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The Whisper Man / - (by Alex North, 2019) -

The Whisper Man / - (by Alex North, 2019) -

The Whisper Man / - (by Alex North, 2019) -

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: 1 696
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The Whisper Man / - (by Alex North, 2019) -
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2019
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Alex North
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Christopher Eccleston
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upper-intermediate
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09:38:41
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48 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Whisper Man / - :

.doc (Word) alex_north_-_the_whisper_man.doc [1.05 Mb] (c: 7) .
.pdf alex_north_-_the_whisper_man.pdf [1.85 Mb] (c: 10) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: The Whisper Man

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( , ).


Jake. There is so much I want to tell you, but weve always found it hard to talk to each other, havent we? So Ill have to write to you instead. I remember when Rebecca and I first brought you home from the hospital. It was dark and it was snowing, and Id never driven so carefully in my life. You were two days old and strapped in a carrier in the backseat, Rebecca dozing beside you, and every now and then Id look in the rearview mirror to check that you were safe. Because you know what, Jake? I was absolutely fucking terrified. I grew up as an only child, completely unused to babies, and there I was, responsible for one of my own. You were so impossibly small and vulnerable, and I so unprepared, that it seemed ludicrous theyd allowed you out of the hospital with me. From the very beginning, we didnt fit. Rebecca held you easily and naturally, as though shed been born to you rather than the other way around. Whereas I always felt awkward, scared of this fragile weight in my arms, unable to tell what you wanted when you cried. I didnt understand you at all. That never changed. When you were a little older, Rebecca told me it was because you and I were so alike, but I dont know if thats true. I hope it isnt. Id have always wanted better for you than that. But regardless, we cant talk to each other, which means Ill have to try to write all this down instead. The truth about everything that happened in Featherbank. Mister Night. The boy in the floor. The butterflies. The little girl with the strange dress. And the Whisper Man, of course. Its not going to be easy, and I need to start with an apology. Because over the years Ive told you many times that theres no such thing as monsters. Im sorry that I lied. Part One July One The abduction of a child by a stranger is every parents worst nightmare. But statistically it is a highly unusual event. Children are actually most at risk of harm and abuse from a family member behind closed doors, and while the outside world might seem threatening, the truth is that most strangers are decent people, whereas the home can be the most dangerous place of all. The man stalking six-year-old Neil Spencer across the waste ground understood that only too well. Moving quietly, parallel to Neil behind a line of bushes, he kept a constant watch on the boy. Neil was walking slowly, unaware of the danger he was in. Occasionally he kicked at the dusty ground, throwing up chalky white mist around his sneakers. The man, treading far more carefully, could hear the scuff each time. And he made no sound at all. It was a warm evening. The sun had been beating down hard and unrestrained for most of the day, but it was six oclock now and the sky was hazier. The temperature had dropped and the air had a golden hue to it. It was the sort of evening when you might sit out on the patio, perhaps sipping cold white wine and watching the sun set, without thinking about fetching a coat until it was too dark and too late to bother. Even the waste ground was beautiful, bathed in the amber light. It was a patch of shrubland, edging the village of Featherbank on one side, with an old disused quarry on the other. The undulating ground was mostly parched and dead, although bushes grew in tough thickets here and there, lending the area a maze-like quality. The villages children played here sometimes, although it was not particularly safe. Over the years, many of them had been tempted to clamber down into the quarry, where the steep sides were prone to crumbling away. The council put up fences and signs, but the local feeling was that they should do more. Children found ways over fences, after all. They had a habit of ignoring warning signs. The man knew a lot about Neil Spencer. He had studied the boy and his family carefully, like a project. The boy performed poorly at school, both academically and socially, and was well behind his peers in reading, writing, and math. His clothes were mostly hand-me-downs. In his manner he seemed a little too grown-up for his agealready displaying anger and resentment toward the world. In a few years he would be perceived as a bully and a troublemaker, but for now he was still young enough for people to forgive his more disruptive behavior. He doesnt mean it, they would say. Its not his fault. It had not yet reached the point where Neil was considered solely responsible for his actions, and so instead people were forced to look elsewhere. The man had looked. It wasnt hard to see. Neil had spent today at his fathers house. His mother and father were separated, which the man considered a good thing. Both parents were alcoholics, functioning to wavering degrees. Both found life considerably easier when their son was at the others house, and both struggled to entertain him when he was with them. In general, Neil was left to occupy and fend for himself, which obviously went some way toward explaining the hardness the man had seen developing in the boy. Neil was an afterthought in his parents lives. Certainly he was not loved. Not for the first time, Neils father had been too drunk that evening to drive him back to his mothers house, and apparently also too ambivalent to walk with him. The boy was nearly seven, his father reasoned, and had been fine alone all day. And so Neil was walking home by himself. He had no idea yet that he would be going to a very different home. The man thought about the room he had prepared and tried to suppress his excitement. Halfway across the waste ground, Neil stopped. The man stopped close by, then peered through the shrubs to see what had caught the boys attention. An old television had been dumped against one of the bushes, its gray screen bulging but intact. The man watched as Neil gave it an exploratory nudge with his foot, but it was too heavy to move. The thing must have looked like something out of another age to the boy, with grilles and buttons down the side of the screen and a back the size of a drum. There were some rocks on the other side of the path. The man watched, fascinated, as Neil walked over, selected one, and then threw it at the glass with all his strength. Pock. A loud noise in this otherwise silent place. The glass didnt shatter, but the stone went through, leaving a hole starred at the edges like a gunshot. Neil picked up a second rock and repeated the action, missing this time, then tried again. Another hole appeared in the screen. He seemed to like this game. And the man could understand why. This casual destruction was much like the increasing aggression the boy showed in school. It was an attempt to make an impact on a world that seemed so oblivious to his existence. It stemmed from a desire to be seen. To be noticed. To be loved. Because that was all any child wanted, deep down. The mans heart, beating more quickly now, ached at the thought of that. He stepped silently out from the bushes behind the boy, and then whispered his name. Two Neil. Neil. Neil. Detective Inspector Pete Willis moved carefully over the waste ground, listening as the officers around him called the missing boys name at regular intervals. In between, there was absolute silence. Pete looked up, imagining the words fluttering into the blackness up there, disappearing into the night sky as completely as Neil Spencer had vanished from the earth below it. He swept the beam of his flashlight over the dusty ground in a conical pattern, checking his footing as well as looking for any sign of the boy. Blue tracksuit pants, Minecraft T-shirt, black trainers, army-style backpack, water bottle. The alert had come through just as hed been sitting down to eat the dinner hed labored over preparing, and the thought of the plate there on his table right now, untouched and growing cold, made his stomach grumble. But a little boy was missing and needed to be found. The other officers were invisible, but he could see the flashlights as they fanned out across the area. Pete checked his watch. 8:53 P.M. The day was almost done, and although it had been hot this afternoon, the temperature had dropped over the last couple of hours, and the cold air was making him shiver. In his rush to leave, hed forgotten his coat, and the shirt he was wearing offered scant protection against the elements. Old bones toohe was fifty-six, after allbut it was no night for young ones to be out either. Especially lost and alone. Hurt, most likely. And scared. Neil. Neil. Neil. He added his own voice: Neil! Nothing. The first forty-eight hours following a disappearance are the most crucial. The boy had been reported missing at 7:39 P.M., well over an hour and a half after he had left his fathers house. He should have been home by 6:20, but there had been little coordination between the parents as to the exact time of his return, so it wasnt until Neils mother had finally called her ex-husband that their sons absence was discovered. By the time the police arrived on the scene at 7:51, the shadows were lengthening, and approaching two of those forty-eight hours had already been lost. Now it was closer to three. In the vast majority of cases, Pete knew, a missing child is found quickly and safely and returned to his or her family. Cases were divided into five distinct categories: throwaway; runaway; accident or misadventure; family abduction; nonfamily abduction. The law of probability was telling Pete right now that the disappearance of Neil Spencer would turn out to be an accident of some kind, and that the boy was going to be found soon. And yet, the farther he walked, the more gut instinct was telling him differently. There was an uncomfortable feeling curling around his heart. But then, a child going missing always made him feel like this. It didnt mean anything. It was just the bad memories of twenty years ago surfacing, bringing bad feelings along with them. The beam of his flashlight passed over something gray. Pete stopped immediately, then played it back to where it had been. There was an old television set lodged at the base of one of the bushes, its screen broken in several places, as though someone had used it for target practice. He stared at it for a moment. Anything? An anonymous voice calling from one side. No, he shouted back. He reached the far side of the waste ground at the same time as the other officers, the search having turned up nothing. After the relative darkness behind him, Pete found the bleached brightness of the streetlights here made him feel oddly queasy. There was a quiet hum of life in the air that had been absent in the silence of the waste ground. A few moments later, stuck for anything better to do right now, he turned around and walked back the way hed come. He wasnt really sure where he was going, but found himself heading off to the side, in the direction of the old quarry that ran along one edge. It was dangerous ground in the dark, so he headed toward the cluster of flashlights where the quarry search team were about to start work. While other officers were working their way along the edge, shining their beams down the steep sides and calling Neils name, the ones here were consulting maps and preparing to pick their way down the rough path that led into the area below. A couple of them looked up as he reached them. Sir? One of them recognized him. I didnt know you were on duty tonight. Im not. Pete bent the wire of the fence up and ducked under to join them, even more careful of his footing now. I live locally. Yes, sir. The officer sounded dubious. It was unusual for a DI to turn up for what was ostensibly grunt work like this. DI Amanda Beck was coordinating the burgeoning investigation from back at the department, and the search team here was comprised mainly of rank and file. Pete figured he had more years on the clock than any of them, but tonight he was just part of the crowd. A child was missing, which meant that a child needed to be found. The officer was maybe too young to remember what had happened with Frank Carter two decades earlier, and to understand why it was no surprise to find Pete Willis out in circumstances like this. Watch yourself, sir. The grounds a bit shaky here. Im fine. Young enough to discount him as some old man as well, apparently. Presumably hed never seen Pete in the departments gym, which he visited every morning before heading upstairs to work. Despite the disparity in their ages, Pete would have bet he could outlift the younger man on every machine. He was watching the ground, all right. Watching everythingincluding himselfwas second nature to him. Okay, sir, well, were about to head down. Just coordinating. Im not in charge here. Pete pointed his flashlight down the path, scanning the rough terrain. The beam of light only penetrated a short distance. The bed of the quarry below was nothing but an enormous black hole. You report to DI Beck, not to me. Yes, sir. Pete continued staring down, thinking about Neil Spencer. The most likely routes the boy would have taken had been identified. The streets had been searched. Most of his friends had already been contacted, all to no avail. And the waste ground was clear. If the boys disappearance really was the result of an accident or misadventure, then the quarry was the only remaining place that made sense for him to be found. And yet the black world below felt entirely empty. He couldnt know for surenot through reason. But his instinct was telling him that Neil Spencer wasnt going to be found here. That maybe he wasnt going to be found at all. Three Do you remember what I told you? the little girl said. He did, but right now Jake was doing his best to ignore her. All the other children in the 567 Club were outside playing in the sun. He could hear the shouting and the sound of the soccer ball skittering back and forth. Whereas he was sitting inside, working on his drawing. He would much rather have been left alone to finish it. It wasnt that he didnt like playing with the little girl. Of course he did. Most of the time she was the only one who wanted to play with him, and normally he was more than happy to see her. But she wasnt acting particularly playful this afternoon. In fact, she was being all serious, and he didnt like that one bit. Do you remember? I guess. Say it, then. He sighed, put the pencil down, and looked at her. As always, she was wearing a blue-and-white-checked dress, and he could see the hash of a graze on her right knee that never seemed to heal. While the other girls here had neat hair, cut level at the shoulders or tied back in a tight ponytail, the little girls was spread out messily to one side and looked like she hadnt brushed it in a long time. From the expression on her face now, it was obvious she wasnt going to give up, so he repeated what shed told him. If you leave a door half open It should have been surprising that he did remember it all, really, because he hadnt made any special effort to make the words stick. But for some reason, they had. It was something about the rhythm. Sometimes hed hear a song on the radio and it would end up going around and around in his brain for hours. Daddy had called it an earworm, which had made Jake imagine the sounds burrowing into the side of his head and squirming around in his mind. When he was finished, the little girl nodded to herself, satisfied. Jake picked up his pencil again. What does it mean, anyway? he said. Its a warning. She wrinkled her nose. Wellkind of, anyway. Children used to say it when I was little. Yes, but what does it mean? Its just good advice, she said. There are a lot of bad people in the world, after all. A lot of bad things. So its good to remember. Jake frowned, and then started drawing again. Bad people. There was a slightly older boy called Carl here at the 567 Club who Jake thought was bad. Last week, Carl had cornered him while he was building a LEGO fortress, and then stood too close, looming over him like a big shadow. Whys it always your dad who picks you up? Carl had demanded, even though he already knew the answer. Is it because your mums dead? Jake hadnt answered. What did she look like when you found her? Again, he hadnt answered. Apart from in nightmares, he didnt think about what it was like to find Mummy that day. It made his breath go funny and not work properly. But one thing he couldnt escape was the knowledge that she wasnt here anymore. It reminded him of a time long gone when he had peered around the kitchen door and seen her chopping a big red pepper in half and pulling out the middle. Hey, gorgeous boy. That was what shed said when shed seen him. She always called him that. The feeling inside when he remembered she was dead had the kind of sound the pepper had, like something ripping with a pock and leaving a hollow. I really like seeing you cry like a baby, Carl had declared, and then walked away like Jake didnt even exist. It wasnt nice to imagine the world was full of people like that, and Jake didnt want to believe it. He drew circles on the sheet of paper now. Force fields around the little stick figures battling there. Are you all right, Jake? He looked up. It was Sharon, one of the grown-ups who worked at the 567 Club. She had been washing up at the far side of the room, but had come over now, and was leaning down with her hands between her knees. Yes, he said. Thats a nice picture. Its not finished yet. What is it going to be? He thought about how to explain the battle he was drawingall the different sides fighting it out, with the lines between them and the scribbles over the ones who had lostbut it was too difficult. Just a battle. Are you sure you dont want to go outside and play with the other children? Its such a lovely day. No, thank you. Weve got some spare sunscreen. She looked around. Theres probably a hat somewhere too. I need to finish my drawing. Sharon stood back up again, sighing quietly to herself, but with a kind expression on her face. She was worried about him, and while she didnt need to be, he supposed that was still kind of nice. Jake could always tell when people were concerned about him. Daddy often was, except for those times when he lost his patience. Sometimes he shouted, and said things like, Its just because I want you to talk to me, I want to know what youre thinking and feeling, and it was scary when that happened, because Jake felt like he was disappointing Daddy and making him sad. But he didnt know how to be different from how he was. Around and aroundanother force field, the lines overlapping. Or maybe it was a portal instead? So that the little figure inside could disappear away from the battle and go somewhere better. Jake turned the pencil around and began carefully erasing the person from the page. There. Youre safe now, wherever you are. One time after Daddy lost his temper, Jake found a note on his bed. There was what he had to admit was a very good picture of the two of them smiling, and underneath that Daddy had written: Im sorry. I want you to remember that even when we argue we still love each other very much. XXX. Jake had put the note into his Packet of Special Things, along with all the other important things he needed to keep. He checked now. The Packet was on the table in front of him, right beside the drawing. Youre going to be moving to the new house soon, the little girl said. Am I? Your daddy went to the bank today. I know. But he says hes not sure its going to happen. They might not give him the thing he needs. The mortgage, the little girl said patiently. But they will. How do you know? Hes a famous writer, isnt he? Hes good at making things up. She looked at the picture he was drawing and smiled to herself. Just like you. Jake wondered about the smile. It was a strange one, as though she were happy but also sad about something. Come to think of it, that was how he felt about moving. He didnt like it in the house anymore, and he knew it was making Daddy miserable too, but moving still felt like something they maybe shouldnt do, even though he was the one whod spotted the new house on Daddys iPad when they were looking together. Ill see you after I move, wont I? he said. Of course you will. You know that you will. But then the little girl leaned forward, speaking more urgently. Whatever happens, though, remember what I told you. Its important. You have to promise me, Jake. I promise. What does it mean, though? For a moment he thought she might be going to try to explain it more, but then the buzzer went on at the far side of the room. Too late, she whispered. Your daddys here. Four Most of the children seemed to be playing outside the 567 Club when I arrived. I could hear the mingled laughter as I parked. They all looked so happyso normaland for a moment my gaze moved between them, searching for Jake, hoping to see him among them. But, of course, my son wasnt there. I found him inside instead, sitting with his back to me, hunched over a drawing. My heart broke a little at the sight of him. Jake was small for his age, and his posture right then made him seem tinier and more vulnerable than ever. As though he were trying to disappear into the picture in front of him. Who could blame him? He hated it here, I knew, even if he never objected to coming or complained about it afterward. But it felt like I had no choice. There had been so many unbearable occasions since Rebeccas death: the first haircut I had to take him to; ordering his school clothes; fumbling the wrapping of his Christmas presents because I couldnt see properly through the tears. An endless list. But for some reason, holidays had been the hardest. As much as I loved Jake, I found it impossible to spend all day, every day with him. It didnt feel like there was enough left of me to fill all those hours, and while I despised myself for failing to be the father he needed, the truth was that sometimes I needed time to myself. To forget about the gulf between us. To ignore my growing inability to cope. To be able to collapse and cry for a while, knowing he wouldnt walk in and find me. Hey, mate. I put my hand on his shoulder. He didnt look up. Hi, Daddy. What have you been up to? Nothing much. There was an almost imperceptible shrug under my hand. His body seemed barely there, somehow even lighter and softer than the fabric of the T-shirt he was wearing. Playing with someone a bit. Someone? I said. A girl. Thats nice. I leaned over and looked at the sheet of paper. And drawing too, I see. Do you like it? Of course. I love it. I actually had no idea what it was meant to bea battle of some kind, although it was impossible to work out which side was which, or what was going on. Jake very rarely drew anything static. His pictures came to life, an animation unfolding on the page, so that the end result was like a film where you could see all the scenes at once, superimposed on top of each other. He was creative, though, and I liked that. It was one of the ways in which he was like me: a connection we hadalthough the truth was that Id barely written a word in the ten months since Rebecca died. Are we going to move to the new house, Daddy? Yes. So the person at the bank listened to you? Lets just say that I was convincingly creative about the perilous state of my finances. What does perilous mean? It was almost a surprise that he didnt know. A long time ago, Rebecca and I had agreed to talk to Jake like he was an adult, and when he didnt know a word wed explain it to him. He absorbed it all, and often came out with strange things as a result. But this wasnt a word I wanted to explain to him right now. It means its something for me and the person at the bank to worry about, I said. Not you. When are we going? As soon as possible. How will we take everything? Well rent a van. I thought about money, and fought down a hint of panic. Or maybe well just use the carreally pack it up and do a few trips. We might not be able to take everything with us, but we can sort through your toys and see what you want to keep. I want to keep all of them. Lets see, eh? I wont make you get rid of anything you dont want to, but a lot of them are very young for you now. Maybe another little boy would like them more. Jake didnt reply. The toys might have been too young for him to play with, but each of them had a memory attached. Rebecca had always been better at everything with Jake, including playing with him, and I could still picture her kneeling down on the floor, moving figures around. Endlessly, beautifully patient with him in all the ways I found so hard to be. His toys were things shed touched. The older they were, the more of her fingerprints would be on them. An invisible accumulation of her presence in his life. I wont make you get rid of anything you dont want to. Which reminded me of his Packet of Special Things. It was there on the table beside the drawing, a worn leather pouch, about the size of a hardback book, which zipped shut around three of the sides. I had no idea what it had been in a previous life. It looked like a large Filofax without the pages, although God knew why Rebecca would have had one of those. A few months after she died, I went through some of her things. My wife had been a lifelong hoarder, but a practical one, and many of her older possessions were stored in boxes stacked in the garage. One day Id brought some in and started to look through them. There were things going back to her childhood in there, entirely unconnected to our life together. It felt like that should have made the experience easier, but it didnt. Childhood isor should bea happy time, and yet I knew these hopeful, carefree artifacts had an unhappy ending. I began crying. Jake had come and put his hand on my shoulder, and when I hadnt immediately responded, hed wrapped his small arms around me. After that, wed looked through some of the things together, and hed found what was to become the Packet and asked me if he could have it. Of course he could, I said. He could have anything he wanted. The Packet was empty at that point, but he began to fill it. Some of the things inside had been sifted from Rebeccas possessions. There were letters and photographs and tiny trinkets. Drawings hed done, or items of importance to him. Like some kind of witchs familiar, the Packet rarely left his side, and except for a few things, I didnt know what was in there. I wouldnt have looked even if Id been able to. They were his Special Things, after all, and he was entitled to them. Come on, mate, I said. Lets get your things and get out of here. He folded up the drawing and handed it to me to carry. Whatever the picture was meant to be, it clearly wasnt important enough to go into the Packet. He picked that up himself and carried it across the room to the door, where his water bottle was hanging on a hook. I pressed the green button to release the door, then glanced back. Sharon was busying herself with the washing-up. Do you want to say goodbye? I asked Jake. He turned around in the doorway, and looked sad for a moment. I was expecting him to say goodbye to Sharon, but instead he waved at the empty table hed been sitting at when I arrived. Bye, he called over. I promise I wont forget. And before I could say anything, he ducked out under my arm. Five On the day Rebecca died, I had picked Jake up by myself. That afternoon was supposed to have been one of my writing days, and when Rebecca had asked if I could pick up Jake instead of her, my first reaction had been one of annoyance. The deadline for my next book was a handful of months away, and Id spent most of the day failing miserably to write, at that point counting on a final half hour of work to deliver a miracle. But Rebecca had looked pale and shaky, and so I had gone. On the drive back, I had done my best to question Jake about his day, to absolutely no avail. That was standard. Either he couldnt remember or he didnt want to talk. As usual, it had felt like he would have responded to Rebecca, which, coupled with the ongoing failure of the book, had made me feel more anxious and insecure than ever. Back home, he had been out of the car like a flash. Could he go and see Mummy? Yes, I had told him. I was sure shed like that. But she isnt feeling well, so be gentle with herand remember to take your shoes off, because you know Mummy hates mess. And then I had dawdled at the car a little, taking my time, feeling bad about what an abject failure I was. Id trailed in slowly, putting stuff down in the kitchenand noting that my sons shoes had not been taken off and left there as Id requested. Because, of course, he never listened to me. The house was silent. I presumed that Rebecca was lying down upstairs, and that Jake had gone up to see her, and that everyone was fine. Apart from me. It was only when I finally went into the living room that I saw Jake was standing at the far end, by the door that led to the stairs, staring down at something on the floor that I couldnt see. He was completely still, hypnotized by whatever he was looking at. As I walked slowly across to him, I noticed he was not motionless at all, but shaking. And then I saw Rebecca, lying at the bottom of the stairs. Everything was blank after that. I know I moved Jake away. I know I called an ambulance. I know I did all the correct things. But I cant remember doing them. The worst thing was that I was sure that, although he would never talk to me about it, Jake remembered everything. Ten months later, we walked in together through a kitchen where the sides were all but covered with plates and cups, the little visible counter space dirty with smears and crumbs. In the living room, the toys spread over the bare floorboards looked scattered and forgotten. For all my talk of sorting toys before we moved, it looked like wed already gone through all our possessions, taken what we needed, and left the rest dotted around like trash. There had been a constant shadow over the place for months now, always growing darker, like a day gradually drawing to an end. It felt like our home had started dying when Rebecca did. But then, she had always been the heart of it. Can I have my picture, Daddy? Jake was already on his knees on the floor, gathering his colored pencils together from wherever theyd rolled to this morning. Magic word? Please. Yes, of course you can. I put it down beside him. Ham sandwich? Can I have a treat instead? Afterward. All right. I cleared some