After Paul Newman was reported missing by his work colleague, information was taken from his friends and family and a few of his students, and took DNA samples from the toothbrush they found lying in the sink of his house.
Two years later, since a body had never been found, officers were giving up the search. His family just had to hope that Paul would soon turn up safe and unharmed, having spent an inordinately long period of time herding yaks in Tibet or some such thing.
Sadly, this was not the case. Paul Newman was gone.
All that remained of him in the world was what his mother had managed to salvage from the pile of rubbish that had been his home. A box containing the old computer, a small memory stick, a pile of Paul’s files and folders, a few chairs and his collection of old and foreign coins.
The very day after Kerry Grail had returned from the circus, despondent and hungry for chips, a stranger had knocked on Mrs Newman’s front door. While he waited for her to answer, he adjusted his hat and quickly buffed his shoes by rubbing them on the backs of his trouser-legs.
Mrs Newman pulled the front door open. It was early in the morning and she had curlers in her hair.
‘Good morning,’ the stranger said courteously, stretching out a hand for her to shake. His fingernails were neatly cut with a pearly sheen.
Mrs Newman shook his hand. Her own nails were still grubby from yesterday, re-potting a wisteria in the back garden. She didn’t mind the dirt, and knew it would work its way out from under her fingernails in its own time.
‘Good morning,’ she replied. ‘How can I help you?’
I hope he’s not here to sell me a bible, she thought.
‘I was a friend of your son, Paul,’ the stranger told her. ‘I went to university with him, and we played a few computer games together, that sort of thing...’
‘And the thing is, Mrs Newman – and I am sorry to bother you at this godforsaken hour – he was actually looking after some files for me. I told him I’d need them again in a year or so, and, er, I’d like them back.’
Mrs Newman was instantly suspicious.
‘What did you say your name was again?’ she asked.
‘I didn’t. It’s Chris Carbin. I’m, er, a friend of Paul.’
‘Really?’ Mrs Newman folded her arms, tapping her grubby fingernails against the sleeve of her dressing gown. ‘It’s odd, because Paul never mentioned you, we’ve never met, and it just... seems odd, that you would suddenly turn up like this.’
The stranger realised his mistake.
‘Of course,’ he said, giving a single nod. ‘And I am sorry, really I am. I know we’ve never been introduced. I was really shaken up by his disappearance. They questioned me and everything, but of course Paul and I weren’t the closest of friends. I didn’t know where he was...’
‘But it’s...’ the stranger gesticulated vaguely, ‘it’s very important that I look at these files. It was actually a project the two of us were working on and I didn’t pick up on it again for years. And I thought if I picked it up again now...’
The stranger stood there, not knowing how to finish the sentence. Mrs Newman felt a flicker of pity and sighed.
‘Where would I find these files?’
‘Well, he has them on a memory stick. I had them too, but you know, these things get lost.’
‘Yes they do.’
Mrs Newman sighed again. ‘You’d better come in then.’
She walked back through the hallway, and the stranger followed her inside. They went upstairs, passing a bemused-looking thirteen-year-old on the landing, and entered the spare room.
The stranger stepped round a pile of cardboard boxes to join Mrs Newman, who was opening a box with ‘PAUL’S STUFF’ written in blue marker along the side.
‘He didn’t seem the type to just leave,’ the stranger said.
Paul’s mother looked at him. ‘No. No, he wasn’t. He really wasn’t.’
‘Is the search still...?’
Mrs Newman wasn’t sure she liked the way this stranger didn’t like to finish his sentences. But he seemed pleasant enough, and concerned for Paul’s welfare, and obviously knew her son well.
‘It’s continuing,’ she informed him. ‘Vaguely. For now I’m just hoping that Paul’s happy, wherever he is. It’d be nice if he could write, obviously, but I’m sure he has a good reason not to.’
‘I’m sure he does. He’s never tried to contact me either, so...’
‘Yes.’ Mrs Newman dug in the box, locating the smaller odds and ends belonging to Paul. ‘I mean I hope he’s not in any trouble. And I really don’t think he’s been kidnapped, and he...’ She paused.
Paul’s mother shook her head and continued digging in the box, while the stranger hovered awkwardly behind her.
‘He’s not the type to... I mean Paul wasn’t unhappy. The day before he went missing he phoned me with good news, so he wasn’t unhappy with his life. And I don’t think he’s been murdered either, because he never leaves the house except for work... and he has no enemies. So all I can presume is that he’s gone away to find himself, maybe found a lovely girl and settled down, found a new life for himself.’ Mrs Newman sniffed. ‘I’m sorry for telling you all that.’
‘You probably think I’m a boring woman who just loves to ramble.’
‘Not at all,’ the stranger said reassuringly. He spied the memory stick lying in the box and nodded towards it, but Mrs Newman didn’t notice.
‘What was your name again?’
‘Chris... alright. Well, you have my address, obviously, if you need anything else.’ Paul’s mother located the memory stick. ‘Is this it?’
‘That’s what I’m looking for, yes. Thank you,’ the stranger said. He took the device from Mrs Newman’s grubby-nailed hands and tucked it away hurriedly. He turned to the door, noticing the thirteen-year-old girl hovering there. She quickly ducked out of sight.
‘It was good meeting you,’ Mrs Newman said, guiding him out of the spare room.
‘Yes, thank you. You too.’
The stranger found his own way down the stairs, and left through the front door, leaving Paul’s mother waving behind him, and the thirteen-year-old girl beside her, watching him go.
The stranger who wasn’t called Chris got into his car before examining the memory stick properly. It was covered in fingerprints, some of which must have been Paul’s. It was a dark bluish colour. As he held it in his hands, he knew he’d found what he was looking for.