The clock on the dashboard screamed eight minutes past three, as she pulled up outside the school. In that short space of time, between the ringing of the bell and flurry of mother collecting children, the playground and the surrounding street had emptied. Eight minutes was all it took for the cars to drive away with their chattering occupants, and for the teachers to lock the windows and doors. A sob caught in Jill’s throat as she climbed from the car. There was no sign of Toby. The last of the autumn leaves scurried across her path as she ran towards the main door. The only thing that marred the surface of its wood was the large letterbox; there was no knocker or bell to push, as the door remained open during school hours and closed the rest of the time. There was never any need for anyone to knock.
Trying to control the sobs, Jill beat her fists on the wood. She heard her raps echoing along the empty corridors inside, but there were no approaching footsteps to answer her summons. Running around the side, to the small area where the teachers parked their cars, she groaned. It too was empty. Her throat hurt as she ran back across the playground and out into the street. She had to remain calm; she did not want to be mistaken for a hysterical mother. Perhaps, there was some simple explanation; maybe one of the other mothers gave him a lift home. Her hands shook as she stuck the key in the ignition, and despite the cutting cold, she was sweating. Deciding to drive along the main street in case he wandered off, she steered the car slowly along the road. The place reminded her of a ghost town. Streets were bare, the shop awnings fluttered under the heavy wind, and the few floor signs advertising various newspapers creaked and groaned on hinges. She gave up hope of seeing anyone and was about to drive to the police station, when the door of the post office opened and Mr Jackson, Toby’s teacher appeared, closely followed by the art teacher, Mr. Keane. She pulled up right beside them and jumped from the car. Walking straight up to Mr Jackson, she said.
“Have you seen Toby? I mean since school finished?”
“No, I afraid I haven’t.”
“I had a flat tire and I was late picking him up. I told him to wait inside the bars of the playground, if that ever happened,” the sobs she managed so far to control escaped and she stumbled back against the car.
“Come now,” Mr Jackson placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure he just wandered off. We’ll find him.”
“No, he wouldn’t just wander off. Something has happened to him,” she said, and took the handkerchief he offered.
“Maybe one of the other mothers drove him home?” Mr Keane echoed her thoughts. “I’ll ring around and find out.”
“Yes,” his colleague agreed. “Come with us. I’ll open the school. We can use the phone in my office.”
Jill was aware of his hand on her elbow as he guided her across the street. The short walk to the school took forever, and she wanted to run, to scream at them to hurry up.
The bunch of keys Mr Jackson took from his coat pocket seemed to belong to another time. Each one was huge and more fitting for the doors of a castle or stately home. She heard the clunk of the lock and groan of the wood as he pushed open the door. It was like she was walking in a dream, caught up in some terrible nightmare that she might soon awaken from. There came again the familiar smell of books and chalk dust, as they walked along the corridors.
“I am vice principal,” Mr Jackson explained, as he led her into a small office. “So, I have the rare privilege of having a room of my own.”
“Some of us have to make do with the teachers’ lounge,” Mr Keane lisped.
Even though she knew he was just trying to lighten the mood, his voice grated on her already unravelling nerves.
Jill sank into the offered chair and waited as the computer was turned on. It took an age for the machine to boot up, and she dug her nails into the palms of her hands to stop herself from screaming. Finally, he moved the mouse, searching the screen for Toby’s term. The printer behind him whizzed to life as he selected the right one. Jumping up from his seat, he took the four sheets and handed two to his colleague.
“Go down to the principal’s office,” he held out the bunch of keys. “It will be quicker that way.”
Without a word, Mr Keane did as he was asked. Jill knew there were over thirty boys in Toby’s class, and it would take time to contact all the parents. She listened to the first few calls, but as each one failed to bear fruit, she grew even more anxious. Waiting until had had hung up on his last call, she said. “I’m going to look outside and ask in the shops if anyone has seen him.”
“Promising idea.” His face was pale. “I’ll keep at this and come and find you if I have any news.”
The streets were as deserted as before, and for a moment she laughed, as the situation was surreal. It was as though she was caught up in one of those trashy horror films that played out late at night. The lone woman trapped in a deserted village with the menace of some terrible evil lurking around every corner. But this was not a film, and the evil that lurked was very real.
Her first few inquiries were met with a resounding no, as she asked if any of the shopkeepers had seen her son. A few took the time to explain there were so many children running around after school was out, it was hard to remember one child. She had finished both sides of the main street, when she saw the teachers running to meet her.
“Well?” She asked, hopefully.
“We managed to get in touch with most of the parents,” Mr Jackson was breathless. “None of them drove Toby home. A few remember seeing him waiting inside the playground. Five or six were not in, so we can try them later.”
“We should ring the police,” Mr Keane said. “The few we haven’t been able to contact live in the opposite direction to your house. They would not be passing the door and we’re wasting time.”
At the mention of the word Police, Jill’s knees buckled. If it were not for the restraining hands of the men, she would have sunk to the ground. Between them they helped her back to the school. Once seated in the small office, Mr Keane left to make the dreaded phone call. It was a silent agreement between both men she should not have to listen as they made the missing person’s report. Jill warmed her hands on the mug of steaming coffee handed her, but she didn’t try to drink. She was afraid she might be sick.
