The Doll Collector
The door buzzer alerted him to a hooded figure visible on the CCTV monitor. Through the haze he could make out few important details about the man, dropping off an envelope and disappearing into the cold, damp night.
Dan furrowed his brow and got to his feet. There’s certain to be something interesting in that envelope.
What was with the clandestine courier service? The November night was typically terrible both in terms of weather and his own mood, but the approach of this man seemed over the top, even considering the weather and the secrecy with which most clients approached his place of business.
Making his way down the stairs, he felt like he could have been the last living soul for miles on that freezing Friday evening. He wished that he was. He was certain that his family wouldn’t want him home for a while after the latest argument.
What do you really know about me? Abigail had said. You never ask, you just make demands.
That’s the job of a father sometimes. Dan has tried to sound stern and diplomatic, but an inner rage had shown through.
Maybe it shouldn’t be your job. Maybe you’re failing as a father, just like you’ve failed at everything else.
If only he had left the conversation there, maintaining some level of quiet dignity in the chaos. He hadn’t needed to trade insults, but he had shouted a handful of harmful words before storming out.
His office was his escape from family life. Everyone knew it. Home was chaos by comparison and sometimes Dan had to psych himself up for the journey home. Does every father experience this?
Returning to his desk, reclaimed from the closed business downstairs, he had no idea of the impact that one small DVD could have on his life. Unlike previous challenges he had faced, this one would not be instigated by his own mindless or malicious mistakes.
Regardless of being blameless, the Private Investigator would look back on that moment, sitting at his oversized desk on the outskirts of Manchester, wishing for his daughter’s sake, that he had done things differently.
What if he had returned home and picked his daughter up from school? What if he had sought to make amends with the usual combination of ice cream and shopping? Instead he had decided to stay in the quiet office a few minutes more, still unable to let go of the earlier battle.
He stared at the home-made DVD, meant for him, without question. No one else was leasing the remaining office space in the newly converted two storey building, so such a deduction was hardly worthy of Poirot or Miss Marple.
Swivelling back and forth slightly in his chair, he looked at the disc, then at his laptop, and looked back and forth between the two for several seconds.
An incoming phone message beeped on arrival, interrupting his dithering with the DVD. It was from his wife, Jenny. Is she calling to chastise me again? He pressed the screen to show the brief but worrying message.
Have you heard from Abbie? She’s not come home yet.
Dan read the message, glanced at the clock on his computer screen, and then re-read his wife’s words. Six o’clock and no sign of her.
It was far from impossible for Abigail to contact him directly, even though they had not yet entrusted her with her own mobile phone (a fact which surfaced with every fresh argument). Despite this, she knew their numbers and she had called them before when there was a need to do so. This time, her radio silence spoke volumes.
It’s not like Abbie to delay coming home, he thought, but after this morning she’s probably retreated to a friend’s house, avoiding the warzone of home for two or three hours.
He raised his eyebrows and looked at the family picture on his desk. Probably a wise move. We’re rarely as happy as we look in that photograph. He looked at his watch. She’s either staying away to avoid conflict (like me), or she’s just making a point.
He didn’t respond instantly to Jenny, unwilling to fan the flame of her worry, or to start another blame game regarding her absence.
He shook his head and picked up the mystery DVD again. Would it contain a virus? Was someone trying to con him into inserting the DVD and eradicating his computer data? Was it something important?
He shrugged his shoulders and inserted the DVD, allowing the aging laptop processor and accompanying noisy fan to go into overdrive, putting forth substantial effort in attempting to render its contents.
The screen darkened for several seconds, allowing Dan to see his own clean-shaven, tired and curious expression. He also noticed more grey hairs creeping into his short sideburns than he had remembered seeing when looking in the mirror earlier. Overall, his once jet-black hair had taken on a lighter shade in recent years.
A video started immediately after the PowerDVD logo vanished. No menus, no nonsense, just an opening shot of a fourteen year old girl that he instantly recognised. He felt like his internal organs had just taken a one-way trip to the floor.
There, in the middle of a near-HD quality video, in focus and then out again, was his daughter, Abigail. The camera appeared to finally adjust to the low light, showing his daughter in pin-sharp clarity. She was wearing only a thin white nightshirt, sitting on a dining chair with her blonde hair draped over her shoulders. Her hands and ankles were secured with thick rope and a rag filled her mouth. The rest of the room faded into blackness behind and beside her.
With instant and massive regret, his last words to her came screaming back into his thoughts.
Find my replacement and I’ll gladly make you someone else’s problem.
Somehow, another person, as yet unknown, was clearly trying to fulfil those words.