When the alarm stabbed her into consciousness, Dee couldn’t for a moment remember where she was. She registered dread in the pit of her stomach – something to do with a bad dream – but any relief she felt at having escaped an imaginary terror sputtered out almost immediately when she remembered that she was in a hotel in Buenos Aires. The bedside clock read 8.22. The last time she had checked it was four am. She thrust aside the quilt and sat up with a giddy lurch. They were sending someone from the embassy at nine to take her to the police station so she could file a formal report about Corrie.
Dee got up, slid apart the heavy curtains, fumbled with the catch and pushed the window open. The streets were rain-glazed and the noise of traffic a welcome intrusion of normality. A faint flutter of hope rose within her. Everything was going to be OK. There would be a reassuring explanation for the sudden loss of communication with her backpacking daughter – some petty drama or exuberant youthful adventure – something that Corrie didn’t want over-exposed to parental scrutiny. The police would know what to do. They would have systems and processes. They would deliver Dee’s wayward daughter back to her with a whiff of annoyance at having their time wasted. Dee would turn the whole episode into an entertaining story for the future amusement of her friends at dinner parties . . .
No, she wouldn’t.
‘Dee, it’s Marco Torres.’
When she’d received the call from her daughter’s Argentinean friend a week ago, the tone of those four words had been like bouncing pebbles ahead of a sliding slagheap of fear.
‘Marco? What’s wrong?’
‘I think maybe nothing. But my mother is a little worried. She wants to know if you have heard something from Corrie.’
Dee had hosted Marco as a Year-11 exchange student two years earlier. His family had been delighted to return the favour when Corrie decided to visit Buenos Aires.
‘From Corrie? Not recently. Why?’
Dee had begun to calculate the weight of sudden anxiety even as she tried to dismiss it. ‘Why is your mother worried?’
‘Corrie went to Posadas to see the falls. She planned to return last week, but she hasn’t come back.’
Words registering. Meaning at bay. Gut turning over.
‘She might have decided to stay longer.’
‘But you don’t think so?’
‘I tried to ring her, but she’s not answering her celular.’
‘Does it ring out or is it switched off? Maybe she lost it. Or the battery’s flat. Did she take her charger with her?’
‘I don’t know. She left most of her things here, but I’m pretty sure she took her charger.’
‘Knowing Corrie, she probably left her phone on a bus or dropped it down a toilet or something. She’s forever losing her damned phone.’ Dee knew even in that moment that the irritation she felt was the soft edge of anger: a way of drawing down strength to keep the fear at bay.
‘It might not have been her fault. Maybe it was stolen.’
Stolen. Intimations of violence. Foul play. Headlines about missing backpackers in her own country had flashed through her mind . . .
‘What do you think I should do, Marco?’
‘I don’t know. Probably, she’s OK. But my mother thought I should call you.’
The Department of Foreign Affairs had been less dismissive than she anticipated. A young woman travelling alone in South America, without her luggage, who had not stuck to a pre-arranged plan and who was now uncontactable, seemed to tick the requisite number of boxes for action. Dee had been worried that they would fob her off but felt even worse when they agreed there were serious grounds for concern. In a sick flurry she negotiated compassionate leave with her school principal, made arrangements for her fourteen-year-old twins, Ben and Luke, to stay with her brother, and boarded the next available flight to Buenos Aires.
And so here she was. The opportunity, finally, to take practical action in response to Corrie’s disappearance focused the sickening surges of adrenaline but also sharpened her fears. The surreal had become real. In the shower, her knees nearly gave way beneath her. She slid down the wall and sat on the floor of the cubicle, staring at needles of water bouncing off the bone-coloured tiles.
Pull yourself together.
She rose shakily, turned off the hot tap and stood shivering and gasping under a surge of cold water.
Come on. Get a grip. for God’s sake. For Corrie’s sake.
After towelling herself dry with determined vigour she padded back to the bedroom. The curtains billowed and her skin was prickled by a gust of cool air, scented with rain.
Her clothes, ironed the night before, hung in the open wardrobe. What does one wear to a police interview? It had been a distracting dilemma, seemingly trivial, but not something she wanted to risk getting wrong. She knew from experience that first impressions mattered. The appearance of wealth mattered. Especially in Latin countries, she thought, although she wasn’t quite sure how she knew this. Something to do with power and influence and the exchange of favours. It was an aspect of public life that had assumed increasing importance in her own country in recent times, although she was old enough to remember when it was otherwise – when people deliberately dressed down to defy snobbery and demonstrate freedom from the need to conform. But that was a long time ago.