“They’re on their way,” she heard the gentle lisp behind her.
“This will be nothing more than a storm in a teacup,” Mr Jackson tried to smile. “Boys go missing all the time. They’re like that, always up to some mischief or other.”
Mr Keane joined in, assuring her what his colleague said was quite true, but she heard very little as the voice inside her head started up. She closed her eyes and listened. It seemed so far away that she had to strain to hear.
“Please,” her voice was higher that she meant it to be. “Can you be quiet?”
“Of course,” the men mumbled, and she was instantly sorry she had sounded so sharp. “We’ll go outside, and let you have a few minutes alone.”
Once they left the office, Jill tried to listen. Never had she experienced such a thing. In the past, she had dreams that came true and she was a dab hand at reading the tarot, but that was just a party game. Now she was either losing her mind or some strange door was opening in her brain. She had heard something, and to her surprise she didn’t have to search very hard to find it again. It was waiting as soon as she had closed her eyes. The terrified cry of her child. Toby. Her mind screamed and in reply there came the whimper, “Mam, help me.”
Paul O Farrell was not prepared for the whirlwind that came through the office door.
“Whoa,” he grabbed the woman, as she charged towards him.
“Someone has taken my son,” Jill screamed. “I heard him.”
“Steady now,” Paul had to use all his strength to hold her. “Come back inside and we’ll sort this out.”
“What don’t you understand?” She struggled to break free. “My child has been kidnapped.”
“Listen to me,” he held her shoulders. “My men are searching as we speak. Come inside and we’ll talk.”
Paul couldn’t believe it was happening again. Jill’s wild-eyed look and clenched jaw was something he’d seen before in another mother.
“I have to find him,” she dissolved into sobs. “I have to get him back, I’m his mother.”
“We’ll find him, don’t worry,” Paul assured her.
His words sobered her, and he thought for a moment she had decided to yield to his suggestions, but that was not the case. The reason she stopped struggling was because she remembered the old newspapers and the face of the detective in charge of the cases. Now she became the lioness fighting for her cub.
“You’ll find him,” she sneered. “The way you did all the other children?”
She didn’t care her words had caused him pain, and ignored how his face turned ashen, but the venom was released, and she now felt drained. They stared at one another, and to break the terrible tension, Mr Jackson intervened.
“Let’s go into the office,” he said. “We can talk there.”
Jill allowed him to lead her back inside. The detective, who introduced himself sat behind the desk.
“I have sent some of my men to your home, to check if Toby has tried to get there by himself.”
“I would have seen him on the road,” her eyes flashed with anger, and she clenched her teeth, trying to stay in control.
“Boys sometimes take shortcuts,” he said. “They know the quickest way through the fields.”
“Perhaps local boys do,” she muttered. “But my son is new to the area and he would not know the way home.”
“Nevertheless, we have to rule it out.”
“I told you someone has taken him.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I’m his mother, I just know.” She knew it would be useless trying to explain how she knew, and he would dismiss her as some crackpot.
Still, to her dismay, he picked up the phone and dialled.
“I want roadblocks set up on all the roads leading out of village,” he told the voice on the other end of the line. “Have someone check the hills as well. I want nothing left to chance.”
“Can I go now?” Jill asked when he replaced the receiver.
“I have a few more questions I need to ask,” he pulled a notebook from his pocket and flipped it open. “Are you in contact with Toby’s father?”
“I have his address, if that’s what you’re asking.” She was too angry to be civil.
Somewhere out in the cold, gathering darkness, her child was in danger.
“Are relations between you hostile?” he asked. “Could he have taken your son?”
“No, of course not,” her heart leapt at the question, if only it were that simple. At least she knew Joe would take care of him. “He walked out on us over six months ago. The last thing he would need to spoil his new-found freedom is the burden of a child.”
“He’ll have to be informed,” the detective said. “Would you like me to take care of that?”
“Yes, if you would,” she could not bear to hear his voice, or the accusations he was bound to throw at her when he heard his son was missing. “I have the number here.”
She slipped her hand into her coat pocket and withdrew her mobile. Despite her anger, she had recorded his new number in the memory. Scrolling through the list, she located it and handed the phone to the detective. He added this to the information on his pad before passing it back to her.
A sudden shuffling in the corridor outside made him look towards the door. Nodding to whoever stood behind her, he got up.
“If you’ll excuse me for a moment.”
She didn’t acknowledge this, and it was not until he left the room, she became aware Mr. Jackson was still there.
“Can I get you something to drink?” He asked.
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” she said. “Why did the detective leave like that?”
Without waiting for an answer, she slipped from her seat and walked out into the corridor. One of the classroom doors was open, and she followed the drone of the voices inside. The detective and three uniformed officers stood around one of the desks, looking down at something. She edged closer, not wanting them to hear and hide whatever it was they had lying there. A small gap opened between the men, and she saw the familiar red flash of Toby’s school satchel.