Read Frost at Christmas Online
Authors: R. D. Wingfield
The 999 call came through just before midnight. An elderly man, voice trembling, barely audible. He sounded terrified.
"Police?" My name is Powell, Mead Cottage, Exley Road. For God's sake get someone here quickly. There's an intruder in my house. I . . ."A gasp. The voice broke off then rose to a scream. "No . . . please
. . .
. . ."
Confused sounds. The line went dead.
Despite the heavy snow an area car was at the scene within three minutes and was still slithering to a halt as the two constables, Evans and Howe, raced out. Lights were on at the cottage and a single line of footprints crept through the snow to an open downstairs window at the back. There were no returning footprints. The intruder was still inside.
The two men split up, Evans to pound at the front door while Howe took up position at the rear of the cottage, ready to pounce if they flushed their man out.
As Howe approached the open window he saw movement inside. He tensed, ready to spring, as the dark shape of a man leaned out. But it was his colleague, white-faced and shaken. "An ambulance. Get a bloody ambulance."
Inside the tiny room, with snow blowing through the open window, Powell, the householder, an elderly man in a dressing gown, sat slumped on the settee, a walking stick resting against his knees. He seemed unaware of what was happening, mumbling tonelessly to himself, over and over, "I had to do it. He would have killed me. I had to do it."
The room was in violent disarray, with chairs upturned, papers scattered, the phone ripped from the wall. And on the floor, barely alive, the crumpled figure of a man with a terrible head wound and Evans on his knees trying to stem the flow of blood. Evans looked up as Howe entered. "The bastard shot him," he said.
Powell was still holding the Luger and didn't resist as Howe took it from him and carefully reset the safety catch. "It was him or me," he droned.
"What the hell do you mean?" snarled Evans. "He's a police officer. You've shot a police officer!"
A police officer? Howe bent down to look at the face.
At first he didn't recognise him. The face was old, tired, gray and dying. Then Howe saw the scarf . . . the familiar, tatty, maroon-colored scarf, now discolored and sodden with blood. It was hardly believable, but the man on the floor
was Frost . . . Detective Inspector Jack Frost.
"He broke in," said Powell. "He tried to kill me." He pushed himself up and, with the aid of the walking stick, painfully hobbled over to the window and pointed. "Look!"
The wood round the catch was splintered where it had been forced open with a knife. The knife was on the floor. Frost's knife. Outside, the snow was filling in all traces of the footprints. Frost's footprints. And Frost's skeleton keys dangled from the bureau lock.
The two policemen looked at each other. It just didn't make sense. Detective Inspector Frost had done some pretty stupid things in his time, but this
. . .
How the hell did it happen?
It was a long story. It had all started four days earlier when Joan Uphill, a prostitute, failed to meet her eight-year-old daughter from Sunday school.
Ten days to Christmas on a bitter December afternoon, a few minutes past four o'clock. Outside the house, day had prematurely aged into night and a grim, snow-heralding wind prowled the streets, but inside, behind heavy, drawn burgundy curtains, the bedroom was stifling. The three bars of an electric fire glared at the bed where two naked figures lay side by side.
"Was it good?" she asked mechanically.
"Very good," he answered, staring at the ceiling. He didn't look at her. He never looked at her afterward.
Each week the man had seemed more violent in his love-making, pummeling, pounding, clawing. He hurt her. But he appeared indifferent enough now as he swung his legs to the floor and reached for his clothes, his back modestly toward her as he dressed.
Usually so punctual, today he had arrived half an hour late. By now she should be outside the Sunday school waiting for Tracey. She willed him to hurry, watching with silent impatience as his clumsy fingers fumbled at his buttons. Was he being deliberately slow? He knew that she had to meet Tracey and that it wasn't safe for the child to come home alone in the dark. The Sunday school was only at the end of the street, but there had been that scare with the man trying to lure children into his car last summer.
At last, trousered and respectable, he knotted his tie and turned to face her. She lit a cigarette, knowing what he was going to say. Always the same words.
"I'm not sure about next week." He slid the knot up under his thin beard. "I expect it will be all right, but I'm not sure."
She nodded automatically and forced a smile. Every Sunday the doubts about next week, but he'd be here, she knew it and he knew it, he'd be here on the dot, squashing the bell-push with his thumb and furtively scanning the street like an escaped convict.
And she didn't even know his name. After weeks of the closest intimacy she knew every inch of his body but had no idea who he was, what he did, where he came from. She could make some guesses, of course. Age about thirty-four, thirty-five. An office worker, perhaps living with his mother. A good son, devoted to Mother, deserting her only once a week on Sunday afternoons . . . "Just popping out for a while, Mother. Won't be long." "All right, son. Take care of yourself. Be good."
Every Sunday he was here, at precisely the same time - today being the exception; they'd messed about with his trains. Every Sunday. The well-rehearsed routine never varied. Polite conversation over a cup of tea, excessive good manners - he would not sit until she was sitting, always sprang forward to open the door for her. But in the bedroom, an animal, a savage animal . . . And afterward the coy, shy business of dressing and the face-saving "Don't know about next week" ritual.
The man opened his wallet and took out three £10 notes which he held aloft briefly for her to see and check before folding them lengthwise and dropping them into the black and white Wedgewood vase on the mantelpiece. She receipted the payment with a nod of thanks.
