Authors: R. D. Wingfield
A blinding flash of lightning etched the trees in sharp relief against the night sky, followed almost instantly by a rumble of thunder overhead which seemed to make the ground shake. Heavy stinging rain drummed down.
The man sheltering under the oak tree, his raincoat soaked through, cursed his luck for venturing out on such a lousy night just to take the flaming dog for a walk. As soon as the rain eased off he would make his way home, but where was the dog? Probably cowering under a bush somewhere, terrified by the, noise.
‘Rex! Come here, you bloody animal.’
An answering bark resounded in the darkness, but he couldn’t locate it. ‘Rex, here! Now!’
There was a whimpering yap, then the dog bounded over to join him, its fur flattened and rain-blackened. It had something in its mouth.
‘What you got there?’ The lousy dog was always picking up and eating pieces of ancient carrion, usually making itself violently sick on the mat once they got home. But this didn’t smell ancient. It stank to high heaven.
He tried to pull it from the dog, which growled menacingly and clenched its teeth even firmer, reluctant to yield its prize. The man pulled his hand back. Whatever the dog had found felt like bloated, squishy flesh.
‘I said drop it!’
Another menacing growl. He grabbed the dog by the collar and shook its head until it released its grip and whatever it was holding fell to the ground.
He dragged the torch from his raincoat pocket and clicked it on. The horror of what he saw jerked him back.
‘Bloody hell... Bloody bleeding hell!’
The dog made a leap to retrieve its find, but just in time he snatched its collar again and clicked on the lead, holding it awkwardly as he unbuttoned his mac to get to his mobile.
‘Operator,’ he shouted over the thudding rain. ‘Get me the police . . . Denton police.’
Detective Inspector Jack Frost, slouched at the desk in his office, glanced up as lightning flashed and the overhead lights flickered off and on. He went to the window and looked out on the darkened car park, where stair-rods of driving rain broke the reflections in the puddles.
‘Look at that bleeding rain,’ he muttered to himself, glad he wasn’t out in it. One good thing about heavy rain: it kept most villains indoors.
He returned to his desk and his car expenses. Picking up his ballpoint he carefully altered a ‘6’ to an ‘8’.
There was a perfunctory tap at the door and Bill Wells, the station sergeant, entered. ‘Jack . . .’
Frost didn’t look up. ‘I can’t come out to play now, Bill. I’ve got my sums to do.’
Wells grinned. ‘You’re going to get caught fiddling those expenses one of these days, Jack.’
‘Not a chance,’ murmured Frost. ‘The devil looks after his own.’ He put his pen down. ‘Any chance of a cup of tea?’
‘No time for that, Jack. Just had a bloke on the phone. He’s in Denton Woods - his dog has found a chopped-off human foot.’
‘Tell him to phone again when he’s found the rest,’ said Frost. Thunder rumbled and the lights flickered again. ‘I pity the poor sod you’re sending out to answer the call.’
‘There’s only you, Jack. Jordan and Simms are still at the hospital with that girl who was attacked in the car park.’
Frost chucked down his pen and took another look out of the window, hoping the rain was showing some signs of easing up. ‘Shit!’ he muttered. It was bucketing down worse than ever.
Bill Wells yawned, knuckled his eyes and checked the time. Two o’clock. Not a word from Frost yet. Time was creeping. The cells were empty. The usual quota of yelling, singing and vomiting drunks had been kept indoors by the weather. He didn’t have much to do. He yelled for PC Collier to make some tea and picked up a copy of the
. As he turned the page, the main doors crashed open and a gust of wind blew across the lobby. A rain-soaked, fed-up-to- the-bloody-teeth Detective Inspector Frost squelched over to the inquiry desk and dumped a dripping transparent plastic bag in front of Wells. Inside the bag was a bloodless, bloated, dirt-encrusted human foot, the pale skin flecked with green and black mould. It had apparently been sawn off at the base of the fibula; the toes bore puncture marks from the teeth of the dog.
‘If anyone reports a foot missing, we’ve found it.’ said Frost, shrugging off his mac and shaking it over the lobby floor.
‘Flaming heck, Jack,’ said Wells. ‘You should have left it on site. This could be a murder inquiry.’
‘What - just leave it there and have some poor sod standing over it, guarding it? Besides, we don’t know where the dog got it from and I wasn’t going to go crashing about in Denton Woods in the dark trying to find the rest.’ He prodded it through the bag. ‘It’s from a hospital, I reckon . . . some prat of a medical student’s idea of a joke.’
‘What am I supposed to do with it?’ asked Wells.
‘Fifteen minutes at gas mark five,’ said Frost. ‘Or stick it in the bloody fridge and if no one eats it send it over to Forensic in the morning.’
