Daddy's Little Girl
I almost missed it. Best opportunity
I’ve had for
months and I was half asleep in my car, fretting over unpaid bills.
I heard the thump of her
falling, but didn’t register it. It was the familiar sound of her cursing that clued me in and I looked up to see I’d
got a winner. Jessie Payne, stark boob naked, and no-one in sight
to take her but myself.
She was in a bad way.
I could see that as I advanced on her, camera clicking. I circled
round to get a full
frontal, took some close ups while she struggled upright, then backed
off to pan out and get some background: the street, her red front
door with its famous number 69 glistening in the rain. OK, so I backed
off to steer clear of her, too. She could be vicious when she was
out of it—and whilst I could have stopped her wasted frame with my little finger, I didn’t
want her getting hold of my camera.
When I’d covered every
angle, I took out my phone.
“Operator,” a woman answered. “Fire,
police or ambulance?”
“Ambulance,” I said as usual. “Jessie Payne’s off her head outside her house. Hypothermia, toxic poisoning, getting run over—you
“Stay on the line please.
Your name, sir?”
I broke the connection.
I’d stay until I heard the siren, but I didn’t
have time for more. It was just gone four a.m. and I needed to get
these photos to the highest bidder.
near seven when I finally turned into my driveway. I pulled up
to the garage, turned
off the engine and sat there, too tired to get out of the clapped-out
Ford I’d bought two months back.
“Finally discovered the Lotus is too flashy, eh?” Ted had joked. “Celebs getting jealous when they see you coming?” It was an assumption I encouraged by keeping the garage door shut and the Fiesta in the drive. The only people who knew the Lotus wasn’t inside were my wife and the kids, and only my wife knew why. Just like she knew why we no longer had a 42” flat screen TV or Bosch music centre. But even she didn’t know about the house—and if I could get a few more photos like tonight’s,
I was hoping it would stay that way.
One of the few advantages
of a Ford Fiesta however, is that it’s too uncomfortable to sleep
in, and after a few minutes I got out and stumbled round the side
to the back door.
A thin line of pale grey was just beginning to lighten the sky, birds
were chirping in the damp air and I paused at the corner to absorb
the moment, feeling almost good. If I was lucky, I thought, I could
even grab a cup of tea before the kids came tumbling down for breakfast.
Instead I found myself
pushed up hard against the drain pipe, face crushed into pebbledash,
tight around my throat.
“Wha-a-a,” I said.
I wasn’t too worried. I imagined this was just a warning—Mickey’s pals reminding me that the debt still hadn’t been paid. They knew as well as anyone there was nothing to be gained from doing me serious harm. I was in the hands of debt collectors, for christ’s sake, not drug barons. But as my eyes got past the spots and I saw his face, I changed my mind: I’d
never seen this guy before.
He was medium height,
medium build and medium age with an office worker’s face—all metal
spectacles and furrowed brow. But what he lacked in muscle he made
up for in rage.
“Le-me-go,” I said, my breathing getting harder. “Tel-me-wha-u-wan.”
“I’ll tell you what I want, you cold-hearted bastard,” he hissed. “I’ll
tell you what I want all right.”
But he didn’t. Instead
he stood there, staring at me, until I went light-headed and my legs
started to buckle.
“Shit.” He let go and half-supported my fall onto hands and knees, then stood over me while I gulped in air. “Shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“Didn’t mean to what?” I staggered upright, hands ready, head poised to nut him. But instead of trying to attack me again, he took a furtive look round that would have been funny if he hadn’t
just killed my sense of humour, and said:
“We need to talk.”
God help me if it wasn’t contagious. Looking back towards the kitchen door, holding my breath in case the light snapped on, I murmured, “Not now. Not here. I’ve
“I’ve got kids,” the man said bitterly. “But no-one gives a shit about them.” A look came into his eyes. It was hard to see clearly in the dawn light, but I’m a professional photographer. I make my living out of the human face—or used to before the mobile phone cowboys flooded the scene—and I trusted what I saw. This guy’s
eyes had a touch of madness in them, along with an edge of desperation
that made me wish him very far away.
“How about lunch time,” I tried. “Down
the Queen Anne.”
He shook his head. “I need to talk to you now. Here. In private.” Adding, bizarrely, “I
want to do a deal.”
“Ha.” I rubbed my throat. “Strange
way to go about it.”
A light snapped on round
the corner. Ella had come down to start breakfast—and Ella’s ears were of the sensitive kind. It would be better to humour the guy than have her witness another scene. I jerked my head back the way I’d come. “All
right then, but not here. Come into the garage.”
The garage was mostly empty, the space released by the Lotus not yet filled with broken furniture, old toys and the other junk I was doing my best to keep at bay. He looked round, distracted.
“Where’s the fancy car,
“In for a service. Now
what do you want?”
“I want…” He stopped, his rage suddenly uncertain. “That is, I want you to…” He closed his eyes then snapped them open and stared into my face. “I
want you to help me kidnap my daughter.”
