Friday, 20 April 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Five


“What the devil’s the matter with you this evening Carol? You’ve been like a she-bear with a sore head all evening!”
*If you don’t like it, piss off!”
“If you fill that glass any higher you’ll be wasting a good whiskey on the carpet,” Winter observed acidly.
“An improvement on dog pee, wouldn’t you say?” was the swift retort.
Winter had the grace to blush. “Bonsai or no bonsai, a tree is a tree,” he pointed out. “How was Stanley to know?”  He had meant to take the little dog to the police station earlier but there simply hadn’t been time; it had now been banished to Carol’s kitchen.
“Why are you here anyway? What are you after, Freddy?”
“Must a friend have an ulterior motive for looking in on another friend?” Winter growled, spreading his large hands in a gesture of mock despair.
“Not at all.” She took another swig from the glass. “But you do, don’t you? I know you, Freddy Winter. So let’s not tiptoe around the bloody mulberry bush, okay? What, exactly, Freddy darling, do you want?”
Winter winced involuntarily. He hated it when Carol swore. But she’d always had a split personality of sorts. Sober, she was a warm, sensual, intelligent person. After a few drinks, she could easily be mistaken for a common fishwife. “I need to know more about Max Cutler,” he began, “so I thought I’d pay his mother a visit and suss out the family home, so to speak.”
“Ah!” She crossed the room and leaned close, the distinctive smell of whiskey on her breath causing him to grimace. “And you want me to come and hold your hand, is that it? Well, this time you’re the one barking up the wrong tree, Freddy darling. There is no person on God’s earth I would rather avoid than Annie Cutler. I’ve done my bit by her, and enough is enough. Do we understand each other?”
Winter nodded and sighed. Winning Carol over to this particular purpose was going to take longer than he’d anticipated. She flung him a crooked smile and moved away. “I’ve told you what you wanted to know. Now, suppose you tell me what’s eating you?”
Carol hesitated. “It’s Liam. Well, it’s Sadie really.” A brief fit of hiccups took over and she sat down.
“They’re not splitting up?” Winter was genuinely alarmed. He was very fond of Carol’s son and his partner.
“If you must know…” She paused again while the hiccups subsided. “I’m going to be a grandmother.” Winter threw back his head and roared with laughter until his eyes filled with tears. “It’s no laughing matter, Freddy. I’m only fifty-three for heaven’s sake. I’m far too young to be a grandma.”
“Think of all those glamorous granny competitions you’ll be able to enter...and win, of course,” he added hastily. “When’s the happy event?”
“Apparently, the sprog is due on Christmas Day. Christmas Day, I ask you, what kind of a Christmas is it going to be?”
“Certainly not a dull one,” Winter observed with a wicked chuckle, “Shall we toast the happy couple? I take it, they are happy about the baby?”
“They’re over the bloody moon. Liam was so excited on the phone, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wet himself.”
“And Sadie, how does she feel about being a mum?”
“She’s thrilled, although…” Winter raised an eyebrow. “She’s a lot older than him of course. Oh, she admits to forty, but I do wonder about that.”
“A lot of older women have perfectly healthy babies these days,” he felt almost obliged to say.
“True,” Carol conceded, and took a sip rather than a swig this time of her guest’s favourite malt.
“Is that what all this is about?” he asked gently, “You’re scared something might go wrong?”
“It can happen,” she said quietly, “as you well know,” she added, but was careful to avoid his steady gaze and immediately wished she had kept her mouth shut.  Helen Winter and Freddy had tried for years to have children, her last miscarriage resulting in a hysterectomy. Winter rose abruptly. “Where are you going? You’re not leaving already?”
Winter hid a smile. Now, at least, she wanted him to stay. He’d achieve the purpose of his visit yet. “I’m going to make us some coffee…black and strong,” he added with feeling. Her indirect reference to Helen had disturbed him more than he cared to admit and left him feeling light-headed. He often thought fondly of Helen, of course he did, but they’d had more than their fair share of heartache and it was that, rather than the good times, which always came back to haunt him.
