An early winter’s dusk fell on a gloomy afternoon. Smoke curled out of the chimneys. Foghorns boomed from the harbour.
A schoolboy hurried along deserted streets, clutching a satchel of books under his arm. The murky twilight gathered stealthily around him. He wore a navy-blue hooded parka. His heavy shoes beat out a staccato on the frosty sidewalks.
As he passed by a small grocery store, he waved to the proprietor who was working on a seasonal window display. Poinsettias and holly surrounded a basket of mandarin oranges.
He didn’t have far to go now; his home was the third house down from the corner.
But he never made it.
For somewhere in that short distance of about one hundred feet, he simply vanished.
There was an uneasy silence in the viewing room after the clip had ended.
"So there you have it." Lieutenant Neil Slater switched off the projector. "His name is Martin Perry and he disappeared fifteen years ago. One week before his eleventh birthday."
"Then there’s not much chance he’s still alive?" Scott Preston of the Morning Herald poured himself a cup of coffee at the refreshment table.
"The odds are certainly against it," Slater agreed. "But either way, a case like this is never closed. That’s why we’re asking for the media’s assistance in publicizing the details."
The other reporters filed out, jotting down notes and chatting to each other. Scott followed Slater into his office. "Any suspects?" he asked.
Slater shook his head. "That was one of the most perplexing things about this case. There were no known child molesters in the area at the time."
In the courtyard below, a floodlit fountain babbled beneath the eye of a mysterious moon.
"He was too old to be kidnapped by someone desperate to have a child." Scott scanned the file.
Slater yawned and ran his hands over his cropped black hair. "A door-to-door search of every house in the area, plus an extensive search of nearby parks and woods failed to come up with a single clue."
"It’s certainly a puzzle." Scott raked through old newspaper clippings. "No wonder there were such wild speculations at the time, including UFO abduction theories."
He came upon a headline from the Morning Herald in inch-high type: "Did Martin fall into the Twilight Zone?"
"We’ve done numerous updates on the Perry boy’s disappearance." Editor Greg Mowatt looked impatient. "Frankly, I don’t see how another one would serve any useful purpose." He took a gulp of coffee thick as sludge. "There are so many missing kids today, I doubt if our readers would be interested."
It was a raw November day with the threat of snow in the air. A freezing wind knifed in from the North Shore Mountains.
"But the circumstances surrounding Martin Perry’s disappearance are unusually dramatic," Scott argued. "Someone must know something about what happened to him, perhaps without even realizing it. A full-page article on the case might just be the memory-jolter they need."
"You’d have to come up with something new." Greg’s icy blue eyes were as inhospitable as the weather. "A different angle about the case that up until now has gone undiscovered."
"December eighth is the anniversary of the boy’s disappearance," Scott reminded him. "That doesn’t give me much time to dig around and try to come up with something different."
"Take it or leave it." Greg shrugged dismissively, and began rummaging through a stack of papers on his desk.
"I’ll see what I can do." Scott was far from happy. He knew Greg’s lack of enthusiasm regarding the Perry case was because it did not contain the lurid type of sensationalism sure to sell newspapers.
"The old buzzard wants blood and guts." Ben Hyslop was the Morning Herald photographer. "And as much sex-preferably the kinky stuff-as possible." He pulled up a chair and propped his feet on the corner of Scott’s desk.
"I don’t know how he expects me to come up with in two weeks that the entire police force has been unable to do in fifteen years."
"Good luck." Ben laughed.
Scott added sugar to his coffee. From his window he had a good view of the harbour. The flurry activity throughout the day had left the Vancouver skyline looking like a gigantic snow shaker tossed by a colossal child.
Scott turned up his collar against the chill and prepared to retrace Martin Perry’s footsteps. It was on exactly this type of day, and at the same time in the afternoon, that the boy had disappeared just a few feet from his own front door.
He left Pemberton Elementary School as usual, at around three-thirty and set out on the fifteen-minute walk to his home on Osprey Avenue. At approximately three forty-five, he had been seen, for the last time, by the proprietor of the corner grocery store.
The Osprey Market was still there, with its windows gaily decorated for the Christmas season. Much the same, Scott thought with a twinge of nostalgia, as the last time Martin had seen it. He shivered as the full impact of what had happened on that ill-omened afternoon hit him with unexpected force.
It must be finding himself at the scene of the crime, he decide, for a crime there surely had been, but by whom? And how? And why? It was an enigma that had stumped the best police minds for more than a decade.
Art Lisle had balding red hair and a freckled skin. He rang up a few purchases for a customer, answered the telephone, and then turned his attention back to Scott.
"I’d see Martin passing by most days on his way home from school," he reminisced. "Sometimes he would come in and buy a chocolate bar or a bottle of pop…he was a nicely mannered kid, quiet, didn’t say too much."
