Joshua looked at his watch. Almost seven hours since the explosion. They must know the truth about Abigail by now.
Reflecting on the past few hours, Joshua had noticed a coldness in his actions that he had not shown before. His escape route, although in his opinion clever, had left his own code in tatters. The unnamed girl, no doubt innocent at such an age, had lost her life whilst allowing him to escape with his. Still staring at his watch, he lowered his arm to his side and shrugged slightly. It had to be done. I had no choice.
A voice somewhere in his head screamed back, you always have a choice. He shook his head, hoping that the internal voice and its wisdom would not bother him again.
His decision to emotionally detach from the young girl had partly been made when he considered his emotional involvement with the girl to his left. Abigail had stirred feelings that Joshua had not felt for anyone for a long time.
In the past, he had praised and respected the pure girls, the ones whom he had immortalised in his models.
He had shown anger to those who had not matched up to their standards, and quite rightly so. When he had seen an otherwise beautiful girl who had thrown away her innocence like a badge for last term’s political candidate, he was upset. Their beauty is nothing without their innocence.
Abigail, though, was different to every girl that he had abducted, clean or unclean. Regardless of her own innocence, she had unknowingly led him to disregard his own rules, take chances, living a little more than he had ever done before. This one, beautiful, stubborn girl has changed me. Time will tell if it’s for better or for worse.
The final words ringing around his head reminded him of marriage vows taken several years earlier. He smiled as he fantasised about a life with Abigail as his stubborn, but loving young bride. Those thoughts, however, could be nothing but pure fantasy.
Despite the feelings he had nurtured for the Castle girl, it was time for them to go their separate ways. Neither of them could deny it, as much as it felt as if Joshua was leaving a part of himself in that hotel. He swallowed, feeling a lump in his throat. I need to seem casual, aloof. Once again I need to bury my feeling deep down inside.
The fourteen year old by his side was not struggling anymore. She was not fighting free. Either she had accepted her fate in silence or her will had been forever broken. He hoped that the former was true rather than the latter. The girl would always consider Joshua to be a monster, such had been her experience with the man, and maybe she was just biding her time until something signified a change in ownership.
As the separation loomed, Joshua had taken steps, hoping to make the whole thing easier. While asleep he had dressed her in the plainest of clothes he could find. A green jumper and faded jeans, at least a size too big, still did nothing in persuading him to take his eyes off her. Even if she were dressed in dirty rags her charm would shine through.
He shook his head again, concentrating on the business at hand. Abigail Castle is nothing but goods in a trade for my freedom. I need to remember that.
Doing his best to think about something else, Joshua looked around the hotel lobby. No CCTV. Hardly surprising, given the chosen profession of Sergei Grekov. This was the real headquarters of his child modelling business, which branched out into child pornography and prostitution. It had been months since he had hunted the man down to the Victorian Era hotel in which he was sitting, but this was the first time he had dared to make contact.
The hotel, still trading legitimately, was no doubt under the control of the mad Russian he had heard so much about. Every person from the manager to the bellhop would be paid well, or blackmailed into cooperating with his demands. The lack of CCTV was just one thing that hinted at a careful man.
Joshua webbed his fingers together and tapped the pads of each thumb against the other. He tapped his feet. He felt a chill as a bead of sweat fell down the back of his neck. I’m as nervous as a young no-hoper at his first job interview.
Sergei was not known for his patience or for his hospitality. He had been brief and impolite during their brief exchange over the phone hours earlier. Having contacted the man about a perfectly legal adult pornography website he controlled, Joshua had been invited to a meeting when he had extolled the virtues of the young girl. He had explained that the charm of the Abigail, if captured in photos, could lead to an increase in interest and in profits for the greedy Russian.
As they waited in silence, awaiting their respective fates, Abigail spoke in a voice almost soft enough to be considered a whisper.
“Do you mind if I ask you something?” she asked, looking sincere.
Joshua shook his head without turning to look at her. “Not at all.”
Abigail cleared her throat. “I was wondering how people get involved in… you know… paedophilia.”
Joshua shot a sharp look in Abigail’s direction as his head spun around. “You’ll be wise to keep your voice down, girl.”
She looked over her shoulders and then back at him. “There’s no one else close enough to hear me.”
Joshua’s eyes danced from side to side for a minute. She was right. There was no one even close to being within earshot. He leaned closer to Abigail’s right ear and said, “I’m not a paedophile.”
A short, quiet blast of a laugh escaped from Abigail as she raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Joshua’s face wore an indignant expression. “It’s true. I’m a Virginist. They’re different.”
She scowled. “What on earth is a Virginist, and how is it any different?”
He sighed and shifted in his seat before saying, “A paedophile is concerned only with sexual gratification with children...”
Abigail raised an eyebrow again.
“...whereas a Virginist wants to preserve a child’s innocence. They find beauty in the virginity and purity of a child, believing it enhances their beauty.”
Abigail backed away slightly. “But I’ve seen you use someone my age for… sexual gratification.”
Joshua’s head bobbed from side to side as he considered how to respond. “Those girls…”
Abigail stared, waiting for him to finish his sentence.
“…those girls had already lost their innocence. Those acts were done to teach you and the other girl about the consequences of their actions.”