Wells wrinkled his nose. ‘It’s a bit flaming whiffy, Jack.’
‘I thought that was you,’ said Frost. He looked at the foot again. ‘And first thing tomorrow, Bill, get a couple of spare bods to go through the motions of searching for any more bits. But don’t let them waste too much time on it.’
‘Something else, Jack. That fifteen-year-old girl who was attacked. Sally Marsden. PC Jordan has phoned through - she was raped. Looks like the same pattern as the other two girls.’
‘Damn,’ sighed Frost. ‘It never rains, but it flaming pees down.’ He gave his mac another shake. ‘Right, I’m on my way.’
Wells shook his head. ‘No need, Jack. The hospital say she’s in no state to be questioned until the morning.’
Frost yawned. It was too late to go home. ‘Got an empty cell I can kip in?’
‘Take your pick,’ said Wells.
Frost yawned again. ‘Send the maid to wake me at around seven with a cup of tea in one hand and her knickers in the other. If that kid’s been raped I want to get down to the hospital first thing. We’ve got too much to bleeding do, now that Hornrim Harry’s sucking up to the Chief Constable by lending half our manpower to Hockley Division for a drugs bust. “You can have as many men as you like, sir. Frost has got sod all to do. He can manage.” ’
He collected his cigarettes from his office. Rain was crawling down the window. It was a sod of a night.
Frost hated hospitals, especially the dawn chorus of patients coughing and groaning, weak voices calling out for nurses who never came, the clinical smells. Sheeted, rubber-wheeled trolleys pushed by grim-faced porters swished past him as he trudged the long curving corridor, looking for Ward F3. Most of all, he hated the ‘NO SMOKING’ signs. What was it about ‘NO SMOKING’ signs that made him lust for a cigarette? He passed the staircase that led up to the room he had visited every day when his wife was dying. He shuddered. What a bloody awful time that had been.
Outside Ward F3, Harding, head of Forensic, was talking to a junior doctor who looked even more tired than Frost felt. Harding hurried across to meet him. ‘Bit of luck for a change, Inspector. We’ve got a semen sample.’
Frost frowned ‘A semen sample? I can’t see it being the same bloke who raped those other girls. He’s always used a condom.’
‘Everything points to it being the same man, Inspector,’ insisted Harding. ‘He probably saw his opportunity, didn’t have a condom on him and raped her anyway.’
‘I like these bastards to be consistent,’ said Frost, still not convinced. ‘How’s the girl?’
‘Tired and emotional - he must have knocked the poor kid about - but the doctors say she can go home. Her mother’s on her way with her clothes. We’ve taken those she was wearing for forensic testing.’ He jerked his thumb at the ward door. ‘End bed with the screens.’ He scuttled off down the long corridor.
Frost pushed open the door and walked past the rows of beds to a curtained-off area at the end, near the windows. ‘I’m Inspector Frost,’ he called. ‘Are you decent? If you are, I’ll come back later.’
A young policewoman he didn’t recognise opened the curtains. ‘Come in, Inspector.’
Sally Marsden - pretty, with fair hair, blue eyes and a scrubbed, tear-stained face - was in an armchair by the side of the bed, a blanket draped over her pale-yellow hospital nightdress with DENTON GENERAL HOSPITAL stitched in blue across the chest. She looked a lot younger than her fifteen years.
Frost sat on the bed and pulled out his cigarettes. A warning cough from the WPC made him put them away again ‘Stylish nightdress,’ he said.
The girl gave a weak grin. ‘I keep shaking.’ She held out her quivering arms so he could see.
Frost nodded. sympathetically. ‘Shake away, love. You’ve had a hell of an experience. We’ve got to catch this bastard. If you feel up to it, I want to know everything that happened. Every bloody thing, no matter how unimportant you think it might be.’
Sally pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. ‘I’d been with a friend from school, listening to music round her house. I hadn’t realised the time and my mum doesn’t like me staying out late. It was nearly quarter past ten and I’m supposed to be home by ten.’
‘Where does this friend live?’
‘Twenty-nine Kestrel Terrace. I’ve given the police lady the details.’
The young WPC nodded her confirmation. Frost waved a hand for the girl to continue.
‘To save time I cut through the multi-storey car park in the town centre - it saves walking all the way round the block.’
‘Bleeding dangerous at that time of night,’ muttered Frost. ‘If it’s the same bloke, he got one other girl there.’ The car park was always dark and cold, and after the shops had closed, very echoing and empty.
‘I couldn’t face my mum’s nagging if I got in late. She’s very strict.’
‘Not always a bad thing,’ said Frost, his hand caressing the cigarette packet in his pocket. God, he was dying for a fag. ‘Then what?’
