'Do you mean she was secretive?'
Sharon screwed up her face.
'Not that exactly. More that she was...unhappy.' Charlie noted it had been the headmaster's word too, no doubt suggested to him by one of the girl's teachers. 'She didn't think anyone could be interested in her. Didn't think she was interesting enough. She could hardly believe it if you made friendly gestures. I think it's what the magazines call low self-esteem.'
Sharon seemed a lot brighter than Darren Sorby. Charlie wondered if it was this that had led to the low-key friendship between her and Katy -- wondered whether it was the sort of school where a bright pupil was left very much to herself, and perforce made alliances with other loners.
'I'm guessing the problem was at home,' he suggested quietly. The girl nodded.
'It must have been. She didn't talk about it -- not talk. But you could tell by her reactions. If her mother was mentioned she went silent, or sometimes made an ugly face. She was sending signals, but she clammed up if you tried to get any details out of her. I tried to help, because I thought it was probably serious, but I never got through to her. There's lots of us don't get on that well with our parents, but this...'
'This went deeper?'
'I thought so. That was the impression I got.'
Charlie nodded. He suspected that was the impression the neighbours had had too.
'There was a man, wasn't there, in the household until recently?'
'Yes. Not her father.'
'There couldn't be any question of...of him and her, him and Katy?...'
'Oh, I don't think so. I never got any hint. When he moved out Katy just said he "didn't like the atmosphere -- couldn't take it any longer".'
'Well, that tells me something, at least. Did Katy see her natural father?'
'If so, she kept very quiet about it. I never once heard her mention him.'
'For all I know. There's plenty of kids here from one-parent homes. Lots of them don't know who their father is.'
'You think Katy was one of them?'
'That would be my guess. But we weren't that close, you see. Not friends.'
'And there was nobody here who was closer?'
'No. I certainly never heard her mention Alan Coughlan, or any other boy as a boyfriend. There was...nobody.'
The girl considered Charlie's word.
'Yes. I think that's what her life was. Bleak.'