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Six severed arms are discovered, arranged in a mysterious circle and buried in a clearing in the woods. Five of them appear to belong to missing girls between the ages of eight and eighteen. The sixth is yet to be identified. Worse still, the girls’ bodies, alive or dead, are nowhere to be found.
Lead investigators Mila Vasquez, a celebrated profiler, and Goran Gavila, an eerily prescient criminologist, dive into the case. They’re confident they’ve got the right suspect in their sights until they discover no link between him and any of the kidnappings except the first. The evidence in the case of the second missing child points in a vastly different direction, creating more questions than it answers.
Vasquez and Gavila begin to wonder if they’ve been brought in to take the fall in a near-hopeless case. Is it all coincidence? Or is a copycat criminal at work? Obsessed with a case that becomes more tangled and intense as they unravel the layers of evil, Gavila and Vasquez find that their lives are increasingly in each other’s hands.
The Whisperer, as sensational a bestseller in Europe as the Stieg Larsson novels, is that rare creation: a thought-provoking, intelligent thriller that is also utterly unputdownable.
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Penitential district no. 45
Report of the Director, Alphonse Bérenger
For the attention of the Office of the
District Attorney, J. B. Marin
Dear Mr. Marin
I wish to inform you about the strange case of one of our inmates.
The individual in question is prisoner number RK-357/9. We can only refer to him in this way, since he has consistently refused to supply his personal information.
His arrest occurred on 22 October. The man was wandering at night—alone and naked—along a country road near the town of •••••.
A comparison between the subject's fingerprints with those contained in the archives ruled out his involvement in previous crimes or in cold cases. Nonetheless, his repeated refusal to reveal his own identity, even before a judge, earned him a sentence of four months and eighteen days in prison.
Since the moment he set foot in the penitentiary, inmate RK-357/9 has never shown any sign of indiscipline, and has always respected prison rules. The subject is of a solitary disposition and reluctant to socialize. Perhaps for that reason no one has been aware of one particular trait of his, which has only recently been noticed by one of our warders. Prisoner RK-357/9 wipes and rubs with a piece of felt each object with which he comes into contact; he collects all the hairs that he loses each day; he polishes to perfection the sink, the taps and the toilet each time he uses them.
We are plainly dealing with someone with a mania for hygiene, or, more likely, an individual who wants at all costs to avoid leaving behind "organic material."
We therefore seriously suspect that prisoner RK-357/9 has committed a particularly serious crime and wants to prevent us from taking his DNA to identify him.
So far the subject has been sharing his cell with another recluse, which has certainly helped him in his task of mixing up his own biological traces. Thus our first measure since discovering his habit has been to remove him from this social setting and put him in isolation.
I am informing you of the above to start the appropriate investigation and request, if necessary, an urgent measure to force prisoner RK-357/9 to provide a DNA sample.
The matter is urgent because in precisely 109 days (on 12 March) the subject will have served his sentence.
Dr. Alphonse Bérenger
Somewhere near W.
The big moth carried him along, moving by memory through the night. It quivered its dusty wings, weaving through the mountains that lay like giants sleeping back to back.
Above them, a velvet sky. Below, the dense forest.
The pilot turned towards the passenger and pointed ahead to a huge white hole in the ground that looked like the glowing throat of a volcano.
The helicopter veered off in that direction.
Seven minutes later they landed on the verge of the highway. The road was closed, and the area was guarded by police. A man in a blue suit walked beneath the blades and welcomed the passenger, holding down his flyaway tie as best he could.
"Dr. Gavila, we've been expecting you," he said loudly to keep his voice from being drowned out by the noise of the rotors.
Goran Gavila didn't reply.
Special Agent Stern went on: "Come with me, I'll explain on the way."
They walked along a makeshift path, leaving behind them the sound of the helicopter, which was gaining altitude again, sucked up into an inky sky.
The fog rolled like a shroud, blurring the outlines of the hills. Around them, the aromas of the forest, mixed and sweetened by the damp of night that rose up inside their clothes, creeping coldly along their skin.
