Her Missing Child – Kerry Watts

The deafening horn blast from the rusting white van startled her. Her eyes were stretched wide at the sudden sound, but her chaotic mind remained elsewhere. The heavily tattooed driver mouthed his discontent through the window and gesticulated with his fist. This was quickly followed by a close shave with a taxi, which had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting her. ‘Idiot! Watch where you’re going!’ The taxi driver’s gesture went unnoticed. She ran on past an elderly couple she recognised from the village, but her cloudy mind couldn’t recall their names. They gasped as she narrowly missed their neatly groomed bichon frise. ‘Watch where you’re going, lassie!’ The man tutted as his wife clung to his arm, the small dog barking at her as she left them behind. She couldn’t stop. She mustn’t. Her mind was racing so fast she didn’t notice the man ahead of her until she had already collided with him, sending her to the ground. The man reached out his sweaty hand to help her up. She took it, got to her feet and ran on with barely a backward glance. That was close. ‘You’re welcome,’ the man growled breathlessly, before pushing his earbuds back in and moving off, muttering something inaudible under his breath.

She ran on, towards the children heading home from school. She narrowed her eyes at them as they passed, laughing and pointing at her. Two young mothers, both seemingly startled by her appearance, frowned in her direction before continuing to fuss with their toddlers, each already trussed up in thick ski suits. The cold wind blew harder, and the wind turbines that sat high above the village in the Ochil Hills spun with gusto as thick white clouds sped across the horizon. She was dressed only in skinny blue jeans and an orange T-shirt, and damp strands of her wavy auburn hair dangled across her face. But she couldn’t stop. On she ran, past the village school, moving against the flow of children and parents all chattering and laughing about their day, all the while repeating the word ‘no’ to herself. ‘Hey, are you OK?’ one father called out as he watched her slice through the crowd, but still she couldn’t stop. Finally clear of the throng, she headed towards the Moncreiffe Hill woodland. Hurry up.

They’re coming. ‘I know, I know,’ she called out into the freezing air. She had to get out of the village. It had all happened so quickly. Why couldn’t she just have done what she was supposed to do today? If she had just gone there instead, this wouldn’t be happening. Her legs burned from running and her toes felt numb in the bitter January chill. Snow had been falling in the village for three days, and forecasters predicted the coldest winter for decades was on its way. As she passed McCabe’s garage, co-proprietor Tim McCabe was alarmed at the state of her. He considered calling out to see if she was OK, but his brother Peter had told him to stay out of sight. Tim watched her cross the bridge and head towards the entrance to Moncreiffe Wood, thinking she looked worse than he’d seen her for a long time.

He eyed his van keys on the office table, before deciding it’d be quicker on foot – if he hurried he could catch up to her, no problem. His phone buzzed in his pocket. Peter. He answered it. ‘Aye, I know. I can handle it,’ Tim growled at his brother. ‘Just get back here, will you? I don’t see why I should be the one taking all the risk.’ He hung up and stuffed his phone deep into the pocket of his overalls. I don’t see why he even asked me if he doesn’t trust me, Tim thought, as he watched her figure disappear up the snow-covered path between the trees. Her chest tightened, as if caught in a vice, as she struggled to run uphill.

Her heart pounded, and she jumped at the sound of the collared doves scattering above her. Their sudden flight caused snow to fall from the branches onto her already sweat-soaked hair. She ran because she’d panicked. It was just so awful – she couldn’t bear it. ‘OK, calm down, calm down.’ She tried to remember to breathe. In and out. In and out. She couldn’t think. Her brain seemed to have locked away her ability to process thoughts and she couldn’t find the key, no matter how hard she tried.

All she felt was a heavy fog. A cloudy mist floating inside her head where the solution to this horrific problem should be. Why did she have to listen to them? Her fists tightened into balls and she hammered them against her thighs. She wanted to cry out. For something, anything to fix it. ‘What are you staring at?’ she screamed at a passing jogger, who’d simply glanced her way from further up the track while adjusting the handles on her rucksack. The girl couldn’t handle this on her own any longer. They were going to be so angry with her. She sobbed uncontrollably and paced back and forth up the track, tugging on her knotted hair. Her whole body trembled in the freezing cold.

