Mark Dutton tramped mechanically along his favourite country walk near York and thought yet again about his girlfriend Hillevi’s disappearance. It was hard to take. It would have been bad enough if the police had called and told him she had been killed in a road accident, but then he’d have known for sure she was dead, would probably have seen her body, and would have had some understanding of how she had died.
As it was, he had none of those things. She had disappeared, believed abducted, on her way to see a schoolgirl called Emma Silberstein. It was a routine piece of work for a child psychologist. Her car had been found at a remote place outside the town, but there had been no sign of a struggle. The police had, perfectly understandably, suspected him for a while, and he suspected that he had been followed, but bit by bit their attitude had changed. When a grown woman was abducted and there was no ransom demand, they told him, it was unfortunately likely she was dead, but they had no body. It might have been a sex attack, but such attackers usually struck several times, and no other similar attacks had occurred in the area. Alternatively, she might have faked her disappearance, though they could find no motive for that. They would let him know if anything else turned up.
He was not impressed. That day on the walk he came to a decision. He would find a good private detective and pay for his own investigation. That just left the awkward question of how to find a good private detective. He had no idea how to do that. He started to try, using the yellow pages, but the experience was dispiriting.
Twelve days later he was listlessly watching TV one evening when suddenly he started paying close attention.
Local news was describing the reuniting of a missing student with his family. The lad had disappeared on holiday. He had in fact suffered loss of memory after a frightening but minor accident. Police had believed he had deliberately vanished after some poor exam results, but the family had employed a private detective who had found him.
“And now we go to Duncan Worrall who’s with the detective herself, Sunita Sengupta,” the perky female presenter said.
Duncan Worrall, an earnest young man, was fluffing his lines and seemed starstruck. The detective, Sunita Sengupta, was indeed strikingly beautiful, but it was her words that held Mark’s attention. She was matter-of-fact about her achievement. It was a matter of routine work done meticulously and just a slight element of imagination, she said.
“And you’ve had other suck sexes…excuse me, I mean successes in similar shorts…sorry, similar sorts…of cases, haven’t you, Sunita?” he asked.
“A few. It’s become my specialism,” she replied.
That was all, but it was enough for Mark. He abandoned the yellow pages for his computer. Googling Sunita Sengupta led to a couple of impressive news stories and the website of SSS Detection, from which Sunita’s unmistakeable warm brown face, with high cheekbones, big brown eyes and disorderly black hair, smiled confidently. He noted the phone number.
“Hi!” said Sunita. “Take a seat, Mark.” She was sitting back in a comfortable chair in her small but light and cheery office, her long legs stretched out under the desk. He could tell this because the desk surface was of glass or some transparent plastic. She was wearing a black knee-length skirt and black stockings or tights. She pushed back stray black locks from her startlingly beautiful face and smiled. “It’s a disappearance, isn’t it, Mark?” she asked.
“My girlfriend,” he replied. He handed her a photo of a smiling Hillevi. Sunita was all attention, but she was silent only for a couple of seconds.
“Hillevi Nieminen. I remember that one,” she said, pronouncing the name correctly. “So you’re her boyfriend.” She looked into Mark’s eyes. “I thought at the time it was probably you.”
“It wasn’t,” he said.
“No, it wasn’t,” Sunita echoed. “So why involve me?”
“You’re an expert. And the police have been crap.”
He explained his dissatisfaction with the police investigation. Sunita let out a slight sigh.
“They’re not bad at system and process, but they’ve got no imagination. Those that have it are ordered to lose it,” she said. “I know. I used to be Detective Constable Sengupta. I got bored to tears. Not now. So you want me to find Hillevi. Mark, there are two unwelcome possibilities you’ve got to face and it’s best to face them now.”
“She may be dead.”
“I know that.”
“She may be alive and not want to see you any more.”
“I don’t believe that,” he replied. She looked sceptical. “Not because she couldn’t tire of me,” he explained, “but because if she did, she’d just tell me. That’s how she is.”
“O.K.,” said Sunita. “You know my terms?”
“Yes. They’re fine.”
“So – let’s get down to business.”
When the pleasant if ever so slightly drippy young man had left, Sunita assessed the case. She was inclined to believe that Mark was not hiding anything. Successful, assertive professional people like Dr Hillevi Nieminen rarely chose to disappear unless they had cracked under stress, and of that there was no hint. It could be that Hillevi had lived a double life, keeping a boy or girlfriend from Mark, and in that case she’d probably been murdered by the second partner or by a jealous person. She accepted Mark’s statement that if Hillevi had wanted to ditch him, she’d have done it openly. The most likely explanations, though, were that Hillevi had been abducted for sex by a stranger, or that she had made someone very hostile through her work – not too difficult as she had sometimes to advise Social Services to take someone’s child away.