She screwed up her face and shuddered at the memory. ‘I was hurrying. At first I couldn’t hear anything, just water dripping somewhere and the echo of my own footsteps. Then - and I had to stop to make sure - I could hear footsteps behind me. Quiet footsteps as if whoever was making them didn’t want to be heard. I walked faster. The footsteps quickened. Then, suddenly, he was right behind me. He clamped a hand round my mouth. I tried to bite his hand but he punched me - hard.’ She was shaking violently and had to pause to compose herself.
‘Take your time, love,’ soothed Frost. ‘When you’re ready . . .’
‘He said, “Scream, you bitch, and I’ll kill you.” She shook her head. ‘I don’t think I could have screamed, even if I’d tried. I was paralysed with fear.’ She paused again.
Frost waited a moment for her to calm down. ‘When he spoke, how did he sound? Old, young, any sort of an accent?’
Sally shook her head again. ‘Youngish I think. Twenty - thirty perhaps . . . I don’t know. He was trying to sound Irish, but you could tell he was putting it on.’
Frost nodded. It was the same bloke. The other victims had reported the same.
‘He pulled a cloth thing over my head so I couldn’t see, then grabbed my hair and kicked my legs so I fell to the ground. Then he pulled up my clothes . . . He . . .’ She faltered, then, shoulders shaking, broke down in tears.
‘There, there,’ soothed Frost. ‘Take your time. I know it’s bleeding upsetting, but we’ve got to know everything.’
She wiped away the tears. ‘He had sex. He was rough. He hurt me. Then he said, “Stay there, you little cow. Don’t move. Don’t make a sound or I’ll cut your effing throat. We’re going for a car ride.” ’
Frost’s head jerked up. This was new. ‘He said that? He said you were going for a car ride?’
She dabbed at the tears with a sodden handkerchief and blew her nose. ‘I still had this cloth over my face. I heard him hurry off, then I heard voices. Other people coming. So I screamed and screamed. I could hear his footsteps running off, then other footsteps . . . the two young guys who found me. They called an ambulance and the hospital called the police.’
They were interrupted by the clatter of hurrying footsteps. The cubicle curtains were jerked open and a sharp-faced woman in her late thirties toting a white plastic carrier bag barged in. Jerking a thumb at Frost she demanded, ‘Who the hell is he?’
‘He’s a detective, Mum,’ said the girl.
‘Well, he don’t flaming look like one,’ she snapped, dumping the carrier bag on the bed. ‘Here’s your clothes. I’m taking you home.’ She spun round to Frost. ‘Fifteen years old. Never had a boyfriend. I’ve told her - not until you’re sixteen. You see too many of these kids dressed like tarts - barely eleven years old, some of them. She’s a good girl - never out late. I make certain she don’t get into any trouble and this bastard . . .’ Words failed her.
‘I know, love,’ agreed Frost. ‘But we’ll catch him, don’t you worry.’ He hoped he sounded more certain than he felt.
‘I’m against abortions,’ continued the mother, ‘but if that bastard’s made her pregnant . . .’ She shook her head. ‘Other kids are at it like bloody rabbits she keeps herself pure and this happens.’
‘There’s no bloody justice,’ sympathised Frost. He stood up. ‘I’ll be in touch, and I’ll keep you informed.’ He almost raced down the long corridor, ready to light up the minute he was out side. He nearly made it.
He stopped and turned to see Sophie Grey, the young social worker.
‘Could I have a word, Inspector? It’s very important.’
Frost groaned inwardly. Everything was bloody important these days.
The train rattled round the bend before shuddering to a halt with a squeal of brakes as it reached the station. The carriage window was dirt-grimed, but Detective Chief Inspector Skinner could see enough to confirm what he had let himself in for. He dragged his case down from the rack and opened the carriage door.
‘Denton . . . Denton . . .’ bellowed the Tannoy. ‘Alight here for Denton.’
Skinner, the only passenger to alight, nodded ruefully. He didn’t need to be told. The whole drab, miserable look of the place screamed ‘Denton’ to him. He gazed wistfully at the train as it moved on, taking its passengers to happier destinations.
Outside the station, thick black, low-lying clouds added to the gloom, and a cold wind slashed his face. He looked up and down the empty road. No sign of the police car that was supposed to meet him. Just bloody typical of Denton! He dragged the mobile phone from his pocket and rang the station. The idiot at the other end did nothing to improve his temper.
‘What did you say your name was?’ asked a bored-sounding Sergeant Wells.
‘Skinner. Detective Chief Inspector Skinner,’ he snapped, jumping back just too late to avoid being doused with dirty water as a passing lorry drove through a puddle. He couldn’t read the mud-splattered numberplate, but he noted the firm’s name on the side. He’d get Traffic to nail the bastard. ‘A car is supposed to be picking me up.’
‘That’s right, sir,’ agreed Wells cheerfully. ‘Isn’t it there?’
