The drive to the next village only took half an hour, but to Jill’s tortured soul it seemed like forever before she pulled into the estate named in the newspaper. The article had not given a house number, and there was no way of telling which house he lived in. The small housing estate was well kept with the usual hanging baskets outside, drab now that the frost had done its worst, but it was easy to imagine how bright they looked in full bloom.
She drove around a while, gliding from one avenue to another in search of a sign. Perhaps, she imagined an event such as the one witnessed within the house, had left a mark, some outward scar easy to recognise or a memory plaque. Deciding it was wiser to wait and see if Paul arrived, she steered the car back towards the entrance to the estate and pulled up at the curb. It was still two days before Halloween, but children ran by dressed in multi-coloured costumes of goblins, ghouls and various ghosts. A witch stopped and shook a broomstick at her, and the act that once couldn’t have failed to raise a smile, seemed threatening. A movement on her right made her turn, and to her relief she came face to face with Paul, who pulled up alongside her. His face was grey from exhaustion and she could tell by the way he looked at her, that he was not pleased.
The wind whipped her coat around her when she got out of the car and she shivered at its touch. Paul parked in front of her, and she walked over and climbed into the passenger seat.
“Don’t you think he’s suffered enough?”
For a moment, she was lost for words.
“I thought he might remember something, some little clue overlooked at the time.”
“The man is in bits,” he rubbed at his forehead. “This is the last thing he needs.”
“Do you really think I’d be bother him, if I wasn’t desperate?”
. Her throat felt dry and she wrung her fingers together until they hurt.
Sighing, Paul turned on the ignition. The car had already started to steam up, and they sat in silence waiting for the windows to clear. Still unsure of what might happen, he pulled away from the curb, and drove deeper into the estate. The house they pulled in front looked devoid of life. Unlike the other houses no garish pumpkin lights or cardboard ghosts welcomed the season, just one lone, unlit candle in the window to light the way for the lost souls. Although it was only midmorning, the sky was grey and gloomy. There was something about this time of year Jill thought, that sets the mind wandering to darker things.
“I told him you were coming.”
Jill looked at Paul in dismay.
“It was only fair,” he shrugged. “The last thing he needs is a hysterical woman turning up on his doorstep.”
“I am not hysterical,” she said, through gritted teeth.
Deciding it wiser not to antagonise him, she steered the conversation another way, as they walked up the path.
“Does he work?”
“He works,” Paul said, as he pushed the bell. “He takes this week off. It’s the anniversary of his wife’s death.”
Before she could say anything more the door opened, and Paul held out his hand. He stepped inside, and looked back, motioning her to follow. She could just make out the shape of Rachael’s father, as he led them into the sitting room. Like the hallway, this room was gloomy and wreathed in shadow. The whole house seemed to lie under a cloak, as though the very sunlight avoided this place, unsure of its welcome.
Paul’s voice roused her as he introduced their host. Jill was face to face with the man who could empathise with her suffering.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, reaching for her hand.
The fingers that clasped hers were cold, and held on a little longer than necessary, as though hoping to draw some warmth from her touch.
“Thank you,” she said, allowing her hand to slip from his, and took the seat offered.
He sat on the chair beside her, so she watched him from the corner of her eye. As Paul spoke, bringing him up to speed on what had happened, and explaining the reason they were there, she studied the man. He was in his late thirties, she knew from reading the paper, but he seemed older. His shoulders were hunched, as though weighed down by the terrible burden he bore. The skin on his face stretched across the bones, causing deep hollows in his cheeks. The light had faded from his eyes and was replaced with a dullness that made her think of the death of the spirit. A small cut marked his chin, left there no doubt, by a blunt blade. Despite his terrible loss, this signalled he still managed to function, and the realisation that this might one day be her, caused the tears that were threatening, to overflow.
“I’m sorry,” she said, as she tried to cover her face, so they did not witness the onslaught, but they were both beside her in an instant.
“There now,” Paul patted her back, while Tom, Rachael’s father, ran to pour her some brandy.
“Try and drink a little,” he held the glass to her lips, and she sipped.
The shock of the fiery alcohol made her gasp, but it warmed her, and she was able to stop sobbing.
“I didn’t mean upset you,” she looked at Tom. “I thought you might remember something that was overlooked.” She wiped her nose in the handkerchief Paul had given her.
“Don’t apologise,” Tom smiled, and when he did, a small light came back to his eyes. “I would do the same, if I were in your position. I have been racking my brains since Paul rang. There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t think about what happened, but there’s nothing I can recall that might help you. I wasn’t there when Rachael disappeared. I suppose you know the story?”
“Only what I read in some old newspapers I found in my grandmother’s house,” Jill sniffed. “And I looked up some of the articles in the library.”
“It’s nine years since I last saw my daughter,” He seemed to be thinking out loud. “And it’s eight years ago that I lost my wife.”
Jill looked at Paul, unsure what to say, but he shook his head, warning her to be quiet.
