None of it should have happened but all of it did and the mounting coincidences and innocent errors fatally confused the initial search for Mary Beth McBride. And by the time that search evolved into anything like a proper investigation it was too late.
Mary was already a victim.
It began with something as ordinary as a puncture, which briefly caused a traffic jam on the rue du Chene along which the embassy driver, a local Belgian named Claude Luc, was taking a short cut to the school. The US security officer, William Boles, agreed that it was a bastard even as he was strictly following the well-rehearsed routine. Before allowing Luc to change the wheel he telephoned the embassy from the car phone for a back-up vehicle to collect Mary. And then he called the school to warn of the delay.
The confusion arose when the embassy duplicated that warning call: misunderstanding the second contact, the school secretary thought that the relief vehicle had already arrived and it was no longer necessary to keep the child on the premises.
The last of the stragglers were just being collected or driven away when Mary Beth McBride emerged on to the rue du Canal and realized there was no car waiting for her. Mary’s security briefing was as well rehearsed but far simpler than that of William Boles. She should have turned back into the building and asked someone to telephone the embassy to find out what had happened.
But Mary Beth McBride was a wilfully precocious, brace-toothed ten-year-old who welcomed the chance not only to prove she was quite capable of finding her own way, unescorted, around Brussels, but also to see her usual driver and escort, who she knew didn’t like her, take the blame during the later telling-off. It was they who would be punished, not she. No one ever punished her.
To make sure she thoroughly worried everyone Mary decided to take the most roundabout route possible to get home. She would use the Metro, and let her mother find the ticket in her pocket. Mary was absolutely forbidden to use the system – had never in her life been on an underground train anywhere in the world – but was sure she could work it out from the map at the street entrance. They’d hardly be able to believe it in class tomorrow when she told them. She knew all the other girls admired her: she wasn’t frightened of doing things, as they all were. That’s why she was the leader, the person they all copied. It would cause one of those fights between mom and dad, too.
Mary never reached the Metro, although she could see a station at the next road junction. She frowned sideways at the car that suddenly drew up beside her, irritated at the disruption of her plans and by the shape of the Mercedes, different from the car that normally picked her up. Her escort wasn’t normally a woman, either. Mary didn’t recognize this one although she knew there were women among the embassy’s security detachment. A car behind them began sounding its horn impatiently.
‘Are you from my father?’ Mary demanded imperiously. They’d already know they were in trouble for being late.
‘Yes,’ lied Felicite Galan, speaking in English because the child had. ‘Get in.’
‘Where’s Bill and Claude?’ asked Mary, demandingly offering her backpack for the woman to take before sliding into the rear beside Felicite. It was grown-up to address the men who normally came for her by their given names: would let these two know how they had to behave. The car behind hooted again.
‘They had to do something else,’ improvised Felicite. She was looking intently at the girl, smiling in anticipation. To Henri Cool, at the wheel, Felicite said in French: ‘She’s lovely. We’ve done well.’
Mary couldn’t remember any of her escorts talking French, which she knew well enough to interpret the remark although not understand it. ‘You’re going to get into trouble for being late.’
‘No we’re not,’ said Felicite. The driver laughed.
Mary knew Brussels sufficiently to identify the Cathedrale de St Michel. She said: ‘This isn’t the way to the embassy!’
Momentarily Felicite hesitated, off balance, aware of Cool’s startled look in the rearview mirror. She said: ‘We’re not going to the embassy.’
‘Where then?’ demanded the child.
‘You’re going on an adventure,’ promised the woman, prepared for the question.
The driver pressed the central locking system and the buttons on all the doors clicked down, even though the rear-door child-locks were already in place, disabling the handles.
‘What sort of adventure?’ demanded Mary. This woman wasn’t as respectful to her as Bill was: she’d tell dad.
‘Wait and see.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘You don’t have a choice.’
At that moment the second security man in the backup collection vehicle reported to the American embassy on the Boulevard du Regent that Mary had vanished. And the panic began in the office suite of the United States’ ambassador to Belgium, James McBride.
They usually got frightened during a drive as long as this, crying, wetting themselves. Hysterical. But this one didn’t. Rather, she was defiantly unafraid – arrogantly unafraid – and Felicite, a constant seeker for anything new, anything not tried before, was excited. Would the child fight, later? None of the others had ever tried, not seriously. Hysteria gave way to cowed, bewildered acceptance: submissive apathy. Boring. It really would be exciting if this one fought back. Defied them. She was small, maybe no older than eight, although that would have been very young to be walking by herself. The prime requirement, to be as young as possible: young but aware. Hair – good, lustrous hair – in plaits. Oscar Wilde’s hair: All her bright golden hair tarnished with rust, She that was young and fair fallen to dust. Felicite mouthed the creed, part of her article of faith. This child’s hair was golden, tarnished by a suggestion of redness. Pity about all that metal clamped in her mouth. Proof, if it were needed, that Mary Beth McBride was an American. Why did all American children have to have the output of a steel mill in their mouths? Never had an American child before. Have to get rid of the brace.
Felicite reached out, to stroke Mary’s cheek, but the girl jerked away although still without fear: it was an impatient, irritated movement. ‘Where are we going?’
‘I told you, an adventure.’
‘I want to go back to Brussels. Now!’
‘If you’re a naughty girl I’ll slap you.’ Part of the fun, the control. The best part. She’d make her cry. Plead. But not now. Too soon now. When she chose to. Maybe just the slightest correction.
‘No one slaps me!’
‘I might. Be careful.’ An idea was forming in Felicite’s mind, a new fantasy. It would give her the sort of absolute, supreme control she’d never had before. Her very own marionette show: a jumping, contorting cast of dozens, if not hundreds, performing to her will as she pulled the strings.
‘I have already told you my name is Mary Beth McBride and that my father is the American ambassador to Belgium!’
‘I heard you.’ So had Henri Cool. Felicite knew he wasn’t excited, as she was, sufficiently aroused for her voice to be fragile. He was scared, very scared, driving erratically out of Brussels until she’d warned him. He was driving erratically again now. ‘You’re going too fast,’ she said sharply. ‘What the hell’s wrong with you!’