She recalled a passage from an Agatha Christie novel, in which Hercule Poirot had sniffed out the guilty party by observing the suspect’s haggard appearance, the neglect of her toilette, her theatrical overplay of grief. Real grief in a woman, Poirot had argued, was always expressed in a dignified attempt to conceal the ravages of suffering, not the reverse. Dee must have read the story thirty years ago when she was still at high school, but it had left an impression. It resonated with a range of other influences that persuaded her to mistrust raw emotion, to defer instinctive reaction, to craft more considered responses to the vicissitudes of life. She wasn’t quite sure why she needed to convince the police of her grief – of what she might otherwise be suspected – but she attended with great care to making up her pale face, pinning back her thick hair, carefully knotting a peacock-blue scarf over her charcoal suit jacket, wiping the street soil from her matching blue pumps.
She knew she should eat something, but by the time she made it to the hotel foyer it was nearly nine and the consular official was already waiting for her. She saw him standing by the reception desk as she emerged from the lift: compact, neat and unmistakably Anglo. He was younger than she expected. Well, everyone was these days. Children she had taught were beginning to appear in various professional guises and it made her uneasy. She was too intimate with their essential weaknesses to believe in their authority.
‘Yes.’ She extended her hand.
He gripped it with a show of masculine assurance, his hand small and dry. There was a note of commiseration in his smile. ‘Andrew Flint. The car’s out the front.’
He made a sweeping gesture with his other arm and she turned obediently towards the gold-rimmed doors. It was grey and overcast outside and the air carried an indefinable smell of foreignness. She took in a fleeting impression of broken pavements, dripping trees and elegant, grey-stoned buildings before Andrew Flint stepped neatly around her to open the door of the Mercedes. He slid into the seat beside her and gave instructions to the driver.
‘What time did you get in yesterday?’ he asked.
‘How was the flight?’
He made a sympathetic noise as the car nosed forward into the traffic.
‘How far is it to the—?’
‘Police station? Not far, ten minutes or so.’ He glanced down at her clasped hands, flexing compulsively in her lap.
‘Richard – the ambassador – wanted me to assure you that we’re here to provide full support.’
‘I know. Thank you. I’m sorry. I’m a bit all over the place.’
He pulled a briefcase onto his lap, flipped open the lid and withdrew a folder that contained a copy of Corrie’s passport, a slim compilation of papers and email printouts and the photographs of Corrie that Dee had emailed to the embassy several days earlier. She glanced over at the school photo on top of the pile. It was not really representative of Corrie’s current style, but it was the most recent close-up shot that Dee had been able to find. Corrie was wearing that artless, dishabille look that Year 12s cultivated: her short, dark hair was chopped into thick slabs, streaked with blonde and caught at asymmetrical angles with a random collection of bobby pins; her blue eyes, languid and long-lashed like her father’s, gazed obliquely over the concessionary flicker of a smile.
‘How recently was this taken?’
‘Last year. March.’
‘It’s a nice photo.’
‘Did she have any photos taken while she was here in Buenos Aires?’
‘Her friend, Marco, has some.’
His family is meeting us at the police station, aren’t they?’
‘Yes.’ Dee stared out of the window at the stalled traffic.
‘It’s your worst fear – you know? From the moment they’re born. The fear of losing them. And you do lose them. Again and again. They’re late coming home from school and you’re immediately out in the car looking for them. Or they wander off in a shopping centre or go missing at the Royal Show. And for the five, ten, twenty minutes that it takes you to find them you’re just about dry-retching with terror. But then they turn up. Usually, they turn up. Don’t they? In these sorts of situations? It’s usually just some sort of misunderstanding. Isn’t it?’
‘Nine times out of ten,’ he reassured her, but he didn’t meet her eye as he slipped the folder back into his briefcase and closed the lid. The car turned out of the heavy stream of traffic into a narrow side street, then on to another main road, similarly jammed with cars. Flint glanced at his watch.
‘Are we late?’ Dee asked.
‘Right on time.’
The driver eased into the kerb outside a three-storeyed building with grilles on every ground floor window and bars on those above. Flint got out of the car and opened the door for Dee. He held out a hand and she took it in a daze as she levered herself from her seat.