‘Would I be bloody phoning you if it was here?’ hissed Skinner. ‘Of course the bleeding thing isn’t here.’
‘If you’d just hold the line, sir, I’ll check,’ said Wells, putting him on hold. A tinny synthesiser played the first few bars of the ‘William Tell Overture’ over and over again. After what seemed ages, Wells returned, sounding puzzled. ‘Are you sure it isn’t there, sir?’
Skinner took a deep breath. ‘Of course I’m bloody sure, Sergeant. Do you think I don’t know what a flaming police car looks like?’ At that moment an area car crawled round the corner.
‘All right, it’s here now - and it’s taking its bloody time.’ He clicked off the phone and shoved it back in his pocket.
As the car drew up alongside him, he opened the door, chucked his case inside and slid into the passenger seat.
‘Are you DCI Skinner?’ asked the driver, PC Jordan.
‘Who the hell do you think I am?’ snarled Skinner.
A big, fat, pig-headed bastard
, thought Jordan, but he kept the idea to himself. ‘You could be someone who thought this was a taxi and just climbed in, sir. It has happened before, so I always like to check who my passenger is.’
‘Well now you bloody know,’ snapped Skinner. This officer was too cocky for, his own good. He’d better watch his step or he’d be following Frost out of Denton.
Jordan exchanged raised eyebrows and pulled down mouth with his observer, PC Simms, then spun the car round to head back to the station. They drove in silence.
The radio crackled. ‘Control to Charlie Simms. Are you anywhere near Milk Street?’
‘Just passed it,’ answered Simms. ‘Why?’
‘A Sadie Rawlings, 13 Milk Street, has reported an abduction - her two-year-old baby son. Inspector Frost is on his way. He wants you to meet him there.’
‘We’re taking Detective Chief Inspector Skinner to the station. We’ll drop him off first. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.’
A stubby finger jabbed him in the arm. ‘Take the shout now,’ ordered Skinner. ‘I’ll handle it.’ He rubbed his hands with glee. A child abduction on his first day. This should earn him some Brownie points.
‘It’s Inspector Frost’s case,’ Jordan told him.
‘Well it isn’t any more. And when I want some thing done, Constable, you do it. You don’t query it -
‘The Chief Inspector says he’ll handle it,’ reported Simms. ‘We’re on our way.’
Jordan spun the car into a U-turn.
Milk Street - a cul-de-sac blocked off at one end by the brick wall of a monumental mason’s yard - had more than its fair share of boarded-up windows and rusting abandoned cars waiting for the council to get round to towing them away. Black plastic dustbin sacks, put out days too early for the weekly collection, had been ripped open by dogs and their contents spewed over the pavement.
Skinner stepped gingerly over a slurry of discarded Indian takeaway containers and rapped on the door of Number Thirteen with the flat of his hand.
It took several raps before Sadie Rawlings, an over-bleached blonde in her late twenties, opened the door and squinted at the warrant card. ‘Took your bleeding time,’ she said. ‘I’m at me wit’s end. I phoned bleeding ages ago.’
‘Five minutes ago, actually, madam,’ said Skinner as they followed her into the house.
‘Broke in through the window,’ she said. ‘Smashed half my crockery and took the kid. There’s blood all over the place.’
‘Blood?’ Skinner’s head snapped up. It was the first time this had been mentioned.
The woman was walking unsteadily and reeked of cheap gin. A cigarette with a tube of ash quivered from her lips. Her make-up had been trowelled on. ‘I woke up this morning and he was gone - bloody gone!’
The house had a stuffy smell, the lingering aroma of past meals intermingled with stale cigarette smoke and cat’s pee.
‘Right, madam,’ said Skinner. ‘From the beginning. What time did you put the baby to bed?’
‘Six o’clock. He went straight off to sleep.’
‘And what time did you go to bed?’
‘Questions, bleeding questions. Just bloody well find him. They’ll blame me. They’ll say I neglected him. I’m a bloody good mother.’
‘I don’t dispute that, madam,’ said Skinner, trying to stay patient, ‘but I need some answers first. What time did you go to bed?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t study the bleeding clock. Just after ten - something like that.’
‘You heard nothing during the night?’
‘Not a sodding thing and I’m a light sleeper. The kid’s only got to cough and I’m in there like a shot. I’m a bloody good mother.’
‘So you said, madam. And what time did you go into the baby’s room this morning?’
She tried to focus bleary eyes on her wrist watch. ‘About half an hour ago. When I phoned you. As soon as I saw he was gone, I phoned.’
‘So he must have been taken some time between six o’clock yesterday evening and nine this morning?’
‘Bleeding marvellous. I could have bloody worked that out for myself.’