I know you’re not supposed to laugh at lunatics, but I couldn’t help it. When I’d finished I perched my bum on the workbench, spread my arms so that my right hand fell near the wrench, just in case—and
prepared to enjoy the show.
“And who’s your daughter?” I asked, “when she’s
“She’s never at home,” he answered, “as you bloody well know. My daughter’s
That wiped the smile off my face.
“I was going to do it last night,” he continued. “She was there on her own for a bloody miracle. All the other filth had left by three. It would have been perfect. Except for you—bloody Nat Smith—fucking paparazzo extraordinaire—the man who always gets his shot. The man who can’t leave my daughter alone. And now it’s too late and she’s back in hospital again and who knows when I’ll get another chance—and it’s
all your sodding fault.”
I blinked. I’d been accused of a lot of things in my time, but preventing a kidnapping was a new one. That, though, wasn’t
the only odd thing going on here.
“Let me get this straight. You’re Jessie Payne’s
He didn’t answer, which
was good enough for me.
“You’re the guy who walked out on her when she was just a kid? The estranged father who ran off with another woman, leaving her and her family—your family—without
two pennies to rub together? The arsehole who wanted nothing to do
with her? And now you want to kidnap her?”
He didn’t seem disturbed by my way of putting things and suddenly it made sense. An arsehole like him would be interested now she had money. He probably wanted to force it out of her before she died and left it all to the local horse dealer. But why the hell did he think I’d
play along? Then, before I opened my mouth to ask him, that made
“You think I’d do anything, don’t you?” Now it was my turn to get angry. “You think we’re all just scum—paparazzi filth with no morals at all. You think I’d—”
“Morals,” he interrupted. “Morals. You have the—the nerve to stand there talking about morals, when only three hours ago you were taking advantage of an innocent girl. Instead of helping her in her hour of need, you were taking photos of her—of her fanny. Don’t pretend to me you’re not the scum of the earth. My god, I’ve
seen gutter rats with more integrity.”
“I called the ambulance.”
“Oh, and that makes it
so much better.”
“Yeah, it does, actually.” He wasn’t going to get me on the defensive. “Or did you think I’d
just let her die on the pavement?”
“And lose the fatted goose? That’s not morals, you—you…” He couldn’t find a word bad enough. “The
only pure thing about you is your self-interest.”
“Whereas you’re white
as the driven snow. Only out for her good.”
I sighed. This was going
“Look.” He shut his eyes again and massaged his face. I knew how he felt. “Look,” he repeated. “We’ve got off on the wrong footing. Let’s start again.” He looked around and spotted the garden chairs folded neatly against the side wall. “May
I waved my hand expansively. “Be my guest.” So long as I got some photos, I didn’t
mind what he did. The more surreal the better.
“My name is Thomas Wainwright,” he started. “Not Ted Payne. And if you think I abandoned my kids by choice…” He broke off. “What do you care? Why let the truth interfere with a good story—all
those lies that sell so well.”
“My camera doesn’t lie.” I was touchy about that one. “I didn’t make her walk around outside in the nude. I didn’t
make her off her head on drugs.”
“Didn’t you?” He fumbled
inside his jacket and for a second I thought he was packing a gun.
I picked up the
wrench and started forward.
“No!” He pulled out his hand looking scared and surprised, as if I’d no reason to be wary. “A photo. That’s
all. Inside my wallet.”
“I’ll get it.” This guy was too much of a loose cannon for me to take any chances, but it felt weird putting my hand inside his overcoat. They did it in the movies all the time, but the movies never made it seem intimate—vulnerable—they didn’t give you the warmth of his body, the pounding of his heart. Christ, the next thing I knew he’d be having a heart attack. I handed the wallet over to him, backed off and put the wrench down. I’d
called enough ambulances for one day.
He took out the photo.
It was of a young woman—dark hair, good skin, pretty smile—a younger
Jessie maybe, or an alternative reality version where she was healthy
“My daughter Anna,” he explained. “Anna isn’t famous. That’s because she’s a maths genius.” His voice went proud as he said it. “Maths
is not a sexy subject. The press leave Anna alone. Anna gets on with
her life. Anna has not been pushed into drugs and anorexia and self-harm.
Anna is all right.”
He grinned at me, a twisted
sneer that I could see clearly now the light was beginning to filter
in. “Still think you’re
I tensed to answer then
relaxed again. What was the point? What did he care that if I didn’t
do it, someone else would, that we all have to make a living?
“So, you’re her dad.” I brought him back to the point. “And now…?”
He shook his head. His
smile was bitter. “Seeing your dad again after seven years doesn’t make for an instant rapport. Doesn’t make you run to him for sanctuary when the going gets tough. I thought I could use my living abroad—the fact you guys didn’t know me—to give her shelter from the storm. I thought I could be her safety net…”
I nodded, starting to
your safety net was full of holes.”
He shrugged. “I hadn’t calculated how vicious it would get. How remorseless. How impossible it is to give fifty photographers the slip at once. Especially when she’s out of it—which she always is these days—pigheadedly determined to ruin everything, just like her mother…” He stopped, took a deep breath. “So now, when I’m trying to help her, she’ll have nothing to do with me. I never dreamt of that.” He stared at me. “And I hadn’t
calculated on you.”
