The Doll Collector

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Chapter 70

A peculiar feeling overwhelmed Dan on his return home. He belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It was as if his body was executing a to-do list that his mind didn’t know existed. He had been checking his email on his phone with increased frequency, waiting, hoping for a response. He hit the refresh button again after removing his coat and sitting on the sofa. He looked up at the clock on the wall. Nothing, but I suppose it’s only been about twenty minutes.

Instead of sitting hunched forward next to Jennifer, Dan made some excuse about retreating to his study to check on another case. In truth, there was no way he could turn his mind to anything else until Abigail was home.

He turned on his laptop and checked his email on that, just in case anything had been sent in the sixty seconds or so since he had checked his phone. Nothing.

The copied DVD, hand delivered just over three and a half days earlier, was sitting on the desk to his right. He thought about the words of the officers to whom he had spoken during those anxious hours. If statistics were to be believed, Abigail would be dead by now.

At that moment an email arrived. It was shown as being from an unknown sender again. Dan’s heart rate increased and his anticipation for an answer drove him to open it. This is him.

The text of the email was shown instantly as the attachments downloaded. Joshua had seen the press conference and had responded within minutes.

Dan,

Well done. Your methods are somewhat innovative and unique. It’s good to see the media have their uses.

As previously noted, I have passed the burden of your daughter’s care onto another collector of sorts. She will be safe as long as she follows instructions. She has the opportunity to become a real star as you’ll see from the attached photographs, taken a matter of minutes ago.

I will provide her exact location (I was present during the photo-shoots) as soon as I receive notification that the required funds have been transferred.

For your daughter’s sake, make the right choice this time.

Joshua Billings

The heartburn returned as Dan opened up the first image and waited for a second while it loaded. It was a full resolution image, courtesy of a professional-grade digital camera. Photos like that didn’t open in three or four seconds, giving him time to pop an antacid in his mouth. An intense dread washed over him. What if I see something I don’t want to see?

The instant the image filled the screen, Dan’s eyes opened wide. There was his daughter, clothed in a vest top and jeans, sitting in a chair. The image would have been innocent enough had a second girl not been standing behind the chair, raising the vest top, which was only just covering her chest. Abigail looked embarrassed, pained and as if she was about to break down in tears.

Dan chewed the chalky tablet as he thought about his own part in Abigail’s current circumstance. I could have spared her from all of this. If I’d paid the full twenty five grand she wouldn’t be there, being forced to do things like this.

Dan shook the thought from his head. I can’t think like this now. I need to concentrate. I need to fix this.

He closed the image and opened the second, breathing out a long sigh. What am I going to find in the second image?

After a further few seconds of dread and worry, the image was displayed, and it was worse than the first. Dan’s lifted his right fist from his desk and held it in mid-air, reconsidering thumping it against the hard wooden surface. Lowering his hand by degrees, he gritted his teeth, biting down as if awaiting some impending pain or intrusive medical procedure.

This time, Abigail was standing side-on to the camera, wearing only a skirt. She was facing another girl of a similar age wearing only underwear. The second girl had her hands on the chest of his daughter and was kissing her.

Dan flung his chair back, hearing it crash against the wall behind, resisting the urge to slam the laptop screen down. He stomped away from his desk and put his hands behind his head. “Who would do things like this to her?!” he shouted. “Why?!”

He clenched and unclenched his hands into fist and relaxed them again, looking for something to punch, to break, anything that could help to relieve the anger bubbling inside. He took a couple of deep breaths and walked back to his desk. There might be some detail somewhere in those photos that’ll help me find his daughter.

Child protection officers had found at-risk children using photos in the past, sometimes with little more than a shadow cast at a certain time of day, or the part of a roof visible through a window. This time, he needed to find that crucial detail that could make the difference in the life of his family.

The second and most graphic image was still on the laptop. He zoomed in and out, reviewed every part of the background to the image, doing his best to ignore the distressing scene at its centre.

The furniture was of an old, dated eastern European style. It was clear from Joshua’s situation that the photos were taken in the UK, so Dan was puzzled by their outdated stylised appearance, once popular in Russia or elsewhere in the Eastern European area.

His ideas were further verified by some small details in the images. On the left edge, next to a bedside cabinet covered with Russian magazines, was a bright white UK electrical socket. He checked every background detail in the photograph. Nothing further indicated a possible country of origin, other than misleading items dotted around the room.

He closed the image and withdrew a notepad and paper from a desk drawer. He wrote the things he knew:

Photos mimicking older Eastern European styles

Russian-looking magazines

UK electrical socket

He read over his list and raised an eyebrow. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff.

He set the computer opening the other image, the first one he had seen. While he waited, he retrieved an old, small laptop from a nearby cupboard, thankful that he had not cleared out his ‘computer junk’ as Jennifer had termed it. The police will want the computer that received this email. It won’t matter to them which computer they get.

When his attention returned to his day-to-day laptop, Abigail was again sitting there with her vest top in the wrong position. He zoomed in to the background and scanned it in the same manner as the previous image. There were no plug sockets in view, no Russian paraphernalia and no landmarks visible through the small part of visible window.

