Monday, 9 April 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Two


 “Really, I ask you, do I look like a murderer?”
“Murderers come in all shapes and sizes Miss Fox,” responded Winter amiably enough. The schoolgirl giggle, fluttering eyelashes, hands help up in mock despair, green painted fingernails bored into him like cats’ eyes. It was a fair performance, he supposed, but not one that captured his imagination. On the contrary, he felt the urge to break into a slow handclap, but resisted.
They were in her bedroom. She had grabbed him by the hand only a few minutes earlier and fled with him up the stairs, practically flung him into the room and locked the door. He was not unimpressed since he was a big man and she gave the appearance of being a slight, if flighty little thing.
“For all I know, you may have murder in mind this very instant, having dragged me here without so much as a by your leave and locked the door behind us,” he grumbled.
She giggled again. “When a woman locks herself in her bedroom with a man, I’d say murder is the last thing on her mind, wouldn’t you?”
“I won’t flatter myself that you intend seducing me,” Winter conceded with a dry chuckle, “…so may I take it you want to talk?”
“Don’t put yourself down, Freddy dear, you have your fair share of charisma. I bet you’re quite something in bed. I’m told policemen invariably are but, sadly, I’ve never had that pleasure…”
Winter, furious with himself for blushing, chose to disregard the remark, “I’m retired,” he coolly informed her. “Now, can we please get down to basics, Miss Fox? And, no,” he added wryly, “…not those basics.
She burst out laughing. “Oh, my God, darling, you’re such a cutie. And I thought all policemen were dull, sober, souls. I could gobble you up, I really could!”
“So when was the last time you saw Max Cutler?” Winter asked, more anxious than he cared to admit to discuss the sole reason for his presence at the damn party. He hadn’t envisaged being alone with woman in her bedroom, and feeling absurdly embarrassed. For heaven’s sake, Winter, you’ve taken more than this in your stride before now. Get a grip, man.
Her face fell. “Oh, that. Well, if we’re going to get real, you had better sit down. I can’t be expected to think while you tower over me like this.”
Winter sat on the edge of the bed. Nina Fox paced to and fro for several minutes, opening her mouth and closing it again like a goldfish he’d once won at a fair. Winter judged it advisable not to prompt her.
“You had better know right away, I suppose, that you’re here on false pretences,” she said at last, ignoring the lift of bushy eyebrows and pressing on, slightly breathless, “Carol thinks she persuaded me to let you come tonight so you could ask me about Max. You can, of course, and I’m sure you will…but not tonight, darling. Not for long, anyhow. I have guests and I need to circulate. Besides, I have my own reasons for wanting a quiet word.”
“I’m sure Carol would have given you my number,” commented Winter testily, “I don’t play games, Miss Fox.”
“Nor do I Freddy dear.”
“The name is Fred.”
“Yes, well, whatever. No offence intended I’m sure. But I didn’t want any fuss, and your coming here seemed…”
“Don’t tell me, a good idea at the time?”
“Spot on. My, you are a good detective,” she teased but only briefly before adopting a deadly serious tone. “You see, Freddy, I need your help.” She crossed to a dressing table, took a small box from one of the drawers and handed it to him. “Open it and you’ll understand why.”
Winter complied and contemplated a wad of plain notepaper. He removed the first sheet and read aloud the words scrawled in red ink across it. “Your turn next.”  A cursory look through the others confirmed that each sheet was exactly the same. He looked directly into Nina Fox’s wide eyes. “What do you think it means?”
“I’ve no idea. At first I thought it was just a silly joke. People like me get weird mail all the time. It goes with the territory, you might say.”
“Have you been to the police?”
“You must be joking.  If the media caught so much as a whiff something was up, my life wouldn’t be worth living. Besides, it’s not even a threat is it?  It could mean just about anything.”
“But you do feel threatened.” It was not a question.
“I didn’t at first, not in the least. Then…when they kept coming, I began to feel…well, nervous. My agent handles most of my mail, you see. But these come to this address, as regularly as clockwork, every other Friday.  As I said, at first I didn’t take them seriously. I just tore them up and threw them away. Then I started to keep them. I’m not sure why. I suppose I thought they might come in useful one day…as evidence or something, just in case anything ever …well, happened.” Her voice faltered and she began pacing the floor again, pensive and silent.
Winter needed no convincing that she was genuinely upset. If this is a performance, it’s a damn good one. “There’s more, I take it?”
She stopped, nodded, went to the dressing table again without saying a word, took out a manila envelope and handed it to him. “This came yesterday.”
Winter withdrew a prettily embroidered ladies’ handkerchief from the envelope. A sharp intake of breath, however, reassured Nina Fox that his attention was instantly gripped.  She had begun to wonder if he was taking her seriously.
Winter continued to stare at the small square cloth in his hands. Scribbled on it, the same words leapt out at him. Your turn next.  Only, this time they were not written in red ink. Winter recognized blood when he saw it.
 “It’s your handkerchief?”
“Yes. I can tell because of the scorch mark in the corner where the violets are. I did that. I’m hopeless at ironing. It doesn’t help that I’m easily distracted.” She forced a laugh.
“So, how…?”
“Did someone else get hold of it? That’s easy. I lent it to someone. He had the sniffles and I couldn’t bear it a second longer. I always carry plenty of hankies so it was no big deal. Trust a man never to have a tissue when he needs one!”
“So, who…?”
“Why, Max of course, Max Cutler.”
Winter took his time digesting this interesting development then, “I think, Miss Fox, you need to make an appointment.”
