Elizabeth Conway - reported missing on the 18th of November 1986. 5ft 5, slender build, brown hair and green eyes. Last seen leaving school premises on the 13th of November at roughly 16:00 wearing her school uniform (white shirt, navy blazer, tie, and tights), a double-breasted, brown overcoat with white buttons, and a black woolly hat. First missing person’s report of the victim. No previous criminal record, no records of mental illnesses, no reports of family conflict, no records of conflict at school.
“So no reason to run away”, thought the inspector as he meticulously read over her profile line by line, taking a long drag of his cigarette in between. No suspects, no trails and no trace of the missing girl. The only lead – a Nikon F3 SLR, with a large crack streaking across its lens. There was nothing special about the camera itself. In any ordinary case, one would suspect nothing of a broken camera under a shedding oak tree, hidden in a pile of leaves. They’d tut and shake their head at the thought of an inconsiderate litterer, leaving a trail of rubbish without a speck of care for the environment. Even to the inspector, it would be meaningless litter.
Except, it was found near the route Elizabeth would take to get home from school. Through the entrance nearest to the duck pond, to feed them the crusts from her sandwiches she refused to eat. Past the fields of goal posts where the local Sunday league teams would train. Through the heavily wooded area where the owls and squirrels nested before reaching the exit next that led to the local pub, where she would find her house on the end of the road. Yet, even passing places that would often be swarming with people – witnesses- the girl seemed to have vanished without a trace.
Perhaps it was his intuition and expertise that made him question the worth of the camera, or perhaps, it was his desperation to solve the case without a single suspect or lead that made him hold onto a false sense of hope. Whichever it was, he allowed himself the hint of a smile at the result of trusting his judgement, as he swept his eye across the photos that hung across the darkroom. The photos of the girl who had disappeared without a trace.
The constable stood in disbelief at the first lead in the impossible case. Had it not been for the countless nights of sleep he lost in desperate search of a clue. And now, he held onto the clue in his hands as he would his own child. It was heavy. It came with a neck strap. Noticeable if she had dropped it. Clearly, it was discarded on purpose. What could the girl have seen that made her throw away such an exquisite bit of kit, he wondered. One by one, the two closely analysed each scene from the roll of 400 films, searching for the pieces of the puzzle that was hidden within
“Seems like we may have our first few suspects”. The constable held the print under a blood-crimson tint that dimmed across the darkroom. He streaked his hands over the two girls, one who seemed tanned recently from the Mediterranean with bright blonde hair, throwing a frisbee to the other with silky black hair, who seemed to fix a jealous gaze towards a boy that lay next to Elizabeth on a picnic blanket. Her had grazing his wavy brown hair. The photo had been taken in the same park Elizabeth passed through on the way to school. The inspector’s hunch was correct. There had to be a clue within the photos – as few as there may have been on the roll.
“These three seem to appear in a lot of these photos, especially this lad here”
“Suspects…maybe,” the inspector spoke with a tone of sarcasm, “or perhaps, constable, a concept you may not be familiar with – they are her friends?” The constable growled in disapproval, unable to reply with a witty comeback as he continued to shake his head at the photos. “I don’t know inspector, there’s just something quite off about these photos. As if something isn’t right in these pictures.” Though he rolled his eyes at the constable's intuition – or rather, his lack of, he could not help but agree as he continued to analyse the other photos
Some, like the one the inspector had pointed out, were of her in the park, the location they suspected of her last whereabouts. The photo at the end of the wash line caught his eye more than the others. The photo of the girl walking away into the wooded area. He could not explain the cold shiver that flooded his body. Perhaps it was the faded glow around her casting an ominous shadow in the dark winter night. Perhaps it was the way she seemed to be descending into an abyss of darkness, never to be seen again.
Some by the school; seemingly at the start of the day, judging by the children heading towards the building. Some by the front of her house, and a few in various random locations such as cafés, restaurants and cinemas. There seemed to be no pattern in the location, other than the fact Elizabeth didn’t seem to travel very much or very far if these places she deemed worthy of photographing. Or perhaps, the inspector thought, there was a significance to these seemingly mundane locations. Either way, all these locations had previously been searched, revealing no trace of the girl
He noted the appearances of each new face he came across, analysing body language between characters and secrets hidden behind each expression. He scanned each person in depth as if he were questioning them in an interrogation. He knew, of course, that the basis of such assumptions would be no different to creating characters for a storybook. The balance of assumption and deduction was a fine line.
