Monday, 30 April 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Eight


“Where’s my sister, Winter? What’s happened to her? Why isn’t she here? There’s no sign of the Sparrow girl either. I’m worried sick.”
“One question at a time please, Mr Fox, if you don’t mind,” said Winter equably, “I’m sure there’s no cause for alarm.  There’s probably a perfectly good explanation as to why your sister and Miss Sparrow have…”
“Gone missing?”
“I wouldn’t say that, exactly. It’s early days yet.”
“So what would you say, exactly? I’ve had the TV people on my back all morning wanting to know when they can expect her back on the set.” He glanced at a handsome Rolex watch on his wrist. “She was supposed to be there by six, that’s five bloody hours ago. Nina’s career is important to her, Winter. She wouldn’t just take off without telling anyone, not without a damn good reason or if she was in some kind of trouble.”
“So when did you arrive back in the UK?” asked Carol conversationally. In her arms and enjoying a cuddle, Stanley whimpered softly.
“Last night. Nina was supposed to meet me at the airport. When she didn’t show up, I called her mobile number, but there was no reply. Then I called the apartment, but no one was answering so I grabbed a cab and came straight here.”
“And how did you get in?” Winter wanted to know.
Colin Fox looked away, plainly embarrassed. “I was dog tired. I certainly didn’t want to stay the night in a hotel or travel to my own house in Chelmsford. So I … okay, so I broke a window, so what?  There’s no real damage done. I’ve already called a glazier. He’ll be here around noon or so he said. I was exhausted,” he added, trying to avoid Winter’s disapproving frown and looking to Carol for signs of moral support.
Carol nodded, smiled encouragingly. but said nothing, not least because Stanley was starting to fidget and it was all she could do to keep a tight hold. “You can put the dog down if you want,” said Fox, “I’m sure Nina won’t mind…so long as he doesn’t pee on the carpet of course.”
Winter glanced nervously around for any bonsai trees as Carol deposited the little dog on the carpet. Stanley surprised everyone by not scampering here, there and everywhere. Instead, he made a bee-line for Winter only to lie quiet and docile, at his feet, brown eyes fixed firmly on Colin Fox.
“There’s a good boy,” said Fox and even knelt down, stretched out a hand. But Stanley made neither move nor sound, merely cocked his head on one side as if not sure what to make of this young man with floppy, untidy hair. “Can I offer you folks a cup of tea or coffee or something?
“Tell me, Mr Fox,” said Winter, choosing to ignore both the invitation and an eager nod from Carol, “are you in England on business or just taking a holiday?”
“Oh, the usual thing, a bit of both, although, to be honest…” He hesitated.
“That always helps.” Winter nodded encouragement and did his best to sound reassuring. At the same time, he was careful not to meet Carol’s eye. She was always telling him off for being facetious, not to mention cynical. But he’d been a copper all his life, for heaven’s sake. Was it his fault, he’d invariably found honesty to be in short supply?
“I’ve been worried about Nina for a while now,” Colin Fox confided in a low voice. “A few weeks ago, our father contacted her. He walked out on our mother when Nina and I were just kids. We haven’t heard from him for years. Apparently, he called Nina to congratulate her on her TV show.”
April Showers,” put in Carol.
“That’s the one. He spun her some line about how much he’d missed watching us grow up and how he so much wanted to get back in touch, try and make up some for past mistakes and all that crap.”
“But you’re not convinced?” Winter murmured.
“Are you kidding?  He’s no more interested in Carol than the Man in the Moon. He can smell money and wants some of it for himself, as much as he can get his grubby little hands on.”
“And Nina, how does she feel about her father?”
“My sister can be very naïve sometimes. She takes the view that everyone deserves a second chance. Besides, she misses our mother a lot. She’s vulnerable.”
“And you think your father might…what, exactly?”
“I don’t know. I only know I wouldn’t put anything past that man. He treated my mother like shit. Why hasn’t he been in touch with me? I’ll tell you why, because he knows damn well that, given half a chance, I’d wring his neck.”
“Sounds like a good reason for not getting in touch,” Winter commented dryly and wondered why Nina Fox hadn’t seen fit to mention her father to him…or her brother, for that matter? “If you have any reason for believing your father is somehow mixed up with your sister’s…err, disappearance, I need to know.”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? The man’s a monster, always has been and always will be. He says what he likes, does what he likes, and to hell with who gets hurt.”
