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The Missing Ones

By´╝ÜPatricia Gibney

Prologue





31st January 1976




The hole they dug was not deep, less than three feet. A milky white flour bag encased the little body, firmly tied with the strings of a soiled, once white apron. They rolled the bag along the ground, even though it was light enough to lift. Reverence for the deceased was absent as one of them kicked it into the middle of the hole, squeezing it further into the earth with the sole of his boot. No prayers were said, no final blessing, just the shovelling of damp clay quickly covering the whiteness with darkness, like night descending without twilight. Beneath the apple tree, which would sprout white buds in spring and deliver a flourishing crop in summer, there now rested two mounds of earth, one compacted and solid, the other fresh and loose.

Three small faces watched from the third-floor window, eyes black with terror. They knelt on one of their beds, cushioned with rough-feathered pillows.

As the people below picked up their tools and turned away, the three continued to look at the apple tree, now highlighted by the crescent of the moon. They had witnessed something their young brains could not comprehend. They shivered, but not from the cold.

The child in the middle spoke without turning his head.

‘I wonder which one of us will be next?’





DAY ONE





30th December 2014





One





Susan Sullivan was on her way to meet the one person she was most scared of.

A walk, yes, a walk would do her good. Out into the daylight, away from the suffocation of her house, away from her own tumbling thoughts. She pushed in her iPod earphones, pulled on a dark woolly hat, tightened her brown tweed coat and faced into the biting snow.

Her mind raced. Who was she kidding? She couldn’t distract herself, couldn’t escape the nightmare of her past; it haunted every waking minute of her day and invaded her night like a bat, black and swift, making her ill. She had tried to make contact with a detective in Ragmullin Garda Station, but had received no reply. It would have been her safety net. More than anything she wanted to learn the truth and when she had exhausted all the usual channels she decided to go it alone. Perhaps it would help exorcise the demons. She shivered. Walking faster, slipping and sliding, not caring any more; she had to know. It was time.

With her head bent low into the breeze, she trudged through the town as quickly as the frozen footpaths would allow. She looked up at the twin spires of the cathedral as she entered through the wrought iron gates and automatically blessed herself. Someone had thrown handfuls of salt on the concrete steps and it crunched beneath her boots. The snow eased and a low wintery sun glinted from behind dark clouds. She pushed open the large door, stamped her numb feet on the rubber mat and, as the echo of the closing door muted, she stepped into the silence.

Removing the earphones, she left them dangling on her shoulders. Though she had walked for half an hour, she was freezing. The east wind had cut through the layers of clothing and her scant body fat could not protect her fifty-one-year-old bones. Rubbing her face, she streaked a finger around her sunken eyes and blinked away the water streaming from them. She tried to refocus in the semi-darkness. Candles on the side altar illuminated shadows along the mosaic walls. Weak sunlight petered through the stained glass windows high above the Stations of the Cross and Susan walked slowly through the sepia haze, sniffing the aroma of incense in the air.

Bowing her head, she sidled into the front row, the wooden kneeler jolting her joints. She blessed herself again, wondering how she still had a modicum of religion after all she had done, all she’d been through. Feeling alone in the silence, she thought how ironic it was that he had suggested meeting in the cathedral. She had agreed because she believed there would be plenty of people around at that time of day. Safe. But it was empty, the weather had kept them away.

A door opened and closed, sending a whoosh of wind up the centre aisle. Susan knew it was him. Fear numbed her. She couldn’t look around. Instead, she stared straight ahead at the candle above the tabernacle until it blurred.

Footsteps, slow and determined, echoed up the aisle. The seat behind her creaked as he knelt. A fog of cold air swarmed around her, and his distinctive scent vied with the incense. She raised herself from her kneeling position and sat back. His breath, short sharp puffs, the only sound she could hear. She felt him without him having touched her. At once, she knew this was a mistake. He was not here to answer her questions. He would not give her the closure she craved.

‘You should have minded your own business.’ His voice, a harsh whisper.

She could not answer. Her breathing quickened and her heart thumped against her ribs, reverberating in her eardrums. She clenched her fingers into fists, knuckles white underneath thin skin. She wanted to run, to get away, far away, but her energy was spent and she knew it was now her time.

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