Unusually, in this particular mystery, there is a precise point at which the facts stop and the speculation begins.
That moment is 10.45am on Tuesday, 1 May, when Chandra Levy, an attractive, dark-haired 24-year-old woman who had just finished a temporary job with the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, e-mailed her parents in California. She said that she was coming home soon.
And since then, nothing. Despite a weight of publicity and inquiry unmatched by almost any other missing persons case, there remains no sign of Ms Levy. No sightings, no messages, no real clues. Police admitted this week they were no closer to finding her than they were two months ago.
But yesterday, after almost 10 weeks of speculation but only snail's-paced progress, the mystery was electrified by fresh details revealed by Ms Levy's aunt concerning the one topic that has kept this story at the top of the bubbling Washington gossip pot: Chandra's relationship with a married US Congressman.
Soon after Ms Levy went missing, news broke that she had some sort of relationship with Gary Condit, a silver-haired House Representative from California, whose district includes her home town of Modesto. This alone was enough for the police to interview Mr Condit twice, stressing however, that the Democrat was not a suspect in what is still a missing persons case.
Mr Condit, a 59-year-old with a penchant for riding Harley- Davidson motorcycles, decided not to comment publicly. Instead, in statements issued by aides, he insisted Ms Levy was "just a good friend".
Of course, no one believed him. There were stories that Ms Levy was in love with him and that she used to spend nights at the Congressman's flat, just 15 minutes' walk from her studio apartment. And then other women emerged to talk of their relationships with the youthful-looking Congressman, whose wife, Carolyn, is said to be "chronically ill".
As the summer weeks have progressed, the speculation over the nature of Mr Condit's relationship with Ms Levy has risen as inexorably as the mercury in the city's thermometers. That buzzing reached new levels yesterday when Ms Levy's aunt, Linda Zamsky, spelt out in precise detail just what her niece revealed of her relationship with the Congressman. The picture that emerged – relayed to The Washington Post – was of an intense but secret love affair that Mr Condit was desperate his wife or anyone else should not discover.
"He was emphatic," said Mrs Zamsky. "It had to remain secret. If anyone found out about this relationship, it was done, over, kaput."
Ms Levy first told her aunt of the relationship during a Thanksgiving dinner last November. "There was a look in her eyes. She was excited. She said he's here in Washington and he goes home occasionally. She said he's in government." More details emerged. The pair would spend long periods at the congressman's apartment in the Adams Morgan district. Sometimes they would cook, sometimes they would go to restaurants in the suburbs, Mrs Zamsky said. The Congressman had told Ms Levy that if she was visiting and someone else got into the lift and pressed the button for his floor, she was to press a different floor.
Mrs Zamsky said the Congressman bought her niece presents, including a gold bracelet and Godiva chocolates from Belgium. Ms Levy referred to him as "my guy".
Under most circumstances none of this would matter. Mr Condit would certainly not be the first politician to have had an affair with a young woman and be keen for the details not to leak out. Indeed, in some Washington circles, interest has focused more on the terrible PR mistakes made by a man who once warned President Clinton during the Lewinsky affair: "Only when we strip away the cloak of secrecy and lay the facts on the table can we begin to resolve this matter honestly and openly." Some suggest that Mr Condit's position may be threatened.
"It is not doing him any good not to say anything," one Capitol Hill insider told The Independent. "In Washington there are certain rituals that you are expected to go through in such a situation: you admit it, you apologise, you hope the whole thing does not come out close to an election and then you get on with it. If you don't say anything people just speculate."
Slowly, Mr Condit, has started to hit back. He has hired a PR consultant and he issued a statement this week confirming that his wife has also been interviewed by the FBI. He also denied a claim from an airline hostess, Anne Marie Smith, he was said to be having an affair with, that he had asked her to hush up their relationship in a sworn affidavit.
As compelling as all of this is, does any of it help in the search for Ms Levy? The police say not. Although they say they now think it unlikely that Ms Levy committed suicide, they are stuck with just the same handful of facts they had 10 weeks ago.
They say her bags were partly packed, that nothing was missing other than her keys and that there was no sign of a struggle. Likewise, there was no note or other clue as to where she may have gone.
The last confirmed sighting of her was at 7pm on 30 April when she turned in her membership at a branch of the Washington Sports Clubs, a modern, music-pumping gym popular with young Washington professionals, just a few blocks from her apartment. There are no clues there.
And at her apartment block, a building called The Newport in a quiet, tree-lined street, there is nothing apart from the missing persons poster placed on a noticeboard, to suggest she ever even lived there. Jim Figert, the building manager, said: "She was a very private person. She would say hello as she came in but I don't think she had any friends in the building."
In the vacuum left by the lack of information, speculation persists. Several people, including Mr Condit's former driver, Vince Flammini, suggested Mr Condit may have recently broken off the relationship. Other rumours mention a possible pregnancy.
And amid all of this, Ms Levy's aunt has now revealed that on 29 April – the day before she was last seen – her niece left a message on her answering machine.
It said: "Hi Linda, this is Chandra. My internship is over. I'm planning on packing my bags in the next week or 10 days. Heading home for a while. Don't know what I'll do this summer. And I really have some big news or something to tell. Call me ..."Reuse content