‘Coffee, I need coffee,’ barked Detective Constable Paul Rayner. ‘Where’s Jane?’ he impatiently enquired.
‘Staring at her screen probably,’ called out a colleague sitting at a desk from across the room.
‘Probably,’ muttered DC Rayner under his breath. He wasn’t a technophobe but the incessant need to first investigate everything using social media, artificial intelligence, cookies, and search histories made him glad he was towards the end of his policing career. He thought the force was losing its way in the 90s when they had to fill in forms, risk assessments, and statements, basically pushing paper. Now he longed for those days. Everything was digital and his index finger praying mantis typing style didn’t cut it in today’s world.
He placed his hands on the arms of his chair to assist him in standing. Having been sitting for a couple of hours his hip had become inflexible. Aside from the odd stiffness and occasional bout of gout, he didn’t think he was in bad shape for a fifty-seven-year-old. If only they didn’t keep on increasing the age of early retirement, he would have been out of the Force a couple of years ago. Now he was tasked to babysit the new crop of DCs who were more interested in investigating offensive tweets than solving real crimes.
Jane Donovan was assigned as his apprentice. She joined the DC ranks just before the COVID lockdowns were implemented and, like most of the Police, spent the next two years chasing ordinary people who dared to defy the COVID restrictions. It made him sick to think of what they had become. His protégé had a particular flare for identifying such culprits on CCTV and using social media to track them down. God forbid they actually had to solve a real crime, but it seemed even the criminal’s kryptonite was a virulent virus.
‘Good morning, Jane,’ he announced while still a corridor away. Even though they were technically in the same work ‘bubble’ she insisted on sitting in the east wing of their office as it had better Feng Shui.
‘Morning,’ she chirped back. ‘What brings you down here?’
‘Coffee,’ growled Paul.
‘Yes please, a Frappuccino with a caramel shot,’ she responded sassily.
‘Err no, it’s your turn,’ he said, ‘How’s whatever it is you’re doing going?’
‘Well,’ she said looking up with her bright blue eyes still unsullied by the harshness of the world. ‘There’s more discontent out there, I think it’s going to spill over, and protests are inevitable.”
‘Yes, yes what do you expect when they lock people in their homes for months,’ he answered hastily. ‘Grab us some coffee, a missing person case just landed on my desk.’
‘Missing people are handled by the local constabulary, why are we getting involved?’ asked Jane.
‘Yes normally,’ Paul answered, ‘but this case has come directly from the Home Office. Apparently, it’s a civil servant, a high-ranking one to boot. He’s been missing for the last seventy-two hours. He was supposed to go out for dinner with his wife to celebrate their silver anniversary but he never returned home from work.’
‘Is it being treated as suspicious?’ she quizzed.
‘Coffee,’ he replied testily, ‘we have a long day ahead of us. Do you think we would be asked to get involved if it wasn’t suspicious?’ Not waiting for a response, he turned on his heels and headed back to his desk.
Jane reached into her handbag and pulled out her mobile phone. A couple of taps on the screen and the Starbucks app opened. She ordered one Frappuccino with a caramel shot, and one regular cappuccino for Paul. After paying for the drinks, she put on her cerise pink overcoat, which was almost a contradiction to her persona.
From first appearances, Jane had the air of a highly competent and confident individual. She dressed conservatively in the office, portraying her professionalism, but still womanly, so as to accentuate her graceful curves. She walked with the poise of a dancer and her posture was straight and upright, which was remarkable given the number of hours she spent sitting in front of a computer.
She was promoted to DC a year ahead of everyone in her cohort. She liked to think it was because of her ability to retain and recall data, particularly numbers, as well as her tenacity to get things done. The truth of the matter was that the DC ranks were full of aging inspectors who had little affinity or skills when it came to social media and databases. Once they discovered Jane’s ability to curate and surface information from the internet, she was fast-tracked through the programme. To make up for the loss of her practical experience they paired her with the most experienced DC, Paul Rayner, who was also the least savvy when it came to anything digital. Unfortunately for her, her promotion to the DC ranks came just before the lockdowns, and the number of crimes disappeared almost overnight, other than for Covid restriction breaches and domestic abuse cases. Now she was stuck in an office with Paul, whose pessimism about the future state of the country and his borderline depressive personality made each day a chore. She even moved to a different part of the office so as not to be subjected to his negativity. At least this missing person’s case presented something of a challenge, an oasis in the desert of minor rule infringements.
As she took the elevator down to reception, she fixed her hair in the mirror-glazed panel. Fine mousy brown hair with blond highlights, kept short for practical purposes, framed her prominent features. Ombréd eyebrows sat aloft her large blue stream patterned irises, and her nose, a soft aquiline, led to slim lips that completed her heart-shaped face. She could be alluring when she wanted to, but her self-deprecating nature kept her from being overtly sensual.
