Friday, 27 April 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Seven


“Carol? It’s one o’clock in the morning, for heaven’s sake!”  Winter grumbled as, bleary eyed, he clutched the phone to his ear while peering at the luminous dial of an alarm clock beside the bed.
“I know, Freddy, but it’s important.”
“It had better be,” he started to growl only to succumb to a huge yawn instead.
“It’s Nina, Nina Fox. She’s here with me.”
“What?” He was instantly wide awake.
“She turned up out of the blue about half an hour ago. She’s in a terrible state, Freddy, says I’m the only one she can turn to and just can’t or won’t turn off the waterworks. It’s driving me mad. Besides, you’re not the only one who needs their beauty sleep.”
“Where is she now?”
“She’s sobbing her heart out on my sofa with a bottle of brandy for company. I only bought it today and it’s half empty already.”
“You rarely drink brandy,” Winter observed inconsequentially.
“Other people do,” she pointed out, yawning, “Besides, it’s better than scotch for medicinal purposes.”
“What you mean is, you won’t waste our favourite malt on just anyone.” Winter chuckled. Carol laughed if a trifle waspishly. At any rate, it helped ease some of the tension crackling down the line.
“Did she say where she’s been or what the devil she’s been up to?” Winter could barely contain his curiosity.
“She’s told me damn all so far. I just can’t get her to offload, Freddy. God knows, I’ve tried. You’ll have to come over.”
“What, at this hour? I’m sorry Carol, but it will have to wait. I’ll come over first thing. In the meantime, do your best. Get her drunk enough, and hopefully she’ll fall asleep before you know it.”
“By then it could be too late,” Carol protested loudly in the detective’s ear, “She might change her story, and right now I’m inclined to believe her.”
“I thought you said she wasn’t giving anything away?”
“She’s not, except…well…”
“Well, what?” Winter snapped.
“She keeps talking about Max Cutler…”
“Oh? Does she know where he is?”
“I presume so, since she keeps telling me he’s…well…dead.”
“Cutler’s dead, you say?”  Winter couldn’t help wondering why he was not surprised.
“So she keeps telling me, over and over again,” Carol went on, “But that’s it, bugger all else, nothing about how she can be so sure or where’s the body. So get yourself over here right now, Freddy Winter, or I’ll never speak to you again.”
She hung up, but not before a cutting edge to the icy tone had convinced him she meant business.  Carol, Winter admitted while hastily removing his pyjamas, is not a woman to panic easily.  If Nina Fox is proving too much of a handful for the likes of Carol Brady, she must really be in a bad way. So how come, a puzzled Winter kept asking himself, he was experiencing no sense of emergency, no rush of adrenalin?  Had he already convinced himself that Nina Fox was play-acting before he’d even set eyes on the woman. In that case, surely, I am doing her a grave injustice? At the same time, it occurred to him that Carol hadn’t once mentioned calling the police. Could it be she had reached the same conclusion?  Suddenly, he was anxious to find out… more anxious, in fact, than confirming whether or not Max Cutler was dead or alive.
By the time he had driven to Camden Town, however, the bird had flown.
“Gone? What do you mean, gone? You said she was swigging brandy like mother’s milk. How the devil can she be gone? Gone where? More to the point I suppose, is how?”
“I heard a car start up and drive off,” replied Carol miserably.
“A taxi…?”
“No. She arrived in her own car, and now’s that’s gone too.”
“She’s driving, in that state? How could you let her be so stupid?”
“I’d been to the loo,” Carol explained tersely, violet eyes flashing danger signals, “How was I to know she’d do a runner? When I came back to the sitting room, she’d disappeared.  It may not have been her car I heard, but…”
“Of course it was her car,” retorted Winter, “Who else’s could it have been at this time of the morning?  Likely as not she’ll cause an accident, maybe kill someone in that condition, the stupid cow. We’ve no choice. We’ll have to call the police now, damn it.”
He had barely grabbed the receiver, however, when the doorbell rang. Hastily replacing the phone in its cradle, he followed Carol to the front door and stood right behind her as she opened it as far as the chain would permit. “Nina?” Carol peered into the darkness.