Marco was waiting for them in the reception area. She clung to him when he stepped forward to greet her.
‘Dee, this is my mother, Alicia.’
The woman with him was slim and dark with long black hair pulled into a high ponytail. Marco moved aside to let his mother take both of Dee’s hands. Her dark eyes, laden with concern, claimed a connection with Dee’s before she embraced her tightly. The staff stepped in to direct them through a metal detector and accompany them down long corridors, into an elevator and up several floors where they were eventually shuffled into separate interview rooms. Flint pressed Dee’s shoulder reassuringly as she took a seat opposite a portly detective with a thick moustache. The detective reached over and poured her a glass of water from a jug that was already on the table. Dee was relieved when he addressed her in English.
‘Mrs Sutherland, this is very difficult for you, no?’
She reached for the glass with a trembling hand, sipped at the water, nodded her assent.
Flint’s folder was open on the table. The detective picked up Corrie’s photograph in his chubby hands and studied it.
‘Let us be positive for a moment. We have no evidence that anything bad has occurred. No accidents, no hospital presentations – forgive me, Mrs Sutherland – no unidentified bodies.’ He put down the photograph, interlaced his fingers and rested them on the table.
‘In situations like this, it is necessary to explore many different possibilities. It is important to know as much as we can about the person who is missing. It helps us to build up a picture of who they are, to develop ideas about where they might have gone or what they might have been doing.’
He picked up the photo of Corrie again.
‘We have the details about her appearance that you sent through.’ He raised the photo a little and scanned the sheet beneath it. ‘Height: 170 cm, build: slim, complexion: fair, hair colour: black, eye colour: blue.’ He looked at Dee quizzically.
‘Yes, that’s correct.’
She wanted to tell him that those bald facts did not evoke her daughter at all.
‘Anything else that might help us identify her?’
‘She has three piercings in her left ear. And one in her right ear and one here.’ She raised a hand to the crease of her right nostril. ‘And she has a brown mole, here, on the side of her neck.’
The detective jotted down notes as she spoke. There were other memories jostling for attention in Dee’s mind – the way Corrie walked with her feet turned outwards like a duck, images of her dreamy countenance suddenly transformed by intense delight or surprise, the halting cadences of her speech, her long-fingered hands tracing patterns in the air, illustrating intensities that she could not put into words. But how does one capture those kinds of details in identikit form?
‘She has a dimple in her right cheek when she smiles.’
The detective scribbled a few more comments, then put down his pen and read through what he had written. He looked up and stroked his chin with one hand, gazing thoughtfully at Dee.
‘Why did your daughter come to Argentina, Mrs Sutherland?’
Dee tried to gather her scattered thoughts, sift them for the relevant facts. ‘She wanted a break.’
The studiously blank expression on the detective’s face made her wonder if he was receiving this information in the right way.
‘She had started her university studies, but she was having problems—’ She immediately regretted the use of the word, ‘problems’. ‘Her father – I’d lost my husband a few months earlier. She was very close to him. It was difficult for her to concentrate on her studies. She had a friend here in Argentina – Marco—’
He nodded his cognisance of this.
‘I suggested that she might like to take the second semester off and go travelling. Lots of young people in Australia do that,’ she added. ‘Take some time off after school. It’s not so unusual.’
‘How would you describe her state of mind when she left home?’ he asked. ‘Can you tell us how your daughter was feeling when you last saw her?’
It wasn’t an unreasonable question, but Dee felt a stirring of resistance to its implications.
‘She was OK. She was looking forward to her trip. She was sad about her father. That’s only normal. We were all sad. It was a very difficult time for our family.’
‘Maybe you could tell me a little about what happened with your husband, Mrs Sutherland?’
Dee sighed heavily. ‘He’d been having chest pains. I told him to go to the doctor, but he kept putting it off. He collapsed at home one evening. I wasn’t there. Corrie called the ambulance. They had to use those shock pad things. They thought they’d stabilised him, but he had another heart attack on the way to the hospital. By the time he arrived there wasn’t much they could do.’
‘That must have been very traumatic for your daughter?’
‘To be the only one there with your husband.’
Dee stared at him dully.
‘Sometimes, in such circumstances, people feel guilty that they were not able to save their loved one.’
