With the passing of a couple of years since he had worked for the police, Dan had forgotten how frustrating life could be with so many constraining rules, procedures and safety checklists.
Arriving at the Hyndburn Hotel in something close to record time, he was the latest victim of the slow arm of the law. He was, however, grateful that his credentials as a police-vetted consultant had at least allowed him entry to the car park.
Police officers were congregating like expectant fans before a big match. None of them seemed to be busy with anything in particular. Some were finishing off the hasty assembly of forensic tents. Some were checking the durability of the miles of yellow incident tape surrounding the building.
Some anonymous officer had approached his car, telling him he was expected. Details were sketchy, but news would reach him if he patiently waited in the car park.
Despite the attempted assurances of the man standing near his car, Dan couldn’t help but exit the car, standing in the freezing mid-afternoon air, and fire questions at him. “Is Abigail in there? Is she okay? Is Joshua Billings still here? Who’s behind all of this?”
The man shook his head, keeping his lips pressed firmly shut. Dan gritted his teeth as the officer looked away. I’m not going to persuade him to talk. Credit where it’s due, he’s got his instructions and he’s sticking to them better than other officers I’ve met.
He looked around, still standing by his car. For all of these people to still be here, I’m guessing I was right about the child pornography, at least.
With a kind of warm tingle spreading from his extremities, Dan wondered whether his body was reacting to the cold. It was also possible that the sensation in his fingers and toes, as well as his accelerated breathing, were symptomatic of the almost overwhelming apprehension he was feeling. He started to move his feet around, hopping slightly from one foot to the other, in his attempts to stay warm.
The officer’s radio blared and the man dutifully lowered his head to listen, turning his back on Dan. In response to a message meant for him, he issued a one word response of “Understood”. Turning back to face Dan, he said, “Someone is on their way down to speak to you.”
It was only a matter of seconds before a large, intimidating figure was heading in his direction. Wearing a suit and standing at almost six and a half feet tall, the man of Asian descent was making a beeline for Dan. He stopped a couple of steps short of Dan’s standing position. In order to talk eye-to-eye with this man, Dan felt as if he would need to climb on to the bonnet of his car. The officer in charge didn’t need a weapon to strike fear into others, but he carried one anyway.
“Mr Castle?” he asked, a clear head above anyone else in the vicinity.
Dan recognised the voice and nodded. “Yes sir. You must be DS Cole.”
He nodded. “I wanted to thank you personally for your intelligence. We’ve managed to take down a child abuse ring we suspect has been operating in London for years.”
Dan nodded, wanting to interrupt to ask his all-important question, but DS Cole continued talking.
“There was an attempt to mislead authorities into thinking that this organisation was run from Russia. We have found a number of underage girls in several rooms within the hotel. They are assisting the police at the moment.”
“Is Abigail one of them?”
He was shaking his head before Dan had finished his question. “There are a number of individuals we had expected to find here, but for whatever reason they’re not here.”
Dan felt his heart sink in his chest. This was it. This was my chance, and she’s gone.
“It is almost as if someone got wind of our impending operation and warned the people in charge to be elsewhere.” He looked at Dan like a Victorian headmaster would look at a rebellious little boy. “Mr Castle, you’ve not contacted anyone else about our plan here, have you?”
Dan stared at the man, open-mouthed. He then snapped his jaw closed, blinked and said, “It’s not in my best interests to go destroying police operations that can save my daughter’s life, Sergeant.”
DS Cole lowered his gaze to his feet and said, “Yes, of course.”
Like a reporter with a disgraced politician, Dan wasn’t going to let go of this conversation until he got somewhere. “Have you found anything that suggests she was here at least?”
DS Cole looked puzzled for a moment, as if he had been lost in his thoughts, before raising his eyebrows and saying, “We’ve found a digital camera containing photographs of your daughter, so we know she was here a short time ago.”
Dan’s shoulders lifted a little. “So we just need to figure out what happened since those photos were taken.”
DS Cole pointed at himself, and then at the varied array of colleagues in uniform around him. “We, need to figure this out.” He pointed at Dan and said, “You need to stay where you are and we’ll take your statement.”
Dan rolled his eyes and said, “Sergeant, I’m someone who has been tracking the kidnapper across the country, and quite frankly I’ve done a better job thus far of putting this all together than the police have done.” He straightened his back and made himself as tall as he could, which compared to DS Cole was still pretty short. “I’m here to investigate every possible lead until I find my daughter. I’m qualified, vetted and I’m here right now and I’m going to help you to find the men responsible.”
DS Cole scowled and bit his upper lip. He seemed deep in thought for a moment before pointing in a broad circle at the police personnel surrounding them. “We have every MET officer we could spare.” He pointed at Dan’s chest with a quizzical look on his face. “What service can you, a private investigator, offer here that these fine men and women can’t?”
Dan nodded. “The centre for this activity. I assume there’s a computer?”
DS Cole nodded, looking puzzled. “It’s still turned on. Someone from Hi-Tech Crime will be here soon.”
“I’m qualified in the live forensic examination of digital equipment. I can check for any further leads.”
“I’m not sure-”
“I’m not sure we have the luxury of time here, Sergeant. Your perpetrators are getting further and further away, and so is my daughter.”
There was a long sigh. “Wait here.” DS Cole fished his phone from his pocket and walked back in the direction of the hotel.
Dan took advantage of the break in conversation to retrieve his certificates of qualifications and police vetting from his glove box. Standing there again in the cold, Dan could do nothing but get gradually colder, turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.
If these documents can’t help me find Abigail, they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on.