He had momentarily forgotten about Stanley and was unprepared for the white bundle that leapt into his arms the split second he stepped into the kitchen, almost causing him to lose his footing. Recovering his balance quickly enough, he took the oddest comfort from a wet tongue licking his face, claws digging into his shirt and the furiously wagging tail. “You’re in disgrace,” he reminded the wide-eyed mutt sternly, but was reluctant for some obscure reason to deposit it on the floor. Instead, he tucked it under one arm with strict orders to behave. The dog seemed to know what was expected of him and quietened instantly.
Winter set about making the coffee. When it came to placing two mugs and a sugar bowl on a tray, though, he had to admit defeat and put the dog down on the floor, forgetting he’d left the door ajar. Stanley disappeared in a flash.
Winter returned to the sitting room, pondering anxiously on the fate of Carol’s bonsai trees. He needn’t have worried and was greeted by the sight of a very subdued Stanley comfortably ensconced on her lap, tail merely twitching, brown eyes fixed on Winter with a decidedly smug expression as if to say, You’re not the only one who can get round her you know.
Ah, but I haven’t…yet, Winter’s expression reminded the dog although a discerning eye would have detected a growing confidence that it was only a matter of time before he succeeded.

“If you don’t have any information, Mr Winter, I can’t imagine why you’re here,” said Annie Cutler.
“Freddy’s doing his best,” murmured Carol, wondering how on earth she had let herself be persuaded to accompany him.
“I’m sure he is, but it’s a result I want. I need to know what that awful woman has done with my son.”
“It’s not unusual for people to disappear after a quarrel with loved ones, Mrs Cutler…” Winter began.
“If your implying my son is in love with that whore, you obviously haven’t met the woman. I can assure you, my Maxwell has better taste than to give his heart to the likes of that sort. They’re all the same these TV people. They think they’re God’s gift…”
“Actually, I have met Nina Fox,” said Winter, keeping his tone deceptively mild, “and I have to say I rather liked her.” Both Annie and Carol visibly winced. “But we do need to find your son, I agree,” he went on, pretending he hadn’t noticed, “and it would help if I could get a clearer picture of him in my mind.”
“You’re welcome to any photographs, of course,” Annie Cutler obliged between thick, dry lips that seemed to Winter as if they were glued on the fleshy face rather than forming a part of it.
“I’m not so much interested in his looks as his personality,” Winter explained. “I’d like to take a look in his bedroom, if I may?”
Annie Cutler looked disapproving. The squat shoulders heaved, all but swallowing up the short neck.
“It can’t do any harm, Annie, and it if will help…” Carol tried to sound positive and reassuring, but the attempt didn’t quite ring true even to her own ears. She could not help thinking how Annie Cutler was much as she imagined Toad in the famous children’s tale,. Only, there was something irresistibly likeable about Toad and she saw none of that in the woman now glaring at Freddy and herself.
“I suppose so,” Annie Cutler conceded. “I’ll show you his room then if you insist. Not that he spends much time with his mother these days…” she murmured. A flicker of sadness in the hard eyes gave Winter cause to have second thoughts about the woman. She’s lonely, he mused, and God knows, I know all about that.” He started, violently. Home truths were not his forte. “If you’ll just tell me which room, Mrs Cutler, I’d prefer to look around on my own,” he said more brusquely than he intended.
The gargoyle face puffed and reddened with indignation. Carol cut in quickly, “I suppose there’s no chance of a cup of tea, is there Annie? I’m parched. Let’s go in the kitchen and have a chinwag while Freddy struts and frets his hour upon the stage and all that…”
The reference to Shakespeare meant nothing to Annie Cutler except to flummox her, sensing as she did that it should. “Oh well, I suppose so,” she agreed in a clipped voice, sharper than the nail scissors Carol always carried in her handbag.  “It’s upstairs, the first room on the right,” she told Winter. “It’s much as he left it, although I’ve tidied up just a little. Max is very possessive about his things. He hates me to touch so much as a shirt left lying around. But one has to keep up appearances, doesn’t one?” 