I held his gaze. “What she needs,” I suggested finally, “is
“If she stayed there,” he nodded, with a ghost of a smile. “Which she doesn’t. She’s been to rehab ten times in the last two years. I don’t think that’s quite how it’s
supposed to work.”
It was a fair point. “So this kidnap…What
exactly did you have in mind?”
“That you turn a blind eye. That you see nothing. That you keep out of the bloody way for thirty bloody minutes so I can get her off to safety. I want to get her somewhere quiet,” he explained, a pleading note entering his voice. “I want to get her into a rehab she can’t check out of—to get her healthy again and give her a chance to think things through. I can’t change her, I know that. If she wants to self-destruct, she’ll self-destruct. But I don’t believe she wants to. I can’t. I have to believe she just doesn’t know any better, that she’s too caught up in it to see her way clear. She’s my daughter, for god’s
sake. I have to do what I can.”
If the speech was for
me he was wasting his time. Every day I saw the pressures on the
people I tracked down,
I prayed it’d never happen to my kids. Lauren was thirteen and reassuringly normal. Kitty was ten: precocious, pretty and desperate to be a pop star, a film star, any kind of star so long as she shone. To date I’d refused to pay for acting lessons, singing lessons, elocution lessons, deportment lessons and modeling shoots. I let her do football because, let’s face it, no matter how good a girl is, no-one gives a shit. So far it was working—no
fame, no glory, no drugs. Which brought us back to Jessie Payne.
“And if I help you? What’s
in it for me?”
He stared at me, his fingers clenched. I reached back for the wrench.
“How about the knowledge you’ve
helped save a life?”
“I got that tonight. It doesn’t
pay the bills.”
If looks could kill I’d have been long dead, so his just bounced off me. Then he nodded and opened his wallet. “How
“The scoop. I want access to her during her ‘kidnap’,
all the photos I can take, and I want the exclusive afterwards.”
“No.” He didn’t even think about it. “The whole idea is to get her away from all that. How do you think she’ll recover with—”
“I can be discrete,” I snapped. “Telephoto, long lens, hidden camera. She doesn’t even need to know I’m
“And see your photos of
her recovering when she comes back out? That would really keep her
on the straight
I could see his point.
I swallowed. “You can have the veto.” I’d only offered that once before. “Just give me enough to prove I was there—normal
shots of her that set the location, coupled with the exclusive. Nothing
He thought about it and I knew I had him hooked. The sun was angling through the side window now, dappling him with a patchwork of light. Digital would come out too dark, but I still had high grain film in my manual.
“OK,” he said at last.
“Good.” I got off a couple of shots before he could react, then another few as he stood up in astonished rage. “Smile for the camera,” I told him. “I’ve
just sealed our deal.”
Then I picked up the wrench, just in case, and saw him out.
late, dark and cold, and my back ached. So far, so much the same.
For once though
it didn’t bother me. Instead of feeling grey with tiredness, head pounding from too much coffee, I felt energised, hope pulsing through my veins. If this worked—and it would work—I was on a ticket to more than catch up. I’d
be home and free.
I looked at my watch—3:30 a.m. The others had peeled off to catch the night clubs and only I remained, doggedly doing what I always did. As far as the others were concerned, it was business as usual. Except that tonight, bang on time, I heard a car coming round the corner. She’d
actually had the nous to do as she was told.
One of Mickey’s lads half-saluted me as Jessie got out, then drove off quickly, money on the side, no questions asked. That should keep Mickey off my back for a while. Jessie teetered on the edge of the pavement, looking around as though expecting someone—and
right on cue her father drove up. He got out, dressed all in black,
hat down over his eyes, opened the back door and began to help her
Jumping out of the Ford,
I started shooting: one of Jessie looking out the back window, another
of the registration
plate covered in dirt—then one of the back of Wainwright’s head.
He jerked round at that, angry and afraid.
“No problem, mate.” I showed him the take—black on black—it could have been anyone. “I
need this, you know I do.”
We’d been over it already. Mr. Thomas genius Wainwright had just wanted to snatch her—no frills, no plan B. Fine, so long as you didn’t mind kidnapping charges if things went wrong. I minded. Instead, I’d argued, we should set up a bogus deal and get her to step in the car of her own free will. Make her think she was heading for a trade. As for the photos—I didn’t just need them for an exclusive—I needed to cover myself for the police. Nat Smith always got his picture. Then Jessie disappears and suddenly I’ve got nothing to show? They’d
be laughing all the way to the interrogation room.
Wainwright stared at me
a moment, not liking it, but knowing it was true, then he nodded
curtly, got in
the car and drove off. I threw myself onto the pavement to get a
dramatic angle as if I’d been knocked over, and took a few more of
wheels and the back window and nothing that meant a damn, then got
up, brushed myself off, and sauntered over to my car.
“Police,” I said after I’d dialed 211. At least it made a change from ambulance. “Something funny’s