Skinner took a deep breath. She was beginning to get on his nerves. ‘Could I see the baby’s room now, please?’
She led them down the passage and flung open the door to a small room, barely furnished with a chair and a white painted cot. A sour smell came from a heap of discarded Pampers nappies on the floor. She kicked them under the cot. ‘I was going to tidy up but with all this bleeding upset . . .’ She pulled hack the curtain and daylight tried to claw its way through a dirt engrained window. The bedclothes on the cot, which looked as if they hadn’t been washed for weeks, were pulled back. The pillow, which showed the indentation of the baby’s head, was splattered with blood.
Skinner nodded grimly. This was looking nasty ‘Don’t touch anything.’ He went to the door and bellowed down the passage to Jordan, ‘Get SOCO down here now!’ Returning to the woman, he said, ‘Show me where they broke in.’
He followed her back down the passage to a tiny kitchen. Below a shattered sash window, the battered draining board was smothered with pieces of broken glass. Glass and broken crockery scrunched underfoot. Skinner’s nose wrinkled. There was no way he would eat any food prepared here. The walls were dirty and greasy; unwashed saucepans and food-encrusted plates were piled in the sink, which was awash with cold, grey, greasy water. There were more dirty nappies in the corner, next to a heap of unwashed clothes.
Treading carefully to avoid the mess on the floor, Skinner moved to the broken window and peered at it closely. Rivulets of blood had run down the jagged edge of the pane. He gave a sigh of relief. It looked as if the intruder had cut himself when he smashed the glass, so the splashes on the pillow probably didn’t come from the baby. He kicked aside a piece of cup. ‘You had crockery stacked up by the window?’
‘I was going to wash them up,’ Sadie sniffed. ‘You never get any free time with a kid.’ She flicked ash from her cigarette into the dirty water in the sink.
‘He would have knocked them over as he clambered through the window. Don’t try and clean up the blood. Our scene-of-crime team are on their way. They’ll take samples for analysis.’ Fat chance of her cleaning anything up, he thought. He looked through the broken window to the yard. ‘How do we get out there?’
A back door at the end of the passage opened on to a tiny yard, which contained an overflowing dustbin surrounded by a carpet of sodden disposable nappies. The door was bolted so the abductor obviously hadn’t taken the baby out that way. He would have had to use the front door. Odds were he’d have had a car waiting out side - he wouldn’t carry a baby through the streets. Skinner slid back the bolt and opened the door.
‘Hardly Kew Gardens,’ muttered Simms.
Skinner stepped carefully over the mess and studied the gardens on each side and those running back to back. ‘He would have to climb over quite a few garden fences to get here from the street.’ He turned to Jordan. ‘Check with the neighbours. See if they saw anyone climbing over their fences during the night.’
‘If they had they’d have been straight on to us,’ said Jordan.
He received a paint-blistering glare from Skinner. ‘That wasn’t a subject for debate, Constable, that was a bloody order. Just do it.
,’ muttered Jordan. He wasn’t taking to this new chief inspector.
Skinner turned his attention to the adjacent gardens. ‘All those fences to climb,’ he muttered. ‘Whoever did this was determined to get the kiddy.’ He clicked his fingers for Simms’s attention. ‘Let’s cover the worst-case scenario - a paedophile. Radio the station. I want everyone on the sex offenders register checked, then visited. I want to know if any of them are wearing bandages or plasters to cover cuts from broken glass. And I want their premises searched - plasters or not. If anyone refuses, we get a search warrant.’
Simms radioed the station.
‘And where are we supposed to get the flaming manpower to do this?’ demanded Wells. ‘What prat authorised this?’
Skinner snatched the radio from Simms. ‘Chief Inspector Skinner here, Sergeant. I authorised it and I expect my orders to be carried out without question. Just do it!’ He clicked off and thrust the radio back at Simms. ‘There are going to be some changes here. Denton seems to be staffed by idiots.’
‘You don’t think it’s a kidnapping then, sir?’ asked Simms.
‘Use your flaming common sense, Constable. How much money do you think the mother could raise? I’d say a tenner, top whack.’
‘Perhaps the kid’s father wanted custody?’ suggested Simms. ‘He wouldn’t have been happy leaving his kid with her.’
‘My thoughts exactly,’ said Skinner, although until then it hadn’t crossed his mind. His money was still on paedophiles. ‘Let’s ask her.’
Back in the living room, Sadie was draining the dregs from a near-empty gin bottle which she hastily put down.
‘Has the child’s father ever tried to get custody of the baby?’
‘He only need bleeding ask,’ slurred Sadie. ‘He could have it gift-wrapped.’
‘We’d better check him out anyway. What’s his name? Where can we find him?’
‘I don’t know his flaming name. Charlie something. I only met him the once and he hardly said a flaming word once his trousers were off.’ A rat- tat at the front door made her look round. ‘Who the hell is that?’