She glared at him. She spoke again, quieter than before. “You expect me to believe that those things you did were not for you? What about what you’ve done in hotels?”
Joshua’s cheeks started to heat up. He shook his head violently. “You don’t understand. You never will.”
She nodded. “Oh, I understand, but it doesn’t make you right.”
He gritted his teeth and looked at her with the full force of the anger he felt as a result of being judged by this girl. “Those girls had nothing to look forward to in life. Each of them were already on their own path to destruction. I just…”
His words trailed off as he waved his hand, dismissing his thought. “I’m not going to convince you, so why bother?”
He turned his head away from the girl, refusing to look at her, or to even gauge how she had reacted to their conversation. There was so much more to say, so many stories from his past that would serve to justify his actions.
He bit his lip, wanting so much to tell her about the painful experiences of his childhood.
He wanted her to know about the girls with their high skirts and long legs, their fake tans and bleached hair. Every one of them seemed determined to destroy their own natural beauty.
He wanted to tell her how such girls treated sexually frustrated school boys. How they would use and abuse them for their own purposes. Discarding them or turning them into figures of ridicule when it suited. Those girls, flaunting their loose morals, would seem to get ahead as a result, no matter how many hearts they stomped on along the way.
He wanted to tell her that he had discovered how many of the ‘bleach blonde brigade’ at schools up and down the country had given birth to a child before their eighteenth birthday. Some of the kids were born out of wedlock, others were born into homes where a scumbag young man would be called father. That same father, so many times, would eventually either abuse the wife or the child, or both, as a way of life.
These young girls and young men were forming the broken homes of tomorrow. Such families were the plague of housing estates up and down the country. If these girls valued their virginity, their lives would be better. Society as a whole would be better.
Joshua’s tortured reminiscing was disturbed as Abigail asked another question. Her brow was furrowed and one eyebrow was higher than the other. “You see yourself as saving them from a dreadful life by cutting it short before it falls apart?”
Joshua nodded, raising both eyebrows and smiling. She does understand. “I don’t expect you to accept any of this,” he said, before returning his gaze to the floor.
Abigail looked straight ahead and spoke, as if she was speaking to no one in particular. “I can see, when you believe those things, why you would do what you’ve done, but…”
Joshua could tell that she wanted an answer to a very obvious question she refused to ask. “Why did I keep you?”
She turned to him and nodded. Her bottom lip started to tremble as she nodded almost imperceptibly. Her spirit wasn’t completely broken. She was upset, but she was still in control of her emotions. Logic suggested that she was still the same girl he had abducted three days earlier, so why has she stopped trying to run for the door?
“I kept you, Abbie…” he said, looking at her for only a second before staring at his feet, feeling the emotion showing through in his voice. “I kept you because I couldn’t let you go.”
For the first time since her capture, Joshua felt a direct connection to the girl sitting by his side. Maybe that’s why she’s not trying to run away… or maybe it’s the threat of being shot.
Abigail said nothing and shuffled in her seat.
In a soft voice he added, “There’s something about you that drew my attention like no other.” He paused and cleared his throat. “You’re the first girl to make me feel happy, instead of just… powerful.”
A wide-eyed Abigail opened her mouth as if she was about to speak, but Joshua didn’t let her before continuing.
In a much harsher voice, he said, “And of course, I promised your father that you would be released once the ransom is paid. I haven’t been paid in full yet.”
She scowled at him. “But how can you get the rest of the ransom if you hand me over to someone else?”
He smiled. “You underestimate me. I have it all planned out, and I fully intend to cause you to be free, once I have the money I requested.”
Abigail gave him a narrow stare. “What if you’re not paid?”
Joshua shrugged. “In that case, I suppose you could be very happy here.”
Abigail hunched over in her chair with her elbows resting on her knees and looked at the floor again. She continued to do so as she rested her head on the palms of her hands.
As his captive beauty attempted to make sense of it all in her head, Joshua used the free time to continue to draft the email to Dan, courtesy of free Wi-Fi. Within seconds of pressing the power button he was once again looking at the email he had been composing when he had been interrupted by the P.I trying to rescue his daughter.
He had it all planned out in his mind. He would ask for the remaining twenty grand in exchange for providing information for the whereabouts of their daughter. He would not demand the money. He would not threaten them. He would keep it simple. As soon as money was deposited in his account, from whence it would be transferred instantly overseas, he would share her location with them.
He proof-read his email twice, as was his custom, before hitting the send button and breathed out a laboured sigh, leaning back in his chair. Dan Castle now has the power to save his own daughter. She’s not my responsibility anymore.
He let the small file wiping program do its work, eradicating any signs of his emails, before closing the lid of his laptop and stowing it away in his bag. He looked at his watch again as his heart started to beat faster. The crucial meeting with Sergei was due to begin at any moment. All I need to do now is trade Abigail for my freedom, and avoid mentioning this cash-for-information deal I have going on with her father.
As he fastened the bag closed, he could hear the approach of quiet footsteps on the tiled floor. He looked up to see a small-framed man in a hotel uniform standing in front of them, looking nervous. In a voice lower than had been expected, he invited Joshua and the girl to accompany him to the suite of Mr Grekov.