The missing don’t always want to be found.
Kate Harlow recognizes this painful truth, even as she keeps searching for her daughter, Sophie, who disappeared two years ago. The police have stopped investigating—after all, Sophie has sent postcards home, insisting that she’s fine. To fill the space in her increasingly empty days, Kate volunteers at Message in a Bottle, where runaways can leave messages for loved ones, no questions asked.
Then one evening, a call comes in from a voice Kate instinctively recognizes, even through bursts of static and beyond the sudden dial tone that breaks their connection.
Those closest to Kate worry she’s cracking under her grief, imagining that it was Sophie. But Kate knows—that it was her daughter on the phone. And that a stranger has been inside her house. Watching her.
Sophie is out there. And Kate has to find her, even if someone will try anything to stop her . . .
“Kept me guessing to the final twist; creepy and addictive. My perfect type of book!”
—Elizabeth Haynes, author of Into the Darkest Corner
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Two Years Missing
I'm a bad mother. You're not supposed to say that. Everyone was very keen that I didn't blame myself. At first, anyway.
And they were right, there were plenty of things that we — that I — did get right. Bedtime stories, balanced meals, a lovely, elegant home. Holidays abroad, tennis camp and piano lessons, a maths tutor when Sophie was struggling a little at primary school. We even made a brave stab at the violin when Sophie was seven, although she was so extravagantly out of tune, the sounds so painful, that Mark and I once cracked up laughing when we met outside the living room door, not that we'd ever have let our little daughter know. But if Sophie didn't have much of an ear for music, she had everything else. We even had a dog — of course we did — a black Lab called King, as friendly as he was greedy. Mark chose the name. He'd grown up with dogs like that and he wanted Sophie to have one, too. I miss King.
And yet maybe I'm getting it all wrong, even now. Maybe it wasn't down to me or Mark that we seemed to find it so easy, that our little family bubble seemed to be floating through life — but down to our daughter, always laughing and sweet-natured, eager to please.
"Your little shadow," Mark used to call her. She was always there, trotting behind me, happily joining in with whatever I was doing. She had a talent for being happy. When she hit the teenage years, she had her moments of course, but I knew that was to be expected. It'd be all right in the end.
I was wrong.
But I'm making excuses. Because all the stuff I did, the car trips, the noses wiped, the kisses-to-make-it-better, the years of love and care, none of that counts now. In the end, there's only one conclusion, when you look at it. I've failed.
* * *
Mornings can be the hardest. Just getting started, deciding that there is a reason to get up after all. "I don't know how you carry on, Kate," people have said to me. I don't know how they decided that I was doing so. For a long time, it felt like I'd just ground to a halt.
I'm past that now. I don't work in an office, not anymore, but I do keep busy, in my own way. There's so much to do: phone calls, emails, letters. Articles to read, online forums to keep up with.
Sometimes it can feel quite overwhelming. People think I'm hiding away here doing nothing, but they don't understand how much work I still do. Although, if I am being honest, I don't always manage to get out of bed until the cat starts padding around crossly, hungry to be fed.
The trick, I find, is not to think too much about it. Today, I was helped by the sunshine making a hot streak across my pillow, too bright in my eyes. The sky was already a shocking blue slice between the curtains I hadn't quite pulled shut. So I made myself put both feet on the floor and then sat for a moment, still light-headed from sleep, thinking about the day ahead.
It's not exactly a full diary these days. Not like those weekends where we'd be out every Friday and Saturday, dinner parties and work dos and big birthdays — there was always something to celebrate. Mark was so social and I was happy to be pulled along in the slipstream.
But I do have plans tonight, so that's something. And now I've showered and made strong coffee, to clear my head, because I've set myself a task for today.
The first photo album has a layer of dust on it that makes me sneeze as I pull it down from its place on the living room shelves. I was always good about keeping these updated and making sure that we turned our digital snaps into glossy hard copies that I could paste into their pages. But I don't dwell in the past, contrary to what some people think. I rarely look at them.
Today I need to, because I've decided that the picture I have been sharing online and in the letters and emails I write — Sophie's last school photo — could be misleading. As of this summer, she wouldn't have been at school, she'd have just finished sixth form. So I worry that it could give the wrong impression — that it could even be a bit unhelpful, to use one that's clearly of a schoolgirl: Sophie's white shirt bright against her navy jumper, her shining blonde hair pulled back into a neater than usual ponytail. She got her hair from me, though mine has long needed some help from the hairdresser to maintain its fairness. The smile's all hers though — sunny, with a twist of mischief, lighting up that sweet round face.
Today I want to find a good, clear one of her out of uniform. I wipe my gray fingertips on my shorts and carry the album over to the coffee table, opening it carefully — and I feel my stomach sink. I thought I'd put the albums in order on the shelf ages ago, but this isn't the one I wanted to look at. This album is one of the very first ones, the photos already looking dated in that peculiar way. How does that happen? It can't just be our clothes — they're T-shirts and flip-flops, evergreen summer wear.