Towards the end of his review of the image, at the point in which he was becoming resigned to finding nothing, he noticed something, sitting on the edge of a desk almost out of the shot. It was a piece of maroon coloured card, folded along the long edge, standing up like a Christmas card. Zooming out until the pixels shrunk and showed definite shapes, he could make out the word MENU underneath some kind of crest. In the centre of the crest was a capital H, in a swirling pattern that was too blurred be discernible.

Dan made his best attempt to copy the logo in a sketch beneath the list on his notepad. He pouted as he looked over it. It wasn’t even close to being a good likeness. He looked back at the screen, filled with the blurry menu and the less-than-obvious logo. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Somewhere in the UK was a hotel that used a logo with a capital H in a gold-like colour over a maroon background. He brought up a map of the UK in a web browser. With some effort he could narrow his search. Three or four hours from Lowestoft would get the man almost anywhere in the South East or the Midlands. It wasn’t enough time to get anywhere else.

He stared intently at the map, zooming in to the bottom right of England, as shown on the map. Where would I go if I wanted to get out of the country?

Joshua Billings was a wanted man. He could not leave the country easily, especially since having his face shown on every news program over the past few days. Flights and trains would be ruled out. Anywhere with passport control would prevent him from achieving his goal. He would need another way out.

News items and articles had previously suggested that more and more illegal immigrants were being caught each year in the backs of lorries. However he did it, Joshua needed to leave without tipping off authorities, but emigrating illegally would be far easier than entering the same way. The most thorough Customs and passport checks were conducted when someone entered a country, as opposed to when they were leaving.

Having ruled out almost every conceivable option, Dan decided that any attempt to leave these shores would be best achieved from a ferry or shipping port. There weren’t many within three or four hours. He was looking south of London, and as far as Southampton. Not many options, but it wasn’t possible to check them all on his own in time.

In his searches, Dan stumbled upon a useful smartphone app. It allowed for the searching of an internet search engine by use of a picture rather than words. Giving it a go, he pointed it at the logo on the screen and let it do its work. After a few seconds of searching, he had hundreds supposed matches, few of which bore much of a resemblance.

He returned to the laptop, cropped and sharpened the part of the photo containing the menu, and tried again. The results of the second occasion were much closer to that original, if fuzzy logo. He excluded his old school badge, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the crest in question, and continued reviewing the photos that matched his search. With six thumbnails remaining in his search results, he clicked on each image in turn and awaited to loading of the corresponding web page.

The first three were close, but the styles, colours and surrounding shapes were not quite a match. The fourth had the right style, but the colour was not the same. Clicking on the image he was taken to a site about a retirement home in northern Scotland. Dan shook his head. An almost identical logo, but clearly not the place.

With only two remaining, Dan was beginning to feel like he was running down a long, blind alley. So many hopes, so many good intentions, but he was on the verge of hitting a dead end. He looked at the clock in the corner of the computer screen. And let out a long, deliberate sigh. Perhaps I need to get the electronic payment ready.

He moved his face closer to the screen, inspecting the fifth logo, not wanting to face the disappointment of opening another random web site by clicking on it. Upon closer inspection, it was close. It was very close.

He clicked on the image and the web page of a Victorian Era hotel filled the screen within seconds. There was a maroon banner across the top of the whole page, complete with a crest showing a capital H surrounded by various feather-effect swirls, much like he had seen on coats of arms. He split the computer screen, showing the webpage on the right hand side and the graphics software on the left. One image was clearer than the other, but they were undoubtedly the same. The styles of a couple of the rooms were a match for the photos he had received. The lettering at the top of the web page matched that of the word MENU he had seen. His heart started pounding as his face lit up. This is the place.

He wanted to throw his arms in the air in triumph, but instead knew that he needed to concentrate and to act quickly. On his notepad he wrote the address. He looked it up on the mapping website. Close to the River Thames, near the centre of London.

He picked up his old netbook, still showing the email, and closed the lid. “This is for the police,” he said. He picked up the notepad with his other hand, saying, “This is for me.”

He rushed for the door and ran downstairs, almost losing his footing in his hurry.

“What’s the matter?” Jennifer asked in a panic. “What’s going on?”

Almost running past her, he said, “I think I’ve found her. I’ve got to see the police now and then drive to London.”

“London?” Jenny asked. “Where? How did you find her?”

Dan hurried to her as she got to her feet. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and said, “I’ll call from the car and explain everything, but right now I need to get going while she’s still there.”

He tucked the laptop and the notepad under his left arm before picking up his keys and rushing out of the door.

He climbed in to his car, ready to add a few more hundred miles to it, and fumbled with the keys, starting the engine. Next stop, the local police station. They need to get the MET involved now.

The police would likely have a lot of questions, but Dan didn’t have the answers. He just had a location, and nothing would stop him from getting there as quickly as possible. Flinging the car around each corner and tapping the steering wheel with his fingers at every enforced stop on the short journey, Dan felt a nervous energy build up inside. I can only hope that Abigail is still there, and still safe by the time I get there.

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