Monday, 16 April 2012

Predisposed to Murder - Chapter Four


“Tell me, Miss Fox, about what or whom did you argue with Max Cutler that resulted in your throwing him out?” Winter was curious.
“I didn’t throw him out. Well, not exactly. He left of his own accord. As for why we argued, I rather think that’s my business.”
“You asked me to help you, Miss Fox, so that makes it my business. Of course, if you don’t want to tell me that’s your prerogative.” He wasted no time getting to his feet. “May I see you out?”
“Carol warned me you could be…abrupt,” the young blonde woman wearing designer sun glasses retorted but made no attempt to rise.
Winter sat down again, sprawled in his favourite armchair and observed his guest frostily. “Not so much abrupt as to the point, Miss Fox. I’m a busy man,” he lied, “and I’ve no time for time wasters. So, I’ll ask you again. Why did you quarrel with Max Cutler? You must see that I need to know, surely? After all, no one has seen or heard from him since.”
“What are you implying?” She smiled but he could see by the way her whole body tensed that she was both defensive and angry.
“Nothing at all, Miss Fox, I am merely asking.” He spread his hands, summoned his most charming smile and was relieved to see her relax slightly.
“If you must know, I caught him in bed with someone else. We’d finished shooting April Showers early so I came straight home and…well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.”
“I am not into guessing, Miss Fox. Tell me exactly what happened.”
The lovely face flushed angrily and she bit her lower lip, but persevered all the same. “I gave the pair of them a piece of my mind, to put it mildly. Max was contriteness itself but I was having none of it. His ‘bit of rough’ seemed to find the whole thing hilarious. To be frank, Mr Winter, I was shocked, trembling. I had to leave the room before I did something I’d live to regret. I ran to the bathroom and wept buckets. Buckets, Mr Winter, I was so beside myself. To think Max could betray me like that, it was just awful, awful!” She produced a hanky and dabbed at her eyes.
 Do actors ever stop acting, and if so, how the devil is one supposed to tell? Winter wondered. “Then, what?” he prompted gruffly.
“What do you mean, then what?”
“What happened after you came out of the bathroom?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Forgive me. I still come over distraught whenever I think about that dreadful evening.”
“As anyone would…” Winter tried to sound reassuring if not sounding as sympathetic as the star of April Showers might wish.
Nina Fox took several deep breaths. Winter waited, vaguely amused, but patiently nonetheless. “The little baggage had left by the time I returned to the bedroom.”
“By ‘baggage’ I take it you mean Max Cutler’s ‘bit of rough’?”
“Who else?” she snapped, “But Max was still there. He’d had the decency to get dressed and was sitting on the side of the bed... our bed...face in hands, sobbing. Well, I ask you? Did he really think I was going to be moved by a show of crocodile tears? Oh, I was moved alright, moved enough to tell him how much he appalled and disgusted me!”
“Then you told him to pack his bags?”
“I did worse than that. I threatened to tell his mother. You should have seen his jaw drop. You know, I always thought it was just a phrase you read in tacky novels. But, my God, it dropped… and how! His face went as white as a sheet. Then he turned on me.”
“He hit you?”
“Nor exactly, no, but he lashed out with his tongue. Oh, didn’t he just?  He called me the most awful names. It was terrible. I was petrified, ran into one of the spare rooms and locked the door. I could hear Max moving about. After what seemed ages, he started hammering on the door. I didn’t let him in, of course. He yelled more horrible names at me, and then said…”
“Yes?”  Winter tugged on his beard. Nina’s graphic presentation was such that he was hard put to resist an impulse to applaud.
“He said I was a bitch for wanting to destroy him, but what goes around comes around and one day it would be my turn.”
“Your turn next...” Winter murmured, echoing the crude threats scrawled in both ink and blood.
“Quite. But he was angry, we both were. And I haven’t told his mother anything. I wouldn’t wish that foul woman on my worst enemy. Only, I haven’t seen Max to tell him so.”
“Do you love him?” Winter surprised himself by the question.
“Do me a favour, darling!” she pouted, “Me, in love with Max Cutler? Heavens, no! We were just two people drowning in self-pity and clutching at straws. Well, no, that’s not quite true. It was awful after Nathan went to jail and wouldn’t even see me. I was devastated, Mr Winter, devastated...” 
Winter was in no doubt that the long pause that followed was intended for dramatic effect. Torn between mild amusement and a growing irritation, he was about to prompt her again when she anticipated him. “You see, Mr Winter, some women need a man around, and I’m one of them. It isn’t that we’re sex mad or vulgar. It’s just the way we are. Max was, well…available. I had no idea he was a lying, cheating bastard. Mind you, fair’s fair I suppose. Neither of us had the faintest idea how things would work out between us, although ...” She dabbed at her eyes with the hanky again. Winter, though, had the feeling she had been about to say something else and was playing for time.  “So you see, we have to find him if only to let him know he doesn’t have to worry about a thing. Mummy won’t find out about …why we split up. Not from me, anyway. Oh, I know she blames me. But I really don’t care. She may be able to control Max with her blood money but I’m doing nicely these days, thank you very much, and I don’t need her money, her contacts, or her, the fat cow.”