"It hasn't been easy, I assure you: you really have to see it with your own eyes."
Agent Stern walked a few steps ahead of Goran, pushing his way through the bushes with his hands, talking to him without looking round.
"It all kicked off this morning, at about eleven. Two little boys are walking along the path with their dog. They enter the forest, climb the hill and come into the clearing. The dog is a Labrador and, as you know, they're dogs that like to dig…so suddenly the animal goes mad because it's caught a scent. It digs a hole. And out comes the first one."
Goran tried to keep pace as they made their way into increasingly dense vegetation along the slope that was gradually becoming steeper. He noticed that Stern had a little tear in his trousers, at knee height, a sign that he had come this way several times that night.
"Obviously the boys run away immediately, and alert the local police," the officer continued. "They arrive, carry out an examination of the place, the hills, looking for clues. So far, all routine activity. Then someone thinks of digging again to see if there's anything else…and out comes the second one! At this point they called us: we've been here since three now. We still don't know how much stuff there is under there. So, here we are…"
A little clearing opened up in front of them, lit by spotlights—the volcano's shining mouth. Suddenly the scents of the forest vanished, and the men were struck by an unmistakable stench. Goran lifted his head, allowing the smell to fill him. Phenic acid, he said to himself.
And then he saw it.
A circle of little graves. And about thirty men in white overalls digging in that Martian halogen light, armed with little spades and brushes to move the earth as delicately as possible. Some of them were combing the grass, others taking photographs and carefully cataloging everything they found. They moved in slow motion. Their gestures were precise, calibrated, hypnotic, wrapped in sacral silence broken only by the occasional little explosions of the flashes.
Goran could see special agents Sarah Rosa and Klaus Boris. And Roche, the chief inspector, who recognized him and immediately came striding over. Before he could open his mouth, Goran cut in with a question.
"Five. Each one is fifty centimeters long, by twenty wide and fifty deep…What do you think you would bury in holes like that?"
One thing in all of them. The same thing.
The criminologist stared at him expectantly.
The reply came: "A left arm."
Goran turned to look at the men in the white overalls working away in that absurd woodland cemetery. The ground yielded only decomposing remains, but the origin of the evil that brought them here must lie somewhere before this unreal and suspended time.
"Is it them?" Goran asked. But this time he already knew the reply.
"According to the PCR analysis they're female. They're also Caucasian and between the ages of seven and thirteen…"
Roche uttered the phrase without any inflection in his voice. Like spittle that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth if you keep it in.
Debby. Anneke. Sabine. Melissa. Caroline.
It had started twenty-five days before, like a little story in a provincial magazine: the disappearance of a young student from a prestigious boarding school for the children of the rich. Everyone thought she'd run away. The girl in question was twelve and her name was Debby. Her schoolmates remembered seeing her leaving at the end of lessons. They'd only noticed her absence from the girls' dormitory during the evening register. It looked very much like one of those events that make a middle-sized article on the third page, and then fade quietly away into Other News, waiting for a predictable happy ending.
And then Anneke had disappeared.
She was from a little village with wooden houses and a white church. Anneke was ten. At first they had thought she'd got lost in the woods, where she often went on her mountain bike. The whole of the local population had joined the search party. But without success.
Before they could work out what was really going on, it had happened again.
The third was called Sabine; she was the youngest, seven years old. It had happened in town, on Saturday evening. She had gone to the fairground with her parents, like lots of other families with children. There she had climbed onto a horse on the merry-go-round, which was full of children. Her mother had watched her go round once, and waved. And a second time, and waved again. The third time, Sabine wasn't there.
It was only then that someone had started thinking that three children disappearing over three days might amount to an anomaly.
Searches had started on a large scale. There had been television appeals. Suddenly people were talking in terms of one maniac or several, perhaps a whole gang. But there were no clues to help them narrow it down. The police had set up a dedicated hotline to collect information, including anonymous tip-offs. There had been hundreds of leads; it would have taken months to check them all. But of the little girls not a trace. To make matters worse, since the disappearances had happened in different places, the local police forces couldn't agree about which one had final responsibility.
