Monday, 28 May 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Sixteen


“Don’t be absurd, you’re…just a child,” Max Cutler blustered.
“I’m sixteen, nearly seventeen,” Pip coolly replied, “And while the cat’s away, the mice might as well play, don’t you agree?”
“Look, Pip, I’m flattered and all that but…”
“Don’t be coy, Max, it doesn’t suit you. Oh, I may not have Nina’s stunning looks or the best boobs in town but I’m a virgin who doesn’t wish to remain one for much longer and who better to break me in than a randy stud like you?”
“I’ve heard that teenage girls like to fantasize…” he stammered, unsure how to proceed with this preposterous development. April Showers had taken off in a big way and Nina was filming on location in Greece. He had promised to keep an eye on Pip and had dropped by to do just that. Now, here he was, being casually propositioned by the girl in Nina’s own spacious living room. Obviously Pip was infatuated with him and he was flattered…well, sort of flattered. She wasn’t anything to drool over, after all, just a spotty teenager, pretty in a nondescript way but nothing special. He had to hand it to her, though. She was as a cool cucumber, offering him her virginity on a plate as if it were something she did every day. A man not easily shocked, Max was appalled. “Like I said, I’m flattered. But we can only ever be good friends, Pip. You can see that, surely? What would Nina think if…?”
“Oh, spare me the big betrayal scene Max! It’s not as if you love each other…”
“Says who?”
“Says the world and your mother, for a start….”
“Leave my mother out of this.” Max began to get angry. “I’m a reasonable man, Pip, but you’re going too far. I won’t play your silly games, do you understand? Now, let’s just forget this conversation ever happened and get back to…”
“Normal…?  Yes, let’s get back to normal, as if there ever was such a thing.”
“You’re trying my patience, Pip. I came by to see if you were okay, not…”
“To seduce me…? But you rather like the idea, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes. How can you pass up the chance of a real live virgin for the taking? Yummy, eh…?”
“Now you’re being disgusting.”
“I disgust you? Imagine how I feel, then, knowing how it was you who killed poor Ray and my father having to pay for a crime he didn’t commit because you haven’t got the guts to confess.”
“You’re mad…” gasped Max but could feel the blood draining from his face.
“I’d say you’re the one who’s mad, Max. Mad Max, just like in the movie!” she laughed loudly. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. To Max Cutler’s ears it might easily have been the flapping of a bat’s wings out of hell. Pip stopped laughing and regarded him with an intensity that scared him, made him forget altogether that he was dealing with a teenage girl. “You got mad with poor Ray, right? Then you stabbed him with that carving knife? The same knife he’d been slicing ham off the bone for doorstep sandwiches, right? That wasn’t very nice, Max, not after the pair of you had just made love. But no one knows about that, do they? Especially mummy…or she might cut you off at the bone instead…”
“You’re mad,” Max could only repeat dazedly.
“I was there, Max, hiding behind the sofa.”
“You were there?” Max croaked.
“But you mustn’t worry about a thing. Your nasty little secret is safe with me. Who’d believe me anyway?  People would only say I was lying to save my father. Heaven only knows why he chose to take the rap for you. He must have thought Nina did it. Well, they say do love is blind ‘n’ all that.” She shrugged. “How stupid can you get, eh? But…what’s done is done. I can’t change things, no one can. Not unless, you want to confess?” The pretty mouth twisted into a contemptuous sneer as it threw down the challenge. Max struggled for words but found none. “I thought not. But we all of us have to move on, right?” Max nodded dumbly. “I can’t prove a thing of course. It’s my word against yours, Daddy’s too since he’s determined to stick to his story. So you’re quite safe. If I breathe a word people will only say what they always say, that children should be seen and not heard. Mind you, they also say there’s no smoke without fire…don’t they?”  She crossed the room, put her arms around his neck and kissed him on the mouth.
Max froze. Even so, the warmth of her lips and the natural expertise of her kiss came as no unpleasant surprise.
His mind was reeling. This was nothing short of madness, and the girl was right, who would believe her? Yet how could he trust the little minx to keep her mouth shut? Suppose some people, started to believe…?  Take his mother, for example. Oh, God, no, that would be tantamount to a conviction. Even if no one believed Pip, they would wonder... That alone could destroy me. Hadn’t he seen common gossip do its worst often enough? Besides, he was quickly becoming aroused by the soft, slim figure in his arms; they had already, instinctively, closed around her.
Pip was right about something else, too, he mused wryly. What hot-blooded male could resist a virgin?  Hardly able to believe what he was doing, he scooped the girl up in his arms and carried her upstairs. Unable to meet the shining gaze turned up to his, he made love to this slip of a girl in the same bed where, night after night, Nina and he had engaged in wild, passionate lovemaking since he had moved in several months earlier.
