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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.

‘Inspector Frost.’

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.