A cold case

KEN Watson pulls the car into the kerb, turns off the engine and sits there for a minute or so, summoning up the strength for what has to be done.

He looks across the road through the slight drizzle at the solid Californian bungalow. There is something different about the house. What is it? A new paint job? Have they cut down a tree? He can’t work it out.

He gives a mental shrug, stubs out his cigarette, grabs his jacket from the passenger seat and gets out of the car. Pushing through the gate, he pauses — that’s it: a new front fence.

He rings the door bell and waits. Footsteps in the hallway, a shadow through the frosted glass. Gerry’s hair is slightly longer at his neck, there is a bit less of it on top.

“Hello Ken, come in.”

KEN has called in sick. Some of them must notice he is sick on this same day, every year. But no-one says anything. In truth, he shouldn’t be doing this. It could result in disciplinary action if the unit boss found out.

After five years, they closed the book and declared it a cold case. Those were the Rules. Five years. There weren’t the resources to keep a missing person investigation open indefinitely. And absolutely no further contact must be made with the victim’s family. The Rules.

People would mutter about Ken behind his back. He was a bit of a joke.

“He’s obsessed,” they would say. And it’s true. He is. There were 470 long-term missing person’s cases on their books, and he couldn’t explain why out of all of them, this one case had gripped his mind.

Why do terrible things happen to good people? he’d ask himself in the dark moments.

And they were good people. They paid their taxes, obeyed the law. They were generous and decent and honest. They didn’t deserve this.

IT had been five days before anyone had reported her missing. She hadn’t come home from the shop, but she sometimes did that, spending the night at her parents’ place. And it had been a Friday, so for all her flatmates knew, she was just staying at Mum and Dad’s for the weekend. Nothing unusual.

Then things happened quickly. She didn’t turn up for work. She hadn’t been staying at her Mum’s after all. She had left work that Friday, and that was the last anyone had seen of her.

Detective Senior Constable Ken Watson had turned up on the Newman’s doorstep in the early evening. He’d had to make his apologies to his own daughter and family for pulling out at the last minute from her birthday dinner. He’d make it up to her.

The father, Gerry, was worried, smoked about three cigarettes one after the other. Ken had hardly seen June; she was in the bedroom and only came out when Gerry went and got her.

“It’s totally unlike her to do this,” Gerry said. But they all said that.

“Did she have a boyfriend, a lover?” Ken had asked, but Gerry vigorously shook his head. Well, if she had, she’d kept him a secret from her parents.

Her flatmates said the same thing. Ken turned her bedroom upside down not once, but twice, looking for a clue, anything. But there was no diary, no letters. He opened every CD case, flicked through all her books. Last thing she’d been reading was Pride and Prejudice. Ken’s own daughter’s favourite book.

But nothing. No sign that she had packed some belongings to take with her. Her bank account was untouched. Nothing.

“It’s like she’s disappeared off the face of the earth,” Ken told his colleagues. “One minute she was there, the next she was gone. Without a trace. Totally random.”

Zoe Newman. Twenty-four years old, Arts graduate, retail worker in a jewellery shop. Only child of Gerry and June Newman. Had lived at home until she finished uni. Walked to work every day. Went to the theatre with her Mum once a month.

A couple of years older than Ken’s own daughter — both of their lives following remarkably similar paths.

Next time he saw Gerry and June was at the media conference, when he had sat beside them while they pleaded for someone, anyone with information to come forward.

That had generated a few seconds on that night’s TV news, a couple of pars well back inside the next day’s papers. There’d been half a dozen calls through to CrimeStoppers, but none of them were useful.

Gerry reminded Ken of his own Dad: someone who had little more ambition in life than to see his offspring do well.

“Are you sure she never said anything?” Ken asked Gerry for the umpteenth time. And again the father shook his head.

OTHER cases came across Ken’s desk. Brutal, bloody domestic murders; random slayings in the street. Drug killings, child abductions. Other mystery disappearances; but always the body turned up eventually, somewhere.

More cases, many more cases; but every time he turned back to Zoe’s file, examining the evidence, looking for clues he might have missed the dozens of times he had gone through it before. He wore out a pair of shoes walking backwards and forwards the route she took between home and work every day. He spent hours in his car, waiting outside the house she’d shared with a uni friend and her boyfriend.

