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‘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 – comprende?’

‘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. Comprende?

‘Comprende,’ 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.’