Authors: Anni Taylor
THE GAME YOU PLAYED
A N N I T A Y L O R
Two-year-old Tommy Basko goes missing from a popular inner-city playground.
Six months later, his parents begin receiving cryptic messages in rhyme about Tommy. The police don't believe the messages are from the abductor, but Tommy's mother Phoebe is certain they are.
Phoebe begins a frantic search for the writer of the rhymes, at the cost of causing her marriage to shatter. When the shocking identity of the message-writer is discovered, Phoebe's desperate race for the truth has only just begun.
Who took Tommy? And why?
Copyright Anni Taylor 2016
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and events are the product of the author’s imagination, else used fictitiously. Any resemblance to the above, or resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. Location of story is loosely based on Miller’s Point, Sydney. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, including by electronic means. Brief quotations are allowed. Permission in writing must be sought for any longer reproductions.
Cover design by Tim Carter
THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF PEOPLE in this world. People who steal other people and people who don’t.
There are lots of ways of stealing a person.
Grabbing a small child and running away with them is one of the worst ways of all.
Six months ago, you did that.
In the last days of December, the city of Sydney is shot with the blistering heat of summer, buzzing with festivals and exhibitions. The voices of Chinese, Japanese, British, American and other international tourists mingle with those of Australian couples and families.
At Darling Harbour, people dart in and out of the zoo, museums, and the IMAX, while diners people-watch from the open-air upmarket cafés and restaurants that hug the square-shaped harbour. In the middle of all this, a playground captures the children’s attention. The children grow shouty as they race from the water park to the giant slide to the climbing frames, their hands and faces sticky with ice-cream.
Luke and I were there then with our two-year-old son, Tommy.
You were there, too. Watching.
Waiting for your chance to snatch him.
Already, you had the letters prepared—the letters about Tommy you’d start sending us six months later.
The game was about to start. Only I didn’t know it.
SIX MONTHS AGO
LUKE AND TOMMY LOOKED MORE LIKE each other than Tommy looked like me. But Tommy had my eyes: a glossy, church-pew brown with a solemn stare. On my face, those eyes often appeared annoyingly pious, even if my thoughts were dark (which they quite often were).
But on Tommy’s cherubic two-year-old face, those eyes held people in the palm of his hand. If a film producer ever wanted a kid that looked like he could stare into your immortal soul, Tommy was that kid. His hair, like Luke’s, was a thick, tufty dark blond. We let it grow past his collar because it looked endlessly cute sticking out at the angles that it did. He still had a bit of his baby chubbiness in his legs, with dimples in his knees that looked like winking eyes when he ran.
Tommy’s knees were winking like a 1950s sailor’s eye right now. Luke, Tommy, and I had been at my grandmother’s house for twenty minutes, and Tommy was beginning to run everywhere.
He’d had as much sitting and playing quietly as his little body could handle. Now he needed to feel his body
All the while, he kept his plastic yacht tucked firmly under his right arm. He loved that boat the way some kids loved their teddy or comfort blanket.
Nan puckered her lips until they grew white—not because she wanted a kiss from anyone. “Can’t he read a book or something?”
“He’s two,” I told her, shrugging helplessly.
He’d only just turned two last month, and I still couldn’t get used to my baby becoming a toddler. Luke and I still referred to him as
“Tommy, buddy, please stop charging about,” Luke offered with a yawn in his voice. He sat there, too long and lanky for Nan’s sofa, tired as he always was after a week of wheeling and dealing at his real estate agency.
Tommy stopped and pumped up his cheeks with air. He waited until Nan busied herself with pouring out the tea again, and then in Tommy-sized increments (which weren’t nearly as subtle as he thought they were), he tiptoed over to her collection of ornaments that sat on a low table. He poked at her prize ornament, the one that Luke maintained looked like a bunny humping a lamb. I could only just hear Tommy whispering to himself,
no, no Tommy
as he poked it. I understood that this was one of Tommy’s little daily science experiments. Were the funny little animals going to hurt him or bite him?
Poke, poke, poke.
Were they hard or soft? Were they going to move or jump?
Poke, poke, poke.
“You know to stay away from that, Tommy.” I hated myself as I said it. I sounded so much harsher than Luke, so authoritarian.
Nan swivelled her head around, her mouth dropping open at Tommy’s disobedience.
