This is how it began. Two years ago, in this coffee shop. My first novel, The Devil’s Playground, had just been accepted by Penguin and I believed this was where my life would start. I never anticipated there would be so many endings first.
But it’s Amy I want to tell you about – how I met her, then lost her, and how I spent a year looking for her, from this coffee bar to the scorch and sizzle of the Utah desert.
You’d think getting a book deal would make you happy. You’d think it would solve the problems that make up your life. This is all you’ve ever wanted. The only horizon you could see. And then it happens. There’s the rush of meetings, negotiations and contracts. The dream slowly realised.
That’s when the rest of your life falls apart. And you can’t help wondering whether it’s in inverse relation to the success you’ve stumbled into.
Two months after my book deal, my partner of ten years and I decided to call it quits. There was no explosion, no prolonged argument or hidden resentment finally brought to the surface – there was only the realisation it was over, that we had somehow managed to cancel each other out. That love too, sometimes isn’t enough.
I found myself spending more time in coffeeshops. I used to write in the evenings. Playground came together in snatched hours, nights she was asleep. Now I found myself writing in the calm anonymity of morning coffeeshops.
That’s how we met.
It was December. I was at my usual table when she walked in. I’d noticed her before. She’d seemed aloof, apart; huddled in a corner, fire engine-red nails and sad, shielded eyes. She looked like starlight and magazines.
That morning she sat next to me. There were plenty other tables she could have chosen.
We began to talk. She was a film journalist but the way she said it made it sound like something to be ashamed of. She often spoke like that, as if every word was there to cover up the ones she couldn’t say.
The weather turned. Clouds blanketed the sky and grey light streamed down. We met every morning. She asked about my book and, for the first time, I felt like a real writer, signing a copy, handing it to her. I grilled her about actors she’d interviewed, the backstage gossip. I wanted to ask her out to dinner but I didn’t want to spoil what we had, too afraid she’d say no.
It was just before Christmas. She had to fly to New York for the weekend to interview a former teen star just out of rehab and, she winked conspiratorially, straight back on the pipe. She took my hand, it was the first time we’d touched. “I’ll be back on Monday, ” she said, “I’ll tell you all about it then.”
It was the last time I saw her.
Monday, I sat and waited, drank too much coffee. I went home, blamed it on jet lag, delayed flights, a long and terrible hangover. I was certain the next day she’d turn up. I sat in the coffeeshop, at our appointed time, for a week.
Did she meet someone in New York, fall in love, and decide to stay? Was she avoiding me? I remembered how her hair spilled out like a black waterfall, an accidental clash of hands, the way she pronounced my name.
Christmas and the New Year crawled by. My book was almost ready for publication. I scanned through proofs and galleys but I no longer recognised myself in those pages. The thrill of holding my own book did not compare to the day I held her left hand in mine.
I kept my usual hours at the coffee bar. I was working, but I looked up every time someone entered.
Then, one day during the cold snap that swept January, a friend of hers, who I’d seen her with, came in. She walked straight towards me.
“You know Amy, right?”
I nodded. She sat down. Told me no one had heard from Amy since she’d arrived in New York.
I pumped her for details. I was stuck on the plot of what would become my second novel. I found myself a crime writer, something I’d never planned to be but it was the way things had turned out. I wondered if I could use my new-found skill to discover what had happened.
Her friend told me she’d arrived at her hotel in New York on Friday night and promptly called her mother. The interview, scheduled for the next day, never happened. That was it. Her mother had notified the police, who’d checked with immigration but there was no record of her coming back into the country.
I had time off. I had money. I missed the coffee-scented words that fell, so reluctant, from her lips.
I arrived in New York on a cold and wet January morning. I checked into the same hotel. Her room.
I settled in. I read books all day and sat in unfamiliar coffeeshops. I imagined her filling these spaces, her legs yawning out from a chair. I thought about long childless walks in winter parks and waking up entangled in her hair. About how the future wraps its arms around the things you cannot have.
I searched the room. I looked for traces of her, a hair clip, a discarded sock; things she thought she didn’t need. I knew the room had been cleaned and occupied since. I looked anyway.
I was a crime writer. Loss and pain were part of my vocabulary. I was versed in the syntax of disappearance. I thought back on all the crime novels I’d read; the process and structure.
I asked downstairs at the lobby. I talked to waiters and housekeepers. I gathered information. The bellboy told me she tipped well. He also said her legs were amazing but this I already knew. The maid added that she’d left the room a mess. There was broken glass and a telephone that no longer rested on its mantle. A torn-up newspaper from Flagstaff, Arizona, a guidebook to Grand Canyon, and an unreturned library book on rabbits of the Southwest.
The next day I talked to a detective in missing persons. He was tall and thin as a toothpick and kept cracking walnuts in his fist. He listened to me with a barely concealed boredom, pretending to take notes. He told me not to get my hopes up. People disappear all the time, he said, looking at me as if I were what she’d run away from. I repeated what the maid told me, the things she’d found in the room. He said it didn’t mean anything. These were random objects which had no meaning in and of themselves and only when we saw the big picture would they begin to make sense and even then, he added, most things don’t. A life is filled with loose ends. “But there’s always some asshole with a book of matches he thinks’ll lead him to who killed JFK.” He laughed.
