Elvis was in tears. The big man had watched the film time after time. It had been given to him by the Police, who either had no need for it anymore, or had finally remembered that the father should get a copy.
His son’s last movements, caught on CCTV, first as he leaves the school, then, just briefly parking his bike up outside the shop, and you can see him walk in the door, move purposefully to where the sweets and ice creams are, and just a glimpse of him at the till, with a bag of sweets; then, finally and you wouldn’t know it was him if it wasn’t segued into this montage – cycling away past the blue car, back on the pavement and round the corner, out of the way of the CCTV forever.
Little Magnet he used to call his son, sticking to me like a little magnet. He’d called him Malcolm, an old fashioned name, that he hoped he’d grow into. Little Mal, smallest boy in the class, but not afraid of anything or anyone.
The earlier part of the film shows him clearly. He is at a wedding dancing with the little girl from next door who isn’t that little, and towers above him, and then there’s a short panned shot of him caught in the front row of the choir, dressed like all the other little boys and girls, but fidgeting more than most of them. And the latest bit of footage, the bit that Elvis prefers, just taken last Christmas, the neighbour had brought round the video camera, and its Mal speaking to camera, “I am Mal, and this is my daddy…” and collapsing in laughter as Elvis comes into the picture and grabs him. Shrieking with joy as he whizzes through the air, head spinning.
They said it was a man, aged perhaps fifty, with a beard. There’s no CCTV footage of this, just the grab of the blue car, which was later abandoned. The case had never been closed.
Elvis has the tape in his hand. It’s a precious thing, but tapes aren’t much use anymore. The shop said they’d do tape to DVD transfer.
“Be careful,” he says, “it’s the only copy I’ve got,” handing it over. The boy behind the counter is about Mal’s age. Mal’s age as he would be now.
When he goes back in the shop a couple of days later Elvis is worried, worried that something will have happened to the tape, but the shop assistant hands him a bag with 2 DVD copies and the tape.
Elvis hands over the money, and says “thank you.” He doesn’t quite know what to say, but suddenly it’s very important that he knows what precisely the boy has seen.
“Do you watch them?” he asks.
“When people give you tapes do you watch them?”
“I have to watch some bits. The start. The end. If there’s some edits. But those wedding videos!” He roles his eyes. “Some marriages don’t last that long.” It’s a joke that feels out of place, and the assistant regrets saying it.
“Hi, I’m Simon. I watched it. I remember.”
“Remember the disappearance. I was in his class. Actually I was in the year above, but they sometimes put us all together when a teacher was ill.”
“It must seem a long time ago to you. He was only…”
“…eight. He was only eight. I was nine. They called us all into assembly and said there had been a terrible thing happened and that if anybody knew anything, anything at all, then they wouldn’t get into trouble but they’d better tell a teacher.”
“I think about him every day.”
Simon looked a bit embarrassed. “I’m sorry, for your loss – you and your wife – it must have been…” His sentence tailed off.
“It’s just me. It was just me and him. That made it worse. She never forgave me.”
“For losing him.”
The big man was close to tears, but he’d been close to tears ever since that day. Time dulled the pain, that was all – or rather, it made the pain the one familiar thing. He’d miss the pain, he realised now. There were those soldiers who had their leg amputated and they could still feel the leg there even though it was now just a “phantom.”
Malcolm was just a phantom, but they’d never found him and never found the man.
“I remember him, from the video,” said Simon. “All these things came back to me, that I hadn’t thought about in years.”
“Were you friends?”
“Not really,” he said, “it didn’t work like that, there were gangs and you were with one gang and then with another gang, and sometimes it was one big gang, but only for a day or two and then it would break up again.”
“I didn’t know. He seemed to be on his own a lot of the time.”
“We were all alone a lot of the time,” said Simon, sadly, remembering more than the missing boy. “What do you think happened?”
“I think he’s dead”, said Elvis, simply. It was a lie. But it was easier than the truth. The truth might be that there would be a knocking on his door late at night, with someone from the Porn squad, with a load of other videos, showing some men buggering his Little Magnet. For a while, he’d started researching child abductions, even visiting paedophiles in jails. Once he’d shown a picture of Mal, on the beach, to one of these monsters, and the look on his face had been enough for him never to go back. Had he been able to get through the bars he’d have broken the man’s neck. He even started looking for pictures on the internet, himself. These were the days when you had to dial up the computer and a photograph would take a few minutes to download. He’d watched agonisingly as his request to one of the newsgroups had come up with his specific request, “half-caste boy, aged between 6-10”. Each time it wasn’t Malcolm, and he’d felt both relieved and sad. The tension of waiting for the picture, not knowing if you were going to see something abominable, or just a normal, healthy picture of a boy on the beach, was what made it worse.
