Dan glanced at the dashboard clock on his approach to the new house, turned schoolgirl prison.
18:05. More than 24 hours had passed since the moment his family’s life had been changed by a DVD.
He couldn’t shake the image of his daughter, sitting in that chair, cold and embarrassed as the man with the tattoo on his neck suggested doing things that grown men shouldn’t do to young girls.
Anger bubbled inside Dan, sitting just below the surface, ready to explode at a moment’s notice, should the kidnapper put up a fight. He quelled the rage for the moment, but the heartburn kicked in, as if in its place. Heartburn doesn’t matter right now. I’ll deal with it when the heart and mind of my girl are safe.
He had considered parking at a distance and creeping up on the property, keeping the element of surprise, but he needed every second to count. He drove straight up to the front door, his headlights beaming into the living room windows.
The driveway was damp, but a large untidy rectangle in the centre was still mostly dry. A car had been parked there only minutes earlier. It was either in the garage directly in front of him or it was gone. Dan would not dwell on the possibility of being slightly too late until he could do nothing more in the moment.
After dimming the lights and switching off the engine, he looked at the house. No light escaped from the windows of the house. All was dark, quiet and perfectly still.
Dan donned a pair of leather gloves and raced to the front door, trying the handle. It was unlocked and the door swung open slowly. The feeling that he had arrived too late was gripping him. Stomach acid again leapt up his throat again, causing him to stop and place his hand to his chest. He reached for an antacid and shook his head with gritted teeth. There will be time to deal with this later.
Walking into a dark, unlit house in this situation was either desperate or stupid, and quite possibly both. He looked at the wall and noticed a light switch. He reached inside and turned the hall light on. No reaction. There was nothing there but silence. Dan felt a shiver run down his spine, wondering why he felt so uncomfortable in an empty building.
He walked inside, treading carefully, and stepped on something metallic. He looked down and noticed the keys for the property sitting in the centre of the doormat. The kidnapper was gone. He had been exactly right, and he had arrived excruciatingly too late. Of the several questions racing through Dan’s mind, the biggest was this: With the mystery man on the run again, what has he done with his victims?
Moving quickly around the house he believed to be vacant, Dan checked off each room, one by one as he went. Hallway, no one there. Lounge, dining room, kitchen, conservatory, all empty. Downstairs bathroom, also empty. Garage, empty. He had seen a table and chairs, a sofa, a television and absolutely nothing and no one else.
Fear gripped Dan as he approached the base of the stairs. It felt like someone was playing his spine like piano keys. There were four bedrooms and a bathroom on the floor above him. What will I find up there? His body seemed to refuse to take that first step, but he forced himself onwards and upwards until he reached the landing.
He checked the master bedroom first. A double bed, a built-in wardrobe and a few empty clothes hangers. Someone had been staying in this room, but they wouldn’t be staying here anymore. The en-suite bathroom was free of any personal effects, but the mirror was still covered in condensation. The tiling around the bath was wet to the touch and the occasional drip still fell from the overhanging shower head. There was a damp smell in the air. Someone had showered here only minutes earlier.
Moving towards the next room, Dan started to fixate on the fact that the house had been left perfectly clean. No mess, no personal items, no ruffled duvets, no squashed sofa cushions or chairs askew. This man liked his house to be neat, and he had been careful to leave it that way on his departure. One could believe that he was a caring tenant except… Dan’s heart started to race. He remembered that every known previous address of this man had been spotless, except for one big mess: A corpse in a bedroom.
Frantic, Dan rushed into bedroom number two and practically thumped the light switch. There was a perfectly made single bed with rope hanging from the headboard and a folded white garment sitting on top. No girl. He turned off the light and moved quickly to the next room. Two more to go.
Swinging the door open, he could tell in the dimness that this room was not empty. He turned on the light and he froze. Terror hit him in a wave that stopped him in his tracks. Lying there, on an identical single bed, was a naked red-haired girl, probably aged around twelve or thirteen. There was rope attached to the headboard, but it wasn’t restraining the girl. There was no need to hold her in place anymore. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t breathing. The almost black bruises around her neck, the cold, sightless eyes and the facial features twisted in pain told a story that Dan didn’t want to know. Her skin was pale, but there was no sign of decomposition, suggesting she had been dead only a few hours.
Dan felt revulsion rush through him, noticing that is was accompanied by further heartburn and tears running down his cheeks. He wasn’t sure which feeling was fighting for superiority inside his body and his mind. In the end, everything succumbed to numbness.
With the horrific scene in front of him, guilt swept through his mind, pushing aside one thought. Should I be relieved that it’s not the body of my daughter? The thought was a fleeting one, replaced almost instantly by the word ‘NO’ screaming through his mind and his senses. There was a terrible sadness that the life of another young girl had been taken away. She wasn’t his daughter, but she was someone’s daughter. She didn’t deserve this, whatever her alleged crimes.
He wanted to identify the girl, to cover her to protect her dignity in death, but doing so he would prove that he had been here. As much as every instinct told him to do something, his numb fingers turned off the light and closed the door. Getting questioned by the police about his presence in that house, and the inevitable link with the letting agent would prove to be substantial obstacles in his efforts to recover his daughter.
The fourth bedroom was almost a mirror image of the second. There was a bed, there was rope, but no white clothing folded at the foot of the bed.
Dan had previously skipped the family bathroom, fearing some kind of awful scene, but upon entering and turning on the light, the bathroom was spotless.
There was nothing more to be gained from his search of the house. He quickly checked for rubbish bins or anything else that might hint at a clue. There was nothing, inside the property or outside, that could help him. There was nothing in that house except for that one girl who had been a typical schoolgirl just over a day earlier. A dead end, quite literally. He shuddered again.
Previous police investigations had shown that this man didn’t leave clues. There were never fingerprints, DNA evidence from stray hairs, scraps of paper with hand-written notes. The man was a ghost, a destroying angel who swept through the lives of young girls, taking innocence and taking lives, all without leaving so much as a trace of his existence.
The police would find the house and they would do their best in the coming days, but Dan could do nothing with the items he had seen. The rope on the beds could be matched to a local hardware store, but leads like that hardly ever took anyone anywhere useful. Receipts would show payment in cash, CCTV wouldn’t exist or the data would have been long overwritten.
The uniform of the dead girl was folded neatly in a cupboard, no doubt with empty pockets.
The garden was untouched. No one would be buried back there. The garage contained nothing but a pinkish stain on the floor. It looked and smelled like engine coolant.
He made his way back to his car, a wide-armed shrug showing his thoughts and feeling. What about the other two girls, his own Abigail included? This man worked alone. He left the girls behind. One was dead, and the other two were currently missing.
As his mind went over and over any possibilities of finding further evidence, he noticed that his mobile phone was vibrating. He looked at the display before answering it. His wife had tried calling him twice, and she was now calling for a third time. He pressed to accept the call and he held it to his ear, about to find out the location of one of the other girls.