Friday, 13 April 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Three


“What can you tell me about Max Cutler?”  Winter sipped at a pint glass of bitter and smiled directly into Carol Brady’s lovely eyes. They had left her car in Camden Town, where she lived, and were now sitting outside one of his favourite Hampstead haunts, enjoying a beautiful sunset.
“Not a lot,” she admitted, wondering if they would end up in bed together later and suspecting not.  She had loved Freddy Winter once, years ago. He had loved her, too, she was certain of it although both were married to other people at the time. When push came to shove, however, she hadn’t been able to compete with Helen Winter.
Carol sighed. Even after her husband, Sean, was shot down in cold blood in front of their toddler son, Liam, Freddy hadn’t got in touch. Twenty years passed before they met again, by sheer chance. It had proved a stroke of luck because she had thought her son was dead, killed in a road accident, but he was found suffering from amnesia and it was Freddy who brought him back to her.
Did she still love Freddy Winter, she wondered?  Does he love me? Did he ever love me? She really hadn’t a clue so contented herself with a long sip of an iced orange juice and lemonade, resolving to put such vexing questions aside…for now, at least.
“How on earth do you know that awful Cutler woman?” Winter was curious to know.
“We were neighbours once, years ago, before I married Sean. Liam and Max met up again at university and Annie started sending Christmas cards. That was all, until recently. She came to see me last week and begged me to twist your arm to help find her precious Max.”
Winter’s keen ear detected a note of irritation bordering on dislike in her voice. “You don’t like him?”
“I hardly know him. But Liam thinks he’s a creep, and that’s good enough for me.”
“And Annie, what do you think of her? Be honest,” he added.
“Aren’t I always?” Carol pouted mischievously before taking another long sip. “She’s awful, of course. But I feel sorry for her. The husband was a nasty piece of work and if the son hasn’t turned out too well it’s no big surprise. Annie dotes on him and spoils him rotten. The husband left her well fixed for money. Our Max has never been shy about spending it, by all accounts.”
“The husband’s dead?”
Carol nodded. “He had bowel cancer. He was only in his early forties too. You just never know what’s around the next corner do you?” She paused. “So will you take the case?”
“Case, what case?”
“I know you, Freddy Winter. You’ve got a whiff of something or I’m going senile. Nina Fox has whetted your appetite and it’s not for jumping into bed with her either. So give, Freddy. What do you know that I don’t?”
“Not a lot.” He grinned as the violet eyes flashed warningly, threatening as they always did to penetrate his defences. “But when I know more you’ll be the first to know,” he assured her with wicked diplomacy.
“I don’t like the smell of this, Freddy, or I would never have brought Annie to see you in the first place. She may be a funny old stick but she adores Max…and no one knows better than I do what it is to lose a son,” she added quietly.
“I’ll do what I can,” he promised and took both impeccably manicured hands in his across the table.
“You can start by ordering two Irish coffees.”  Carol tossed him a knowing wink as she  extricated her fingers, but let her hands rest on the table so their fingertips almost touched.
“I’m driving,” he reminded her.
“Oh, Freddy, really…! The amount of whiskey they put in it here wouldn’t make a tortoise tipsy.”  Then she saw he was teasing and they burst, simultaneously, into peals of laughter.
“Tell me about Pip Sparrow,” he murmured thoughtfully after ordering two Irish coffees, one large and one regular.
“Why?” Carol was genuinely surprised. She had expected him to grill her about Nina Fox.
“No reason, just curious,” said Winter lightly, and gave a nonchalant shrug. Even so, he refused to meet the deep, violet gaze. Invariably (hadn’t be been convinced of it for years?) Carol could see right through him. Besides, it was almost true that he was just curious. He hadn’t quite known what to make of Pip Sparrow. Something about the girl worked a certain mischief on his instincts. Few people had that effect on him, and he didn’t like it one bit.  Yes, he felt sorry for her and, no, he hadn’t disliked her in the least. Yet, there was something…missing, perhaps?  Maybe the fault was his and he’d expected her to behave more like a…victim? Than…what, exactly? Given her background, surely it’s laudable that she’s getting on with her life just like any other teenager?  Winter pursed his lips pensively. Like any other teenager, Pip Sparrow definitely was not.
“I’ve not had much to do with her really,” Carol had to admit. “She’s a quiet kid, keeps herself to herself a lot as far as I can make out.  It’s hardly surprising in the circumstances. Let’s face it. People love to pry, and there’s plenty to pry into where that poor girl’s concerned. Imagine, losing your mother and brother in a fire then your father being arrested for killing his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend and tried for murder! Then she ends up living with the girlfriend. The mind boggles.”