Then they changed the law, so that even looking for these pictures was a crime. Every now and then, late at night, with his much faster connection, having had a few too many drinks, and unable to sleep, Elvis would go searching again. The online world had become more complex, more depraved, it seemed; but the ways into these sites where men traded pictures and videos of young boys weren’t so easy to find, and Elvis wasn’t really looking, he just wanted to find.
Elvis found a reason to speak to Simon once every week or so. The photography shop did all sorts. If he came round on a Friday afternoon, it was pretty quiet, and Simon could shut half an hour early and take him round the back, show him all the equipment, the rows and rows or recorders and duplicators.
“Everything’s recorded now,” marvelled Elvis, “and I’ve only so little of Malcolm. It doesn’t seem fair.”
“It’s all digital now – storage – endless,” said Simon, in the chopped up way that his generation talked. Elvis realised that his son would speak like a text message if he had lived. Yet, when he’d disappeared there wasn’t such a thing. He marvelled at that as if it was another mystery, almost as powerful as the mystery of the disappearance.
“They used to wipe the tapes – or rotate them – look…”
He pulled out some footage, similar to the footage on the tape the Police had put together, a grainy image with a timestamp at the bottom.
“I collect these from car boots,” said Simon, “I’m making a montage – of stuff.”
Elvis laughed. “I’d like to see it some time. More interesting than all those wedding videos.”
The next time Elvis came round, Simon called him into the back and sat him down.
“It’s not finished yet,” he said, “but here’s our street…”
He clicked a mouse and the screen started running a film – or rather a series of short films spliced together to tell a somewhat jerky story. Elvis recognised the walk he’d take from his house to the video shop, then it moved off, and took him past the place where Malcolm had gone missing, and over to the school. It was like the footage of the Police tape but more complete somehow.
“I’ve split everything up,” said Simon, “and then keep filling in the pieces, watch again.”
And this time there were some subtle differences. Where Simon only had one piece of film it was repeated but where he had more than one, the scene changed subtley. Instead of two boys parking up outside the sweetshop, there was an old lady. The trees changed from summer green to winter brown.
“Can you put him in there?” said Elvis, suddenly excited.
“My video. Malcolm. Can you put that in there?”
Simon nodded, a bit uncertain.
“Do it, please.”
“I’ll just realign the sequence – and pull in – yes, I’ve still got that on the server, Elvis McCardle, got your file here…”
And in it popped. The familiar footage but this time the day seemed different, the world seemed different.
“It’s at this point he comes out of the shop…” said Elvis, and sure enough he did, “and past the blue car…the blue car’s not there Simon. The blue car’s not there!” He sounded delirious with happiness, as if somehow the change of sequence had changed the past.
“It’s a different scene,” said Simon, “I split them as small as they can go.”
“There it is again,” said Elvis, sadly, as the scene jumped again. The blue car was there and round the corner went Malcolm. “I have to see where he goes…”
Simon nodded, but didn’t know what to say. He changed the route so that the video now followed round the corner. There was nothing there. The scenery had changed, even the road markings. There was a new speed camera and some speed bumps.
“Re-run that…” he implored.
Simon did so. This time the footage was older, closer in time to the day when Malcolm had gone missing. It jerked forward, there were two boys on bikes coming the other direction.
“I’ve not seen them before…” said Elvis, “maybe they knew something…”
Simon paused the film. The time in the bottom right hand corner was six months after.
Elvis sat back in his chair and asked Simon if he could have a copy.
“It’s just an experiment…” said Simon, “it only exists on my computer.”
“There must be more clues…more things. I need to see him change, grow older, I need to see what happens to him when he leaves the camera,” he implores Simon. “I can pay you…”
“I’m not sure…”
“I might be able to get you more film,” he said, “more old film.”
He’d kept in touch with a couple of the Police. There had been a victim support officer who he’d briefly dated, and they’d stayed friends.
The next week he was back with a large holdall full of films.
“Old CCTV footage,” he said, proudly. “Stuff from cases, all copies, just don’t tell anyone where you got them.”