“No, it’s me, Pip”, a clear but unsteady voice answered.
Soon afterwards, all three were seated in Carol’s small sitting room, the brandy further depleted. “She called me on the mobile, that’s how I knew she was here,” Pip was saying. “She said she’d been drinking and would I collect her and drive her home.”
“You drive?” Winter was mildly surprised.
“I have a provisional licence. I’m having driving lessons and Max usually comes with me to help me get in some practise. Nina’s rarely in the mood, and Max is rarely free during the day. We usually use her car. She hates driving, especially at night. That’s why I didn’t mind, even at this hour, because I can handle the MG pretty well by now so I thought I could drive us both home. I called a cab, and…here I am. So will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?”
“Your guess is as good as ours,” Carol muttered.
“Did she say anything about Max Cutler when she called you?” Winter asked.
“No, should she have done?”
Carol opened her mouth to say something but a dark glance from Winter warned her to say nothing about Cutler’s apparent demise. Instead, she returned to the more urgent matter of calling the police. “There’s no way she can drive safely, the state she’s in.”
“You haven’t called them already?” Pip expressed surprised. Both Carol and Winter looked uncomfortable. “Mind you,” she added, “you’d be amazed how well Nina drives even when she’s drunk or as high as a kite, take your pick. That woman has the devil’s own luck.”
“Even for someone who you say hates driving?” Winter felt compelled to ask.
Pip shrugged. “Oh, she’ll take a cab from A to B, but when she feels like taking off to God only knows where, that’s when she takes the car. If she’s in a fit state to drive at the start, you can bet your sweet life she won’t be at the finish. How she hasn’t managed to kill someone before now is beyond me. But it’s like I said, she has the devil’s own luck. It’s part of her charm,” she added on a note of irony that was not lost on her companions.
Winter frowned. Nina Fox had not struck him as an irresponsible person. A drama queen, yes, but someone with more intelligence than to deliberately put her own life or anyone else’s at risk.  At the same time…He sighed and stifled a yawn. Hadn’t he seen more than his fair share of traffic accidents caused by responsible, intelligent people, drunk or whatever?  “It’s not her luck that concerns me,” he muttered as he crossed to the phone, “it’s some other poor bastard’s. Their luck is just as likely to run out if she falls asleep at the wheel or decides a red light should be green.” He began to dial. Then, for the second time, he was interrupted, on this occasion by a zippy ring tone.
Pip Sparrow retrieved her mobile phone from a pocket, glanced at the tiny screen and visibly paled. “Yes?”  There was a long pause then, “I see. Yes, I’ll come over straight away. No, it’s no trouble. Yes. I’m sure, thank you for letting me know.” Then, “Max, wait. How did you know…? Oh, I see, of course. Goodbye.” She stared into space for a few moments as if unaware she was in company then drained the remaining brandy in her glass and looked directly at Winter. “That was Max. He’s at the apartment. Nina’s just got back. According to him she’s hysterical. He says she keeps asking for me.”
“But how could he…” Carol began but was once again restrained from continuing by a meaningful glare from Winter.
“Could I have another brandy please?”
“I don’t approve of under age drinking,” the detective growled, but obliged all the same.
Can you call me a cab? I must get there right away.” Pip accepted another brandy, knocked it back in several long swigs only to splutter all over the carpet. “I’m sorry, I…I’m not myself…I…” She looked suddenly very small and vulnerable. Carol went and gave her a big hug. “Why didn’t she wait for me?” Pip shrugged free of Carol’s arms and looked from one to the other as if expecting a definitive answer. 
Winter quickly dismissed an itch on the side of his nose with a good scratch. “I’ll drive you myself,” he said.
Pip shook her head. “Thank you but I’d rather get a cab if you don’t mind. You’ll only…”
“Get in the way, Freddy,” Carol finished the sentence for her.
Winter yawned. He tired and was in no mood to argue. Besides, it was not inconceivable they were right. He dialled the number of a reputable taxi firm he’d had occasion to use himself, contemplating the girl as he did so. She was plainly distressed and shaking like a leaf.  It had been a perfectly natural question to ask, of course. Why indeed, had Nina Fox chosen to drive herself home, given the state she was in and that she hated driving at night?