Yet this first shot belongs to a different age. It's Mark, Sophie and me, sitting on some anonymous park bench, each one of us with an ice-cream cone in our hand. Mark's thinner than he is now, and I look rounder, rosier, but that's not what makes our photographic selves seem like strangers to me. Maybe it's something in our expressions: we're both so carefree, ready for a future that would, surely, bring only more good things. And of course there's Sophie, a chunky two-year-old with a tuft of fair hair, her legs sticking straight out in her dungarees, too short to reach the edge of the seat.
I turn the page.
Oh, I remember this, too. I took this one. Sophie had fallen asleep on the sofa, one little fist still clutching Teddy, the far-too-expensive stuffed bear Mark had insisted on buying her one Christmas. They're collector's items, not for kids to actually play with, I'd laughed. But she'd loved her new toy, dragging him around the house by one leg and insisting on him sharing her pillow at night. I'd had to sneak him away once she fell asleep to wash him in unscented powder, so that he wouldn't smell different. Even when she was older, Teddy would somehow end up tucked under her pillow every night.
I don't know where Teddy ended up. It didn't matter so much, keeping tabs on that kind of thing, when we still had her ...
The phone shrills from the kitchen and I start a little, the sound too loud in the quiet house. I pad in, wiping at my eyes with my sleeve — I've no hanky, as usual — "Hello?"
"Hello, love?" It's Dad, his voice scratchier than it used to be.
"Dad, how are you?" I'm pleased I sound so steady.
"I'm fine, I'm fine. Now, we were just wondering, your sister and I, if you'd like to drive over here this afternoon. We thought we could go for a meal at this new Italian that's opened. They've got" — he pauses thoughtfully — "sushi."
"Italian sushi? Are you sure?"
"Oh, something like that. Tapas maybe, I can't remember all these things. But it should be very nice. Would you like to come? Charlotte says you can stay over in her spare room."
"Oh. Thanks, but I can't."
"Or you could stay at mine, if you think it would be a bit noisy with her boys running around, I could make up the sofa." Dad's downsized to a little terrace, a cottage really, even nearer my younger sister Charlotte and her family. He's been hinting that I should do the same — he keeps telling me that it's "so easy to look after, a small place." I think they both want me closer to them, where I grew up.
"Thanks, Dad. But I really can't. I'm going out."
"Oh!" He sounds pleased. "And where are you off to on a Saturday night?" he asks jovially.
"The helpline," I say crisply. "You know it's my night."
"Yes. Yes, of course. I just thought by now you might ... do you think they'd mind if you didn't go tonight?"
"I wish I could ... but I can't let them down. It wouldn't be right." I bite my lip. Actually, I'm sure they'd be fine. I've done more than my share of shifts, and I'm always ready to pick up others when a message goes round asking to swap. I've got more than a few favors I could call in. "Next time maybe."
"Next time, yes."
Suddenly I can see him, neat in the checked shirt he always wears for gardening, alone in his tidy little kitchen, stooping slightly these days. It scares me to think about how much he's aged in these last few years. They're sweet to keep trying, I know that. "Actually, I've been meaning to come over some time," I say. "I had an idea, the other day. You know that night when you were outside the cottage?"
"Hm. Now what night would that be?"
"That night, Dad, when you thought you saw Sophie?" He doesn't like to talk about this anymore, but something in me wants to push. "I know you've always said you couldn't remember what sort of car she was in, that it was too dark, but I was thinking — I've got some printouts of some car models off the internet, and I could bring them over to see if any of the car shapes jog your memory. Because I don't think the police ever bothered to do that, did they?"
He's silent for a second.
"Katie ... I'm sorry. You know, that wasn't very fair of me."
"What do you mean?"
"I should never have mentioned that, and got your hopes up. I didn't realize that was so much on your mind still."
"Well, of course. I'm always trying new leads."
"You know, Katie, it's very common, after someone goes missing, for friends and family to think they see them around."
"I know that but —"
For once, he cuts me off, his voice firmer. "Katie, please. We've been over this, a lot. I'd moved house by then. There's no reason Sophie'd know that, even if she were to come and find me. It was dark. I saw what I wanted to see. Actually, it's not so unusual — it's part of the process of grieving."
Therapy-speak. "You've been at that group again." I try to keep my voice neutral, but it is stony.
"We've found it very helpful, your sister and I. And I think you would too, if you would try again."
"Maybe. One of these days — oh, you know what, hang on a second. Sorry, that's the doorbell. I'll have to speak to you later, Dad. Have a good night, love to Charlotte and Phil and the boys."
"Bye, Katie." He sounds sad.
"Bye." I hang up.
I've never been a very good liar.
I did try the group thing, but I only went once in the end. I couldn't bear it. The only stories I wanted to hear were the ones with a happy ending.
I didn't want to be sitting in a chilly church hall with a load of strangers trying to come to terms with what had happened to them. Of course they couldn't. The whole thing was so stupid.