Everything was on camera these days. He’d read somewhere that there was a CCTV camera for every five people in the country. Had Malcolm gone missing today they might not have found him, but they’d have seen a lot more of him. Everyone had video cameras on their phones, kids taking “happy slapping” pictures of themselves. As Simon worked on expanding the footage, and putting it into his computer model environment, Elvis stood outside the schools, next to the shops, all these places with cameras. He noted down names and numbers.
“If they’re digital, they’re stored,” Simon was saying, “we can probably get the direct feed – we just need to know which systems they are using…”
Elvis got a job as a night watchman for a security company. There was a little room at the top of one of the office blocks, where CCTV feeds from private houses, businesses, factories and schools came in. His job was to monitor activity. He took down the information that Simon had asked him for and passed it on; the feeds were now being sucked directly into Simon’s model, making it more complex. Simon had begun applying some other touches taken from computer gaming environments. He could take a car from one place and move it around. At first it didn’t look realistic, but he soon improved on it, until it was perfect.
Both of them wanted more. Simon realised that it was still only an approximation of the real world. He overlaid street data, he overlaid map data. Eventually there was nothing more he could do to his structure. Elvis wanted to see his little boy outlive the frame, move beyond the confines of that fateful day, and the few surviving images. The first time they were able to take Malcolm’s bike and transpose it, Elvis cried. His son – or what looked like his son – was choosing to go a different route, away from the blue car, to safety.
At home that evening he watched the footage that Simon had quickly copied to a DVD. The film was the familiar one, but different.
“What happened to you?” Elvis wondered, as the footage dissolved. He wondered what his son would now look like. He couldn’t even begin to think. Simon had shown him a class photo where he was just a shrunken version of his current self, but Simon was still a bit of an oddball.
Elvis knew what he had to do. He was due on shift in fifteen minutes, the early evening one, a similar time to when Malcolm had gone missing. The night watchman’s job wasn’t just to watch the screens, but to check that the screens were doing their job correctly. Every now and then a screen would blow and whoever was on duty needed to go and investigate. The CCTV cameras would continue to take their evidence.
He had a plan. It took him three attempts, but eventually he managed to throw a sack over the CCTV camera that was furthest from the office. He knew that whoever was on shift before him would have to investigate.
Elvis ran quickly across to the shop where Malcolm had gone missing. He lingered outside, cautious of the time. He was lucky. There were two boys on bikes, about Malcolm’s age when he disappeared. Boys on bikes had been stopping at this shop since Elvis himself was a child. It wasn’t perfect. There were two of them, and they might not go the way he wanted. He lingered outside the doorway.
“Here,” he said, to the first kid as he came out of the shop, “can you do us a favour? My boy’s supposed to be here at 5. Ryan, you know him?”
He’d picked the name at random, but he figured there had to be a dozen Ryan’s in their year.
“Think so, mate,” looking him up and down. “Waddayawant?”
“I’ve a dickey leg,” said Elvis, pointing down, “Can you pop round the corner and see if anyone’s coming – I’m in a bit of a hurry. He’s your age, blue coat, racing bike a bit like your mates. There’s a pack of smokes in it for you.”
And Elvis dangled the contraband.
The second kid came out as the first had biked out of sight.
“Your mate’s gone that way….” said Elvis, pointing in the other direction. He didn’t need the fake hobble now.
He rushed to where the blue car was parked. He got in the front, and slowly drove out from the spot.
He turned round the corner.
Where was the kid?
Then he saw him. Sat down on the roadside. Bike beside him.
He drove towards him.
“No sign?” he said winding down the window. “I’ll kill the bugger.”
“Where’s me fags, mate?”
Elvis dangled them before him and put them on the passenger seat.
The kid came over to the door, and reached over. Elvis was too quick.
“Hey, mister, let me go.”
Elvis pulled him over and slapped him in the mouth. The kid started crying.
“Be quiet, and you’ll be all right.
“What do you want?” the kid shrieked.
“I just want to know what happens next.”
Elvis, in the blue car, drove away, looking up at every speed camera, every CCTV camera. He knew them all. They were all fed into Simon’s model. Updating every few seconds, or live, with the slightest delay.
I just want to know what happens next, he texted to Simon. The car moved slowly away. It could no longer be observed by any camera.
Adrian Slatcher was a COBOL programmer for nine years, and currently works on digital innovation projects in Manchester. He has an M.A. in novel writing from University of Manchester and his stories and poems have been published in Unthology, VLAK, the Rialto, Confingo, Verse Kraken and elsewhere. He blogs about literature at artoffiction.blogspot.com and is currently writing a commissioned story for the Didsbury arts festival Re:Place event.