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‘Supposing he won’t give a DNA sample, Guv?’

‘Then reason with him – punch him in the stomach. If that doesn’t work, bring him in. If he’s innocent there’s no reason why he should refuse.’

As Morgan left, Frost noticed Henry Martin hovering. He didn’t look at all happy. ‘What’s up?’ asked Frost. ‘Have you eaten one of these breakfasts?’

The manager forced a smile and slid into the chair vacated by Morgan. ‘Mr Beazley doesn’t like people smoking in here.’

‘It does less harm than eating the food,’ said Frost, making no attempt to put the cigarette out. ‘So what’s the news?’

‘We’ve been over the shelves thoroughly three times. No sign of the missing jar. We’ve been through the till receipts – it hasn’t been checked out. I don’t know what we can do. We can’t open the store until we find it. I dread to think what Mr Beazley will say.’

‘If no one’s bought it and it’s not still in the store, then it’s gone out without being paid for. So either a member of your staff has helped him self or…’ His eyes widened and the hand holding his cigarette paused in mid air. A light dawned and he grinned. ‘… or it could have been nicked by a shoplifter.’

‘Speculation,’ moaned Martin. ‘We could never prove it.’

‘This might be your lucky day said Frost. He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and dialled a number. ‘Jordan? Inspector Frost here. That milk powder you picked up from Sadie’s house – did it have a blue cross on the bottom?

Well check it out now.’ He drummed his fingers on the table as he waited. ‘Yes… What? Brilliant. No, don’t send it to Forensic yet. Hang on to it until I get there.’ He dropped the phone back in his pocket. ‘We’ve traced it,’ he told Martin. ‘You can open up again. But let me know the minute you get another letter demanding money – and make certain as few people as possible smear their fingerprints on it.’

‘I can go, can I?’ shrilled Sadie. ‘Oh, bleeding nice! Locked up, falsely imprisoned, insulted and then kicked out. What about compensation?’

‘Your compensation is that we’re not nicking you for shoplifting,’ said Frost. ‘Now push off before I change my mind.’

‘What about my kiddy?’

‘Sort that out with Social Services, Sadie, and next time you nick something, make sure it isn’t contaminated.’

‘You wouldn’t treat me like this if I was an asylum-seeker.’

‘Then go and seek bleeding asylum and come back and see, but for now, push off.’ He held the door wide open for her to leave. ‘Another dissatisfied customer,’ he told Bill Wells and mooched back to his office.

Frost looked up from the crime-statistics report where a column of figures was dancing before his eyes. A tap at the office door heralded the arrival of Simms and Jordan.

‘Whatever it is, the answer’s no,’ he told them. ‘I’ve got my sums to do.’

Jordan grinned. ‘We’ve just been out on a call, Inspector. Teenage girl missing from home.’

‘She’s not here,’ said Frost, ‘and I wouldn’t tell you if she was.’ He put his pen down and sighed. ‘All right. Tell me about it.’

‘She’s Debbie Clark. Told her parents she was going -to a sleepover with her schoolfriend Audrey Glisson – she’s done this many times before. Went off on her bike about half seven yesterday evening. When she didn’t come home this morning, the parents phoned Audrey’s house. Debbie hadn’t been there and hadn’t arranged to go there.’

‘So she’s been missing overnight? Probably having a sleepover under her boyfriend. I bet she’s now at his place having a fag,’ said Frost dismissively, picking up his pen again. ‘Fill in a missing-persons report.’

‘The parents claim she isn’t that sort of a girl,’ said Jordan.

Frost snorted. ‘As I’ve told you a million times, lads, every time a teenage girl goes missing from home, the parents swear blind she’s a pure, sweet, home-loving girl training to be a nun, and nine times out of ten they turn out to be little scrubbers, on the game, pumping them selves full of coke, who’ve run away for the umpteenth time.’

‘She’s only just thirteen, Inspector. Today is her birthday.. . they were throwing her a party tonight.’

‘If I had the choice between jelly and ice cream or a bit of the other, jelly wouldn’t stand a chance,’ said Frost.

‘We’ve a feeling about this one, Inspector,’ said Simms. ‘I really think you should see the parents.’

Frost dribbled smoke through his nose. He, too, often had feelings that weren’t borne out by the evidence, feelings that sometimes proved correct. ‘All right, lads. Book her in as a missing person and when I get the chance I’ll see them, but I’m tied up right now.’ He reached out for his internal phone as it rang.

‘Frost!’ It was Bill Wells. ‘Superintendent Mullett says he wants the crime-statistics report right now, Jack.’

Frost looked down at the untidy mess of scribbled figures and crossings-out in front of him. He got up and snatched his scarf from the hook on the wall. ‘Tell him I’m out interviewing the parents of a missing thirteen-year-old girl.’

The Clarks lived in a large four-bedroomed house situated on the outskirts of Denton, overlooking Denton Woods. As the area car scrunched down a long driveway flanked by miniature conifers, Frost admired the extensive lawn. Studded with flower beds, it encircled a large fish pond with a statue of a naked woman pouring water from a jug.

‘Very tasteful,’ he nodded. ‘I’m glad she’s not doing a pee like that boy in Brussels.’

A gleaming black E-class Mercedes-Benz estate was parked outside a double garage. ‘They’re not short of a few bob, are they?’ muttered Frost, climbing out of the car.

They had hardly reached the front door when it was flung open by the missing girl’s father, Harold Clark, an angry man in his mid-forties, with slicked-down dark hair and a neatly clipped moustache like Mullett’s, which turned Frost off him right away.

‘About bloody time,’ snapped Clark, jerking a thumb towards the hall. ‘In here.’

They followed him into a large, thickly carpeted lounge. One wall was dominated by a huge fire, with gas flames licking at artificial logs, the other by an enormous plasma television screen. Clark’s wife, some ten years younger than him, sat huddled by the fire in one of the cream leather armchairs. Behind her, wall-to-wall patio doors gave a panoramic view of Denton Woods, which at this time of year, with black clouds hovering, seemed to have a sinister aura. Mrs Clark would have been pretty if her hair had been combed and she had put make-up on. She didn’t look well, staring blankly into space and twisting a damp handkerchief in her hands.

‘The police,’ announced her husband curtly. She looked up through tear-swollen eyes at the men. ‘Have you found her? She’s dead, isn’t she? I know she is.’ She dissolved into tears. Her husband put an arm round her. She abruptly twitched her shoulder to shake him off, then shrank back into the armchair.

Clark gave a ‘you can see she’s upset’ shrug and moved away.

‘We haven’t found her yet,’ said Jordan. He indicated the inspector. ‘This is Detective Inspector Frost.’

Clark scowled at the shabby figure of Frost, who tended to look even shabbier against luxurious backgrounds. He was clearly not impressed. ‘Have you got a search party out yet?’

Frost shook his head. ‘Not yet, Mr Clark.’

Clark’s face darkened. ‘What do you mean, “Not yet”? My daughter’s gone missing.’

‘It’s early days,’ explained Frost. ‘Young girls go missing all the time. They run away from home, they come back.’

Clark was spluttering with rage. ‘Run away from home?’ he shrieked. ‘You stupid, bloody fool. I told these two officers earlier, there is no way my daughter would run away from home. It’s her thirteenth birthday today.’ He flapped a hand towards the mantelpiece where a stack of unopened birthday cards were piled. ‘She’s having a party. She was looking forward to it. There is no bloody way she would run away.’