Three months later, her purse was found in a rubbish skip in a different part of town, far from where she lived and worked. It was dusted for prints and tested for DNA, but the results only showed up as coming from Zoe.

That was the one and only break they would get.

He interviewed every friend and acquaintance he could find, and then re-interviewed them. Examined the security video footage. Zoe’s boss complained to his superiors about Ken’s repeated visits.

“They were a good family, good people — they don’t deserve this,” he’d tell his colleagues in response to their unasked question. But that was hardly an answer.

There came a time when Detective Senior Sergeant Swan asked Ken into his office.

“Anything on the Newman disappearance?” he began.

Ken shook his head.

“Well, listen — here’s the thing. You’ve just got to put it aside, mate. I know you like her parents, you feel … an affinity … for them. I understand. I’ve met them, mate. They’re good people and they’ve had something terrible happen to them.

“But we need to close the book. Put it in the cold case file. It doesn’t mean it’s closed forever, but … you understand, don’t you? We’re all stretched for resources here, mate.”

Ken understood. Ken was a career cop. He did as he was told.

But still on those quiet nights in Homicide, those rare lulls when the scanner is quiet and you’ve got nothing but paperwork to fill in, he’d open the bottom drawer of his desk and pull out the Zoe Newman file again.

HE sits on the couch, sipping the cup of tea June has made him. She’s telling him about some new ailment she’s got, an inner ear problem that was causing her dizziness and nausea. But she’s taking medication for it now, and it’s under control.

Gerry is sitting in the other armchair, staring at a wall, only half-listening to June. He’s hardly said a word the entire visit.

The two armchairs are arranged on either side of the fireplace, tilted at a 45 degree angle in towards each other. Up on the mantlepiece is a large framed picture of Zoe, leaning into the camera so it’s slightly out of focus. She’s at a wedding or something in a sleeveless apricot coloured dress, her hair tizzed up and tied back but a few loose strands falling around her eyes, full of laughter and life.

She’d be in her mid-30s now. She would’ve found and married some corporate executive middle-management type like her Dad. They would probably have had a couple of kids by now, and June with her inner ear problem would pick them up from school or kinder once or twice a week when Zoe was at work.

June has run out of things to say, and they sit there in the dark room, no-one speaking, listening to the rain running along the roof gutters.

Ken puts down his cup of tea, and eases himself up off the sofa. Gerry is straight up out of his seat after him.

“Don’t get up, June,” Ken says. “It was nice to see you. Thanks for the cup of tea.” She smiles and then glances away.

Gerry follows him to the front door, and they stand there for a few moments, not talking, as the rain keeps falling heavily now.

“I see you put in a new fence,” Ken says.

“Mmm-hmmm,” Gerry replies. He sticks out his hand, business-like. “Thanks for popping by. We know you’re busy. Thanks for remembering…”

Ken takes his hand, looking the other man in the eye.

“We’ll find her, Gerry… one day, we’ll find her,” he whispers. “Listen, last year they found a bloke who’d been missing for 16 years…”

He is about to continue with the story, but thinks better of it; Gerry doesn’t have to hear this. This bloke’s body had been buried in an unmarked grave all that time, but there’d been a stuff up with the records and he’d not been properly identified. An investigation was now underway to match any other unidentified bodies with long-term missing persons.

“I’m not saying Zoe’ll turn up, but … it’s possible, it’s just possible,” Ken says instead. “… Well, you never know…”

Gerry nods slightly, looking over Ken’s shoulder at the front fence. He sticks his hands into his pockets.

Ken turns towards the gate, takes a step into the rain, and turns back to the man in the door.

“I’ll see you next year…?”

ON a whim, Ken turns right rather than left at the Junction, and drives in the direction of the city. She will be working today.

“What are you doing here,” she mouths from the counter while serving a customer.

“Lunch?” he mouths back, holding up his fingers. “Ten minutes?” She smiles, nods.

He waits outside, smoking a cigarette and watching his daughter through the shop window.

Someone out there must know what happened to Zoe Newman. Someone. He will keep looking, and Zoe’s parents will keep waiting in their comfortable loungeroom with the photo of their daughter on the mantelpiece above the fireplace.

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