The Doll Collector

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Chapter 18

Standing on a sheltered street corner approximately half a mile from the town centre, Dan looked on at the miserable-looking letting agency office. The fading cream lettering spelled ‘Reliant Lettings’ atop peeling, dark brown paint, all sitting above a sticking door and a cracked picture window.

Dan had been watching the premises carefully from a distance as the daylight faded. Afternoon gave way to evening, a glowing orange-red sunset providing a backdrop, mostly obscured by the ugly buildings flanking the dire-looking agency address.

After calling every letting agent in the phonebook, Dan was certain that he had found the right one.

The woman on duty had confirmed that she had rented to a man that matched his description (minus the tattoo, which she had not seen). Despite an initial welcoming tone she had seemed harsh and stubborn in her responses. His earlier call ended with nothing but frustration.

I understand your concerns, she had said, but this information is confidential. Of course, as soon as I am in receipt of a court order for this information I will hand it over to the authorities.

The provision of fake references was not enough to arouse suspicion about the tenant. Apparently it happened more than most people realised.

Bad references are hardly enough to prove kidnap and murder, she had said, perhaps believing for a moment that her opinion mattered in an investigation such as this. In any case, as the father of a kidnapped daughter, I wouldn’t put this information into your hands for some kind of vigilante mission. My agency would be ruined.

Dan had smiled ruefully at the last point. What effect will renting to a child rapist and killer have on your agency’s precious reputation? He had stopped short of saying it out loud.

The police had then found the woman to be equally uncooperative. They were in the process of arranging an appointment with a magistrate. Soon they would have permission to identify the rental home and then to search it. There were no guarantees that they would succeed quickly, but DC Brokes believed that the threat of danger to the lives of minors would be enough to sway a JP. Within the next couple of hours they would have their PACE Section 8 warrant, and they would know where to go with it.

The letting agent has already spooked the man by questioning his references. Do they really think he’ll be there in two hours?

Of course, his protestations had fallen on deaf ears. Neither the police nor the letting agent were prepared to give him the details he needed. He understood their reasoning. In his current frame of mind he would be at the house within minutes, interfering with an ongoing police investigation and possibly putting lives at risk. The greatest risk to this investigation now is waiting for that warrant.

After some deliberation, Dan had decided that he would get that information, even if it meant stepping over the line between right and wrong, if only briefly and by small degrees. The ends would justify the means, and in his mind, there was no other apparent course of action if he was to succeed.

Dan looked on as the woman, obstinate and obnoxious, seemed to concentrate on tidying her desk and finishing her filing. In her wandering around, Dan smiled as he noticed that she had made sure of having two sets of keys: One for the office, and seemingly one for her own car and home. That’ll make things easier. A plan started to form in his mind.

She picked up a black, tattered handbag, exited the building and locked the door. Dan raised the hood of his coat and moved to a point further down the same stretch of tarmac upon which she was about to stand. His plan, several seconds old, would provide the information he needed simply and cleanly (almost).

She routinely lowered the shutters as Dan walked slowly towards her. She was locking them as he hurried his steps. She turned around, taking a small step towards the curb and placing the keys in her bag.

She wasn’t even looking down the street, so she didn’t notice Dan speed walking into her. The deliberate collision was enough to make the woman stumble, sending her bag to the floor and the contents fanning out over the damp pavement. Playing his part, Dan stumbled to the floor before immediately raising himself to his knees.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, hoping he sounded sincere.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” the woman barked back.

“I… was just hurrying to get-”

“You were just being inconsiderate. That’s all you were just doing.”

It seemed that Dan’s first impression of the woman was more accurate than he had let himself believe. Maybe she’s not always like this. Maybe she’s just had a bad day. He was still giving her the benefit of the doubt, but there wasn’t much doubt left in his mind.

“Let me help you…” He picked up several items from gloves to a pocket notebook, noticing the office keys immediately next to his right knee.

“I can manage just fine, thank you,” she said with zero sincerity, but looking embarrassed in the orange glow of local street lighting. A car hurtled down the road, in excess of the 30 mile per hour limit, spraying a fine mist over the two of them. The woman closed her eyes and turned her head from the road, muttering a swear word under her breath.

Using sleight of hand in a manner that might have impressed an amateur magician, he managed to sneak the keys into his pocket, making it look as if he was dusting himself down. He picked up two more items and put them gingerly into her bag.

He looked her in the eye. The look in her eyes suggested that she didn’t notice him taking the keys. “I’m sorry,” he said again in a softer voice. “Are you okay? Can I help you with anything?”

With a bashful look she said, “I think you’ve done quite enough already. If you don’t mind, I need to get home.”

As Dan nodded, she turned around and scuttled away. Without even daring to look back, she climbed into her car and drove away.

That worked as well as could be expected. By the time she realises the keys are gone, I’ll be gone too.

He looked at the shutters. They were old, possibly made for a different location and bought second-hand. They seemed to leave a gap of more than an inch at ground level. If Dan was careful he could slide the keys under the gap, leading the woman to believe they had ended up there after the accident.