Either way, the poor woman was probably dead. But Mark would be able to face bad news better than the gnawing uncertainty. She wanted to help him. The money was an extra. She loved her job, even if there were painful episodes. She was good at it and knew it.
A couple of weeks later she had been making progress of the negative sort. Contacts in Finland confirmed there was no sign of Hillevi there. Various people had given a picture of a sensible, balanced, successful professional. No hint of two-timing had emerged or of criminal activity. She had looked into some possible leads where Hillevi had been instrumental in bringing about results parents would not have liked, and none had seemed promising. It was looking more and more like a depressing abduction for sex by a random stranger. But there was one piece of investigation that had been delayed. Dr and Mrs Silberstein had been away with their daughter Emma, though now they were back. Sunita knew the official story was that Hillevi had disappeared before meeting them, but who were witnesses to that? Only the Silbersteins. It was a long shot, but worth checking out.
The police were normally reluctant to lend credibility to private investigations, but they knew Sunitra’s record, and anyway, she had been a copper, and once a copper, always a copper unless you’d been done for corruption or something. Sunita hadn’t.
Wading through the witness statements, she found one from a woman who reckoned she’d seen Hillevi’s car entering the quiet street where the Silberstein’s house was. The police had discounted this, as the colour and make of the car were common and so were young blonde women drivers. Still, it set Sunita thinking. She’d visit the Silbersteins.
Dr Silberstein was charming over the phone and said he was more than happy to see her, though he could not imagine how he or his wife could help. After all, they’d never seen the unfortunate Dr Nieminen. His voice of calm rationality brought home to Sunita what a long shot this was. Suppose Hillevi had reached the Silbersteins’ and they had abducted or killed her. They weren’t going to admit it, and this long after the events, she was hardly going to find a glove or something. Nonetheless, she had found in the past that her intuition could be illuminating – and to intuit, she needed to meet these people.
Sunita’s unglamorous but tough and adaptable Saab drew in exactly where Hillevi’s Fiat had done, but Sunita could not know this. She was met by both parents of young Emma. Te woman seemed all right, but the man struck her as just a bit too smooth and self-assured. Perhaps that was natural in a rich, successful professional, but something had set off a warning in her. She wished she knew what it was.
Their story was consistent. It wasn’t even significant that it seemed rehearsed: they’d have had to tell it to the police and no doubt journalists. They’d never seen Dr Nieminen. They’d waited for her, debated whether to ring her office, and decided to leave it for a while. When they had rung, they’d been told she should have been with them. The next people they heard from were the police. Sunita watched their faces and listened to the pattern of their speech. It all seemed O.K.. Then Mrs Silberstein whispered to her husband. He looked at Sunita.
“You could meet Emma if that’d help,” he offered.
It didn’t make sense that the small girl would have anything to add, but conceivably she’d let something out. Sunita accepted and agreed to meet the girl the next day.
So the very next day she was back. As she was still getting out of her car, a small girl ran and danced towards her.
“Hello! Are you Sunita? You’ve come to see me! Cool!” she bubbled. Sunita thought this was a good start, but it was just a little puzzling that this same girl had been reported as rather unsociable by her school. Perhaps an intelligent only child was more confident around adults than children.
“You’re going to ask me questions – but first, really really first, I want you to see my book!” the child enthused. Fair enough, thought the detective: that way she’d gain the girl’s confidence.
Soon Sunita was leafing through the same book Hillevi had done. Being a detective, her sense of danger was more active, and she grew uneasy before Hillevi had done. Still, it was only a book.
Then she came to a picture of a blonde, snub-nosed, blue-eyed young woman in modern dress. Without any doubt it was Hillevi Nieminen, and in the same clothes she was wearing when she went missing. A cold shiver went down her spine. Why was Dr Nieminen’s picture in this book? Perhaps she should try to identify a few of the other pictures and see if they too were of people who had disappeared. It was possible that the Silberstein’s were abducting and murdering women and painting them for the book – but it was strange that most of the figures were not in modern clothes. Ay any rate, it proved that Hillevi had met the Silbersteins: they had lied about that.
“The last page is special!” said Emma. Sunita turned to it, but found it blank. She went to turn the page back, but could not. Why was the page growing and coming closer? What the hell was happening? Wha…
Sunita Sengupta was a beautiful picture in Emma’s book, right next to Hillevi Nieminen.
The news that Ms Sengupta had disappeared set off a massive manhunt. Mark made sure the police knew the detective had been investigating Hillevi’s disappearance. Again he found himself a suspect. This time the Silbersteins were treated seriously as suspects, but there was no evidence against them. The lines of investigation all led nowhere.
