Authors: John Connor
‘Fast-moving with plenty of exotic locations and tense action, this is a highly entertaining thriller’
‘The action never stops in this exciting thriller about the pathological amorality of the hyper-rich and the heartbreak of their pawns’
‘It’ll be a rare reader able to put
A Child’s Game
down after a chapter or so’
‘From the horrifying defenestration in the opening pages to the ultra-violent denouement, Leeds-based barrister John Connor drives his complex tale of secrecy and betrayal along at a cracking pace’
‘Connor’s plot is enthralling, his characters sharp and vital:
is a compelling, intelligent thriller, placing everyday normality in dramatic relief against the horrific experiences of Sharpe and her colleagues’
‘Enjoyably intricate and well-composed’
For Anna, Tom and Sara.
With thanks to Lovisa.
It was over now. From the room beyond the bolted double doors Arisha could hear Liz shrieking and wailing. She turned away in fright, biting her lip and wiping the tears that came to her eyes. She walked shakily through the cool, wood-lined passage with its rattling, antiquated air-conditioning unit, along to the gloomy, intricately carved staircase, then down to the hall and out. Through the open front doors and into the smothering heat. She needed time to think, but on the wide veranda the raw sunlight made her stagger. She leaned on the balustrade and took deep breaths of the insufferable, humid air, heavy with the stench of rotting fruit. There were parrots screeching from the treeline – or was it the monkeys, the filthy black monkeys that gave the place its name? She could still hear the screaming in the room above, so she put her hands over her ears and stared out towards the dock and the shimmering sea – a picture-postcard image of tropical paradise.
She hated it. She had hated it from the first day they had been forced to come here – it was too hot, too muggy, everything rotting and riddled with mould. The sea looked inviting, but it was full of tiny stinging jellyfish, the beach hid bugs that burrowed into your skin and laid eggs, the jungle was alive with frogs so toxic you would choke just from touching their skin. There was nowhere here that you could be comfortable. She spent the day drenched in sweat, with a permanent headache. But now they would have to leave. The child was dead. This place had killed it.
When the howling stopped, Liz was going to shout for her, she knew that. She was going to get the blame. It wasn’t her fault, but Liz Wellbeck would need to blame someone else – that was the way it always was with her. Arisha walked carefully down the six, creaking steps on to the compacted red earth of the clearing in front of the house, then kept going, towards the dock, shading her eyes from the sun. She had left her sunglasses by her bed, but her room was right next to the one Liz was in, so she wasn’t going back for them. She had a wide-brimmed straw hat on, but only a tight pair of white shorts, a T-shirt and sandals. She could feel the sun burning her skin as soon as she stepped into it.
She needed Maxim. She needed him to reassure her. A sob caught in her throat. She had treated the baby as her own, whispered in its ear that it would be safe, that she loved it. A baby girl – a bright, alert, thirteen-month-old. Arisha had fallen for her the moment Maxim had first placed her into her arms. She had held her to her chest and smiled at her and felt her tiny heart beating through their bodies. She had marvelled at the luxurious, thick, jet-black, curly hair – so clean and wonderful that she had pushed her nose into it and smelled it. The little girl’s eyes had been a startling deep blue and she had looked at her with a wide-open, innocent interest that at first, because of what they were doing, had made Arisha want to cry. So trusting, so helpless, so dependent. She hadn’t a clue what was happening to her. Until Arisha had her in her arms and was holding her miniature fingers, looking into her eyes and talking softly, until she had experienced that sudden swelling feeling in her heart as the baby grinned at her and she saw her four, delicate milk teeth – until right then, Arisha had no idea just how much she loved babies, no idea at all.
The girl could walk a little – a few hesitant steps before she fell back on to all fours. She could mutter or shout a few unintelligible words, things her own mother would have immediately understood, perhaps. But mainly she had been reliant on Arisha to get her to where she wanted to go, to place into her hands the objects that interested her. And Arisha had slipped into the role effortlessly. The journey on the plane had worked so well – Arisha completely focused on the baby’s needs and responses. It seemed like a dream now.
Children had short memories. Maxim said they could flourish like weeds, adapting, moving on, taking whatever they needed from wherever they could get it, just as he had. And it was true. Arisha had felt a pang of loss – even though it was what they wanted to happen – because the child had warmed to Liz almost immediately. As if able to sense that really Arisha counted for nothing, could guarantee nothing. She was just the delivery girl. It was Liz the baby needed to bond with, Liz who would provide.