Later, he lay wide-awake while Pip slept fitfully beside him. What have I done? The girl already knew him for a murderer, damn her, and now she had another hold over him. If Nina ever found out…He shuddered at the prospect. At the same time, the girl’s performance in bed had astonished him. Clumsy at first, she had quickly learned to take her cue from him, so much so that the end result had been an incredibly prolonged, sensuous experience. Oh, she lacked Nina’s ability to excite him, sure enough, but she gave him something else…an indescribable sense of sheer pleasure that he’d neither expected nor sought.
It had been just a physical thing, at first. The word ‘blackmail’ sprung to mind then ducked its ugly head and did not resurface. It would always be there, lurking, likely to reappear at any second. He couldn’t deny that. But does it really matter?  Why not bed the girl from time to time if that’s all it will take to keep her quiet…and have some fun into the bargain? True, Pip is no Lolita, but... By heaven, the girl has potential.
He got out of bed, pulled on a dressing gown and went downstairs. For no particular reason he crossed to the painting young Billy Pike had given him for a birthday present. Nina hated it. “That horrible thing is not going up on my wall!” she had screamed at him, but relented when he’d pointed out that she had invited him to move in so it was his wall too and there had to be give and take in every relationship. She may well have suspected he was winding her up, but hadn’t been able to fault his logic.
Max frowned. Nina’s perspective on the painting was dead right. It was a monstrosity. The bird’s trapped, terrified expression among the plant’s gaudy red, orange and white berries sent shivers down the spine. Nor did one have to look far to discover its inspiration in the boy’s troubled mind. Billy had never been the same since the fire in which young Johnny Sparrow had perished along with his mother. Did that also explain Pip’s outrageous behaviour, he wondered?
His mind wandered back to that first time Ray Bannister took him home to meet his family. He, Max, had been so jealous. The Bannister’s were a real family, nothing like the travesty he’d had to endure with his mother for years. They frequently ate together, shared jokes, poked fun at each other, teased one another mercilessly and lapped up every minute of it. Sylvie Bannister was a quiet, homely person. Her husband, Raymond, was a small, rotund figure, not unlike Annie Cutler but bursting with joviality and love, none of the malicious possessiveness that his mother had exercised over him for as long as he could remember.
Memories came flooding back, mostly of Ray but Max did his utmost to avoid those. He recalled a party at the Bannister’s that Johnny Sparrow had gatecrashed and almost stole the show with his lively chatter and how Pip had chased after him, determined to deliver him back to their parents. The phrase ‘a lamb to the slaughter’ crossed his mind. Max shivered and pulled the dressing gown more tightly around his suddenly chilled, naked body. Pip couldn’t have been more than eleven years old then, he reckoned. So young and so much pain in store for the poor kid. The more he tried to excuse Pip’s recent behaviour, the less guilty he felt…about everything…even killing Ray. It was an accident, after all. And how was I to know Nathan Sparrow would take it into his daft head to take the blame? The more fool, him.  Pip obviously didn’t see him as a cold-blooded killer either or she wouldn’t have been so keen to sleep with him. As for that, well, only time would tell where, if anywhere, it would lead.
Yawning, Max returned to the bedroom to find Pip wide-awake, smiling eagerly, arms outstretched. Without a word he climbed into the sumptuous double bed beside her, far less reservedly this time. Moreover, it crossed his mind briefly, he may well only have been going through the motions of making love but there was no holding his adrenalin; it flowed fast and furiously, any hint of affection obliterated by the sheer thrill of sexual reward.
Nor did Nina’s return a week later put a damper on Pip’s affair with Max in the least. Pip made sure of it.
“Where are my car keys? Oh dear, this cold of mine…perhaps I shouldn’t drive,” groaned Pat Fox.
“I’ll help you look,” Pip offered, anxious to be rid of the old bat who had already overstayed her latest visit by two weeks.
“That’s kind of you dear,” said Nina’s mother, and promptly sat down while Pip searched the living room.
“Are you sure they’re not in your bag?”
“Of course I’m sure. That’s the first place I looked. Now, let me see, I took them out to…what?”
“Let me look,” said Pip and wrested the expensive leather handbag, a birthday present from Nina, from the woman’s grip.
“What do you think you’re doing young lady? Did I say you could look in my bag? How dare you!  The cheek of it! I’ll tell Nina…”
“Tell her and see if I care,” thought Pip but said nothing. She could not, however, resists throwing the silly woman a triumphant I-told-you-so smile as she retrieved the keys from the bottom of the bag.
“Oh, well, thank you dear,” murmured a somewhat abashed Pat Fox before surrendering to another fit of coughs and sneezes.
“What you need is some nice hot lemon juice,” said Pip in a no-nonsense tone that brooked no argument and disappeared into the kitchen.
