The missing undergraduate Vicky Stephenson was on familiar territory when her tutors told her to seek out and interview a homeless person for a coursework project.
The approachable 19-year-old never passed a Big Issue vendor without buying the magazine. It was also always her practice to hand out money or one of the Marlboro Lights she smoked, as she passed by.
Last night, detectives in Greater Manchester were reflecting on whether her openness may have been misjudged, as they took sniffer dogs to parks and wasteland in the area to join a missing person hunt, which began when the applied community studies student failed to return from her coursework mission four days ago.
The remit of Ms Stephenson's assignment, which was to have taken her from Manchester Metropolitan University's Didsbury campus into the city centre, has given the team of 40 officers an important line of inquiry. Plain clothes officers were moving discreetly around the Manchester homeless community yesterday in search of sightings.
But there was no disguising the fact that they are searching for a needle in a haystack.
If Miss Stephenson has been abducted – rather than choosing to absent herself from family and friends because of personal issues – the clues could be anywhere in a vast area of South Manchester.
At some time between 12.30pm and 12.45pm on Tuesday, the first-year student and her friend left a lecture which was due to conclude at 1pm.
They were both in the campus library for a short time before Miss Stephenson left to catch the 142 bus into the city. At 1pm, she sent the same friend a text message saying she would meet her at 4pm for a cup of coffee. Miss Stephenson, whom police have described as a meticulous timekeeper, never arrived.
That has left officers, who don't even know if she made the 30-minute bus journey into town, with every public area along the three-mile route to search.
Four sniffer dogs and teams from two police vans began the thankless task yesterday afternoon among the rhododendron bushes and orchid house of the Fletcher Moss Botanical Gardens, next to the bus stop where Miss Stephenson may have waited.
There were rumours of a sighting of a pullover and a black glove before the search began. But it had all come to nothing by last night.
The absence of any sightings of Miss Stephenson, who has established a number of close friends during her two months in Manchester, is the most baffling aspect of the inquiry.
But Detective Superintendent Peter Minshall, who is leading the search, said that the discovery of somebody who had seen the teenager remained his greatest hope.
"Our inquiries at the moment include talking to anybody and everybody who was in Manchester city centre on Tuesday afternoon who may have seen Vicky," said Det Supt Minshall.
He insisted there was no apparent reason for her to go missing. The examination of CCTV footage from places where the student is likely to have disembarked is an important part of the mission.
Miss Stephenson's lecturers indicated that they had advised her to conduct her studies during the day and not to go out alone, when sending her off to find somebody who was homeless, 50 and had "led a full life".
As the student's father Michael Stephenson, the manager of a London law firm, travelled to Manchester, he said he was praying his daughter would be found.
"I'm trying not to think the worst," he said. "You can hear such awful things."
Fay Slevan, chairman of The Big Issue in the North, "positively discouraged" approaching the homeless for research.
She said: "When we do our research with our vendors, it has to have a positive benefit for them."
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