Finally, she grabbed her phone and called the only person she knew who could fix this. ‘It’s me, I’ve done something terrible. You have to come. I am so sorry,’ she cried, her words almost lost in the foam of fizzy tears. ‘You have to hurry before anyone else finds out. She can’t ever know it was me.’ ONE Dianne Davidson tightened her blue scarf against the bitter chill, the wind catching her as she rounded the bend at the furthest end of Moncreiffe Wood from the village of Bridge of Earn, parallel to the main Edinburgh–Perth road. The surgeon had been right. Exercise was great in helping her recover from the hysterectomy. This was a long walk – three miles – and it had taken her and her young Labrador, Benson, a good hour and a half, but it hadn’t felt that far at all.

The bright winter sun was encouraging, necessarily so, given that Dianne’s mood when she got up that morning had been anything but bright. Two years ago to the day, but Dianne remembered that morning as if it were yesterday. She rubbed her gloved hand across the back of her neck, wiping away the stubborn patch of moisture that had gathered under her scarf from the bottom of her short brown hair. It would have been a good idea to dry her hair after her shower, perhaps, but the beckoning sunshine and Benson’s barking had made her skip it. As she reached her bench, Dianne pulled the small bunch of white carnations, tied neatly in a pink silk ribbon, from inside the bag and lowered herself onto the bench to rest. Benson stopped to look back to where his mistress had interrupted his walk and whimpered before turning to join her. He sat down close to Dianne’s knee and lifted a paw to pat her leg. Dianne smiled at his gesture. He had been more like a therapy pet than just a dog to her these past eighteen months. Dianne had barely been able to cross the front door for six months after it happened.

Thank goodness for her husband Colin, too; without him she didn’t know what she would have done. He’d lost a child as well, though. She laid the flowers against the back of the bench and wiped away the single tear that gathered. She promised herself she wouldn’t cry today. Instead she would try to remember the happy, warm memories Stacey had created for her. Her first smile. Her first laugh. The way she’d raged with determination to roll over that first time. Her baby daughter had a lot to say for someone so young. Six months wasn’t nearly long enough to have had her in her life.

It was explained away as a cot death, but Dianne had done everything right, hadn’t she? Didn’t she try to make sure she followed all the advice? When it happened, she wondered if people would blame her. Were they accusing her with their eyes, if not their words? She knew people were whispering behind her back. It didn’t matter how many times Colin tried to reassure her that was not true. She opened the bag again and pulled out the soft blue blanket. She held it close to her face and closed her eyes. That smell. The unmistakable baby smell. There was nothing in the world that compared to the sweet scent of a baby. Her mind filled with a sense of soothing comfort. Benson pawed her once more and whimpered, pulling her out of her trance.

He was so in tune with her mood. ‘It’s OK, silly,’ Dianne smiled at him. ‘Mummy’s fine.’ Benson barked loudly, just once. One short, sharp, deep bark, but certainly enough to startle a young doe, Dianne only catching a flash of the animal as it bolted deeper into the trees. The deer’s hurried flight caused a grey squirrel to scamper up the nearest tree it could find – the scaly trunk of a Scots pine. Dianne sighed contentedly, rubbed Benson roughly behind his ears and then leaned down to kiss the top of his big brown head. ‘You big softy. You are a silly boy, aren’t you?’ she teased, and he nuzzled his face deeper into her legs, almost lifting them off the ground with the force of his near thirtykilogram bulk. ‘Hey, hey you, calm down, young man.

’ She pulled a treat from the pocket of her duffle coat and watched him devour it in one bite. He really was a tonic. But another, human tonic had crash-landed into Dianne’s life six months ago. One that had done more good than any antidepressant or counsellor or hyperactive puppy. Dianne’s mouth had dropped open in horror when she saw the tatty white van pull into the drive of the empty bungalow next door. Her horror had deepened when out of it had climbed a young couple, the girl barely into her twenties, covered in tattoos and sporting a nose ring. But what had really filled Dianne with dread was the fact that the girl had been heavily pregnant. The young couple, it transpired, couldn’t have been nicer, but Claire Lucas didn’t take to motherhood as naturally as Dianne had, which only increased the bittersweet taste of having a new baby next door. As the weeks had gone by, Claire had been diagnosed with post-natal depression, and Dianne had found herself doing more and more for little Finlay Lucas – things that his mother should really have been doing but wasn’t able to. Dianne didn’t resent it – she enjoyed every minute of the time she spent feeding, bathing and taking care of this gorgeous baby boy, rediscovering some of the happiness she and Colin had been so cruelly robbed of.

