"Patricia Smith? What's her date of birth", asks the triage nurse at the other end of the phone line. I tell her. "Nope, sorry, nobody by that name here", the lady says, and rings off.
I sigh, and put another cross on my sheet of paper. That's the fifth hospital I've called so far, and there's no trace of Patricia. Or Pat. Or Patty. I have another three hospitals on my list, but I know I'm going to get the same response.
Patricia is a 13-year-old girl. Her mother, Samantha, has three other kids, but for some reason, it's Patricia that always ends up in my notebook. Today's occurrence, Merlin tells me, is the twelfth time that Patricia has been reported missing in the past two months. I rattle through the last three A&E departments, sigh again, get up from my computer, log off, and get in my car.
Today, I am operating Mike Delta 79, also known as the MISPER car. That's "missing persons". It is, by far, my least favourite job. Not because it is frustrating to look for missing people. Not because I don't think it's important to find them. But because nine times out of ten, the people who are reported 'missing' aren't, in fact, 'missing'.
On our borough, more often than not, people who are reported as missing are done so nearly immediately after they've walked out the front door. Patricia, for example, has discovered that her mother gets incredibly embarrassed whenever the police show up at her door, and has decided to make us the tool she uses to 'get back' at her mother.
I'm knocking on the door at number 14. Samantha comes to the door, and spots our uniforms through the frosted glass. I can hear her swear, and stumble around inside for a few moments before she opens the door.
"What is it?", Samantha says. She doesn't know that Patricia has gone missing yet. As I open my mouth to tell her, her mobile phone rings, shrilly broadcasting a best-forgotten Lily Allen track into the daylight outside.
"It's the school", she says, as the penny drops. She waves me in and flicks on the kettle in one fluid motion. I step through the front door into a cloud of heavy marijuana smoke – not the first time at casa Smith, but I'm there to find her little daughter, not to arrest her for her smoking habits.
"Aha", she says into the mobile phone. "Yeah". "Yeah, I know, they're here already".
As Samantha rings off, she turns to me. "So. Patricia has walked out of school again", she says.
The school have a procedure for these things: If a child says they're going to run away, and then vanishes, they call the police first. I don't know for a fact what they do next, but I have a suspicion that they call their own lawyers second, followed by the school's social worker, before they go and buy some lottery tickets, turn their computers off and on again, contemplate the plot of Inception for a while, day-dream about being a rally car driver, think about that fit chick who works in the front office, before they finally get around to calling the parents.
Okay, so I may have made some of that up, but how I managed to receive a call, pop into a shop to buy a cup of tea, and gently cruise the three miles across the borough in lunch-hour traffic and still beat a phone call from the school will have to remain a mystery for another day.
I break off my rant-tasting internal monologue, dig out out an Evidence and Action book from my Metvest, and use its aide memoire for people descriptions to get Patricia's details. "So, ms Smith, what was Patricia wearing today?"
I run through the whole spiel; did they have any arguments? Did Patricia say she was going anywhere? Does she have her Oyster card with her? How much money does she have on her travel card? Does she have access to any other money? Etc etc etc.
Missing persons is one of those things that can be fantastically rewarding, when you are searching for somebody that actually needs finding. The ecstasy on a parent's face when they are re-united with their 3-year-old after a few days? Priceless.
Sadly, most of the time, missing persons is absolute drivel; Schools and parents seem to think that dialling 101 (or 999 for the particularly grindingly clueless ones) is the first port of call when their kid's gone 'missing'. Don't call their friends' parents. Don't call the school. Don't do a quick stroll down to the local shop to see if they popped down to buy an ice-cream cone. Whatever you do, don't try calling or texting your kid on their mobile – just call the police.
Of course – and perhaps this is worst of all, from my (admittedly selfish) standpoint – the catch-22 of my hatred of running the Misper car is that I can't do a half-arsed job of it. I know some of my colleagues do, but I can't. See, I have terrible luck overall. The day that I decided not to give a Misper investigation my full attention, that'll be the day a 5-year-old shows up in hospital, or a 13-year-old turns up dead in a skip somewhere. I couldn't bear the thought. It doesn't remove the fact that we have a Misper car on our borough every day of the week. Whoever is doing the job is always busy for the whole shift. And as you may have guessed, it's only a worth while job once per month, at the most.