space in the kitchen and buttered two slices of bread, then layered three slices of ham into the sandwich and sliced it into quarters. Trying to fight through the depression. One foot in front of the other. Keep moving. I couldnt help thinking about what had happened at the 567 Club: Jake waving goodbye to an empty table. For as long as I could remember, my son had had imaginary friends of some kind. Hed always been a solitary child; there was something so closed away and introspective about him that it seemed to push other children away. On good days, I could pretend that it was because he was self-contained and happy in his own head, and tell myself that was fine. Most of the time I just worried. Why couldnt Jake be more like the other children? More normal? It was an ugly thought, I knew, but it was only because I wanted to protect him. The world can be brutal when youre as quiet and solitary as he was, and I didnt want him to go through what I had at his age. Regardless, until now the imaginary friends had manifested themselves subtlymore like little conversations hed sometimes have with himselfand I wasnt sure I liked this new development. I had no doubt the little girl he told me hed been talking to all day had existed only in his head. This was the first time hed acknowledged something like that out loud, talking to someone in front of other people, and that scared me slightly. Of course, Rebecca had never been concerned. Hes finejust let him be him. And since she knew better than me about most things, Id always done my best to abide by that. But now? Now I wondered if maybe he needed real help. Or maybe he was just being him. It was one more overwhelming thing that I should have been able to deal with, but didnt know how. I didnt know what the right thing to do was, or how to be a good father to him. God, I wished that Rebecca was still here. I miss you But that thought would make the tears come, so I cut it dead and picked up the plate. As I did, I heard Jake speaking quietly in the living room. Yes. And then, in answer to something I couldnt hear, Yes, I know. A shiver ran through me. I walked quietly over to the doorway, but didnt step through it yetjust stood there listening. I couldnt see Jake, but the sunlight through the window at the far end of the room was casting his shadow by the side of the couch: an amorphous shape, not recognizably human but moving gently, as though he were rocking back and forth on his knees. I remember. There were a few seconds of silence then, in which the only sound was my own heartbeat. I realized I was holding my breath. When he spoke next, it was much louder, and he sounded upset. I dont want to say them! And at that, I stepped through the doorway. For a moment I wasnt sure what I was going to see. But Jake was crouched down on the floor exactly where Id left him, except that now he was staring off to one side, his drawing abandoned. I followed his gaze. There was nobody there, of course, but he seemed so intent on the empty space that it was easy to imagine a presence in the air there. Jake? I said quietly. He didnt look at me. Who were you talking to? Nobody. I heard you talking. Nobody. And then he turned slightly, picked his pencil back up, and started drawing again. I took another step forward. Can you put that down and answer me, please? Why? Because its important. I wasnt talking to anybody. Then how about putting the pencil down because I said so? But he kept drawing, his hand moving more fervently nowthe pencil making desperate circles around the little figures there. My frustration curdled into anger. So often, Jake seemed like a problem I couldnt solve, and I hated myself for being so useless and ineffective. At the same time, I also resented him for never offering me so much as a clue. Never meeting me halfway. I wanted to help him; I wanted to make sure he was okay. And it didnt feel like I could do that by myself I realized I was gripping the plate too tightly. Your sandwich is ready. I put it down on the couch, not waiting to see if he stopped drawing or not. Instead, I went straight back through to the kitchen, leaned on the counter there, and closed my eyes. For some reason, my heart was pounding. I miss you so much, I thought to Rebecca. I wish you were here. For so many reasons, but right now because I dont think I can do this. I started to cry. It didnt matter. Jake would either be drawing or eating his sandwich for a while, and he wasnt going to come into the kitchen. Why would he, when there was only me here to see? So it was fine. My son could talk quietly to people who didnt exist for a while. As long as I was equally quiet, so could I. I miss you. That night, as always, I carried Jake up to bed. It had been that way ever since Rebeccas death. He refused to look at the place where he had seen her body, clinging to me instead, with his breath held and his face buried in my shoulder. Every morning; every night; every time he needed the bathroom. I understood why, but he was beginning to grow too heavy for me, in more ways than one. Hopefully that would change soon. After he was asleep, I went back downstairs and sat on the couch with a glass of wine and my iPad, loading up the details of our new house. Looking at the photograph on the website made me uneasy on a different level. It was safe to say it was Jake who had chosen this house. I hadnt been able to see the appeal at first. It was a small, detached propertyold, two stories, with the ramshackle feel of a cottage. But there was something a little strange about it. The windows seemed oddly placed, so that it was hard to imagine the layout inside, and the angle of the roof was slightly off, so that the face of the building appeared to be tilted inquisitively, perhaps even angrily. But there was also a more general sensationa tickling at the back of the skull. At first glance, the house had unnerved me. And yet, from the moment Jake had seen it, he had been settled on it. Something about it had utterly entranced him, to the point that he refused to look at any others. When hed accompanied me to the first viewing, he had seemed almost hypnotized by the place. I had still not been convinced. The interior was a good size, but also grimy. There were dusty cabinets and chairs, bundles of old newspapers, cardboard boxes, a mattress in the spare room downstairs. The owner, an elderly woman called Mrs. Shearing, had been apologetic; this all belonged to a tenant she had been renting to, she explained, and would be gone by the time it was sold. But Jake had been adamant, and so Id organized a second viewing, this time by myself. That was when I had started to see the place with different eyes. Yes, it was odd-looking, but that gave it a sort of mongrel charm. And what had initially felt like an angry look now seemed more like wariness, as though the property had been hurt in the past and youd have to work to earn its trust. Character, I supposed. Even so, the thought of moving terrified me. In fact, there had been a part of me that afternoon that had hoped the bank manager would see through the half-truths Id told about my financial situation and just turn down the mortgage application outright. I was relieved now, though. When I looked around the living room at the dusty, discarded remnants of the life wed once had, it was obvious that the two of us couldnt continue as we were. Whatever difficulties lay ahead, we had to get out of this place. And however hard it was going to be for me over the coming months, my son needed this. We both did. We had to make a fresh start. Someplace where he wouldnt need to be carried up and down the stairs. Where he could find friends that existed outside his head. Where I didnt see ghosts of my own in every corner. Looking at the house again now on my screen, I thought that, in a strange way, it suited Jake and me. That, like us, it was an outsider that found it hard to fit in. That we would go together well. Even the name of the village was warm and comforting. Featherbank. It sounded like a place where we would be safe. Six Like Pete Willis, DI Amanda Beck knew very well the importance of the first forty-eight hours. She had her team spend the next twelve of them continuing to search the various routes that Neil Spencer might have taken, along with interviewing family members and beginning to build a profile of the missing boy. Photos were acquired. Histories were probed. And then at nine the next morning, a press conference was held and a description of Neil and his clothing was released to the media. Neils parents sat mutely on either side of Amanda while she made the requisite appeals and encouraged witnesses to come forward. Cameras flashed intermittently across the three of them. Amanda did her best to ignore them, but she could sense Neils parents registering each one, flinching a little as though the photographers were jabbing at them. We encourage people to check any garages and sheds on their property, she told the room. It was all kept as calm and low-key as possible. Her main aim right now, besides locating Neil Spencer, was to assuage peoples fears, and while she could hardly claim outright that Neil had absolutely not been abducted, she could at least make it clear where the focus of the investigation rested for the moment. The most likely explanation is that Neil has had an accident of some kind, she said. While he has been missing for fifteen hours, we are holding out every hope of finding him, safe and well and soon. Inside herself, she was not so confident. One of her first actions back in the operations room afterward was to arrange for the handful of known sex offenders in the area to be brought in quietly, and then questioned more loudly. Over the course of the day, the search area was expanded. Sections of the canalan unlikely propositionbegan to be dredged, and extensive door-to-door inquiries were carried out. CCTV footage was analyzed. She studied the latter herself; it showed the beginning of Neils journey, but lost him before he reached the waste ground and failed to pick him up again afterward. Somewhere between those two points, the little boy had vanished. Exhausted, she tried to rub some life into her face. Officers went over the waste ground again, this time in full daylight, and the exploration of the quarry continued. There was still no sign of Neil Spencer. The boy did make an appearance of sorts, though, and increasingly so as the day wore on: photographs were circulated on the news, particularly the one of Neil smiling shyly in a football jerseyone of the few pictures his parents had of him looking happy. Reports showed simple maps with key locations marked with red circles and possible routes dotted in yellow. Video of the press conference was also aired. Amanda watched it on her tablet in bed at home that evening, and thought that Neils parents seemed even more beaten down on camera than it had felt at the time. They looked guilty. And if they werent feeling guilty yet, then they would soon; they would be made to. At the briefing that afternoon, she had cautioned her officers, many of whom were parents themselves, that while the circumstances around Neil Spencers disappearance might be controversial, his mother and father were to be treated with sensitivity. It went without saying that they were hardly model parents, but Amanda didnt suspect them of any direct involvement. The father had some minor offenses on his recorddrunk-and-disorderlies; fightingbut nothing that raised any warning flags. The mothers record was clean. More to the point, they both appeared genuinely devastated by events. There hadnt even been any recrimination between the two of them, as hard as that was to imagine. They both just wanted their boy home. She slept poorly and was back at the department early. With over thirty-six hours behind her, only a bare handful of them spent resting, she sat in her office, thinking about the five categories of child disappearance, forced increasingly toward an uncomfortable conclusion. She did not believe that Neil had been abandoned or disposed of by his parents. If he had suffered an accident on his route, then he would have been found by now. Abduction by a different family member seemed unlikely. And while it was not impossible hed run away, she refused to believe that shed been outwitted for this long by a six-year-old boy with no money or supplies. She gazed at the photo of Neil Spencer on the wall, considering the nightmare scenario. Nonfamily abduction. The public at large might generally have thought of it as stranger abduction, but precision was important. Children in this category were rarely abducted by people who were completely unknown to them. More often, they were befriendedgroomed by people on the periphery of their lives. So the focus of the investigation that day shifted, with the strands that had formed a more subtle part of the last day and a half now brought front and center. Friends of the family. Families of friends. An even closer look at known offenders. Internet activity in the home. Amanda loaded up the available CCTV footage again and began examining it from different mental angles, concentrating less on the prey now than on potential predators in the background. Neils parents were interviewed again. Did your son express any concerns about unwanted attention from other adults? Amanda said. Did he mention being approached by anyone? No. Neils father looked affronted by the very idea of it. Id have fucking well done something about that, wouldnt I? And for fucks sake, dont you think Id also have mentioned it before now? Amanda smiled politely. No, Neils mother said. But less firmly. When Amanda pressed her, the woman said that actually she did recall something. It hadnt occurred to her to report it at the time, or even when Neil went missing, because it had been so strange, so stupidand anyway, shed been half asleep at the time, so she hardly even remembered it. Amanda smiled politely again, while also resisting the urge to rip the womans head off. Ten minutes later she was in the upstairs office of her superior, Detective Chief Inspector Colin Lyons. Whether from the tiredness or the nerves, she was having to stop her leg from jittering slightly. Lyons himself just looked pained. He had been closely involved in the investigation and understood as well as Amanda did the situation they were now likely to be facing. Even so, this recent development was not one hed wanted to hear. This doesnt go to the media, Lyons said quietly. No, sir. And the mother? He looked at her suddenly, alarmed. Youve told her not to mention this in public? At all? Yes, sir. Of fucking course, sir. Although Amanda doubted it had been necessary. The tone of some of the press was already judgmental and accusatory, and Neils parents had enough culpability to deal with already without deliberately copping to more. Good, Lyons said. Because Jesus Christ. I know, sir. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for a few seconds, breathing deeply. Do you know the case? Amanda shrugged. Everybody knew the case. That wasnt the same thing as knowing it. Not everything, she said. Lyons opened his eyes and sat there staring at the ceiling. Then were going to need some help, he said. Amandas heart sank a little at that. For one thing, shed worked herself to the brink these last two days, and she didnt relish the thought of having to share any spoils of the case now. For another, there was also the specter that was being acknowledged here. Frank Carter. The Whisper Man. Assuaging fear among the public was going to get harder now. Impossible, even, if this new detail got out. They would have to be very careful indeed. Yes, sir. Lyons picked up the phone on his desk. Which was how, as the time of Neil Spencers disappearance ticked close to the end of that crucial forty-eight-hour period, DI Pete Willis became involved in the investigation again. Seven Not that he wanted to. Petes philosophy was a relatively simple one, ingrained in him over so many years that it was now more implicit than consciously considered: a blueprint on which his life was built. The devil finds work for idle hands. Bad thoughts find empty heads. So he kept his hands busy and his mind occupied. Discipline and structure were important to him, and after the nonresult at the waste ground he had spent most of the last forty-odd hours doing exactly what he always did. Early that morning had found him in the gym in the basement of the department: overhead presses; side laterals; rear deltoids. He worked on a different body part each day. It wasnt a matter of vanity or health, more that he found the solitude and concentration involved in physical exercise a comforting distraction. After three-quarters of an hour, he was often surprised to discover his mind had been mercifully empty for most of it. That morning, he had managed not to think about Neil Spencer at all. He had then spent most of the day upstairs in his office, where the multitude of minor cases piled on his desk provided ample distraction. As a younger, more impetuous man, he would probably have yearned for greater excitement than the trivial crimes he was dealing with, but today he appreciated the calm to be found in boring minutiae. Excitement was not only rare in police work, it was a bad thing; usually it meant someones life had been damaged. Wishing for excitement was wishing for hurt, and Pete had had more than enough of both. There was comfort to be had in the car thefts, the shoplifting, the court appearances for endless banal offenses. They spoke of a city ticking quietly along, never quite perfect, perhaps, but never falling apart either. But while hed had no direct involvement with the Neil Spencer investigation, it was impossible to avoid it entirely. A small boy, when missing, cast a large shadow, and it had become the most prominent case in the department. He heard officers talking about it in the corridors: where Neil might be; what might have happened to him; and the parents, of course. The latter was quieter speculation, and had been officially discouraged, but he kept hearing it anywaythe irresponsibility of letting a little boy walk home alone. He remembered similar talk from twenty years ago and walked on quickly, no more disposed to entertain it now than he had been back then. Just before five oclock that evening, he was sitting quietly at his desk, already considering what he would do that evening. He lived alone and socialized rarely, so his habit was to work his way through cookbooks, often making elaborate meals before eating them alone at the dinner table. Afterward, he would watch a film or read a book. And the ritual, of course. The bottle and the photograph. And yet, as he gathered his things together, almost ready to leave, he realized his pulse was racing. Last night, the nightmare had returned for the first time in months: Jane Carter whispering, You have to hurry, down the phone to him. Despite himself, it had been impossible to escape from Neil Spencer completely, which meant the darker thoughts and memories were a little closer to the surface than he preferred to keep them. And so, as he pulled his jacket on, he was not entirely surprised when the phone on his desk began ringing. There was no way of knowing for sure, and yet somehow he already did. His hand trembled a little as he picked it up. Pete, DCI Colin Lyons said down the line. Glad to catch you. I was hoping I could have a quick word upstairs. His suspicions were confirmed as soon as he entered Lyonss office. The DCI had revealed nothing in the call, but DI Amanda Beck was there too, sitting with her back to him on the side of the desk nearest the door. There was only one investigation she was working on right now, which meant there was only one reason his presence could have been requested. He tried to keep calm as he closed the door. Triedespeciallynot to think about the scene that had awaited him twenty years ago when he had finally gained access to the extension Frank Carter had built on his house. Lyons smiled broadly. The DCI had a smile that could power a room. Good of you to come up. Have a seat. Thanks. Pete sat down beside Beck. Amanda. Beck nodded a greeting, and gave him the flicker of a smilean exceedingly low-wattage equivalent of Lyonss that barely even powered her face. Pete didnt know her well. She was twenty years younger than him, but right now looked much older than her years. Blatantly exhaustedand nervous too, he thought. Maybe she was worried her authority was being undermined and that the case was about to be taken away from her; hed heard she was ambitious. He could have set her mind at rest on that score. While Lyons was probably ruthless enough to remove her from the investigation if it suited him, he was never going to pass it on to Pete instead. They were relative contemporaries, he and Lyons, but despite the disparity in their ranks Pete had actually joined the department a year earlier, and in many ways his career had been the more decorated. In a different world, the two of them would have been sitting on opposite sides of the desk right now, and perhaps even should have been. But Lyons had always been ambitious, whereas Pete, aware that promotion brought conflict and drama of its own, had little desire to climb the professional ladder any further than he already had. That had always rankled with Lyons, Pete knew. When you go after something as hard as he had, there were few things as irritating as someone who could have had it more easily but never seemed to want it. Youre aware of the investigation into the disappearance of Neil Spencer? Lyons said. Yes. I was involved in the search of the waste ground on the first evening. Lyons stared at him for a moment, perhaps evaluating that as a criticism. I live close to there, Pete added. But then, Lyons lived in the area as well, and he hadnt been out there trawling the streets that night. A second later, though, the DCI nodded to himself. He knew that Pete had his own reasons to be interested in missing children. Youre aware of developments since? Im aware of the lack of them. But that would come across as a rebuke to Beck, and she didnt deserve that. From the little hed seen, shed handled the investigation well and done everything she could. More to the point, shed been the one to direct her officers not to criticize the parents, and he liked that. Im aware that Neil hasnt been found, he said. Despite extensive searches and inquiries. What would your theory be? I havent followed the investigation closely enough to have one. You havent? Lyons looked surprised at that. I thought you said that you were out searching on the first night. That was when I thought hed be found. So you dont think he will be now? I dont know. I hope he will. Id have thought you would have followed the case, given your history? The first mention there. The first hint. Maybe my history gives me a reason not to. Yes, I can understand that. It was a difficult time for all of us. Lyons sounded sympathetic, but Pete knew this was another source of resentment between them. Pete was the one whod closed the areas biggest case in the last fifty years, and yet Lyons was the one whod ended up in charge. In different ways, the investigation they were circling was uncomfortable for both of them. Lyons was the one to bring that spiral to its point. I also understand youre the only one Frank Carter will ever talk to? And there it was. It had been a while since Pete had heard the name out loud, and so perhaps it should have delivered a jolt. But all it did was bring the crawling sensation inside him to the surface. Frank Carter. The man who had kidnapped and murdered five young boys in Featherbank twenty years ago. The man whom Pete had eventually caught. The name alone conjured up such horror for him that it always felt like it should never be spoken out loudas though it were some kind of curse that would summon a monster behind you. Worse still was what the papers had called him. The Whisper Man. That was based on the idea that Carter had befriended his victimsvulnerable and neglected childrenbefore taking them away. He would talk quietly to them at night outside their windows. It was a nickname that Pete had never allowed himself to use. He had to fight down the urge to leave the room. Youre the only one hell talk to. Yes. Why do you think that is? Lyons said. He enjoys taunting me. About what? The things he did back then. The things I never found out. But he never tells you? No. Why bother speaking to him, then? Pete hesitated. It was a question he had asked himself numerous times over the years. He dreaded the encounters, and always had to suppress the shivers he felt as he sat in the private interview room at the prison, anticipating Carters approach. He would feel broken afterward, sometimes for weeks. There would be days when he would shake uncontrollably, and evenings when the bottle would be harder to resist. At night, Carter found him in dreamsa hulking, malevolent shadow that would bring him screaming out of sleep. Every meeting with the man damaged Pete a little more. And yet still he went. I suppose Im hoping that one day hell slip up, he answered carefully. That maybe hell reveal something important by accident. Something about where he dumped the Smith boy? Yes. And about his accomplice? Pete didnt reply. Because, again, there it was. Twenty years ago, the remains of four of the missing boys had been found in Frank Carters house, but the body of his final victim, Tony Smith, had never been recovered. There was no doubt in anyones mind that Carter was responsible for all five murders, and he himself had never denied it. But it was also true that there were certain inconsistencies within the case. Nothing that could have exonerated the man: just little strands that left the investigation frayed and untidy. One of the abductions was estimated to have occurred within a certain time period, but Carter had an alibi for most of it, which didnt make it impossible for him to have taken the boy, just stretched the likelihood somewhat. There were witness accounts that, while not definitive, described a different individual at certain scenes. The forensic evidence in Carters house was overwhelming, and they had witness statements that were far more concrete and reliable, but a doubt had always remained as to whether Carter had acted alone. Pete wasnt sure whether he shared that doubt or not, and most of the time he did his best to ignore the possibility. But that was clearly why he was here. And, like any horror that had to be faced, it was preferable to drag it out into the light and get it over with. So he decided to ignore Lyonss question and get to the point. Can I ask what this is about, sir? The DCI hesitated. What were going to discuss goes no farther than the four walls of this office right now. Is that clear? Of course. The CCTV we have suggests Neil Spencer did walk in the direction of the waste ground, but somewhere in the vicinity he vanished. The search has drawn a blank so far. All the locations hes likely to have wandered into by accident have been cleared. Hes not with friends or other family members. Naturally, were forced to consider other possibilities. DI Beck? Beside Pete, Amanda Beck came to life. When she spoke, she sounded a little defensive. Obviously, we considered those other possibilities from the beginning. Weve done the door-to-doors. Interviewed all the usual candidates. Thats got us nowhere yet. There has to be more to it than that, Pete thought. But? Beck took a deep breath. But I interviewed the parents again an hour ago. Looking for anything that might have been missed. Any kind of lead. And his mother told me something. She hadnt mentioned it before because she thought it was stupid. What was it? But even as he asked the question, he knew the answer. Perhaps not the exact form it would take, but close enough. Over the course of the meeting, the pieces of a new nightmare had been steadily coming together into a single picture. A little boy missing. Frank Carter. An accomplice. Beck added the final piece now. A few weeks ago, Neil woke his mother in the middle of the night. He said that hed seen a monster outside his window. The curtains were open, like he really had been looking out, but there was nothing there. She paused. He said it had been whispering things to him. Part Two September Eight Jake was excited when we collected the keys from the estate agent in Featherbank, whereas I just felt anxious as we drove to our new home. What if the house wasnt how I remembered it from the viewings? What if I got inside and hated the place nowor, worse, that Jake did? All of this would have been for nothing. Stop kicking the passenger seat, Jake. The drumming of his feet from behind me stopped, but then started up again almost immediately. I sighed to myself as I turned a corner. But then, he was excited, which was a rare enough occurrence in itself, so I decided to ignore it. At least one of us was happy. It was a lovely day, though. And my nerves aside, it was impossible to deny that Featherbank was beautiful in the late summer sun. It was a suburb, and while it was only five miles away from a heaving city center, it felt more like the countryside here. Down by the river, on the southern edge of the village, there were cobbled roads and cottages. Farther north, away from a single row of shops, there were steep streets of pretty sandstone houses, and most of the pavements were lined with trees, the leaves thick and green overhead. With the window rolled down, the air outside smelled of cut grass, and I could hear music and children playing. It felt peaceful and tranquil hereas slow and warm as a lazy morning. We reached our new street, which was a quiet residential road with a large field on one side. There were more trees around the edges, the sun cutting through the leaves and dappling the grass with light, and I tried to imagine Jake out there, running around just across from our house, his own T-shirt bright in the sun. Still as happy as he was now. Our house. We were here. I pulled into the driveway. The house still looked the same, of course, but the building seemed to have different ways of staring out at the world. The first time Id seen it, it had seemed forbidding and frighteningalmost dangerousand then the second, Id thought it had character. Now, just for a moment, the odd arrangement of windows reminded me of a beaten face, with an eye pushed up over a badly bruised cheek, the skull injured and lopsided. I shook my head and the image disappeared. But an ominous feeling remained. Come on, then, I said quietly. Outside the car, the day was still and quiet. With no breeze to move the warm air, we were in a capsule of silence. But the world was humming softly as we approached the house, and it felt to me as though the windows were watching us, or perhaps something just out of sight behind the glass. I turned the key in the lock and opened the door, and stale air wafted out. For a second it smelled as though the house had been sealed for far longer than it had been, perhaps even with something left rotting inside, but then all I could detect was the bleachy scent of cleaning products. Jake and I walked through the house, opening doors and cupboards, turning lights on and off, drawing and closing curtains. Our footsteps echoed; otherwise, the silence was absolute now. But as we worked our way through each room, I couldnt shake the sensation that we were not alone. That someone else was here, hiding just out of sight, and that if I turned at the right moment Id see a face peering around a doorframe. It was a stupid, irrational feeling, but it was there. And it wasnt helped by Jake. He was excited, moving quickly from room to room, but every now and then Id catch a slightly puzzled look on his face, as though he had been expecting to find something that wasnt here. Is this my room, Daddy? What was going to be his bedroom was on the second floor, raised up from the landing outside, so that his window was smaller than the rest: the eye staring out across the field from above the swollen cheek. Yes. I ruffled his hair. Do you like it? He didnt reply, and I stared down at him nervously. He was gazing around, lost in thought. Jake? I said. He looked up at me. Is this really ours? Yes, I said. It is. And then he hugged my legsso suddenly that it almost knocked me off balance. It was as though Id shown him the best present hed ever seen and hed been worried he might not be able to keep it. I crouched down so we could embrace more properly. The relief I felt was palpable, and suddenly that was all that mattered. My son was happy to be here, and Id done something good for him, and nothing else was important. I stared over his shoulder at the open door and the landing beyond. If it still felt like something was just around the corner there, I knew it was just my imagination. We were going to be safe here. We were going to be happy. And for the first week, we were. At the time, I stood looking at a newly assembled bookcase, marveling at my industry. DIY had never been a strong point of mine, but I knew this was something Rebecca would have wanted me to do, and I imagined her pressed up behind me now, with the side of her face against my back and her arms around my chest. Smiling to herself. You see? You can do this. And while it was only a small taste of success, even that was an unusual feeling recently, and I liked it. Except, of course, I was still alone. I began filling the shelves. Because that was another of the things Rebecca would have done, and even though this new house was about Jake and me moving on, I still wanted to honor that. You always put out the books, she told me once. Thats when it starts to feel like home. She had never been happier than when reading. There had been so many warm, contented evenings, with the two of us curled up at different ends of the couch, me writing as best I could on my laptop, her lost in novel after novel. Over the years we had accumulated hundreds of books, and I set to work unpacking them now, sliding each one carefully into place. And then it came to my own. The shelves beside my computer desk were reserved for copies of my four novels, along with the various foreign translations. It felt ostentatious to have them on display, but Rebecca had been proud of me and had always insisted on it. So this was another gesture to heras was the empty space I left on the shelves, ready for the ones that hadnt been written yet, but would be. I glanced warily at the computer. Beyond turning it on to check that the new Wi-Fi worked, I hadnt really done a thing with it this last week. I hadnt written anything for a year. That was something that was going to change. New start, new Creak. A noise from above me, the sound of a single footstep. I looked up. It was Jakes room that was directly overhead, but Id left him in the living room playing while I did the building and unpacking. I moved to the doorway and looked up the stairs. There was nobody on the landing. In fact, the whole house suddenly felt still and quiet, as though now that I was still, there was no movement at all. The silence rang in my ears. Jake? I shouted upstairs. Silence. Jake? Daddy? I almost jumped. His voice had come from the living room, directly beside me. Keeping one eye on the landing, I leaned in. My son was crouched on the floor with his back to me, drawing something. Are you all right? I said. Yes. Why? I was just checking. I leaned back out, then stared up at the landing again for a few seconds. It was still quiet up there, but the space had a strange sense of potential to it now, once again as though there were somebody standing just out of sight. Which was ridiculous, of course, because nobody could have come in through the front door without me knowing. Houses creaked. It took a while to get used to them, that was all. But even so. I walked upstairs slowly and cautiously, stepping quietly, with my left hand raised, ready to deflect anything that leaped out at me from that side. I reached the topand of course the landing was empty. When I stepped into Jakes room, that was empty too. A wedge of afternoon sunlight was coming through the window, and I could see tiny curls of dust hanging in the air, undisturbed. Just the house creaking. I went downstairs more confidently, feeling silly but also more relieved than Id have liked to admit. At the bottom, I had to edge past the piles of mail on the last two steps. There had been a lot so far: the usual documents that inevitably come with moving into a new house, along with innumerable local take-out menus and other junk mail. But there had also been three proper letters, addressed to someone called Dominic Barnett. All three were marked either Private or Addressee Only. I remembered that the previous owner, Mrs. Shearing, had rented the house out for years, and on a whim I ripped one of the letters open now. Inside, I found an itemized account from a debt collection company. My heart sank. Whoever Dominic Barnett was, he owed the company on an old cell phone contract. I opened the others, and they were the same: notices for unpaid money. I scanned the details, frowning to myself. The amounts werent large, but the tone of the letters was threatening. I told myself it wasnt an insurmountable problem and that a few phone calls would sort it out, but this move was meant to be a new start for Jake and me, not to deliver a fresh set of obstacles for me to overcome. Daddy? Jake had appeared in the living room doorway beside me. He was holding his Packet of Special Things in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. Is it all right if I play upstairs? I thought of the creak Id heard, and for a second I wanted to say no. But again, that was absurd. There was nobody up there, and it was his bedroom; he had every right to play in it. At the same time, we hadnt seen much of each other that day, and it felt isolating for him to disappear upstairs now. I guess, I said. Can I see your drawing first? He hesitated. Why? Because Im interested. Because Id like to. Because Im trying here, Jake. Its private. Which was fair enough, and a part of me wanted to respect that, but I didnt like the idea of him keeping secrets from me. The Packet was one thing, but it felt like if he wouldnt even show me his drawings now, then the distance between us must be increasing. Jake I started to say. Oh, fine. He thrust the sheet out at me. Now that it was being offered, I was reluctant to take it. But I did. Jake had never been good at drawing straightforward, realistic scenes before, preferring his convoluted, unfolding battles instead, but hed attempted one here. The picture was rough, but it was obviously an approximation of our house from the outside, reminiscent of the original photograph that had caught his attention online. He had captured the odd look of the place well. The curved, childlike lines stretched the house into a strange shape, elongating the windows, and making it look more like a face than ever. The front door appeared to be moaning. But it was the upstairs that drew my attention. In the right-hand window hed drawn me, standing by myself in my bedroom. On the left, there he was in his own room, the window large enough here to include his whole body: a smile on his face, the jeans and T-shirt he was wearing right now shaded with crayon. And beside him, hed drawn another person in his bedroom. A little girl, her black hair splayed almost angrily out to one side. Her dress was colored in with patches of blue, leaving the rest white. Little scrapes of red on one of her knees. A corkscrew smile on her face. Nine After Jakes bath that night, I knelt on the floor beside his bed so that we could read to each other. He was a good reader, and we were currently working our way through Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones. It was a childhood favorite of mine, which Id chosen without thinking. The horrible irony of the title had only occurred to me afterward. When wed finished that nights chapter, I put the book down with all his others. Cuddle? I said. He slipped out of the covers without a word and sat sideways on my knees, wrapping his arms around me. I savored the cuddle for as long as I could, and then he clambered back into bed. I love you, Jake. Even when we argue? Of course. Especially when we argue. Thats when it matters the most. That reminded me of the picture Id drawn for him, which I knew hed kept. I glanced down at his Packet of Special Things, which was under the bed now, so that if he were to drape his small arm out in the night hed be able to touch it. But that in turn made me think of the drawing hed done that afternoon. He hadnt been pleased about showing it to me, and so I hadnt asked him about it at the time. But in the warm, soft light of his bedroom, it felt like maybe I could now. It was a good picture of our house today, I said. Thank you, Daddy. Im curious about something, though. Who was the little girl in the window with you? He bit his lip and didnt answer. Its okay, I said gently. You can tell me. But again he didnt reply. It was obvious that, whoever it was meant to be, the little girl was the reason he hadnt wanted to show me the drawing today, and he didnt want to talk about her now either. But why not? The answer occurred to me a second later. Is she the little girl from the 567 Club? He hesitated, then nodded. I sat back on my heels, doing my best to hide the frustration I felt. The disappointment, even. For the last week, everything had seemed fine. We had been happy here, Jake had seemed to be adjusting well, and I had been cautiously optimistic. And yet apparently his imaginary friend had been following us all along. The thought made me shiver slightlythe idea that we had left her behind in the old house, and ever since she had been working her way slowly across the intervening miles to find us. Do you still talk to her? I said. Jake shook his head. Shes not here. From his own disappointment, it was obvious that he wanted her to be, and once again I felt uneasy. It was unhealthy for him to be fixated on someone who wasnt there. At the same time, he looked so dejected and lonely right now that I almost felt guilty at depriving him of it. And also hurt that, as always, I wasnt enough. Well, I said carefully. You start school tomorrow. Im sure youll make lots of new friends there. And in the meantime, Im here. Were here. New house, new start. Is it safe here? Safe? Why was he asking that? Yes, of course it is. Is the door locked? Yes. The liea white onecame automatically. The door wasnt locked; I didnt think Id even hooked up the chain. But Featherbank was a quiet village. And anyway, it was early evening and the lights were all on. Nobody was going to be that blatant. But Jake looked so frightened that I was suddenly conscious of the distance between the two of us and the front door. The noise of running his bath. If someone had crept in while we were up here, would I have heard it? You dont need to worry about that. I did my best to sound firm. Id never let anything happen to you. Why are you so worried? You have to close doors, he said. What do you mean? You have to keep them locked. Jake If you leave a door half open, soon youll hear the whispers spoken. A chill ran through me. Jake looked scared, and the phrase certainly wasnt the kind of thing he would have come up with by himself. What does that mean? I said. I dont know. Where did you hear it, then? He didnt answer. But then I realized he didnt need to. The little girl? He nodded, and I shook my head, confused. Jake wouldnt have thought up that rhyme by himself, but equally, he couldnt have heard it from someone who wasnt there. So perhaps Id been wrong at the 567 Club and the little girl was real? Perhaps Jake had just called goodbye without realizing she had gone outside? Except he had been alone at the table when Id arrived. It must have been one of the other children, then, trying to scare him. From the expression on his face right now, it had worked. Youre completely safe, Jake. I promise you. But Im not in charge of the door! No, I said. I am. And so there is nothing for you to worry about. I dont care what somebody told you. You need to listen to me now. Im not going to let anything happen to you. Ever. He was listening, at least, although I wasnt sure he was convinced. I promise you. And do you know why I wont let anything happen to you? Because I love you. Very much indeed. Even when we argue. That brought the slightest of smiles. Do you believe me? I said. He nodded, looking a little more reassured now. Good. I ruffled his hair and stood up. Because its true. Good night, sweetie. Good night, Daddy. Ill come up and check on you in five minutes. I turned the light off as I left the room, then padded downstairs as quietly as I could. But rather than collapsing on the couch as I wanted to, I stopped at the front door. If you leave a door half open, soon youll hear the whispers spoken. Rubbish, of course, wherever he had heard it. But the words still bothered me. And just as the idea of the little girl trailing us across the country had disturbed me, now I couldnt shake the image of her sitting next to him, her hair swept out to one side and that strange smile on her face, whispering frightening things in his ear. I hooked up the chain for the night. Ten DI Pete Willis had spent the weekend miles away from Featherbank, walking in the nearby countryside and trailing a stick through random tangles of undergrowth. He checked the hedges he passed. Occasionally, when the fields were empty, he hopped over stiles and trawled through the grass there. Anyone watching might have mistaken him for a rambler, and to all intents and purposes he supposed that was what he was. These days, in fact, he deliberately thought of such expeditions as walks and outingsas just another way for an old man to fill his time. It had been twenty years now, after all. And yet a part of him remained focused. Rather than absorbing the beauty of the world around him, he was constantly searching the ground for bone fragments and snatches of old fabric. Blue jogging pants. Little black polo shirt. For some reason, it was always the clothes that stayed with him. However much he tried not to think about it, Pete would never forget the day hed viewed the horrors plastered inside the extension Frank Carter had built on the side of his house. Returning to the department afterward, he had still been reeling from the experience, but as he stepped through the sliding doors there had at least been some sense of relief. Four little boys had been killed. But even though Carter had remained at large for the moment, the monster finally had a namea real one, not the one the papers had given himand four victims would be the end of it. In that moment, he had believed it was nearly over. But then he had seen Miranda and Alan Smith sitting in the reception. Even now he could still picture them clearly. Alan had been wearing a suit and sitting bolt upright, staring into space, his hands forming a heart between his knees. Mirandas hands had been pressed between her thighs, and she had been leaning against her husband, resting her head on his shoulder with her long brown hair trailing down his chest. It was late afternoon, but they had both looked exhausted, like long-distance travelers who were trying and failing to sleep where they sat. Their son Tony was missing. And twenty years on from that afternoon, he still was. Frank Carter had managed a day and a half on the run before he was finally arrested, his van pulled over on a country road nearly a hundred miles from Featherbank. There was forensic evidence that Tony Smith had been held in the back of his van, but no sign of the boys body. And while Carter had admitted killing Tony, he refused to reveal where he had discarded his remains. The weeks that followed had seen extensive searches along the myriad possible routes Carter could have taken, all of them to no avail. Pete had attended several. The number of searchers had dwindled over time until, two decades later, he was the only one still out searching. Even Miranda and Alan Smith had moved on. They lived far away from Featherbank now. If Tony had been alive, he would be twenty-seven years old. Pete knew that Miranda and Alans daughter, Claire, born in the tumultuous years that followed, had just turned sixteen. He attached no blame to the Smiths for rebuilding their lives after the murder of their son, but the fact remained that he himself could not let it go. A little boy was missing. A little boy needed to be found and brought home. As he drove back into Featherbank now, the homes he passed looked comfortable. Their windows were illuminated in the darkness, and he could imagine whispers of laughter and conversation drifting out from within. People together, as people should be. He felt a degree of loneliness at that, but you could find pleasure where you looked for it, even in as solitary a life as his. The road was lined with enormous trees, their leaves lost in the darkness except for where the streetlights touched them, scattering the street with intricate yellow-green explosions that undulated in the soft breeze. It was so quiet and peaceful in Featherbank that it was almost impossible to believe it had once played host to atrocities as terrible as Frank Carters. A flyer was attached to the lamppost at the end of his streetone of the many MISSING posters that had been put up in the previous weeks by Neil Spencers family. There was a photograph of the boy, details of his clothing, and an appeal for witnesses to come forward with information. Both the image and the text had faded under the incessant beat of the summer sun, so that, as he drove past it now, it reminded him of wrinkled flowers left at the scene of an old accident. A little boy who had disappeared was beginning to disappear for a second time. Nearly two months had passed since Neil Spencer went missing, and despite the resources, heart, and soul that had been poured into the investigation, the police knew little more now than they had on the evening hed vanished. As far as Pete could tell, Amanda Beck had done everything right. It was a reflection of her efficiency, in fact, that even DCI Lyons, a man with a constant eye on his own reputation, had stood by her and left her in charge of the case. Although the last time Pete had passed Amanda in the corridor, she had looked so worn out that he had wondered if that wasnt its own kind of punishment. He wished he could tell her that it would get easier. After being summoned to Lyonss office, Pete had talked Amanda through the original investigation, but his involvement in the case had turned out to be cursory. There had been the familiar feeling of dread when he made the request to visit Frank Carter. He had imagined himself sitting across from the monster, being treated like a plaything, and, as always, he had wondered if he could do itwhether this encounter would be the one that finally proved too much for him. And yet his fear had been in vain. For the first time that he could remember, his request to talk to Carter had been met with refusal. The so-called Whisper Man, it seemed, had decided to go silent. Pete had visited him on several occasions, and he had been prepared to do so again, but stillit had been impossible to suppress relief at that. That feeling had brought guilt and shame along with it, of course, but he had talked himself out of it. Sitting across from Frank Carter was an ordeal. It was bad for his health. And since the only connection was what Neil claimed to have seen and heard at his bedroom window, there was no reason to think it would help. Relief was the correct response. Back home, he tossed his keys onto the dining room table, already planning the meal he would make and the programs he would watch to fill the handful of hours before sleep. Tomorrow would bring the gym, the paperwork, the admin. Life as usual. But before then, he performed the ritual. He opened the kitchen cabinet and took out the bottle of vodka he kept in there, turning it around in his hands, weighing it, feeling how thick the glass was. There was a solid, protective layer between him and the silky liquid inside. It had been a long time since hed opened a bottle like this, but he could still remember the comforting click that would come if he turned the top and broke the seal. He retrieved the photograph from a drawer. And then he sat down at the dinner table, with the bottle and photograph before him, and asked himself the question. Do I want to do this? Over the years the urge had come and gone, but to some extent it was always present. There were many obvious things that could jostle it awake, but there were also times when it seemed to stir at random, following its own oblique schedule. The bottle was often as dead and powerless as a cell phone without charge, but sometimes there was a flicker there. Right now the urge was stronger than he could recall. For the last two months, in fact, the bottle had been talking to him increasingly loudly. Youre only delaying the inevitable, it told him now. Why make yourself suffer like this? A full bottlethat was important. Pouring a drink from a half-finished bottle was less comforting than breaking the seal on a fresh one. The comfort lay in knowing you had enough. He gently tested the seal now, tempting himself. A little more pressure and it would break, and the bottle would be open. You might as well give in. It will make you feel worthless, but we both know thats what you are. The voice could be cruel as well as friendly. Play the minor chords as easily as the major. Youre worthless. Youre useless. So open the bottle. As so often, the voice was his fathers. The old man was long dead, but even forty years on, Pete could picture him: fat and sprawled in a threadbare armchair in the dusty living room, a look of contempt on his face. Nothing Pete had done as a boy had ever been good enough for him. Worthless and useless were words hed learned early and often. Age had brought with it the understanding that his father had been a small man, disappointed with everything in his life, and that his son had just been a convenient target to vent his many frustrations on. But that understanding had come too late. By then the message had been absorbed and become part of his programming. Objectively, he knew it wasnt true that he was worthless and a failure. But it always felt true. The trick, explained, still convinced. He picked up the photograph of Sally. It was many years old, and the colors had faded over time, as though the paper were attempting to erase the image imprinted upon it and return to its original blank slate. The two of them looked so happy there, their faces pressed together. It had been taken on a summers day. Sally appeared full of joy, grinning in the sun, while Pete was squinting against the light and smiling. This is what you lose by drinking. This is why its not worth it. He sat there for a few minutes, breathing slowly, then he put the bottle and the photograph away and began to make dinner. It was easy to understand why the urge had strengthened since Neil Spencer went missing, and that was why it was good his involvement had come to nothing. Let the urge flare in the light of that, he thought. Let it have its moment. And then let it die. Eleven That night, as always, I found it difficult to fall asleep. Once upon a time, when I had a new book out, I would go to events and even do the occasional signing tour. I generally went by myself, and I would lie awake afterward in unfamiliar hotel rooms, missing my family. I always found it hard to sleep when Rebecca wasnt there beside me. It was harder still, now that she never would be. Before, if I stretched my arm out onto the cold side of a hotel bed, I could at least imagine she was doing the same back homethat we might feel the ghosts of each other. After she died, when I stretched my arm out in our own bed I felt nothing but the cold emptiness of the sheets there. Perhaps a new house and bed should have changed that, but they hadnt. When I stretched my arm out in the old house, I had at least known that Rebecca had lain there once. So I stayed awake for a long time, missing her. Even if moving here had been the right decision, I was aware of a greater distance between Rebecca and me than ever before. It was terrible to leave her behind. I kept imagining her spirit in the old house, staring out of the window, wondering where her family had gone. Which reminded me of Jakes imaginary friend. The little girl hed drawn. I did my best to empty my head of that, concentrating instead on how peaceful it was here in Featherbank. The world outside the curtains was quiet and still. The house around me was entirely silent now. It allowed me to drift, at least after a time. Glass smashing. My mother screaming. A man shouting. Daddy. I jerked awake from the nightmare, disorientated, aware only that Jake was calling me and so I needed to do something. Hang on, I shouted. A shadow at the end of the bed moved, and my heart leaped. I sat up quickly. Jesus Christ. Jake, is that you? The small shadow moved around from the foot of the bed to my side. For a moment I wasnt convinced it was him at all, but then he was close enough that I could recognize the shape of his hair. I couldnt see his face, though. It was occluded entirely by the darkness in the room. What are you doing, mate? My heart was still racing, both from what was happening now and from the residue of the nightmare it had woken me from. Its not time to get up yet. Absolutely nowhere near. Can I sleep in here with you tonight? What? He never had before. In fact, Rebecca and I had always held firm on the few occasions hed suggested it, assuming that relenting even once would be the beginning of a slippery slope. We dont do that, Jake. You know that. Please. I realized that his voice was deliberately quiet, as though there were someone in another room he didnt want to hear. Whats the matter? I said. I heard a noise. A noise? Theres a monster outside my window. I sat there in silence, remembering the rhyme hed told me at bedtime. But that had been about the door. And anyway, there was no way anybody could be outside his window. We were one floor up. You were dreaming, mate. He shook his head in the darkness. It woke me up. I went across to the window and it was louder there. I wanted to open the curtains but I was too scared. You would have seen the dark field across the road, I thought. Thats all. But he sounded so serious that I couldnt say that to him. All right. I slipped out of bed. Well, lets go and check, then. Dont, Daddy. Im not scared of monsters, Jake. He followed me into the hall, where I switched on the light at the top of the stairs. Stepping into his room, though, I left the light off, and then approached the window. What if theres something there? There isnt, I said. But what if? Then Ill deal with it. Will you punch it in the face? Absolutely. But theres nothing there. And yet I didnt feel as confident as I sounded. The closed curtains seemed ominous. I listened for a moment, but there was nothing to hear. And it was impossible for anybody to be out there. I pulled the curtains open. Nothing. Just an oblique angle of the path and garden, the empty road beyond, and then the dark, shadowy expanse of the field stretching away into the distance. A dim reflection of my face was staring back into the room. But there was nothing else out there. The whole world seemed to be sleeping peacefully in exactly the way that I wasnt. See? I did my best to sound patient. Nobody there. But there was. I closed the curtains and knelt down. Jake, sometimes dreams can seem very real. But theyre not. How can anybody have been outside your window when were all that way above the ground? They could have climbed the drainpipe. I started to answer, but then pictured the outside of the house. The drainpipe was just to the side of his window. A ridiculous idea occurred to me. If you lock and chain a door to keep a monster out, what choice does it have but to climb up and get in some other way? Stupidity. There was nobody out there, Jake. Can I sleep with you tonight, Daddy? Please? I sighed to myself. Obviously he wasnt going to sleep alone in here now, and it was either too late or too early to argue. I couldnt decide which. It was easier right now just to give in. All right. But just for tonight. No fidgeting, though. Thank you, Daddy. He picked up his Packet of Special Things and followed me back through. I promise I wont fidget. So you say. But what about stealing all the covers? I wont do that either. I turned the hall light off and then we clambered into bed, Jake on what should have been Rebeccas side. Daddy? he said. Were you having a nightmare before? Glass smashing. My mother screaming. A man shouting. Yes, I said. I suppose so. What was it about? The dream itself had faded a little now, but it had been a memory as much as a nightmare. Me as a child, walking toward the doorway to the small kitchen of the house I had grown up in. In the dream, it was late, and a noise from downstairs had woken me. I had stayed in bed with the covers pulled over my head and the dread thick in my heart, trying to pretend that everything was okay, even though I knew it wasnt. Eventually I had tiptoed quietly down the stairs, not wanting to see whatever was happening, but drawn to it all the same, feeling small and terrified and powerless. I remembered approaching the bright kitchen along the dark hall, hearing the noises coming from in there. My mothers voice was angry but quiet, as though she thought I was still asleep and she was trying to keep me safe from this, but the mans voice was loud and uncaring. All their words overlapped. I couldnt make out what either of them was saying, only that it was ugly, and that it was building toward a crescendoaccelerating toward something awful. The kitchen doorway. I reached it just in time to see the mans red face contorted in rage and hatred as he threw the glass at my mother as hard as he could. To see her flinch away, far too late, and to hear her scream. The last time Id ever seen my father. It was such a long time ago, but the memory still surfaced every now and then. Still clawed its way up out of the dirt. Grown-up stuff, I told Jake. Maybe Ill tell you one day, but it was just a dream. And its fine. It all had a happy ending. What happened in the end? Well, you did, eventually. Me? Yeah. I