“But would he physically harm her?” Winter insisted.
Fox hesitated. “Physically, I’m not sure. But mentally…that’s how he gets his kicks. How my mother stood it for so long, I’ll never know. Even after he left…” He shrugged. “Scars of that kind never heal.”
“Have you tried contacting Nina on her mobile again?” asked Carol.
“You bet I have. I’ve been calling all night and all morning, but…nothing. Yet she’s expecting me, for chrissake. There’s no way she’d put me though this unless…” Fox visibly seemed to crumble, and then pull himself together, “...unless something…or someone…is preventing her from calling me.”
“In which case, I suggest you call the police,” Winter declared flatly.
Fox looked momentarily taken-aback. “But I thought you were…”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr Fox. I’m just a retired detective whom your sister asked to…err…keep an eye on things.”
“Such as…?” Colin Fox enquired brusquely.
Winter chose his words with care. “People in your sister’s line of work, especially women are, as so you rightly said, vulnerable.  They sometimes feel threatened.”
“Someone has been threatening Nina?” Fox was plainly shocked.
“I didn’t say that,” said Winter, continuing to tread carefully, “but you’re right about one thing. Certainly, your sister feels very vulnerable at the moment. She asked me to keep an unofficial eye on things, so to speak.”
“And what have you come up with?”
“Not a lot,” Winter was forced to admit.
“Do you know Max Cutler, Mr Fox?” It was left to Carol to break the uneasy silence that followed
“Call me Colin, please,” he muttered absently, “I’ve never met the man, no. I’ve heard all about him from Nina, of course. I can’t say I like the sound of him one bit.  But she’s potty about the guy as far as I can make out. I gather she’s even trying to get him a part in her show. If she succeeds, that will be that of course…mission accomplished as far as he’s concerned. . Oh, I dare say he’ll find a use for her from time to time. But that’s as far as it goes. That’s as far as it ever goes with Cutler’s sort. Why do you ask?” he looked from Carol to Winter, “Do you think he’s mixed up in all this somehow?”
“Mixed up in all what, exactly?” Winter’s ear’s pricked up at a choice of phrase that struck him as rather odd.
“You tell me,” Colin Fox countered, “Isn’t that what you’re being paid for?”
“No one is paying me for anything  yet,” was Winter’s mild response, “I’m merely an impartial observer, someone on the outside looking in, and trying to make some sense of what I see.”
“And do you make any sense of what you see?”
“Ah!” Winter spread his hands by way of expressing his frustration. “We see what we see, and make sense of what we can,” he murmured cryptically.
“In other words, you haven’t a bloody clue,” Fox retorted.
“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” Winter felt bound to agree, sprung to his feet and held out his hand, Stanley, sniffing anxiously at his trousers. “As soon as I do have a bloody clue, I promise you’ll be among the first to know. Meanwhile, I can only suggest you continue calling your sister’s mobile number. And be sure to leave the landline answering machine on should you go out at any time. Oh, and I really would call the police if I were you.”
“And that’s it?” Fox was incredulous, but automatically accepted the outstretched hand.
“That’s it… for now. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Mr Fox.”
“I wish I could say the same,” muttered Fox, but a broad smile seemed genuine enough as he turned to Carol. “Nina has told me a lot about you Mrs Brady. I understand you’ve been very kind to her since our mother died. I appreciate it, I really do.”
“I’ve not done much,” protested Carol, “just been there for her at the end of a phone and given a spot of moral support here and there.”
“It has meant a lot to her, I can assure you. I hope we meet again soon.” He took her hand, bowed his head and kissed it. Carol found herself blushing. At the same time, she glimpsed out of the corner of an eye that Winter was scowling, and promptly treated Colin Fox to a dazzling smile. Nor was he, for his part, the first to be all but mesmerized by the lovely violet eyes. Neither is he likely to be the last, Winter reflected peevishly.
“I have to tell you Freddy,” Carol wasted no time expressing an opinion, “I don’t quite trust our Mr Fox. Oh, he has a certain charm. But…that awful accent! I mean…why can’t the English leave well alone? But, oh, no, we only have to spend ten minutes in another country and we’re talking an absurd English-ese.  He may have spent some time in the United States but…well, really! As if the damage inflicted on the English language by the yanks isn’t bad enough without the likes of Colin Fox adding insult to injury.”
