As soon as I step outside the police building, I'm shocked by the brute noise of the city. I'm no country mouse, but somehow London seems bigger and louder and more overbearing than anywhere I've ever been in my life. People are shouting at one another, car horns are honking, mopeds are whizzing along the pavements, and somewhere nearby some persistent idiot is using a drill. For a moment, I actually feel a little disorientated.
I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself, but even the air here is thick with smog and grime. This was the third police station I've tried today, and all three have given me the brush-off. I know I have to keep trying, but right now I feel as if nobody in this awful city gives a damn about Katie at all. They just tell me to stop worrying, they treat me like I'm some kind of nagging old woman. Frankly, I'm starting to think that nobody is ever going to take my concerns seriously.
Startled, I turn and find a scruffy-looking woman watching me from the doorway. She's breathing out a thick plume of cigarette smoke, and I suppose I must have walked straight past her as I emerged from the building. She blends in rather well against the mucky walls.
“Hang on,” she mutters, holding the cigarette between her teeth as she slips several cellphones into her pocket. Wiping her hands on his coat, she hurries down the steps and comes over to join me. “Sorry about that,” she adds, forcing a smile, “I was just...”
She examines something on her right hand, before wiping it again and then holding it out for me to shake.
“Churchill. Annabelle Churchill. I know what you're thinking, and you're right, my parents
assholes for lumbering me with a name like that. I should change it, but I just never got around to all the paperwork. Plus, I think maybe I like having something to complain about. It's a way to break the ice.” She coughs for a moment. “I couldn't help overhearing what you were saying when you arrived earlier.”
I shake her hand with caution, although this woman – with her rough, dirty coat and her uncombed hair – strikes me as being barely one step above a street-sleeper.
“Your daughter's missing, I think I heard you saying?” she continues. “Someone named Katie? Katie Wren, yeah?”
“That's right, but -”
“Shocking,” she continues. “It's not right, is it? The world shouldn't be the kind of place where a lovely young lady can suddenly vanish in the heart of one of our great cities. We should be safer around other people, not in more danger. If you ask me, modern life is destroying the natural herd mentality of our species. Cows, pigs, elephants... They all feel safer when they're around others of their own kind, right? But humans, we're starting to have to be really careful with that stuff, aren't we? 'Cause you never know who's a weirdo and who's not.” She pauses, and she actually seems a little breathless. “And then when you come to the police, the people who are actually supposed to help ordinary, decent people such as yourself, what do they do? Bugger all. Absolute mother-”
She pauses again, before taking another drag from her cigarette.
“Well, excuse my language there,” she adds. “It just sickens me. Total horror, all around. I long for the world to be decent again. This city gets right up my backside sometimes.”
“I'm sorry,” I reply, “but... Who are you, exactly?”
“Mind if I walk with you?”
“I was just -”
Before I can finish, I realize I'm not entirely sure where I was going. I have to find Katie, but the police were useless and I honestly don't know what I'm supposed to do next. Perhaps if I head back to the apartment, I might be able to work out where my daughter has gone, but at the same time I'm not sure I can face the blood just yet. For a moment, I feel completely and utterly lost.
“I know a place,” Ms. Churchill says suddenly, pointing along the street. “Nice little cafe. We can talk there, yeah?”
“What do you want to talk
?” I ask. “Do you know Katie?”
She shakes her head. “Never met her in my life.”
“Then what do you want with me?”
“The police aren't gonna do much to find Katie,” she continues. “I'm sorry, but that's just a fact. They haven't got the resources, and even if they did, they're the laziest bastards you'll ever meet in your life. Sorry again for the strong language, but sometimes it's just necessary. I've had run-ins with them over the years, more run-ins than I'd care to remember, and my opinion of their abilities has only -”
She holds a hand up high and then swoops it down low, while making a whooshing sound.
“Like that,” she adds. “Down in the gutter. Splash.”
“I'm not sure what -”
Having suddenly dropped her cigarette, she quickly picks it up again and wipes the butt before placing it back between her lips.
“Seven-second rule,” she mutters.
“Now I know what you're thinking,” she adds, interrupting me. “You're thinking about all those girls who go missing and end up in the headlines, the ones who get their pretty pictures plastered all over the place. You're wondering why the cops bother with them, when they clearly don't bother with most cases. Well, that's exactly what I'm talking about. If you want the police to do anything more than take a cursory poke around, you need to generate some media interest. You need to get popular goodwill on your side, and
they'll slouch into action. But it's all about chickens and eggs, isn't it? How do you get Katie's story onto the front-pages in the first place?”
“I really don't -”
“Of course, it helps that she's photogenic.”
She holds up one of her phones, showing Katie's Facebook profile.
“How did you find that?” I ask.
“Skills,” she replies with a faint, proud smile. “She's pretty. I mean, I could see her on the front page of the tabloids. Really, I could. I mean, in
sense you're already lucky, 'cause an ugly girl wouldn't get so much coverage. I have to be honest here, I know that if
went missing, nobody would wanna look at my face over their cornflakes. It's the pretty ones who get the column inches and Katie ticks all the boxes. Innocent-looking, a nice smile, good hair, good skin, average weight, pretty but not
pretty. Homely. It's a good mix.”
I stare at her, still not quite sure what she wants from me.
“And that's where I come in!” she says as her smile grows.
“Are you drunk?” I ask cautiously.
Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out a wallet and then selects one of many business cards. When she holds it up for me to see, I realize that she's a member of the press.
“I don't think I want to talk to a journalist,” I reply quickly, turning to walk away. “Thank you all the same. Goodbye.”
“Hold up!” she calls out, quickly hurrying after me. “Listen, I'll be honest with you. I come down here every morning to the station so I can loiter in the entrance hall, hoping to overhear something I can turn into a story. You'd be surprised what I pick up that way, but I've always been dreaming of getting my teeth into something meatier. Something that might actually help someone out. I've been working on the papers since the late 90's, and do you know what that means?”
“I really can't imagine,” I mutter, hoping against hope that she'll leave me alone.
“It means I've got connections.”
“That's lovely, but -”
“The kind of connections that'll help me find Katie.”
Stopping at the street corner, I turn to her.
, anyway,” she adds. “Obviously I can't make any promises, but I'm a damn sight more effective that any of those cops in that building back there. And do you know
I'm so effective?”
“Let's be honest. Profit drives the world, and if I can find your daughter for you, I get a big story that'll put my name back on the front-pages. Or the home-pages, the big websites, all that new media rubbish. It might even be worth a book deal. The point is, I reckon the search for your daughter could hit a lot of big buttons that the public like. They'll lap it up and it'll be a win-win for both of us. You'll get Katie back, hopefully, or at least you'll get closure and justice. And in return, you'll grant me the exclusive rights to your story. And they'll have to be
exclusive, that'll be part of the deal.”
“Deal?” I stammer. “You're trying to make a
with you,” she replies, before taking a sheet of crumpled paper from her pocket. “This is the way the world works. Your daughter's missing, and you need someone on your side who knows her way around, someone who's motivated to do the work. I mean, no offense, but a nice middle-aged lady such as yourself probably isn't used to the hustle of London, is she? You've lived in Shropley all your life, you've only moved house once since you were born, you're not -”
“How do you know that?” I snap.
“Research.” She grins, as if she thinks I should be impressed. “See? That's just a taster of how effective I can be. I overheard you talking to that desk monkey in the station, and then I waited outside for you. And while I waited, I looked you up online and did some background reading.”
“You did, did you?”
“That's the other thing about me. I'm efficient. I'm a hard-worker.”
“That's lovely, but it really doesn't have anything to do with me.”
“The deal's simple,” she adds. “This is a boiler-plate contract you just need to sign. I'll work with you to find Katie, I'll pull some strings, ask some people, and I'll be a hell of a lot more effective than the police. If she's alive, I'll find her and get her back to you. If something unfortunate has happened to her, the people behind it will get what's coming to them. And in return, all you have to do is grant me the exclusive rights to your story, and exclusive rights to Katie's story in whatever form it might take depending on whether she...”
Her voice trails off for a moment.
“Well, you know,” she mutters. “Depending on whether she's able to talk to me or not. If that's a sufficiently delicate way of describing the situation.”
“You're a journalist?” I ask, still trying to understand the so-called deal that's on offer.
She slips her business card into my pocket.
“I started on Fleet Street when Fleet Street actually
something,” she explains. “I'm sure a lady such as yourself can appreciate that. I'm not some internet monkey with a blog. I'm an actual journalist, of the type that's dying out rather rapidly these days. I worked under the great Harry Plume, I learned everything I -”
Suddenly she starts coughing, and she quickly turns away. For a few seconds, it sounds as if she's bringing up a lung, and she drops her cigarette again.
“Hold on!” she splutters. “Can you pick that up for me so I don't -”
The cough becomes worse and worse worse, and it's fully a minute before she gets it under control. Passersby have begun to notice her, and I'm starting to think that this whole encounter is attracting a great deal of attention.
Finally, she picks her cigarette stub up again and wipes some grit from the butt, before taking another drag.
“The seven-second rule was always just a rough guide,” she mutters.
Before I can reply, a loud car horn beeps right behind me, and I almost leap into the air.
“I can help you,” Ms. Churchill continues, still sounding a little breathless. “And one other bonus is that you can help me shape the narrative about Katie. I mean, if anything unfortunate comes out during my research, there are ways to reduce its prominence in the news media. If you know what I mean.”
“I'm sure I don't.”
“Things in her private life. Skeletons in her closet, things that maybe she kept secret. I mean, they might be relevant to the investigation, but you still might not want 'em splashed everywhere.”
“I have to go,” I tell her, taking a step back, “but let me be very clear. I'm placing my trust in the police, and I would prefer it if you were to not contact me again.”
“With all due respect, you're making a mistake.”
“Leave me alone,” I add, before turning and walking away.
“What if Katie had secrets?” she calls after me. “What if I dig something up that you don't want hitting the news? If you work with me, we can try to find her! The cops aren't the cops anymore! People like me, we're the real cops these days, and the cops are just -”
I hear her bursting into another coughing fit, but I don't look back. Instead, I make my way around the next corner and then I hurry into a cafe, for no other reason than that I need to regather my composure and calm down. A moment later, I spot Ms. Churchill hurrying past the window, as if she's still trying to find me, but fortunately she doesn't look this way and I watch as she heads off along the street. That utterly frightful young woman is a disgrace to her profession, if indeed she really
a journalist, and I can only hope that she finds some other story to exploit for profit. Perhaps I
a little sheltered from the reality of the world, but at least I'm not some dog-eared ruffian like Annabelle Churchill.