Suffice to say that I wish that some parents would do a little bit more, well, parenting.
My radio bleeps into action
I'm on my way to Patricia's school to go take a statement from the teacher who saw her last. My radio beeps into action. "We've just had a report of an incident involving a child. The phone call originated from a phone box outside 12 Lower Street. The woman keeps hanging up and re-dialling 999, sobbing uncontrollably, can someone please make their way there. Graded I, India".
I'm just around the corner. "Show 79", I say, and turn my Astra down Lower Street. I don't even bother with the blues and twos, I know where the phone box is. There it is. There's... It's... There isn't... There's nobody there.
"Show TOA 79", I bark into my radio. "No trace, no trace. What's the call, please?"
The operator goes quiet for a moment. "I'll send the CAD to your MDT", she says.
"CAD UPDATE RECEIVED", the morose voice from the in-car computer whines at me. I scan the CAD, but there's nothing there indicating what might be going on.
"We had reports of a woman's 6 year old daughter being lifeless and bleeding profusely. The mother is extremely upset", the CAD operator says. "Are there any skippers on their way?"
Send the cavalry.
A potential sudden death involving a child? You had better believe that the sergeants run to the nearest panda to make their way over and find out what's going on.
"We've just had another phonecall", says the CAD operator. "What?" I mumble to myself, as I turn around and look at the phone booth. It's empty. Very, very empty. I start walking towards it to make sure, but the absurdity of the situation is daunting; I have a clear view of the damn thing, and it's definitely, disgustingly and completely empty.
"Mike Delta receiving 592". "592 go ahead". "I'm currently looking at the phone booth in question, there's nobody there, and nobody near it".
It appears the 999 computer system is on the fritz, that British Telecom has changed the numbers to the phone booth, or that something Truly Mysterious is going on.
"Stand by 592", the operator shuts me up. "The woman says her daughter is dead." A chill runs down my spine. I can't think of anything worse to hear over the radio. "We have a partial address", the operator adds. "she says she is on upper street.
I swear (only lightly, and only under my breath, mind. I am a professional, after all), and I run back to my car. Blues on. Pedal down. I'm screaming down the road to Upper street.
"The house number is given as 115 – One One Five", the operator chimes in, as I'm driving down Upper street. I look out of my window, looking for house numbers. 119. 121. 123. 125. Bollocks. I hit the brakes, and bring the car to an abrupt stop. Car into reverse. 121. 119. 117. 115. There it is.
"Show TOA 79", I say again, as I leap out of my car, and propel myself up the three concrete steps to 115. I knock on the door.
Nothing. I knock harder, and I ring all the door bells. There's three of them. Three flats.
"POLICE, OPEN UP", I say. I've taken my baton out of its holster, and I'm using the back of it to bang on the heavy wooden door, as I ring all the door bells in turn.
An upstairs window opens.
"Can I help you?". The man, in his mid-20s, looks as if he has just woken up.
"Have you heard anything about an acci...", I get cut off by my own radio, clipped to my stab vest, and turned to just-a-little-bit-too-loud-for-comfort. "Cancel, cancel. The address for Upper Street is 150 – One Five Zero. That is, One Five Zero".
"Sorry, sorry, sorry", I call up to the man. "Wrong address".
He shakes his head in disbelief and closes the window. I imagine he's probably mumbling 'wanker' at me, and to be honest, I would have probably done exactly the same if someone had waken me up at noon after I'd had a night shift.
Back to my car. Car won't start. Why isn't it starting? What the hell? Okay, it's starting. Blues back on. Careening back up the road. I'm looking to my right. House numbers. House numbers. There. 120. 122. 124. Why is there nobody else here yet? 146. 148. 150. Bingo. I stop the car in the middle of the road. I leave my blues on. I jump out. I lean back into the car to press the "TOA" button on my MDT. I wonder to myself why I just did that. I could have just radioed in my time of arrival. What's wrong with me? I can hear something. Two different types of wailing. A police siren coming closer. A deeply distressed woman moving away from me. Both wailing. I crash down the two steps to the basement flat. I register that the sound isn't coming from downstairs. I look around. Shit. There's another set of stairs. I run back up, and then continue up the other set of stairs. There is a doorway. A woman. There she is. She is holding a cordless phone in her hands. There's not a phone booth in sight. Fucking BT.