Pat Fox watched her go over the rim of her handkerchief. The girl was a puzzle, and no mistake. Lately she had been tetchy, to say the least, yet she could be kind and thoughtful too. “She means well, I suppose. Teenage girls will be teenage girls, after all…” she murmured although, “It’s no good, I really cannot stand the girl,” she confided to a wine stain on the carpet. “Nina really must get that stain removed,” she told Pip who had reappeared carrying a mug of hot lemon juice.
“I’ll see to it,” Pip promised, sat down beside the woman and watched her sip at the drink.
“Oh, it’s hot!”
“It will do you good.”
“I suppose. It’s rather nice, I must say. I feel better already. Thank you dear.”
“My pleasure…”
By the time she had finished the drink, Pat Fox was feeling not only considerably invigorated but also more cheerful. “I feel so much better now. You can’t beat the old-fashioned remedies, can you?”
“You certainly can’t,” Pip agreed, saw the woman to her car, waved her off and continued to stand in the cold air for some time after the vehicle had turned the first corner. Suddenly, she burst out laughing. Nina’s arsehole of a mother had no idea of course how much vodka she had poured into the lemon drink. She dashed up the steps and grabbed a bicycle from the inner porch.
Pat Fox drove with care, as she always did. For no obvious reason she was feeling content, almost happy, in spite of the cold symptoms that had dogged her every move for days. She ached all over but was comfortable enough and driving always gave her such pleasure. The car was new, yet another present from Nina. The smile on her lips began to fade. She worried so about Nina.  It was bad enough that her daughter should have become inadvertently mixed up in a murder investigation…but, ever since, Nina had become so…different. Nina had always been stubborn or perhaps determined would be a kinder description…headstrong, certainly. Now…all this attention, constantly in the newspapers…and taking up with a gigolo like Max Cutler hadn’t helped matters. 
Pat sighed as she veered left. What Nina sees in the likes of Max Cutler, I cannot for the life of me imagine. Oh, he‘s handsome and can be very charming, but what else is there to the man? As far as she could make out, he’d never done a decent day’s work in his life. And that awful mother of his…perhaps it’s just as well that Pip is  around to keep an eye on things although…what is it about that girl?  Try as she might to feel in the least sympathetic, the child irritated her beyond all reasonable measure?  No, not irritated, that’s not the right word at all. Disturbed, perhaps? Now you’re just being silly, Patricia, she remonstrated with her conscience.  Even so, she continued to explore the possibility as she drove. Teenagers were invariable infuriating at times but…disturbing? No, that wasn’t the right word at all. So why couldn’t she let it go? Or was it the other way round, it wouldn’t let go of her?  Stop this, Patricia, you’re being absurd. But, too late, it had taken off and there was no stopping its running circles in her mind, making her feel slightly dizzy.
She shut her eyes for an instant. What am I doing?  She would have cried aloud, but all speech failed her as the wheel pressing against her palms reminded her that she was driving. For heaven’s sake, woman, get a grip. Her eyes flew open, just in time to see the side of a red van with bold white lettering on it that she couldn’t read rushing up to the windscreen. She did not remember braking. Nor did she hear the sound of shattering glass or the smash of metal on metal or the awful stink of smouldering rubber. Mercifully, she remained indifferent also to the explosion that followed soon afterwards.
No one in the crowd that quickly gathered at the accident scene paid any attention to the young woman on a bicycle watching from a short distance away. If they had, they might have wondered why she was smiling, grinning even like the Cheshire cat in the classic children’s tale. 
Nina was devastated by the loss of her mother. As far as Pip was concerned, though, the best thing to come out of Pat Fox’s death was the arrival of Carol Brady into their lives. Why Nina phoned her was mystery, even to Nina herself. “I don’t know why I called Carol, I just did,” was all she said when Pip asked, “She and Mum were friends so I thought she ought to know. But isn’t she a treasure? She’s such a comfort and such a help too…”
Even the discovery that Carol had known Max Cutler for years did nothing to undermine Pip’s affection for the woman. Apparently, the Cutlers had been neighbours once upon a time and Carol’s son, Liam, had been at university with Max. It occurred to Pip, more than once, that if Liam took after his mother he couldn’t be more different from Max. Carol was everything Pip genuinely admired in a woman. She was attractive, self-assured, could hold her own in any conversation and exuded an earthy commonsense that made you feel…safe. Yes, that was the word she wanted. She always felt safe in Carol Brady’s company.
If Nina all but went to pieces when her mother was killed in a tragic car accident, Max was all but indifferent. He was no practical help at all, but merely hovered and made sympathetic noises while generally getting in everyone’s way.
Pip, too, was glad of Carol Brady’s support. The older woman offered invaluable help and advice about the inquest, registering the death, organizing the funeral, preparing the wake …everything. She was neither intrusive nor bossy, but simply there whenever Pip needed her, whether on the spot or at the other end of a telephone.
Consequently, as far as Pip was concerned, the immediate aftermath of Pat Fox’s untimely demise went like clockwork, leaving her more than content with a job well done.

To be continued on Friday