The doors of the elevator opened at reception, and four passengers were waiting to alight. All of them wore masks and parted like the Red Sea did for Moses to grant Jane passage through them.
The ‘clack’ of her high heels on the terrazzo flooring rang through the empty reception as she walked to the front doors. The unlikeliness of a field expedition meant she could be more venturous in her foot ware and her two and quarter-heel pumps were a fine balance of chic and functionality.
The streets were almost desolate, except for a couple of homeless men who were squabbling over a blanket. This was the first warm week of spring, following an unseasonably cold start. The cherry trees responded in kind, blossom unfurled painting the branches in white and pink flowers. In any normal year, the streets would be bustling with corporate suit types going about their business, today they were probably working from their kitchen table in jogging tops and bottoms. Many of the restaurants, coffee shops, and retailers had temporarily closed, their trade was so dependent on the city folks. Starbucks remained one of the few that operated a limited service, as long as orders were placed on their app and collected via a makeshift hatch.
‘An order for Jane,’ she said to the barista deeply entrenched behind a Perspex screen. As the barista went to collect her coffee, Jane’s mobile rang. It was Paul.
‘Hurry back, we have a zoom call with the super intendant at noon.’ There was a perceptible level of anxiety in his tone.
‘Because of the missing person case?’ quizzed Jane.
‘Yes. I know this is highly unusual. Anyway, get back here, I need you to login into Zoom, I can’t find the link.’
‘It’s probably in your calendar invite…’ she started, then remembered whom she was talking to. ‘Never mind, I’ll be back in ten minutes, I’ve just picked up our coffees.’ She hung up and turned to the barista, ‘give me a cinnamon bun as well. I think I’m going to need it.’
They heard his voice before they saw his face. ‘Can you see me?’ he questioned. ‘How about now?’ The super intendant’s webcam flickered into operation. He sat in his spare bedroom which had now been commandeered as his base of control. Sunlight streamed through the window, washing out the image, but his deep tan and leathery skin was still radiant and a juxtaposition against his white hair. Bizarrely, at least to Paul and Jane, he wore a mask despite apparently being alone. Conversely, they were both sitting in a conference room, sharing a laptop without masks, and wondered if they might be rebuked at some point during the call. Subconsciously Jane moved out of the centre of the frame to make their proximity to each other less obvious.
‘Thank you for meeting with me at short notice,’ he began, ‘I know this is irregular, but time is of the essence. I believe you have been emailed Joseph Farley‘s file, he’s been missing for over seventy-two hours now. The reason we are getting involved is because he’s an advisor to the Joint Task Force for the procurement of CV19 vaccinations. His absence is troubling a number of MPs including some senior ones. My understanding is that they are at a critical juncture in the decision-making process and his expertise is necessary.’
‘We received his file this morning,’ Paul confirmed. ‘Have there been any updates? I assume the local Police are making enquiries.’
‘There have been no developments,’ the Super Intendant answered, ‘the local Police will be beginning a search of the areas he would most likely frequented.
I need you to do some, how should I put it, nuanced investigation. Assume there has been some foul play. Check his past, family, colleagues, lovers, and anyone who may have a motive. Report your findings directly to me, do you understand?’
‘Understood,’ both Paul and Jane replied.
The Super Intendant looked at Jane, having just noticed her for the first time on the video call.
‘You’re new aren’t you,’ he said looking at Jane.
‘Yes, she joined us a couple of years ago,’ Paul interjected. ‘She’s extremely competent at social media and finding things on the web.’
‘My name’s Jane Donovan, and I’m also going to be more than a competent DC,’ she added. She wasn’t intimidated by anyone.
The corner of the Super Intendant’s mouth lifted. ‘Good, it’s about time Paul had someone to keep him on his toes. The local Police are being led by Sargent Roberts. Report back to me every twenty-four hours.’ With that, he left the Zoom call.
‘What was that I’m Jane Donovan crap?’ Paul questioned as he turned to face her.
‘Well, you introduced me like all I am is your research assistant, so I needed to set the record right,’ she replied defiantly staring Paul down.
‘Ok I’m sorry, but right now you need to do your thing and find out what you can about our man Joseph’s digital footprint. I’ll call Sargent Roberts and see what leads they are pursuing.’
They both got up to leave. Jane strode purposefully back to her desk, while Paul shuffled to his. His hip had been troubling him more than usual. He had put it down to the cold weather, but it was more likely from the lack of walking. While his hip may have atrophied a little, his instincts were still keen, and the Super Intendant knew more than he was letting on.