“Would you like one of us to come with you?”  Carol asked in a concerned, motherly tone of voice that would have amused Winter in different circumstances.  As it was, he was impressed, suspecting it was only Carol’s steadying influence and oodles of sympathy that kept Pip Sparrow from collapsing on the spot.
The taxi arrived within ten minutes. It took the efforts of both Winter and Carol to assist Pip, her face the colour of chalk, out of the door and into the waiting vehicle. Afraid she would stumble and fall, Winter kept an arm tightly around the girl’s waist. Carol hovered, making reassuring noises. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to come with you?” Winter asked again. “Or I can follow in my own car if you want a little time on your own to collect your thoughts...”
“No, really, thank you. Besides, you’ve been drinking,” she reminded him in a voice that might easily have been Miss Parker’s. Winter resisted a chuckle. His old schoolteacher, too, had a knack of making him feel inches high. “Thank you both, for everything, you’ve been very kind.”
“You’ll call and let us know what happens?” said Carol. Pip merely nodded and climbed into the back seat of the taxi. Winter closed the door behind her and seconds later it sped off into an oppressive gloom, broken only by a single lamppost nearby and a sprinkling of stars.
“So what do you make of that?” Carol wanted to know as soon as they were back indoors.
“I wish I knew,” said Winter, “but I’ll tell you this for nothing. Whoever she took that phone call from, it wasn’t Max Cutler.”
“Hardly, if he’s dead,” Carol agreed tartly, handing him a refill. “Do you think he’s dead? Nina’s certainly convinced he is. If she told me so once, she told me a dozen times. Okay, so she wasn’t exactly sober and reliable at the time. But you don’t make up something like that, do you, even if you’re pissed?”
“I should have gone with Pip,” Winter remonstrated with himself aloud.
“Maybe, but you offered and she refused, end of...” said Carol flatly, “Besides, what could you have done?”
“I’d have found out who called her, for a start,” Winter replied yawning. “It could have been Max Cutler, I suppose. After all, we only have Nina’s word for it that he’s dead. Hardly conclusive, in the circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I suppose so. Whoever it was, he scared the living daylights out of that poor girl. As if she hasn’t enough problems already without all this cloak and dagger stuff in the middle of the bloody night. Frankly, Freddy, at this precise moment in time I’m well past giving a toss for any of it. I’m tired and I’m going to bed. You’re welcome to join me…but don’t get any ideas, I’m not in the mood.”
“You never are,” Winter grumbled. Nevertheless, he accepted the invitation with good grace. It was very late, after all. He followed her to the bedroom, wondered why she hadn’t suggested the spare room and hoped Stanley would be alright on his own back at the house.  I really must do something about that dog. His eyes closed almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Beside him, Carol lay awake for a while longer, listening to the sound of his breathing and gentle snoring. Could they ever get it together, she and Freddy, she asked herself for the umpteenth time in as many months? Her son Liam had remarked more than once how they were practically an item. Her jumbled thoughts embraced Liam, Sadie, and the baby due on Christmas Day before returning to her original question. But she had fallen asleep before she could bring herself to frame a likely answer.
By the time Winter opened his eyes, the dawn chorus had come and gone and a watery sunshine was filtering through a chink in the curtains. For a few seconds, he was totally disoriented. Then he felt someone stir beside him…and remembered.
“Why, Freddy, I do believe you’re embarrassed,” Carol teased, propping herself up on one elbow while pushing hair wilful strands of hair out the violet eyes with her free hand.
“Not in the least,” Winter lied and forced a broad smile. “Good morning Carol.”
“I don’t know about you, but my head’s swimming.  I must have OD’d on the brandy last night. Why do I touch the stuff?  I don’t even like it much.  Now I can’t remember a bloody thing. I say, Freddy, we didn’t…well, you know…did we?”
“No we did not,” Winter assured her with a disgruntled growl and only saw that she was teasing when she burst into peals of laughter. “Your face, Freddy, it’s a picture, it really is!” She laughed again.