They were sitting in Winter’s car, parked in a nearby side street, only a short time after leaving Colin Fox.  In spite of Carol’s remarks, Nina’s brother was far from being the main focus of their thoughts. At the same time, neither would have been prepared to admit,  to each other at least,  that they were still pondering the implications of that rude awakening under the duvet hours earlier. “Can you take some time off work?” Winter suddenly asked.
“I expect so. What did you have in mind, a romantic weekend in Paris?”  Her sarcasm was not lost on him, but he chose to ignore it. “I just thought we might drive down to Kent. You can call Liam and Sadie, warn them we’re on our way and…well, it would be nice to share in the celebrations and all that...”
“Not to mention having a nose around Nathan Sparrow’s cottage,” she added, “I wondered when you were going to get around to that.”
“It has to be the next port of call, surely?”
“I agree. But Liam and Sadie have got enough on their plate running a pub and expecting a baby, for heaven’s sake. The last thing they need right now is hassle.”
“Who said anything about hassle?”
“Suppose we find a body there?”
“We might not,” he pointed out.
“And we might find more than one,” she retorted, “Besides, we haven’t been invited. I can’t just pick up the phone and announce we’re on our way.”
“Why can’t you?” Winter demanded and was genuinely surprised.  “He’s your son, for crying out loud. You don’t need an invitation, woman. He’d love to see you, they both would, and you know it.” He paused. “You’re not seriously bothered about this grandma thing are you?”
“You’re a man, Freddy. Men don’t understand how a woman feels about such things. Besides…” Winter waited patiently. “Now he’s with Sadie I’m a poor second in Liam’s life. Oh, that’s how it should be, I know, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s happy, and that’s what counts, especially after all he’s been through. But if second isn’t bad enough, soon I’ll be relegated to third place in his affections,” she wailed.
Winter put a comforting arm around her shoulders. “Liam adores you. Nothing and no one will ever change that. As for third place, I wouldn’t count on it if I were you. Did no one ever tell you that Grandma’s always the first in line when it comes to babysitting?” He guffawed, and felt her relax, but only slightly.
“I suppose so,” she conceded, “But…”
“But, nothing... You know I’m right. You’re just too stubborn to admit it. You were the same years ago, I remember.  Once you’d let some daft idea into that pretty head of yours, it would be easier to move a mountain than try and shift it.”
Carol pretended not to hear. “Suppose it doesn’t like me? The baby, suppose it doesn’t like me or I don’t like it? You hear about such things. It would just be my bad luck, and then what? I’d see less of my own son than I do already.”
“Now you’re being ridiculous.”
“Spoken like your average male,” she muttered, but loud enough for him to hear.
“That settles it. We’re going,” Winter declared in a tone guaranteed to raise her hackles. “You need to get this nonsense out of your head once and for all and…”
“You’d love to find a body or two because you’re stuck for clues and that would be as good a start as any,” was Carol’s parting shot as she flung open the door and manoeuvred herself out of the car.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ll find my own way home.”
“Carol…” he started to protest but she was already striding down the street, as fast as high heels would permit. Winter sighed, well aware that her bad mood was as much down to what had not happened between them earlier as the mystery surrounding Nina Fox, Pip Sparrow and the dead-or-alive Max Cutler. Even so, he might have a quiet word with Liam some time. If Carol only half believed what she was saying, it didn’t bode well for a Happy Christmas.
He was packed and ready to go when the telephone in the hall rang. “Carol?”
“I’m taking annual leave so you can pick me up whenever you’re ready. But I’m warning you, don’t you dare patronize me over this baby, Freddy Winter, or you and I are finished. And if I find out you’ve breathed so much as a word to Liam, I’ll strangle you with my own bare hands. Do I make myself clear?”
“Abundantly,” he agreed while wondering, not for the first time, why she had stayed in her job in the Human Resources department of a big supermarket chain. She used to hate it, he recalled vividly. Memories of their affair many years earlier came flooding back. Winter shook his head. It was all so long ago. We’re different people now...aren’t we?  
Good. Well, I’m ready if you are.”