Tommy fired a glare of indignation in my direction, giving the bunny-humping statue one last rebellious poke.
Why did Mummy and Daddy bring me here if I can’t play with the bright, shiny toys?
Stomping away, he climbed on the tricycle Nan had graciously allowed him to have in the hallway. The tricycle used to be mine. He was too small to actually ride it, and Nan knew that. I doubt she’d have let him have it if his feet could touch the pedals.
I’d had enough. “Nan, we won’t have that cup of tea. We’ll take Tommy to the playground.”
From the tricycle seat, Tommy’s eyes widened hopefully.
“But I’ve already poured it,” Nan objected.
To make my words definite, I stood. “I think Tommy’s reached his limit. I’d hate to see your things get broken.”
She’d had those ornaments ever since I could remember. I’d grown up in this house. My mother had grown up here, too. I could bet we were both told the same thing. Don’t touch the nice things. Learn to be good.
I tensed as I waited for Nan’s reply. I already knew what it was going to be.
“You need to make more of an effort with him.” She twisted to her feet, exaggerating every stiff movement. Somehow, we being here had made her joints lock up. She was old and arthritic and exhausted.
Yet, she’d made us tea! And Luke and I couldn’t even control one small child!
“He’s barely two,” I repeated, but my voice disintegrated under her glare.
We made a quick exit, stage right, while Nan muttered something I couldn’t quite catch.
The sun seemed impossibly bright as we stepped from the dim, enclosed space of Nan’s terrace house. December heat enveloped us. It was mid-summer—January only a few days away.
“Might be too hot for the playground.” I glanced at Luke, sweat prickling the back of my neck.
“Shouldn’t have said the P word, then.” Luke indicated down at Tommy, who was tugging Luke along by the hand.
I smiled ruefully. The playground was a long walk from here, but there was no point in trying to drive it. Sydney parking was a nightmare, unless you paid by the hour for it.
Forgetting the P word for a minute, Tommy paused to examine a flower that was poking its head out from between the posts of Nan’s fence. He batted at it, probably with the glee of knowing that his great-grandmother wasn’t here to stop him from doing that.
Luke bent to lift Tommy onto his shoulders. Tommy gazed at his lost flower with regret before realising his fortune at being taken up to this new, lofty position. He squealed, clutching handfuls of his father’s hair in sheer delight.
“Well, we’ve got the grandma thing out of the way for this week,” Luke drawled, yawning once more.
We lived on the same street as my grandmother, so we had no excuse for visiting less. Nan would be even more affronted by us not taking the time to visit her right now, seeing as Luke’s mother was staying with us and spending all that extra time with Tommy.
Tommy yelled with excitement when he first spotted the playground. He’d been there lots of times, but on each occasion, he was overcome with joy, as if he’d been shown the Promised Land for the first time. The playground was all water and splashy things and climbing things. There were even swings that passed through fine walls of water.
Near the playground, the harbour gleamed, shaped like a three-sided square, lined with bustling cafés and speciality shops.
Tommy wriggled and teetered dangerously on Luke’s shoulders. He had no fear of falling. The only thought in his two-year-old head was
Luke put him on the ground and allowed him to run ahead. For a while, Tommy kept stopping and checking that we were still behind him. But when he spotted the first of the water play areas, he was off like a rocket. He was such a water baby. The water canals were his favourite. They were a series of interconnecting canals, only as wide as my forearm, and with no more than a few inches of water in them, but to Tommy they were as exciting as the ocean—more, because he could manipulate the tiny gates, raising and lowering the canals’ water levels.
Squatting near a canal, he zoomed his plastic yacht backwards and forwards in the water like it was a race car. He didn’t understand yet that boats were supposed to sail.
“Where are you headed today, Captain?” I asked him.
The sun turned his eyes a golden colour. “To Dizzy.”
was his word for Disneyland. He’d seen an ad for it on TV once, and he’d asked to go there. I’d told him it was a long, long way away across the ocean but maybe we’d go there one day.
“Aye aye, Captain. All aboard for Dizzy.” I sat beside him, slipping off my shoes and letting the cool water run over my toes.
He gave a toddlerish shout of approval, his small face creasing then as he turned his attention to the complications of managing the ebb and flow of water through the canals.
Luke’s phone rang—it was his mother. I could tell by the sudden change in his tone. Even though she was staying with us, she called him several times a day.