Dee contemplated the man’s jowls, his multiple chins, the folds of flesh cinched by his shirt collar. She wondered if he had noted his own risk factors. If he believed his family should pick up the onus of guilt if he went into sudden cardiac arrest.
‘Of course Corrie was upset, but she has nothing to blame herself for. She rang the ambulance immediately. They were there within ten minutes.’
‘Where were you, Mrs Sutherland, while your daughter was dealing with this very difficult situation?’
Why did it always come back to this? The fact of her own absence? The implications of neglect? Years of diligent servitude counted for nothing in the face of this one bald fact: You weren’t there . . .
‘I was having dinner with a friend.’
The detective cocked his head quizzically.
‘The restaurant was very noisy. I didn’t hear my phone ringing.’
‘It happens, no? But perhaps your daughter felt a little angry that she couldn’t get in touch with you?’
Dee closed her eyes wearily. ‘Perhaps she did. But we’re talking a year ago. I’m not sure that this is entirely relevant.’
‘Mrs Sutherland, how would you describe your relationship with your daughter?’
She had been anticipating the question. It was what they always asked in these sorts of cases, wasn’t it? What should she say? Normal? Was it normal? What is normal? She couldn’t claim that they had one of those cloyingly intense mother–daughter relationships, but they got along all right. Mostly. There was a degree of healthy distance. Children don’t want their parents spilling over into all the available space in their lives. Do they?
‘Pretty normal. Up and down. We had the odd argument. Nothing serious.’ She felt herself under steady scrutiny.
‘What sort of things did you argue about?’
‘Oh, the usual: not coming home at a reasonable hour, leaving mess all over the house, not helping out.’
Dee recalled Corrie packing the day before she left. She’d been out the previous night and was pale and sullen with lack of sleep. Her hair was flattened on one side and sticking up in spikes on the other. She was dressed in the black singlet top and track pants in which she’d slept, picking things at random from drawers and cupboards and tossing them distractedly into the open case. Dee had watched her from the doorway.
‘Can I iron anything for you? You’ll be able to fit more things in if they’re ironed and folded up properly.’
‘Just leave me alone, please.’
Corrie’s tone had been sharp-edged. Dee put it down to tiredness and travel anxiety and had withdrawn without another word.
At the airport she embraced her daughter with what she hoped was reassuring warmth, but Corrie had quickly disentangled herself and turned to say goodbye to the small group of friends who had gathered to see her off. Dee had tried not to be offended. She knew how it was with young people. Their friends were everything.
She looked up at the detective and smiled sadly. ‘She was looking forward to her adventure. I don’t think she was thinking much about me when she left. She couldn’t wait to experience a bit of adult independence.’
‘She was excited about her trip?’
‘Yes, she was.’
‘And maybe a little thoughtless about her mother’s feelings?’
Dee resented his sly tone and the imputation against Corrie, veiled as sympathy. ‘That’s normal, isn’t it? And besides, I didn’t want her to worry about me. That was the whole point of the holiday. To cheer her up – give her something to look forward to.’
‘So she seemed happy to you? The trip was helping to distract her from the loss of her father? And she was not worrying about anything else?’
Dee hesitated, dropped her eyes and frowned slightly, gave the question due consideration before shaking her head. ‘No, No. She wasn’t worried about anything.’
The detective studied her face for some time, made a last brief note and closed the folder.
‘What happens now?’ Dee asked.
‘We’re going to send some officers back to the Torres’ house to go through your daughter’s things. It would be helpful if you could accompany them.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘We will see if there is anything there that gives us some clues about her intentions. Then we’ll check with the bus company she used and the hotels in Posadas. We’ll circulate her picture, speak to everyone she knew here in Buenos Aires. The Torres family have prepared a list of names for us. We’ll contact the airlines and border control and try to trace any phone calls and credit-card usage. We will do everything we can, Mrs Sutherland. But, you know, if someone doesn’t want to be found, it is not so difficult to lose yourself in a country as large as ours.’
Dee looked at him sharply. ‘Why are you making that assumption?’
‘Calm yourself, Mrs Sutherland. We have no evidence to suggest anything else at this stage.’
‘But a young girl on her own? Anything could have happened. People don’t just disappear. She could have been taken somewhere. It’s all jungle up there isn’t it? She could have been left . . . anywhere . . .’ She faltered.
‘It’s not the most likely scenario, Mrs Sutherland. Let us deal first with the more probable. Robbery, physical attack – it’s always messy – there are usually witnesses, trails of evidence. That will come to light very quickly.’
