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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.’

‘I’m impressed by the way you’ve got stuck in on your very first day,’ said Mullett. ‘Very impressed.’ As Skinner left, he switched off the red warning sign. It would be good to have some one like Skinner in the division to do all the dirty jobs Mullett didn’t have the guts to do himself. Yes, this was going to work out very well.

Frost squeezed his car into the only available space, narrowly avoiding scraping the paint off Mullett’s brand-new, metallic-blue Porsche. He mooched across the car park to the rear entrance of the station. He was not feeling very happy. The semen sample from the rape victim didn’t match any known offenders – but perhaps that would have been too easy. And Forensic, while admitting that the severed foot could have come from a hospital dissecting room, refused to rule out the possibility of foul play, which meant he would have to treat it as a possible murder inquiry. And his team was already stretched to the limit now that Hornrim Harry had sent half the force out to catch some other division’s drug barons, and the other half were on courses to improve efficiency. The way to improve sodding efficiency was to be on the spot, solving the flaming crimes, not writing poncey essays about understanding the criminal mind. If Forensic had to provide the manpower, they’d flaming soon classify the foot as a medical student’s joke, he thought glumly.

Ahead of him, Jordan and Simms were escorting a weaselly-looking man they had arrested for shoplifting, who was bewailing his luck. ‘I had to do it, officer,’ he told Simms. ‘I haven’t eaten for three days.’

‘So what were you going to do with the bra you nicked?’ asked Jordan. ‘Boil it or fry it with the knickers?’

‘It’s easy to be funny when you’ve got a full stomach,’ whined the man.

Frost followed them down the passage and through the swing doors leading to the lobby, where a frazzled Sergeant Wells was with a frosty-faced elderly woman who was clutching a shopping basket. When the woman caught sight of the shoplifter, she dropped the shopping basket and raised a shaking finger, her eyes wide. ‘That’s him. That’s the man. He did it!’

‘Did bloody what?’ blinked the man. ‘What’s the silly cow on about?’ He moved towards her, but Frost pushed him away.

‘Get him to the Charge Room now,’ he ordered the two constables. ‘I’ll sort this out.’ He turned to the woman, who was now trembling and panting with fright. ‘What’s this all about, love?’

She waited until the Charge Room door had closed before answering. ‘I’d just drawn my pension. I went down that little alley at the side of the post office and he jumped out, snatched my handbag and legged it. How am I going to get through the week with no money?’

Frost sighed. There’d been a spate of these handbag-snatchings over the past few weeks, usually from elderly women. ‘Are you sure that he was the man who robbed you?’

‘Positive. I’d stake my life on it. I’d know him anywhere.’

‘And when did you say this took place?’

‘About half an hour ago. I’d just drawn my pension… You ask them in the post office.’

Frost held up a hand to stop her. ‘It couldn’t have been him, love. Half an hour ago he was in Marks and Sparks nicking bras.’

‘If he says that then he’s lying to protect himself,’ she snapped. ‘I’m not senile. It was definitely him. Have you searched his house?’

‘From top to bottom,’ lied Frost. ‘All we found were nipple-less bras and crotchless knickers.’ He waited in the lobby while Wells found a WPC to make the woman a cup of tea and see her home safely.

‘Bloody, woman!’ moaned Wells. ‘She’s positively identified every face in the flaming mug-shot book. We haven’t the faintest idea what the bloke looks like. She’s identified men of every colour, any age, hairy, bald, giants, flaming midgets. As long as they wear trousers, she’ll identify them!’

‘Show her a picture of Mullett,’ said Frost. ‘If she identifies him, I’ll arrest him for you. I suppose no one’s come hobbling in saying they’ve lost their foot?’

‘No,’ grinned Wells. ‘Did you know the new DCI has arrested Sadie Rawlings on suspicion of attempted infanticide?’

Frost stopped in his tracks. ‘Sadie? He’s bloody mad.’

‘He reckoned there was enough salt in her baby’s bottle to kill an elephant.’

‘I can imagine her killing an elephant, but not a baby. She’s a long way from being a bloody saint, but she’d never try to kill her kid. The man’s a bloody fool.’ He sniffed. The siren call of sausage and bacon was wafting from the canteen.

‘I’m off for some breakfast.’

The phone rang. Wells answered it. ‘Hold on, Jack! It’s the manager from Supersaves. They’ve had a letter from some nutter claiming he’s poisoned some of the food on their shelves.’

‘Supersaves? Half their stuff tastes as if it’s been poisoned anyway. Send DC Morgan.’

‘He’s out collecting the CCTV tapes from the multi-storey car park.’

Frost frowned. ‘The car park?’ Then he remembered. Oh – the rape. Send an area car – it’s probably a hoax.’

‘Jordan and Simms have just gone out to see the parents of a girl who went missing last night.’

‘I’m flaming starving. There must be someone else you can send?’

Wells shook his head. ‘Only you, Jack.’ Frost took a farewell sniff of the heady fry-up aroma which was trying to Pied Piper him upstairs. ‘Sod it! Tell him I’m on my way.’

Chapter 2

The letter, handwritten in block capitals on cheap A4 paper, read:

I HAVE POISONED A BOTTLE OF SUPERSAVES OWN BRAND EXTRA STRONG MOUTHWASH, A BOTTLE OF SUPERSAVES ‘VINTNERS CHOICE’ WINE AND AN ECONOMY SIZE TIN OF SUPERSAVES HAPPYBABE MILK POWDER. TO IDENTIFY THEM, I HAVE MARKED THEM WITH A BLUE CROSS. YOU WILL NOT FIND THEM IN THE PROPER AISLE. I HAVE HIDDEN THEM AROUND THE STORE. GET TO THEM BEFORE YOUR CUSTOMERS DO OR YOU’LL HAVE DEATHS ON YOUR HANDS. INSTRUCTIONS TO PREVENT A RECURRENCE WILL BE SENT TO THAT SHIT BEAZLEY.

Henry Martin, the store manager, a man in his late forties, looked underpaid and overworked. His desk overflowed with papers and his in-tray spilled over. It reminded Frost of his own office. Skilled at reading typescripts upside-down, he squinted at a charming, red-inked, underlined memo to the manager from the store owner, Mr Beazley, which was headed ‘ARSE-KICKING TIME’ and began: ‘If that stupid useless prat who thinks himself a greengrocery manager…’ Frost nodded to himself. Typical Beazley. A bullying bastard. He had met him before and knew what an arsehole the man was.

Martin was pacing up and down the office in agitation, sucking nervously at a cigarette.

‘What do we do?’ he pleaded. ‘What the hell do we do? There’s no way we can shut the store down. The boss would do his nut.’

Frost gave a non-committal grunt and returned his attention to the blackmail letter. Beazley, the owner of the store, would do a lot more than his nut. ‘Do you have the envelope?’

Martin shook his head. ‘Why should we keep them? When the post is opened, envelopes are shredded.’

‘Great,’ said Frost. ‘Saves us the bother of finding out where it was posted.’

‘Of course it might be a hoax, but we can’t take the chance,’ said Martin, plonking down in his chair.

‘Then shut the store down until you find the marked items,’ said Frost.

‘If I shut it and it’s a hoax, I’ll be queuing up at the Job Centre before lunch.’