Perhaps, he thought, there would be someone lurking within these photos, hidden away in the background. Someone with a vengeful eye, waiting to kidnap poor unsuspecting Elizabeth. But he dared not suggest it to the constable, at least not yet. To suspect such a thing would escalate the case to a criminal investigation. From his experience, escalating a missing person’s case turned out to have severe consequences for the person who was eventually found, dead or alive.
He was somewhat relieved to find no such person lurking in the background. He took a step back and sharply exhaled a cloud of smoke in relief. He tilted his head and gathered his remarks, taking another drag of his cigarette. So far, only two things seemed to correlate with the photos. One being nothing more than a hunch. He could not quite place it, but there was something familiar about many of the views in the photos. Holding a photo in one hand and taking a hit of his cigarette in another. What was this sense of familiarity he felt? It was as if he had stood exactly where the photographer had.
“It’s strange,” mumbled the constable. “Look at it in a certain way, and you could follow the girl’s daily routine. Leave home, go to school. Walk home through the park. Hang out with friends. Seems like she goes through life in a hurry judging by the blurriness of them all”. The inspector grinned at the constable’s remark. The quality of photography that went into the pictures was quite rushed and poorly taken. Aside from Elizabeth, the others in the pictures seemed distorted, or blurry. Either the girl’s skills were in dire need of improvement, or she was too consumed by her own vanity to focus on anything else in the photos. Given that she was in every single photo, the latter was more likely. Except, she didn't seem to face the camera in any of the shots. His eyes fixed once again on the girl on her own, walking into the wooded area.
“Tell me something,” said the inspector circling his head across the room, “what kind of photos would YOU take on YOUR camera”. The constable raised an eyebrow, puzzled by the inspector’s attempt at small talk. “Nice scenery, friends, family, pets, events. Perhaps any special occasions I’d like to remember”
“Precisely. So my question is, out of a roll of 400 photos, given the cost of rolls and prints these days, why only take photos of yourself? And why such blurry ones?” The hum of electricity flowed through the darkroom lights as if the room too was anticipating the constable’s answer. “Could it be…”, he thought aloud, “that the camera may not actually belong to Elizabeth?”
“I fear so constable. Now ask yourself this – the photos are blurry and poorly lit. Possibly due to the zoom distorting the camera’s focus, and due to the lack of flash used. So WHY are the photos so poorly captured? And why does everyone in the photos seem to be doing quite mundane activities?”
The colours in the constable’s face had suddenly bled dry, as he deciphered the inspector’s epiphany. “You mean to tell me…”
“You see it too now, don’t you?” the inspected continued, masking the sense of dread he refused to succumb to. “It’s not the people in the photos we’re after, but the photographer himself”. The inspector took the last drag of his cigarette as if to signal the constable to brace himself for the impact of his next words. “A stalker”. He closely narrowed his gaze at the photo at the end of the wash line, memorising each of the minute details. “These are the photos taken by Elizabeth’s stalker. It all adds up, they were taken from a distance, by someone who did not want to be noticed. Except…” the inspector’s voice came to a ghostly whisper “except when he was...”
His eyes shifted focus away from the missing girl and onto her shadow, as a look of terror took place of the once coy smile. As if he were watching it unfold on a theatre screen, he pictured the girl stopping dead in her tracks as the accidental camera flash illuminated the bushes around her, which were once enveloped by the winter darkness. He pictured the girl gingerly turning her head towards, praying it was only a trick of the light, staring white-eyed in horror at the silhouette next to the tree. He pictured the man livid at his mistake as he tossed the camera - the evidence. As his expression changed to the smoulder of a predator in the wild who had been spotted by his prey, as he pounced forward to begin the desperate chase.
The inspector pictured the horror in the girl’s face, living out the fear of every woman alone and vulnerable in the dark. Flutily sprinting away from the danger; lungs too strained to scream for help. He pictured the girl pounding her legs on the path, desperate to gain distance, only to be tackled down onto the damp, frosty grass. He pictured her writhing and clawing out to escape the clutches of her attacker, only to be dragged into the pitch-black abyss of the winter evening.