And Liz had been surprisingly affectionate. Elizabeth Wellbeck-Eaton liked to say that she was half Russian, with a Russian mother’s instincts. Her own mother had been an émigrée, something aristocratic and titled, from the Tsarist
, but that counted for nothing in modern Russia – she spoke Russian, sure, but she understood nothing of what it meant to be from that shithole. The reality was that she was an American, and had lived her entire thirty years in the lap of absolute excess. Despite that, until this moment Arisha had thought there was something emotionally broken in her. In the year she had been working for Liz she had never seen her cry, rarely seen her laugh. Liz was fastidious to an extreme, control obsessed, a difficult person to please or work for. In private she spoke derisively of her friends, had a fraught relationship with her father and brother, viewed her husband – Freddie Eaton – with undisguised contempt. She spent over an hour each morning dressing and decorating herself, with the assistance of two or three staff – in the Paris house, at least, not here, because the staff had been left behind when they came here, along with everything else, in order to keep this whole thing secret. Arisha had assumed Liz would be useless with a child, that she wouldn’t have a clue. But she had behaved immediately like the baby really was hers, holding her close, rocking her, talking quietly, taking over everything Arisha had been doing, even the changing. The baby had brought Liz to life. Against all odds, it had worked.
Arisha had watched with astonishment. And for a while she had really believed that the baby would be safe, that the monstrous thing she and Maxim had done together –
stolen a baby
– could actually, in the end, have been a
thing. They had given a desperate woman a child, and the child would be happy. After all, her new mother was one of the richest women on the planet. What could go wrong?
They had been here a week when the symptoms started. Some standard flu the parrots caught and survived each year – that’s what the doctor had said – ‘nothing to worry about’. But it had lingered and got worse, overwhelming the child’s immature immune system, filling her lungs with bright green, infected mucus. Today she had gone from a cough and a runny nose to blue lips and breathing difficulties in less than four hours. They had sent someone in the seaplane to get the doctor again, but it was a three-and-a-half-hour flight to the big island, and now it was too late.
The place was only fit for the monkeys, the precious, stinking monkeys Liz was in love with, trying to save them from extinction or whatever – her little pet project, prior to the baby. That would change now, Arisha guessed. Liz could shift loyalties as she could change clothing. Everything Arisha had been taught as a child was true, even the crude communist slogans – rich people were degenerate, self-serving, immoral, they had no allegiance to anything but themselves.
As she reached the slope down to the dock she saw with relief that Maxim was already running towards her, coming from the boat. He too had a pair of shorts on, though longer than her own and baggy with pockets, no doubt stuffed with ammunition and cigarettes. His legs, chest, head and feet were bare – but he had tanned within days of getting here. No matter how careful she was, that didn’t happen to her skin. She was too pale, too freckly, her hair naturally a light red. It had been long, beautiful – almost down to her waist – but she had cut it and dyed it an ugly brown the day they got to Paris with the baby, because Maxim had told her to, because that was part of his plan – so that now it wasn’t even long enough to shade her neck from the sun. His blond hair – growing longer now he was out of the military – had bleached almost white, because he swam and stood in the sun every day, despite the jellyfish and bugs and the danger of heatstroke. He was loving every minute of this place. He thought it was paradise.
She started to run towards him and had a fleeting fantasy that they would both just turn around, get in the boat and sail away from it all. He stopped when he saw her and shouted something, but she couldn’t hear for the birds and monkeys. The parrots were very near her, off to her right. She could hear their wings thrashing the air as they took off in alarm. Maxim glanced at them, distracted. ‘What’s happening?’ he yelled, and she heard this time. He had the gun in his hands. While they were here he was in charge of security for the Wellbeck-Eatons, which meant he was never without some gun or other. There was a constant danger of kidnap, he said. She waved her arms at him, slowed down, then suddenly started to really cry. As she got to him he grabbed her by the shoulder with one hand, his face intense with concentration and worry. ‘What’s happened, Arisha? Tell me what’s going on.’ He spoke Russian with her, as they always did when alone. She leaned her head against his chest, smelling his sweat, feeling it damp against her cheek, catching her breath and telling him at the same time, ‘The baby died … I think the baby died …’