“I suppose I do. But I’m shooting all next week so it will have to be tomorrow, and I’ll come to you. You can’t possibly come here. Not a soul must know about this. You do understand?”
He nodded, extracted a card from his wallet and handed it to her. “Shall we say two o’clock tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday, for God’s sake.  No civilised person is even awake at two o’clock on a Sunday. I’m a working girl, too, remember. Shall we say five o’clock?”
Winter nodded. He was in no mood to argue. Besides, his curiosity was aroused. Nina took the card and went to take the box and envelope containing the blood-stained as well, but he shook his head and only offered her the empty box. Nina hesitated before agreeing, “You can borrow them so long as I get them back and you promise not to contact the police.”
“No promises,” Winter stated flatly, meeting her angry, defiant glare with a steady, determined look. She was the first to turn away, went to the dressing table and deposited his card in a drawer. Shoving the envelopes inside his suit jacket, Winter rose, impatient to leave. “The door, if you don’t mind?”
“What? Oh, yes…” She went to unlock the door, and had barely opened it to let him through when she said quietly, “I can’t believe Max means me any harm, can you?”
Winter shrugged. “Do you have any examples of Max Cutler’s handwriting…any letters, for example?”
“I might,” she replied tight-lipped.
“Bring something with you tomorrow. Oh, and I’ll need a sample of your own handwriting too.” 
“You don’t think I wrote those notes myself?” she hissed angrily, the lovely face flushed.
“I need to rule that out,” he explained, but she appeared only slightly mollified.
“Oh, well, if you say so.” 
Winter merely nodded, grabbed the door handle and would have stepped though to the noisy landing. Nina Fox appeared to brace herself. Suddenly, she started laughing, seized his free arm and proceeded to run with him along the landing and down the stairs, by which time she was waving one hand wildly and singing a current pop song at the top of her voice. 
Taken by surprise yet again, Winter stumbled after her. A few people called out her name but no one paid any real attention. At the bottom of the stairs, she grabbed both hands, swept him across the floor in a few perfect dance steps and then abandoned him for a young man with ginger hair whom she dragged off in another direction altogether. “Darling, there’s someone you absolutely must meet!” Winter heard her cry above the hubbub before she disappeared in a sea of bobbing heads.
Winter was shaking his head, more than a trifle bemused, when a stunning painting on the wall caught his eye and he crossed towards it. It portrayed a bird caught in a shrub whose striking red, orange and yellow berries gave the impression it was on fire. Winter was struck by the bird’s agonized expression. At the same time, he began to review his opinion of Nina Fox. She was, he realized, nobody’s fool. How better not to draw attention to yourself than by drawing attention to yourself?  He threw back his head and roared with laughter, relieved to shed some of the uneasiness imparted by the painting.
“Can anyone share the joke?” Someone had come to stand at his shoulder. Winter was slightly taken aback to see Pip Sparrow smiling at him, a trifle frostily he thought, as if she’d caught him out in some dreadful faux pas.
“If I could remember what it was.” He grinned amiably, but sensed she was not amused. “Actually, I was looking for Carol,” he added for the sake of something to say, “You can’t see her anywhere can you?” He made a show of peering into the crowd.
“She went to the bathroom a few minutes ago. I’m sure she won’t be long. But you’re not leaving already?”
“I’m afraid my party days are long gone,” said Winter gruffly, his expression one of self-deprecating mischief. She relaxed, perceptibly, the frozen smile visibly thawing. He warmed to the girl and felt sorry for her although her next question immediately put him on his guard.
“Did Nina tell you about the notes? She did, didn’t she? Good. It’s high time she told someone.”
“She told you, obviously,” remarked Winter whose deceptively mild tone disguised an irrational peevishness. These two young people lived under the same roof, after all. Wasn’t it only natural they should be confidantes? Certainly, he saw nothing to be gained by any pursuit of the obvious. Even so, it struck him as odd that the Fox woman hadn’t mentioned it.
“We tell each other everything. Nina has been like a sister to me since my father…” Her voice trailed off then picked up again, “But I’m sure you know all about that, being a policeman.”
“It’s not only policemen who read newspapers Miss Sparrow,” he felt bound to say.
“You’re perfectly right, of course. I bet there’s no one here tonight who doesn’t know my father is in prison for killing a man.”
“Does it bother you?” he couldn’t resist asking. She looked, suddenly, very small and vulnerable. Sparrow by name, sparrow by nature, he mused sympathetically, and almost wished he had kept his big mouth shut.
“Not in the least. Why should it? This is Nina’s home, not mine. She’s the centre of attention here. No one gives me a second thought.”
“And you find that…”
“Very reassuring, I can tell you. I feel safe here. I’d have been taken into care otherwise, since I was only fourteen at the time. Well, nearly fourteen,” she corrected herself with a shy smile. Nina has been wonderful, absolutely wonderful. She’s doing it for daddy of course, not for me, but it’s a beautiful gesture all the same don’t you think?” He wasn’t sure what to think. ‘A beautiful gesture’ struck him as an odd choice of phrase. Before he could form an appropriate comment, however, he was distracted by an urgent tug at the sleeve.
Winter turned to find Carol giving him a long, old-fashioned look before putting her lips to his ear and whispering earnestly, “Can we go now?  There’s a boozy slob about who’s not only as boring as hell but seems dead set on seducing me. I can’t keep running to the damn bathroom!” Winter nodded, almost choked on a burst of laughter that her expression warned him he’d be wise to stifle, and turned to say goodnight to Pip Sparrow.
But that curious young woman had already melted into the crowd.

 To be continued on Friday