Skinner jerked a thumb at Simms. ‘Get it. It might be SOCO.’
Detective Inspector Jack Frost, maroon scarf dangling from his neck, pushed past Simms and made his way up the passage. ‘Strong smell of cat’s pee. Sadie must be in.’
Sadie scowled at his arrival. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she sniffed.
‘Only the best for you, Sadie,’ breezed Frost. He kicked at some of the broken crockery on the floor. ‘Had a Greek wedding?’
Sadie scowled. ‘My baby’s been kidnapped and he’s making bleeding jokes.’
Skinner pushed forward. ‘That remark is out of order.’
Frost stared at him. ‘Who the hell are you?’
‘Skinner. Detective Chief Inspector Skinner.’ He emphasised the ‘Chief’. This scruff was obviously Frost, the man Mullett wanted him to get rid of, the man whose days in Denton were numbered.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ grunted Frost without conviction. ‘Thanks for keeping my seat warm. I’ll take over now.’
‘You are not taking over, Inspector,’ declared Skinner. ‘This is my case.’ But Frost had his back to him and was talking to the mother.
‘What’s this story about a kidnapping, Sadie?’
‘I’ve already told the fat bloke.’
Skinner pushed his way between them. ‘I’ve got all the details, Frost, thank you. The abductor got in through that window some time during the night. He cut himself on the broken glass and knocked all this stuff on the floor as he clambered through. He then went to the child’s room. This way - ’ He moved to the door of the baby’s room, but Frost seemed to have something else on his mind and was showing no inclination to follow. ‘This way,’ repeated Skinner. Was the fool deaf?
‘Oh - all right,’ said Frost vaguely.
In the baby’s room, Skinner indicated the cot. ‘Blood on the pillow, but I don’t think it came from the kiddy. I’m getting SOCO down to check.’ He turned and realised he was talking to himself. Where was the idiot? ‘Frost!’ he bellowed.
‘In here,’ answered Frost from the next room. Skinner rolled his eyes to the ceiling in exasperation. The silly sod was in the mother’s bedroom. As Skinner moved to drag him Out, Frost stuck his head round the door and yelled down the passage, ‘Fanny! I want you!’
‘Don’t call me Fanny!’ she snapped.
‘Sorry,’ said Frost. ‘Association of ideas, I suppose.’ He nodded at the bed, which had clothes sprawled all over it. ‘This your bedroom?’
‘Well, it ain’t the bleeding scullery, is it?’
‘All those tatty clothes. It looks like an Oxfam shop’s remnants sale.’
Fed up with the scruff’s time wasting, Skinner again tried to take control. ‘If you can tear your self away, I want you in the other room, Inspector.’ But Frost, completely ignoring him, poked a finger at the woman. ‘I’ve just realised what’s been bugging me, Sadie. Why are you all tarted up?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Half past nine in the morning and you’ve got your glad rags on.’
‘I can wear what I bloody like!’
Frost ambled over to the dishevelled bed and picked up a pair of jeans and a grubby T-shirt. ‘These are what you usually wear in the morning, Sadie.’
‘I never said they bloody weren’t.’
‘Then what are they doing on top of the bed? A bed you were supposed to have been sleeping soundly in all night? A nice tidy girl like you wouldn’t have left them on the bed before going to sleep - she’d have chucked them on the floor.’
Sadie spun round to Skinner. ‘Do you know what the sod’s on about?’
Skinner hadn’t the faintest idea, but before he could ask, Frost was off on another tack. ‘Did the bastard steal your hearing aid, Sadie?’
‘Hearing aid?’ she shrilled. ‘What hearing aid? What would I want a hearing aid for?’
‘Well, you must be bloody deaf if you slept through all that crockery crashing down on the floor.’
‘I’m a heavy sleeper. I get so worn out looking after the baby, I sleep like a log the minute my head hits the pillow.’
‘Ah,’ nodded Frost. ‘I thought there’d be a logical explanation. And what time did your head hit the pillow last night, Sadie?’
‘I already have that information,’ intervened Skinner, who saw himself getting elbowed out of the investigation. But he was puzzled. He wanted to ask his own questions. The woman was now telling Frost she was a heavy sleeper, yet she had told him that the slightest noise woke her. He checked his notes. ‘Just after ten.’
Frost ignored him, his eyes riveted on the woman. ‘Come off it, Sadie. At ten o’clock you were still in the bloody pub being bought gin and limes by some short-sighted git who thought he was on to a good thing.’
Her eyes blazed. ‘How bleeding dare you!’
‘I bleeding dare because I know, Sadie. I’m not flaming guessing, I know!’
