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‘What does he want?’

‘He wants the media and Beazley brought in so he can let the world know what a load of bastards Beazley and his supermarket are.’

‘If that’s what he wants, get the media here,’ said Mullett.

‘In case we make a complete balls-up, DCI Skinner doesn’t want it splashed all over the TV screen,’ said Frost.

Mullett nodded gravely. ‘Yes, of course. Good point. But what do you intend to do, Frost? We can’t just sit it out.’

‘I’m waiting for Skinner. He’s in charge.’

‘Then where is he?’ The possibility of a balls up was making Mullett nervous. If things went disastrously wrong, he didn’t want to be in the vicinity. He was already mentally composing his defence. I knew nothing about it. I would never have sanctioned it if I had known. ‘Ah – here he is.’

Skinner emerged from the dark and slid into the back seat. He nodded to Mullett. ‘Good to see you, sir. Do you want to take charge?’

‘Good heavens no,’ blurted Mullett, vigorously shaking his head. ‘I’m sure things are in capable hands.’

The DCI grunted his acceptance of authority ‘The way I see it is this. The longer we leave things, the worse they could get. He’s on the verge of cracking up completely. God knows what the hell he’ll do when he does.’

‘We should back off and let him calm down,’ said Frost.

‘That’s just delaying what has to be done. We’ve got to bite the bullet. I managed to get round the back of the house without being seen. The back door doesn’t seem to be locked. Since I’m an official police marksman, I drew a gun from the station before I came. I want you to keep him talking, Frost, while I sneak round the back with the gun. I reckon I can get in without him knowing, creep up the stairs and ram my gun in his guts before he has a chance to do anything.’

‘But if he hears you…’ protested Mullett.

‘If he hears me and comes at me with the shot gun, I’ll have no alternative but to shoot. I hope it won’t come to that. The important thing is to save the child if he’s still alive.’

Mullett blinked nervously. This could well go wrong and he didn’t want to be around when it happened, but he could see no way of getting out of it. ‘I don’t like it,’ he said. ‘It’s too risky.’

‘The alternative could be him killing the kid, then topping himself. Do you want to risk that?’

Mullett winced. He hated being put on the spot. ‘You’re in charge of the operation,’ he told Skinner. ‘I must defer to your decision, but I’m calling Armed Response as a back-up just in case.’

Use your flaming authority, you spineless prat. Veto it, urged Frost mentally. This was going to end in disaster, he just knew it.

‘Right, Frost,’ ordered Skinner. ‘Get him on the phone and keep him talking.’

‘Hold on,’ said Frost. ‘Let’s make one last attempt to get the kiddy out.’ He climbed out of Mullett’s Porsche and beckoned Kate Holby, then walked up the path with her so she was fully illuminated in the headlights. He called Taylor on the phone.

‘What now?’

‘I’ve got this young WPC here. She’s trained to handle children. Why don’t you let us have your son? He shouldn’t be placed in danger like this.’

‘No. He stays with me. She’s not having him. Where’s the press? Where’s that sod Beazley?’

‘On their way,’ said Frost, aware that Skinner had slipped out of Mullett’s car and was circling round to the rear of the house. He was sure Taylor wouldn’t spot him behind the glare of the headlights. ‘The local TV boys are sending a team and I’ve arranged for ITV news to send a full crew, but it may take a little time. I expect they’ll want to send a cameraman into the house.’

‘No!’ cut in Taylor. ‘No one comes inside the house.’

‘Let them see your son. You’ll get everyone on your side if they can see the kiddy.’

‘No!’ screamed Taylor. ‘No one sees him. He stays with me.’

He’s dead, thought Frost.

‘And I want that bastard Beazley here. I want the world to see what a shit he is… what that bastard has done to me.’

‘So you said. My colleague is on the phone now, trying to get him to come,’ said Frost, glad to spin things out. ‘We can’t force him to come, but we’re trying.’