Before opening the shutters he checked again for any indications of CCTV. He had checked earlier, of course, but it was always best to check again. It’s easy to slip up and miss one detail. That’s how I caught my criminals. He would rather double check than see the grainy, hooded image of himself on Crime Stoppers.

Even if anyone had witnessed his actions to this point, no one would be able to identify him, standing there, about to gain access to a building unlawfully. Thankfully, as he held the keys in his hand, most would assume that he was entitled to enter the premises. In this neighbourhood, it was reasonable to assume that no one would notice him. Around here, even if they clock my intentions, will they care enough to call the police? He shook his head.

The work of a P.I was hardly a noble profession. Such people didn’t have the best of reputations for being upstanding citizens. I wonder why? He smiled briefly, opening the shutters using the keys he had just stolen.

Even if Dan Castle, trusted Private Investigator, was suspected of stealing and unlawful entry, he was experienced enough to come up with a hundred and one alternative theories that could throw suspicion elsewhere. There would be no fingerprints, no DNA, no physical evidence that he had been anywhere near any of this. Most would believe that he was still poring over the files in his office. The alibi, whilst weak would help.

He remembered a police officer, long in the tooth, telling him a story about the “good old days” of police work in England. On one occasion a confession from a suspect was the only way of nailing him for a burglary. He wouldn’t talk, and so he was about to walk. One of the officers left the room, making sure that any recording equipment and any local CCTV was conveniently not operating correctly. The officer then returned to the doorway, excused his colleague, and both left the room with only the thief inside.

A couple of minutes later one of the officers returned wearing a pink bunny outfit. He proceeded to knock the suspect about the room, threatening that he was in for a beating if he did anything like this again, or just whenever he felt like it. He practically threw him around the room, then he put him back on his chair and left the room as if nothing had happened.

Several minutes later the two police officers returned, ready to listen. The man confessed as well as saying he had been beaten up by a man in a pink rabbit costume. The officers looked at each other and erupted with laughter. What an imagination!

With any luck, my previous reputation would cause theft and trespassing to look as absurd on me as that pink bunny suit would have looked on a hardened police officer.

Reversing the woman’s procedure for locking up, Dan found himself inside the building. It seemed that security started and ended with shutters and a locked door. There was no ear-piercing alarm, not that any neighbours would pay attention to one anyway.

With every second counting, he looked for the file. He turned on the lights and looked through filing cabinet drawers. His heart was pounding in his chest as his heartburn returned. “Not now,” he whispered before raising an eyebrow. Is there an ideal time for heartburn?

Dan stood for a moment, letting the heartburn pass and scanning the room. He considered checking the filing cabinets towards the back of the room. If she had been looking at the file moments ago, she would have placed it in the filing drawer of her desk. He checked one of the two tired-looking desks. It was completely empty barring a handful of pens and a thin pack of Post-It notes.

He crossed the room and checked the other desk. The drawers were locked, but the key was still in. He smiled. Information Security at its finest. Then he remembered that he wouldn’t have been near the desk at all if he had not stolen the keys.

He turned the key and reviewed the first suspension file he withdrew. It showed that a single mother was starting to rent a small property only streets away. She had yet to provide identification and references, but this clearly wasn’t Abigail’s kidnapper.

The second file contained a photocopy of a New York State driver’s license. The man matched the build of the kidnapper. The name Hank Adams was shown. It seemed like a typical American name, one that would draw little or no attention on its own, and which would reinforce his back story for the purpose of renting.

He reviewed the pages in the file. There was a hand-written note on a lined piece of paper.

Tenant contacted re bogus references. Police interested in him. A warrant might be produced by Monday.

He had found the guy. He was renting a new four bedroom detached house just outside of town. He had driven past the place several weeks ago. The house seemed to be almost completely on its own. The nearest identifiable building was an almost identical house, dull windows with a For Sale sign outside. It was certain to be empty. The circumstances would be ideal for such a sick individual. No one is close enough to hear any screams. He shuddered before reading over the address, again and again.

Dan glanced around the office, wondering whether a spare key would be there before shaking his head again. If I need a key to gain entry then I’m already too late. If, on the other hand, entry was gained by ringing the doorbell and punching the man in the face, then Abigail and the other girls would still be there, overjoyed at the rapid rescue.

After replacing the folder exactly as he had found it, Dan exited, turning off lights, locking the door and closing the shutters behind him. He dropped the keys to the floor and kicked them through the gap. They caught the bottom of the shutter but still found their way underneath.

The woman could try to point the finger at Dan for taking her keys, but when they were discovered under the shutter, someone would offer the obvious alternative explanation. There would be no indication that the office had even been entered. No fingerprints would be found inside (if anyone even decided to check). Who would deliberately knock her off her feet and steal her office keys for no clear reason?

If the woman had any sense, she would have a spare set of keys elsewhere. She would return, assume they had slid underneath and retrieve them. He shrugged and raised an eyebrow. If she had any sense she would have talked to the police without demanding a warrant and then disappearing for the rest of the weekend.

He hurried back to his car and sped in the direction of the rental property. It would take around ten minutes to get there.

“Please,” he whispered, unsure of the person or being to whom he might be talking. “Please let me get there in time to save her from this monster.”

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