Dress by Chris Green
I saw Doug Morales as someone you could rely on. He was a man of his word. He was a born organiser. His was a world of order. If Doug said he was going to do something, he would do it. If he said he was going to be somewhere, he would be there. When he did not turn up for our meeting at Eddie’s and he had not contacted me, I felt this was not simply an oversight on his part. When I found his phone was dead and he did not respond to my WhatsApp and Messenger communications, alarm bells began to ring. This was not the Doug I knew. I went around to his gaff in Gillespie Street, but there were no signs of life. His neighbours saw me rooting around the back and told me they had not seen him for a couple of days. They too were worried about him.
Doug wasn’t the first to have gone missing, but his disappearance was the one that suggested to me that something was not right. I had never been that close to Shaun and Emma and had not seen Charlie Fox or Dirk Acker for a long time anyway, nor for that matter, Izzi Eeing, so their disappearances had not had much resonance. It had come up in conversation that they were no longer around. Kathy had mentioned it once or twice, I think, but I’ve never been good at remembering unnecessary details. Why did you need to keep tabs on everyone? People changed their plans. Ellington was a small town. Those that were missing would turn up in due course. I would bump into each of them sooner or later. I was unaware at the time that there were reports that numerous others had gone missing under mysterious circumstances.
Doug was recently divorced. I called his ex-wife Jackie, but she had heard nothing. I checked out all of our mutual friends and acquaintances and asked after him in the places I knew he visited. No one could shed any light on what might have happened to him. They all agreed that it was most unlike Doug to break an arrangement. He was reliable and was so punctual that you could set your watch by him.
I reported his disappearance to the police, but they did not seem to want to get involved. They suggested it might be nothing more than a change of plan. They did not have the resources to look for everyone who decided to go away spontaneously, Sergeant Duffy explained. Over a hundred thousand people go missing in the UK every year. Did I have any idea what a search for a missing person involved and how time-consuming it was? Didn’t I realise how much crime there was on the streets these days? Hadn’t I heard about the cuts in police numbers? This was half empty policing. Was there anything he had overlooked as a tactic to put me off?
Over dinner, Kathy told me her colleague Claire had connections with a private detective agency, Max Shadow Associates. I ought to try them, she said. They would be able to find what had happened to Doug. They might also be able to find out whether there was any connection with the other local disappearances. Surely, they all had to be related. And people didn’t usually disappear without someone knowing. I made an appointment and went along. It was important to find Doug.
You got the feeling right away that Max was from another place, somewhere far away, possibly another planet. He had this full-frontal stare, yet you could not see his eyes behind the dark glasses. His skin was like leather. He wore black. He had a large black dog, a Great Dane Dobermann cross, possibly. I do not know what the hat he was wearing was called, but I had not seen one before.
‘There are all sorts of reasons individuals go missing,’ he said. He spoke normally, which came as something of a surprise. ‘The most common are relationship breakdown, fleeing violence and to escape debt. But people tend to go missing individually. I would feel more comfortable if we were just looking for your friend, Doug. It’s easier to follow a trail. When people go missing separately in dribs and drabs like this, it suggests something more sinister. From what you have told me, these people are not obvious victims for a serial killer. But it’s a most unusual case, Chet. You have presented me with a puzzler.’
‘What other explanations might there be for multiple people going missing?’
‘People trafficking, joining a cult, alien abduction, all manner of possibilities. But these are worst case scenarios. It’s probably none of these. Leave it with me and I’ll see what I can do. Don’t worry, we’ll crack it.’
When Max phoned me the next day, I thought it must be because he had some news about Doug, But he had phoned to tell me that more people had disappeared. His enquiries had revealed that a shocking number of people from Ellington and the surrounding district were now missing.
‘There’s nothing on the news about it,’ I said.
‘For some reason, it does not seem to be making the news,’ he said.
‘Or the internet.’
‘You have to know where to look,’ Max said. ‘But granted, information is in short supply. Clues are thin on the ground. Well, to be blunt, non-existent. But there are ways and means. I’ve found out the vanishings are becoming widespread. We’re talking big numbers. Where are they all going? That is the question? Early days though, we’ll get there. By the way, I’ve put a tracker on your phone. EyeSpy. It’s the phone tracker of choice for sleuths in Singapore. It will locate your phone even when it is switched off.’
Alas, it wasn’t me that went missing. When Kathy didn’t come home from work and was uncontactable, I feared she had joined the growing number of missing persons. There had been no hint that anything was wrong between us. There had been no suggestion that she had been planning anything. This was a bolt out of the blue.
With Kathy gone, I started to go to pieces. I entertained all kinds of crazy thoughts. When I couldn’t get in touch with Max for twenty-four hours and found his office boarded up, I jumped to the conclusion that he had eloped with Kathy, and that together they had somehow fabricated the list of missing persons. I went to the police again, but Sergeant Duffy was adamant there had been no other reports of missing people in Ellington, which supported my wild idea. Kathy had planned the whole thing with Max and I had been taken in.
I phoned the salon where Kathy worked, but they said they had heard nothing. Her sister Sara said she hoped I was alright and said she would let me know if she heard anything. I started looking in at the places I thought Kathy might visit, but to no avail. I kept imagining I saw her on the street, but each time it turned out to be someone else. Nor was there any sign of Max. It eventually occurred to me that Max could easily avoid me. Through the tracker on my phone he would know where I was at any given moment. I started to leave my phone at home, but still, he did not reappear. His office remained boarded up. Kathy did not return even to collect any of her day-to-day bits and pieces. It is of course hard to be certain, but as far as I could tell, all her clothes were still in the closet. Even a dress I remembered her buying the previous week.
