Games People Play

It happened so fast. One minute she was swimming, the next the current was dragging her to the bottom. Seawater flooded her mouth. She fought, thrashed to the surface and tried to shout; a hoarse whisper was all that came. Her head went under and stayed under. Her lungs were on fire. With no warning it released her and she saw blue sky. Jennifer gulped shallow ragged breaths, shocked and scared, and started towards her family. She would never leave them again. But the decision was no longer hers. The force drew her back into a world without light or oxygen and this time it didn’t let go. Her arm broke free in a desperate attempt to escape. Tongues of spray pulled it down and Jennifer knew she was goingto drown. She’d dreamed of watching her daughter grow into a woman. That would never be. And Mark, poor Mark. How unfair to leave him. Her body rolled beneath the waves. She stopped struggling, closed her eyes and disappeared from sight. Seconds passed before Mark realised something wasn’t right. ‘Where’s mummy? Where’s your mummy?’ The baby sucked her thumb. ‘Where is she, Lily?’ At first he couldn’t move. Cold fear consumed him. A hundred yards away a group of boys played football; apart from them the beach was deserted. He yelled. They didn’t hear him. He threw the push-chair to the sand, yanked it open and sat Lily in it. His hands were shaking. The damned straps wouldn’t fasten. He spoke to himself. ‘Please god, no. Please god, no’ and raced into the sea. The water was freezing. What the hell had Jen been thinking? This was Scotland, for Christ sake. He swam to where he’d last seen her and went under. Mark was a good swimmer but it was dark. His frantic fingers searched until the pressure in his chest forced him to the surface. He took in as much air as he could and went back. Something bumped against him; he grabbed hold and dragged it up. Two boys ran into the water to help: the footballers. They hauled her body the last few yards and Mark fell to his knees. Jennifer wasn’t breathing. People appeared on the beach, silent witnesses to the nightmare the day had become. Where had they been when he needed them? He shouted, half in anger half in desperation. ‘Somebody call an ambulance!’ The crowd kept a respectful distance, believing what he believed, that he’d lost her. Jennifer’s face was white. Mark covered her mouth with his and breathed into her. His hands pressed against her chest demanding she come back to him. One of the boys took over with no better luck. Mark tried again, refusing to let her go. He pumped her heart, whimpering like a child, sobbing for himself as well as his wife. Jennifer’s eyes fluttered; she retched and vomited water. Mark turned her on her side and rubbed her back, whispering reassurance, blinded by tears, aware his prayers had been answered. A siren sounded in the distance. It was going to be all right. She was safe. They would be together again. The three of them. He raised his head and saw ambulance-men racing towards him across the sand. Mark jumped to his feet. They must have drifted... except the boat was there. His voice rose from a cry to a scream. ‘Lily. Lily!’ He spoke to the group who had offered nothing. ‘I left a baby here, somebody must’ve seen her.’ They stared, no idea what he was talking about. A new terror seized him. He ran a few steps up and down the beach, lost and afraid. The bag lay where Jennifer dropped it. But no push-chair. No sign his daughter had ever been there. Lily was gone.

Thirteen-month-old Lily Hamilton is abducted from Ayr beach in Scotland while her parents are just yards away. Three days later the distraught father turns up at private investigator Charlie Cameron's office. Mark Hamilton believes he knows who has stolen his daughter. And why. Against his better judgment Charlie gets involved in the case and when more bodies are discovered the awful truth dawns: there is a serial killer whose work has gone undetected for decades. Is baby Lily the latest victim of a madman? For Charlie it’s too late, he can’t let go. His demons won’t let him.
Owen Mullen is a Bloody Scotland McIlvanney Crime Book Of The Year long-listed novelist. His latest novel And So It Began is a Sunday Times Crime Club ⭐Star Pick.