Jill had no recollect of screaming when she recognised the satchel, or the effect the sound had on the assembled men. It was only later that Paul O’Farrell told her about it, and about at the way his uniformed officers jumped with fright. There was much about that first day she chose to forget, and some things she would never quite manage to erase from her memory. The drive home from the school for instance was still a mystery to her, as she could not recall Paul leading her to his car. Later, when she saw her own vehicle being driven down the track to the house, she wondered about this. Had they spoke on the way there and if so, what had they talked about? Her mind was fixed on reaching the house and finding Toby waiting, but she knew even in her numbed state this would not be the case. Paul said his men were scouring the area, and she knew they had searched her small farm. If Toby was found, Paul would have known by now.
She managed by sheer self-control to stop the tears from falling again, but the imprint from her nails was visible in the palms of her hands. Now walking through the door and confronting the small rain jacket hanging on the end of the banister and the wellington boots that lay in wait for their young owner, she broke down. She had to be helped into the kitchen and sat sobbing at the table while Paul put on the kettle. She laughed, when he placed the steaming mug in front of her with the assurance it would make her feel better. How in the name of God was a mug of tea going to make her feel better, when all she wanted to do was curl up and scream? Impotent with fear and rage, she pushed his offering aside and picked up a towel to dry her eyes.
“What do we do next?” She asked, her voice heavy with tears.
“We wait until we hear from my men,” he sat opposite her. “I know how frustrating this must be for you, but we have to explore all avenues. The parents the teachers were unable to reach will all be contacted, and we are doing a house to house search.”
“How many men have you?”
He shuffled, uncomfortably in his seat.
“Well, there’s just the four from the station now, but I’ve called for backup and they should be here by morning.”
“Four men,” she shrieked. “Four men to cover all the roads and do the house to house.”
She rose from her chair, and he motioned at her to sit.
“There are only two roads in and out of the village,” he tried to placate her. “And we have volunteers working with us.”
“And what about the hills? I heard you tell them to search the byroads and tracks. How are you going to do that?”
“Over twenty men were checking them when I last phoned the station, and they will be hundreds more once the news gets out. People around here give their services in a crisis.”
“It’s a pity they didn’t care enough to watch over a small boy until his mother came for him.” She knew this was not fair, but she had to vent her anger in some way.
“Well, they can’t be blamed for that,” he said, and instantly he was aware of what he said and her reaction.
“No,” her eyes blazed. “But I can, that’s what you’re saying isn’t it. That it’s my fault?”
“I’m sorry,” he shook his head. “It was the wrong choice of words. I meant it’s nobody’s fault.”
“But it is,” she was sobbing again. “It’s my fault. If I hadn’t been late none of this would have happened.”
Before he could offer any words of comfort, she ran from the room. He followed and stood listening at the bottom of the stairs as she retched into the toilet bowl. He felt like joining her, as the effects of last night’s drinking bout had not yet worn off. He rubbed his stomach, hoping to quell the burning in his gut, and popped another antacid. Still, he reasoned, it was not just the whiskey making him feel sick, but the feeling of de-ja-vu that started the moment he heard about the boy’s disappearance. He had been here before. While nine years had passed since the little girl had gone missing, the memory was still as fresh as the day it happened.
Once again, he was forced to witness the grief of a mother at the loss of her child, but this time he would find the boy no matter what it took. In the past, he was constrained by orders from his superiors, and the certain knowledge he had a mortgage to pay and a family that depended on him. Now there was nothing to stop him from quitting the force if his hand was stayed.
Many avenues remained unexplored during the last search, and there were one or two people he had chosen to keep an eye on since that time. Now he would descend on them with all the weight his office allowed, and should the need arise, apply more say, unconventional methods to find out what he needed to know. Either way, this was one child who wouldn’t fade away once the usual media frenzy filtered out.
“Feeling better?” He inquired, as she came down the stairs.
Cursing again his choice of words, he stood aside and waited for her to pass. From her ashen face and the black tears-tracks on her cheeks it was obvious she was feeling far from better. Still, she was more in control, and if the sudden calmness she displayed was an act, it was worthy of an Oscar. He watched as she searched around the kitchen, and when she located what she was looking for came back and stood beside him.
“Look,” she spread the yellowing papers out on the table. “I found these when I was cleaning. My grandmother had kept them for a reason.”
His heart spasmed as he looked down at the three faces that were as familiar to him as those of his own children. This time, the nausea that threatened refused to be held back, and he managed to make it to the bathroom before vomiting. A glass of iced water waited for him when he returned to the kitchen, and he accepted it gratefully. Bile burned his throat, and he could smell the whisky’s acidic fumes on his spattered tie and shirt front.
“I’m sorry about that,” he emptied his glass and allowed her to refill it. “It must have been something I ate.”
“Or drank.” The smell of the alcohol was not lost on her.
“Yeah,” he was gracious enough to blush. “I’ve been doing a lot of that of late.”
“I hope you manage to keep off it until you find my son,” her voice broke a little, and even though she knew she sounded like a harridan, she didn’t care.
“A drop won’t pass my lips,” he promised.
“Good.” The small lapse of control was once again replaced by an icy calm.
“Do you mind?” He pointed to the papers.
“No, go ahead,” she pushed them across to him.
For a while there was silence, as he reread words still etched on his brain. He had copies of all the articles written on the disappearances, but he was still looking for some small clue that might have been overlooked. Jill heard the dogs whining. Rushing outside, she followed the sound to one of the outhouses and found Bess and her pups locked inside. One of the police officers probably did this to stop them getting under their feet, she pushed back the rusty bolt and opened the door. She was immediately engulfed in a wave of fur as the three dogs came charging towards her. The pups made straight for the house in search of their master and comrade in mischief. It was only Bess that remained behind, as though sensing something wrong. Kneeling beside her, Jill buried her face in the softness of the dog’s coat and sobbed.
“Someone took Toby,” her tears matted the fur on Bess’s neck. “They’ve taken my baby.”
The dog’s warning growl alerted her to the movement behind her, and she had to put her hand on Bess’s collar to stop her attacking, as Paul came rushing towards her.
“Are you all right,” he looked from Jill to the dog that was straining to break free.
“I’m o.k.” she assured him, and then to the dog. “Down Bess, he’s a friend.”
This quieted the animal and she surveyed him, to make sure what her mistress said was true. Finally satisfied with what she sensed, she sat, and Jill let go of the collar.
“She doesn’t usually behave like that,” Jill apologised for her pet’s behaviour. However, she was suspicious at the same time.
Bess was always so docile and had never reacted to anyone that way. She even allowed the policeman to lock her inside the outhouse without too much fuss, as she would have heard if the dog bit him. So why was she behaving like that? As if to answer her question, Paul said.
“Animals are sensitive to their owners’ feelings. She knows something upset you and she’s trying to protect you,” he bent down and stroked Bess’s head. “Aren’t you girl?”
This time the dog’s reaction was completely different, as she wagged her tail and licked his hand. I’m just being paranoid, Jill thought.
“Your mother rang,” he said. “I told her you would ring back.”
“Does she know?”
“Yes, I had one of my men ring her and the other people you had down as next of kin on Toby’s school application.”
Instead of saying anything Jill watched what Bess was doing. The dog was sniffing the ground and moving towards the main gate.
“What’s she doing?” she asked Paul. “You don’t think she’s trying to find Toby, do you?”
“Stranger things have happened,” he started to follow the dog, but the scent obviously ended at the gate.
“Toby always waits for me to drive out before closing the gate,” Jill said, breathless with excitement. “We could take her to the school; she might be able to track him from there.”
“It’s worth a try,” he agreed.
“I’ll get the leads,” Jill started to walk back to the house. “We’ll take the pups as well.”
She stopped at the front door and looked over to where Bess was standing. The dog was watching something out in the lane, but when they walked over to where she stood neither of them saw anything.
“What is it, girl?” Jill asked.
“It’s probably nothing,” Paul’s eyes searched the landscape. “Just a rabbit or a rat.”
“No,” Jill was watching the dog. “She sees something we can’t. What is it girl, is it Toby?”
In response, the dog threw back her head and howled.
The sound of the dog’s cry was still ringing in their ears as they drove towards the village. Though Paul wouldn’t admit it, the howls unnerved him. Jill became hysterical, and he had to slap her to stop her screams. To her, the dog’s reaction to the mention of her son’s name meant the dog sensed he was dead, but Paul assured her this was not the case.
“She just realised he is lost somewhere,” he said. “You have to believe that, otherwise why would she be tracking his scent?”
It took time to calm her and now she sat beside him unmoving. The dogs, like their mistress, also sat motionless, the pups huddled against their mother, sensing her distress. Cranking the window down a little, he allowed in the sharp evening air. The smell inside the car was overpowering, and he blamed the dogs in the back seat. If Jill smelled it, she gave no sign, but stared straight ahead, not even blinking.
His nose itched and he brought his hand up to scratch it. Only then he found the wet patch under his arms. Blushing furiously that he blamed the dogs, he vowed to wash and change the first chance he got. He promised to stay with Jill until someone from her family arrived to relieve him, and their failure to appear kept him from the case. Still, he could not leave her alone at such a time. Their one female officer was on maternity leave so her job had fallen on him. He could leave one of the junior officers with her, he mused, but decided against it, as their lack of experience in a case such as this might prove a hindrance. For now, he’d try and appease her by using the dogs to attempt to track the boy. If this failed, he’d get back to what he knew best, good old-fashioned policing. He’d try and keep downwind of her and everybody else, as he couldn’t risk anyone detecting the stench of his own fear.