I was drawing a blank on all fronts. There was no hint at what might have or might have not happened. I needed to come up with a new theory. I couldn’t. There was nothing to go on. I still could not find any news reports relating to the other missing persons. What were they hiding? Who were the they that were hiding it? Two very different narratives were taking place and they couldn’t both be right. It was a case of either-or. Either people were disappearing thick and fast around me or no one was disappearing. Yet both possibilities were battering me with their maddening plausibility.
Because I was in such a mess, it’s difficult to recall the chain of events, but one after another, I came across Shaun, Emma, Charlie Fox and Dirk Acker and, out of curiosity, asked each of them where they had been hiding. None of them were aware they had disappeared. I did not want to embarrass myself by dwelling on it too much, so I laughed it off. When I bumped into Izzi Eeing coming out of the Goat and Bicycle, I did not even mention missing persons. Izzi said I looked down in the dumps. Did I want to try some of his Blue Cheese superweed? It seemed to do the job, but the relief was temporary. I was missing Kathy too much.
After a week, Max phoned me to apologise for leaving me in the lurch. He explained he had had to shut up shop and disappear for a while because of the gangsters who were after him. This was the type of thing a private detective had to expect from time to time, he said, but it was all settled now. He was out of danger. He did not explain how it had been settled. I did not ask. He went on to say he was sorry he had not been able to find out anything about Doug yet. Did I want him to stay on the case? Special rates for you, he said.
To make a point, I updated him about my recent sightings of the people that were supposedly long gone. I told him that Kathy had disappeared without a trace. Could he concentrate his energies on finding her instead? Doug Morales would presumably turn up in due course, like the others had. Of course, I would be glad to see him, but right now, Kathy was way more important. I asked Max if he could take the tracker off my phone too, as it was no longer needed. I didn’t quiz him on how he had come up with the inflated numbers of missing persons in our earlier conversation. What would be the point? With Kathy gone, things were different. We needed to move on.
‘I will do everything I can to bring her back to you,’ Max said. ‘In the meantime, try to get on with your life, Chet! Try to enjoy yourself a little. There are plenty more fish in the sea.’
Max was of course right. It was no use sitting around moping. And while fish in the sea may not have been plentiful, there still appeared to be one or two to be found swimming near the shore. Natasha in Marketing for example seemed pleased to get my attention. And I was well-pleased to get her attention so easily. The problem was Natasha was married, and while her husband did not appreciate her, he did not want anyone else to appreciate her either. Added to which, he was twice my size and had anger management issues. I did not feel things were going to work out between us. Frankie in Leisure was footloose and fancy-free, and frisky to boot. She seemed to be an altogether better bet, and things were going swimmingly until she had a better offer from Thor, the lothario who ran Perfect Fit, the out-of-town gym she went to.
In retrospect I ought to have seen what was staring me in the face. But until I came home one evening to find the house had been stripped, I remained oblivious to what was really happening. I didn’t see the note right away, but this didn’t make its impact any less serious. Doug and Kathy were an item. They were setting up home together. How long had this been going on? How had I not seen it? How could Kathy be so devious? How could Doug be such a lowlife? What was Max’s part in all this? How many of the others were in collusion?
Sara’s phonecall the next day caught me by surprise. I had always got on well with her, in fact, a little more than that. I used to sometimes go round to see her in Dulcimer Street. But under the present circumstances, I wasn’t expecting that we would stay close. She asked how I was. I told her I had been better, and asked her what was her take on her sister going off with Doug.
‘Who knows what she’s thinking?’ she said. ‘Doug wouldn’t have been my choice. He’s a little too ordered, boring even. But obviously my sister doesn’t see him in this way. Perhaps you didn’t notice it, Chet, but he had always had a thing for her. Why do you think he visited so often? Sometimes when you were at work with little excuses. Then there were the ones you didn’t know about.’
I supposed I hadn’t wanted to see it
‘What about Max Shadow?’ I said, ‘How does he fit in?’
‘Kathy thought it would add drama if she made up a story about people going missing. She’s good at stories. Making things up. She always was. I’m guessing it was her who told you about Shaun, Emma, Charlie, Dirk and the others. When Doug didn’t turn up to meet you at Eddie’s, she knew you would put two and two together and add him to the list of missing persons. Then she suggested Max could help find him. This gave her breathing space while she and Doug made plans. They took an extended holiday on the Continent. Naturally, you jumped to the conclusion that she had gone missing too in the same way the other had. Pretty simple story, when you look at it. But not nice. …….. Max is Harry Kite, by the way. He’s a bit of a fruitcake. Am-dram is his thing. I imagine he loved playing the part.’
‘His gaff was certainly a bit makeshift. I suppose I was suspicious of it being a set-up at first. There were no sign of associates. He looked pretty strange. I wondered if he was wearing theatrical makeup. Who dresses like that for the office? And then there was that great big dog chewing on a monster ham bone. It didn’t seem right for a place of work. But somehow I let it go. To be fair, he could talk the talk.’
‘Look, Chet! Why I’m phoning is to see if you wanted to come on over. I thought I would rustle up something nice for us to eat and we could crack open a bottle of wine and get comfortable. What do you think? I’m wearing that dress you told me you liked.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved