The Whisper Man – Alex North

The abduction of a child by a stranger is every parent’s 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 scuf 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 o’clock 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 village’s 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 age—already 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 doesn’t mean it, they would say. It’s 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 wasn’t hard to see. Neil had spent today at his father’s 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 other’s 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, Neil’s father had been too drunk that evening to drive him back to his mother’s 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 boy’s 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 didn’t 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 man’s 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 boy’s 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 he’d been sitting down to eat the dinner he’d 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, he’d forgotten his coat, and the shirt he was wearing offered scant protection against the elements. Old bones too—he was fifty-six, after all—but 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 father’s 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 wasn’t until Neil’s mother had finally called her ex-husband that their son’s 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 didn’t 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 he’d come.

He wasn’t 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 Neil’s 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 didn’t know you were on duty tonight.” “I’m 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 ground’s a bit shaky here.” “I’m fine.” Young enough to discount him as some old man as well, apparently.

Presumably he’d never seen Pete in the department’s 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 everything—including himself—was second nature to him. “Okay, sir, well, we’re about to head down. Just coordinating.” “I’m 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 boy’s 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 couldn’t know for sure—not through reason.

But his instinct was telling him that Neil Spencer wasn’t going to be found here. That maybe he wasn’t going to be found at all.

.

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