“Blood money, you say?” Winter was intrigued.
Nina made an extravagant show of composing herself before explaining her choice of phrase, “Wealthy hubby had a heart attack not long after they were married. He’d probably just realized what he’d got himself into. I mean, well, you’ve met the woman. The poor man didn’t stand a chance. I gather she wasn’t quite as fat and ugly as she is now, but by all accounts she set her cap for him and before the poor man knew it they were married.”
“That would be according to whom?” Winter scratched the tip of his nose, the better to conceal a grin, Nina’s dislike and description of Annie Cutler coinciding pretty much with his own.
“Why, Max of course,” Nina declared with feeling, “He loathes her, but absolutely loathes and despises the woman. Unfortunately, she controls the purse strings. Behind every social climber, Mr Winter, you will find someone footing the bill. But I’m sure a man of the world like yourself doesn’t need me to tell you that.” She flung him a dazzling smile.
Winter tugged absently at his beard. Was he imagining it or could it be that the delectable Nina Fox was flirting with him, he wondered?  Whatever, he declined the bait. “How long have you known Max Cutler?”
Nina shrugged, “Oh, a few years. He aspires to being an actor. Not a scrap of talent, of course. But he’s good looking, can be charming when he likes and really isn’t bad company at all for a complete waster. The world of TV soaps and its hangers-on is terribly incestuous, as you can imagine. It was inevitable we’d bump into one another just about here, there, and everywhere. Besides, he was a friend of Ray’s and…” Her voice broke and she began to cry.
Convinced her tears were not contrived this time, Winter rose quickly and crossed the room to a handsome wine cabinet, poured two large brandies and handed her one without a word. She accepted gratefully and summoned a weak smile. “I’d have taken you for a good malt man myself.” She tried to laugh but the sound disintegrated into a muffled sob.
“Nor would you be far wrong,” he smiled back at her, “But there’s good malt and good brandy. Each to their own occasion, I say.” to which she managed a feeble titter.
They sat in silence for a while. “I must look a total mess!” she exclaimed at last and tried, again unsuccessfully, to laugh it off.
“A beautiful woman is always a beautiful woman no matter how she looks,” Winter murmured into his beard.
“Oh, Freddy, thank you.” She giggled, but almost instantly composed herself. “Even so, may I use your bathroom anyway?”
“Of course...” He showed her to the bottom of the stairs, indicated a door at the top then returned, thoughtfully, to the armchair. The man, Ray, to whom she had referred, must be Ray Bannister, the ex-boyfriend whom the ex-fiancé, Nathan Sparrow, had killed with a kitchen knife. “Interesting,” he mused aloud, “that Max Cutler was a friend of Bannister’s.” He would have to confirm with Nina later of course but he was in no doubt, although could not have explained why. Nor had he the foggiest idea why it should strike him as interesting, it just did. Perhaps, he conceded absently, it had to do with a predilection for muddles.  After all, what good copper could resist trying to sort a muddle, especially the kind fired by human emotions?
When Nina Fox returned, she looked radiant. Moreover, she was carrying and drooling over a white bundle in her arms. Stanley, for his part, was looking well pleased at being fussed over, tossing Winter a reproachful look as if to accuse the detective of neglecting him. “He’s gorgeous!” she repeated several times and kept the little dog on her lap for the remainder of her visit.
Winter met the dog’s steady look with one of his own. It’s the police station for you, my lad, once I’m done with your fancy woman, it said, and for once the scruffy tail did not wag. “It was a dreadful business, Miss Fox.” He turned his attention back to his guest at the point where their conversation had tailed off. There was no need to qualify his remark. She understood only too well what he meant. Out came the hanky again, but to his immense relief, she remained more self-controlled this time. “Were you having an affair with Ray Bannister?” he asked, not a little taken aback by his own bluntness.
She gasped and stared disbelievingly at him. “The epitome of chivalry one minute and as insulting as hell the next, you’re a strange man Mr Winter.”
Winter shrugged and spread his hands, “It’s the job,” he said by way of explanation. To his surprise, she seemed to accept this easily enough.
“No, Mr Winter, I was not having an affair with Ray. He was a good friend, a very dear friend, but that was all.”
“Yet he had a key to your flat.”
“I had already moved in with Nathan and Pip by then, but I kept the flat on as a sort of…”
“Insurance, in case things didn’t work out?” Winter suggested mildly.
