The suited policeman who greeted Laurel was young and washed out, clammy-handed and slightly nervous. He led her through to an interview room. “Thank you for coming,” he said, as though there’d been an option not to come. Sorry, I have a lot on today, maybe next week?
Someone went to fetch her a cup of water, and then a moment later the door opened again and Paul walked in.
Paul, God, of course, Paul. She hadn’t even thought of Paul. She’d reacted as though this was all down to her. But clearly someone at the station had thought of Paul. He blew into the room, all floppy silver hair, rumpled suit, the dry smell of the City embedded in his skin. His hand reached for Laurel’s shoulder as he passed her but she couldn’t bring herself to turn to acknowledge him, just forced a small smile for the benefit of people watching the exchange.
He took the seat next to her, his hand pressed down against his tie as he lowered himself into the chair. Someone fetched him tea from a machine. She felt cross about the tea. She felt cross about Paul.
“We’ve been investigating a site near Dover,” said the detective called Dane. “A dog walker called us. His terrier dug up a bag.”
A bag. Laurel nodded, furiously. A bag was not a body.
Dane pulled some 10- by 8-inch photos from a hard-backed envelope. He slid them across the table toward Laurel and Paul. “Do you recognize any of these items?”
Laurel pulled the photos toward herself.
It was Ellie’s bag. Her rucksack. The one she’d had slung over her shoulder when she left the house for the library all those years ago. There was the small red logo that had been such a vital part of the police appeal. It had been virtually the only distinguishing feature on Ellie’s person that day.
The second photo was of a black T-shirt, a loose-fitting thing with a slash neck and cap sleeves. The label inside said “New Look.” She’d worn it partly tucked into her jeans at the front.
The third was a bra: gray jersey with small black polka dots. The label inside said “Atmosphere.”
The fourth was a pair of jeans. Pale denim. The label inside said “Top Shop.” The fifth was a pair of scruffy white trainers.
The sixth was a plain black hoodie with a white drawstring. The label inside said “Next.”
The seventh was a set of house keys. The fob was a small plastic owl with eyes that lit up when you pressed a button on its stomach.
The eighth was a pile of exercise books and textbooks, green and rotten with damp.
The ninth was a pencil case: black and red polka dots, filled with pens and pencils.
The tenth was a packet of tampons, swollen and obscene.
The eleventh was a tiny leather purse, purple and red patchwork, with a zip that went around three sides and a red pompom on the zipper.
The twelfth was a small laptop, old-fashioned and slightly battered looking. The last was a passport.
She pulled the photo closer; Paul leaned toward her and she pushed it so it lay between them.
Ellie had not taken her passport. Laurel still had Ellie’s passport. She took it from the box of Ellie’s possessions from time to time and gazed at the ghostly face of her daughter, thought of the journeys she’d never take.
But as she stared at the passport she realized it was not Ellie’s passport. It was Hanna’s.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “This is my elder daughter’s passport. We thought she’d lost it. But . . .” She stared down at the photo again, her fingers touching the edges of it. “. . . it’s here. In Ellie’s bag. Where did you find this?”
“In dense woodlands,” Dane replied. “Not too far from the ferry port. One theory we’re looking at is that she may have been on her way to Europe. Given the passport.”
Laurel felt a burst of anger, of wrongness. They were looking for evidence that backed up their long-held theory that she’d run away from home. “But her bag,” she said. “With just the things she had when she left, when she was fifteen? And you’re saying that she took the same things with her to leave the country? All those years later? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Dane looked at her almost fondly. “We’ve analyzed the clothing. There’s evidence of intensive wear.”
Laurel clutched her chest at the mental image of her perfect girl, always so impeccably clean, so fresh-smelling and fragrant, stumbling around in the same clothes for years on end. “So . . . where is she? Where’s Ellie?”
“We’re looking for her.”
She could sense that Paul was staring at her, that he needed her to engage with him in order to process this jumble of information. But she could not face his gaze, could not give him any part of herself.
“You know,” she said, “we were burgled a few years after Ellie went missing. I told the police at the time that I thought it was Ellie. The things that were taken, the lack of forced entry, the sense of . . .” She pulled herself back from talking about unsubstantiated feelings. “She must have taken Hanna’s passport then. She must have . . .”
She trailed off. Was it possible that the police had been right all along? That she’d run away? That she’d been planning an escape?
But from where? To where? And why?
At that moment the door opened and another policeman walked into the room. He approached Dane and he whispered something in his ear. Both men looked toward Laurel and Paul. Then Dane sat straighter, adjusted his tie, and said, “They’ve found human remains.”
Laurel’s hand instinctively found Paul’s.
She squeezed it so hard she felt his bones bend.