That rule about not calling the cops until the person’s been missing for 24 hours? Total bullshit. TV fantasy — and an insidious one at that. Why give the creeps time to do what they do and get away with it?
Call it in. That’s the rule.
Detective Lewis Costello personally knew parents who’d put themselves right into a real-live version of purgatory. They sat on their hands for that magical, fictional 24-hour window while their guts froze and their hearts died. Hope died. When purgatory ended, hell usually opened up.
That said, Detective Costello was just a little perplexed at getting that frantic call from the mother, Mrs. Heather Rosewood. Her kid had only been missing for just over an hour. That was a bit unusual.
Still, Costello was closest. He was working this shift alone, since his partner had called in sick. Working solo, he was on his way back downtown from a call down at a three-storey walkup. The building manager had found a couple of mutilated cats in the parking lot.
Sick people out there. Probably some kids who were going to grow up to be Wall Street bankers or something like that.
Mrs. Rosewood looked like just about every other mother he’d talked to in this line of work — that v-shaped frown line across the forehead was practically universal. It was the thing to do, to be concerned. Half the time, the parents were worried sick about their kid. The other half, you could see the clockwork going behind their eyes — those were the ones who probably knew all too well why their child was missing. Those ones usually had a good idea where the kid could be found — usually, too late to do anything for them.
“Has your daughter ever gone missing before, Mrs. Rosewood?” Costello asked.
She shook her head. She seemed to be looking past Costello at something very far away, past the contemporary dining room mantle, past the house next door, into a whole other world of hurt. Her face was lined with worry.
“She has other family or friends she might stay with?” Costello persisted. “Or… a boyfriend?”
“No,” she said, with dead tired eyes. “This is her home. She… doesn’t have a boyfriend. Detective, Clarisse is autistic. She barely relates to this world at all. She doesn’t have friends. She has never done this before. This is so… it was Clarisse’s thirteenth birthday today. Oh God.”
Detective Costello had an autistic nephew. He knew the territory, though the nephew was still pretty high functioning. He could go to regular school. Go out in public without freaking people out, mostly. He just had a way of looking at you — looking past you, like he could see something you couldn’t. You could talk to him, but he could end conversations all of a sudden and turn away, as though you were interrupting.
“Mrs. Rosewood, have you got a picture of your daughter?” Costello asked. “Something recent?”
Mrs. Rosewood went into another room and took a family photo from a desk, showing her and her daughter. No husband. In fact, there was nothing in this house that said a man lived here. No long coat in the front closet when Costello had come in. No man-sized shoes. No mess — as a rule, women just tended to pick up after themselves better than your average joe. Had there ever been a Mr. Rosewood? Plenty of families broke down from the stress of caring for a kid with problems. Usually, it was the man that cut and ran first.
She showed the photo to Costello. Mrs. Rosewood was holding her daughter’s hand, sitting on the couch together.
Clarisse was a chubby 17-year old with with hollow eyes, jet black hair and dark rings underneath like she didn’t ever sleep. Staring out at the camera, uncomprehendingly, a little glint in the corner of her lower lip from a bit of drool. She was dressed nicely enough, like she was about to go off to school or take a trip to the mall.
There was an odd painting behind them — abstract, like a stone-faced man in a funny hat and curved beard, just to the right of the couch. Costello turned to face the real thing and was surprised at how lifelike a few broken lines of charcoal could be behind the glass frame. It made an impression.
“Clarisse made that,” Mrs. Rosewood explains. “She likes to make art. It’s her way of communicating with this world.”
“Who’s the guy?”
“Her father,” she said. “At least, I think so. I’ve never had the opportunity to ask.”
“Is her father still around?” Costello asked.
“He died five years ago,” she said. “Climbing accident in Tibet.”
Costello shrugged. “Tell me again, the first time you noticed she was missing?” Costello asked.
Mrs. Rosewood had been working from home, as usual — she did some kind of research for the university’s archaeology department, migrating their online archives of hundreds of thousands of images from her laptop. She used to be a professor, but gave up a tenured position to be at home with Clarisse. She was doing some work in her office upstairs, that had an excellent view of the parkland outside the university campus. As she was heading back to the main floor of the house to start making dinner, she came and checked on Clarisse — but she wasn’t in her room. She hadn’t heard her daughter moving around, so she checked the main floor. She wasn’t there, either. The doors were locked, but she was gone.
“Wait — the doors were locked?” Costello asked. “Did she have a key?”
“She never needed one,” Mrs. Rosewood said. “When she wants to go outside, she will pace around in the front yard sometimes, always in straight lines. She turns and walks right back. I watch. She never goes far.”
Detective Costello was already looking into the hall and itching to move. “But… sorry, I guess what I’m getting at is, how do you know she’s left the house? Maybe she’s just hiding?”
“Clarisse doesn’t hide,” Mrs. Rosewood said. “She doesn’t play games. I looked all over this house. She is not here. I can’t… feel her here.”
Costello shrugged. “Look, I know you’re worried about your daughter, Mrs. Rosewood, but the door was still locked. If she’s got no key, she’s still here. She couldn’t have run away. She’s got to be here. Can you show me around the house?”