Ordinarily, a new case would have excited Paul, but he just felt weary. Maybe he had become used to this enforced dormancy. Maybe his age was catching up with him, not just his hip, but he was growing long hairs where none used to grow. His eyebrows were bushier and unkempt, and what were fine lines around his eyes were turning into furrows. He still retained a rugged handsomeness, but his jowl was slackening, and his hairline was receding a little too quickly for his liking.
He opened his tattered address book, the one he was mocked for because he didn’t have addresses and numbers stored within his phone contacts. He found the telephone number of the local Police station and rang through to their operator.
‘Can I speak to Sargent Roberts please,’ he spoke when the operator answered. ‘It’s DCI Paul Rayner.’
‘Don’t you have his mobile number?’ the person on the other end asked.
‘If I did, I wouldn’t have to call you.’ Paul replied exasperatedly.
‘Well, I’m not at the station, I’m working from home,’ the operator’s response was curt. ‘If you give me your mobile number, I will email him to call you. I assume you don’t have his email address either?’
Paul ignored the sarcastic question and read out his mobile number. ‘Please make sure to add Super Intendant Fisher has personally asked me to contact the Sargent. So, I’d appreciate a prompt call back.’
After having the operator read back his mobile number, they both hung up. ‘This is it; they will use this excuse forever more to keep working from home,’ Paul thought. He insisted on turning up to work every workday, and even though he was considered in the higher covid risk category, the risk of going stir-crazy at home far outweighed this virus.
Across the office, Jane had already checked out Joseph’s LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and wiki page profiles. Unfortunately, his digital footprint was sparse. So far, she had gleaned that Joseph, 48, was married to Maria Farley and together they had a daughter. He was a research scientist at Oxford University for many years, specialising in peptides. He had published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers, most notably in the Lancet. In 2018, he joined a government subcommittee advising on health and nutrition, and then subsequently as a SpAd (Special Advisor) to MPs from both sides of the benches. His latest advisory position was to the Independent SAGE board and the Joint Task Force for the procurement of CV19 vaccinations. He appeared to lead a distinguished career, and his personal social media history didn’t surface any amber flags let alone red ones.
Jane unperturbed broadened her research, she also checked out posts from Facebook friends and those he followed on other platforms. His wife, Maria, posted four days ago mentioning their silver wedding anniversary and how she was looking forward to their evening out. To which Joseph had replied ‘Can’t wait’. It was not unheard of a married spouse when reaching a milestone in marriage to suddenly up and leave. However, there was no external sign of him doing just that. If there was a planned reason for his disappearance, then they would have to interview his wife, daughter, friends, and colleagues.
Paul’s mobile rang. He didn’t recognise the number.
‘Hello, this is DC Rayner.’
‘Hi Paul,’ a croaky voice replied, ‘it’s Sargent Chris Roberts returning your call.’
‘Thanks for returning my call. I want to know about Joseph Farley the missing person, can you give me a summary of the case, updates, and course of action?’
‘Of course,’ Chris took a laboured breath. ‘Apologies about the voice, I’ve had Covid, and I’m testing negative, but my voice is still a bit crook.
Anyway, Joseph was last seen by his colleagues leaving work at approximately 4:45 pm on Tuesday 15 March. He told them he was leaving work early to prepare for his silver wedding anniversary dinner. He appeared quite normal and nothing unusual occurred that day. They weren’t expecting him to return to work until Friday, as he had a committee meeting in London the following day.
We spoke to his wife, and she confirms that he didn’t return home from work that evening. He did text her earlier that afternoon saying that he would be leaving early for home. They have a Ring doorbell and there was no recording of anyone else entering or leaving the house except for her. Of course, when he didn’t return for dinner, she rang him several times and then called friends, colleagues, and family to look for his whereabouts. She called the police at 01:06 to report him missing.
We contacted the committee organisers and they confirmed he didn’t attend. Nor had any of the other committee members seen him. We checked with the rail station’s CCTV and again there was no sign of him. His car is still parked on their drive.
Tomorrow, we plan to do a detailed search of his route home, we have over thirty volunteers helping us.’
Paul took a moment to process what he had just been told. ‘Thank you, Sargent.’ he finally replied, ‘could you please give me the contact numbers for his wife and his colleagues.’
‘But we have already questioned them,’ protested Chris.
‘I understand, however, there are some specific questions we would like to ask them.’ Paul responded. ‘Also, please inform me immediately if the search uncovers anything.’
‘Fine,’ Chris replied begrudgingly, ‘do you want me to email you their telephone numbers?’
‘Could you just read them out to me now,’ Paul said, he had his pen poised over his tattered address book.