“I can see it now,” says the police psychologist. “His entire confession is written in the third person. It’s like he’s talking about someone else.”
“Yes,” says the detective inspector. “That’s why we called you. He seems to be completely unconcerned about his own actions. But he knows the game, and it might be an attempt to claim diminished responsibility. We need you to examine him.”
Howard’s confession starts when he and Chloe are neighbours in a new housing development favoured by middle-level, ambitious executives. They are in the same class at a nearby school that promises a top-flight education in all the core subjects, including art appreciation and a foreign language, with a focus on preparing students for life in the boardroom and wining and dining with the rich and famous. Boys and girls share class time, but are separated: boys one side of the room, girls on the other. There is no sex education, and they are segregated during lunch breaks. “Fraternising” is policed by prefects who delight in imposing childish and embarrassing punishments for breaches.
But teenage ingenuity and bravado have found ways around these restrictions, and none of these rules apply outside school hours, except for the boarders. Chloe and Howard are day students, and their parents are delighted to see the two of them become firm friends: they see a merger of their related business interests in their future, and are not aware of the increasing passion of their children’s relationship.
Chloe, however, knows where to draw the line. She allows heavy petting and says she will “go all the way” on her sixteenth birthday. That will be her present to him.
But one week before that much-anticipated birthday, she disappears. She is not waiting at the front gate for Howard to walk her to school. Howard walks up the pathway, knocks on the door. The maid says Chloe left at the same time as usual, dressed for school. Howard hurries to the school: he can’t find her, ignores a prefect’s request for him to leave the girls’ zone, resists when the prefect presses him, and is then taken to see the assistant principal, a woman in her mid-30s with a more open attitude than the other, older, staff. She listens intently while Howard explains that he is looking for Chloe. She immediately summonses all prefects and urges them to enlist other students in a search. When this is fruitless, she asks the school office to phone Chloe’s parents. They call the police, and a full search is initiated. Howard is interviewed at length, but eventually they are satisfied that he was not involved in her disappearance.
A week later, she is found, and returned home. Howard is not allowed to visit her. A few days later he sees her leaving the property in a car driven by her mother. The next day a removal van arrives and Chloe’s house is emptied and locked. A For Sale sign appears at the gate. No-one knows – or will say –where the family has gone.
Howard’s parents understand his grief, but say he simply has to box on. He wants to leave the area; they say no, they are settled and it is not a good time for them to leave their present employment. But they do agree to enrol him at another school to complete his studies before starting university. He chooses a boys-only boarding school in another county. They enrol him, with barely hidden relief. He does well, and gains a place at a prestigious university, where he studies criminology and social sciences. He is meticulous, focussed, precise. His thesis on the methodology of searching for missing persons is highly acclaimed. His parents attend his graduation ceremony; he accepts a teaching position at the university and becomes a search strategy advisor at the local police department. His parents buy him a house within walking distance of the university. They exchange birthday and Christmas cards, and he sees them once a year on his father’s birthday. He always asks them if they have any news of Chloe. They say no, and tell him to forget her. But one day, exasperated by Howard’s fixation, his father says Chloe was raped by her uncle and became pregnant. She had an abortion in the week she disappeared. She would not be a suitable wife.
Howard continues his quest. None of his research, none of his skills, bear fruit. His friends and colleagues, academic and police, urge him to give up and make a life for himself. He is a bachelor. He socialises with a small group of friends and with colleagues; he is a welcome guest, sometimes accompanied by one of the women in their circle, and he is occasionally spotted dining with one of them at local restaurants. He sometimes joins a group of men at a local gentleman’s club, where he enjoys socialising with the hostesses, but never accompanies them upstairs. There is speculation that he might be gay, but friends and colleagues who are gay dismiss the idea. “We would know,” they say.
But one day, assisting a police district some distance from his normal territory in a search for a missing child, he invites the local police chief to join him at a men’s club. After dinner, sitting at the cocktail bar, he says he would like to meet the owner. “Make sure you give her my name,” he says. “I don’t want to surprise her.”
He slips a steak knife off the bar into his pocket as the chief goes upstairs to arrange it.
One of the hostesses shows him into the owner’s office: a formal lounge that would not be out of place in an ambassador’s residence. The owner is seated behind a large desk. She stands as he comes forward to greet her. They shake hands across the desk.
“Why are you here, Howard,” she asks.
“I’ve been looking for you for years. I’ve never forgotten you. Forgotten us. I thought we had a future.”
“We didn’t,” she says. “It was a teen-age fling, nothing more. Do you know why we left?”
“Yes, my father told me. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“It does to me,” she says. “It ruined my life. I was in therapy for years. I could never settle into a long-term relationship. Not with a man, anyway. I always preferred girls, and I’m very happy now with my wife. I don’t want to see you again. Please leave.”
“Why did you agree to see me then?”
“Because I’ve been told a few times that you were looking for me. I didn’t want you to find me, but I always thought that if you did I would tell you what I’ve just said. You’re a very smart man, and I hope you can now free yourself to get on with your own life.”
“I’ve tried, but I can’t forgive you for abandoning me.”
He steps around the desk, pulls the knife from his pocket, lunges forward. She presses a button under her desk, takes a step back, moves away. He lunges again, cutting her raised hand. He is about to strike again when he is grabbed from behind by two security guards.
“Good work, ladies,” says Chloe. She picks up the phone on her desk, presses the button for the bar. “Could you ask the police chief to come up, please,” she says to the bar manager. “I have something for him.”