I am a detective who investigates the coldest of missing person cases. Families who are desperate to find lost relatives petition me for answers when others have found none. However, I feel as though I can never meet their expectations. If I find the missing person dead all I can give is an account of what might have happened. The worst cases are those where something inexplicable has occurred. An incomplete chronology can be devised, but after the facts run out (and they always do) there is a void.
Take one of my current cases as an example: on October 31st, Student 1 finished attending lectures and returned to their Rawson Street accommodation; later Student 2 finished their lectures and joined Student 1 in their flat; a mutual friend of the two students also received an invitation to watch films (Ringu & Videodrome) that night, but did not attend; a neighbour of Student 1 reported being woken by singing of songs from A Nightmare Before Christmas later that night. Neither two students attended classes the next day, and have not been seen since. No signs of struggle or intent to disappear were found.
Even if I confine myself to the realistic, the plausible, there are many gaps where extra events & motives can be inserted. If I wander into the fantastic for an explanation, then what? Were they both consumed by the television set? I think not, but I have no evidence that gives me the authority to rule that out completely.
Any account I give families may by chance describe what happened, and coincidences do happen, but my scenarios, correct or not, are still gross simplifications. For me and these families there are only hollow conclusions. Even if they are reunited with their loved one, there is still an emptiness. People always want to know more than can be told. How can we know exactly what has happened to someone else? Maybe we can learn enough to feel an empathy, but not everything about an experience can be shared.
So, what I do when I meet each new family is sit with them at the table in my office. I make them a drink and put a paper copy of their relative’s file between us. Then I assure them that I will do the best I can to find them, but the chances of success are low. At this point they tend thank me for my honesty. After this, to tease out additional information, we talk about the missing person. At the end of the meeting I say that while there seem to be three possible outcomes (I find them dead, alive, or I fail to find any trace) there is really only one. No matter what the outcome of my investigation is, any of the stories that I tell to these families will never be substitutes for lost time with loved ones.
My “success rate” compared to my colleagues is said to be unusually high.
Stephen Ellwood stood amongst the cinders of the protest camp. Twisted metal branches grew out of the square’s concrete floor without skins. No one knew the cause of the night’s inferno, although several theories had all ready been put forward. A CCTV camera filmed a suited passer-by throwing a cigarette stub towards an overflowing bin. Doubts existed in many that had seen the footage if the fire started in the bin, or if the end landed next to a nylon groundsheet waiting to be caught. Stephen suspect that this narrative of accident without deliberate malice would be the official story.
Another theory, voiced by a hostile media, said that the blaze started inside a tent with the careless use of a camping stove. They always mentioned after the accusation it could have malfunctioned. Survivors refuted this, although Stephen kept it open as a possibility.
Police intelligence possessed evidence that a group within the camp might have attempted to martyr themselves as a human sacrifice on the doorstep of the stock exchange. This, in Stephen’s estimation, remained on the far edge of probability until more evidence could be sifted from the ashes.
Stephen walked around the outlines of tents. The screen erected around the square flapped with the gentle breeze. He held his face mask tighter against his mouth, aware that the grains blowing against his skin might be human. His own theory, unvoiced and without anything more than anecdotal evidence, was that like the economic system the camp once fought, they had grown too big, too fast. Because social systems grew like forests the probability of destructive ruination increased over time. Stephen did not like his theory, it kept him awake at nights. When he made the correlation between markets and protesters on the drive into London he nearly crashed his BMW into the motorway’s central reservation.
A charred arm outstretched and trapped in the instant its owner tried to escape from their burning home crunched underfoot. Stephen’s insides inverted. He removed his leather shoe from the broken radius and ulna, and searched for an exit from the barbecued camp site.
The only comfort he drew from his theory was that after fires well managed forests regrew quickly.