When Louise Kerton walked up the steep ramp to platform eight at Aachen train station at around midday on 30 July, there was little reason to think she was going anywhere other than home to Kent.
The quiet 24-year-old student nurse from Broadstairs was not fond of travelling. Her fiancé was waiting at Dover Hoverport to collect her after a five-week visit to his family in Germany.
By the next morning, the slim figure of Miss Kerton, dressed in a long black skirt and a white blouse, had still not appeared. Her distraught fiancé, Peter Simon, 38, reported her missing and fled to London.
Nearly three weeks of fruitless searching later, she is at the centre of a maelstrom of rumour and fear that has divided two families and left police in three countries baffled.
She had been left, according to her future mother-in-law Ramana Simon, 65, at the ornate terminus in Aachen to catch the 12.04pm train to Ostend. What happened to the dark-haired student before and since has been the subject of inquiries by detectives in Kent, Belgium and Germany.
Miss Kerton left Britain at the end of June carrying just £78 – barely enough to last her holiday, let alone another 18 days in a busy city. Initially, there were dark whisperings of abduction or murder. Yesterday, the theory emerged she is enjoying a fling with a Polish squeegee merchant she met at the station. Other characters include a schizophrenic future brother-in-law who was tried and acquitted of a murder several years ago; his protective and silent mother; and Miss Kerton's family trawling Germany and Belgium for a sighting.
To add to the sinister omens, it has emerged that she was a classmate at private school, Walthamstow Hall, of Lucie Blackman – the air stewardess who was raped and murdered in Japan.
For her father, Phil Kerton, who, along with his wife and son, has been a daily sight in the streets of Aachen handing out photos of Louise, it is a scenario too painful to contemplate.
Speaking from a café where he was pinning up the latest of hundreds of tri-lingual posters, he said: "It has been a blur. We wake every day wanting this to come to a happy end. We arrived with the fear that we might be looking for a body.It is a constant battle not to think of the worst, to keep spirits high.
"You cannot help but look at every young person you see in a crowd or on a street. You're thinking 'it might be her, this could be it'. That is what is keeping us going."
Yesterday, Mr Kerton, 56, head of information for Blue Circle Cement, his wife Kath, 55, and son Simon, 26, had one of the better days of the last 18. There were four apparent sightings of his daughter in Aachen. German police confirmed she been seen buying a map and eating at hostels for the homeless and a convent between 8 and 11 August with a handsome, blond Pole who cleans windscreens in the city.
According to witnesses, Miss Kerton, sporting a new tomboyish cropped haircut, had spoken both of returning to England and staying in Germany. Mr Kerton said: "It is the first proof we've had that we aren't looking for a body. She may have a new boyfriend, or this guy might be just a friend. Maybe she has had enough of everything for a while."
The student, whose fiancé claimed he had seen her ghost since she went missing, was said to have been depressed after failing some of her final nursing exams in June. But her six-year relationship with Peter Simon and his idiosyncratic family could be a factor, according to the Kertons.
Peter left his mother's home to return to Kent two days before Miss Kerton after they had spent five weeks in Germany. Their marriage was planned for 2003 and there was talk of a move to the Continent to live with Mrs Simon, a German. The couple had met in 1995 while ice skating in Broadstairs where, until six months ago, they lived next door to Peter's schizophrenic elder brother, Michael, 42, and Mrs Simon.
Mrs Simon returned in February with Michael to the hamlet of Strassfeld, near Bonn. The reason was to start a new life following Michael's acquittal in 1993 for the murder of 79-year-old Josephine Bridges in Broadstairs.
The ordeal, during which the family home was searched and all members of the family were questioned, has left the Simons deeply suspicious of the authorities – especially police. Detectives in Kent and Germany said earlier this week they had no reason to believe Michael Simon was involved with the disappearance.
Mrs Simon, who has been the focus of pleas from the Kertons to be more co-operative with police, said yesterday: "We are all very upset. I looked after Louise like a daughter, fed her, did her washing. I would hate to see any harm come to her."
Others suggested that she had not been happy in Strassfeld. One neighbour said she had seemed depressed, walking with slumped shoulders and rarely smiling.
Within hours of reporting her missing, Peter, a care worker, was said to have "disappeared" to London for two days before emerging to give details to Kent Police
He was then quoted in the British press yesterday as saying that Miss Kerton, a devout Catholic, was promiscuous and had cheated on him.
A letter sent by Miss Kerton, who suffered from dyslexia, from Germany on 20 July was felt by her family to be uncharacteristically brief and tidy for a young woman who wrote in long, rambling sentences.
It said: "I'm keeping well. Having a lovely time in Germany. It's very green here, the weather is nice. Don't worry about me." For Mr Kerton, it was confirmation that all had not been well.
He said: "What we hope is that perhaps she has decided to break off the engagement and has gone on off on something of an adventure. If that is right, if she wants some time to herself, that is fine. I just wish she would get in touch to let us know ... well, what every parent wants to know, that she is still alive."
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