That was when the violent crimes unit, run by Chief Inspector Roche, had been called in. Missing person cases didn't normally come under its jurisdiction, but because of the mounting hysteria these had been treated as an exception.
Roche and his men were already on the case when child number four disappeared.
Melissa was the oldest: thirteen. Like all girls of her age, she had been under a curfew from parents who feared she might become another victim of the maniac who was terrorizing the country. But her enforced seclusion had coincided with her birthday, and Melissa had other ideas for the evening. She and her friends had come up with a little escape plan to go and have a party in a bowling alley. All her friends arrived. Melissa was the only one who didn't show up.
From that point onwards a hunt had begun for the monster, one which was often confused and improvised on the spur of the moment. People had mobilized themselves, ready to take justice into their own hands. The police had set up road blocks all over the place. Checks on people who had been condemned or suspected of crimes against minors had been stepped up. Parents didn't dare send their children outside the house even for school. Many schools had been closed for lack of pupils. People left their homes only when it was strictly necessary. After a certain time of day, towns and villages were deserted.
For a few days there had been no news of fresh disappearances. Some people had started to think that all the measures and precautions applied had had the desired effect of discouraging the maniac. But they were wrong.
The abduction of the fifth little girl was the most sensational.
Her name was Caroline, aged eleven. She had been taken from her bed, as she slept in the room next to her parents, who hadn't noticed a thing.
Five little girls kidnapped in the course of a week. Then seventeen very long days of silence.
Until these five buried arms.
Debby. Anneke. Sabine. Melissa. Caroline.
Goran looked around at the circle of little trenches. A macabre game of ring-around-the-rosy. He could almost hear them chanting.
"From now on it's clear that we're no longer dealing with a case of missing persons," Roche said, beckoning everyone around him to deliver a brief speech.
They were used to this. Rosa, Boris and Stern joined him and listened, eyes fixed on the ground and hands clasped behind their backs.
Roche began: "I'm thinking of the person who has brought us here this evening. The person who predicted that all this would happen. We are here because he wanted us to be, because he imagined it. And he has constructed all of this for us. Because the spectacle is for us. He has prepared it all very carefully. Savoring the moment, savoring our reaction. To take us by surprise. To let us know who's big and powerful."
Whoever was responsible for this had gone completely unnoticed.
Roche, who had for some time included Gavila in the squad to all intents and purposes, noticed that the criminologist was distracted, his eyes motionless as he followed a train of thought.
"So, Dr. Gavila, what do you think?"
Goran emerged from the silence that had fallen, and said only, "The birds."
At first no one understood.
He continued, impassively: "I hadn't noticed on the way here, I've only spotted it now. It's strange. Listen…"
The voices of thousands of birds rose from the dark forest.
"They're singing," said Rosa, startled.
Goran turned towards her and gave a nod of agreement.
"It's the floodlights…they think this light is daybreak. And they're singing," Boris observed.
"Do you think it makes sense?" Goran went on, looking at them this time. "And yet it does…Five buried arms. Pieces. Without the bodies. We could say that there's no real cruelty in all this. Without the bodies, no faces. Without the faces, no individuals, not even people. We just have to ask ourselves, 'where are the children?' Because they aren't here, in these trenches. We can't look them in the eye. We can't see that they're like us. Because there's nothing human in any of this. There are only parts…No compassion. He didn't grant them any. He left us with nothing but fear. You can't feel pity for these little victims. He wants to let us know only that they are dead…Do you think that makes sense? Thousands of birds in the darkness, forced to sing in response to an impossible light. But it's the product of an illusion. And you have to be careful with illusionists: sometimes evil deceives us by assuming the simplest form of things."
Silence. Once again the criminologist had caught a small and telling symbolic meaning. What the others often couldn't see or—as in this case—hear. The details, the outlines, the nuances. The shadow surrounding things, the dark halo in which evil hides.
