The Doll Collector

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Chapter 31

Considering the lull since the delivery of the DVD, Dan had been surprised at how quickly the investigation had picked up pace at almost the 48 hour mark.

In addition to the discovery of the abductor’s sister-in-law, there had been further reports of an incident at a service station. Only an hour or two later there was a further incident on the A1 further south.

Standing by the side of the A1 near Newark, Dan was no longer sure of the benefit in his being there, but he wanted to cast his eyes over the scene. Having to keep moving to stave off shivers, he had to be there. I want to review the video footage for myself.

He smiled as he hopped in haphazard fashion from foot to foot. The temperature seemed to drop the moment he stood still. He could imagine his daughter, stubborn and wilful, causing as many problems as possible for her kidnapper, delaying him as much as she dared.

“Details are still coming through,” said an officer to his side. He wasn’t in his uniform so Dan didn’t know the name or collar number of this one. Conversation with this man would be brief anyway, so he deemed it unnecessary to fill his head with the names of those he would only meet once. All he knew was that this man was better able to stand in cold weather than him.

Dan nodded, saying nothing, not interrupting.

“We have a name for this man, but it’s proving more difficult to get details out of the woman than we had thought.”

“I don’t understand.” Dan said, shaking his head. “Why call the police and volunteer information and then withhold it when it matters?”

The man shrugged. “Maybe she’s not deliberately being difficult. Perhaps she’s getting emotional recounting events from her past.”

Dan let out the briefest of laughs. “It’s not like the police officers I knew to give an informant or a witness the benefit of the doubt.”

The man smiled with half of his mouth, but said nothing.

“It wasn’t long ago,” Dan continued, “that every person that was questioned by the police was treated with at least some hostility, even if they were a witness.”

There was a raised eyebrow and a slow shake of the head from the plain-clothed detective. “I remember the mentality. Everyone’s guilty of something, right? It’s a wonder the police ever achieved anything.”

Dan bit his lip and paused. He straightened his face and cleared his throat. “So what’s the guy’s name?”

The policeman looked hesitant. “I’m not sure I should tell you.”

Dan sighed. “You think I’m about to launch some kind of vigilante-style attack on a man we can’t find?”

“If you did, I’d be hauled in front of my boss, the IPCC, all sorts. Not worth the flack.”

Dan nodded. “I understand. Thanks for the talk.”

Dan moved away from the man who was doing nothing but standing there, watching empty space fill with fast cars, and then empty again in an instant. He could argue the point, but he would be swimming against a tide of words. A lot of effort for no reward. They were quite happy to take information from me, but the second I ask for the same I get shot down.

The road had long-since been closed, searched for evidence and reopened. The police were achieving nothing more by standing around.

Realising that he was walking nowhere in particular, he changed direction and talked to the partner of the man, standing further along the grass verge, just out of ear-shot. It was as if the police around there had nothing to do but to stand and watch the road.

“So…” He put his hands in his pockets, trying to look casual. “Any idea where the kidnapper would have gone from here?”

There was a shake of the head. “From this point he could’ve gone south, north or east as easily.”

Dan pouted for a second before asking, “Where would you go?”

“Excuse me?” He was puzzled by the question.

“If you were him. Where would you go?”

There was a grunt, a snort of sorts. “I don’t want to think like these individuals. You know what I mean?”

Dan nodded. “Okay, if you were trying to hide from someone or something, where would you go? Would you keep moving in the same direction?” It was the same question and he was sure he would get the same nonsense in response.

“If I thought they were tracking the phone, I would assume a road block is waiting up ahead. I’d turn off this road and get as far away as possible in another direction.” He said quietly.

Dan nodded. There was a moment of silence. Dan took a chance. “What is the guy’s name again?”

“Joshua Billings,” the man said before furrowing his brow, and then straightening it again.

Dan tried his best to suppress a grin. He was just wondering if he’s let something slip. Too late now.

After a moment Dan stretched his arms out and yawned, shivering as he did so. “I’m getting tired out by all of this.”

There was no response. The other officer walked towards them. Dan felt like a third wheel.

“There’s a set of services off this junction somewhere. I’ll grab myself something to eat.” He looked at the unintentionally helpful officer, smiled and said, “Thank you.”

The man nodded once, looking worried as Dan walked along the verge to collect his car. He could hear talking between the policemen between the noises of cars rushing past. One of them had just divulged details that were part of an ongoing investigation to a desperate father. The other one wouldn’t be happy. Maybe I won’t get to see that CCTV footage now.

Dan shrugged and drove towards a roadside restaurant and across a roundabout. Knowing the quality of these camera systems, I wouldn’t see anything useful anyway. The services were a distance of only a few feet from the junction, but traffic had left Dan at a standstill for almost five minutes.

Seconds after parking next to the small building, Dan became aware of a crowd of five people. They were surrounding an unmarked white van on the other side of the car park.

Dan managed to find the driver. He was standing, looking on with a scowl on his stubble-covered face. The tall man was thin except for a gut that stuck out several inches beyond the rest of his body. Some remnants of his meal still surrounded his mouth. He wore thick glasses and a buzz cut, no doubt giving in to a receding hairline.

“What’s going on?” Dan asked, at first unaware of the problem.

The driver shook his head like a disappointed football fan at a cup final. “You wouldn’t believe it. You just wouldn’t believe it.”