‘What about human trafficking?’ The pitch of Dee’s voice sounded shrill even to her own ears.
The detective blinked at her.
‘There are stories on the internet. Hundreds of women have gone missing—’
‘Poor women, Mrs Sutherland. Women whose disappearance will not draw attention. Women who can be manipulated into silence. Not foreign tourists.’
Dee closed her eyes, wanting to believe him but frightened that too easy an acquiescence would leave her daughter at greater risk. Who else would advocate for her? Who else would push the police into undertaking the things that needed to be done?
‘I’m sorry. I know you think I’m being hysterical.’
The detective stood then, folder in hand, signalling the end of the interview. ‘Please be assured that we are taking this matter very seriously, Mrs Sutherland. We will do everything possible to locate your daughter.’
Andrew Flint extended his hand to the detective. ‘We’re very grateful for your swift response. We’ll keep in touch.’
Dee picked up her handbag in a daze, allowed herself to be steered out of the room, into the lift, down the long corridor and back to the reception area, where she found Marco and Alicia waiting for her.
The confusion she was feeling must have shown on her face because Alicia moved over to her swiftly, put an arm around her shoulders and spoke in rapid Spanish to her son.
‘We live about an hour out of the city. My mother says that if you would rather stay with us than at the hotel tonight you are most welcome.’
Dee rubbed at her forehead with tense, probing fingers. ‘Thank you. I don’t know.’ She looked to Andrew Flint for guidance.
He responded to Alicia directly in Spanish and Alicia nodded her understanding.
A male and female officer had joined them and began to discuss arrangements for the trip with Alicia and Marco. Flint rang his driver and instructed him to pick them up out the front. Dee allowed herself to be guided outside and into the car, sinking with some relief into the back seat. They drove for a long time down a series of freeways, flanked with sprawling shanty towns. When they left the freeway they were forced to negotiate roads pitted with potholes, passing dilapidated shops and high-walled housing estates until eventually they reached streets of well-maintained bungalows with pleasant gardens and shady trees. The driver slowed down, scanning house numbers, and pulled up outside a property with a tall hedge and wrought-iron gate.
Dee was momentarily consoled by the affluent suburban comfort of the home to which her daughter had been welcomed and then remembered that it was no consolation at all anymore. She followed Flint along a winding, gravel path to the open front door. A housekeeper in a floral apron waved them into a sunken living area, all polished slate and tapestries, with floor-to-ceiling windows opening out onto an expanse of green lawn.
Alicia, Marco and the detectives had arrived ahead of them. They stood up from their seats when Flint and Dee entered the room.
Alicia addressed a question to Dee, which Flint translated. ‘Would you like a drink of some kind? Water or coffee or Coca-Cola?’
Dee shook her head. ‘Can I see Corrie’s things, please?’
Alicia glanced at the detectives. They nodded. She took Dee’s arm and led her down the corridor, ahead of the rest of the group.
They formed quite a crowd in the small, blue-walled room that had once been Marco’s older sister’s. It was still decorated with photographs of her school friends and items of teenage memorabilia. Dee recognised Corrie’s suitcase immediately.
It was bright red and secured with a dark green strap, standing beside the dressing table.
The detectives lifted the case onto the bed and opened it. It was only three-quarters full. They removed the items one by one: coloured underwear and rolled-up socks, summer dresses and T-shirts, a pair of high-heeled shoes. Corrie’s toiletry bag was gone, as was the brown leather jacket she loved. Her hiking boots were not there, nor were the black flats she always wore. There were a few pairs of tights, a couple of colourful loose-weave jumpers, some scarves, her hairdryer. In a zip-up pocket they found AA camera batteries, photocopies of her travel documents, insurance papers and a spare cash-card. The last item they removed was a photograph. They held it out to show Dee. It was Corrie with her father, taken down at Glenelg Beach several summers before. They were leaning against the jetty railing, eating ice-cream cones. Corrie was looking up at Ross and laughing. It was a photo that Corrie had framed and kept on her desk at home. And now, here it was, abandoned in a foreign house in a foreign country, a terrible reminder of irrevocable loss. Dee experienced a wave of nausea before her head slumped onto her chest and she collapsed.
Excerpted from Traces of Absence by Susan Holoubek. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Holoubek.
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