Every murderer has a "plan"—a precise form that brings him satisfaction, even pride. The hardest task is to understand what his vision is. That was why Goran was there. To banish that inexplicable evil with the reassuring notions of his science.
At that moment a technician in a white overall approached them and spoke directly to the chief inspector with a confused expression on his face.
"Mr. Roche, there could be a problem…there are six arms."
The music teacher had spoken.
But that wasn't what had struck her. It wasn't the first time. Lots of lonely people give voice to their own thoughts when they're in the safety of their own domestic walls. Even Mila sometimes talked to herself when she was at home.
No, it was something else that was new. And it was her reward for a whole week of waiting; sitting in the cold of her own car, constantly parked outside the brown house, peering inside with a little pair of binoculars at the movements of that fat, milky-white man in his forties as he moved calmly in his orderly little universe, always repeating the same gestures, weaving a web that only he was aware of.
The music teacher had spoken. But what was new was that this time he had uttered a name.
Mila had seen it emerging, letter by letter, on his lips. Pablo. It was the confirmation, the key to enter that mysterious world. Now she knew.
The music teacher had a guest.
Until almost ten days before, Pablo was only an eight-year-old boy with brown hair and bright eyes, who liked speeding around the area on his skateboard. And one thing was certain: if Pablo had to run an errand for his mother or his grandmother, he skated there. He spent hours on that thing, up and down the street. For the neighbors who saw him passing by their windows, little Pablito, as they all called him, was like one of those pictures that have become part of the landscape.
Perhaps that was why no one had seen him that February morning in the little residential district where everyone knew everyone else by name and houses and lives all seemed the same. A green Volvo station wagon—the music teacher must have chosen it because it was like so many other family cars parked in the driveways—appeared in the deserted street. The silence of a perfectly normal Saturday morning had been broken only by the slow squeak of the tarmac beneath the tires and the gray scrape of a skateboard progressively gaining speed…It was six long hours before anyone noticed that something was missing from the sound of that Saturday. That scrape. And that little Pablo, on a cold, sunny morning, had been swallowed up by a creeping shadow that wouldn't give him up, parting him from his beloved skateboard.
That four-wheeled plank had ended up lying motionless in the middle of a swarm of policemen who had taken over the area as soon as the report had come in.
Now, ten days later, it could be too late for Pablo. Too late for his frail child's psyche. Too late to wake up untraumatized from his nightmare.
Now the skateboard was in the boot of the policewoman's car, along with other objects: toys, clothes. Clues that Mila had sniffed out as she tried to find a trail to follow, and which had led her to this brown lair. To the music teacher, who taught in an institute of higher education and played the organ in church on Sunday morning. The vice president of the musical association that organized a little Mozart festival every year. The shy, anonymous bachelor with the glasses, the incipient baldness and the soft, sweaty hands.
Mila had observed him very carefully. Because that was her gift.
She had joined the police with a precise purpose and, after leaving the academy, had devoted herself to it completely. She wasn't interested in the criminals, let alone the law. That wasn't why she ceaselessly searched every corner where shadows lurked, where life rotted undisturbed.
As she read Pablo's name on the lips of his jailer, Mila became aware of a searing pain in her right leg. Perhaps it was from too many hours spent in the car waiting for that sign. Then again, perhaps it was from the wound in her thigh, which she had stitched herself.
I'll treat it properly later on, she promised herself. Afterwards, though. And as she formulated that thought, Mila realized that she was ready to enter the house, to break the spell and bring the nightmare to an end.
"Officer Mila Vasquez to headquarters: have identified suspected kidnapper of Pablo Ramos. The building is a brown house at 27 Viale Alberas. Possibly dangerous situation."
"Fine, Officer Vasquez, we're sending backup, but it'll be at least thirty minutes."
Mila didn't have that much time. Pablo didn't.
The terror of having to utter the words "it was too late" when giving her account of events impelled her towards the house.