Her eyes spat hatred. ‘All right. So I might have popped out for a quick drink. Where’s the harm in that? I slave for that kid. I’m entitled to a bit of relaxation. A quick drink, then I came straight back. I was in bed by half ten.’
‘But whose bed, Sadie?’ demanded Frost.
Furiously, she turned to Skinner. ‘Do I have to put up with flaming insults like this?’
Frost answered for him. ‘Yes, you do, Sadie. You left that poor sod of a baby all alone in the house from around eight o’clock last night until you staggered back home, half pissed, still in your glad rags, just before you phoned to report him missing.’
She clawed her hands, looking ready to scratch his eyes out with her long, red-painted finger nails. ‘All bleeding lies. I’ll have you up for defamation of character. What sort of a bleeding mother do you think I am?’
Frost smiled sweetly. ‘I’m a policeman, Sadie, and we’re not allowed to use that sort of language, even to a slag like you.’ His expression changed. ‘Now stop sodding us about. I’ve got better bloody things to do. I’ve got a rapist to catch and bits of leg to find. I know. I know everything. I even know where your baby is at this precise moment in time.’
Sadie stared at him. ‘You know? I’m flaming worried sick and you know!’
‘Worried sick? You’ve been out all night. You didn’t give a sod about the kid. The poor little mite was screaming at four o’clock this morning. It woke up your next-door neighbour. He got out of bed, banged on your front door, then when he got no reply he climbed in through the kitchen window.’
‘The interfering bastard,’ she shrilled. ‘He can pay for that smashed crockery.’
‘He banged and shouted at your bedroom door, just in case you were spending the night in with the kiddy for a change. He looked inside. The bed was empty. The kid was screaming and throwing up, so he and his girlfriend took it to Denton General Hospital, from where I’ve just come. Your baby is there now.’
Sadie dropped down into a chair. ‘The bastards. They break into my house and take my kid. They don’t give a sod that I’d be worried sick.’
‘I doubt if they thought that was even an outside possibility. Anyway, they said they stuck a note through your letter box, telling you where the baby was.’
She gave a scornful sniff. ‘What bloody note?’ She frowned as a thought struck her. ‘Oh - that bloody note!’ She flapped a dismissive hand. ‘They know I never read their flaming notes. They’re always complaining about some thing with their lousy notes. They’ve always got something to moan about - the noise . . . the smell . . . I didn’t read it. I tore it up.’ She rummaged in the ashtray, found a dog-end and lit up, coughing as she exhaled smoke. ‘So all’s bleeding well that ends well. Thanks for your trouble. I collect my kid now. You going to give me a lift?’
‘A lift to the nick for wasting police time, Sadie. Now tell us exactly what happened last night, and keep the lies down to a minimum.’
She dragged smoke down to her lungs, coughed and spluttered, then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ‘All right. Forget what I said before. I was so upset with that tosser next door nicking my baby, I wasn’t thinking straight.’ She managed one last drag before the filter tip started burning. ‘Any chance of a fag?’
‘No,’ said Frost. ‘They’re bad for you. It says so on the packet.’
She flopped down on the bed. ‘Bastard! OK. Last night. I put the kid to bed around seven. He went straight off. He wasn’t bloody crying like those bastards said otherwise I wouldn’t have left him, would I? I thought I’d nip out for a quick drink. One drink - there and back, ten minutes, top whack! I didn’t intend to stay.’
‘But you tarted yourself up in your glad rags, just in case?’
‘I’m not like you, Mr Jack bloody Frost. I don’t go out dressed like a tramp. Do you want to hear what happened, or are you going to keep chipping in with your stupid remarks?’
‘Both,’ said Frost, waving a hand for her to continue.
‘Right. Like I said, one drink, straight back - that’s what I intended. Anyway, I was chatting to this bloke and the sod must have put something in my drink because when I woke up I was in his bed, it was eight o’clock in the morning and the bastard had gone to work. I didn’t have enough money for a cab so I had to wait ages for a bleeding bus.’
‘Is that what you charge these days, Sadie?’ asked Frost. ‘Your bus fare?’
Sadie spun round on him. ‘Shut your shitty mouth, you ignorant bastard.’
‘Kindly address those sort of remarks to my superior officer,’ said Frost, nodding towards Skinner.
Skinner glowered. Was the fool trying to be funny? He thought he heard PC Jordan sniggering in the background, but wasn’t sure.
All right, Frost
, he thought grimly,
you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face, Sunny Jim, when you know what I’ve got in store for you.
‘Anyway,’ Frost continued, winding the maroon scarf more tightly round his neck, ‘I’ve got bits of leg to find, so I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Detective Chief Inspector Skinner. It’s his case, not mine.’
As Frost breezed out there was a knock at the door. ‘I’ll get it,’ he called. ‘Probably that bloke from last night, Sadie, asking for his change.’