  “I’m on my way,” Winter assured the crisp voice at the other end of the phone, relieved to be distracted from any pointless pursuit of the past. After bundling Stanley on the back seat, he drove to Camden Town, whistling tunelessly all the way. The little dog rolled over on its side, placed a paw over one ear and slept soundly, stirring only briefly, tail wagging furiously, to greet Carol. She promptly tuned into Radio One and turned up the volume as they headed for Herne Bay, whereupon Stanley wriggled comfortably into the same position and only woke, on cue as always, at journeys end.
“Where is this holiday cottage anyway?” Carol asked, turning down the volume slightly.
“A place called Whitstable. It’s not far from Herne Bay.”
“It’s Whitstable first stop then, I presume.”
He didn’t bother to confirm that she presumed correctly, there was no need. He knew better, too, than to complain when she turned up the volume again, the current pop sensation blasting in his ears. Anything, he decided, was preferable to having Carol berate him for what she saw as a predilection for trouble with a capital ‘T’.  But even if that were true, he put to his alter ego, what of it?  What use is a copper without a nose for trouble?  Resting one hand on the wheel, he gave his nose a good scratch.
They found the cottage easily enough, overlooking the sea front. “Wait here,” Winter told her, trying to sound authoritative.
“Not on your life,” came the answer he’d expected, “I’m coming with you.”
“I need you to stay here, Carol. Who knows what I might find in there? Anything could happen. If it does, I need to know you’ll be on the blower to the police. Besides …” he reminded her, “someone has to look after Stanley.” The little dog, wide awake now, wagged its tail and started to clamber over the seat. Carol scooped him up and kept a firm hand on the makeshift collar.”
“Just be careful, Freddy. I don’t want to be left holding the damn dog, for heaven’s sake.” But a worried expression belied the belligerent tone and she did not turn away when he kissed her on the cheek.
At a front door, once painted yellow and now looking much the worse for wear, Winter pressed his finger on the doorbell and waited. No one came. He tried again; still no response. He then produced a bunch of keys he’d carried for years and tried several until one fitted the lock. An elderly, bearded man watching from the drive of a nearby bungalow caught his eye. He waved. The man waved back and resumed a spot of gardening, satisfied nothing was amiss.
Winter entered, closed the door behind him and called out, “Hello! Is anyone there? Much as he had expected, no one answered.”
Methodically, he searched every room. But if he was half-expecting to find a body, he was disappointed. There were, however, signs that someone had been there and not so long ago either. Someone had recently vacuumed the carpet and washed the kitchen floor. There were indications, too, that parts of the hall carpet had been scrubbed. To remove what kind of stains, he wondered?  Blood had to be a possibility, surely? Yet why tidy up and leave the bed unmade?
Several houseplants had been well looked after. Moreover, he’d have said by at least two people. Mugs, plates, glasses and cutlery on the draining board in the kitchen; semen stains on an unmade double bed; empty wine bottles and wrappers bearing a recent use-by date…tell-tale signs no one could miss.
“So what am I missing?” Winter muttered crossly. He was standing at the kitchen sink, admiring a small but neat garden in full bloom. His eyes strayed from watching a butterfly skim a hydrangea bush to a fat tabby ambling across the roof of a shed. Although there was nothing remotely suspicious about the shed, Winter’s blood ran cold.
He stroked and tugged at his beard and continued to watch the cat until it jumped down into the garden next door. A loud barking sent it scurrying out of sight although no dog appeared.
Minutes later he was peering in the shed’s only window. At first sight, it was a typical garden shed. He could make out a small bench, some tools, piles of sacks and a lawnmower in one corner. A whiff of disinfectant made him screw up his nose. He looked again at the sacks. Something about the way they were stacked struck him as curious. The shed’s other contents were laid out neat and tidy, everything in its place. The sacks, on the other hand, looked as though someone in a hurry to complete the task had flung them on top of each other. At the same time, there was something oddly deliberate about the way they were placed, almost as if they hadn’t been piled up for the sake of piling them up but…to conceal something? 
The detective wasted no time forcing the lock and entering the shed. The smell of disinfectant was even stronger inside. Just as well then, he did not need to follow up his hunch by removing the layers of sacking. A keen eye soon spotted something sticking out from the bottom of the pile. He knelt to take a closer look.
Now he understood the reason for the disinfectant. It was part of a human hand. Moreover, he could have sworn it leapt up at him and began clawing at his eyes, eyes that had seen worse, far worse, in their time.
Winter ran out of the shed and was violently sick on the grass.

To be continued on Friday