In a crime that has shocked the world, police in Miami confirmed today that Rob Dawson has been charged with the murder of his son, 4-year-old Flynn Dawson.

 

The youngster was on holiday with his father aboard the cruise ship Atlantica when he was reported missing. Despite a thorough search of the vessel and an extensive sea search by the U.S. Coast Guard, no trace of the child has been found. Captain J. Joshua of the Miami P.D. issued the following statement earlier today: 

 

'It is with great sadness that we confirm that the active search for young Flynn Dawson has come to an end. Efforts will continue, but these efforts are now focused on recovery. Mr. Rob Dawson is in our custody and has, this morning, been charged with first-degree murder.'

 

13th June, 2014

Rob Dawson felt his lungs reach breaking point, if he didn’t take a breath soon, his body would override his brain and there was nothing he would be able to do to stop his mouth opening, gasping for air but finding water instead. His legs were leaden from kicking at the water in an attempt to propel himself ever faster and his thighs burned with the sting of a thousand scorpions, his muscles screaming at him to stop.

 

Still, he didn’t give up.

 

Each passing second sounded loudly in his head, like the loud click from the antique grandfather clock his parents had proudly displayed in the hall of their Devonshire home.

 

He was close.

 

The burning in his legs spread, traveling up the right-hand side of his body and into his outstretched right arm as he shifted his shoulder forward, trying to gain a precious extra inch. 

Darkness crowded the edge of his vision, and little black dots danced jauntily before his eyes as the tips of his fingers felt smooth, cool tile. Bursting up through the surface, he finally gave in to his body’s demands and opened his mouth, dragging in a lungful of precious air. As the darkness receded, he threw his right arm over the edge of the pool and allowed himself to hang there, sure that the pounding of his heart must be sending ripples across his chest.

He checked his watch. Thirty minutes. That’s how long he’d allowed himself and he’d already used twenty-five of them. A quick glance told him that the woman who’d been swimming laps when he’d arrived had gone, leaving him alone in the fitness centers’ pool. Disappointment briefly fluttered in his chest. She’d been the only other person in the pool when he’d arrived, her breaststroke showing none of the urgency of his own painful exercise routine. She’d smiled at him as he’d lowered himself into the temperature-controlled water and he’d taken in her almond-shaped green eyes, and long, auburn hair, tied back to form a water-sodden rope that lay across her back as she swam. He’d briefly considered saying hello before pushing the thought from his head. There had been a time when the hello would have tripped from his lips before it even had time to register as a thought or something that needed to be considered before being acted on. That was before Marina.

He felt his mood darken, the positive effects of the endorphins from the exercise immediately chased away to be replaced with the knot of anger that had become his constant companion over the past year. It sat in his stomach, an ever-present reminder of his ex-wife. He imagined it as a visible thing, a roiling black cloud filled with all the hate, bitterness and regret he felt whenever he thought of her. Angrily, he shook his head. Not today buttercup. The once affectionately used term now synonymous with the evil bitch he’d married.

His muscles ached as he pushed himself up on his arms and lifted himself out of the pool before striding over to where he’d left his towel, emblazoned with the blue and yellow cruise company logo, draped over the back of one of the many white plastic pool chairs that lined the wall. Grabbing it, he roughly dried himself off before securing it around his waist. He was just turning to leave when a flash of white, at odds with the dark blue tiling that surrounded the pool, caught his eye. Reaching under the chair he retrieved a small piece of white paper.

 

Nemo’s Bar. 10 pm.

 

He flipped the paper over to see if there was any more to the cryptic message, but that was all there was. Had the paper been there when he arrived? He tried to remember but his brain wasn’t playing ball. He’d been focussed on getting into the pool, needing the exercise. He’d inherited his dad’s genes when it came to his physical appearance. Average height at a hair over 6ft, he was heavily built with wide shoulders and hips. With a tendency to gain weight easily, the body he had now was hard won through a regular, punishing, routine. It wasn’t a question of vanity, though he would admit that he enjoyed the admiring glances he invariably received, rather a constant battle against his DNA. He hadn’t been able to keep to his routine during the cruise and by the time he’d finally got down to the pool tonight, his body had been tingling in anticipation. He felt a brief stab of annoyance that he would be unable to find out if the message was indeed intended for him, and immediately felt ashamed. Balling up the note, he slipped his feet into his Adidas pool shoes and left, dropping it into a trash can on his way out.

