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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?’