The constable darted towards the door, coming to a sudden halt by the inspector’s sharp grasp. “Let go!” he demanded “This is out of your jurisdiction now; this is now an abduction case”. But the inspector only strengthened his grip on the constable, refusing to release him. “Do you even know who you are looking for? We have no suspects and no other leads. If you sound the alarm now, we may never get the girl back! That stalker would know we were after him, and who knows what he'd do to the girl!”
“The longer we wait, the more likely we are to lose the girl” It’s already been almost a week, if we wait any longer, as you said, who knows what this guy could do?”
“We’ll find him, we’re so close! It’s all in there”, the inspected exclaimed, pointing to the photos. “The clues are all in there, I just know it! Somewhere in this puzzle of photos is our suspect”
The constable barged the inspector to release himself from his grip. He flicked the light switch on as he began to storm out the door. His hand slammed the handle of the door as he came to a sudden stop. He held his breath and paused. He looked back at the photos hanging from the wash line. Slowly, he approached the image of the school hanging in the middle of the room. The inspector curiously watched the constable, who had his eyes transfixed on the photo he held.
One by one, the constable took the photos off the wash lines and began to arrange them in order. The inspector was all but helpless to wonder what was running through the constable’s mind, but he dared not utter a word as the constable ordered the photos row by row. The constable's mind raced with thoughts, frantically searching. Searching for the thing that would connect the pieces to solve this mystery. Searching for a connection that may not even exist. But he had to try. His hands shuffling, sliding and shifting through the mounts and mounts of images.
Finally, the constable took a few steps back at the puzzle he had solved.
Each photo laid in, in what appeared to be an order of brightness. “They’re taken through a specific route,” he began. “Take a look at the lighting, the shadows, and the location”. The inspector, at a loss from his amazement, scanned traced his eyes along the wash line. He watched the girl emerge from her house at first light, then wander into the school as more daylight emerged. He watched her have lunch with her friends by the café near the schools and walk home in the rapidly dimming light of the winter evening. It was all there in the lighting.
"Based on the path the photographer seems to have taken, I’d say the photos are taken in the same order as some sort of delivery route”. The inspector could not help but crack a smile at the constable’s genius breakthrough. It was all laid out perfectly. The route seemed to begin somewhere on Elizabeth’s road where her house was, then to her school, taking other routes near the cafés and shopping centre, finally ending at the park, where he'd presumably end his shift and watch the girl on her way home
“The question is, who exactly would use a route like this?” the inspector wondered. “Solve the last piece of the puzzle, and we’ll have our suspect. The milkman perhaps?”
“Unlikely”, the constable answered, “the milkman would be doing his route before anyone was up”
“Perhaps… but what would a postman be doing in a park? Surely someone would notice him hiding behind bushes and trees”
“An ice cream man? Could hide from his van”
“Never heard of anyone selling ice cream before school”
“Again, what would he be doing in a park?”
The inspector dropped his head and clenched his fists in frustration. They were so close to finding their suspect. Both he and the inspector knew they had one chance at finding the suspect before the investigation became public and before the abductor knew the police were after him. Before it would be too late for the girl; if it wasn't already
He lifted his arm to his mouth to take another drag of his cigarette. He growled in frustration as he realised, he had already finished it. He needed another one badly. He needed to focus. He reached into his coat pocket and balanced the nib between his lips. The sweet cherry scent of the Marlboro had immediately begun to work its magic, even before lighting it. He took his lighter from his back pocket but stopped dead as the flints sparked. His gaze focused on the photos once again.
He knew there was something familiar about the views in the photos. He HAD stood exactly where the photographer had been standing. He had stood in front of the laundrette that stood opposite the café, stood by the bus stop near the school, and stood by the same tree in the park. All while taking the last few drags of his cigarettes, before throwing the butt into the bin.
“It’s the bin man!” He exclaimed. “Drives around the houses and schools then goes to the park to pick up the litter”
“Of course!” exclaimed the constable “no one would suspect him hiding behind trees and bushes. Anyone would think he was only raking leaves or picking up litter. Anyone would think he was only doing his job!”
The inspector and constable nodded in unison. Both ran for their coats, darting out the door. They had their suspect, but there was no telling what he could have done to the girl. Both raced to the car, and blared the siren, knowing it may have been too late to save the girl from the clutches of her stalker; praying the worst had not yet succumbed to her