Pushing Finlay around the village in his pram felt right. Dianne felt whole again somehow. But in recent days it was getting harder and harder to give him back. Back to a house that was dirty and chaotic. To a mother who seemed indifferent to him. She wanted to give Claire a shake and scream Look at your son! This beautiful boy. Cherish him. Treasure every moment you get to spend with him. Dianne lifted Finlay’s blanket to her cheek and rubbed it gently over her skin, inhaling its scent one last time. She smiled.

Her racing heart slowed while she folded and tucked the blanket back down into the bottom of her bag. She picked up Benson’s lead and stood up from the bench. She kissed the tips of the gloved fingers of one hand and laid them gently on the bench’s small silver plaque, which simply read: For Stacey x. Her iPhone buzzed in her pocket and she read the email and grinned. Their plane tickets were confirmed. She hoped Colin would be as excited as she was. ‘Come on, Benny boy.’ She patted her leg and tossed the dog’s ball ahead of them, and he shot after his toy without having to be told twice. Despite the date, today was a good day. The first day of the rest of their lives.

They could finally put the past behind them and start again. She couldn’t wait to surprise Colin. TWO Darren Lucas was exhausted, and yawned as he pulled into his drive. He switched off the engine and flopped his head back into the headrest then exhaled a long, slow breath before going inside to face her. He wondered what kind of mood she would be in – it was like walking on eggshells these days. On top of that, working for his father-in-law was taking it out of him. As well as taking care of Finlay during the night. Stopping by Maggie’s to share a stolen few moments had probably not been a good idea in his already exhausted state. Darren was ready for bed, but knew it would be a long time before his head would hit the pillow. He yawned again and waved to his neighbour, Colin Davidson, who nodded while he dropped a large black bag into his wheelie bin.

Darren stared at his own overflowing bin and told himself that he must remember to wheel it out later tonight after missing the collection last time round. ‘It’s another cold one,’ Colin Davidson called out. ‘Roll on spring,’ he chuckled and blew warmth into his freezing-cold hands. ‘Aye, it’s bitter the night,’ Darren called back, before heading round to the back door. He unzipped his fleece and slung it over one of the kitchen chairs, cursing under his breath at the heat. How many times did he keep telling Claire they didn’t need the heating on so high? They were already behind with the gas and electric, among other things. He called out to her as he tossed his keys onto the hall table, before seeing her slumped on the sofa, surrounded by the debris she’d said she would tidy that morning. He shook his head and grabbed a towel from the pile of laundry on the kitchen table. He needed a shower, needed to wash Maggie off him. Stopping by her place on his way home had become a habit.

A habit that helped him deal with the stress he was facing at home. Darren hadn’t planned to have an affair. She was Claire’s best friend, after all. But it just sort of happened. He snatched up a clean T-shirt and joggers from another laundry pile in the corner of the bedroom and sniffed them. They didn’t smell of washing powder, but they were passable. He switched on the hot jets of water and peeled his sweaty work shirt over his head, then tossed it towards the laundry basket in the corner of the bathroom. He wiped the fog off the steamed-up mirror and glanced at his reflection. He did look tired. More like his thirties than his mid-twenties.

He stepped into the shower and stood under the steaming-hot flow, trying to wash away his guilt. ‘Thanks babe,’ Darren took a huge swig from the mug of tea Claire had made for him while he showered. He’d been gasping for a brew and had quickly sunk more than half the mug in a couple of large gulps. He rubbed at his hair with his towel and sank the remainder of his tea before clicking the kettle on again. ‘How’s your day been?’ he asked his wife. ‘There’s more in the pot,’ she responded, deliberately avoiding his question. ‘You’re a lifesaver.’ Darren moved closer and reached out towards her cheek. He might have even dropped a gentle kiss on it, but she flinched as soon as he got too close. He settled for a smile instead.

‘Thanks.’ Claire’s half-smile in return betrayed her discomfort. ‘Here you go.’ Claire handed him the milk. ‘Cheers, you want one?’ he asked as he poured. Claire scrunched up her nose and shook her head. ‘I’m fine. How was your day?’ There was a time when all he had to do was brush past her or run his fingers through her hair and they would be in bed within minutes. Sometimes they didn’t even make it into the bedroom. Perhaps if that was still the case he wouldn’t have turned to Maggie.

Post-natal depression had ended their sex life months ago. Not that Darren blamed Finlay. Not for one second would he blame his son. He just wished life was different. ‘Oh, you know, busy,’ he answered with a shrug. He yawned then glanced at the clock. ‘The wee man having a nap at this time?’ Darren did his best to conceal his frustration. ‘He won’t go down for ages now.’ ‘Don’t have a go at me, Darren – you’re just in the door. I’m the one that’s been here with him all day.

