Sometimes sheer statistics, dry numbers, begin a mystery. The numbers are anomalous and observers feel compelled to ask “What’s up with that?” It’s the question that puts mystery on the map.

If one teenage girl, or boy, goes missing, that’s deeply agonizing for the family, but it could mean most anything. A victim of random violence, lying under the weeds somewhere. A runaway who overdosed, or with luck, a runaway who may be heard from again one day. One missing teen does not a pattern make.

But clusters speak loudly in all science. Clusters of cancer cases, clusters of asthma sufferers.

And now, clusters of missing youth, from townships like Berkeley and Clayton and St. Louis itself, all in St. Louis County.

Predominantly poor, predominantly black, and the missing teens are more often female.

If you scroll through master lists of missing area teens from the last six years, it’s depressing, it seems to go on forever. You hear numbers like 3o kids missing from one town, another 20 from another small area, over 200 and counting for greater St. Louis. You realize with a very sinking feeling: there can’t be that many runaways who just haven’t checked back in yet. Not missing for that length of time.

Many of those kids, most of them, must be the victims of some sort of foul play. Now and again, someone finds kidnapped kids prostituted from some old hotel. And in decaying parts of St. Louis, there’s many an abandoned building, but not totally abandoned. Signs that someone dwells inside. Sometimes the police hesitate to go into those spaces, cops are shot from time to time. And the sheer number of places where the kidnapped might be held.

It’s a grim specialty, but it’s developing–training the police and other responders to look for the signs of trafficked children.

There are a lot of questions left unanswered.

Such as, where are those two hundred kids, with lives that were once full of promise?