The evening newspapers were dropped off at the shop door. Art busied himself cutting the string and stacking them in the metal display rack.
"You know I’ll regret to the end of my days, that right after I waved to Martin, I turned around to answer the phone. Otherwise, he would have been clearly in my line of vision until he reached home."
Scott could understand the vexation Art must feel, knowing that he could have seen whatever happened to Martin if only his back had not been turned at the time.
And as he peered out the window at the opposite sidewalk, where Martin Perry had walked into oblivion on a foggy twilight so many years before, he felt a shiver of foreboding streak down his spine.
A ship’s horn thundered out a warning from the murky reaches of the harbour, and a car door slammed in the back lane behind the store.
"So when you last saw him, he only had to walk past two houses to get to his home. Is that right?"
Art nodded. "And there was no-one home in either one of them at that time of day."
"What about cars?" Scott pressed on. "Did you see any traffic at all on the road around that same time?"
"Not a thing. There’s no through traffic on Osprey, so it’s really only local vehicles that use it."
"It’s a short back street that time seems to have forgotten." Scott stirred his coffee, his blue eyes thoughtful. A wintry sun sent a spiral of light into the lunchroom, capturing a swirl of dust motes. "There are several duplexes across from Martin’s home now, but when he disappeared it was just a vacant lot."
"So when the shop keeper last saw him, he was walking down an empty street, past two unoccupied-at least at that moment-houses." Ben wrinkled his brow.
Scott nodded. "The corner house was owned by a Hugh and Glenda Butler; a young couple with two small children. They moved away shortly after Martin’s disappearance."
"What about the next door neighbour?"
"Harriet Newton. She was quite elderly when Martin disappeared and has since sold her place and moved into a retirement home."
"So Martin’s parents are the only ones who are still there?"
"That’s right. His mother is convinced that Martin will return one day, and she wants to be there when he does."
"It makes me shiver every time I think of it." Glenda Butler showed Scott into her cluttered living room. The sharp tang of fried onions reeked from the kitchen. "It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. And I had two small kids at the time."
A tall wiry woman, slightly stooped, she had a thin face and a mop of sandy hair. "The days following Martin’s disappearance were like a bad dream; police searched our home, reporters banged on our door at all hours, and just plain curiosity seekers tore pieces off our fence posts and shrubbery as souvenirs."
Scott nodded in sympathy.
Glenda swept a couple of newspapers and a magazine off an armchair so he could sit down.
"We moved away just as soon as we could." She went off on at a tangent, describing in some detail the horror of life on the Osprey Avenue of some fifteen years ago.
Scott glanced around at the house they had escaped to. It was certainly smaller than the other one, and in a less pleasant neighbourhood.
"It’s all we could manage at the time," Glenda explained defensively, as if reading his thoughts. "People weren’t exactly lining up to buy our old place, and we had to sell at a loss."
Glenda and her husband had both been at work, the children at their grandmother’s home on the day Martin disappeared.
Over a cup of weak tea served in mismatched china, she continued to regale him with her non-stop chatter about Martin’s disappearance and the difficulties it had caused for herself and her family. Scott beat a hasty retreat at the earliest possible opportunity.
And although Harriet Newton, seated in a sunny courtyard at the Compton Manor, was a lot less strident than her erstwhile neighbour, she was just as emphatic about the difficulties she had endured with media people and curiosity seekers.
"It was something of a nightmare, Mr. Preston. God only knows how the Perrys managed to come through it all in one piece."
She reminisced about Martin’s disappearance. "How can something that awful just suddenly happen in the middle of the afternoon?"
Harriet had been away on vacation at the time of Martin’s disappearance. "Soaking up the Hawaiian sun." She smiled. "And oh what a horrible shock when
I returned home."
"So would you say that Martin’s family was a normal and happy one?" It was the same question he had put to Glenda Butler, and to which he had received the same reply that Harriet now gave.
"Absolutely." She picked a piece of thread from her outdated fur coat. "Martin was a quiet boy…very studious. Julia and Everett were middle-aged when he came along, but that’s not uncommon…in fact, it’s become quite fashionable these days."
Everett Perry had a stocky build, and a bristling black moustache tinged with grey. He opened the door before Scott had a chance to knock, his expression anxious. "It’s about my wife…" he confided, in a deep voice just one octave above a whisper. "She hasn’t been well…and the only thing that keeps her going is the utter conviction that Martin is still alive."
"I understand, Mr. Perry," Scott assured him in the same hushed tone. "I won’t say anything to contradict that."