Eventually Mark came to an unwelcome conclusion. He would have to investigate himself. He was more and more convinced that the Silbersteins were mixed up in it somehow. That led to him approaching them direct and to a polite invitation to their house.
The two adults were full of concern for the poor young man, but could not see what they could do to help. As for Ms Sengupta, very likely she had stumbled on something and paid the price. Parents on whom Dr Nieminen had raised concerns seemed a good bet – but undoubtedly the police would be looking into all that. Their quiet daughter had insisted on joining them, and they had let her, but she did not attempt to intervene in the conversation until it seemed to be stumbling to an end. Then suddenly she spoke:
“Mark! Mark! I like you. I want to talk with you,” she announced. It did not sound as if she expected a refusal.
“Certainly, darling, if you want to and Mr Dutton doesn’t mind,” said her mother.
“Fine!” said Mark, who thought just possibly she might let slip some secret. Half a minute later they were alone together.
“First of all, I want you to see my book,” Emma stated, as if she was the teacher and he was a pupil.
Like Hillevi and like Sunita, Mark found the book strange. He looked up at Emma’s face twice, but her expression betrayed nothing. He came to the picture of Hillevi Nieminen.
The story had been that Hillevi had never made it to the Silberstein’s – but if that was so, why was a remarkably accurate picture of her in this book? He stared at that picture a long time and was disturbed by something in the expression shown – something like fear and confusion just beginning to appear.
He looked up at Emma.
“Who’s this?” he asked.
“They’ve all got labels,” the girl replied calmly. Mark hadn’t noticed this.
The label read “DR HILLEVI NIEMINEN” and gave the date of her disappearance.
“How did this get here?” he demanded.
“Like all the others,” she answered. “Please carry on. You’ll like the next one.”
The next one was Sunita Sengupta, her beautiful, intelligent face showing the same disturbing emotions as if she had just realised something was wrong. The label was for the date of the detective’s disappearance.
He stood up, the book still clasped in his hand, staring at Emma.
“Please sit down, Mark,” said the girl. “There’s more things I want you to see – and I suppose you have noticed it’s only females in the book, not males like you.”
For some reason he could not understand, he did sit down and remained staring at the book, at the picture of Sunita. Mechanically, he turned the next page.
“Don’t turn the next page, now, please, Mark,” said Emma. “Start turning back towards the front, page by page.”
He did what she said. To his amazement, he was now staring at a beautiful, firm, round, deeply-parted warm brown bottom on top of long athletic legs. It was a bare-bummed Sunita Sengupta. He couldn’t help being impressed and excited by the sight.
“Keep turning, Mark,” said Emma.
He was staring at Hillevi’s bottom. He knew it well enough. He could even just about see that small birthmark he had so loved. This was not a marvellously accurate picture of Hillevi: it WAS Hillevi. The picture after it WAS Sunita. No wonder the bodies had never been found. And all the others – they must be the same.
“Nice, aren’t they?” asked Emma. Somehow now she did not sound like a small girl.
“How…How did you do this? What happened to them? What are you?” he burbled.
“I do like sensible, searching questions,” she replied calmly. “In order – I used my powers to turn them into pictures; the book took them; and I’m a Regenan. You might say I’m a student on a gap year, but we live much longer than your species. I’m nearly ready to go back home – just one more reappearance as a human child to a new pair of parents, and five more pictures and then I’ll be presenting my book to the wise ones. Look closely in my eyes, Mark.”
She rose. He found he could not move or avoid her gaze; but somehow he didn’t want to.
“Good,” said Emma. “Now we just need to fit you up with a suitable wife and I can start all over again as your little girl. I rather fancy Australia this time, so you must emigrate there, Mark. Don’t worry: Silly Hillevi and Sultry Sunita will come with you.”
The four Wise Ones examined the book young Xrgohemaq had presented to them. She waited quietly for their reaction.
First one, then a second, then a third and a fourth upper eye glowed bright orange. Success! She was very proud.
“You have used your expedition period very well, Hemaq,” said the Surrogate Superior. “These are delightful examples of females from…What did you say the species calls itself?”
“Giuman. What rough vitality these barbarian words can have! They will serve very well. One might say they are quaint, and almost attractive. You know what happens now?”
“Yes, Surrogate. The Office makes two copies of the book, one of which is returned to me and the other rests in the Library, where the figures can be animated on request. The original is treated in the Divine Process of Zkegnargvurunp to extract life-sized replicas of the original subjects, perfect in all respects except that their brains will have been improved to remove certain memories and desires and insert others, and they will be kept and displayed in the Zoo until the time comes to populate a newly conquered planet with them for our support and pleasure, perhaps even the one they came from, for it is suitable for our use. That is the will!”
“That is the will!” intoned the four Wise Ones.