ruffled his hair. And then you went to sleep. I closed my eyes, and the two of us lay there in silence for so long that I assumed hed dropped back off to sleep. At one point, I stretched my arm out to one side and rested my hand gently on top of the covers over him, as though to reassure myself he was still there. The two of us together. My small, wounded family. Whispering, Jake said quietly. What? Whispering. His voice sounded so far away that I thought he was already dreaming. It was whispering at my window. Twelve You have to hurry. In the dream, Jane Carter was whispering down the phone to Pete. Her voice was quiet and urgent, as though what she was saying were the most frightening thing in the world. But she was doing it anyway. Finally. Pete had sat at his office desk, his heart thumping in his chest. He had spoken to Frank Carters wife numerous times during the investigation. He had appeared outside her place of work, or arranged to find himself walking alongside her on busy pavements, always careful not to be seen with her anyplace her husband might hear of. It had been as though he had been making covert attempts to turn a spy, which he supposed wasnt far from the truth. Jane had provided alibis for her husband. She had defended him. But it had been obvious to Pete from his first encounter with her that she was terrified of Frankhe thought with good reasonand he had worked hard to convert her: to convince her it was safe for her to talk to him. To take back what she had said and tell the truth about her husband. Talk to me, Jane. Ill make sure that Frank cant hurt you and your son anymore. And now it seemed like she was going to. Such fear had been beaten into Jane Carter over the years that even now, phoning him without the bastard in the house, she could still only bring herself to whisper. Courage is not the absence of fear, Pete knew. Courage requires fear. And so, even as the adrenaline hiteven as he felt the case beginning to close ahead of himhe also recognized the bravery of this call. Ill let you in, she whispered, but you have to hurry. Ive no idea how long hell be. In reality, Frank Carter would never return to the house. Within an hour it would be crawling with police and CSIs, and an alert would be out to locate Carter and the van he was driving. But at the time, Pete hurried. The journey to her house only took ten minutes, but they were the longest of his life. Even with backup on standby, he felt alone and scared when he arrived, like someone in a fairy tale where a monster was absent but might return at any moment. Inside, he watched Jane Carters trembling hands as she unlocked the door to the extension with the key shed stolen. The whole house was silent, and he felt a shadow looming over them. The lock came undone. Step back now, please, both of you. Jane Carter stood in the middle of the kitchen, her son hiding behind her legs, as Pete pushed open the door with one gloved hand. No. At once, there was the hot smell of rotting meat. He shone his flashlight insideand then came the pictures, appearing to him one by one in swift succession, the sights and sensations illuminated as if by camera flashes. No. Not yet. For the moment, he lifted his hand, moving the flashlight over the walls instead. They were painted white, but Carter had decorated them, drawing crude green blades of grass at the bases and childlike butterflies fluttering above. Close to the ceiling, there was the skewed yellow approximation of a sun. A face had been sketched on it, the dead black eyes staring down at the floor below. Pete followed its gaze, finally lowering the beam. It became difficult to breathe. He had been searching for these children for three months, and while he had always anticipated an outcome like this, he had never entirely given up hope. But here they were, lying in this rank, warm darkness. The four bodies looked real and unreal at the same time. Lifelike dolls that had been broken and now lay still, their clothes intact except for their T-shirts, which had been pulled up to cover their faces. Perhaps the worst thing about that particular nightmare was that it had become familiar enough over the years not to disturb his sleep. It was the alarm that woke him the next morning. He lay there for a few seconds, trying to keep calm. Attempting to ignore the memory was like shoving at mist, but he reminded himself that it was only recent events that had roused these nightmares, and that they would fade in time. He turned off the alarm. Gym, he thought. Paperwork. Admin. Routine. He showered, dressed, packed the bag for his workout, and by the time he headed downstairs to make coffee and a light breakfast, the dream had receded and his thoughts were more under control. There had been a brief interruption to his lifethat was all. It was completely understandable that turning the soil over had released some pungent ghosts from the earth, but they would fade soon. The urge to drink would weaken again. Life would return to normal. It was only when he took his breakfast through to the living room that he saw the red light on his cell blinking. Hed missed a call; there was voice mail to listen to. He dialed the number and listened to the message, chewing his food slowly. Forcing himself to swallow it. His throat was tight. After two months, Frank Carter had agreed to see him. Thirteen Just stand against the wall for me, I said. A little to the right. No, my right. A little more. Thats it. Now give me a smile. It was Jakes first day at his new school, and I was far more nervous about the prospect than he was. How many times could you check a drawer to make sure clothes were ready? Were there names on everything? Where had I put his book bag and water bottle? There was so much to consider, and I wanted everything to be perfect for him. Can I move yet, Dad? Hang on. I held up my phone in front of me as Jake stood against the only blank wall in his bedroom, dressed in his new school uniform: gray trousers, white shirt, and blue jumperall of it fresh and clean, of course, with name tags on absolutely everything. His smile was shy and sweet. He looked so grown up in his uniform, but also still so small and vulnerable. I tapped the screen a couple of times. Done. Can I see? Of course you can. I knelt down and he leaned on my shoulder as I showed him the photographs Id taken. I look okay. He sounded surprised. You look perfect, I told him. And he did. I tried to enjoy the moment, even though it was tinged with sadness, because Rebecca should have been here too. Like most parents, she and I had taken pictures on Jakes first days in a new year at school, but Id changed my phone recently, and it was only earlier this week that Id realized what that meant. All my photographs were gonelost forever. To add insult to injury, I did have Rebeccas phone, but while the photos would be on there, the phone was locked with her fingerprint. Id stared at her old handset in frustration for a full minute, facing down the hard truth of the situation. Rebecca was gone, which meant that those memories were gone as well. I had tried to tell myself that it didnt matter. That it was just another harsh joke grief had played on meand a minor one in the grand scheme of things. But it had hurt. It felt like another failing on my part. Well get so many more. Come on, mate. Before we left, I uploaded copies to the ether. Rose Terrace Primary School was a low, sprawling building, secluded from the street behind iron railings. The main part was old and pretty: a single story with numerous peaked roofs. BOYS and GIRLS were carved into the black stone above separate entrances, although much newer signs indicated that that Victorian separation was now used to delineate different year groups instead. Id been shown around before enrolling Jake. Inside, there was a hall with a polished wooden floor, which acted as a central hub for the surrounding classrooms. Between the doors, the walls were covered with small handprints in different-colored paint, pressed there by a selection of former pupils, with the dates theyd attended written underneath. Jake and I stood at the railings. What do you think? I dont know, he said. It was hard to blame him for being doubtful. The playground beyond the railings was teeming with children, along with parents clustered together in groups. It was the first day of a new year, but everybody herekids and parents alikealready knew each other from previous years, and Jake and I were going to be walking in as strangers to everyone except each other. His old school had been larger and more anonymous. Everyone here seemed so tightly knit that it was impossible to imagine we wouldnt always feel like outsiders. God, I hoped that he fit in. I gave his hand a light squeeze and led him toward the gate. Come on, I said. Lets be brave. Im okay, Daddy. Im talking about me. A joke, but only half of one. There were five minutes before the doors were due to open, and I knew I should make an effort to talk to some of the other parents and begin to form bonds of my own. Instead, once in the playground, I leaned against the railing and waited. Jake stood beside me, chewing his lip slightly. I watched the other children running around, and wished hed go and make an effort to play. Just let him be him, I told myself. That should be good enough, shouldnt it? Eventually, the door opened, and Jakes new teacher stood outside smiling. The children began lining up, book bags swinging. Because it was the first day of term for everyone here, most of those bags would be empty for now, but Jakes wasnt. As usual, hed insisted on bringing his Packet of Special Things with him. I passed him the bag and his water bottle. Youll look after that, wont you? Yes. God, I hoped so. The thought of it getting lost was probably as intolerable for me as it would be for him. But it was my sons equivalent of a comfort blanket, and there was no way he could have left home without it. He was already moving over to the line of children. I love you, Jake, I said quietly. Love you too, Daddy. I stood there, watching until he was inside, hoping hed turn back and wave. He didnt. It was a good sign, I supposed, that lack of clinging. It showed that he wasnt intimidated by the day ahead of him and didnt need the reassurance. I wished I could say the same about myself. Please, please, please be okay. New boy, eh? Sorry? I turned to find a woman was standing next to me. Even though the day was already warm, she was wearing a long dark coat with her hands pushed into the pockets, as though braced for a winter breeze. Her hair was dyed black, shoulder length, and she had a slightly amused expression on her face. New boy. Oh, I said. You mean Jake? Thats my son, yes. Actually, I was meaning both of you. You look worried. Honestly, Im sure hell be fine. Yes, Im sure he will. He didnt even look back. Mine stopped doing that a while ago. In fact, once we get to the playground on a morning, I might as well not exist. Heartbreaking at first, but you get used to it. Its a good thing, really. She shrugged. Im Karen, by the way. My sons Adam. Tom, I said. Nice to meet you. Karen and Adam? I need to start learning all these new names. She smiled. Itll take a while. But Im sure Jake wont have any problems. Its hard when you move somewhere new, but theyre a good bunch of kids. Adam only started here the middle of last year. Its a good school. As she walked back toward the gate, I committed the names to memory. Karen. Adam. Shed seemed nice, and I needed to make some kind of effort here. Perhaps, despite all evidence to the contrary, I really could become one of those normal adults who talked to other parents in the playground. I took out my phone and put my headphones in for the short walk home, with something else to be nervous about now. I had been a third of the way into a new novel when Rebecca died, and while some writers might have thrown themselves into their work as a distraction, I hadnt looked at those words since. The idea Id been working on felt empty to me now, and I suspected I was going to have to abandon the whole thing and leave it decaying on my hard drive as some uncompleted folly. In which case, what would I write? Back home, I turned on the computer, opened up a blank document in Word, and then saved it under the file name bad ideas. I always did that to begin with. Acknowledging it was early days took some of the psychological pressure off. And then, since Id always been of the mind that making coffee didnt count as procrastination, I went through to the kitchen and started the kettle boiling, then leaned against the counter and stared out of the window at the back garden. A man was standing out there. He had his back to me, and appeared to be rattling the padlock on my garage door. What the fuck? I tapped on the glass. The man jumped and turned around quickly. He was in his fifties, short and portly, with a monks ring of gray hair around his otherwise bald head. He was also dressed neatly in a suit, gray overcoat, and scarf, and seemed about as far away from a potential burglar as I could imagine. I made a what-the-fuck? gesture at him with my hands and the expression on my face. He stared back at me for a moment, looking shocked, then turned and disappeared off in the direction of the driveway. I hesitated for a moment, still thrown by what Id just seen, then moved back through the house, determined to confront him and find out what hed been doing. As I reached the front door, the bell rang. Fourteen I opened the door too quickly, and found the man standing on the step outside, an apologetic look on his face. Up close, he was even shorter than hed seemed through the window. Im terribly sorry to bother you. He spoke formally, in keeping with the old-fashioned suit he was dressed in. I wasnt sure if anybody would be home. One obvious way to check if someone is home, I thought, would be to ring the fucking doorbell. I see. I folded my arms. What can I do for you? The man shuffled uncomfortably. Well, its a slightly unusual request, I have to admit. But the thing isthis house. I actually grew up here, you see? Many years ago now, obviously, but I have such fond memories of the place He trailed off. Okay, I said. And then I waited for him to continue. But he just stood there, looking expectant, as though hed provided me with enough information already and it was awkward, or perhaps even rude, of me to make him say the rest. A moment later, the penny dropped. You mean you want to come in and look around or something? He nodded gratefully. Its a terrible imposition, I know, but I would appreciate being able to do so immensely. This house holds such special memories for me, you see. Again, his tone was so ostentatiously formal that I almost laughed. But I didnt, because the idea of having this man in my house set my nerves on edge. He was dressed so properly, and his manner was so ostentatiously polite, that it all felt like some kind of disguise. Despite the apparent lack of physical threat, the man seemed dangerous. I could picture him stabbing someone with a sliver of a knife, looking into their eyes and licking his lips as he did so. Thats not possible, Im afraid. The prissy manner faded immediately, and a hint of annoyance crept onto his face. Whoever he was, he was clearly used to getting his own way. What a terrible shame, he said. May I ask why? For one thing, weve only just moved in. There are boxes everywhere. I see. He smiled thinly. Perhaps another time, then? Well, no. Because Im also not particularly inclined to let complete strangers into my house. That is disappointing. Why were you trying to get into my garage? I was doing no such thing. He took a step back, looking affronted now. I was looking to see if I could find you. Whatinside a locked garage? I dont know what you think you saw, but no. He shook his head sadly. I see this has been a regrettable mistake. What a shame, indeed. Perhaps youll change your mind. I wont. Then Im sorry to have bothered you. He turned and began walking away up the path. I followed him out, remembering the letters Id received. Mr. Barnett? He hesitated at that, then turned around and looked at me. I stopped where I was. His expression was entirely different now. His eyes had gone completely blank, and despite the difference in our sizes, I thought that if he took a step toward me right now, I would back away. Im afraid not, he said. Goodbye. And then he walked away, reaching the street, then heading away without another word. I followed him again, then stood on the pavement, unsure whether to pursue him down the road or not. Despite the warmth of the sun, I was shivering slightly. Id been so preoccupied with the inside of the house that I hadnt gotten around to looking in the garage yet. Certainly it was not the most desirable part of the property: two blue, corrugated metal doors that barely met in the middle; gray walls with a cracked window on the side. Overgrown grass wavered at the base. It seemed to be squatting at the back of the house like an old drunk, unsteady on its feet and trying not to teeter over to one side. The doors were secured by a padlock, but the real estate agent had given me the key. The metal scraped and scratched against the driveway as I unlocked it and pulled one door open, and then I ducked slightly and stepped inside. I looked around in disbelief. It was full of junk. Id assumed that when Mrs. Shearing had emptied the house after that first viewing, shed hired a removal firm to empty out the old furniture. It was clear now that shed saved herself that particular expense, and that it was all in here instead, smelling of mold and dust. There were piles of cardboard boxes in the center, crumpling damply under the weight of the ones above, and old tables and chairs stacked and intermingled like wooden puzzles down one side. An old mattress was leaning against the back wall, the tea-colored stains on the fabric so extensive that it resembled a landscape map of some foreign world. I could smell the blackened barbecue to one side of the door. There were piles of crisp brown leaves around the walls. I gingerly moved a can of paint in the corner with my foot, and found the largest spider Id ever seen. The thing just bounced gently where it sat, apparently unperturbed by my presence. Well, I thought, looking around. Thank you very much, Mrs. Shearing. There wasnt much room to move about, but I stepped forward to the piles of boxes and opened the one on top, the cardboard moist beneath my fingers. I peered in to find old Christmas decorations. Faded coils of tinsel, dull baubles, and what looked like jewels on the surface. One of the jewels flew straight out into my face Jesus Christ! and I nearly lost my balance, one foot skidding on the leaves behind me, my arm waving at the air in front of my face. The thing fluttered up to the roof, then bounced down and whirled around, before hitting the gray window and smacking itself repetitively against it. Tap, tap, tap. The gentlest of collisions. A butterfly, I realized. Not one I recognized, although admittedly my knowledge extended about as far as cabbage whites and tortoiseshells. I edged carefully over to the window, where the butterfly was still fluttering against the glass, and watched for a few seconds until it finally got the message and settled down on the grubby sill, its wings splayed flat. The thing was as large as the spider behind me, but where that had been an ugly shade of gray, the butterfly had astonishing coloring. Yellow and green swirls played across its wings, with hints of purple at the tips. It was beautiful. Moving back over to the box, I looked in again and saw three more, resting on the surface of the tinsel. These ones werent moving, so perhaps they were dead, but glancing down I saw another on the side of the lowest box in the pile, its wings moving as slowly and gently as breath. I had no idea how long they had been in here, or what their life cycle might be, but there didnt seem to be much hope for them, except perhaps as meals for that spider. I felt an urge to disrupt that particular ecosystem. Tearing off a damp square of cardboard from the top box, I made an effort at wafting one of the butterflies on the pile toward the door. The butterfly was having none of it, though. I tried the one by the window instead, but it was equally stubborn. And despite the size of them, they appeared very delicate close up, as though they might crumble to dust at the faintest touch. I didnt want to risk brushing them. So that was that. Well, guys. I threw the cardboard to one side and rubbed my hand against my jeans. I did my best. There didnt seem any point in staying in the garage any longer. It was what it was. Clearing it out could now be added to my long list of tasks, but at least it wasnt an urgent one. What was it in here that had interested my visitor so much? It was obviously just junk. But now that the encounter had faded a little, I wondered if he might even have been telling the truth and Id simply misunderstood what I had seen. Outside, I clicked the padlock back in place, sealing the butterflies within. It seemed remarkable that theyd survived in there for so long in such fruitless and insubstantial conditions. But as I walked back up the drive to the front of the house, I thought about Jake and me, and I realized that was just what happens. The butterflies didnt have a choice, after all. Thats what things do. Even in the toughest of circumstances, they keep living. Fifteen The room was small, but because every surface was painted white it had the sensation of infinite space. A place without walls. Or perhaps somewhere out of space and time altogether. To anyone watching on CCTV, Pete always imagined it must look like a scene from a science fiction film, with one person sitting in an endless, empty environment in which the virtual surroundings had yet to be built around them. He ran his fingertip over the surface of a desk that completely divided the room. It squeaked slightly. Everything here was clean, polished, sterile. And then the room was silent again. He waited. When there was something awful that had to be faced, it was better to face it immediately; as bad as the event might be, it would occur regardless, and at least that way you wouldnt have to endure the anticipation as well. Frank Carter understood that. Pete had visited him at least once a year since his incarceration, and the man always made him wait. There would be some petty delay back in the cell blocksome manufactured incident. It was a statement of control, making it clear which of the two men was in charge of proceedings. The fact that Pete was the one who could leave afterward should have been reassuring, but it never was. He had nothing to offer Carter but diversion and entertainment. Only one of them had anything the other wanted, and they both knew it. So he waited, like a good boy. A few minutes later, the door on the far side of the desk was unlocked, and two prison guards entered, moving to either side of it. The doorway itself remained empty. The monster, as always, was taking his time to arrive. There was the usual sense of unease as the moment approached. The escalation of the pulse. Hed long stopped trying to prepare questions for these meetings, as the words inevitably scattered into a jumble in his mind, like birds startled from a tree. But he forced his face into a blank expression and tried to keep as calm as possible. His upper body ached from the gym that morning. Finally, Carter stepped into view. He was dressed in pale blue overalls and was manacled at the hands and feet. Still sporting the familiar shaved head and ginger goatee. As always, he ducked slightly as he shuffled in, even though he didnt need to. At six-foot-five and close to three hundred pounds, Carter was an enormous man, but he never missed an opportunity to make himself seem bigger. Two more guards followed him in, escorting him to the chair on the far side of the desk. Then the four departed, leaving Pete alone with Carter. The door closing at the back of the room seemed like one of the loudest sounds he had ever heard. Carter stared at him, amused. Good morning, Peter. Frank, Pete said. Youre looking well. Living well. Carter patted his stomach, the chains that bound his wrists rattling softly. Living very well indeed. Pete nodded. Whenever he visited, it always surprised him how Carter seemed to be not only surviving his incarceration but thriving on it. Much of his time appeared to have been spent in the prison gym, and yet, while he remained as physically formidable as he had been at the time of his arrest, there was also no denying that the years in prison had softened him in some way. He looked comfortable. Sitting here now, with his legs splayed and one beefy arm resting on the chair arm, he might have been a king lounging on a throne, surveying a courtier. It was as though, outside these walls, Carter had been a dangerous animal, angry and at war with the world, but caged in here with his celebrity status and coterie of fawning fans, hed finally found a niche in which he could relax. Youre looking well too, Peter, Carter said. Eating well. Keeping in good shape, I see. Hows the family? I dont know, Pete said. Hows yours? The sparkle went out of Carters eyes at that. It was always a mistake to needle the man, but it was sometimes hard to resist, and Carters wife and son provided an easy target. Pete still remembered the look on Carters face as hed listened to Jane Carters testimony playing in the court via video link. The man must have imagined she was too scared and broken to turn against him, but in the end she had, letting Pete into the extension and retracting the alibis shed given her husband in the months before. His expression that day was similar to the one he wore now. However comfortable Carter might be in here, the hate he felt for his family had never waned. He leaned forward suddenly. Do you know, he said, I had the most extraordinary dream last night. Pete forced a smile. Did you? Jesus, Frank. Im not sure I want to know. Oh, no, you do. Carter settled back, then laughed to himself. You really do. Because the boy was there, you see? The Smith boy. At first, as Im dreaming, Im not sure its him, because all those little bastards are the same, arent they? Any one of them will do. Plus his top is all pulled up over his face so I cant see it properly, which is the way I like it. But its him. Because, you see, I remember what he was wearing, right? Blue jogging pants. Little black polo shirt. Pete didnt say anything. And someones crying, Carter said. But it isnt him. For one thing, hes long past the crying stage by now; thats all done with. And the sounds coming from off to one side anyway. So I turn my head, and I spot them both therethe mother and father. Theyve seen what Ive done to their boy and theyre sobbingall their hopes and dreams, and look what Ive gone and done. He frowned. What are their names? Again, Pete didnt reply. Miranda and Alan. Carter nodded to himself. I remember now. They were in court that time, werent they? You sat with them. Yes. Right. So, Miranda and Alan are crying these big fat tears, and theyre looking at me. Tell us where he is. Theyre begging me, you see? Its a bit pathetic, but all that does is remind me of you, and I think to myself, Peter wants to know that too, and he might come visit me again soon. Carter smiled across the table. Hes my friend, right? I should try and help him out. And so I look around more carefully, trying to work out where I am and where the boy is. Because Ive never been able to remember that one, have I? No. And then the most amazing thing happens. Does it? Really amazing. Do you know what it is? You wake up, Pete said. Carter tipped his head back and laughed, then clapped his hands together as best he could. The chains rattled as he applauded. When he finished and spoke again, his voice was back to its normal volume, and his eyes had regained that familiar sparkle. You know me too well, Peter. Yeah, I wake up. A shame, though, isnt it? Guess Miranda and Alan and you will have to keep crying for a while longer. Pete wasnt going to take the bait. Did you see anyone else in your dream? he said. Anyone else? Like who? I dont know. Anyone else there with you? Helping you, maybe. It was too blunt an approach for his purpose, but as always, he watched Carters reaction to the question carefully. On the matter of a potential accomplice, Carter had generally played it well, sometimes amused, sometimes bored, but never confirming or denying a second individual having been involved in the murders. This time, he smiled to himself, but the reaction was different from normal. Today, there was an extra edge to it. He knows why Im here. I wondered how long it would take you to come to see me, Carter said. With that little boy going missing and all. Im surprised its taken you this long. I asked before now. You said no. What? Refuse to see my good friend Peter? Carter feigned outrage. As if Id do that. Im guessing that maybe the requests didnt filter through to me. An administrative error. Theyre next to useless in here. Pete forced a shrug. Thats okay, Frank. Youre not actually a priority. Youve been in prison awhile now, so its safe to say that youre not a suspect with this one. The smile returned to the mans face. Not me, no. But it always comes back to me for you, doesnt it? It always ends where it starts. What does that mean? It means what it means. So what is it you want to ask me? Your dream, Frank, like I said. Was there anyone else there? Maybe. You know what dreams are like, though. They fade quickly. Shame, isnt it? Pete stared at Carter for a moment, evaluating him. It would have been easy enough for him to have learned about Neil Spencers disappearance; it had been all over the news. Did Carter know anything else, though? He was clearly enjoying giving the impression that he did, but that didnt mean anything in itself. It could easily be just another power play. Another way for him to make himself seem bigger and more important than he really was. Lots of things fade, Pete said. Notoriety, for one. Not in here. In the outside world, though. People have forgotten all about you. Oh, Im certain thats not true. Youve not been in the papers for a while, you know. Yesterdays man. Barely even that, actuallythis little boy went missing a couple of months ago, like you say, and you know how many of the news reports mentioned you? I dont know, Peter. Why dont you tell me? None of them. Huh. Maybe I should start granting the interviews all those academics and journalists keep asking for? I might do that. He smirked, and the futility of the situation hit Pete. He was putting himself through this for nothing; Carter didnt know anything. And it would end the same as it always did. He knew full well how he would be afterwardthe way that talking to Carter brought everything back. Later, the pull of the kitchen cabinet would be stronger than ever. Yes, maybe you should. He stood up, turned his back on Carter, and walked away. Goodbye, Frank. They might be interested in the whispers. Pete stopped, one hand on the door. A shiver ran up his back, then spread down his arms. The whispers. Neil Spencer had told his mother about a monster whispering outside his window, but that aspect of the boys disappearance had never been made public or found its way into the news. It could still be fishing, of course. Except that Carter had played it more triumphantly than that, like a trump card. Pete turned around slowly. Carter was still reclining nonchalantly in his chair, but there was a smug look on his face now. Just enough bait added to the hook to keep his fish from swimming off. And Pete was suddenly sure that the reference to whispers hadnt been guesswork at all. Somehow, the bastard knew. But how? Right now, more than ever before, he had to remain calm. Carter would feed on any sense of need he detected in the man across from him, and he already had enough of that to play with. They might be interested in the whispers. What do you mean by that, Frank? Wellthe little boy saw a monster at his window, didnt he? One that was talking to him. Carter leaned forward again. Talking. Very. Quietly. Pete tried to fight down the frustration, but it was beginning to whirl inside him. Carter knew something, and a little boy was missing. They needed to find him. How do you know about the whispers? he said. Ah! That would be telling. So tell me. Carter smiled. The expression of a man who had nothing to lose or gain beyond the pain and frustration of others. Ill tell you, he said, but first you have to give me something I want. And what would that be? Carter leaned back, the amusement suddenly gone from his face now. For a moment his eyes were blank, but then the hate flared there, as visible as two pinpricks of fire. Bring my family to me, he said. Your family? That bitch and that little cunt. Bring them here and give me five minutes alone with them. Pete stared at him. For a second he was overwhelmed by the anger and madness blazing across the table from him. Then Carter threw back his head, rattled the chains at his wrists, and the silence in the room was broken as he laughed and laughed and laughed. Sixteen Give him five minutes alone with his old family? Amanda thought about it. Could we conceivably do that? But then she saw the look on Petes face. Im joking, by the way. Im aware of that. He slumped down in the chair on the other side of her desk and closed his eyes. Amanda watched him for a moment. He looked drained and diminished compared to their first meeting after Neil Spencer went missing. She didnt know him well, of course, and their interactions over the past two months had hardly been extensive, but hed struck her as well, what? A man in control of his emotions. Excellent shape for a guy his age, obviously. Calm and capable. Hed barely wasted a word talking her through the old case, and had even been implacable and detached when he was showing her the photographs taken inside Frank Carters extensionscenes of horror that hed witnessed firsthand. It had actually been quite intimidating. It had made her worry about how she was bearing up so far, never mind how shed cope if it came to the worst. It wont. The sensible coppers let it go. DCI Lyons was like that, she was sure, because that was the only way to climbwith as little weight holding you down as possible. Before Neil Spencer went missing, shed imagined she would be the same, but she was no longer quite so sure. And if shed initially thought Pete Willis was calm and detached, then looking at him now made her reevaluate that first impression. He was just good at keeping the world at a distance, she thought, and Frank Carter was a man who could get closer to him than most. Not so surprising, given the history they shared, and the fact that one of Carters victims had never been founda kid who had effectively gone missing on Petes watch. She glanced at her computer screen and saw the familiar photo of Neil Spencer in his football jersey. His absence was an actual physical ache inside her, and no matter how much she tried not to think about it, the feeling of failure worsened every day. She couldnt imagine how bad it might feel after twenty years. She didnt want to end up like the man across from her now. It wont come to that. Talk me through the accomplice theory again, she said. Theres very little there, really. Pete opened his eyes. Theres a witness report of an older man with gray hair talking to Tony Smith that doesnt match Carter. And then there are some overlaps on the abduction windows. Pretty thin stuff. I know. Sometimes people want things to be more complicated than they really are. Its possible for him to have committed these crimes entirely alone. Occams razor states that I know what Occams razor states. Pete ran his hand through his hair. Do not multiply entities unnecessarily. The simplest solution that fits all the facts is the one you go with. Exactly. And thats what we do here, isnt it? We get our guy, and we prove hes done it, and thats enough for us. So we tie a bow around the investigation, stick it in the filing cabinet, and move on. Case closed, job done. On to the next. She thought about Lyons again. About climbing. Because thats what we have to do, she said. But sometimes its not good enough. Pete shook his head. Sometimes things that look simple turn out to be much more complicated, and the extra stuff ends up being missed. And the extra stuff in this case, she said, could include someone getting away with murder? Who knows? Ive tried not to think about it over the years. I think thats wise. But now we have Neil Spencer. We have the whispers and the monster. And we have Frank fucking Carter sitting there, knowing something about it. She waited. And I dont know what to do about it, Pete said. Carter isnt going to tell us anything. And weve been over his known associates a hundred times. Theyre all clear. Amanda thought about it. Copycat? Possibly. But Carter wasnt guessing back in that room. The whispers never made it to the press, and he knew about them. No visitors aside from me. The correspondence he receives is all vetted. So how does he know? His frustration was suddenly so palpable that she was surprised he didnt hit the table. Instead, he shook his head again and looked away to one side. At least it had brought him back to life a little, Amanda thought. That was a good thing. Fuck calmshe was a keen believer in the idea that rage was a good motivator, and God knew there were times when you needed something to keep you going. At the same time, she could tell that a great deal of Petes anger was directed inward: that he blamed himself for not having been able to get to the truth. And that was no good. She was an equally keen believer in the idea that guilt was about as unhelpful as emotions got. Once you let guilt get ahold of you, the bastard never let go. Carter was never going to help us, she said. Not willingly. No. The dream about Tony Smith? He waved it away. Thats just business as usual. Ive heard all that before. I have no doubt he killed Tony, and that he knows exactly where he left him. But hes never going to say. Not when its something to hold over us. Over me. It was clear to her now how much going to see Carter took out of Pete. And yet, as hard as it must be, he went regardlessstill put himself through the ordeal, because finding Tony Smith meant that much to him. But Carter had found a new game to play now, and they had to focus on that. While she understood Petes turmoil, the fact remained that Tony Smith had been dead for a long time, while Neil Spencer could still be alive. Was still alive. Well, hes got another hold over us now, Amanda said. But remember something. You said that you go to see him in case he gives information away by accident. Yes. Well, he hashe knows something, doesnt he? That cant have happened by magic. So we have to work out how. When he didnt reply, she thought about it herself. No visitors. No unvetted correspondence. What about friends inside? she said. Hes got loads of those. Which is surprising on one level. Child killer and all. There was never a sexual element to the murders, which helps him a bit. And physically, hes still an absolute monster. Plus, theres the celebrity of it allall that Whisper Man rubbish. He has his own little kingdom in there. Okay. So whos he closest to? Ive no idea. But we can find out, right? Amanda leaned forward. Maybe hes been passed the information secondhand? Someone visits one of his friends. Friend tells Carter. Carter talks to you. Pete considered that. A moment later, he looked annoyed with himself for not having thought of it himself. She felt a flush of pridenot that she needed to impress him, of course. She just needed him motivated, or at least not walking so obviously wounded. Yes. He stood up. Thats a good idea. So do it. She hesitated. Not that its my place to give you things to do. But that would be a way forward for us, wouldnt it? If youve got time. Ive got the time. But he paused at the door. Theres another thing, he said. You said Carter had given something awaythat he knows about the whispers somehow. Right. But theres also the timing. For two months now, hes been refusing to see me. Thats never happened before. And suddenly he changes his mind and wants to see me. Meaning? I dont know for sure. But we might need to prepare ourselves for there being a reason for that. It took a second for her to understand what he was implying, and then she looked back at the photo of Neil Spencer, not wanting to think about the possibility. It wont come to that. Except that Pete was right. There had been two months without a single development or break in the case. Perhaps Carters decision to talk meant one was about to come. Seventeen At lunch break, Jake sat by himself on a bench in the playground, watching the other children running around getting all hot and sweaty. It was very noisy and they all seemed oblivious to him. This was a new school year, but his class had all known each other for a long time, and it had become apparent that morning that they werent all that interested in knowing anyone else. Which was okay. Jake would have been happier sitting inside drawing, but you werent allowed, so he had to sit out here next to some bushes instead, kicking his legs and waiting for the bell to ring. You start school tomorrow. Im sure youll make lots of new friends. Quite often, Daddy didnt know how wrong he was. Although Jake wondered if perhaps he did, because the way hed said it had sounded more hopeful than anything else, and maybe deep down they had both known it was never going to turn out that way. Mummy would have told him it didnt matter, and she would have made him believe it too. But Jake thought that it did matter to Daddy. Jake was aware that he could be very disappointing sometimes. The morning had basically gone okay, at least. They had practiced some basic multiplication tables, which were all pretty easy, and that was good. The classroom had a traffic light system on the wall for bad behavior, and everybodys name was currently on the green area at the bottom. George, the classroom assistant, was nice, but Mrs. Shelley, the class teacher, seemed very stern indeed, and Jake really didnt want to move up to yellow on his first day. He couldnt make friends, but he could at least manage that. That was really your job at schoolto do what you were told and fill in the answers to the blanks, and not cause any problems by thinking up too many questions of your own. Crunch. Jake flinched as a soccer ball crashed into the bushes beside him. He had already memorized the names of all the children in his class, and it was Owen who came sprinting over to retrieve it. He was coming for the ball but glaring at Jake the whole time, which made Jake think the kick might have been deliberate. Unless Owen was just really bad at soccer. Sorry about that. Its okay. Yeah. I know its okay. Owen pulled the ball roughly out of the branches, still glaring at Jake as though it were all his fault, and then stalked away. Which didnt make sense. Perhaps Owen was just really stupid. Even so, it might be better to move. Hello, Jake. He looked to one side, and saw the little girl kneeling in the bushes. His heart leaped with relief, and he started to get up. Shhh. She put a finger to her lips. Dont. He sat down again. But it was hard. He wanted to bounce on the bench! She looked exactly the same as she always did, wearing the same blue-and-white dress, with that graze on her knee and her hair swept oddly out to one side. Just sit as you were, she said. I dont want the other children to see you talking to me. Why not? Because I shouldnt be here. Yes, youre not wearing the right uniform, for one thing. That is one thing, yes. She thought about it. Its good to see you again, Jake. Ive missed you. Have you missed me? He nodded vigorously, but then forced himself to calm down. The other children were there, and the ball was still thudding around. He didnt want to give the little girl away. But it was so good to see her! The truth was that hed been very lonely in the new house. Daddy had tried to play with him a few times, but you could tell his heart wasnt really in it. Hed play for ten minutes and then get up and say his legs were hurting from kneeling on the floor, even though it was obvious he really just wanted to do something else instead. Whereas the little girl would always play with him for as long as he wanted her to. Hed been expecting to see her all the time after moving to the new house, but she hadnt been around at all. Until now. Have you made any new friends yet? she said. Not really. Adam, Josh, and Hasan seem okay. Owen isnt very nice. Owen is a little shit, she said. Jake stared at her. But a lot of people are, arent they? she said quickly. And not everybody who acts like your friend really is. But you are? Of course I am. Will you come to my new house and play? Id like to. But its not as simple as that, is it? Jakes heart sank, because no, he knew that it wasnt. He wanted to see her all the time, but Daddy didnt want him talking to her. Im here. Were here. New house, new start. Or, at least, Jake wanted to see her all the time when she wasnt looking as serious as she was right now. Tell me, she said. Tell me the rhyme. I dont want to. Say it. If you leave a door half open, soon youll hear the whispers spoken. And the rest. Jake closed his eyes. If you play outside alone, soon you wont be going home. Keep going. She sounded barely there now. If your windows left unlatched, youll hear him tapping at the glass. And? The word was so quiet that it might have been nothing more than air. Jake swallowed. He didnt want to say it, but he forced himself to, speaking as quietly as the little girl just had. If youre lonely, sad, and blue, the Whisper Man will come for you. The bell rang. Jake opened his eyes to see the children in the playground in front of him. Owen was there with a couple of older boys Jake didnt recognize. They were watching him. George was there too, a concerned expression on his face. After a second the children started laughing, and then headed away toward the main doors, glancing over their shoulders at him. Jake looked to his side. The little girl was gone. Who were you talking to at lunchtime? Jake wanted to ignore Owen. They were supposed to be writing neatly on the lines in their books, and he wanted to concentrate on that, because it was what theyd been told to do. Obviously, Owen didnt care; he was leaning over the table and staring at Jake. It was clear to Jake that Owen was one of those boys who didnt care about being told off. He also knew that telling Owen about the little girl would be a very bad idea. Daddy didnt like him talking to her, but Jake didnt think he would ever make fun of him for doing so. He was pretty sure that Owen would. So he shrugged. Nobody. Somebody. I didnt see anybody there. Did you? Owen considered the matter, then leaned back. That, he said, was Neils chair. What was? Your chair, idiot. It was Neils. Owen seemed angry about this, although once again Jake wasnt sure what he was supposed to have done wrong. Mrs. Shelley had told them all where to sit that morning. It wasnt like hed stolen this Neil persons chair on purpose. Whos Neil? He was here last year, Owen said. Hes not here anymore because someone took him away. And now youve got his chair. There was an obvious error in Owens thinking. You were in a different classroom last year, Jake said. So this was never Neils chair. It would have been if he hadnt been taken away. Where did he move to? He didnt move anywhere. Someone took him. Jake didnt know what to think about that, as it didnt make sense. Neils parents had taken him somewhere but he hadnt moved? Jake looked at Owen, and the boys angry eyes were clearly full of dark knowledge that he was desperate to pass on. A bad man took him, Owen said. Took him where? Nobody knows. But hes dead now, and youre sitting in his chair. A girl called Tabby was also sitting at the table. Thats horrible, she told Owen. You dont know Neils dead. And when I asked my mummy she said it wasnt nice to talk about anyway. He is dead. Owen turned back to Jake and gestured at the chair. That means youll be next. That didnt make sense either, Jake decided. Owen really hadnt thought this through at all. For one thing, whatever had happened to Neil, hed never sat in this particular chair, so it wasnt like it was cursed or anything. And also, there was a much more likely possibility. It was one he knew he shouldnt say, and he remained silent for a second. But then he remembered what the little girl had told him outside, and how alone he felt, and he decided that if Owen could treat him like this, then why couldnt he treat Owen the same right back? Maybe it means Ill be last, he said. Owen narrowed his eyes. Whats that supposed to mean? Maybe the bad man will take the class one by one, and theyll all be replaced by new boys and girls. So that means the Whisper Man will take you before me. Tabby gasped in shock, then burst into tears. Youve made Tabby cry, Owen said matter-of-factly. The teachers assistant was making his way over to the table. George, Jake told Tabby the Whisper Man was going to kill her like he did Neil, and she got upset. Which was how Jake went up to yellow on his first day. Daddy was going to be very disappointed. Eighteen The day had gone better than I expected. Eight hundred words might have been a relatively meager tally, but after not writing anything for months, at least it was a start. I read it through again now. Rebecca. At the moment, it was about her. Not a story in itself, or even the beginning of one, as things stood, but the beginning of a letter to her, and one that was difficult to read. There were so many happy memories to draw on, and I knew that I would as I continued, but while I loved and missed her more than I could say, I also couldnt deny the ugly kernel of resentment I felt, the frustration at being left alone with Jake, the loneliness of that empty bed. The sense of being abandoned to deal with things it felt like I couldnt cope with. None of that was her fault, of course, but grief is a stew with a thousand ingredients, and not all of them are palatable. What Id written was an honest expression of a small part of how I felt. Groundwork, basically. I had an idea now of what I could write about. A man, a little like me, who had lost a woman, a little like her. And as painful as it would be to explore, I could do that, moving from the ugliness to the beauty, and hopefully some final sense of resolution and acceptance. Sometimes writing can help to heal you. I didnt know if that would be the case here, but it was something to aim for. I saved the file, and then went to pick up Jake. When I arrived at the school, all the other parents were lined up against the wall, waiting. There was probably strict but unspoken etiquette about where to stand, but it had been a long day and I decided I didnt care. Instead, I spotted Karen standing by herself near the gate and just went over to her. The afternoon was even warmer than the morning, but she was still dressed as though prepared for snow. Hello again, she said. Do you think he survived? Im pretty sure theyd have phoned by now if not. I imagine so. How was your day? WellI call it a day. How were your six hours of freedom? Interesting, I said. I finally looked in our new garage and discovered that the previous owner decided to empty out all the junk by hiding it in there. Ah. How annoying. But also how cunning. I laughed, but only slightly. The writing had taken away some of the unease from the man calling around, but it returned to me now. I also had some random guy snooping about. Okay, that sounds less good. Yeah. He said he grew up in the house and wanted to look around. Not sure I believed him. You didnt let him in, right? God, no. Whereabouts have you moved? Garholt Street. Just around the corner from us. She nodded. The scary house, by any chance? The scary house. My heart sank. Probably. Although I prefer to think of it as having character. Oh, it does. She nodded again. I saw it was up for sale over the summer. Its not really scary at all, obviously, but Adam used to say it looked strange. Totally the right place for me and Jake, then. Im sure thats not true. She smiled, then leaned away from the railing as the school door opened. Here we go. The beasts are loose. Jakes class teacher came out and stood by the door, looking over the parents, then calling over her shoulder for individual children. They came scurrying out one by one, their book bags and water bottles swinging at their sides. Mrs. Shelley, I remembered. She looked somewhat unforgiving. I was sure her gaze landed on me a few times, but it moved on before I could tell her I was Jakes dad. A boy I presumed was Adam joined us and Karen ruffled his hair. Good day, kid? Yes, Mum. Come on, then. She turned to me. See you tomorrow. You will. After they headed off, I waited some more, until I was the only parent still standing there. Finally, Mrs. Shelley beckoned me over. I walked across, effectively summoned. Youre Jakes dad? Yes. Jake stepped out to me, staring down at the ground and looking small and subdued. Oh, God, I thought. Something had happened. That was why wed been left until last. Is there a problem? Nothing major, Mrs. Shelley said. But I still wanted a word. Do you want to tell your father what happened, Jake? I got put on the yellow square, Dad. The what? We have a traffic light system on the wall, Mrs. Shelley explained. For naughtiness. As a result of his behavior today, Jakes the first of our children to move up to yellow. So not an ideal first day. What did he do? I told Tabby she was going to die, Jake said. And Owen too, Mrs. Shelley added. And Owen too. Well, I said. And then, because I couldnt think of anything more sensible to add: We are all going to die. Mrs. Shelley was not impressed. That is not funny, Mr. Kennedy. I know. There was a boy here last year, Mrs. Shelley said. Neil Spencer? You might have seen about him on the news. The name rang the vaguest of bells. He went missing, she said. Oh, yes. I remembered now. Something about the parents letting him walk home on his own. Its all been very unpleasant. Mrs. Shelley looked at Jake and hesitated. Its not something we like to talk about. Jake suggested that these other children might be next. Right. And so hes on yellow? For the next week. If he moves up to red, hell have to go to see the headmistress. I looked down at Jake, who appeared utterly miserable. I didnt much like the idea of him being publicly shamed on a wall, but at the same time I was frustrated with him. It seemed such an awful thing for him to have said. Why would he have done that? Right, I said. Well, Im disappointed to hear about this behavior, Jake. Very disappointed. His head sank lower. Well talk about it on the way home. I turned to Mrs. Shelley. And it wont happen again, I promise. Lets make sure it doesnt. Theres something else too. She stepped closer to me and spoke more quietly, even though it was obvious Jake would still be able to hear. Our teaching assistant saw him at lunchtime, and was a little concerned. He said that Jake was talking to himself? I closed my eyes, my heart properly falling now. God, not that as well. Not in front of everyone. Why couldnt things be simple? Why couldnt we just fit in here? Ill talk to him, I said again. Except that Jake refused to talk to me. I tried to coax the information out of him on the way home, gently at first, but after being met by repeated stony silences, I lost my temper a little. I knew it was wrong even as I did, because the truth was that I wasnt really angry with him. It was just the situation. Irritation that things hadnt gone as well as Id hoped. Disappointment that his imaginary friend had returned. Concern about what the other children would think and how they would treat him. Eventually I fell into a silence of my own, and we walked alongside each other like strangers. Back home, I went through his book bag. His Packet of Special Things was still there, at least. There was also some reading to do, which I thought looked a little basic for him. I mess everything up, dont I? Jake said quietly. I put the papers down. He was standing by the couch, head bowed, looking smaller than ever. No, I said. Of course you dont. Thats what you think. I dont think that, Jake. Im actually very proud of you. Im not. I hate myself. Hearing him say that was like being stabbed. Dont say that, I said quickly, then knelt down and tried to hug him. But he was completely unresponsive. You mustnt ever say that. Can I do some drawing? he asked blankly. I took a deep breath, moving away slightly. I was desperate to get through to him, but it was obvious that wasnt going to happen right now. We could talk about it later, though. We would talk. All right. I went through to my office, and touched the trackpad so that I could look back over the days work. I hate myself. Id told him off for that, but if I was honest, they were words Id thought about myself quite a lot over the last year. I felt them again now. Why was I such a failure? How could I be so incapable of saying and doing the right thing? Rebecca had always told me that Jake and I were very much alike, and so perhaps the same thoughts were going through his head right now. While it might be true that we still loved each other when we argued, it didnt mean that we loved ourselves. Why had he said such an awful thing at school? Hed been talking to himselfbut, of course, that wasnt really the case. I had no doubt at all that it was the little girl hed been speaking withthat shed finally found usand I had no idea what to do about that. If he couldnt make real friends, he would always have to rely on imaginary ones. And if they caused him to behave the way he had today, surely that meant he needed help? Play with me. I looked up from the screen. A moment of silence followed in which my heart began beating harder. The voice had come from the living room, but it hadnt sounded like Jake at all. It had been croaky and vile. I dont want to. That was Jake. I stepped closer to the doorway, listening intently. Play with me, I said. No. Although both voices had to belong to my son, they seemed so distinct that it was easy to believe there really was another child there with him. Except it didnt sound like a child at all. The voice was too old and throaty for that. I glanced at the front door beside me. I hadnt locked it when we got back home and the chain wasnt hooked. Was it possible someone else had come in? NoI had only been in the next room. I would have heard that, if so. Yes. Youre going to play with me. The voice sounded like it was relishing the prospect. Youre scaring me, Jake said. I want to scare you. And at that, I finally moved into the living room, walking quickly. Jake was kneeling on the floor next to his drawings, staring at me with wide, frightened eyes. He was totally alone, but that did nothing for my heart rate. As had happened before in the house, there was a sense of presence in the room, as though someone or something had darted out of sight just before I arrived. Jake? I said quietly. He swallowed hard, looking like he was going to cry. Jake, who were you talking to? Nobody. I heard you talking. You were pretending to be someone else. Someone who wanted to play with you. No, I wasnt! Suddenly he seemed less frightened than angry, as though Id let him down somehow. You always say that, and it isnt fair! I blinked in surprise, and then stood there helplessly as he began stuffing papers into his Packet of Special Things. I didnt always say that, did I? He must have known I didnt like him talking to himselfthat it bothered mebut it wasnt as though Id ever actually told him off for it. I walked across and sat down on the couch near him. Jake Im going to my room! Please dont. Im worried about you. No, youre not. You dont care about me at all. Thats not true. But he was already past me and heading for the living room door. My instinct told me to let him go for nowto allow things to cool down and then talk laterbut I also wanted to reassure him. I struggled for the right words. I thought you liked the little girl, I said. I thought you wanted to see her again. It wasnt her! Who was it, then? It was the boy in the floor. And then he was out of sight in the hallway. I sat there for a moment, unable to think of what to say. The boy in the floor. I remembered the raspy voice that Jake had been talking to himself with. And, of course, that was the only explanation for what Id heard. But even so, I felt a chill run through me. It hadnt sounded like him at all. I want to scare you. And then I looked down. While Jake had gathered most of his things together, a single sheet of paper remained there, a few crayons lying abandoned around it. Yellow, green, and purple. I stared at the picture. Jake had been drawing butterflies. They were childishly imprecise, but still clearly recognizable as the ones Id seen in the garage this morning. But that was impossible, because hed never been in the garage. I was about to pick the sheet up and examine it more closely when I heard him burst into tears. I stood up and ran out into the hallway, just as he emerged, sobbing, from my office, pushing past me and running up the stairs. Jake Leave me alone! I hate you! I watched him go, feeling helpless, unable to keep up with what was happening, not understanding. His bedroom door slammed. I walked numbly into my office. And then I saw the awful things Id written to Rebecca there on the screen. Words about how hard everything was without her, and how a part of me blamed her for leaving me to deal with all this. Words my son must have just read. And I closed my eyes as I understood only too well. Nineteen Pete was sitting at his dinner table when the call came through. He should have been cooking or watching television, but the kitchen behind him remained dark and cold, and the living room was silent. Instead, he was staring at the bottle and the photograph. He had been staring at them for a long time. The day had taken a heavy toll on him. Seeing Carter always did, but this was much worse than usual. Despite the fact that Pete had waved away Amandas comment, the killers description of his dream about Tony Smith had gotten to Pete. Last night he had been determined to forget about Neil Spencer, but that wasnt possible now. The cases were connected. He was involved. But what use was he? An afternoon spent investigating visitors to friends of Carters inside had proved fruitlessso far, at least. There were still several to look at. The sad truth was that the bastard had more friends in prison than Pete had out of it. So drink, then. Youre worthless. Youre useless. Just do it. The urge was stronger than ever, but he could survive this. After all, he had resisted the voice in the past. And yet the idea of returning the bottle unopened to the kitchen cabinet brought a sense of despair. It felt like there was an inevitability to him drinking. He pressed his hand to his chin, slowly rubbing the skin around his mouth, and looked at the photograph of him and Sally. Many years ago, in an effort to combat the self-hatred that plagued him, Sally had encouraged him to make a list: two columns, one for his positive attributes, one for negative, so that he could see for himself how well they balanced out. It hadnt helped. The feeling of failure was too ingrained to be dispelled with a list. She had tried so hard to help him, but in the end it had always been the drink hed turned to instead. And he could see that in the photograph. Although they both looked happy, the signs were there. The way Sallys eyes were wide open to the sun, her skin luminescent, whereas he seemed unsure of it, as though a part of him were reluctant to allow the light in. He had loved her as deeply as she loved him, but the gift and receipt of love was a language with foreign grammar to him. And because he believed he was undeserving of such love, he had slowly drunk himself into a man who was. As with his memories of his father, distance had helped him understand all that. Battles often make more sense from the sky. Too late. It had been so many years now, but he wondered where Sally was and what she was doing. The only consolation was that he knew she must be happy somewhere, and that their separation had saved her from a life with him. The idea that she was out there, living the life she had always deserved, sustained him. This is what you lose by drinking. This is why its not worth it. But, of course, the voice had an answer to that, just as it had an answer to everything. If hed already lost the most amazing thing hed ever have in his life, why put himself through this torment? What did it matter? He stared at the bottle. And then he felt his phone vibrating against his hip. It always comes back to me for you, doesnt it? It always ends where it starts. Frank Carters words returned to him as he swept the beam of his flashlight over the waste ground, walking slowly and carefully into its pitch-black heart. The sense of sickness and foreboding in his chest was matched only by the feeling of failure. The certainty of it. Carters words had seemed casual and throwaway at the time, but Pete should have known better. Nothing Carter said or did was meaningless. He should have recognized the subtle deployment of a message, one deliberately intended to be understood only in hindsight. He saw the tent and floodlights up ahead of him, with the silhouettes of officers moving cautiously around it. The sickness intensified, and he almost stumbled. One foot in front of the other. Two months earlier, he had been here searching for a little boy who had gone missing. Tonight, he was here because a little boy had been found. He remembered how, that night in July, hed left a dinner going cold on the dining room table. Tonight, the bottle was there. If he found what he was expecting to here, then he would be opening it when he got home. He reached the canopy and clicked off his flashlight. The beam was redundant under the strength of the floodlights positioned around it. Seeing what was lying in the center, in fact, there was altogether too much light. He wasnt ready for that yet. Glancing away, he spotted DCI Lyons standing at the side of the tent, staring back at him, the mans expression blank. For a moment Pete imagined he saw a flash of contempt thereyou should have stopped thisand he looked away again quickly, his gaze falling on the television with the pockmarked screen. It was a moment before he realized Amanda was standing beside him. This is where he was taken from, Pete said. We cant know that for sure. Im sure of it, he said. She looked away into the darkness. The brightness and intensity of activity in front of them only emphasized the blackness of the waste ground surrounding them. It always ends where it starts, Amanda said. Thats what Carter told you, right? Yes. I should have picked up on that. Or I should have. Its not your fault. Then its not yours either. Maybe. She smiled sadly. But you look like you need to hear it more than I do. He could tell that wasnt true. She looked pale and sick. Over the past couple of months, hed noticed how efficient and capable she was, and hed suspected she was ambitious toothat shed imagined a case like this might help her career without fully understanding what else it might do. He felt a strange kind of kinship with her now. Finding the dead boys in Carters house had broken him for a time. He knew that Amanda had workedand hopedjust as hard as he had twenty years ago, and that right now, whatever her expectations, she must be feeling like an open wound. But it wasnt a kinship that could be spoken of out loud. You walked the road alone. You got through it or you didnt. Amanda breathed out slowly. The fucker knew, she said. Didnt he? Yes. So the question then is how did he know? Im not sure yet. Ive got nothing on that level so far. But theres still a long list of friends inside to look at. She hesitated. Do you want to see the body? You can have a drink when you get home. Ill let you. Yes, he said. Together, they moved under the canopy to where the boy was lying spread-eagled, close to the old television. His backpack was on the ground beside him. Pete did his best to take in the details as dispassionately as possible. The clothes, obviously: the blue tracksuit pants; the Minecraft T-shirt that had been pulled up over the boys face, turning the design on the front inside out. That was never made public, he said. Another connection to Carter. No real blood. He peered around the body. Not enough, anywaynot for those injuries. He was killed elsewhere. Looks that way. Thats a difference between our new man and Carter. Carter killed those children where I found them, and he kept them in his house. He never made any attempt to dump the remains. Apart from Tony Smith. That was down to circumstances. And also, this is public. He gestured around. Whoever did this, they wanted the body to be found. And not just anywhere either. Back where it started, just like Carter told me. You can have a drink when you get home. The clothes are the ones he went missing in. The injuries aside, it looks like hes been reasonably well cared for. Not obviously emaciated. Another difference from Carter, Amanda said. Yes. Pete closed his eyes, trying to think this through. Neil Spencer had been held somewhere for two months before he was killed. He had been looked after. And then something had changed. Afterward, he had been returned to the place hed been abducted from. Like a present, he thought. A present someone had been given that they decided they didnt want anymore. The backpack. He opened his eyes. Is the water bottle in there? Yes. Ill show you. He followed her closer still, edging around the boys body. She used a gloved hand to open the top, and he looked inside. There was the bottle, half full of water. Something else. A blue rabbita bedtime toy. That had never been on the list. Did he have that with him? Were trying to find out from the parents. Amanda scrabbled in her pocket. But yes. I think he had that with him as well, and they just didnt know. Pete nodded slowly. He knew all about Neil Spencer by now. The boy had been disruptive at school. Aggressive. Already old and toughened beyond his years, the way people get when life bruises them. But underneath all that, still just six years old. He forced himself to look at the boys body, not caring about the feelings it evoked or the memories it stirred. He could have a drink when he got home. Were going to get the person who did this to you. And then he turned around and stepped away, flicking his flashlight back on as he entered the darkness there. Im going to need you on this, Pete, Amanda called after him. I know. But he was thinking about that bottle on the dining room table and trying not to break into a run. And youre going to have me. Twenty The man stood shivering in the darkness. Above him, the blue-black sky was clear and speckled with stars, the night a stark, cold contrast to the heat of the day behind him. But it was not the temperature that was making him tremble. Even though he refused to think directly about what he had done that afternoon, the impact of his actions remained with him, just out of sight beneath his skin. He had never killed before today. Beforehand, he had imagined he was prepared to do so, and in the moment the rage and hatred he had felt had carried him through. But the act had left him off-kilter afterward, unsure what he was feeling. He had laughed this evening, and he had cried. He had shaken with shame and self-hatred, but also rocked on the bathroom floor in confused elation. It was impossible to describe. Which made sense, he supposed. He had opened a door that could never be closed, and experienced something few others on the planet ever had or would. There was no preparation or guidebook for the journey he had embarked on. No map showing the course through it. The act of killing had left him adrift on an entirely uncharted sea of emotions. He breathed the cool night air in slowly now, his body still singing. It was so quiet here that all he could hear was the rush of the air, as though the world were murmuring secrets in its sleep. The streetlights in the distance shone brightly, but he was so far from the light here, and standing so motionless, that someone could walk past meters away without seeing him. He would see them, thoughor sense them, at least. He felt attuned to the world. And right now, in the early hours of the morning, he could tell that he was totally alone out here. Waiting. Full of shivers. It was difficult now to remember how angry he had been this afternoon. At the time, the rage had simply consumed him, flaring within his chest until his whole body was twisting with the force of it, like a puppet wrenched about on its strings. His head had been so full of blinding light that perhaps he wouldnt be able to recall what hed done even if he tried. It felt like he had stepped outside himself for a time, and in doing so had allowed something else to emerge. If he had been a religious man, it would have been easy to imagine himself possessed by some external force. But he was not, and he knew that whatever had taken him over in those terrible minutes had come from inside. It was gone nowor at least it had slunk back down into its cave. What had felt right at the time now brought little but a sense of guilt and failure. In Neil Spencer he had found a troubled child who needed to be rescued and cared for, and he had believed that he was the one to do so. He would help and nurture Neil. House him. Care for him. It had never been his intention to hurt him. And for two months, it had worked. The man had felt such peace. The boys presence and apparent contentment had been a balm to him. For the first time he could remember, his world had felt not only possible but right, as though some long-standing infection inside him had finally begun to heal. But, of course, it had all been an illusion. Neil had been lying to him all along, biding his time and only ever pretending to be happy. And finally the man had been forced to accept that the spark of goodness hed imagined in the boys eyes had never been real, just trickery and deceit. From the beginning he had been too na?ve and trusting. Neil Spencer had only ever been a snake in a little boy suit, and the truth was that he had deserved exactly what happened to him today The mans heart was beating too hard. He shook his head, then forced himself to calm down, breathing steadily again and putting such thoughts out of his mind. What had happened today was abhorrent. If, among all the other emotions, it had also brought its own strange sense of harmony and satisfaction, that was horrible and wrong and had to be fought against. He had to cling instead to the tranquility of the weeks beforehand, however false it had turned out to be. He had chosen badlythat was all. Neil had been a mistake, and that wouldnt happen again. The next little boy would be perfect. Twenty-one It was harder than ever to get to sleep that night. I hadnt managed to resolve anything with Jake after our argument. While I could justify what Id written about Rebecca to myself, it was impossible to make a seven-year-old boy understand. To him, they were just words attacking his mother. He wouldnt talk back to me, and it wasnt clear whether he was even listening. At bedtime he refused a story, and I stood there helplessly again for a moment, torn between frustration and self-hatred and the desperate need to make him understand. In the end, I just kissed the side of his head gently, told him I loved him, and said good night, hoping things might be better in the morning. As if it ever works like that. Tomorrow is always a new day, but theres never any reason to think it will be a better one. Later, I lay in my own bedroom, shifting from side to side, trying to settle. I couldnt bear the distance that was growing between us. Even worse was the fact that I had no idea how to stop it from increasing, never mind close it. And lying there in the dark, I also kept remembering the rasping voice Jake had put on, and shivering each time I did. I want to scare you. The boy in the floor. But as unnerving as that had been, for some reason it was his drawing of the butterflies that bothered me more. The garage was padlocked. There was no way Jake could have been in there without my knowledge. And yet Id looked at the picture over and over, and there was no mistaking them. Somehow, hed seen them. But how and where? It was a coincidence, of course; it had to be. Maybe the butterflies were more common than I realizedthe ones in the garage must have arrived from somewhere, after all. Obviously, I had tried to talk to Jake about them too. Equally obviously, he had refused to answer me. And so, as I tossed and turned, trying to sleep, I realized the mystery of the butterflies came down to the same thing as the argument itself. Id just have to hope it would be better in the morning. Glass smashing. A man shouting. My mother screaming. Wake up, Tom. Wake up now. Someone shook my foot. I jerked awake, soaked with sweat, my heart hammering in my chest. The bedroom was pitch-black and quietstill the middle of the night. Jake was standing at the bottom of the bed again, a black silhouette against the darkness behind him. I rubbed my face. Jake? I said quietly. No reply. I couldnt see his face, but his upper body was moving gently from side to side, swaying on his feet like a metronome. I frowned. Are you awake? Again, there was no answer. I sat up in bed, wondering what the best thing to do was. If he was sleepwalking, should I wake him gently, or try to steer him, still asleep, back to his room? But then my eyes adapted a little better to the darkness and the silhouette grew clearer. His hair was wrong. It was much longer than it should have been, and it seemed to be splayed out to one side. And Someone was whispering. But the figure at the end of the bed, still swaying ever so slowly from side to side, was entirely silent. The sound I could hear was coming from somewhere else in the house. I looked to my left. The open bedroom door gave me a view of the dark hallway. It was empty, but I thought the whispering was coming from somewhere out there. Jake But when I looked back, the silhouette at the end of my bed had disappeared and the room was empty. I rubbed the sleep from my face, then slid across the cold side of the bed and padded quietly out into the hall. The whispering was a little louder out here. While I couldnt make out any words, it was obvious now that I was hearing two voices: a hushed conversation, with one participant slightly gruffer than the other. Jake was talking to himself again. I moved instinctively toward his room, but then glanced down the stairs and froze where I stood. My son was at the bottom, sitting by the front door. A soft wedge of streetlight was cutting around the edge of the curtains in my office to the side, staining his tousled hair orange. His legs were curled up underneath him, and his head was against the door, with one hand pressed there beside it. In the other, resting against his leg, were the spare keys I kept on the desk in the office. I listened. Im not sure, Jake whispered. The reply was the gruffer voice Id heard. Ill look after you, I promise. Im not sure. Let me in, Jake. My son moved his hand toward the mail slot in the door. That was when I noticed that it was being pushed open from the outside. There were fingers there. My heart leaped at the sight of them. Four thin, pale fingers, poking through among the spidery black bristles, holding the mail slot open. Let me in. Jake rested the side of his small hand against one of them, and it curled around to stroke him. Just let me in. He reached up for the chain. Dont move! I shouted. It came out without me thinking, from my heart as much as my mouth. The fingers retreated immediately and the mail slot snapped shut behind them. Jake turned to look up at me as I thudded down the stairs toward him, my heart hammering in my chest. At the bottom, I snatched the keys out of his hand. Sitting like that, he was blocking the door. Move, I shouted. Move. He scrabbled out of the way, crawling on his hands and knees into my office. I scraped the chain out of the lock, then tried the door handle, which turned easilyJake had already unlocked the fucking thing with the keys. Pulling the door open, I stepped quickly onto the front path and stared out into the night. As far as I could tell, there was nobody up or down the street. The amber haze beneath the streetlights was misty, the pavements empty. But looking across the road, I thought I could see a figure running swiftly across the field. A vague shape, pummeling away through the darkness. Already too far away for me to catch. My instinct took me down the front path anyway, but I stopped halfway to the street, my breath visible in the cold night air. What the hell was I doing? I couldnt leave the house open behind me and go chasing someone across a field. I couldnt leave Jake in there by himself, alone and abandoned. So I stood there for a few seconds, staring into the darkness of the field. The figureif it had ever been here at allhad disappeared now. It had been here. I stood there for a moment longer. And then I went back inside, locked the door, and phoned the police. Part Three Twenty-two Credit where its due, two police officers arrived on my doorstep within ten minutes of my phone call. After that, things began to go downhill. I had to take some responsibility for what happened. It was half past four in the morning, and I was exhausted, frightened, and not thinking straight, and the account I had to give was light on detail anyway. But there was no getting away from Jakes role in what unfolded. When Id come back inside to make the call, Id found him at the bottom of the stairs, hugging his knees and with his face buried in them. I had eventually calmed down enough to calm him down too, and then Id carried him into the living room, where hed curled up at one end of the couch. And then refused to talk to me. I had done my best to hide the frustration and panic I was feeling. I probably hadnt succeeded. Even when the police officers joined us in the living room, Jake remained in that same position. I sat down awkwardly beside him. Even then, I was aware of the distance between us, and I was sure it was also very obvious to the police. The two of thema man and a womanwere both polite and made the requisite concerned and understanding faces, but the woman kept glancing curiously at Jake, and I got the impression the worry on her face was not wholly because of what I was telling them. Afterward, the male officer referred to the notes hed made. Has Jake sleepwalked before? A little, I said. But not often, and only ever to my room. Hes never gone downstairs like that. That was if he even had been sleepwalking, of course. While it made me feel better to think he hadnt been about to open that door out of choice, I realized I couldnt be sure of that. And Jesus, if that was true, what did it say about how much my son hated me? The officer made another note. And you cant describe the individual you saw? No. He was quite far away across the field by then, running fast. It was dark, and I couldnt see him properly. Build? Clothes? I shook my head. No, sorry. Are you sure it was a man? Yes. It was a mans voice I heard at the door. Could that have been Jake? The officer looked at my son. Jake was still curled up next to me, staring off into space as though he were the only person in the entire world. Sometimes children talk to themselves. Not something I wanted to get into. No, I said. There was definitely somebody there. I saw this mans fingers holding the mail slot open. I heard him. The voice was older. He was trying to persuade Jake to open the doorand he was going to as well. God knows what would have happened if I hadnt woken up in time. The reality of the situation crashed down on me then. In my minds eye I saw the scene again, and realized how close it had all been. If I hadnt been there, then Jake would be gone now. I imagined him missing, with the police seated across from me for a different reason, and felt helpless. Despite my frustration with his behavior, I wanted to wrap my arms around himto protect him and hold him close. But I knew that I couldnt. That he wouldnt let me, or even want me to right now. How did Jake get the keys? I left them in my office across the hall. I shook my head. Thats not a mistake Ill be making again. Thats probably wise. And what about you, Jake? The female officer leaned forward, smiling kindly. Can you tell us anything at all about what happened? Jake shook his head. You cant? Why were you at the door, sweetheart? He shrugged almost imperceptibly, and then seemed to move a little farther away from me. The woman leaned back, still looking at Jake, her head tilted slightly to one side. Evaluating him. There was another man, I said quickly. He came by the house yesterday. He was hanging around the garage, acting strangely. When I confronted him, he said hed grown up here and wanted to look around. The male officer looked interested in that. How did you confront him? He came to the door. Oh, I see. He made a note on his pad. Can you describe him? I did, and he scribbled away. But it was clear that the man actively knocking on the door had made the development significantly less interesting to him. Plus, it was difficult to convey how uneasy the man had made me feel. There had been nothing physically threatening about him, and yet he had still seemed dangerous on some level. Neil Spencer, I remembered. The male officer stopped writing. Im sorry? I think that was his name. Weve only just moved here. But another little boy went missing, didnt he? Earlier this summer? The two officers exchanged a glance. What do you know about Neil Spencer? the man asked me. Nothing. Jakes teacher just mentioned him. I was going to look it up online, but it was a busy night. And again, I didnt want to go into the argument Jake and I had had. I was working. But, of course, that was the wrong thing to say as well, because work was writing, and Jake had read what Id done. I felt him shrink slightly beside me. Frustration got the better of me. Its just that Id have thought this would be more worrying to you than it seems to be, I said. Mr. Kennedy It feels like you dont believe me. The man smiled. But it was a careful smile. Its not a case of not believing you, Mr. Kennedy. But we can only work with what we have. He looked at me for a moment, considering me in much the same way his partner was still evaluating my son. We take everything seriously. Well log a record of this, but based on what youve told us, theres not a vast amount we can do right now. As I said, I recommend you keep your keys out of your sons way. Observe basic home security. Keep an eye out. And dont hesitate to get in touch with us if you see anyone else around your property who shouldnt be here. I shook my head. Given what had happenedgiven that someone had tried to take my sonthis response wasnt remotely good enough. I was angry at myself, and I couldnt help being angry at Jake as well. I was trying to help him! And in a minute the police would be gone, and it would just be me and him again. Alone. Neither of us up to the job of living with the other. Mr. Kennedy? the female officer said gently. Is it just you and Jake here? Does his mother live elsewhere? His mother is dead. I said it too bluntly, a trace of the anger I was feeling escaping. She seemed taken aback. Oh. Im very sorry to hear that. Im just its hard. And what just happened tonight, it scared me. And that was the point when Jake came back to life, perhaps animated by anger of his own. What Id written. The fact Id just said his mother was dead so brazenly. He uncurled and slowly sat up straight, finally looking at me, his face expressionless. When he spoke, it was with a raspy, unearthly voice that sounded far too old for his years. I want to scare you, he said. Twenty-three When the alarm went off, Pete lay very still for a moment, letting it ring on the bedside table. Something was wrong and he needed to prepare himself. Then there was a burst of panic as he remembered the events of yesterday evening. The sight of Neil Spencers body on the waste ground. The almost frantic race to get home afterward. And the reassuring weight of the bottle in his hand. The clicks as hed broken the seal. And then Finally, he opened his eyes. The early morning sun was already strong, streaming through the thin blue curtains and falling in a wedge over the covers bunched up over his knees. Sometime in the night, sweating with heat, he must have thrown them off his upper body, and the tangle of material felt ridiculously heavy now, wrapped tightly around his knees. He turned his head and looked at the bedside table. The bottle was there. The seal was broken. But the contents remained, full to the top. He remembered how long hed deliberated last night, battling the urge again and again as it came back at him from different angles, both he and the voice refusing to relent or retreat. Hed even brought the bottle and a tumbler up here to bed with him. Still fighting, even then. And in the end, he had won. Relief rushed through him. He glanced at the tumbler now. Before going to sleep, he had put the photograph of Sally on top of it. Even after everything that had happenedthe horrors of the eveningthat photograph and those memories had still been enough to keep him clean. He tried not to think about the day ahead of him or the evenings to come. Enough for now. He showered and ate breakfast. Even without drinking, he felt so worn down that he contemplated not going to the gym. A briefing had been scheduled for first thing, and he needed to be prepared for it, to be filled in on the case. But he already felt soaked to the skin in it. As dispassionate as hed tried to be when viewing Neil Spencers body, it was like pointing a camera without looking through the viewfinder; your mind took the photograph regardless. If anything, if he was going to be competent and professional in a couple of hours, he needed to empty some of that horror out. He drove to the department and went to the gym. Afterward, feeling calmer, he went upstairs. For a moment, he stared at the blissful piles of safe, innocuous paperwork in his office, then found the old, malignant bundle of notes he was going to need and headed to the operations room one floor above. His calm faded slightly as he opened the door. It was still ten minutes before the briefing was due to begin, but the room was already heaving with officers. Nobody was talking; every face he could see looked somber. Most of these men and women would have worked this case from the beginning, and whatever the odds, each of them would have clung on to hope. By now they all knew what had been found last night. Before today, a child had been missing. Now a child was dead. He leaned against a wall at the back of the room, aware as he did that gazes were falling on him. It was understandable. While his initial involvement in the case had come to nothing, all of them must know that his presence here now was not a coincidence. He spotted DCI Lyons sitting near the front, looking back at him. Pete met his eyes for a moment, trying to read the expression on the mans face. Like last night at the waste ground, it was blank, which only left Pete free to imagine. Was the man feeling an odd sense of triumph? It seemed unfair to contemplate such an idea, but it was certainly possible. Despite the disparity in their career trajectories since, Pete knew that Lyons had always resented him on some level for being the one to catch Frank Carter. This recent development meant the case never really had been closed. And here was Lyons, presiding over what might turn out to be the endgame, with Pete reduced now to the status of a pawn. He folded his arms, stared at the floor, and waited. Amanda arrived a minute later, stalking quickly through the assembled throng toward the front of the room. Even from the brief side view he got of her, it was obvious she was harried and tired. Same clothes as last night, he noticed. Shed slept in one of the overnight suites or, more likely, hadnt slept at all. As she took to the small stage, there was a subdued, defeated look about her. Right, everyone, she said. Youve all heard the news. Yesterday evening we had a report that a childs body had been found on the waste ground off Gair Lane. Officers attended and secured the scene. The identity of the victim has yet to be confirmed, but we believe this to be Neil Spencer. They had all known it already, but still: Pete watched the slump travel around the room. The emotional temperature of the room dropped. The silence among the assembled officers, already absolute, somehow seemed to intensify. We also believe it to be a case of third-party involvement. There are significant injuries to the body. Amandas voice almost broke at that and he saw her wince slightly. Too hard on herself. Under different circumstances, it might have been perceived as weakness, but Pete didnt think it would be in this room right now. He watched as she gathered herself. Details of which are obviously not going to be released to the press at this time. We have a cordon in place, but the media know weve found a body. That is all they are going to know until we get a handle on whats happening here. A woman by the wall was nodding to herself. Pete recognized it as the kind of action he had made in the deepest throes