The Perrys lived in an ivy-covered house, as unpretentious inside as out. But pervading this comfortable façade of normalcy was a hollow feeling of grief, which seeped everywhere. It was as if the very walls held their breaths in tremulous anticipation for when the lost one would return. In this hushed almost reverent atmosphere, to laugh or even talk loudly would have been unthinkable.
Julia Perry rose from her chair beside the fire and greeted Scott with an enthusiastic handshake. She had refined features and silver blonde hair tied back at the nape. "Thank you for helping bring Martin back to us sooner," she said warmly. It was the same sentiment she had expressed earlier that day on the telephone, when he called asking for an interview.
A tea tray was set out on the coffee table. "Just help yourself," Julia invited.Scott poured himself a cup of tea. "I know how difficult this must be for you…"
"Not at all, we welcome any publicity we can get," Julia interjected. "It’s the only way to speed up Martin’s return."
Scott went over all the old ground with them carefully. Martin had left for school as usual on that ill-fated day that was destined to become the worst one in their lives. He was a good boy, quiet and obliging, and he loved to read. "I keep his room much as he left it. Would you like to see it, Scott?"
It was a bright room, with pictures of Martin’s favourite pop singers and sports personalities smiling down from the walls. A large volume of pressed leaves and flowers sat on the desk by the window.
"Martin had a keen interest in botany." Everett’s face was inscrutable in the gathering dusk.
"And in stamp collecting." Julia indicated a leather-bound album on top of a bureau.
Several gilt-framed photographs of Martin sat on top of the dresser. His narrow face and rather anxious eyes gazed into a camera lens of many years ago.
"Would you like one?" Julia asked. "A different shot of Martin, one that has never been published before would be a nice addition to your article."
"Thanks." Scott took the photograph and then turned his attention to a group shot. There was Martin, of course, and both his parents gathered round a picnic table under a massive horse-chestnut tree. But also in the picture were another couple with a little boy of about four-years-old.
"That’s my sister Beth, her husband Lance Turpin and their son Jason," Julia explained. "They live just over here on Bewicke Avenue."
Scott made a mental note to make Beth’s place his next stop.
"The problem is," Julia stated wistfully. "The press has lost interest over the years. That’s why we were so delighted when you called."
Scott nodded. "There has to be some new development in an old unsolved case, to rekindle the media’s interest."
The Turpin’s lived in a whitewashed house with wainscoting and gables. A carousel horse dominated the dark inner hallway.
"He’s the namesake for our business," Beth said, on noticing Scott’s interest. "Carousel Dry-Cleaning on Cordova Street."
"Oh, of course." He smiled, remembering how a similar horse stood in the front window of the store.
He joined Beth and Lance at the kitchen table. He asked them how Martin’s disappearance had affected their lives.
"It devastated us," Beth answered for both of them. Her pale face was almost a mirror version of Julia’s, although she was much shorter in height than her older sister and had a slighter build. "It’s hard to pick up the pieces after something like that…"
"This has been one helluva thing for the family." Lance was a beefy looking man, with mournful eyes. "And even although poor Julia would never agree, there’s no way it can have a happy ending. Not now, after so many years."
"I agree, of course." Beth’s eyes grew misty with tears.
As he sipped on a cup of bitter coffee, Scott learned how Martin used to stop by for a visit on his way home from school. "Not every day," explained Beth. "And he didn’t that day, of course...I often think that if only he had of done…"
Their son Jason came in just as Scott was taking his leave, a husky youth with a tense expression, he bore a strong resemblance to his long missing cousin. "You wonder how someone can just disappear like that?" he said. "In the middle of the afternoon…" Then he shrugged and hared upstairs as if demons were in hot pursuit.
Scott lived in a small apartment overlooking Vancouver harbour with a veritable forest of houseplants and a large striped tomcat named Flynn.
"So what do you think happened to Martin Perry?" he asked the cat. It had been a particularly frustrating day. And Scott decided, given the facts of the case, the UFO theory looked less outrageous all the time.
The Gun from Stanley Park boomed out across the city marking the relentless passage of time. It was nine o’clock.
"Well there’s not a whole helluva lot to go on," Ben had declared earlier. The newsroom was deserted save for a lone cleaner in the far corner. "By all accounts the Perrys were the ideal family and Martin a happy well-adjusted boy."
Scott slammed the window shut against the clamour of foghorns. He ruffled his fair hair with restless hands and lamented the story would not be run because he had been unable to come up with anything new.
He was, therefore, both surprised and delighted when Julia Perry telephoned him, her voice tense with excitement. "Up until now it’s been assumed that Art Lisle, at the corner store, was the last person to see Martin on the day he disappeared." she stated without preamble. "However, that has now changed."
"Someone has just come forward-a very reliable eye-witness-who actually saw Martin at around six p.m. that day."