The voice on the radio was a distant echo and—pistol in her fist, arm lowered across her body's center of gravity, eyes alert, quick, short steps—she reached the cream-colored fence that surrounded the rear of the little house.
An enormous plane tree loomed above her. The leaves changed color with the wind, showing their silvery outlines. Mila flattened herself against the fence and pricked up her ears. Every now and again the blast of a rock song reached her, carried on the wind from somewhere nearby. Mila leaned over the wooden gate and saw a well-tended garden, with a shed and a red rubber hose that snaked through the grass to a sprinkler. Plastic furniture and a gas barbecue. All very normal. A mauve door with frosted glass. Mila stretched an arm over the gate and delicately lifted the latch. The hinges squeaked and she opened the gate just wide enough to step into the garden.
She closed it again so that no one inside, looking out, would notice a change. Everything had to stay as it was. Then she walked as she had been taught in training, carefully weighing her steps on the grass—just with her toes, so as not to leave footprints—ready to leap if the need arose. A few moments later she found herself beside the back door, on the side from which she would cast no shadow when she leaned over to look inside the house. The frosted glass meant that she couldn't make out the interior, but from the outline of the furniture it looked like a sitting room. Mila ran her hand towards the handle on the opposite side of the door. She gripped it and pushed it down. The lock clicked.
It was open.
The music teacher must have felt safe in the lair that he had prepared for himself and his prisoner. Soon Mila would find out why.
The linoleum floor creaked beneath her rubber sole with each step she took. She tried to control her footsteps to keep from making too much noise, then she took off her trainers and left them beside a chair. Barefoot, she reached the entrance to the hall, and she heard him talking:
"I would also need a roll of kitchen paper. And that cleaning product you use for polishing porcelain…yes, that one…Then bring me six tins of chicken soup, some sugar, a copy of the TV guide and a few packets of cigarettes, lights, the usual brand…"
The voice came from the sitting room. The music teacher was shopping by phone. Too busy to leave the house? Or perhaps he didn't want to leave—he wanted to stay and keep an eye on his guest's every move?
"Yes, number 27 Viale Alberas, thank you. And bring change for fifty, because that's all I've got in the house."
Mila followed the voice, walking in front of a mirror that reflected a distorted version of her own image. Like the ones you see at funfairs. When she reached the door to the room, she stretched out her arms holding the pistol, took a breath and burst into the doorway. She expected to surprise him, perhaps from behind, with the receiver still in his hand, standing by the window. A perfect living target.
Which wasn't there.
The sitting room was empty, the receiver resting quite normally on the phone.
She realized that no one had made a phone call from that room when she felt the cold lips of a pistol resting like a kiss on the back of her neck.
He was behind her.
Mila cursed to herself, calling herself an idiot. The music teacher had prepared his lair well. The garden gate that squeaked and the linoleum floor that creaked were the alarms to signal the presence of intruders. Hence the fake phone call, the bait to attract his prey. The distorting mirror so that he could take up a position behind her without being seen. It was all part of the trap.
She felt him stretching his arm out in front of her, to take the gun from her. Mila let him do it.
"Shoot me, but there's no escape for you now. My colleagues will be here soon. You can't get away, you'll have to surrender."
He didn't reply. She could almost see him out of the corner of her eye. Was he smiling?
The music teacher took a step back. The barrel of the gun detached itself from Mila, but she could still feel that extension of magnetic attraction between her head and the bullet in the magazine. Then the man turned towards her and finally entered her field of vision. He stared at her for a long time. But without looking at her. There was something deep in his eyes that looked to Mila like the antechamber of darkness.
The music teacher turned round, fearlessly turning his back on her. Mila saw him walking confidently towards the piano against the wall. Reaching the instrument, the man sat down on the stool and looked at the keyboard. He set both pistols down on the far left.
He raised his hands and, a moment later, let them fall back on the keys.
- On Sale
- Dec 19, 2012
- Page Count
- 672 pages
- Mulholland Books