“How old was she when the mother and brother died?”
“It was about six years ago so she’d only have been about ten or eleven. She adores Nathan. Apparently, she adores Nina too.”
Winter pricked up his ears at a subtle inflexion in her voice, “You sound surprised.”
“Do I? I suppose I am, really. I mean, Pip idolizes her father so, well, it’s a bit odd isn’t it? No one can blame Nina for what Nathan Sparrow did but…”
“You’d expect the daughter to…?”
“Well, yes, I suppose I would.” Carol grinned. “But then, do we ever do what’s expected of us? Look at you and me. We still blame each other for what happened years ago yet here we are about to enjoy a good, old-fashioned Irish coffee in dear old Hampstead.”
As if on cue, a bartender placed a tray in front of them. Winter paid, absently, mulling over what Carol had said. “You don’t still hold all that stuff against me, do you?” he felt bound to ask, “It was years ago, and we were both married,” he reminded her brusquely.
“That didn’t stop us having an affair.”
“It was a mistake.”
“Look me in the eye and say that again,” she challenged him, a teasing smile on her lips but a hint of sadness in the violet eyes. He met her penetrating gaze only briefly before taking up the glass without saying a word. “Oh, well, each to their own, I suppose. If Pip’s happy, or as happy as she can be, that’s what counts.”
“Are you happy?” The question clearly startled her.  Now it was Carol’s turn to look away and sip, tentatively, at the hot coffee.
A pinkie-yellow glow of sunset filled the room. Tables, chairs, faces, everything assumed the same hue. Two thrushes on the windowsill by their table caught Winter’s eye. One flew away; the other remained, briefly, its expression oddly strained. He was reminded of the painting at Nina Fox’s house, the bird among berries like flames. Its expression, too, had been strained. No, he immediately contradicted himself. The bird in the painting had been terrified. The thrush, on the other hand, warbled a little song before spreading its wings and chasing after its mate.
“What did you make of Nina?” Carol was asking, a twinkle in each eye.
Winter forced himself to pay attention. “I rather liked her,” he had to admit, surprising even himself by the genuine warmth in his voice.
“Most men do,” Carol chuckled. Winter thought he detected a note of warning, but instantly dismissed it as mere imagination.
Later, Winter dropped Carol off at her flat, refusing an invitation to come in for a while and drove home, more than slightly miffed. To his practised ear, the invitation had lacked enthusiasm. Indeed, it struck him that she was little more than paying lip service to politeness. He was baffled too. What could I have said to annoy her? He almost hit a little dog than ran out in front of him but managed to swerve just in time and slammed on the brakes, furious with himself for even a momentary lapse of concentration.
As he climbed out of the car, he could see the animal sitting farther back on a grass verge, white head cocked on one side, looking daggers at him. “It was your fault, not mine, you stupid mutt!” Winter shouted angrily. “You could have been killed!” He strode towards it, half-expecting the dog to run off. Instead, it stayed put but continued to fling an accusing glare at Winter - as if the detective wasn’t feeling guilty enough already.
Winter had no love for dogs. Even so, he found himself repeating, in a gentler tone, “Don’t look at me like that. It was your own stupid fault!  But I suppose we’d better find out if you’re hurt anywhere,” he muttered and squatted beside the shivering animal.
The little dog sat passively, occasionally wagging its tail. Winter examined it all over and finally pronounced it free of any broken bones. “And I thought it was only cats who had nine lives!” he mumbled gruffly. “However many you have, old chap, I’d bear in mind you’ve just used up one of them if I were you.”  Uncharacteristically, he patted the little dog on the head and walked quickly back to the car, suddenly recalling that he had left the windows wide open. He paused only once and peered into the gloom. The dog’s white head was no longer visible.
 It was a much relieved and calmer Winter who settled into the driving seat and was about to start the car when, in his rear view mirror, he spotted a little white head, cocked on one side as if to say, What are you waiting for? Let’s go.  He swung round angrily and flung open the passenger door. “Out, now!”  He pointed and waved a finger to emphasize his displeasure. The dog merely wagged its tail. “Get out, damn you. I can’t stand dogs. Besides, someone will be looking for you.”  The mutt’s face assumed a forlorn expression. Winter was reminded of the classic comedian, Stan Laurel. “Another fine mess you’ve got me into, eh? Is that it? Well, let me remind you, you’re the one who ran out in front of me, and I’m not responsible for you. So just…clear off!” But the dog merely settled down in the seat and closed its eyes.
