Between the day in May 2005 that Ellie had failed to come home and exactly two minutes ago there had been not one substantial lead regarding her disappearance. Not one.
The last sighting of Ellie had been caught on CCTV on Stroud Green Road at ten forty-three, showing her stopping briefly to check her reflection in a car window (for a while there’d been a theory that she had stopped to look at someone in the car, or to say something to the driver, but they’d traced the car’s owner and proved that he’d been on holiday at the time of Ellie’s disappearance and that his car had been parked there for the duration). And that was that. Her recorded journey had ended there.
They’d done a house-to-house search of the immediate vicinity, brought in known pedophiles for questioning, taken CCTV footage from each and every shopkeeper on Stroud Green Road, wheeled out Laurel and Paul to be filmed for a television appeal that had been seen by roughly eight million people, but nothing had ever taken them further than that last sighting of Ellie looking at her reflection at ten forty-three.
The fact that Ellie had been wearing a black T-shirt and jeans had been a problem for the police. The fact that her lovely gold-streaked hair had been pulled back into a scruffy ponytail. The fact that her rucksack was navy blue. That her trainers were bog-standard supermarket trainers in white. It was almost as though she’d deliberately made herself invisible.
Ellie’s bedroom had been expertly rifled through for four hours by two DIs with their shirtsleeves rolled up. Ellie, it seemed, had taken nothing out of the ordinary. It was possible she might have taken underwear but there was no way for Laurel to know if there was anything missing from her drawers. It was possible she might have taken a change of clothing, but Ellie, like most fifteen-year-old girls, had way too many clothes, far too many for Lauren to keep an inventory. But her piggy bank still contained the few tightly folded ten-pound notes she forced into it after every birthday. Her toothbrush was still in the bathroom, her deodorant, too. Ellie had never been on a sleepover without her toothbrush and deodorant.
After two years, they’d downgraded the search. Laurel knew what they thought; they thought Ellie was a runaway.
How could they have thought that Ellie was a runaway when there was no CCTV footage of her at any train station, at any bus stop, walking down any road anywhere apart from the one from which she’d disappeared? The downgrade of the search was devastating.
Even more devastating was Paul’s response to this pronouncement.
“It’s a sort of closure, I guess.”
There, right there—the final nail in the dry box of bones of their marriage.
The children meanwhile were shuffling along, like trains on a track, keeping to schedule. Hanna took her A levels. Jake graduated from university in the West Country where he’d been studying to be a chartered surveyor. And Paul was busy asking for promotions at work, buying himself new suits, talking about upgrading the car, showing her hotels and resorts on the Internet that had special deals that summer. Paul was not a bad man. Paul was a good man. She had married a good man, just as she’d always planned to do. But the way he’d dealt with the violent hole ripped into their lives by Ellie’s disappearance had shown her that he wasn’t big enough, he wasn’t strong enough—he wasn’t insane enough.
The disappointment she felt in him was such a tiny part of everything else she’d been feeling that she barely registered it. When he moved out a year later it was nothing, a small blip in her existence. Looking back on it now, she could remember very little about it. All she could remember from that time was the raw need to keep the search going.All she could remember from that time was the raw need to keep the search going.
“Can we not just do one more house-to-house?” she’d pleaded with the police. “It’s been a year since we did one. That’s long enough, surely, to turn up something we didn’t find before?”
The detective had smiled. “We have talked about it,” she said. “We decided that it was not a good use of resources. Not at this time. Maybe in a year or so. Maybe.”
But then suddenly this January, out of the blue, the police had called and said that Crimewatch wanted to do a ten-year anniversary appeal. Another reconstruction. It was broadcast on 26 May. It brought no fresh evidence. No new sightings.
It changed nothing. Until now.
The detective on the phone had sounded cautious. “It could be nothing. But we’d like you to come in anyway.”
“What have you found?” Laurel said. “Is it a body? What is it?” “Please just come in, Mrs. Mack.”
Ten years of nothing. And now there was something. She grabbed her handbag and left the house.
From Then She Was Gone. Used with the permission of the publisher, Atria Books. Copyright © 2018 by Lisa Jewell.