It’s possibly a bit of an ask to cram this into the ‘academic mystery’ box as required by this month’s Tuesday Night Bloggers, but there’s too much of interest here not to look at. And the story does concern the seemingly-impossible disappearance of a group of children on their way home from school and so is probably just about allowable.
Nine young children in a station-wagon-acting-as-school-bus are being driven from their school to the nearby town where they live, a route which includes the ‘dugway’ road cut into the rock face between the two towns. The car is seen entering the dugway, the father of two of the children on board drives past it in the opposite direction and so is able to vouch for its presence…but it never emerges at the other side. A close inspection of the road reveals no evidence of the car having crashed through any barriers, the ice-covered lake below shows no breakages or disturbance to its surface, and the steepness of the rockface and density of the forestry thereon precludes any off-road antics even if the car was able to somehow pass through a safety barrier without leaving a mark.
This is quite a nice compact little story – in no way fair play, and excluding one really rather crucial piece of…well, ‘evidence’ isn’t quite the word, but ‘relevant information’, let’s say, that apparently never strikes the key person as worth mentioning. In a way it recalls Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost Special’, which I had coincidentally reread this week as a key detail eluded me and was proving frustrating to the usually well-oiled working of my brain cogs, in which an entire train disappears in similar circumstances. You effectively have one of two solutions available to you here, and I’m obviously not going to divulge which one Pentecost goes for, but even when it feels a little hoary there’s much to recommend it.
For a start, the escalation in hysteria is as sudden as it is believable and unpleasant, with suspicion immediately falling on the young man who drives the wagon as soon as the impossibility of its disappearance has sunk in:
It didn’t matter that, until an hour ago, Jerry had been respected, trusted, liked. Their children were gone and Jerry had taken them somewhere. Why? Ransom. They would all get ransom letters in the morning, they said. A mass kidnapping. Jerry had the kids somewhere. […] Nobody stopped to think that Jerry’s father and Jerry’s girl might be as anxious about his absence as the others were about the missing children.
Additionally, Pentecost has a knack of getting inside his characters’ head and showing their increasingly agitated states with a canny combination of adjectives, speech, implied actions, and nifty similes:
Karl Dicker put his hand up to his cheek. There was a nerve there that had started to twitch, regular as the tick of a clock. “I like Jerry. I’d give the same kind of report on him you’ve been getting, Mr. Haviland. But you can’t pass up the facts. I’d have said he’d defend those kids with his life. But did he? And the old man—his father. He won’t answer questions directly. There’s something queer about him. Damn it, Mr. Haviland, my kids are—out there, somewhere!”
And without giving away too much, there’s a really quite wonderful moment of realisation when the motive behind the disappearance is revealed in a sort of patchwork overview of the people involved – it’s perhaps a little choppy, but is so nicely obfuscated behind so many unique little touches that it would be difficult to hold its lack of consistent focus against it.
All told, then, not a bad little story, but what makes it particularly interesting requires 18 years to pass. Because in July 1976 a Greyhound bus full of school children on their way home from school in California actually disappeared. Outside Chowchilla, CA a group of armed men took possession of the bus and diverted it to a nearby rock quarry – not unlike the quarry mentioned in Pentecost’s story – and kept the driver and passengers under guard for over 24 hours. Upon their successful escape from the quarry, it was reported that the kidnappers had been asking the children their names, ages, and parents’ names in what was believed to be a mass ransom attempt.
A lady who had read Pentecost’s story apparently brought it to the attention of the local police when the bus disappeared, and the police in turn tracked the story down to see if it could offer any clues as to what had happened to the bus in this real life event. Such was the supposed prescience of the story, in fact, Pentecost was encouraged to bolster it up to novel length and it was rushed into shops to take advantage of the sudden interest generated, with a cover declaring it “The terrifying and prophetic story written BEFORE the Chowchilla kidnapping!” in case the similarities has failed to escape anyone’s notice. It was apparently shown that the crooks in the kidnapping case were in no way familiar with the story, but it’s an interesting footnote to an interesting little tale.
Obviously you have the vast power of the interwebs at your fingers if you wish to explore this further, but be aware that typing “The Day the Children Vanished” into Google brings back as its first result the issue of the Evening Independent from St. Petersburg, FL from Saturday 17th July 1976 – specifically an article entitled ‘Strange Resemblance’ which has a blatant disregard for spoilers in the case of this story. Shame, shame on them…