‘I want him here,’ shrilled Taylor, his voice rising to a scream. ‘Do you hear me? I want him here.’

‘We’re trying now,’ said Frost, signalling to Mullett to make the call. The Superintendent was speaking quietly into the mouthpiece but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. ‘He wants to speak to you,’ he said, handing the phone over to Frost.

‘What the hell are you playing at?’ demanded Beazley. ‘If you think I’m coming in front of the flaming TV cameras you’ve got another thing coming. I’m not the bloody villain here. I didn’t try to kill bleeding babies. If he couldn’t meet our prices there were plenty of people who could. You keep my bloody name out of this, do you hear, or I’ll have your guts for flaming garters.’

‘Thank you,’ grunted Frost, handing the phone back to Mullett and returning to Taylor on the other phone. ‘He’s on his way.’

‘Right… I… What’s that?'

Shit, thought Frost. He’s heard Skinner. ‘Mr Taylor… Mr Taylor…’ But Taylor had put the phone down. Frost could hear the thud of foot steps, and muffled voices.

The sound of a shot blasted through the phone and echoed over the open ground.

The colour seeped from Mullett’s face. ‘Did you hear that?’ he croaked.

Frost nodded grimly. ‘What’s going on?’ he yelled down the phone. ‘Answer me, you sod, answer me…’

Slow footsteps. A rustling as the phone was picked up. Heavy breathing.

‘Who’s this?’ demanded Frost.

It was Taylor. ‘You tried to trick me,’ he screeched.

‘What the bloody hell has happened?’ yelled Frost down the phone.

‘You sent someone up with a gun. He was going to kill me.’

‘What happened?’ asked Frost again.

‘I shot him. I’ve got his gun.’

‘Is he dead?’ Everyone around him held their breath, waiting for an answer.

‘No, but he’s bleeding badly. He could bleed to death.’

‘We’ve got to get him out of there… get him to hospital.’

‘No. If you want him, you do what I say. I want a car, with a full tank of petrol. I want that WPC to come with me. If anyone follows or tries to stop me, I’ll shoot her. I’ve nothing to lose. So help me God, I’ll shoot her.’

‘And if we do what you say?’

‘When I’m sure I’m not being followed, I’ll let her go. I won’t hurt her.’

‘Hold on,’ said Frost.

‘I’m not bloody holding on. The way he’s losing blood, I’d say he’s got minutes. It’s pumping out.’

‘Hold on,’ cried Frost. ‘I’m calling an ambulance.’ He put his hand on the mouthpiece and yelled at Morgan. ‘Get an ambulance, Skinner’s bleeding to death.’

‘What’s going on?’ demanded Mullett.

‘He says Skinner is still alive, but bleeding badly. He wants a car and Kate Holby as a hostage before he’ll let anyone in to Skinner. He says if we try to follow, he’ll kill her.’

‘Right,’ said Mullett firmly, ‘then that’s what we do.’

‘No,’ said Frost. ‘No bloody way. I’m not giving him a hostage.’

‘I’m willing,’ said Kate. ‘I’ll do it.’

‘Forget it,’ said Frost. ‘No bloody way.’

The phone rang. ‘I’m not sodding about waiting,’ yelled Taylor. ‘Two minutes. If I don’t get the car and the woman in two minutes, I’ll finish the bastard off with his own gun. I mean it.’ His voice rose to a shrill shriek. ‘I’ll finish him off.’

‘Send in the girl,’ ordered Mullett.

‘No,’ Frost replied. ‘I’m not risking her life.’

‘I’m ordering you,’ said Mullett.

‘And you’ll take full responsibility if she gets killed?’

Mullett’s mouth opened and closed. Damn Frost to hell for putting him on the spot like this. He jabbed a finger at the inspector. ‘On your head be it,’ he snapped.

Back to the phone. ‘Mr Taylor – ’

‘Where’s the car?’ yelled the man, before Frost could say any more.