The Doll Collector

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Chapter 33

As time had ticked on during the Sunday evening, Dan’s ability to make a sensible decision had taken a nosedive as tiredness had set in. He felt as if he could not make a well-reasoned decision if his life depended on it, such was the toll taken by each of the passing few days.

Within a short drive of the restaurant that had provided the edible steak, Dan had found one of the more comfortable budget hotels. The place boasted fancy pocket-sprung mattresses and a pillow menu, but Dan could have slept on anything.

With two hours to go before his usual bedtime, Dan had started to scout the local area using various mapping websites, hoping to find some obvious destination for Joshua, the bald license plate thief and his fourteen year old prisoner.

He had barely started to cast his eyes over the screen when his phone started to ring. He looked at the display. A number was shown, but it wasn’t one that he recognised.

“This is Dan Castle,” he offered by way of an innocuous but accurate greeting.

“Mr Castle, this is DC Brokes.” He didn’t need to introduce himself any further. He was in charge of the kidnapping case, and he was probably calling to officially update Dan with the information he had already obtained by the officer that couldn’t keep a secret.

Focussing his attention on the voice on the phone rather than the map in front of him, Dan replied, “Yes, DC Brokes. How’s the investigation going?”

“We’ve had a breakthrough of sorts today, as I’m sure you know by now.” There was a hint of frustration in his voice.

“Yes,” Dan paused before adding, “One of the officers here has been… slightly informative.”

“Well, now that you know the man’s name, perhaps you would benefit with some clarity over his background.”

Dan waited for him to continue without responding.

“Joshua Billings is now suspected of murdering his own wife around six years ago.”

“Hardly surprising, given his recent record.”

“We’re trying to piece things together and to see if there’s any chance of predicting his next move.”

“You think he’ll go back to a place he’s been before?” Dan asked.

“I’m not assuming anything, Mr Castle.” He sounded like he’d had a long day. “I would like the facts to speak for themselves.”

Dan nodded and said, “I understand, but we don’t have many facts that are useful, do we?”

“We have some pieces of the puzzle, but we don’t know how they’ll fit together yet.” He paused and said, “I assume that no one has contacted you since about a ransom? We’re not always the first to know in these situations.”

He had hesitated. Maybe he thought the police were losing his trust. At some point they might even realise that they had never had it in the first place.

“DC Brokes, you would be the second person I call.”

The officer paused and hummed his approval before providing the headlines to Joshua without being specific. Joshua Billings had been born and raised in a seaside town in Suffolk. His parents had died in a car accident, leaving a substantial estate in his hands.

After being married only a few months, the couple had disappeared. His sister-in-law had complained at the time, but the police had found nothing suspicious around the home. There were no broken locks or doors. The interior was freshly painted and neat. The garden was meticulously kept. It was as if they had decided to run away. With no injured parties, and no evidence of any criminal activity, the police filed the couple under Missing Persons and didn’t give the strange disappearance another thought for years.

The sister-in-law had been considered a paranoid woman, trying to interfere, and suspected as being one of the reasons why the couple might have wanted to leave. She had felt vindicated when she had seen the face of her brother-in-law on the television, albeit with different hair and a few years to gain weight and a few wrinkles.

“I assume the house in question will be the subject of a warrant?” Dan asked.

“Of course, but don’t expect it to get us anywhere,” replied DC Brookes. “It could only serve to prove his previous crimes, and knowing what we know, it might not even do that.”

“Okay, so we know where he’s from,” said Dan, “But we’re still no closer to knowing where he is now.”

“We will start looking into the deaths of his parents. I’ll need to pass that on to Suffolk Constabulary. They’ll have to check their records.”

“I would assume that these revelations will be on the back burner until we find my daughter?” Dan asked.

“A crime is a crime, Mr Castle, whether it occurred last week or six years ago.” DC Brokes responded in a deeper, shorter tone.

Dan wanted to reach down the phone, grab the officer by the collar and scream in his face until he understood, but said in a calm, almost disinterested voice, “I understand.” He gritted his teeth for a second and then relaxed his jaw. There was a necessary few seconds of silence.

“If there’s nothing else, I do have one question,” Dan said. “If this man inherited a small fortune when his parents died, why on earth does he want a ransom?”

There was an audible, heavy sigh before the response. “I’ve been asking myself that very question. He doesn’t need the money, and our limited intelligence doesn’t suggest that he’s ever done this before.”

“We can only hope that he’ll start making mistakes.” Dan said.

“He has already made a few, sir.”

“Yes, but none of them have led to his arrest.”

“We’re doing everything we can, Mr Castle. We’re professionals at dealing with things like this.”

Trying not to sound defeated, Dan said, “I know. I hope you’ll keep me updated.”

“And I hope you’ll trust us enough with vital information when he finally contacts you.”

The conversation ended. Both men let politeness trump honesty throughout their exchange. One man didn’t want a failed child kidnapping investigation. One didn’t want a dead or missing daughter. Tensions were high.

Dan turned his attention to the digital map, recalling a snippet of information offered by the officer. A seaside town in Suffolk. I wonder if he’s gone home.

Dan put the phone on the desk and looked at the laptop screen again. There were places dotted along the coast, but most were too small to be accurately referred to as towns.

He shrugged his shoulders as he stared with a blank expression on his face. The latest actions of the kidnapper were out of character when compared to everything else he knew about the man. What is Joshua trying to accomplish?

Dan knew that men like Joshua had well-established rules. They had their own code of conduct, developed over time by trial and error. As far as he could tell, Joshua Billings had torn up the rule book. Such actions often occurred when desire turned to need, and need turned to compulsion. However he had arrived at this point in his life, there was no reason, no excuse for Joshua ruining the lives of so many children. He needs to be caught, but am I the man to catch him?

Like Joshua, Dan had rules. Those rules included safeguards against being caught doing something illegal. Unlike his new nemesis, Dan had always been willing to flaunt the rules when occasion required, whenever it was truly necessary.

Dan’s eyes started to close as he looked at nothing in particular. If the trail had not gone cold, it was lukewarm at best. He was exhausted. He let his eyes close for a moment before jolting awake. He shuddered as he feared for the despicable things Joshua might be doing to his daughter. Above everything else, he hoped that his fears would not be realised.

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