 

********

The ‘change’ had happened while he was in the pool. He’d never cruised before this trip, preferring to spend his vacations off the beaten track where he could feed his love of the study of lost civilizations, and where he knew he was unlikely to come face to face with his worst nightmare. The Tourist. The mere thought of being surrounded by a pack - was that the right word? - of tourists, with their ever-present phones pointed at everything they passed, clicking away, more interested in having something to show their friends than what they’d actually come to see, brought him out in a cold sweat. Getting on the ship had felt like climbing into the lion’s den, but this trip wasn’t about what he wanted. The ‘change’ was a particular phenomenon he’d noticed that occurred with predictability. From when the hordes awoke and descended on the breakfast offerings like a swarm of locusts until the sun dipped behind the horizon, the ship’s occupants nailed every stereotype expected of them. Bodies of all shapes and sizes wearing too few clothes wandered the decks, wafting clouds of Hawaiian Tropic and clutching glasses filled with a variety of rainbow colors and the obligatory little wooden umbrellas perched at jaunty angles. Once the sun ceded its place in the sky though, and the moon claimed its spot, a remarkable transformation occurred. The hordes scurried back to their cabins and re-emerged as if from a chrysalis. Hawaiian Tropic was replaced with Chanel No 5 and ill-fitting bikinis with long glittering dresses. Women who’d spent the day lying next to the pool, legs akimbo in an effort to allow the sun to reach every nook, every hidden recess, all dignity set aside, were now re-born into ladies who sipped umbrella free drinks slowly and crossed their legs at the ankles. 

 

The fitness suite was on one of the upper decks, on the same level as the main outdoor pool area, and several decks below his cabin. The salty tang in the air permeated every area of the ship, but it was particularly strong up here, sucked in through the constant opening and closing of the external doors as people moved around, getting to where they needed to be. Checking his watch again, he realized he’d been gone for 35 minutes, 5 minutes longer than he promised himself. The ping of the elevator, a short distance down the corridor to his left solved his internal dilemma of whether the stairs would be quicker. Feeling decidedly under-dressed in just his swimming trunks and towel, he ignored the curious glances from the smartly dressed occupants.

“Eight, please.” He smiled at the woman on button-pushing duty.

 As in every store or building the world over, the elevators on the ship were prone to stop at every deck when you were in a hurry, and none when you weren’t. Tonight though, he was in luck and it delivered him to his deck without delay. He wafted his hand in front of his face as he strode down the corridor towards cabin 8592, dispersing the cloying scent of recently applied perfume that the newly transformed occupants of the elevator had selflessly shared with him. 

 The light flashed green as he slid his keycard into the slot and he gently pushed open the door and stepped in, closing it behind him with a gentle click. The sun had completely ceded its place to the moon now and the cabin was lit only by the soft glow coming from a lamp that he’d switched on before going for his swim. Cabin 8592 had come as a surprise. When he’d booked the vacation a month ago, a savings account depleted by lawyer’s fees had left him with an inside two-berth cabin on one of the lower decks. A rare appearance by lady luck though had seen him upgraded at check-in to the cabin he now occupied. On deck eight, it was large, by cruise-ship standards, and featured two queen-sized beds and double the square footage of the cabin he’d booked.   

 The muted sounds of passengers in the corridor outside the room permeated the walls of the cabin, but it was the gentle snoring from within the cabin that drew his attention. The tiny mound was dwarfed by the large bed. Quietly, he unlocked the bed guard and flipped it down before lowering himself on the edge. His son stirred, and rolled onto his side, slipping the thumb of his left hand into his mouth. A familiar feeling appeared as Rob reached out and brushed a blonde curl off of his son’s face. In the four years since his son had arrived the feeling had never changed. The need to reach out and touch his child as if to reassure himself that he was real and that this amazing child, this small human, was not a figment of his imagination. Satisfied that his 40-minute absence had gone unnoticed, he slipped off the bed and flipped the guard back into place. Keeping his voice low, he picked up the phone that sat on a small bedside table next to his own bed and dialed the babysitting service. They’d been on the ship for four days and this was the first time he’d used it. A miracle of technology, the service was able to hear and see everything in his cabin through a monitor that was provided when you registered. A text alert would be sent to his iWatch, which never left his wrist, should his son have woken up and he could also log in and view the live feed himself. After passing a security check he canceled the service. 