“No one can be expected to look their best first thing in the morning,” Winter mumbled defensively, and then saw the funny side and roared with laughter. “Except you, of course,” he said, taking one small, slim hand in his own bear paw. “You always look stunning.”
“Why, thank you kind sir,” she giggled, “But I look a mess and we both know it.” She giggled again, a light tinkling sound that always reminded him of wind bells that had once hung over the kitchen door when he was a kid.
“You couldn’t look a mess if you tried,” he said more earnestly than he intended and tried to follow it up with something equally complimentary, but every phrase that came to mind struck him as ridiculously cliché.
“Never try and chat up a girl before she’s had time to put a face on.” Carol went into another fit of giggles, “Didn’t your mother ever tell you that?”
“You seem to forget, I’ve seen you without a face before,” he was quick to remind her. “There was a time…”
“Centuries ago, Freddy. We’ve both put on a pound or two since then, not to mention the odd laughter line here and there.”  She had stopped giggling and a new twinkle in the lovely violet eyes gave him goose pimples.
He swallowed hard before asking what had been on his mind for ages, “Do you believe in a second time around?”
“That rather depends on the first time, don’t you think?” she countered, a mischievous smile playing around the full, sensual, colourless lips.
He leaned forward. “It’s a memory I’ll always treasure.”
“Me too,” she murmured before he pulled her towards him, wrapped his arms around her and was kissing her like there was no tomorrow.
The heat of her response sent shock waves through Winter’s entire body. He hadn’t so much as looked at another woman since Helen died. Now, here he was, in bed with Carol and wanting to make love more than he had ever wanted it in his life before. Suddenly, it felt like a betrayal. Sex was one thing but this overwhelming desire, need, pleasure, just for being with a woman, this was something else. It was scary. While parts of Winter’s mind and body longed, desperately, to commit him, other parts were urging him to run out of that room, out of the house, and keep running.
Carol must have sensed something of this because she broke away, a hurt expression in the violet eyes that cut him to the quick. He wanted to explain how he felt, but didn’t have the words to explain to his own self-consciousness. So what was the point in trying? “I’m sorry,” he said gruffly, “They do say one of the problems of getting older is that you still feel much the same as you did when you were twenty-one. But twenty-one, I’m not any more.” He forced a laugh to which she responded with a weak grin. Neither had a clue what to say.
Suddenly, the lively ringing tone of Winter’s mobile phone shattered the awkward silence like breaking glass.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?”
“Do you mind?”
“Yes and no. But answer the damn thing anyway.” She gave a choking little laugh, leapt out of bed and ran to the bathroom.
Winter reached for the phone and glanced at the tiny screen, but the number meant nothing to him. “Winter,” he barked.
“Is that Fred Winter?”
Winter frowned, not recognizing the voice. “Yes,” he said slowly, “And who are you?”
“You’re a detective, right?”
“Retired…” Winter murmured cautiously.
“I’m Colin Fox, Nina’s brother. Do you mind telling me what the hell is going on?”
Later, Winter glowered at Carol across the breakfast table, “You never told me Nina Fox has a brother.”
“You never asked,” she replied cheerfully, any tension between them buried under layers of toast and marmalade. “He’s been working abroad anyway, somewhere in the States I think.”
“Well, he’s back now and asking questions. More to the point, he seems to think I have all the answers.”
“And haven’t you?” She laughed lightly although he couldn’t help but notice how the violet eyes strayed in each and every direction but at him. .
“You can ask that after last night’s little fiasco?” He glared.
“More tea…?” He nodded. “Then you’ll have to help yourself. I’m afraid, the waitress is off sick.” But if he heard, he gave no sign. Carol sighed, leaned across the table and refilled his mug from an earthenware teapot. “Can you manage to lift the milk jug yourself?” Again, no response, but she resisted an impulse to pour the milk in his lap. “So where is our Mr Fox now?” she asked between bites on a piece of burnt toast.
“Apparently, he’s at Nina’s apartment.” Winter broke off from his reverie and reached for the milk jug.
“With Nina and Pip…?”
“So I assumed at first. But that’s the strangest thing.”  He looked directly at her. “He claims not to have seen a soul since he arrived there yesterday evening.”

To be continued on Monday