As I'm swearing at a national telephone company in my head, I realise that I'm stressed. Very stressed. Something about the way this whole job has gone down really got to me. It happens very rarely, but when it does, I'm gripped with a fear of not being in control of myself, as if someone else is remote controlling me.
There is nothing I'd rather do than to get to the woman, and find out what's happening with her child, but I take the time to take a couple of deep breaths. I feel the pulse subside from my ears. That's better. I take another deep breath. Some times, and often for the least predictable reasons, this job really gets to me. I make a mental note to analyse why I feel so helpless just now at a later time, but there's no time to dwell right now.
The woman has gotten a little quieter, and is looking, absentmindedly, at the policeman who has frozen half way up the concrete steps to her house, and appears to be doing Yoga-style breathing exercises. "Jesus", I think to myself, "Could I look like any more of an idiot if I tried".
I bound up the last few steps. "Miss", I say. She turns to me, her eyes are a mess of tears. Her whole face looks bright red, but despite of this, there's something familiar about her.
"Where is your daughter", I say. The woman snaps out of her catatonic state and wails as she stands in the doorway. I want to calm her down, but most of all I want to find out where her child is. She makes a gesture that I take to be a nod, and I walk past her into the house. The whole place is a rancid mess. It suddenly clicks into place: I've been here before. A few years ago, it was. There had been a sudden death here, a drugs overdose, I think. I wasn't involved with the case myself, I just dropped off an ICEFLO at the house – but this was definitely the place.
Breaking out of her previously blissfully quiet state of catatonia, the woman throws herself into a wall, and squeaks and squeals. I can't leave her behind to start looking for the child, she's clearly going to cause herself harm.
The phone in her hand is ringing. She picks up. It's clearly 999 trying to call her back, but she just rings off again, after shouting "I HAVE TO KEEP THE LINE FREE, THEY ARE GOING TO CALL ME BACK" into the receiver. She's clearly so panicked that she's failing to realise that the people who are calling her are the very people whose call she is waiting for.
The sergeant pulls up behind my car, and steps out, along with another of my colleagues.
"What's going on", the skipper calls out, whilst my colleague is starting the task of calming the woman – who is now beyond hysteria and on the verge of passing out due to the sheer amount of shouting she is doing.
"I haven't been able to go in yet, skip", I start. "She's lost the plot, and I couldn't leave her like this". "Go!", he says, and turns his attention to the woman, to try to get some information out of her. I take a couple of steps into the house, and I hear a groaning sound coming from the far end of the hallway.
In two bounds, I make it across to where the sound is coming from, and I spot a woman laying there. She is in her late teens, early twenties. Her arm is quite clearly broken, and she has a slow, but steady trickle of blood coming out of her nose. There's a shouting match going on at the top of the stairs. Behind me, through a closed door, a stereo is playing pop music at full blast. There are sirens outside, and the woman is still wailing with formidable force. For a moment, I'm just dumbfounded with the incredible amount of noises all around me.
And where's this fucking 6-year-old?
I shout to the girl at the bottom of the stairs. "Are you OK, miss?". She groans, but doesn't seem to be responding to what I'm saying. Another police car arrives, and one of my colleagues joins me. "Call this one in", I say. "I need to find that kid".
My colleague is an old sweat. He's been doing this for twenty-odd years, and doesn't get flustered for anything except a Liverpool game. He calmly hails the operator, via his PR, and starts assessing the situation "... I have a female, around 20 years of age, breathing but not responding. It seems she has fallen down a flight of stairs...".
The woman at the bottom of the stairs is in good hands, at least. I continue up the stairs, to find six people there, arguing loudly. One woman is collapsed on a bean-bag chair in what seems to be a living room.
"Everybody please shut the hell up just for a minute", I shout. "We had a report of an injured child. Where is she?". I can't get through to any of them; in order to make themselves heard over my shouting, they simply increase their own volumes by another notch, and the argument continues as before – just a little bit louder, still. They don't seem the least interested in me showing up in full uniform. I get a feeling that this isn't an uncommon occurrence in this house.