What if I wanted a bit of peace?’ Her defensive response was the default these days. ‘It’s OK for you. You have a life outside these four walls.’ Darren turned away and rolled his eyes. There was nothing to be gained by pursuing the point. It wasn’t Claire that would have to deal with Finlay at midnight or worse tonight. She would have a headache, or she would be too tired. Darren did try to understand what she was going through, he really did. The health visitor had given him enough leaflets on post-natal depression that he could probably tell you everything there was to know about pregnancy and antidepressants and even therapy. He loved Claire and he absolutely worshipped his son, but Darren could do with a good night’s sleep, too.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept right through. ‘I’m not having a go, Claire, forget I said anything.’ Claire shot him a glance of indignation before storming out of the kitchen. Darren tossed his mug into the sink, splashing himself with the last drops of tea. He stood by the sink and peered out through the blinds. He could see right into Dianne and Colin’s kitchen window. He could see them laughing together. They looked happy. Maybe one day he and Claire would be happy like that. Darren allowed the blind to fall.

He needed a hug from his boy. Finlay should be wakened anyway, otherwise it really would be late before Darren could get to bed and he was already exhausted. He couldn’t just lie down whenever he pleased. Darren closed the living room door as he passed, leaving Claire sitting in front of the television. He shook his head gently and sighed as he scratched at his messy brown hair then pushed Finlay’s bedroom door open with one finger. He felt bad about waking him from his peaceful slumber, but sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want. He moved through the darkness to switch on Finlay’s Winnie-the-Pooh lamp on his bedside table. He flicked through a story book he didn’t recognise, figuring Dianne must have bought it for him. She was always buying Finlay books. He and Claire were damn lucky to have them around.

Dianne had been a godsend when Claire’s depression was at its worst. Darren turned to Finlay’s cot and smiled. ‘Hey, wee man, Daddy’s home and needs a big hug from his baby boy. Time you were—’ Darren’s heart thundered in his chest. He grabbed at the blanket and tossed it aside. His son was gone. THREE ‘Claire!’ Darren screamed and raced into the living room. ‘Claire, where is he?’ Claire frowned and sat bolt upright. ‘What? Where’s who?’ ‘Who the hell do you think I mean?’ Darren growled. ‘Where’s Finlay?’ Claire leaped up from the sofa and ran into Finlay’s room.

She grabbed at the blanket, then threw it back into his cot. ‘Where is he?’ she roared at Darren. ‘I don’t bloody know! Is he with Dianne?’ He raced out the back door, skidding on the icy path, hopped the fence and hammered on the Davidsons’ back door. The support they’d received from Dianne could never be repaid, but it was unusual for her to have Finlay with her at this time of the day. She knew that Darren would be home to take care of him. Colin opened the door, still drying his hands on a tea towel. ‘Darren, what’s wrong?’ ‘Is Finlay here?’ Darren shouted, trying to barge past him. ‘Has Dianne got him?’ Dianne overheard Darren’s panicked voice. ‘What’s happened, Darren? Come in, come in, sit down.’ ‘No, I just want to know if he’s here with you.

’ Dianne stared over Darren’s shoulder at the shell-shocked look on Claire’s face, the young mother having caught her husband up. Dianne clasped her hands to her mouth. ‘No, of course he’s not here,’ Colin said, pulling his mobile phone from his pocket. ‘Why would he be here?’ ‘Then where is he?’ Darren shouted, panic now soaring round his blood. ‘Where the hell is he?’ ‘I’m calling the police,’ Colin announced, trying to keep his voice level despite the horror on Darren’s face. Dianne pulled the back door behind her as the group headed back into Darren and Claire’s, past the chaos of unmatched shoes that littered the kitchen doorway. ‘Let’s not jump to conc—’ Dianne started. ‘Let’s not jump to conclusions? What’s that supposed to mean?’ Darren blasted, his terror reaching fever pitch. ‘My little boy wasn’t in his cot where his mother left him!’ ‘The police are coming,’ Colin told them. He glanced anxiously at Dianne, who avoided his gaze.