of his addiction, pining for a drink and riding out the pain. The body has been removed from the scene and a postmortem will take place this morning. We have an estimated time of death somewhere between three and five P.M. yesterday. Assuming this is Neil Spencer, he was found in roughly the same place he went missing, which may be significant. We also believe Neil was killed at a different location, presumably wherever he had been held. Fingers crossed that forensics will give us some clue as to where that might be. In the meantime, well be going over all the CCTV in the area. Well be knocking on every door in the vicinity. Because I am simply not having this monster wandering around Featherbank undetected. Im not having it. She looked up. Despite the obvious tiredness and upset, there was fire in her eyes now. All of us hereweve all worked on this investigation. And even if wed steeled ourselves, this is not the result any of us were hoping for. So let me be absolutely clear. It will not be allowed to stand. Do we agree? Pete glanced around again. A few nods here and there; the room coming back to life. He admired the sentiment and acknowledged the need for it right now, but he also remembered giving equally angry speeches twenty years ago, and while he had believed them at the time, he knew now that things not only stood whether you wanted them to or not, but that sometimes they followed you forever. We did everything we could, Amanda told the room. We didnt find Neil Spencer in time. But make no mistake, we are going to find the person that did this to him. And Pete could tell that she believed what she was saying just as passionately as he had all those years ago. Because you had to. Something awful had happened on your watch, and the only way to ease the pain was to do everything you could to put it right. To catch whoever was responsible before they hurt anybody else. Or at least try. We are going to find the person that did this. He hoped that was true. Twenty-four It was astonishing how quickly life could revert to normal when it had to. After the police left, I decided there was no point in either Jake or me trying to go back to sleep, and as a result, by half past eight, I felt half dead on my feet. I went through the motions of preparing him breakfast and getting him ready for school. After what had happened, it seemed ridiculous, but I had no excuse for keeping him home. In fact, given his performance in front of the officers earlier on, a horrible part of me wanted not to be around him right now. While he ate cereal, still refusing to speak to me, I stood in the kitchen, poured myself a glass of water, and downed it in one. I didnt really know what to do or how to feel. With just a handful of hours distance, the events of the night seemed distant and surreal. Could I be sure Id seen what Id seen? Perhaps it had been my imagination. But no, I had seen it. A better fatheran average one, evenwould have convinced the police to take him seriously. A better father would have a son who talked to him, not undermined him. Who could see that I was just scared for him and trying to protect him. My hand tightened around the glass. Youre not your father, Tom. Rebeccas quiet voice in my head. Never forget that. I looked down at the empty glass in my hand. My grip was too tight on it. That awful memory came back to meshattering glass; my mother screamingand I put it down on the counter quickly, before I could start to fail in an altogether worse way. At quarter to nine, Jake and I walked to school together, him trailing along to the side of me, still resisting any attempts at conversation. It was only when we reached the gates that he finally spoke to me. Whos Neil Spencer, Daddy? I dont know. Despite the subject matter, I was relieved that he was talking to me. A boy from Featherbank. I think he went missing earlier this year; I remember reading something about it. Nobody knows what happened to him. Owen said he was dead. Owen sounds like a charming little boy. It was clear that Jake was thinking about adding something to that, but then he changed his mind. He said I was sitting in Neils chair. Thats stupid. You didnt get a place in the school because this Neil kid went missing. Someone else moved to a new house like we did. I frowned. And anyway, theyd have all been in a different classroom last year, wouldnt they? Jake looked at me curiously. Twenty-eight, he said. Twenty-eight what? Twenty-eight children, he said. Plus me is twenty-nine. Exactly. I had no idea if that was true, but I went with it. They have classes of thirty here. So wherever Neil is, his chair is waiting for him. Do you think he will come home? We stepped into the playground. I dont know, mate. Can I have a hug, Daddy? I looked down at him. From the expression on his face now, last night and this morning might as well not have happened at all. But then, he was seven. Arguments were always resolved in his time and on his terms. In this instance, I was too tired not to accept that. Of course you can. Because even when we argue We still love each other. Very much. I knelt down, and the tight embrace felt like it was powering me back up a little. That a hug like this, every so often, would keep me running. And then he ambled inside past Mrs. Shelley without giving me even a backward glance. I walked back out through the gate, hoping he didnt get into any more trouble today. But if he did Well, he did. Just let him be him. Hello, there. I turned to find Karen slightly behind me, walking just fast enough to catch up. Hey, I said. How are you? Looking forward to a few hours peace and quiet. She fell into step beside me. How did Jake do yesterday? He went up to yellow, I said. I have no idea what that means. I explained the traffic light system. The gravity and supposed seriousness of it seemed so meaningless after the events of the night that I almost laughed at the end. That sounds fucking abominable, she said. Thats what I thought. I wondered if there was some nominal moment when playground parents decided to drop a certain level of pretense and swear like normal people. If there was, I was glad to have passed it. In some ways its a badge of honor, though, she said. Hell be the envy of his classmates. Adam said they didnt have much of a chance to play together. Jake said Adam was nice, I lied. He also said Jake talked to himself a bit. Yes, he does do that sometimes. Imaginary friends. Right, Karen said. I sympathize with him completely. Some of my best friends are imaginary. Im joking, obviously. But Adam went through that, and Im sure I did too when I was a kid. You probably did as well. I frowned. A memory suddenly came back to me. Mister Night, I said. Sorry? God, I havent thought about that in years. I ran my hand through my hair. How had I forgotten about it? Yeah, I did have an imaginary friend. When I was younger, I used to tell my mother that someone came into my room at night and hugged me. Mister Night. Thats what I called him. Yeah thats pretty creepy. But then, kids say scary stuff all the time. There are whole websites devoted to it. You should write that down and submit it. Maybe I will. But it reminded me of something else. Jakes been saying other weird things recently. If you leave a door half open, soon youll hear the whispers spoken. Have you ever heard that? Hmmm. Karen thought about it. It does ring a bell; Im sure Ive heard it somewhere before. Its one of those rhymes kids say in the playground, I think. Right. Maybe thats where he heard it, then. Except not in this playground, of course, because Jake had said it the night before his first day. Maybe it was some common kid thing that I didnt know aboutsomething from one of those television shows I put on for him and then zoned out without paying attention to. I sighed. I just hope he has a better day. I worry about him. Thats natural. What does your wife say? She died last year, I said. Im not sure how well hes coping with that. Understandably, I suppose. Karen was silent for a moment. Im very sorry to hear that. Thanks. Im not sure how well Im coping either, to be honest. Im never sure whether Im being a good father or not. Whether Im doing the best I can for him. Thats also natural. Im sure you are. Maybe its whether my best is good enough thats the real question. And again, Im sure it is. She stopped and put her hands in her pockets. Wed come to a junction, and it was obvious from our mutual body language that she was heading on straight here while I was turning right. But whatever, she said, it sounds like both of you have had a rough time of it. So I thinknot that you asked for my opinion, I realize, but fuck itthat maybe you should stop being so hard on yourself? Maybe. Just a little, at least? Maybe. Easier said than done, I know. She gathered herself together, her whole body suddenly like a sigh. Anyway. Catch you later on. Have a good one. You too. I thought about that the rest of the way home. Maybe you should stop being so hard on yourself. There was probably some truth in that, because, after all, I was just fumbling through life the same as everyone else, wasnt I? Trying to do my best. But back home, I still paced around the downstairs of the house, unsure what to do with myself. Earlier on, Id been thinking it would be good to have some time without Jake. Now, with the house empty and silent around me, I felt an urge to have him as close as possible. Because I needed to keep him safe. And I hadnt imagined what had happened last night. That brought on a flash of panic. If the police werent going to help us, that meant that I had to. Walking through the empty rooms, I felt a sense of desperationan urgent need to do something, even though I had no idea what. I ended up in my office. The laptop had been left on standby overnight. I nudged the trackpad and the screen came to life, revealing the words there. Rebecca She would know what to do right now; she always had. I pictured her sitting cross-legged on the floor with Jake, playing enthusiastically with whatever toys were between them. And curled up on our old couch, reading to him, his head underneath her chin and their two bodies so close that they looked like a single person. Whenever hed called out in the night, Rebecca would have already been padding through to him as I was still waking up. And it had always been her he called for. I deleted the words Id written yesterday and then typed three new sentences. I miss you. I feel like Im failing our son and I dont know what to do. Im sorry. I stared at the screen for a moment. Enough. Enough wallowing. As difficult as everything might be, it was my job to look after my son, and if my best wasnt sufficient, then Id have to get better. I walked back to the front door. It had a lock and a chain, but that clearly wasnt good enough. So I would install a bolt as well, too high for Jake to reach on his own. Motion detectors at the bottom of the stairs. It could all be done. None of this was insurmountable, whatever my self-doubt was telling me. But there was something else I could do first, and so I turned my attention to the pile of mail on the stairs behind me. There had been another two letters for Dominic Barnett, both of them debt collection notices. I took them to my office, closed down Word on the laptop, and opened the Web browser instead. Lets see who you are, Dominic Barnett. I wasnt sure what I was expecting to discover about him online. A Facebook page, perhapssomething with a photo that would tell me whether he was the man whod called around yesterdayor if not that, maybe a forwarding address of some kind that I could follow up in the real world. Anything that might help me to protect Jake and work out what the hell was going on with my house. I found a photograph on the very first search. Dominic Barnett was not my mysterious visitor. He was younger, with a full head of jet-black hair. But the picture wasnt on a social media site. Instead, it was beside a news item at the top of the search page: POLICE TREAT DEATH OF LOCAL MAN AS MURDER The room receded around me. I stared at the words until they began to lose their meaning. The house had gone silent, and all I could hear was the thud of my heartbeat. And then Creak. I glanced at the ceiling. That noise again, the same as before, as though someone had taken a single step in Jakes bedroom. My skin tingled as I remembered what had happened last nightthe figure Id imagined standing at the base of my bed, its hair splayed out like the little girl that Jake had drawn. The sensation of my foot being shaken. Wake up, Tom. But unlike the man at the door, that had been my imagination. Id been half asleep, after all. It had been nothing more than a remnant of a nightmare of the past, shaped by fears from the present. There was nothing in my house. Determined to take my mind off the noise, I forced myself to click on the article. POLICE TREAT DEATH OF LOCAL MAN AS MURDER Police have revealed that they are treating the death of Dominic Barnett, whose body was found in woodland on Tuesday, as murder. Barnett, 42, of Garholt Street, Featherbank, was discovered at the edge of a stream by children playing in Hollingbeck Wood. Today, Detective Chief Inspector Colin Lyons revealed to the press that Barnett had died as a result of significant head injuries. A number of possible motives for the attack were being explored, but items recovered at the scene suggested that robbery was not among them. I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the public at large, Lyons said. Mr. Barnett was known to officers, and we believe this to be an isolated incident. However, we have increased patrols in the area, and we encourage anyone with any information to come forward immediately. I read it through again, the panic inside me intensifying. From the street name, there was no doubt that this was the right Dominic Barnett. He had lived in this house. Maybe sat exactly where I was right now, or slept in what had become Jakes bedroom. And he had been murdered in April this year. Trying to keep calm, I clicked back and searched for more articles. The facts, such as they were, emerged piecemeal, and many of them from between the lines. Mr. Barnett was known to officers. Careful phrasing, but the implication appeared to be that hed been involved with drugs in some way, and that this was presumed to be the motive for his murder. Hollingbeck Wood was south of Featherbank, on the other side of the river. Why Barnett had been there was unclear. A murder weapon was recovered a week later, and the reports tailed off shortly afterward. From what I could find online, his killer had never been caught. Which meant that they were still out there. The realization brought an awful crawling sensation with it. I didnt know what to do. Call the police again? What Id discovered didnt seem to add much to what Id already told them. I would call them, I decided, because I had to do something. But I needed more information first. After some deliberation, and with my hands shaking, I searched through the paperwork Id kept on the house purchase, found the address I needed, then picked up my keys. The extra security would have to wait, for the moment. There was one person who would be able to tell me more about Dominic Barnett, and I figured it was time to talk to her. Twenty-five It always ends where it starts, Amanda thought. She was looking through the CCTV footage that had been retrieved from the area around the waste ground, and couldnt help remembering that, two months ago, shed been examining images of these exact same streets. Back then it had been in the hope of seeing someone taking Neil Spencer away. Now she was searching for someone returning the boys body. But so far the result was the same. Nothing. Early days, she told herselfbut that thought was like ash in her head. It was actually far too fucking late, not least for Neil Spencer himself. Her mind kept flashing back to the sight of his body, even though dwelling on the horrors shed seen last nighton her failure to find Neil in timewasnt going to help. What she needed to do instead was concentrate on the work. One foot in front of the other. One detail at a time. That was the way theyd eventually get the bastard whod done those things to that little boy. Another flash. She shook her head, then looked toward the back of the room, where Pete Willis was working quietly at the desk hed been allocated. After shed had the chance to sit down herself, shed found herself keeping a surreptitious eye on him. Occasionally he picked up the phone and made a call; the rest of the time his attention was totally focused on the photographs and paperwork before him. Frank Carter knew something, and Pete was working through the visits received by the mans friends and associates in the prison, trying to figure out if one of them might be responsible for passing Carter information from the outside world. But it was Pete himself who fascinated her now. How could he be so calm? Except that she knew he was suffering too, below the surface. She remembered how hed been yesterday, after visiting Frank Carter, and then on the waste ground last night. If he seemed detached now, it was only because he was distracting himself in the exact same way she was trying to. And if he was succeeding, it was simply because hed had so much more practice. Amanda wanted to ask him the secret. Instead, she forced her attention back to the CCTV files, already knowing deep down that it would yield nothing, just like two months ago, when her team had slowly identified and eliminated the individuals caught on the villages meager selection of cameras. It was frustrating work. The more you accomplished, the worse it felt like you were doing. But it was necessary. She picked her way through the fuzzy images. Freeze-frames of men, women, and children. All of them would have to be interviewed, even though none of them would have witnessed anything significant. The man they were looking for was too careful for that. And it would be the same with the vehicles. Her conviction during the briefing had been real, and a part of her was still cultivating that now, but she knew deep down the feeling was impotent. The fact remained that it wasnt difficult to drive around Featherbank and avoid CCTV. Not if you knew what you were doing. On the pad beside her, she jotted that thought down. Knowledge of camera position? But again, shed made the same note two months earlier. History repeating itself. It always ends where it starts. She threw the pen down in frustration, then stood up and walked over to where Pete was working, so engrossed that he didnt even notice her. The printer on his desk was releasing a steady stream of photographsCCTV stills of visitors to the prison. Pete was cross-referencing them with details on the screen and writing notes on the back. There was also an old newspaper printout on the desk. She tilted her head to read the headline. Prison Marriage for Coxton Cannibal? she said. Pete jumped. What? The news article. She read it out again. The world never stops surprising me. Generally in terrible ways. Oh. Yes. Pete gestured at the photographs he was accumulating. And these are all his visitors. His real names Victor Tyler. Twenty-five years ago he abducted a little girl. Mary Fisher? I remember her, Amanda said. They had been roughly the same age. While Amanda couldnt picture the girls face, her mind immediately associated the name with scary stories and grainy images in old newspapers. Twenty-five years. Hard to believe it had been that long, and how quickly people faded away into the past and were forgotten by the world. Shed probably have been married by now, maybe with a family, Amanda said. Doesnt seem right, does it? No. Pete took another photograph from the printer and peered at the screen for a second. Tyler got married fifteen years ago. Louise Dixon. Unbelievably, theyre still together. Theyve never spent a night together, of course. But you know how it can be sometimes. The allure men like this can have. Amanda nodded to herself. Criminals, even the worst of them, often werent short of correspondents in the outside world. For a certain type of woman, they were like catnip. He didnt do it, theyd convince themselves. Or else that hed changedor if not, that theyd be the one to redeem him. Maybe some of them even liked the danger. It had never made the slightest bit of sense to her, but it was true. Pete wrote on the back of the photo, then put it to one side and reached for another. And Carter is friends with this guy? she said. Carter was his best man. Well, that must have been quite a lovely ceremony. Who married them? Satan himself? But Pete didnt answer. Rather than looking at the screen, he was focused entirely on the photograph hed just picked up. Another of Tylers visitors, she assumed, except this one had caught his attention completely. Whos that? Norman Collins. Pete looked up at her. I know him. Tell me. Pete ran through the basics. Norman Collins was a local man who had been questioned during the investigation twenty years ago, not because of any concrete evidence against him, but because of his behavior. From Petes description, he sounded like one of those creepy fuckers who sometimes insinuated themselves into ongoing investigations. You were trained to watch out for them. The ones who hung around at the back of press conferences and funerals. The ones who seemed to be eavesdropping or asking too many questions. The ones who appeared too interested or just felt off in some way. Because, while it could simply be sick or ghoulish behavior, it was also the way killers sometimes acted. But not Collins, apparently. We had nothing on him, Pete said. Less than nothing, in fact. He had solid alibis for all the abductions. No connection to the kids or the families. No sheet to him at all. In the end, he was just a footnote in the case. And yet you remember him. Pete stared at the photograph again. I never liked him, he said. It was likely nothing, and Amanda didnt want to get her hopes up, but while you had to be methodical and sensible, there was also something to be said for gut instinct. If Pete remembered this man, there must have been something to cause that. And now he turns up again, she said. Got an address? Pete tapped on his keyboard. Yeah. He still lives in the same place as before. Okay. Go and have the conversation. Its probably nothing, but lets find out why he was visiting Victor Tyler. Pete stared at the screen for a moment longer, then nodded and stood up. Amanda walked back across the room. DS Stephanie Johnson caught her before she could reach her own desk. Maam? Please dont call me that, Steph. It makes me sound like someones grandmother. Anything from the door-to-doors yet? Nothing so far. But you wanted to know if anything had come in from concerned parents? Reports of prowlersthings like that? Amanda nodded. Neils mother had missed that at first, and Amanda didnt want them to repeat the mistake. We had one come in early hours this morning, Steph said. A man called us saying somebody had been outside the house, talking to his son. Amanda reached across Stephs desk and turned the screen around so that she could read the details. The boy in question was seven. Rose Terrace School. A man outside the front door, supposedly speaking to him. But the report also mentioned the boy had been behaving strangely, and reading between the lines it was clear the attending officers hadnt been sure the account was genuine. She might have words with them about that. Amanda stepped back, then walked across the room, glancing around angrily. She spotted DS John Dyson. He would dothe lazy bastard was sitting behind a pile of paperwork and messing around on his cell phone. When she walked over and clicked her fingers in front of his face, he actually dropped it into his lap. Come with me, she told him. Twenty-six It was a ten-minute drive to the house of Mrs. Shearing, the woman who had sold me our new home. I parked outside a detached two-story house with a peaked roof and a large paved driveway, gated off from the pavement by metal railings with a black mailbox on a post outside. This was a much more prestigious area of Featherbank than the one where Jake and I now lived, in the house that Mrs. Shearing had owned and rented out for years. Most recently, presumably, to Dominic Barnett. I reached through the railings of the gate and undid the clasp there. As I pushed the gate open, a dog began barking furiously inside the house, and the noise intensified as I reached the front door, pressed the buzzer, and waited. Mrs. Shearing opened it on the second ring, but kept the chain on, peering out through the gap. The dog was behind her: a small Yorkshire terrier yapping angrily at me. Its fur was tipped with gray and it looked almost as old and fragile as she did. Yes? Hello, I said. I dont know if you remember me, Mrs. Shearing. My names Tom Kennedy. I bought your house off you a few weeks ago? We met a couple of times when I came to view it. My son and I. Oh, yes. Of course. Shoo, Morris. Get back. The latter was to the dog. She brushed down her dress and turned back to me. Im sorry, hes very excitable. What can I do for you? Its about the house. I was wondering if I could talk to you about one of the previous tenants? I see. She looked a little awkward at that, as though she had a good inkling of which one I meant and would rather not. I decided to wait her out. After a few seconds of silence, civility got the better of any reservations she had, and she undid the chain. I see, she said again. Then youd better come in. Inside, she seemed flustered, fussing at her clothes and hair, and apologizing for the state of the place. For the latter, there was certainly no need; the house was palatial and immaculate, the reception area alone the size of my living room, with a broad wooden staircase winding up to the floor above. I followed Mrs. Shearing into a cozy sitting room, with Morris cantering more enthusiastically around my ankles. Two couches and a chair were arranged around an open fire, the grate empty and spotless, and there were cabinets along one wall, with carefully spaced crystal-ware visible behind the glass panels. Paintings on the walls showed countryside and hunting scenes. The window at the front of the house was covered with plush red curtains, closed against the street. You have a lovely house, I said. Thank you. Its too big for me, really, especially after the children moved out and Derek passed, bless him. But Im too old to move now. A girl comes in every few days to clean it. An awful luxury, but what else can I do? Pleasehave a seat. Thank you. Can I get you some tea? Coffee? No, Im fine. I sat down. The couch was rigid and hard. How are you settling in? she asked. Were doing okay. Thats wonderful to know. She smiled fondly. I grew up in that house, you know, and I always wanted it to go to someone nice in the end. A decent family. Your sonJake, if I remember correctly? How is he? Hes just started school. Rose Terrace? Yes. That smile again. Its a very good school. I went there when I was a child. Are your handprints on the wall? They are. She nodded proudly. One red, one blue. Thats nice. You said you grew up on Garholt Street? Yes. After my parents died, Derek and I kept it on as an investment. It was my husbands idea, but I didnt take much persuading. Ive always been fond of it. Such memories there, you see? Of course. I thought of the man who had called around, attempting to do the math. He had been considerably younger than Mrs. Shearing, but it wasnt impossible. Did you have a younger brother, at all? No, I was an only child. Perhaps thats why Ive always had such affection for the house. It was mine, you see? All mine. I loved it. She pulled a face. When I was growing up, my friends were a little scared by it. Why scared? Oh, its just that kind of house, I think. It looks a little strange, doesnt it? I suppose so. Karen had said much the same to me yesterday. I repeated what Id said to her, even though, frankly, it was beginning to sound hollow. It has character. Exactly! Mrs. Shearing seemed pleased. Thats exactly what I always thought too. And thats why Im glad its in safe hands again now. I swallowed that down, because the house didnt feel remotely safe to me. But, as Id suspected, whoever the man was whod come by, he had been lying about growing up there. I was also struck by her phrasing. Safe hands again now. She had wanted it to go to someone nice in the end. Was it not in safe hands before? She looked uncomfortable again. Not especially, no. Lets just say that I havent been blessed with the best of tenants in the past. But then, its so hard to tell, isnt it? People can seem perfectly pleasant when you meet them. And I never had any real reason to complain. They paid their rent on time. They looked after the property well enough She trailed off, as though she didnt know how to explain what the real problems had been and would rather leave it. While she had that luxury, I didnt. But? Oh, I dont know. I never had anything concrete I could use against them, or else I wouldnt have hesitated. Just suspicions. That perhaps there were other people staying there from time to time. That they were renting out rooms? Yes. And that unsavory things might sometimes be going on. She pulled a face. The house often smelled funny when I stopped bybut, of course, youre not allowed to do that these days without an appointment. Can you believe that? An appointment to enter your own property. Advance warning, more like it. The only time I ever turned up unannounced, he wouldnt let me in. This would be Dominic Barnett? She hesitated. Yes. Him. Although the one before was no better. I think Ive just had a run of very bad luck with that house. One youve passed on to me. You do know what happened to Dominic Barnett? I said. Yes, of course. She looked down at her hands, resting neatly and delicately in her lap, and was silent for a moment. Which was terrible, obviously. Not a fate I would wish on anyone. But from what I heard afterward, he did move in those kinds of circles. Drugs, I said bluntly. Another moment of silence. Then she sighed, as though we were talking about aspects of the world that were wholly alien to her. There was never any evidence he was selling them from my property. But yes. It was a very sad business. And I suppose I could have searched for another tenant after he died, but Im old now, and I decided not to. I thought it was time to sell it and draw a line. That way I could give my old house a new chance with someone else. Someone who would make a better go of it than I had recently. Jake and me. Yes! She brightened at the thought. You and your lovely little boy! I had better offers, but money doesnt matter to me these days, and the two of you seemed right. I liked to think of my old house going to a young family, so that thered be another small child playing there again. I wanted to feel it might end up full of light and love again. Full of color, like it was when I was a little girl. Im so pleased to hear that both of you are happy there. I leaned back. Jake and I werent happy there, of course, and a part of me was very angry with Mrs. Shearing. It felt like the history of the house was something she should