I understood, I told him, but this was different. She had a career to come back to, a new flat she’d bought only six months ago. He said those with the most to lose are the ones who run first.
February came cold and clear to the city, everything seemed sharper as I sat in my room (her room) and called London, cancelling my meetings. On the second day of the month I bought a train ticket west.
Snow was falling in Flagstaff. The town seemed like an smudge in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks. I checked into a motel. I called the newspaper and made an appointment. I scoured editions that had come out during her stay in New York but there was no reason to believe the paper had been recent or that it was anything more than a newspaper, picked up at random. Yet, this was exactly what I needed to assume if I wanted to continue.
I learnt about civic duty and zoning applications, state grants and the collapse of the skiing industry. I photocopied everything I could, not knowing what was relevant and what wasn’t. I sat up all night, re-reading every sentence in case it held, locked tightly within its syntax, a clue to where she might be.
I almost missed it.
It was a short, two-column piece about a disappearance at Grand Canyon. A girl, Amy’s age, also a journalist, had gone missing while on a story.
I packed my bags that night. Rented a car in the morning and set off across the ghost-white plateau, heading north. In the car, I played her favourite CD, remembering how she’d mime the words when she thought no one was watching.
That was a year and a half ago.
Of course, I never found her.
I did discover a little more, though. But rather than help, rather than lead me forward, each clue seemed to float in its own atmosphere, discrete and disconnected from everything else, pushing me further away.
But, for the record, this is what I found out:
She made it to Grand Canyon. This was confirmed by the grizzled owner of a local motel who told me she’d checked in then, an hour later, checked out, complaining about weird noises and eyes peering in through the window. He thought maybe she was on drugs. She’d seemed so terrified.
I tried other motels but got nothing. Maybe she’d checked in under another name or the person who’d know no longer worked there. As the detective told me in New York, absence of proof isn’t necessarily proof of absence. I thought perhaps he was talking about God but he was talking about her.
At Grand Canyon no one recognised her. I had a picture from an old by-line. I thought I’d be able to tell if anyone was lying but reading people’s faces was like trying to read the bill at a Chinese restaurant.
I spent the next ten months searching for her. I stopped in every motel in the Southwest. Learnt to read blank looks of indifference. Dusty miles. The same CD playing over and over. A wasteland of red rocks and trailers, abandoned cars and packs of dogs who roamed through the night.
I’d missed my deadline back home. I didn’t care. I wrote down everything I knew in a black notebook.
I caught my last trace of her ten miles north of Monument Valley. In a small motel, clinging to the banks of the San Juan River, an old man who looked as if he’d stepped out of a Civil War Daguerreotype, stared at the photo and nodded. So used to nothing, I almost walked away.
“She checked in right after New Year’s,” he told me. “Quiet girl.” He scratched his beared distractedly and said she stayed two days, hardly left her room, except after breakfast when she would take a walk along the banks of the river. “Lady seemed so lost in herself,” he added, and I knew that he’d fallen in love with her too. She checked out three days into the new year, drove off in a red car and disappeared forever.
“You family?” He asked. “She left some things behind.”
I took the bag from his palsied hands. I went to my room. Locked the door. There were only two things in the bag. A gold engagement ring with Amy + Jon etched into it and a black wig.
I tried the wig on. I looked just like her. I took it off and pressed it to my face. It still smelled of coffee and smoke.
I spent another six months dragging her photo around the desert States. In a second-hand bookshop in Reno, I found a copy of my novel. In a dusty corner surrounded by yellowing paperbacks, I turned to the first page and saw the words I’d written to her so many months before.
Finally, I returned home. In her friend’s eyes I could already see the acceptance of her disappearance, the way they talked about her as if she were someone they remembered from school, the shift in tense.
I haven’t given up.
Though I sit in coffee bars now and feel removed from my life, I still look up every time someone comes in, just in case it’s her.
I thought being a crime writer would help me find Amy. I thought all I needed to do was put the clues together and they would form a road leading straight to her.
In a novel, each clue is a signifier unravelling towards greater understanding and, eventually, resolution. Every fragment illuminates the missing person, their habits and trajectory. In life, the things she left behind, they’re like orphans, stranded and alone, unable to connect. Why was there evidence of a struggle in her hotel room? An Arizona newspaper? A discarded wig? A morning walk by the river bank?
They should mean something. They should help me understand her life and why it led her out into the desert. But they don’t. Each creates its own ambiguity and none seem to connect. Perhaps there’s one clue still out there, on a motel floor, or written on the walls of a rest stop on some rural highway – one clue that will make sense of all the rest, draw them together.
And I think this is why we read crime novels and what they mean to us. Life is a chaos of signs and clues. We yearn for a narrative to explain the world. Religion used to do it. Elaborate conspiracy theories, aliens and New Age Crystology are what some cling to now.
All writing springs from loss and makes its way towards completion. In the crime novel, we find the perfect metaphor for the way we read the signs that surround us and make sense of our existence. Writing gives us back the things that life takes away.
Stav Sherez is the author of The Devil’s Playground (2004) – which was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasy Dagger Award – The Black Monastery (2009) and A Dark Redemption which launched his highly acclaimed Carrigan and Miller series. The second book in the series, Eleven Days, is published this year. You can find him on twitter @stavsherez.
A Dark Redemption is shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award 2013.