FOUR Detective Inspector Jessie Blake wanted to put the card out of her mind and just enjoy her evening. It was her fortieth birthday after all, and her colleague Dylan and his wife Shelly had gone to so much trouble over this meal, despite the tiredness that plagued this stage of Shelly’s pregnancy. When Dylan’s suggestion of drinks didn’t suit, he insisted Jessie should at least come for dinner, that she had to celebrate such a landmark. Jessie told herself turning forty was just a number, but the reality was she’d always imagined herself settled with a couple of kids by now. She hadn’t dared tell anyone about the birthday card her ex-husband had sent her. She wanted to put Dan’s attempt at manipulation out of her mind tonight, because that’s all it was. Another way to control her. She was convinced of that. ‘Here we go,’ Shelly announced when she switched off the dining room light. ‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Jessie, happy birthday to you.

’ She placed a delicious-looking chocolate sponge cake on the table with two candles shining on top. ‘Remember to make a wish.’ Dylan winked and grinned, then sipped from his glass. Jessie smiled and shook her head before blowing out her candles. ‘Thanks, guys, this is so sweet of you. You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.’ ‘Nonsense,’ Shelly passed Jessie a plate with a large slice of cake and licked the chocolate frosting from her thumb. ‘You only turn forty once, don’t you?’ Jessie shot an appreciative glance at Dylan. ‘Thank you, both of you. I really appreciate everything you’ve done.

’ Jessie wondered if she should tell Dylan about the card. ‘Shall we take our cake and coffee to a soft seat?’ Shelly suggested. Her hand drifted to her heavily pregnant belly and she winced. ‘Ouch! Damn Braxton Hicks.’ Jessie smiled, desperate to ask if she could feel their baby kicking, but resisted. That would be too weird, right? ‘Not long now, huh?’ ‘Can’t come soon enough,’ Shelly announced as another kick hammered inside her. ‘I think this might be a footballer we’ve got cooking in here.’ ‘I’ll start clearing these plates.’ Dylan kissed Shelly’s cheek. ‘Cracking meal, hon.

Go through, Jess, and I’ll join you both in a minute.’ Just as he said it, their toddler son Jack’s cry echoed from his bedroom at the top of the stairs. ‘I’ll go,’ Shelly said. ‘You two go and have your cake.’ Dylan laid the plates in the sink, then joined Jessie in the living room. ‘It’s some view, isn’t it?’ he pointed out as he stood next to her by the large bay window. ‘Aye, you’re not wrong.’ Jessie looked out at the far-reaching view of the hills, silhouetted by the moonlight in the distance. The tops of the wind turbines seeming to touch the sky. ‘Worth every penny.

’ He smiled. ‘We needed something with a decent garden for the wee man.’ Jessie nodded. ‘Three bedrooms, too, for the increasing number of Logans.’ A wry smile crept across Dylan’s lips before he sipped his coffee. In that moment, Jessie felt lonelier than she had for a long time. She was relieved to hear her phone ring in her bag on the sofa, but frowned as she checked the display. ‘It’s the station.’ She pursed her lips as she answered. ‘Hey, boss.

What’s up?’ Dylan sank the last of his coffee and laid his mug on the table, watching with concern the growing look of horror on Jessie’s face. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked. Jessie held her hand up to silence him. ‘OK, text me the address. We’re on our way.’ She hung up and waited for the address, then thrust her phone into her trouser pocket. ‘A missing baby, Dylan. Come on. Uniform are already on the scene.’ Dylan slipped into his heavy boots then grabbed his thick down jacket from the peg.

It was freezing out there, and he didn’t know how long he would be gone. He peered round Jack’s bedroom door to see Shelly cradling their almost eighteen-month-old son in her arms in an attempt to rock him back to sleep. She lifted her finger to her lips. ‘Work – an urgent one. I love you, don’t wait up,’ Dylan whispered then blew them both a small kiss. ‘We’ll take my car,’ Jessie suggested as he joined her outside. ‘Six-month-old Finlay Lucas. Last seen when his mum Claire laid him down for a nap. Father Darren went to get him, and Finlay wasn’t in his cot. He went to his next-door neighbours to see if they had him.

’ Jessie tugged on her seat belt then started the engine. ‘Why would he think the neighbours had him?’ Dylan asked. ‘Sounds a bit weird.’ ‘Neighbour helps out a lot, apparently. Takes Finlay out for walks to give the parents a break. Helps in the house. That kind of thing. Not sure, but she might even have a key.’ Jessie’s wheels spat up the gravel in Dylan’s drive before she turned towards the M90. ‘Where are we headed then, boss?’ ‘Claire and Darren Lucas live in Bridge of Earn.

Their house backs onto the burn.’ ‘Shit, Shelly’s frae the Brig.’ Jessie turned to face him and grinned. ‘The Brig? Since when did you become a yokel, Dylan Logan?’

.

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