Winter responded with a gruff nod and headed for the stairs, anxious to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of the room made worse by the formidable presence of both women.
The bedroom had been more than just tidied. It was immaculate to the extent of being almost clinical. Certainly, it lacked any sense of its erstwhile occupant’s personality.
Winter’s attention was first drawn to two framed photographs on a highly polished chest of drawers.  The first was of a handsome young man wearing a mortar and gown whom Winter took to be Max Cutler. The second showed the same young man with another, arms around each other’s shoulders and smiling broadly. Both were dressed for a graduation ceremony.
Winter studied the second photograph thoughtfully. Carol had said her son Liam knew Cutler at university. There was every chance then that Liam would have known the friend.  Replacing it on the polished mahogany surface, Winter glanced around for a photograph of the awful mother. But there were no others apart from that pair on the dressing table. Why did he think of them as a pair, he wondered absently? He picked up a black comb lying on the dressing table and pocketed it.
He continued to search with expert but discreet thoroughness, opening each drawer of the dressing table in turn and taking care to leave no sign the contents had been disturbed. They revealed nothing of the any significance, nor did a bookcase under the window or a bedside cupboard.
Winter frowned. There wasn’t the remotest lived-in feel about this room. Only the bed, flowery duvet and pillows slightly disturbed, suggested that anyone had ever used the room or might be expected to again. Intuitively, he felt under the mattress. It was routine. He wasn’t expecting to find anything, nor did he. He walked to the window again, observed that the garden was in a far superior condition to his own and would have left the room if a piece of paper, fallen behind some books on the top shelf, hadn’t caught his eye.
Curiosity aroused, he carefully withdrew a sheet of paper that could easily have been torn from a child’s exercise book. On one side, an extraordinary painting leapt up at him and caused him to catch his breath. For all its roughness and lack of perspective, it bore a striking resemblance to the painting that had caught his attention at Nina Fox’s apartment. Blotches of reds, yellows and orange could well have been berries on a shrub or bush; a blob caught up in it all might or might not have been a bird but its expression of terror was almost identical to that in the other painting. Or perhaps he was reading something into the painting that simply wasn’t there?  At first glance, it was a mess, nothing more or less than the result of a child’s playtime. You can’t read into anything something that isn’t there… Or can you? He pondered the question idly for several minutes before shaking his head despairingly and finally letting go of it. 
Still clutching the sheet of paper, he went downstairs. By now he was ready for a cup of tea, having never understood why he preferred tea with milk, no sugar, during the daytime and sweet black coffee in the evenings.
“Those photographs on the dressing table, I take it the young man in mortar and gown is your son?”
“Yes,” Annie Cutlet confirmed, albeit a trifle tersely.
“And who is his friend in the other photo?”
“Why, that’s poor Ray, Ray Bannister. Ironic isn’t it? They were friends long before Nina Fox came on the scene, long before she took up with Nathan Sparrow if it comes to that. She once lived in the flat below his, you know…Ray’s, that is.”
“Is that how Max got to know her?”
“I imagine so.”
“Do you know anything about this?” Winter showed her the painting.
“Oh, that would be one of Billy’s, Billy Pike. It’s a small world. There was a time when the Bannisters lived next door to the Pikes. On the other side of the Pikes, were the Sparrows.”
“Nathan Sparrow?” Carol couldn’t contain her surprise.
“The very same,” Annie Cutler confirmed and continued, “Billy could only have been about eight or nine at the time of the fire.” She paused. “You know about the fire at the Sparrows’ house?” Winter nodded. “Yes, of course. Well, Billy and young Ben Sparrow were about the same age. Billy was never the same after poor Ben and his mother died.  No one quite knows what to make of him. He’s intelligent and apparently communicates well when it suits him, but he hasn’t spoken a single word since that night. Ray used to spend time with the boy. Max, too, later on. Max used to call them the three musketeers.  It was all very childish if you ask me. Touching, I suppose, but childish.”
“And the painting…?” Winter prompted.