really have told me at the time. But she also seemed genuinely pleased, as though she thought she really had done a good thing, and I could understand her motivation for choosing me and Jake to sell the property to, instead of And then I frowned. You said you had better offers on the house? Oh, yesvery much so, actually. One man was prepared to pay far more than the asking price. She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. But I didnt like him at all. He reminded me a little of the others. He was very persistent, as well, which put me off even more. I dislike being pestered. I leaned forward again. Someone had been prepared to offer way over the asking price for the house, and Mrs. Shearing had refused him. He had been persistent and pushy. There had been something off about him. This man, I said carefully. What did he look like? Was he quite short? Gray hair round here? I gestured to my head, but she was already nodding. Thats him, yes. Always impeccably dressed. And she pulled another face, as though she had been no more fooled by that veneer of respectability than I had. Mr. Collins, she said. Norman Collins. Twenty-seven Back home, I parked and stared down the driveway. I was thinkingor trying to, at least. It felt like facts and ideas and explanations were all whirling in my head like birds, slow enough to glimpse but too swift to catch. The man who had been snooping around here was called Norman Collins. Despite his claims, he had not grown up in this house, and yet for some reason he had been prepared to pay well over the asking price to purchase it. Which meant the property obviously meant something to him. But what? I stared down the driveway at the garage. That was where Collins had been skulking when I first spotted him. The garage, filled with the debris removed from the house before I moved in, some of which had presumably belonged to Dominic Barnett. Had it been Collins at the door last night, trying to persuade Jake to open it? If so, maybe it wasnt that Jake himself had been in danger, just that Collins had wanted something. The key to the garage, perhaps. But thought could only take me so far. I got out of the car and headed to the garage, unlocking it and then pulling one of the doors and wedging it open with the can of paint from yesterday. I stepped inside. All the junk remained, of course: the old furniture; the dirty mattress; the haphazard piles of damp cardboard boxes in the center. Looking down to my right, the spider was still spanning its thick web, surrounded now by a few more remnants than before. Butterflies, presumably, chewed into small, pale knots of string. I glanced around. One of the butterflies remained perched delicately on the window. Another was resting on the side of the box of Christmas decorations, its wings lifting and lowering gently. They reminded me of Jakes picture, along with the fact that he couldnt possibly have seen them in here. But that was a mystery I couldnt solve for now. What about you, Norman? What were you looking for in here? I scraped some dry leaves away with my foot to clear a space, then took the box of decorations down and began sifting through it. It took half an hour to work my way through all the cardboard boxes, emptying each in turn and spreading the contents around. While I was kneeling down among it all, the stone floor of the garage felt cold, as though the knees of my jeans were gathering ovals of damp. The garage door rattled behind me, and I turned around quickly, startled by the noise. But the driveway was sunlit and empty. Just the warm breeze, knocking the door against the can of paint. I turned back to what Id found. Which was nothing. The boxes all contained the kind of random debris you had no immediate use for but were still unwilling to throw away. There were the decorations, of course; ropes of tinsel were strewn around me now, their colors dulled and lifeless with age. There were magazines and newspapers, with nothing obvious to unite the dates and editions. Clothes that had been folded and stored away and smelled of mold. Dusty old extension cords. None of it looked to have been deliberately hidden so much as casually packed away and forgotten about. I fought down the frustration. There were no answers here. My investigation had disturbed several more of the butterflies, though. Five or six of them were crawling over the debris Id unpacked, their antennae twitching, while another two were fluttering against the window. I watched as one on the tinsel lifted up into the air, then flickered past me, heading for the open door, before the stupid thing looped back in again and landed on the floor in front of me, on one of the bricks there. I watched it for a moment, once again admiring the rich, distinctive colors on its wings. It crawled steadily across the surface of the bricks, and then disappeared down into a crack between them. I stared at the floor. A large section of the garage floor in front of me was made up of haphazardly arranged house bricks, and it took me a second to recognize what I must be looking at. An old mechanics pit, where someone could lie down underneath a car to work on it. It had been filled in with bricks to approximate a flat surface. Tentatively, I lifted up the one the butterfly had been on. It came out of the floor covered in dust and old webbing, the butterfly clinging obstinately to one side. In the hole the brick had left, I could see the top of what appeared to be another cardboard box below. The garage door banged again behind me. Jesus. This time I stood up and walked back out onto the driveway to check. There was nobody in sight, but in the last few minutes the sun had disappeared behind a cloud and the world felt darker and colder. The breeze had picked up. Looking down, I saw that I was still holding the brick, and that my hand was trembling slightly. Back in the garage, I put the brick to one side, and then began to remove more from the pit, gradually revealing the box hidden underneath. It was the same size as the others, but had been sealed across the top with parcel tape. I took out my keys and selected the one with the sharpest tip, my heart humming. Is this what you were looking for, Norman? I drew the point across the center of the tape, then dug my fingers in to pull the seams apart. They came away at each end with a crackling sound. Then I peered inside. Immediately I sat back on my heels, either unable or unwilling to comprehend what I had seen. My thoughts went back to what Jake had said last night after hed been talking to himself in the living room. I want to scare you. That was when Id assumed the imaginary little girl had come back into our lives. A car door slammed. I glanced behind me and saw that a vehicle was parked at the end of my driveway, and that a man and a woman were walking toward me. It wasnt her, my son had told me. It was the boy in the floor. Mr. Kennedy? the woman called. Instead of answering her, I turned my attention back to the box in front of me. To the bones inside. To the small skull that was staring up at me. And to the beautifully colored butterfly that had landed and rested there, its wings moving gently, like the heartbeat of a sleeping child. Twenty-eight Back in the day, Pete had encountered Norman Collins on several occasions, but he had never had cause to visit the mans home. He knew of it, though: it had once belonged to Collinss parents, and Collins had never moved out. Following his fathers death, he had lived there alone with his mother for a number of years, and then continued to do so after she died. There was nothing untoward about that, of course, but the idea still made Pete feel a little queasy. Children were supposed to grow up, move out, and fashion their own lives; to do otherwise suggested some kind of unhealthy dependency or deficiency. Perhaps it was simply because Pete had met Collins. He remembered him as soft and doughy, and always sweating, as though there were something rotten inside him that was constantly seeping out. He was the kind of man who it was easy to imagine might have kept his mothers bedroom carefully preserved over the years, or taken to sleeping in her bed. And yet, as much as hed raised Petes hackles, Norman Collins had not been Frank Carters accomplice. There was some consolation to be had there. Whatever Collinss involvement right now, Pete hadnt missed him at the time. While the man had never officially been a suspect, he had been very much suspected. His alibis had checked out, though. If someone really had been helping Carter, it was physically impossible for it to have been Norman Collins. So what had he been doing at the prison? Maybe nothing. And yet Carter had to have received communication from the outside world somehow, and as Pete parked outside Collinss house, he felt a small thrill inside him. Better not to hope too much, of course. But he still had the sense that they were on the right track here, even if it wasnt clear right now where it was leading. He approached the house. The small front garden was untended and overgrown, filled with sweeping whorls of grass that had collapsed down upon themselves. A bush close to the house was so thick that he had to turn sideways and scrape past to reach the front door. He knocked. The wood beneath his knuckles felt weak and flimsy, half eaten away. The front of the house had been painted white at some point, but so much had flaked away since that it reminded Pete of an old ladys face plastered with cracked makeup. He was about to knock again when he heard movement on the other side of the door. It opened, but only to the limit of a chain. There had been no sound of it being applied, which meant Collins liked to keep his property nice and secure, even when he was home. Yes? Norman Collins didnt recognize Pete, but Pete remembered him well enough. Twenty years had barely changed him, beyond his monks hair having grown bright white. The top of his head was mottled and red, like something angry that needed to be burst. And even though he was presumably relaxing at home, he was dressed almost absurdly formally, in a dapper little suit and waistcoat. Pete held out his identification. Hello, Mr. Collins. Im DI Peter Willis. You might not remember me, but we met a few times years ago? Collinss gaze flicked from the identification to Petes face, and then his expression became tight and tense. He remembered, all right. Oh, yes. Of course. Pete put the ID away. Can I come in for a chat? Ill try not to take up too much of your time. Collins hesitated, glancing behind him into the shadowy depths of the house. Pete could already see beads of sweat appearing on the mans forehead. Its not the most convenient time. What is it regarding? Id prefer to talk inside, Mr. Collins. He waited. Collins was a stuffy little man, and Pete was confident he wouldnt want the silence to become awkward. After a few seconds, Collins relented. Very well. The door closed, and then opened fully this time. Pete stepped into a drab square of hallway, with stairs leading straight up ahead to a misty landing. The air smelled old and musty, but with a trace of something sweet to it. It reminded him of the ancient school desks from his childhood, where youd open the top and smell wood and old bubble gum. How can I help you, DI Willis? They were still standing at the bottom of the stairs, far too cramped for Petes liking. This close, he could smell Collins, sweating beneath his suit. He gestured to the open door to what was obviously the living room. Perhaps we can go through there? Again Collins hesitated. Pete frowned. What are you hiding, Norman? Of course, Collins said. This way, please. He led Pete into the living room. Pete was expecting to be met with squalor, but the room appeared tidy and clean, and the furniture was newer and less old-fashioned than he would have imagined. There was a large plasma screen attached to one wall, while the others were covered with framed artwork and small glass display cases. Collins stopped in the middle of the room, and then stood rigid, with his hands clasped in front of him like a butler. Something about his oddly formal manner made the hairs on the back of Petes neck stand up. Are you all right, Mr. Collins? Oh, yes. Collins nodded curtly. May I ask again what this is regarding? A little over two months ago, you went to see an inmate named Victor Tyler in HMP Whitrow. That I did. And what was the purpose of that visit? To talk to him. The same purpose as my other visits. Youve visited him before? Indeed. Several times. Collins was still standing motionless, as if hed been posed. Still smiling politely. Can I ask what you discussed with Victor Tyler? Wellhis crime, of course. The little girl he killed? Collins nodded. Mary Fisher. Yes, I know her name. A ghoul. That was what Collins had always struck Pete asa strange little man, obsessed with the kind of darkness that others instinctively shied away from. Collins was still standing there smiling, as though waiting patiently for this business to be concluded and for Pete to leave, but the smile was all wrong. Collins was nervous, Pete thought. Hiding something. And Pete was aware that he had grown still himselfthat there was an uncomfortable lack of movement in the roomso he walked over to one wall, idly examining some of the pictures and items that Collins had framed and mounted there. The drawings were strange. Up close, it became apparent how childlike many of them were. His gaze moved here and there, over stick figures, amateurish watercolors, and then his attention was drawn to something more unusual. A red plastic devil mask. It was the kind of item youd find in a cheap fancy dress shop, but for some reason Collins had encased it in a thin rectangle of glass and hung it on his wall. A collectors item, that. Collins was suddenly beside him. Pete resisted the urge to shout, but couldnt stop himself from taking a step away. A collectors item? Indeed. Collins nodded. It was worn by a fairly notorious murderer during the crimes he committed. It cost a small fortune to acquire, but its a handsome piece, and the source and paperwork are impeccable. Collins turned quickly to look at Pete. All completely legal and aboveboard, I assure you. Was there anything else I could help you with? Pete shook his head, trying to make sense of what Collins had just said. Then he looked at some of the other items on the wall. It wasnt just pictures, he realized. Several of the frames contained notes and letters. Some were clearly official documents and reports, while others were handwritten, scrawled on cheap notepaper. He gestured at the wall, feeling slightly helpless. And these? Correspondence, Collins said happily. Some personal, some acquired. Forms and paperwork from cases, as well. Pete stepped away again, this time moving all the way back to the middle of the room. And then he turned, looking this way and that. As he understood what he was seeing, the feeling of unease deepened, folding over inside him, drawing the heat away from his skin. Drawings, mementos, correspondence. Artifacts of death and murder. He had been aware before now that there were people in the world who were driven to acquire such macabre things, and that there were even thriving online marketplaces dedicated to the activity. But he had never before stood in the heart of such a collection. The room around him seemed to be throbbing with menace, not least because this was clearly not simply a collection, but a celebration. There was reverence in the way these things had been put on display. He looked at Norman Collins, who remained standing by the wall. The smile had disappeared from the mans face now, his expression replaced by something altogether more alien and reptilian. Collins had not wanted to let Pete in, and he had clearly hoped to conclude the conversation without Pete noticing his pictures and ornaments. But there was a sneer of pride on his face nowa look that said he knew how abhorrent Pete must find his collection, and that a part of him relished it. That he was even above Pete in some way. All completely legal and aboveboard, I assure you. And so Pete simply stood there for a moment, not knowing what to do, unsure if he even could do anything. Then his cell phone rang, jolting him. He took it outAmandaand then turned away, speaking quietly as he pressed the phone hard to his ear. Willis here. Pete? Where are you? Im where I said I would be. He noticed the urgency in her voice. Where are you? Im at a house on Garholt Street. Weve got a second body. A second? Yes. But these remains are much olderit looks like theyve been hidden for a long time. Pete tried to take in what he was hearing. The house here was sold recently. Amanda sounded a little breathless, as though she were still trying to process all this too. The new owner found the body in a box in the garage. He also made a report that someone might have attempted to abduct his son last night. And your man Norman Collinsit looks like hes been creeping at the property. Owner puts him at the scene. I think Collins knew the body was there. Pete turned around quickly thensuddenly aware of a presence. Collins had magicked himself closer once again. He was standing right next to Pete now, his face near enough that Pete could see the pores of his skin and the blankness in his eyes. The air was singing with menace. Is there anything else, DI Willis? Collins whispered. Pete took a step away, his heart beating hard. Bring him in, Amanda said. Twenty-nine I parked a road away from Jakes school, thinking that it should have been reassuring to have a policeman in the car with me. Id been frustrated that the officers who called around that morning hadnt taken my nighttime visitor and the attempted abduction of my son as seriously as they should. That had certainly changed now, but there was nothing remotely comforting about it. It meant all this was actually happening. It meant that the danger to Jake was real. DS Dyson looked up. Were here? Its just round the corner. He slipped his cell into his suit trousers pocket. Dyson was in his fifties, but had spent the journey from the police station silently absorbed with something on his phone, like some kind of teenager. Okay, he said. I want you to behave exactly as you usually would. Pick your son up. Chat with the other parents, or whatever it is you normally do. Take your time. Ill have you in sight throughout, and Ill just be keeping an eye on the other people present. I tapped the steering wheel. DI Beck told me youd already arrested the man responsible. Sure. Dyson shrugged, and from his manner, it was clear that he was simply following an order and going through the motions. Its just a precaution. A precaution. That was the same word DI Amanda Beck had used at the police station. Things had moved quickly after the police arrived at my house and Id shown them what Id found. In the intervening time, Norman Collins had been arrested, which brought it home to me all too clearly what could have happened to Jake last night. But with Collins in custody, my son should have been safe. So why the escort? Just a precaution. It hadnt reassured me at the police station, and it didnt now either. The police were a capable, powerful resource to have behind me, and yet it still felt as if Jake wouldnt be safe until he was right next to me. Someplace where I could look after him. Dyson melted away behind me as I walked to the school, and it was surreal to think I was being covertly shadowed by a police officer. But then, the whole day had been off-kilter and unworldly. With events moving so swiftly, I still hadnt processed the fact that Id found human remains, most likely those of a child, on my property. The reality of that hadnt hit me yet. Id given my statement at the police station dispassionately, and it would be typed up and waiting for me to sign after I picked up Jake. I still had no idea what was going to happen after that. Just behave normally, Dyson had told me, which was a completely impossible instruction under the circumstances. But when I reached the playground, I saw Karen leaning against the railings, hands stuffed into the pockets of her big coat, and figured that talking to her was about as normal as anything else. I walked in and leaned against the railings beside her. Hello there, she said. Hows tricks? Tricky. Ha-ha. Then she looked at me properly. Although thats not actually a joke, is it, by the look of things. Bad day? I breathed out slowly. The police hadnt explicitly told me I couldnt talk to anyone about the days events, but I suspected it would be wise not to, yet. Aside from anything else, I had absolutely no idea where to begin. You could say that. Its been a very complicated twenty-four hours. Ill tell you about it properly some time. Well, Ill look forward to that. I hope youre okay, though. No offense, but you look like shit. She thought about it. Although that probably is quite offensive, isnt it? Sorry. I always say the wrong thing. Bad habit. Its fine. I just didnt get much sleep last night. Your sons imaginary friends keeping you up? I actually laughed. Thats closer to the truth than you know. The boy in the floor. I thought of the rusty-looking bones, and the hollow-eyed skull with its crest of jagged cracks. The beautiful colors of the butterflies Jake couldnt have seen, but had somehow drawn. And as much as I wanted him out here right now, I was also slightly unnerved by the prospect. Unnerved by him. My sensitive son, with his sleepwalking and his imaginary friends, and the way he talked to people who werent there, who told him frightening rhymes and tried to scare him. They scared me too. The door opened. Mrs. Shelley appeared and then began looking at the parents and calling childrens names back over her shoulder. Her gaze drifted across Karen and me. Adam, she said, and then moved immediately on to a different boy. Uh-oh, Karen said. Looks like youre on the naughty step again. The day Ive had, that really wouldnt surprise me. It can feel like youre a child again yourself, cant it? The way they talk to you sometimes. I nodded. Although I wasnt sure I was in the mood to put up with it today. Anyway, take care of yourself, Karen said, as Adam reached us. I will. I watched them go, then waited while the rest of the children were released. At least Dyson was getting a good chance to take precautions, I supposedand the thought made me scan the faces in the playground myself. Except what was the point? A few of the parents were familiar, but I hadnt been here long enough to recognize more than a handful. To them I probably looked like a suspicious character myself. When there was only Jake left, Mrs. Shelley beckoned me over. Jake emerged at her side, once again staring down at the ground. He looked so vulnerable that I wanted to rescue himjust scoop him up and take him somewhere safe. I felt a burst of love for him. Maybe he was too fragile to be ordinary, to fit in and be accepted. But after everything that had happened, so fucking what? Trouble again? I said. Im afraid so. Mrs. Shelley smiled sadly. Jake was put on red today. He had to go to see Miss Wallace, didnt you, Jake? Jake nodded miserably. What happened? I said. He hit another boy in the class. Oh. Owen started it. Jake sounded as though he was about to cry. He was trying to take my Packet of Special Things. I didnt mean to hit him. Yes, well. Mrs. Shelley folded her arms and looked at me pointedly. Im not entirely sure thats an appropriate thing for a child your age to be bringing into school in the first place. I had no idea what to say. Social convention dictated that I side with the grown-up here, which meant that I should tell Jake that hitting was bad, and that maybe his teacher was right about the Packet. But I couldnt. This situation suddenly seemed so laughably trivial. The stupid fucking traffic light system. The terror of Miss Wallace. And most of all, the idea of telling Jake off because some little shit had messed with him and, most likely, gotten exactly what he deserved. I looked at my son, standing there so timidly, probably expecting me to tell him off, when what I actually wanted to say to him was: Well done. I never had the courage to do that at your age. I hope you hit him hard. And yet social convention won out. Ill talk to him, I said. Good. Because its not been a fantastic start, has it, Jake? Mrs. Shelley ruffled his hair, and social convention lost. Dont touch my son, I said. Im sorry? She moved her hand as though Jake were electric. There was some satisfaction in that, even though my words had come out without any thought and I wasnt remotely sure what I was going to say next. Just that, I said. You cant put him on your traffic light system and then pretend to be nice. To be honest, I think its a pretty terrible thing to do to any child, never mind one whos obviously having problems right now. What problems? She was flustered. If there are problems, then we can talk about that. I knew it was stupid to be so confrontational, but I still felt a small degree of pleasure in standing up for my son. I looked at Jake again, who was staring at me curiously now, as though he wasnt sure what to make of me. I smiled at him. I was glad hed stood up for himself. Glad that hed made an impact on the world. I looked back at Mrs. Shelley. I will talk to him, I said. Because hitting is wrong. So he and I will have a long discussion about better ways to stand up to bullies. Well thats good to hear. Fine. Got everything, mate? Jake nodded. Good, I said. Because I dont think we can go home tonight. Why not? Because of the boy in the floor. But I didnt say that. The strangest thing was, I thought he knew the answer to his own question already. Come on, I said gently. Thirty Theyve found him, Pete thought. After all this time. Theyve found Tony. Sitting in his car, he watched the CSI officers entering Norman Collinss property. At the moment it was the only activity on the street. Despite the gathering police presence, the media had yet to arrive, and whatever neighbors were home were staying out of view for now. One of the CSI team stood on the front step, put his hands in the small of his back, and stretched. Cuffed and ensconced in the backseat, Collins was watching the activity too. You have no authority to do this, Collins said blankly. Be quiet, Norman. In the confines of the car, Pete couldnt avoid smelling the man, but he had no intention of talking to him. As the situation was still developing, he had arrested Collins on suspicion of receipt of stolen goods in the first instance, simply becausegiven the nature of some of the items in the mans collectionit was a charge they could likely make stick, and also one that gave them authority to search the mans home. But, of course, they wanted him for more than that. And no matter how many questions he had, Pete wasnt about to jeopardize the investigation by interviewing Collins here and now. It had to be done at the department. Recorded and watertight. They wont find anything, Collins said. Pete ignored him. Because, of course, they already had, and Collins appeared to be implicated in that. An older set of remains had been discovered. Collins had always been obsessed with Carter and his crimes; he had visited Frank Carters friend in prison; he had been stalking the house where the second body had been found. Collins had known the body was therePete was certain of it. But more importantly, while official identification would come in time, he was also sure that the remains belonged to Tony Smith. After twenty years, youve been found. All else aside, the development should have brought a sense of relief and closure, because he had been searching for the boy for so long. But it didnt. He couldnt stop thinking of all those weekend searches, combing through hedgerows and woodlands many miles from here, when the whole time Tony had been lying far closer to home than anyone imagined. Which meant there must have been something Pete had missed twenty years ago. He looked down at the tablet on his lap. God, he wanted a drink right nowand wasnt it strange how that worked? People often thought of alcohol as a buffer against the horrors of the world. But Tony Smiths body had been found, and it was more than possible that the man responsible for Neil Spencers murder was in custody, sitting behind him right now, and yet the urge to drink was stronger than ever. There were always so many reasons to drink, though. Only ever one real reason not to. You can drink later. As much as you want. He accepted that he would. Whatever worksit was that simple. In a war, you used any weapon at hand to win an individual battle, and then you regrouped and fought the next one. And the next. And all the ones that followed. Whatever works. Ive done nothing wrong, Collins insisted. Shut up. Pete clicked on the tablet. There was no avoiding this: he needed to figure out what he had missed all those years ago and why, and the house on Garholt Street where Tonys remains had been found was the place to start. He scanned through the details. Until recently the house had been owned by a woman named Anne Shearing. She had inherited it from her parents, but hadnt lived in it for decades, instead renting it out over the years to numerous individuals. There was a long list of those on record, but Pete presumed he could discount occupants from before 1997, when Frank Carter had committed his murders. The tenant at that time had been a man named Julian Simpson. Simpson had been renting the property for four years beforehand, and his residency continued until 2008. Opening a new tab on-screen, Pete ran a search and discovered Simpson had died of cancer that year, at the age of seventy. He clicked back. The houses next tenant was a man named Dominic Barnett, who had occupied the house until earlier this year. Dominic Barnett. Pete frowned. The name rang a bell. He ran another search, and the details came back to him, even though he hadnt worked the case himself. Barnett had been a minor underworld figure involved in drugs and extortion, known to police but considered small fry in the grand scheme of things. There were no convictions on file for the last ten yearsbut, of course, that didnt mean hed gone straight, and nobody had been remotely surprised when he turned up dead. The murder weapona hammerhad been recovered with partial prints, but there had been no match on the database. Subsequent inquiries had failed to turn up a credible suspect. But the public, at least, had been reassured. Despite the lack of an arrest, the police believed it to be an isolated, targeted incident, and anybody reading between the lines of that could probably have intuited what lay behind it. Live by the sword, die by the sword. To the extent that Pete had paid attention, he had assumed the same. But he wondered about it now. Drugs remained the most likely motive for the murder, but Barnett had lived in a house where human remains had been kept hidden, and it seemed impossible that he would have been unaware of it. Did that suggest a different motive? He looked up and watched Norman Collins in the rearview mirror for a moment. Collins was staring blankly out of the window at his house. There were three men to think

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