Winter swore aloud and was having none of it. He got out of the car, opened the passenger door, reached across the seat, scooped up the little dog and dumped it on the grass verge. Alas, he had forgotten to shut the windows. Once behind the wheel again, a telltale bark exposed his mistake. Winter sighed. He was feeling tired and in no mood for silly games with some dumb mutt.  “Okay,” he conceded, “let’s see how you like Watford. But if you think for one minute you’re staying with me, even for a night, you’ve got another think coming. I hate dogs,” he repeated. But the object of his frustration was already snoring gently.
No sooner had he parked in his own drive and opened the car door, than the dog leapt out, ran to the front step and sat there, head on one side, an impatient look in the wide brown eyes as if to say, Hurry up, I’m hungry. Winter sighed again. It was late, dark and, begrudgingly, he felt under an obligation of sorts. “Okay, Stanley, you can stay. But only for tonight but you’ll damn well sleep in the kitchen and if I hear so much as a peep out of you, you’ll be out of this door again before your paws hit the ground.”  Probing eyes in the white head expressed agreement and even seemed to light up at the name, Stanley. Subsequently, Stanley was scampering into the house even before Winter had pushed the front door fully open.
It was a grumpy detective who gave the dog some milk in a saucer and found some corned beef in the fridge, both of which it seemed to enjoy. He also found an old blanket, which he laid on the floor. The dog promptly stretched out on it, wagging its tail. Winter yawned. “I’m going to bed so behave yourself or you’ll be for it in the morning,” he warned the little dog. It continued to wag its tail. Feeling increasingly weary and yawning all the while, Winter climbed the stairs, entered a bedroom and proceeded to undress.  Somehow, he mustered energy enough to close the curtains then, too tired even to go and clean his teeth, all but fell into bed. 
Hardly did it seem to the detective that he’d fallen asleep when he was woken again by a cascade of sunlight teeming through the window and a dawn chorus excelling in sheer racket. Moaning softly, he turned over, pulled a pillow over one ear and tried to go back to sleep. Suddenly, he remembered that Nina Fox was calling on him that afternoon. This, in itself, presented no problem. But it meant cleaning and tidying the downstairs part of the house at least, or Carol would have his guts for garters. He knew because she had told him so. Nor had she minced her words. They returned to haunt him now. Clear that shit hole up before Nina arrives or you’ll have me to answer for, Freddy Winter. It’s a disgrace and so are you. 
Her voice, deceptively sweet, stirred him to a state of semi-consciousness and forced him to turn on his back, opening first one eye then the other. He would have to do as she said, of course. Not only because she was right, the house was a tip, but also because he…wanted to make a good impression?  Not on Nina Fox, surely?  He couldn’t care less about the woman although he had to confess he was curious about the notes. She’s a drama queen, of course. But those notes and the bloodstained handkerchief, they were real enough. Even so, it was Carol he was keen to impress. They had drifted apart recently and he’d missed her.  It wouldn’t do for her friend to report back that his house was a mess. No, that wouldn’t do at all.
Winter counted to ten before throwing off the duvet and had got as far as placing both feet on the carpeted floor when his ears pricked up of their own accord. He flung a furious gaze at a hard chair in one corner of the room. Nor was it a pile of dirty washing draped across it that commanded his attention. A white head cocked on one side and a pair of wide brown eyes seemed to ask, “Where’s my breakfast?”
 “Get out of my bedroom!” Winter roared, “I will not have a dog in my bedroom. Get out, you ugly mutt!” The little dog wagged its tail but jumped down instantly and scampered out of the door seconds before Winter was about to deliver another blast. “For heaven’s sake,” the detective fumed, “A bleeding dog in my bedroom, whatever next?”
There was only enough milk for tea so Stanley had to make do with a bowl of water and some broken digestive biscuits for breakfast. Then he was shown the back door and dashed into the garden after a passing ginger tom. The cat leapt on an adjoining fence and proceeded with its ablutions. The dog lay immediately below, sprawled on its belly, watching and growling, tail still wagging furiously.
Having promised himself he’d take the animal to the local police station later that day, Winter went, if grudgingly, in search of a vacuum cleaner.
What will Nina Fox have to say for herself, he wondered? Winter permitted himself a grim smile, in no doubt that it would have been well rehearsed.

To be continued on Monday