They heard the door open, then Frost asking, ‘SOCO? What silly prat asked you to come here? No, forget it!’
Skinner fumed. He could see the two PCs were having difficulty stifling their laughter.
The bedside phone rang. Sadie answered it. ‘Just a minute, you want the fat bloke.’ She handed the phone to Skinner. ‘It’s the hospital.’
Skinner hesitated. He wanted to chuck this case back to Frost. It was now too trivial and time-wasting for a detective chief inspector to handle. But Frost had gone.
He took the phone, which reeked of cheap scent. ‘Yes?’ he grunted. His expression changed. ‘Say that again . . . OK, I’m with her now. Leave it to me.’ He put the phone down and turned to Sadie. ‘Right, get your coat on.’
She pulled a red coat with an acrylic fur collar from the wardrobe and slipped it on. ‘We going to get my kid?’
‘You’re not going to see your baby for a while, I’m afraid. Social Services have got him.’
Her eyes widened in indignation. ‘Social flaming Services? What are those interfering sods sticking their noses in for?’
‘The hospital reckon your baby’s been poisoned.’
Her jaw dropped. She stared at him. ‘Poisoned?’
‘His milk had been doctored.’
‘Doctored? What do you mean, doctored?’
‘You had another child, didn’t you? And it suddenly died.’
‘A cot death. A bleeding cot death. I found her dead. I couldn’t wake her. There was an inquest. They said it was a cot death.’
‘One dead baby I’ll accept as accidental,’ said Skinner. ‘But when the other one is poisoned it gets me suspicious. I’m taking you down to the station for questioning.’
‘What sort of a flaming country is this?’ shrieked Sadie, shaking off the hand Skinner had placed on her arm. ‘People break into your house, steal your kid, smash your best china, and instead of getting sympathy you’re accused of flaming murder. You wouldn’t have treated me like this if I was an illegal immigrant.’
Ignoring her, Skinner signalled to Jordan. ‘There’s a baby’s bottle with milk in it by the side of the cot. Get it. Forensic can have a look at it. And check her cupboards. You’re looking for baby milk and salt.’
‘Salt?’ said Sadie.
‘There was enough salt in that child’s milk to kill a dozen babies.’ He smiled inwardly. This was more like it. Thank goodness he didn’t hand the case back to Frost. Attempted infanticide - and on his very first day at Denton. He beckoned to Simms. ‘Come on. Let’s get her down to the station.’
Police Superintendent Mullett took a sip of coffee and beamed across his mahogany desk at his newly arrived detective chief inspector. ‘So glad to have someone of your reputation with us in Denton, John.’
Skinner faked a beam back. ‘I’m looking for ward to a long stay, sir.’ A lie, of course.
Once I get my promotion you won’t see my arse for dust.
He let his eyes flit round Mullett’s office with its polished oak panelling. The old log cabin, as Frost called it. The rest of the station was a tip, but Mullett had done all right for himself. Skinner would make certain his own office was done up to the same standard during the short time he had to spend in this lousy division. He drained the coffee from the poncey little cup Mullett had given him and replaced it in the tiny saucer. ‘As you know, sir, I’ll be travelling backwards and forwards to my old patch over the next few weeks. I’ve got cases to clear up, court appearances and so on.’
Mullett nodded. ‘I fully understand that, but we are extremely short-staffed at the moment, what with people on courses and the uniforms we’ve had to loan to County for that drug-smuggling operation. The sooner we can have you full-time, the better.’
‘Shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks to tie up most loose ends, but I want to get shot of Frost as soon as I can. I met up with him today and I agree with you, sir. The man is useless.’
With a look of alarm, Mullett raised a warning finger to his lips, then hurried across to his office door, opened it and peered cautiously up and down the corridor to ensure no one was in earshot. Back at his desk, he clicked the switch which lit up the red ‘ENGAGED - DO NOT ENTER’ sign. ‘This must be kept absolutely confidential, John. If it got out prematurely . . .’
‘Don’t worry, sir,’ Skinner assured him. ‘It will get out when I want it to get out, and not before.’
Mullett gave an approving nod. He could hardly believe that what he had been wishing for for so long was actually going to happen. ‘But what if he doesn’t agree to a transfer out of Denton?’
Skinner gave a smug smile. ‘He’ll have no choice but to agree. I’ve done this many times before, so I know what I’m doing.’
Mullett sighed with relief. ‘It’s good to have you aboard the Denton flagship, John. I can see we’re going to get on very well together.’
Skinner smiled back. Mullett looked the sort of man he could twist round his little finger. If he played his cards right, he could end up sitting in that very chair behind that mahogany desk. He stood up. ‘I’d better get back to my suspect now - the woman who tried to kill her baby.’