I shake my head make sure that the woman on the bean-bag is breathing. She has a small stash of drug-taking paraphernalia on the low table next to the beanbag, and I conclude that she's not dead, merely dosed into oblivion. Another colleague joins me upstairs, and starts calming down the shouting people.
I call in the woman I've found to despatch. "... Female, mid thirties, breathing, not responding. No visible injuries, but evidence of drug taking. Possible drugs overdose...", I rattle off. I drag her off the bean bag and put her in the recovery position. I make sure she's still breathing, and decide to leave her there to join my colleague.
"WHERE IS THE GOD DAMN CHILD", I shout. The room goes quiet, and I realise to my embarrassment that I let the stress get to me. I hate swearing, there's no excuse for doing so in public, especially in front of strangers, and especially when I'm in uniform.
"There's no child yet, you fucking spaz", a girl says, as she pets her belly. I look at her. She's heavily pregnant, sucking on a cigarette, and I estimate she couldn't have been more than about 17 herself. The other people, who are finally taking a brief pause in their raging dispute, are laughing at her witty riposte. Calling a police officer a spaz. How drôle.
My colleague, a little bit calmer than I am, sees his chance and seizes it. "We had a phone-call from the lady downstairs, saying her child was dead". The room goes quiet.
"Yeah, she lost a kid a few years ago", one of them said. "Tragic, really". "I think she got a little messed up when Cindy fell down the stairs".
Finally, some information I could use: There was no child, the woman at the bottom of the stairway's name was Cindy, and we're finally able to talk to the group upstairs, too.
"What's Cindy's last name", I ask. The teenage mom-to-be (it turned out she had turned 16 not long ago) answered me, and I decided to separate her from the rest of the group to get some more answers. Like, for example, who is the woman downstairs (the teenager's mother), who is woman on the bean bag (Cindy's sister), what the argument had been about (whether or not someone had pushed Cindy down the stairs), and why nobody had thought to try to help Cindy. The latter was rewarded with a blank stare, as if she didn't understand the question.
Patricia, the girl who I had been searching for at the beginning of my shift, came home on her own accord, like she had done the other twenty-odd times over the past few months. I was able to do her Misper de-brief as the last thing I did on my shift. It turned out that she had just popped to the shop because she was out of cigarettes, and then refused to come back to school "because it is boring". I tried to explain to her that she couldn't do that, but got such an incredible bucket-load of attitude in return that I didn't hold very high hopes for this not happening again (although, to my credit, it was a whole 10 days until the next time she went 'missing').
We ended up sectioning the woman who had called us about her child – it appears she had bottled up the death of her daughter for many years. This, combined with sporadic drug misuse, rampant alcoholism, and finding a young, bleeding woman at the bottom of a stair case in the house where her daughter lived, sent her over the edge.
The woman at the bottom of the staircase was taken to hospital with a suspected broken neck and/or back, but it turned out she escaped with a broken arm, a few fractured ribs, and a serious concussion. The woman in the bean bag woke up after a while, and was taken to hospital as well, for a check-up. She went missing nearly immediately after she woke up. Well, I say 'missing' – she self-discharged, and went searching for another dose of drugs, presumably.
Cindy's boyfriend was investigated for GBH, but CPS decided – wisely, I reckon – there wasn't enough evidence to charge him with anything. The 6 different witnesses managed to give 8(!) different accounts of the course of events resulting in Cindy ending up in a crumpled, bloody heap at the bottom of the stair case.
It's at the end of a day like this that I draw myself a bath, pour myself a pint of Ginger Hare, sit back, and wonder what I've done to deserve a job like this.
And yet... when I wake up the next day, I'm chomping at the bit to do it all over again. It occurs to me as I'm writing this that maybe I'm the one who ought to be sectioned...
Stay out of trouble,
About Matt Delito
Matt Delito is the pseudonym for a police constable in the London Metropolitan Police. His blog is usually published on Wordpress, but is posted to E2 to get some additional feedback on the writing. For more posts in this series, see Matt Delito.