The bathroom attached to the cabin was compact but in a triumph of design, somehow managed to include a full-size bath with an overhead shower, a toilet, and two sinks. Hanging the damp towel from his swim over the towel rail, he slipped off his swimming shorts and stepped into the shower. The water was cold but soon warmed as he rinsed the chlorine from his hair and body. He felt good. The exercise had loosened the tightness he’d been feeling in his muscles over the past few days and he promised himself to try and go again the following day. 

The steam from the shower had misted the mirror above the sinks by the time he stepped out and he used his hand to wipe a small part of it clear. The face looking back at him had visibly aged over the past year. He touched his fingertips to the lines at the corner of his eyes. They seemed to have multiplied and deepened since the fight for custody had begun. Not model handsome, more than one person had told him that he bore a striking resemblance to the actor Chris Pratt. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as an image of himself being chased by a T Rex popped into his mind. Grabbing a clean towel, he patted himself try before padding through to the bedroom, where his son was still sleeping undisturbed by the noise from the shower and slipped on a pair of loose-fitting blue jeans and a long sleeve black cotton T-shirt.

 The beds in the cabin were separated by a set of double doors which opened onto a small private balcony. The balconies weren’t large, with just enough room for two chairs and a small table, but it was enough to have a private outside space, somewhere he could go to escape the crowds and the claustrophobic feeling he’d felt since stepping on board. On the horizon, he caught glimpses of the Florida coastline as the ship tracked south towards their next stop, Miami, where they were due to dock the next morning. This far out though, light pollution was minimal and the clear sky allowed for a night sky that took his breath away. A new moon allowed the carpet of stars to reveal itself in its full splendor, humbling in its scale.

 Rob sat in one of the chairs and allowed himself to relax. He may not have been enjoying being on a ship full of tourists, but that wasn’t to say he didn’t love the sea. In fact, any time he was close to an ocean and tasted the salt on his lips, he was immediately reminded of home. Raised on the south coast of England, he’d had what could only be described as an idyllic childhood. The first two years of his life was spent as an only child until he was joined by his sister, Rebecca. Unlike many siblings, they’d enjoyed each other’s company. He was the nerd, working hard at school knowing at a young age where his passions lay. Rebecca, in contrast, seemed to flit through life funny, popular, equally as bright, but lacking the seriousness that Rob had inherited from his parents. One thing they shared was the knowledge that they were completely and utterly loved. Both their parents were lecturers at the local university. The father, a lecturer of archaeology, their mother of art.

 Rob closed his eyes and rested his head back on the chair taking a deep lung full of salty air. The memory played like a movie clip in his head. His mum and his sister shared a kayak while he and his father shared the other they’d just been toppled by a large wave and as his life first bobbed him to the surface spluttering, he caught sight of his mother and sister both, heads thrown back laughing with abandon. He frowned as he tried to remember how old he’d been and he guessed he must have been 14 or 15. He could pluck any number of happy memories from his mind, but it was the one that came a few years later that he wished he couldn’t remember but was branded on his brain, ever-present, a constant reminder of what he’d lost.

Rob opened his eyes before the memory had a chance to take hold but it was too late, his mood had changed. Without a backward glance, he stepped back into the cabin and closed the doors. He needed a drink. More than that, he needed adult company.

 

10 PM in Nemos. That was what the note had said.

 

He thought about the rope of auburn hair and couldn’t help but wonder what it would look like unpinned. He glanced at a son still sleeping soundly, little sucking noises coming from his mouth, one finger hooked over his nose keeping the thumb firmly in place. Maybe just one drink. 

Before he could change his mind, he grabbed the room card and slid it into his pocket and picked up the phone. The babysitting service was happy to oblige, for an extortionate fee, and he promised them he would be back within the hour. He slipped out into the hallway gently clicking the door closed behind him. He was stood in front of the elevator before he realized he’d left his wallet behind. Returning to the cabin, he retrieved it and again left the room.

He felt a wave of guilt as he waited for the elevator and briefly considered a drink from the room minibar instead, but there was no denying the pulse of excitement he felt in the pit of the stomach. The last year had been hell. One hour to himself and maybe a little shipboard romance wasn’t too much to ask.