“Tommy, do you want an ice-cream?” Luke said as soon as he’d finished the call.
Tommy thought for a second, his chubby fist tightening on the boat, then shook his head.
“Okay, well, I’m going to get one.” Luke dropped the phone back into his shirt pocket.
I shielded my eyes from the sun. “Just get one scoop in Tommy’s.”
“He just said he didn’t want one.”
“He thinks he’ll have to leave the water to get ice-cream. Of course he wants one.”
Luke laughed his booming laugh, shaking his head at Tommy’s toddler logic. His voice carried, and people glanced at us, smiling. Luke always laughed easily. It was one of the things I loved about him, about
. His easy-going nature had become so intertwined with me, I could take credit for it and bask in it.
A couple of mothers nearby gave their children grabby hugs and kisses on their foreheads. Luke’s feel-good nature was infectious. As he strolled away, the mothers watched him, but I watched them. They wore long cargo shorts and long pastel T-shirts and pastel hats. Their husbands were dressed in the same outfits as their tiny sons. They were nothing like Luke and I, in their pastel tutti-frutti. We were the café set in our greys and blacks and neutrals.
But as I watched the tutti-fruttis, something was wrong. A sadness crept inside me that I didn’t understand, draining the saturation from the day and giving a leaden quality to the air. Like something had just been snatched away from me.
No, that’s not right. I imagined I felt that way.
I was a trained actor, and actors sometimes slipped into roles without realising what they were doing. (Okay, so I’d only sometimes been a
actor, but it had still been my profession.)
I blinked as I turned back to the water canals, adjusting my eyes to the sun’s sudden glare as the day turned from grey to yellow again.
Tommy wasn’t in the same spot.
My stomach dropped, as it had a hundred times before when I’d momentarily lost sight of him. He moved like his feet were on wheels. But he was never too far away.
I raked my gaze along the snaking paths of the canals.
Jumping to my feet, I padded around the edges of the water park, searching. Having no idea which direction to head in, I looked for clues as to what had caused him to wander off. It’d have to be something pretty damned compelling to tear him away from the water. Some other kid’s toy? A puppy?
“Tommy,” I called.
There must have been a worried edge to my voice—one of the T-shirted mothers looked my way with sympathetic eyes.
“Tommy! Daddy’s got your ice-cream!” If he was accidentally-on-purpose ignoring me, that would make him come running.
But Tommy didn’t produce himself. How could he be so far away that he was out of earshot? I only looked away from him for a moment. Didn’t I?
I calmed myself. He must be absorbed in something. That’s all. Too busy in his own little world. But a wave of panic careened into my island of calm.
Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!
I was running now, calling out frantically. No longer caring about looking like a crazy woman who couldn’t keep watch over one small boy while other women were happily herding tribes of kids about.
A pale, red-haired woman with a baby on her hip touched my arm—one of the T-shirt women. “I’ll help you look. He’s about two, right? What’s he wearing?”
“He was wearing blue,” I said, both relieved and shocked. The fact that someone was worried enough to offer help meant that things had gone a step further. Tommy was lost.
“All blue? A hat?”
I nodded. “Blue shorts and T-shirt. Yes, a hat.”
The one I’d bought from a fair last month. “It’s blue as well. With a giraffe on the front.”
“What’s his name?”
“Tommy. It’s Tommy.”
She hurried across to the T-shirt brigade, most of them with young children and babies. “We’ll see if we can spot him,” she called back. Three sets of pram-wielding persons moved off in different directions.
My heart sank. There were hundreds of little boys here that looked just like Tommy, unless you were close enough and low enough to look under his hat. How were strangers going to find him when I couldn’t spot him myself?
A thought jumped into my mind, and I grabbed hold of it. Maybe Tommy tried to follow his father. Yes, that was the only explanation.
I headed towards the cafés. Luke was ambling back to the water park, laden with ice-cream and drinks.
Luke stiffened like a pole at the sight of my anxious face and the sight of people moving about in unexpected patterns behind me, gently calling Tommy’s name. It was instantly clear what the problem was.
“Where’s Tommy?” he asked reflexively.
“Luke! Tommy just wandered off!” Everything was okay now. Luke would find Tommy.
“What do you mean he just wandered off?” He stared down at his cardboard tray of ice-cream for a moment, as though he didn’t know what to do with it. “Where was the last place you saw him?”