Authors: R. D. Wingfield
He had the photographs spread out on the table in front of him and was savouring them once again. Behind him the local television news was droning away unheeded.
Vicky . . . Vicky Stuart
He froze. God! Someone was whispering her name. Heart hammering, he swung round. There, on the screen, was her picture. The little girl, eight years old, smiling, showing the gap in her teeth. He turned up the volume.
". . . Denton police are holding a man in connection with the disappearance of eight-year-old Vicky Stuart who has not been seen since she left Denton Junior School for her home some nine weeks ago. According to a spokesman for Denton CID the man, who is in his early forties, is helping the police with their inquiries and no charges have yet been made . . ."
The picture on the TV screen, enlarged from a school group photograph, was not a good one, nowhere as clear and sharp as the photographs on the table before him where Vicky was staring at the camera, her terror shown in sharp focus.
A tapping at the front door. He frowned. He'd told her to use the back way. If anyone saw her coming . . .
He scooped up the photographs and stuffed them in the sideboard drawer, turning the key and testing to make sure it was firmly locked. Excitement made him sweat. He rubbed the palms of his hands down his trouser legs then opened the door. "You look frozen," he said. "Come on in, I've got the fire on. We'll soon warm you up."
She was seven years old, a few months younger than the other girl.
The bitter January wind butted the rusty 'Closed' sign and swung it on the chain which guarded the entrance to the abandoned petrol station. Closed for over eighteen months, it still reeked of stale sump oil, diesel fuel and the sweaty feet smell of old rubber. Parked untidily on the forecourt by the concrete bases where the petrol pumps once stood were two police cars and a mud-splattered Ford Sierra. Detective Inspector Jack Frost leant against the Sierra, a cigarette dangling from his lips in blatant defiance of the numerous 'No Smoking' notices, stamping his feet to get the circulation going. This was all a bloody waste of time. He had hoped to spend the rest of his shift back at the station, the radiator in his office going full blast while he fiddled his monthly expenses with the added bonus of his Divisional Commander, Superintendent Mullett, being away at Head Office so no chance of him bursting in when the ink on an allegedly month-old petrol receipt was still wet. Then later, feet up in the rest room, he had planned to watch a video of the big fight. What should have been a night of sheer bliss went right up the Swannee when that slimy bastard, Reginald Todd, had marched into the station to confess to the killing of eight-year-old Vicky Stuart. Todd was a minor child molester, exposing himself in front of kids or getting them to touch him in return for sweets, but now he was claiming he had gone up into the big time, that he had raped and killed the missing eight-year-old and hidden her body somewhere in this old service station . . . he couldn't remember exactly where . . . it was dark . . . he was confused . . . !
In the background, behind the fringe of trees, came the steady rumble of traffic on the new motorway, the motorway which had drained the life blood of trade from this once bustling service station. The derelict forecourt was now a waste ground, a convenient dumping place for unwanted mattresses, sofas and other rubbish.
Frost watched the uniforms manhandle an enormous treadless tyre and bounce it across the forecourt. He should be giving them all a hand but he knew they wouldn't find anything. That time-wasting, lying bastard Todd was a pathetic nobody, revelling in a chance to be the centre of attention. Frost shivered. Never mind about sharing the hardships with the troops, it was warmer inside the car. He climbed back, just in time to get the radio message from Control. "Vicky's mother is here, Inspector . . . wants to see you." Frost groaned.
She would have heard about the confession and be anxious for news . . . for good news. Mrs. Stuart, a small bundle of nervous energy, stubbornly refused to face facts, and was convinced that even after nine weeks, her eight-year-old daughter would suddenly walk into the house, fit and well, hungry for her tea. Her fragile smile was always on the verge of crumbling, and she talked a lot so she wouldn't have to listen to other people telling her things she didn't want to hear. Frost suspected that when there was no-one to see, she cried a lot. He had tried to get her to accept that after nine weeks there could be little hope, but she wouldn't listen . . .
"Of course she's coming back, Inspector . . . I know it . . . I just know it."
"Would you tell her . . ." he began and then his attention was attracted by the flashing of a torch. PC Jordan, grimfaced, over by the inspection pit was waving urgently, beckoning him over. Frost went cold. Control was still babbling away. "Inspector . . . are you there?" He clicked over to transmit. "Yes, I'm still here. Tell Mrs. Stuart to go home. I'll call on her on the way back." He took one last drag at his cigarette, then stepped out into the cold.
"Down there, Inspector." Jordan directed the beam of his torch into the murk of filthy, oil-filmed water at the bottom of the inspection pit where discarded tyres and cans lurked. In the centre of the debris the torch lit up a sodden bundle of dark blue cloth. On that freezing cold November afternoon when Vicky Stuart waved goodbye to her schoolmates, she had been wearing a thick, warm, blue, winter coat. Frost poked another cigarette in his mouth and sighed. "All right, lads. Let's get her out."
It wasn't the girl. They had hauled out a bundle of evil-smelling rags. They took everything out of the inspection pit. Vicky wasn't there. She wasn't anywhere on the service station.