I do know how it works. I did read the literature they gave me. And some of it was kind of useful, in the end. "For a minority of families," one leaflet explained, "one way of managing the intensity and all-consuming nature of searching is not to do it at all, or to stop doing it after a period of time."
I didn't do that. I couldn't, even if I'd wanted to. But I suppose it did help me understand Mark, just a little bit, after Sophie left. Because that was the final thing that we couldn't agree on, in the end.
When to give up.CHAPTER 2
The thing about the missing is that they don't always want to be found. That's what they tell new joiners here. It's what I tell myself when another Saturday evening passes by without even a prank caller to liven us up a bit.
In her corner, Alma is knitting another vast yellow rectangle, a jumper she tells me, those evil-looking needles flashing away. I hope she doesn't plan to give this one to me.
They don't need two of us on, by any means, but it's best practice, the charity says. Responsible. They're very big on all that, making sure we volunteers feel safe and supported and cared for.
Bit late for all that, I want to say, but I don't. They don't all know my situation here.
New joiners tend to be surprised by how quiet this place is. They think it will be all high drama, phones shrilling and people rushing about scribbling down urgent messages.
I didn't. I knew how rare it would be if people phoned in. It's not the Samaritans. That doesn't make the hours pass any faster though. Tonight, I'm getting a headache from staring at the computer screen; I've been flicking through my usual websites, leaving messages.
I rub around my eyes carefully, not wanting to smear my makeup, and roll my head from side to side. Through the sixth-floor window a spectacular sunset is flaring out over the Manchester cityscape.
With a sigh, Alma sets down her knitting and pushes herself away from her desk. "Time for my break, Kate dearie. You all right manning the fort? I won't be long, I'll just pop down to Marks and Sparks." Like clockwork — 7 p.m. on the dot.
I'll just about cope, I think, but smile brightly. "I'll be fine. Take your time." I listen to her stately tread as she heads for the lifts of our less-than-glamorous office block. Regional charities don't have the funds for slick corporate headquarters. Still, you'd think they could buy us some biscuits.
My gaze falls on the noticeboard: there's that puff piece the paper ran last Christmas about our work. There we all are in the picture, one smiling team. I'm in the back row. They worry we feel forgotten about, up here. Head office is in London, a much bigger organization the helpline was folded into a few years ago. But I don't care about recognition, or team-building. I just couldn't think of an excuse quick enough to get out of the photo shoot.
I've helped out here for a while now, taking the weekend late shifts when other people are busy with friends and family. I've let them think it is because I'm busy with work the rest of the time. I don't want the looks.
My shift started at five, and now I am feeling hungry too. I'll make another cup of tea for me, and then take my break when Alma's back and head to Pret, I decide. Alma's strict. She won't even go for a loo break unless the junior volunteer's sitting ready in their chair, which I suppose is as it should be. I wonder if I should go and treat us to one of those mini bottles of wine, half a plastic glass each as we face the night shift ahead. But no, Alma and her rules, she —
When the phone rings I actually jump a little in my chair. First one of the night for me. I pick up within the promised three rings. We don't even get headsets.
"Hello," I say, making my voice sound warm and calm. "You've reached the Message in a Bottle helpline. I'm Kate."
A click. Sometimes that happens, they lose their nerve, we were told in the training. There was less said about the prank callers, bored teenagers and men who'd like to hear a stranger's voice.
It's been slow tonight. Alma had been right onto the last few, dispatching each caller with practiced ease. "Oh, I know love, it is hard, isn't it, but it's never too late to build bridges, you know. In the meantime, I know they'll be so glad to hear you're safe, now are you sure you don't want me to take a phone number for you too, schedule a little check-in call from us in a day or two ..."
That's what we do here: people who have run away from home call us and we pass on messages to their loved ones.
RAN AWAY? Send a message to let them know you're safe NO QUESTIONS ASKED Just phone and give your message We will pass it on Send a MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
That's what the advert says. They're all over the place, if you know to look for them: in churches, community centers, sometimes a local paper, if they can find the budget.
Alma's brilliant at it actually, wheedling out parents' names, half-forgotten postcodes, "how are things with you now?," sketching over sad details of treatment centers and "no fixed abode," the detritus of broken lives, sounding for all the world like some cozy great-aunt at a family party. She may look like the president of her local WI — that's exactly what she is — but Alma knows what she's doing. Building bridges, keeping lines of communication open, delivering messages to family desperate to know something, anything, about their beloved husband, cousin, son ... daughter.
As for me, I struggle to build rapport with callers, I'm told, can come across just a little chilly — I even, according to one feedback form (they're big on all that here, inevitably, there's endless briefing and debriefing) lack "empathy" with callers' situations. Which I find somewhat ironic, to say the least.
But if I can't be Miss Popularity, at least I'm reliable.
The phone goes again, startling me out of my thoughts, and I pick it up again. The static bursts into my ear, making me wince, then the line quiets to a low buzz.
"Hello," I say. "You've reached the Message in a Bottle helpline." I know: the name is unbearably cutesy. "I'm Kate."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Where the Missing Go"
Copyright © 2018 Emma Rowley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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