“Jill’s son, Toby, has been missing since yesterday and we’ve been searching non-stop,” Paul said.
“He’s not around here.” Tom’s words chilled her. “Whoever took him is organised, knows how to cover his tracks. I’ve been researching them ever since Rachael went missing.”
“I was only fifteen minutes late,” Jill dabbed at her eyes. “I had a flat tire.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered; your son was marked by whoever took him. If your check the tire, I’ll bet you’ll find a nail, or something placed there deliberately.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I’ll have the spare tire checked,” Paul promised, and left the room to make the call.
Once they were alone, Jill tried to smile at Tom through her tears.
“This is a terrible time for you,” he said. “And I wish to God I could say it’ll get better.”
“Tell me about Rachael,” Jill wanted to change the subject. “What was she like?”
“Oh, a bundle of fun, but very determined,” he smiled again at the memory. “It was like trying to control a whirlwind, Marie always said. She was feisty, always sticking up for herself. We used to joke that in olden times she would have been a warrior.”
She knew he was speaking about his wife, and her eyes strayed to the collection of framed photographs on the side table. In one, a woman she took to be Marie was cuddling a blond, bright-eyed little girl, who was the image of her mother. She recognised Rachael from all the photos in the newspapers. Tom caught her looking, picked up the frame and handed it to her.
“They were like two peas in a pod, everyone said. More like friends than mother and daughter. Always discussing clothes and the latest accessories, despite Rachael being just a baby in my eyes. She loved all the girlie things, ribbons, hair clips, that sort of stuff.”
“What happened that day,” Jill ran her fingers over the smiling faces in the picture.
“It was dinner time. I was due home from work and Marie was getting the meal ready. The ice cream van came into the estate, and you know how those chimes call to the children. I used to think at the time he was like the Pied Piper. Well, even though it was time to eat, Rachael begged her mother for money for an ice cream, and we could never resist those big blue eyes.”
“Yes,” Jill smiled down at the photograph. “I can see why.”
“That was it really,” he sighed. “She ran out the door and was never seen again. They even tried to blame me at first. The father it seems, is always under suspicion. At least, you will be spared that, being a woman, I mean.”
“So, I have something to be grateful for?”
“No, no, of course not,” he placed a hand on her arm. “I just meant you won’t have to go through that. Forgive me?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, it’s my fault,” Jill said. “I’m a bit sensitive now. I keep imagining what they are doing to my child and I…”
The rest of the sentence was lost in a fit of weeping.
“I know, I know,” Tom’s grip tightened. “I never stop thinking about it, but now I wonder where she is, and pray one day I will find her and bring her home; if only to lie beside her mother.”
When Paul came back to the room, they were deep in conversation, and he waited until there was a lull to speak.
“One of the lads is taking your car in for inspection,” he held out his hand for the keys. “I’ll drive you home.”
“Any news?” Jill asked.
“Nothing, I’m afraid,” he looked from one to the other.
When he had left to answer the ringing of the doorbell, Tom turned to her.
“I don’t want you to give up hope, but they’ll never catch them, not the way they’re working.”
“Then what can I do to help?”
“Pray for a miracle,” he stood up. “In the meantime, I’m going to join in the search. It’s no good sitting around feeling sorry for myself when your son has a chance.”
“You think he has a chance?”
“I don’t know, it’s a feeling,” he brought his hand to his stomach. “Something tells me a miracle is possible.”
He walked into the hall and took his coat off a peg.
“I’ll be joining you,” he told a bemused Paul.
“Great,” Paul nodded at Jill, as she stood.
The afternoon was raw with frost when they stepped outside. Jill shivered. She had kept her coat on inside the house, and now it offered little protection from the cold.
“I’ll follow in my car,” Tom said.
“Right. We have an incident room set up at the school,” Paul informed him. “If you go there first, they’ll tell you what to do.”
“Fine. Keep in touch,” Tom said to Jill.
“Thanks, I will,” she nodded, before walking away.
As she stepped outside the gate, a gang of monsters, clutching bags of sweets, ran screaming past and the sound of their excited cries made her draw back in fear.
“Come on,” Paul took her arm and led her to the car. “We’ll have to contend with that for the next few days, firecrackers, bangers and rotten eggs.”
“It’s only a bit of fun,” Jill said.
“Yeah, burnt fingers and nuisance calls from people saying their house has been egged.”
He looked across at her as she raised her eyebrows.
“I know, I know,” he laughed. “I’m soooo old.”
It was strange to hear him laugh and it felt good, despite her worries. Something had happened in that sad house, something said that made her feel all was not lost. As they headed back along the dark roads leading to home, her spirits rose when she thought of the attic and the books lying in wait. Tom was right; they would not find Toby, but not their way. It was up to her now, and she would use the knowledge of her ancestors to find her son. Looking up at the sky and the dark clouds that scurried past, she saw in them the shape of the women who had gone before, hurrying to join in her search.