“Oh, that.  Billy paints all the time. I can’t imagine why Max kept it. I mean, look at it. A chimpanzee could do better.”
“May I borrow it?”
“You can keep it and welcome. I hate it. It’s not just the painting, you understand, but its associations. When I think of Billy, I think of poor Ray. I think of Ray, and of course I think of how he died…another of Nina Fox’s victims. Oh, Nathan Sparrow may have stuck the knife in, but mark my words, that little whore’s to blame. She’s the guilty one, just like she’s responsible for whatever’s happened to my Max.” But she did not get tearful on this occasion, merely sat, fuming, in yet another armchair set to gobble her up. “You mustn’t let her win, Mr Winter. I’ll pay whatever it takes, but you must not let her win. She’s taken Max away from me once already. I’ll not let her do it a second time. He’s my son, Mr Winter, not her plaything, to do with as she pleases.  I mean it, Mr Winter, money is no object, just …FIND MY SON.”
Winter recoiled slightly, half-expecting her to start breathing fire. He remembered the comb and retrieved it from his pocket. “May I borrow this too?”
“Of course you may. I presume you’ll want to take a DNA sample? But be sure to return it. I feel...well…closer to Max whenever I touch his things. Oh, I know they all say I’m a daft cow who’s too besotted with her son for his own good. But I don’t care. I love my Max, Mr Winter. Besides, they don’t know the half of it.”
So what’s the other half? Winter wanted to ask, but a warning look from Carol made him think again.
“We really should be going, Annie. Freddy will be in touch, though, won’t you Freddy?” Carol was already getting to her feet.
“Of course,” Winter agreed and treated the roly-poly woman to a smile that was meant to be reassuring.
 Annie Cutler only glared. “Be sure you do,” she snapped. “You can see yourselves out, I’m sure.”
They left her, all but swallowed up by red velvet cushions. ‘Burnt-out’ was the description that sprung to the detective’s mind. He was left in no doubt.  Annie Cutler had to be one of the most pathetic specimens of spent humanity he’d even had the misfortune to encounter.
“Home, James,” declared Carol breezily, “and just for putting me through all that you can stop of by some nice little Italian and treat me.”
“Treat you to a nice little Italian? I will if I can find one… and that’s not a threat it’s a promise.” Winter chuckled. It was a poor joke but she relaxed and laughed along with him.
The journey back to Camden Town was a very light-hearted affair at first, as if both were anxious to purge themselves of Annie Cutler’s overwhelming awfulness. Later, they settled into a comfortable silence, Stanley snoring gently on the back seat.
Suddenly, Carol blurted, “You don’t think anything terrible can have happened to Max Cutler do you Freddy?”
“I haven’t a clue,” he said flatly and she fell quiet again. It was just as well she did, he mused, preferring not to be caught out in a white lie. For no logical reason, he was convinced some grave misfortune had befallen Max Cutler. As for clues, there were far too many of those for his liking, each pointing in a different direction. It remained to be seen whether any would lead to Max Cutler. He was certain of one thing, though. This was going to be a very interesting case, possibly even a dangerous one. A rush of adrenalin advised him of a sixth sense possessed by every good copper he’d ever known. And I’m still a bloody good copper or my name’s not Fred Winter.
Winter would have delighted in pressing his foot down hard on the accelerator had they not just entered a 30 mph zone.  Instead, he settled pensively behind the wheel, without letting his attention wander for an instant. Why, he asked himself, had Nina Fox felt the need to tell him a pack of lies? Why, too, should Ray Bannister persist in figuring at all, let alone prominently, in his thoughts? The link between them was obvious if only history. He, Fred Winter, should be focusing on Cutler, though, surely? He sucked in his breath and rested one hand on the wheel for a moment to scratch his nose before letting out a long, low whistle between his teeth.
Carol recognized the signs and said nothing, but Stanley woke, uttered a soft yelp, cocked his head on one side and pricked up both ears. Satisfied that nothing was amiss, he promptly went back to sleep.

To be continued on Monday