Vicky's mother was at the front door even before he got out of the car. She had been watching, peeking through the net curtains, hoping to see her daughter sitting in the passenger seat next to Frost. At least, he told himself, this time he wouldn't be breaking bad news. He lived in dread of the day when he would have to. She would not face the possibility that her daughter was not coming back. She had even talked herself into believing that Frost shared her optimism. "She's alive, Inspector. I know it and you know it. Vicky's alive."
The brittle smile was there when she opened the door, but the eyes were anxious and she looked ten years older than when he had first seen her. "It's good news, Inspector, isn't it . . . I can tell from your face that it's good news."
If it was good news not to have found her daughter's dead body, then that's what it was. "The man was lying, Mrs. Stuart. He knows nothing about Vicky."
"Of course he doesn't, Inspector. We both know she isn't dead, don't we?"
He said nothing. The coward's way out, but it was pointless trying to get her to face up to facts. She was still babbling away. "You're going to find her. Any day now you're going to come to this door and you won't have to say a word—I'll see it from your face." All the time she spoke her hands were worrying at her apron, twisting it, screwing it into tight balls of cloth.
Frost gave his non-committal nod. "Marvellous if it happens, Mrs. Stuart." If it made her happy . . .
"And it will happen, Inspector. You and I both know it ... it will happen."
He walked back to the Sierra feeling drained. He wanted to take hold of her and shake some sense into her and shout, 'She's bloody dead, Mrs. Stuart . . . a kid of eight can't go missing for nine weeks without a word and still be alive.' But he couldn't do it. He climbed back in the car and drove to the station ready to kick the shit out of Reggie bastard Todd.
Reggie Todd, sitting on the bunk in the police cell, noisily slurping down the cup of tea the sergeant had brought in for him, was a thin scrawny individual with a prominent nose and a large Adam's apple that clunked up and down as he swallowed. A rattling of keys from outside and the cell door crashed open. Detective Inspector Frost stood there, his eyes blazing.
Todd's Adam's apple moved up and down rapidly and he leapt to his feet, blurting out apologies before Frost could get a single word out. "I'm sorry, Inspector. I'm truly sorry. I made a mistake . . . I must have dreamt it . . . It was so vivid I thought it was real."
"You'll feel a vivid pain in the goolies in a minute," snapped Frost, "and it will be real."
"I deserve it, Mr. Frost . . . but please . . . I hate violence."
"You didn't seem to hate it when you were telling us what you did to the kid. You were dribbling with excitement."
Todd hung his head and said nothing.
Frost's lip curled with disgust. "You will now make another statement withdrawing your phoney confession and you will then get the hell out of here and hope and pray that I don't bump into you on a dark night." He turned on his heels and marched out of the cell.
Station Sergeant Bill Wells looked up as Frost pushed through the swing doors into the lobby. "You should charge him with wasting police time."
"He's wasted so much police time, I haven't got time to charge him for wasting it," said Frost. He poked a cigarette in his mouth. "I've got my car expenses to do. If anything important happens, like Lord Lucan walking in to give himself up, pass it over to Inspector Maud." He looked around. "Where is she, by the way?"
Wells gave a disdainful sniff. Detective Sergeant Liz Maud, posted to Denton a couple of months ago, had been made up to the temporary rank of inspector, while he, Bill Wells, after seventeen years in the force, was still only a sergeant. "That jumped-up little cow . . . !"
Frost chuckled to himself. He loved winding the sergeant up. He tut-tutted reprovingly. "That's no way to speak about your superior officer, Sergeant!"
Wells couldn't bite at the bait quickly enough. "Superior? She's the same rank as me . . . a sergeant. She's done half the time I have, only been here five flaming minutes and she's made up to temporary inspector. What has she got that I haven't?"
"Big tits," said Frost.
Wells jabbed a finger. "You've hit the nail on the head there, Jack. It's sex discrimination in reverse."
"I've never tried it in reverse," said Frost, "but where is she?"
"With a prisoner . . . a cab driver. He picked this woman up and, instead of taking her home, took her down a side street and raped her."
"Bloody hell!" tutted Frost. "I hope she didn't leave him a tip."
His office was in darkness. He expected to find DC Morgan, newly posted from Lexington Division, hard at work with the crime figures, but the office was empty. He walked over to Morgan's desk and looked at the papers to check progress. They hadn't been touched since he left for the derelict filling station. Frost charged out into the corridor, almost bumping into PC Collier who was on his way to the lobby. "Where's DC Morgan?"
"In the canteen, I think," said Collier who knew damn well he was.
"Go up and drag the sod out. We don't pay him to drink bloody tea, we pay him to fiddle the crime figures." His voice died. Over Collier's shoulder he could see into the open door of No. 2 interview room where a grim-faced woman in her late fifties sat bolt upright, clutching a large brown plastic handbag to her bosom. She caught his gaze and snapped her head away to stare pointedly at the far wall. She had no wish to see that rude little man.
Frost pulled Collier to one side. "What's old mother Beatty doing here?"
"Waiting for her statement to be typed," said Collier. "She's the rape victim."
"Rape victim? In her bloody dreams!" snorted Frost. "Where's DI Maud?"