He always saw himself out, hurrying from the house in his anxiety to hide his shame in the darkness outside. She sighed, expelling a stream of smoke in her relief at his departure. There was something about him that made her feel vaguely uneasy . . . made her feel frightened. But he'd gone. The dark shadow had passed from her day.
Stretching lazily, she rose from the bed, pausing to examine her beautiful naked body in the full-length wardrobe mirror, her face creasing into a frown at the bruise on her shoulder and the red marks where he'd bitten. In one place the skin was broken. Thirty pounds wasn't enough. She would tell him so next week.
But look at the time! She was never going to do it. 4:25. The kids came out of the Sunday school at 4:30. She'd never do it. There was nothing else for it. Tracey would have to come home on her own. It was just this once and it wasn't as if she had to come far - just from the end of the road.
A quick tidy-up and hasty smoothing of the bedclothes, then she dressed hurriedly and switched off the electric fire which made strange clanking and clicking noises in its death-throes. A final look round the room. No visible signs of guilt, but the acrid smell of male sweat lingered accusingly. She opened the window and the warm room choked down gulps of cold, black December air. The house across the road had a Christmas tree on display in its upstairs window, a tall fir decorated with glass globes and flaming jewels of colored lights. She would have to see about a tree for Tracey.
A full-throated treble roar echoed from the end of the street. The Sunday school had released its prisoners. The children were coming out. She craned her neck and strained her eyes into the darkness. She should see Tracey soon.
The first wave of children washed past. Tracey wasn't among them, but she always did drag behind.
A pause before the next burst, the children chattering excitedly, "oohing" and "aahing" as they spotted the lights of the Christmas tree.
Then the stragglers. That one at the end must be Tracey. But no . . . much older. Then the street was empty. No more children. Silence.
She suddenly realized she was shivering. She closed the window and rubbed the raised goose-pimples on her bare arms. But it was not just the cold that was making her body shake and her teeth chatter. There was also the soft, sibilant, wet-lipped voice of fear whispering in her ear. Telling her that Tracey wasn't going to come. Not tonight. Or ever.
Sunday at Denton Police Station was the same as any other day. People got drunk and smashed pub windows. Husbands and wives fought and broke up the happy home, and neighbors phoned to complain of the noise drowning out their televisions. Foolproof burglar alarms went off by accident and truculent motorists swaggered in flourishing certificates of insurance which they'd been ordered to produce after that little accident last night. Houses were robbed, old ladies mugged . . . the same as any other day.
Station Sergeant Johnnie Johnson was cold. The gap under the swing doors invited the wind to roar across the lobby and the damn radiator, which wasn't much good at the best of times, had developed an air lock that no amount of kicking could shift. The phone on the inquiry desk rang. It was Superintendent Mullett, the Denton Divisional Commander, flapping as usual.
"Yes, sir," soothed Johnson, "it's all laid on. I'm sending a car to meet him . . . No, sir, it's very quiet, as it happens. Must be the cold weather."
The cold weather! Say what you like about the cold--he stamped his feet to move the blood around his toes--but it certainly kept the crime figures down. Criminals were no respecters of the Sabbath, but even the most hardened villain preferred the comforts of his own fireside on nights like this.
He decided to let the lobby run itself for a couple of minutes and thudded across to Control.
"We got anyone picking up that new chap? The old man's just phoned."
The controller consulted his duty sheet. "Able Baker four's doing it, Sarge . . . But how come we're giving the red carpet treatment to a lousy detective-bloody-constable?"
"Because," explained the sergeant, "the new detective-bloody-constable just happens to be the nephew of the Chief-bloody-Constable . . . and our Divisional Commander knows on which side his bread is buttered."
He lingered. It was warmer in Control than out in that windswept lobby. "Anything happening?"
"No, Sarge . . . it's quiet . . . bloody quiet. . . must be the weather."
The phone in the lobby rang, but there was no need for Johnson to race out to answer it. P.C. Lambert was back from his tea break. The call was from a woman whose daughter hadn't returned home from Sunday school.
The 3:45 down train from London slackened speed as it took the final bend before the run in to Denton Station. The carriage lurched and a crumpled Sunday paper fell from Clive Barnard's lap. He scrubbed at the condensation and tried to peer through the window, but met the murky gaze of his own reflection, a young man of twenty-three, fair-haired, with a nose that looked as if it had been broken and badly set.
A fellow passenger tapped him on the knee. "Just coming in to Denton."
Clive nodded his thanks and dragged his suitcase down from the rack, the case he'd packed at the last minute that very morning in glorious London, over seventy miles away. Wasn't it just his lousy rotten luck to be posted to this fleabag of a town, and so near to Christmas?
He'd seen the place once before, but once was enough. Denton itself was a pleasant little market town with Georgian houses and cobbles, but the iron hand of progress had sorted it out for special treatment. Denton was designated as a proposed "New Town" and was being enlarged, modernized, redeveloped, and ruined. Already acres of its surrounding farm land and woods had been cleared, and half of the new development completed. New, clean and Efficient houses had been built, and hard-faced money-grubbing newlyweds imported to fill them, then factories had been erected to enable the hard-faced newly-weds to slave away at monotonous jobs to pay the rent, the hire purchase on the deep-freeze and color telly, and the cost of running the car to take them to the factory . . .