“Not at all,” the grey-blue eyes flashed angrily, but she kept her voice steady and low. “We all need our own space, Mr Winter, as I’m sure you’ll agree.” Winter nodded. “Well, I’m no exception. I love Nathan, but he likes to, well, smother me. In the nicest possible way, you understand. But it can get too much sometimes. I needed a bolthole. Besides, there was Sammy to consider.”
“Sammy is my cat. Nathan is allergic to fur. He can’t bear to be near animals. So Sammy had to stay behind and dear Ray kept an eye on him for me. Naturally, he had a key to the flat.”
“And Nathan knew this?”
“Not exactly, no,” she demurred, “I didn’t want him…or anyone else for that matter…to get the wrong idea. Besides…” Winter raised a quizzical eyebrow, at which Stanley’s nose, too, appeared to twitch enquiringly. “Nathan had told me to get rid of Sammy, you see, and I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. But I told him I’d given him away to neighbours.”
“So he had no idea Ray Bannister was looking after your cat?”
Nina Fox shook her head. “I should have told him everything of course, and then perhaps …”
“My dear Miss Fox, you mustn’t blame yourself.  Jealousy is no excuse for killing another human being. No one is to blame but the killer.”
“But Nathan isn’t a killer, Mr Winter, he just…isn’t,” dabbing at her eyes again with a fresh hanky.
“I seem to recall he was found at the scene of the crime and admitted his guilt,” the detective felt obliged to point out.
“True, but he hasn’t admitted it to me. And why not, I’d like to know?”
“I understand he refuses to see you…?”
“She nodded. “Because I’d know he was lying. He no more killed Ray than…”
“You did?”
She started then, “That’s right, Mr Winter, no more than I did.”
Winter said nothing but poured two more brandies. She had arrived in a taxi and he assumed she would be taking one home so where was the harm? Besides, this interview was taking the oddest turn. He was starting to enjoy it. They were meant to be discussing Max Cutler and threatening notes. Now, though, the conversation had taken a subtle change in direction. Indeed, an extraordinary turn of events. He stroked his beard, aware that he already had more than a passing interest in a murder that, to all accounts and purposes, required no further investigation whatever. “Why did Nathan Sparrow go to the flat that evening?”
Nina shrugged, “I have no idea. He must have been looking for me, I suppose. We’d had a little tiff and he knew I sometimes went back to the flat to be on my own. If only I’d gone straight there instead of popping into the corner shop to say hello to old Mrs Hussein, maybe I could have…well...done something, prevented it, I don’t know…”
“Old Mrs Hussein, you say?”
“Brixton is a very community-minded area, Mr Winter. I have a lot of friends there, people who know me just as Nina Fox, not the Nina Fox on TV. I had to work damn hard to get where I am today, for what it’s worth,” she added with a note of bitterness that sounded genuine enough. “I’m a working class girl made good, Mr Winter, and a working class girl is always a working class girl. Do you know why? Because no one ever lets you forget it, that’s why.”
Not for the first time during their interview, Fred Winter found himself warming to this charismatic young woman. “About Max Cutler…” he began.
But Nina had risen to her feet and was depositing Stanley firmly on the carpet. “My taxi will be here in a minute. It has been an interesting afternoon, Mr Winter. As I said before, I can’t believe Max means me any harm. At the same time, it isn’t nice to receive threats through one’s letterbox. It isn’t nice at all. You’ll want a retainer of course…” She began rummaging in her bag.
“I’m committing myself to nothing, Miss Fox, and until I do neither should you.  I’ll let you know whether or not I wish to involve myself in your domestic problems.”  He wasn’t prepared for the hurt look she flung him and almost wished he had been more diplomatic.
“Yes, well, I hope to hear from you again very soon but if I don’t …frankly, I don’t give a damn.” The doorbell rang. “That will be my cab. Goodbye, Freddy. I do hope I haven’t wasted too much of your precious time,” she all but snarled and curled her lip. 
Winter suspected he wasn’t being treated to another performance. Or was he perhaps catching a glimpse of the real Nina Fox?  “By the way, the name is Fred, not Freddy,” he saw fit to remind her on the doorstep seconds later.
“Ah, yes, well…Fred it is then,” she murmured sweetly. Turning abruptly, she hurried towards the waiting cab without so much as a backward glance or wave at the window as the vehicle sped away.
Winter was so deep in thought as he shut the door on the outside world and returned to the sitting room that he forgot to reprimand Stanley when the little dog jumped up at him, wagging its tail furiously. “Why do I get the feeling I’ve just bitten off more than I can chew, eh?” the detective murmured, bending down to sweep the delighted animal into his arms.

To be continued on Friday