Mrs. Rosewood was anxious, but perhaps a little reassured at Costello’s confidence. The Detective was convinced this case was going to be wrapped in the next five minutes. Happy ending for a poor little girl and her slightly demented mother.
Twenty minutes later, Costello was feeling a lot less confident that this thing was going to end well.
He hadn’t noticed when he first entered this place, but there was definitely something different about this house. No photographs. No photo-albums. No mirrors, either, except in Mrs. Rosewood’s private bathroom. That photograph Mrs. Rosewood had showed him was one of the few that had ever been taken of the mother and daughter, apparently by a visiting associate from the university at one of the rare academic social occasions hosted by this household. Mrs. Rosewood explained that photographs and mirrors disturbed Clarisse. She would flail and thrash about in their presence, as though warding off sharks underwater.
Where the walls were decorated, it was with Clarisse’s art — often depicting the stone-faced man with the hat that Costello could now tell was meant to be a crown. Other drawings and paintings were more abstract, usually simple symbols of pentagrams or Celtic-looking runes. Costello was no expert. Definitely foreign, though. The only art that might be said to differ from those examples looked to be some kind of dreamy landscape of black and gray shades, filled with mushrooms and fungoid stalks standing at odd angles — though the way they were drawn, suggested movement across the rotting plain. Weird stuff. He couldn’t imagine where this poor sad girl who never wandered much beyond the front yard could ever have seen it.
More disturbingly, the mother’s contention that her daughter was nowhere in the house appeared to be correct. Mrs. Rosewood did not precisely exude a warm personality, but Costello’s refined instincts did not detect anything malevolent in her. She seemed truly worried for her daughter. They checked her room, even under the bed. It was dark under there, but he could see well enough to know there was no little girl hiding there. They checked all of the other rooms, including the musty cobwebbed basement that housed a washer and dryer and nothing else of much interest. Certainly, there was nothing for her to hide herself under.
Costello felt like a failure. He was missing something. He triple-checked with the mother about her recollection — that she hadn’t just opened the front door when she was looking for Clarisse, closed it and locked it herself. No, the mother was sure. All of the windows were locked from the inside as well.
He went back up the stairs towards Clarisse’s bedroom. Once again, he checked the closet. Nothing in there. He moved the dresser that was set up against the closet wall. Dusty papers fell from the side, but nothing else. Costello ran his fingers through his hair, rubbing his skull to try to distract himself from the fact that he was defeated.
Mrs. Rosewood picked up the papers while he was standing there. It was a fading old brochure. The Detective heard her inhale loudly, whispering to herself. She looked even more distraught than before, if that was possible.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“This — I didn’t know she was keeping this. I didn’t know she had it.”
The detective looked at the brochure. It didn’t look particularly important; an old pamphlet from the London Museum, about the dimension of a newsstand magazine, advertising a traveling exhibit from Iraq; Babyonian treasures preserved through the centuries, not to mention the looting and chaos of the past three decades.
He wiped off the dust and turned open the pamphlet to see a striking photograph of the main exhibit: a massive statue of an unknown Babylonian king of a forgotten dynasty — no, there, the brochure listed the massive bust as depicting a priest of some long forgotten desert cult. His grim staring visage was somehow familiar to the perplexed investigator.
“I didn’t tell you,” Mrs. Rosewood explained. “Clarisse wasn’t… always autistic. My husband and I used to travel. We took Clarisse to that museum when she was six years old.
“We came to the featured section, from Iraq. When we came across that old statue, she just stood and stared. She wouldn’t even close her eyes. We had to pull her away so the next group could come through. Over the next few days, she… she turned inward. She changed. We took her to doctors, but they couldn’t help. That trip — that day… I wish it had never happened. Oh God. Clarisse. Clarisse. Clarisse…”
There was a bump from under the bed.
Costello’s heart skipped. He saw Mrs. Rosewood had also heard the sound — she looked alarmed, though perhaps with just the faintest hint of relief. Was Clarisse here, hidden somehow?
He turned to the bed. He’d looked there before — but he had not seen anything. Now he threw off the covers. Nothing there but an ordinary mattress. He looked underneath. Again, he could see nothing there. But he could feel something… Instinct. He got back to the side of the bed and pushed it to the other part of the room, scratching the hardwood floor in his haste.
Under the bed, in charcoal, was a large pentagram encircled by Babylonian runes of a forgotten age. In the centre of the pentagram, there was a surrealistic swirling vortex of charcoal, made to look as though it might suck Costello through the floor if he were to step upon it. At its epicentre, the darkness was total — his eyes were drawn around the curves of the funnel that seemed to be on the verge of hypnotizing him. This charcoal whirlpool must have taken days — no, weeks of furtive, secretive pressing up against the wood, etching out the varnish to leave the black stain behind permanently. Mrs. Rosewood gasped again, falling against the detective.
Detective Lewis Costello did not know where Clarisse Rosewood was at that very moment. A sinking feeling in the pit of his gut told him no one would ever see that poor girl ever again.
The horror of most stories of missing kids and runaways is that they don’t get a choice in what happens to them. Even in the best case scenarios, they’re scarred for life; more often, they wind up wrecked, if not dead — all because an adult makes the choice to take way their future.
A child can’t fight back. There’s no hope. No life. No sense to any of it. Despair reigns. No happy ending here.
– Jonathon Narvey