He pointed at the license plate, or at least to the part of the car that would usually show the license plate. He could see only smooth, shiny metal, a brighter white than the rest of the van.

“No license plate?” Dan asked.

“It was there earlier,” he responded, louder than was necessary. “I looked out of the window while I was eating and I saw someone crouching down in front of the van. He might have been tying his laces. I didn’t think anything of it until I come out and the license plates are gone. Both of them.”

The man rubbed the back of his neck as Dan considered the scene.

“How long ago did this happen?” Dan asked.

“Probably a couple of hours. Service in the restaurant’s slow today.”

Dan glanced at the restaurant as if the building itself would be offended by the remark. He returned his attention to the van. “Did you get a good look at the man?”

The driver shook his head. “I only paid attention long enough to see the top of his head. He was bald.”

“Anything else?” Dan asked.

The man scowled and said in his loud voice, “If there was anything else, I’d have said it. Anyway why the hell are you so interested?”

It looked as if the man was about to square up to Dan. He was angry and he wanted to relieve some of his frustration.

Dan cleared his throat and said, “There are two police officers at the junction to the A1.” He pointed back in their direction. “They’ll want to know about this.”

Dan wanted to ask for more details. Did he know the license plate? Was the man alone? He didn’t push his luck. The police would collect a statement and help the man get on his way again, and they would attempt to track down the car wearing stolen plates.

Dan walked into the restaurant, passing the sign asking him to wait to be seated. He took a seat by a table where he could see the car park. He had done enough waiting around.

After ordering a medium steak and some unknown brand of cola, Dan watched the police arrive and talk to the van driver. One of the officers removed a pocketbook and wrote furiously before unclipping a radio from his belt and talking into it from an inch away.

As he waited for his food, Dan recapped recent events in his mind. He hadn’t seen the video, but the sequence of events had been described to him by the otherwise secretive DC.

The kidnapper threw the iPhone through the car window. He risked his life to recover another object, thrown in the same direction, moments later. There was movement inside the car but the images were not clear enough to determine what had happened, other than to determine that a blonde girl was sitting in the passenger seat. The description ended with the acknowledgement that the car turned off at the Newark junction, from which point there was no CCTV.

Abigail knew about today’s technology. She knew far more about iPhones and iPads than Dan could ever hope to understand. Schools invested heavily in tech. Some of the kids had their own. Abigail had pestered for an iPhone, willing to accept one second-hand. She had told her parents that they could use the tracking features of the phone and her Apple ID if they ever wanted to locate her at any given moment.

Dan’s eyebrows raised. She must’ve told him about the tracking on those phones. That’s why he threw it out of the car so quickly. He smiled. Following that she did everything she could to keep him from moving.

He thought about the anger, bubbling away inside this kidnapper. It had been evident throughout the DVD message. Abigail’s fighting spirit could cause her trouble. It could incur the wrath of a known and experienced child rapist and killer.

Hunger pangs brought a brief onset of acid reflux. Dan’s grimace was as much to do with the pain in his throat as his daughter’s impending punishment. He was helpless to resolve either. He had no antacids in his pockets and no way of saving his daughter.

Before his expression normalised, the waitress placed food in front of him with all of the grace of a careless builder chucking scrap in a skip. She might have asked Dan about the brief look of anguish if she’d have looked up from the floor. She’ll have to work harder to earn a tip. She was only a stop short of throwing the food at me.

After two bites of almost overcooked beef, Dan chewed his food slowly, question after question springing to mind. Where would he go from here? Would he think that his moving from place to place would actually improve his chances of evading capture? The incident at the services and in the middle of the A1 further south suggested the struggles of a desperate man. Joshua Billings was appearing more like the man without a plan, which could make him far more difficult to find.

On the other hand, fleeing the police in a panic had a typical, predictable outcome for most people. What had the officer said moments ago? ‘I’d turn off this road and get as far away as possible in another direction.’ It was human nature to extract one’s self to the farthest extremity when danger loomed.

Dan took several more bites of steak, chewing in a slow, deliberate fashion, cogitating. Putting down the fork and the semi-blunt steak knife, he picked up his phone with his left hand and loaded a mapping application. He pinched to zoom out, showing a wide area around his current location. He watched the roads snake out in all sorts of directions. Dan could choose a direction and drive for hours, ending up miles away from Abigail. He could have gone anywhere from here.

His daughter’s kidnapper would know that another wrong step could end everything. Assuming that the man had returned to rational thinking, every step, every act would be deliberate and careful. Dan would need to take risks and hope for some extraordinary luck to come his way.

He replaced the phone on the table and picked up the cutlery again. As he raised another small off-cut of ex-cow to his mouth, he glanced at the digital map again. I need more data before I take decisive action.

For a man on the run, like Joshua, there were big benefits and dire drawbacks for both large and small settlements, old and new, near and far. To him, every choice would seem like a bad one. He would over-think. He would try to operate in random patterns, too close to realise that he would be making all of the classic mistakes. Would he seek for isolation where his very arrival would turn heads, or would he disappear into an urbanised crowd, becoming another addition to a sea of faces?

Whether sensible and careful or stupid and crazy, the kidnapper, Joshua Billings, would make a decision, if he had not done so already. Dan was sitting there, indecisive, unwilling to move until he could be certain that movement, at that moment, made sense.

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