Joey...doesn't live well at home. The house he lives in is one his family can't really afford; his mother works multiple jobs for it just so she has the right postcode to get him into decent, middle-class schools, and while it's in a nice area, it's a dump. They'd honestly have a better residence in a council estate. I knock on the door - coarse, unpainted wood and the glass of the windows long since smashed and boarded up - and a woman with hair that seems prematurely greyed answers. Crow's feet across her eyes. A uniform for a minimum wage job on under her jacket. Instantly I feel self-conscious, until I remember why I'm here.
"Hi, I'm Ms. Dawkins, an assistant in Joey's class. Is Joey in? I need to talk to him about homework for school, catch up after the rather chaotic end of term, if that's okay."
She looks at me, scanning me up and down, and then her gaze softens.
"He's in the lounge. I have to go now, but feel free to go in there and keep him busy."
She can't afford a sitter, it would appear. Okay, that makes my life easier.
"Hey, just for security's sake, let me take a photo of you."
She produces a cameraphone and takes a photograph of me. If I were some kind of paedophile, then she's certainly gone further towards solving this crime than preventing it.
"Right, I'll get out of your hair. Let yourself out whenever."
And with that, she walks past me, down a vegetation-tangled garden path and into an old, beat-up car before driving off to some shitty job. I walk into the house proper. It looks like someone was in the middle of a large DIY project and stopped halfway through; walls stripped and with splashes of old white paint and cement filling in cracks. The hallway stretches out to a tiny kitchen in front of me, and to my left, a staircase and a door to the lounge. Blu-tac'd at seemingly random intervals (covering up holes in the wall) are drawings seemingly drawn by Joey. I enter the lounge to find Joey sitting on the floor, drawing eagerly. He looks up at me and grins.
I sit down on the sofa. "Hey, Joey. I'm just here to ask about Daddy."
Joey looks confused.
"Ms. Fisher already came over and asked about Daddy. She had pictures on her phone. He was in some of them. There were more pictures than I can count. She asked what his face looked like."
She was here? She was asking about Daddy?
"Joey, stop drawing, this is very important. Tell me everything about Daddy. Is he your real Daddy?"
Joey's face scrunches up in concentration as he tries to find the right words. "No, but I never had a Daddy. He started being there, and so I called him Daddy, because he was the first person who was there for me."
"When did he start appearing?"
"About two months ago. At first he was hiding. I'd see him off in the distance or outside the house. Then he got more open. He watches me through windows, presses his face right up near them. Sometimes at school, he comes right up to the glass on the door. He comes into my room at night while I sleep. Look, I drew a picture."
Joey pulls a sheet of A4 from out of a pile. It showed Joey in bed, with a smile on his face, while the same tall, suited man stands right next to the bed. He looks like he's staring right at his, but his lack of a face means I'm just guessing. What was really bizarre were his dimensions; despite the fact that Joey's art skills are well beyond that of a normal child his age, he insists on drawing Daddy with long, thin arms and legs. The arms touch the ground even from standing. By comparison, the dimensions of other characters he draws are very realistic. It makes me wonder about that artistic choice.
"He always comes to keep me company when my head hurts."
Suddenly everything clicks.
"Did he take you with him that day you went missing?"
Joey's face turns red with anger. "He's my Daddy! I wanted to go with him!"
"What's wrong with Daddy's arms and legs?"
He stops. I press on.
"Why do you draw his arms and legs like that?"
He's completely quiet. Just looking at me.
"Who is Daddy?"
He suddenly looks scared. I can tell I'm not going to get any more information out of him. I back off, try to comfort him calm again. Eventually he relaxes.
By the time I walked home, it was already dark. Colder than it had been previous nights. Deeper shadows, stretching out from behind cars and walls. I walked quickly.