 

The elevator was empty as he stepped in, though the scent of a kaleidoscope of perfumes hung heavy in the air. The piano bar was located on deck 32 decks above the main dining rooms. His blue jeans and T-shirt were in sharp contrast to everyone he passed, most of whom were smartly attired.

“Good evening, sir.” A crew member greeted him as he strode past.

“Hey.” He had no idea if he’d just said hello to the captain or someone on the entertainment team. They all looked the same to him in their bright white uniforms and gleaming gold buttons. Though, going by the fact that the man looked young enough to still be in college, it was unlikely he was in charge.

The ship was the size of a small floating city and for the first couple of days, he’d struggled to get his bearings. He knew where the piano bar was though as during the day, they made the best milkshakes on the ship, a tip given to him by the steward who’d checked them in. Part of their daily routine now involved a stop to grab a whipped cream topped double chocolate shake.

The gentle notes of a piece of music he didn’t recognize welcomed him as he approached the bar. In contrast to the brightly lit common areas of the ship, the bar’s lighting was deliberately kept low creating an inviting and intimate Ambiance. Rob stood in the doorway for a moment allowing his eyes to adjust as he scanned the room. Would she be there? Had the note been intended for him? The fact that he didn’t know the answers to these questions added to his excitement and as his gaze landed on the woman from the Paul, he felt a frisson run up his spine. The table she’d chosen was at the back of the room, to the right of the slightly raised stage area where the piano player was finishing off his current piece with a flourish. Lit only by a dimmed lamp at the center of the table, Rob couldn’t read her expression as he approached. Was she hoping he’d be there? Or was she waiting for someone else?

“How was your swim?”

She was waiting for him.

“Just what I needed.” He nodded in the direction of the empty chair. “May I?”

“Of course.”

He’d barely sat down before a waiter appeared by the side of the table. She looked at him, asking the unspoken question.

“Jack and Coke, one ice cube.”

He watched her as she placed her drink order, taking in the pale milky skin and almond-shaped green eyes. Her long auburn hair had been released from its restraints and now hung in waves which framed her face.

“Like what you see?”

He hadn’t realized he’d been staring. “Celtic?” He asked, unashamed.

She nodded. “Yes, on my mother’s side. Dublin.”

“But you’re American, aren’t you?” He couldn’t identify the accent. The only time he’d spent in the states was when he was at university in New York, which was where he’d met his wife. 

“Boston.” She smiled, revealing the cutest dimples he’d ever seen.

The waiter arrived with their drinks and he didn’t speak again until he’d left.

I should probably ask your name.

“People call me Tink.”

“Tink? As in Tinkerbelle?” 

“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you some time.” 

He grinned, intrigued. Picking up his glass, he swirled the contents before taking a long swallow. The alcohol felt good sliding down his throat. He hadn’t had a drink since he’d picked up his son for the trip. He’d promised. Actually, it was more than a promise. It was a condition. His hand tightened around the glass. He’d been drinking more since his life had gone to shit, but he didn’t have a problem. To hear his ex  tell it though, you’d think he was a raging alcoholic. 

“Are you traveling alone?” He pushed down the anger and frustration that had been his constant companion of late.

Her eyes met his over the top of her glass. “I am.” She drained the last of her drink and put the empty glass down, her eyes glued to his. “Want to get out of here?”

He’d thought she’d never ask.

 

**********

A loud crack dragged him from the depths of unconsciousness. A second crack brought him fully awake. A strong wind blew into the cabin and he swung his feet to the floor, instantly feeling nauseous, unsure if the rolling of the ship was actually happening or if he was imagining it. Pushing himself to his feet, he stepped over to the balcony doors and pushed them shut, slipping the latch back into place with a frown. Hadn’t he locked it? He couldn’t remember. He checked his watch. 8 am. Toby was usually up by now.

He undid the lock on the bed guard and folded it down.

“Hey, buddy.” He reached for the lump under the pile of bedding.

The moment his hand touched the blanket, he knew something was very wrong.

“Toby?” He grabbed the blankets and flung them aside, confirming what he already knew. 

He wasn’t there. Fear gripped his soul as he checked the bathroom. Empty.

He was too small to have reached the handle on the cabin door to let himself out.

Rob didn’t feel himself drop to his knees in front of the balcony doors. He didn’t hear the gut-wrenching scream that people would later describe as that of a wounded animal.

His son had vanished.