The quiet purr of the cooling fan filled the room, wafting still air, highlighting the dust motes drifting in the brilliant beam. On the screen, a young fair-haired man, a square-shouldered Adonis, braced himself against the cold waves of the beach. He was laughing, pretending that the sea was warm. He dipped his hand in the water, flicking a few cold drops at the cine camera, which wobbled a little, and took a step back. The view panned to the outcrop of rocks being sprayed white by the breaking waves. There's a young child on top, naked apart from her sunhat, her arms stretching out towards the man, commanding rescue from her rocky island. He waded over, long, muscular legs moving easily through the surging, foaming waves. Reaching out his strong arms, he plucked her from the rock, holding her high before swinging her round, as if she was a weightless doll. She giggled in delight, floating through the air, rolling round his neck to settle on the arc of his hip. He controlled her movement with the grace of a dancer, the precision of a gymnast. The updraft of the sea breeze caught the sunhat and plucked it from her dark hair, but the man was faster, and he nipped the hat mid-air, catching it between thumb and finger. One hand had the child, the other had the hat. He placed the small cap on his own head, where it sat precariously, and he threw a cheeky grin at the camera, kissed the laughing child on her forehead, a quick peck, then he slipped down, bobbing backwards into deeper water, taking her further from the rock, further from the shore.
Tuesday 16th June
Her body had been found at two o'clock in the morning, lifelessly drifting on the outgoing tide, pushed by the undertow. Her arms swayed below her, legs apart, then together, then apart, one red shoe on, the other foot bare. Her spanned fingers moved to and fro with the ebb and flow of the river, waving the coast goodbye, carried by the black waters of the Firth of Clyde.
It was the bright-red dress they had spotted in the searchlight, her cousin's red dress, which she had borrowed to celebrate the reopening of the nightclub.
The boat neared her, light beams rolling over the dark infinity of water, the glistening rise and fall that flashed and died on the surface, until they hit crimson and flesh. The outboard was cut, the rigid inflatable boat moving forward slowly, the bow nodding in the waves as they approached her, side on, carefully. For a moment, it looked as though she had recovered some vitality and was independent of her watery grave. Long tendrils of ebony hair fanned out like Medusa, the serpents writhing with her in a slow, sinuous dance. Dipping under the surface, the waves closed over her like oil, claiming her, and she fell, sinking.
The pilot throttled back, wary of bumping into her, causing her more injury as if she were still sensitive to pain, or as if she were capable of knowing fear and that she might escape, diving to the depths. Or simply drift out of reach.
Once the pilot was close enough, he leaned over the gunnel with his boathook at the full reach of his arm, steadying himself before placing the curve of the hook on the small of her back, just a gentle pressure to steady her. He braced himself against the powerful surge and push of the waves, holding her as still as possible while the cradle was dropped with a silent splash. The casket sank on its ropes, then dropped underneath her.
Her hair seemed to sense the trap—it twisted and fanned, winding round the side of the cage in an ebony convolvulus. The boat, the girl and the cradle were steady, all three moving at one with the water.
The boat circled once before heading for Greenock. She was going home now, wrapped in her plastic shroud in the bottom of the RIB, rolling with the swell. The pilot could see the welcoming beams of the headlights at the landing slip each time they crested a wave. He radioed ahead: they were on their way back.
When they pulled up to the mooring, the private ambulance reversed down the jetty. Two detectives, huddled in their warm anoraks, waited until she had been raised from the boat on to terra firma before they started the short walk to greet her. The search had taken twenty-eight hours and now she lay in front of them, looking comfortable but cold in her plastic cocoon, her upper body and face covered in fronds of hair, like italic script. Silently, the forensic scientist, somebody the detectives didn't know, opened the cradle tap and ran the water that surrounded her off into a sterile container. Then he stepped back, letting the two senior officers have their first look.
'It certainly is.'