Friday, 1 June 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Seventeen


“I should never have brought you here, it was a mistake,” said Max.
“I’d have come anyway,” said Pip, “I promised daddy I’d let him know what the new house looks like next time I visit.”
“How is your father?” Max Cutler felt obliged to ask.
“He’s okay,” she shrugged, “Much as you’d expect someone in prison to be, I suppose.” Especially for something he hasn’t done, she added silently. She felt guilty about that, but it couldn’t be helped. It wasn’t as if she could have anticipated his turning up before Nina, after all. As for his confessing to the killing…that’s just plain stupid and has to be down to a misplaced infatuation with the woman, what else? She hadn’t bargained for him taking the blame for Nina. How could he do that, put some dippy blonde like Nina Fox first, before his own daughter? She winced. Something of the hero worship she had for her father wavered.
On the pedestal where she had placed him, Nathan Sparrow slipped a fraction, swayed and almost fell. Instantly, Pip pulled herself together and saw to it that the idol, too, recovered its balance.
They were in Cutler’s car, parked outside the old house. The council had bought the land and built a spanking new bungalow. Not that Pip took in much of its clean brick exterior, its sloping, red tiled roof, its sparkling windows or vile purple front door. She only saw the old house as it had been before the fire, hearing and witnessing an inferno of smoke and flames, feeling much as she had done then…impassioned, yet at the same time horribly unmoved by it all, as if it had nothing whatever to do with her, Pip Sparrow, but involved someone else… someone close…someone who looked like her, even thought like her, yet was…someone else. It was always with her, this other Pip, like a shadow that wouldn’t leave her alone no matter what she did or where she went or which way she turned or how many times she tried to obliterate its…what?  Menace…? Did she honestly feel menaced by it? She suspected she should, so why was she so drawn to it or it to her and why couldn’t she bear the idea of ever being parted from it?
Am I mad? she wondered, but quickly shrugged off the question. Mad or sane, what did it matter?
“I’m going to say hello to the Pikes,” Max was saying, “Are you coming?”
Pip shook her head. Returning to the scene of the fire in her mind’s eye was one thing, but seeing people who, like herself, had been there for real and talking to them about it…that was something else. “I saw Billy at the window just now. He’ll be expecting me. You’ll be alright on your own?” She nodded.
Billy Pike had opened the front door before Max even had time to ring the doorbell. He was smiling, plainly delighted to see his visitor. Over his shoulder, Mary Pike, Billy’s mother, beamed. She didn’t care what the newspapers had to say about Max Cutler, she liked the man. Billy grabbed Max by the arm and practically dragged him into the kitchen. Mary followed and set about making a pot of tea but Billy indicated that he preferred to do it himself. His mother knew better than to argue. Billy was prone to tantrums when he didn’t get his own way.
Max and Mary Pike chatted briefly. Out of the corner of one eye, Max watched Billy with an admiration that was tantamount to jealousy for the lad’s pride in his independence. He had always felt a genuine fondness for Billy. The first time Ray had introduced them, it was obvious the pair were close. Billy was an only child and plainly idolized Ray much as he might an older brother. In time, although his visits had been few and far between, some of that hero worship had rubbed off on Max.  Since Ray’s death, Max had been a regular visitor at the Pikes although he’d told no one; not Nina and certainly not Pip.
Billy hadn’t uttered a word since the fire. As far as Max had been able to ascertain from occasional conversations with Billy’s parents, no one quite understood why. Various doctors, educational psychologists and psychiatrists had bandied about the phrase ‘post traumatic stress syndrome’. Yet Billy’s hearing hadn’t been affected and he experienced no difficulty communicating with family and friends by whatever assorted means available or appropriate - gestures, text messages, use of a personal organizer, handwritten notes. He had refused point blank to learn sign language, but had quickly improvised communication channels of his own with which no one who came into contact with him had any problem for long. On the face of it, he was a normal, healthy boy, just turned thirteen. Max admired the lad, chiefly for a courage and irrepressible good humour that had little room if any for either sympathy or pity.
Having poured out three mugs of tea, Billy cheerfully dismissed his mother and indicated for Max to follow him upstairs to a spare bedroom that he’d made his own private den. There was even a hand painted sign on the door that read Billy’s Den.
Once inside, it was Billy’s turn to sit back while Max waded through a portfolio of remarkable sketches and paintings. Among them, time and again, he came across the same bird-in-the-bush scene. Instinctively, Max glanced at the garden below. His practised gaze soon located a pyracantha, or firethorn shrub, spread against a low wall in a far corner. Ray could always be relied on to point out its white flowers in spring or various shades of red and orange berries in autumn, its strong thorns belying a simple, curiously innocent beauty. According to Ray, birds often nested there, secure in the knowledge that no sane cat would dare try and climb towards them; apparently, they loved its berries too.
Max looked again at the painting in front of him with a puzzled frown. It was almost identical to the one Billy had given him for a birthday present. If birds loved the damn plant so much, why did the boy always give this one the same terrified expression?  The symbolism of the shrub was obvious. Did the bird reflect his pain at being unable to speak…or what? Whatever, the boy had been almost obsessed with painting the same scene ever since the fire. Yet, to Max’s knowledge, no one had come up with an explanation. He looked up and saw the boy watching him with a serious, intense expression that brightened almost as soon as their eyes met. Max signed his admiration for the array of artwork all around the room.
Billy grinned. He loved it when Max came to visit. Max was a link with Ray. Ray had always encouraged him to draw and paint, told him he had a talent for it. No one else thought so. Even his art teacher at school was always telling him to pay attention to perspective and all that stuff.
The doorbell rang. “That will be Pip, she’s probably getting impatient,” he told Billy then, “You do remember, Pip Sparrow, who used to live next door?  Of course you do…” His voice trailed off. Mary Pike had warned him never to mention the fire to Billy. “Well, now she lives with me. That is, she lives with my girlfriend, Nina, and I’ve moved in with her so that means taking on Pip as well. You’ve probably read about us, we’re famous these days. Or maybe I should say infamous.” He laughed awkwardly. “Do you want to see her? I’ll bring her up if you like. I’m sure she’d love to see you again.”
Billy shook his head. At the same time, sweat poured down his face and a look came into his eyes that, fleetingly, Max almost fancied he could relate to the bird in the painted bush. He recalled how young Johnny Sparrow and Billy had been close friends. It had to be, surely, the memory of little Johnny engulfed by flames and burned alive that prevented the boy from speaking? Everyone said so. Impulsively he gave the lad a hug. Billy broke away and shook his head. “I know, I know, you’re a big boy now,” Max laughed, “and big boys aren’t much into hugs, right?” Billy shook his head again. “Take care, Billy,” he said gruffly. “I’ll let myself out.”  At the front door, he looked back and raised a hand to wave. He was sure Billy would be sitting at the top of the stairs as he always did. Only, on this occasion Billy wasn’t there and the door of the den remained firmly shut. It shouldn’t have bothered him in the least, but oddly enough, it did.
Opening the front door, Max half expected Pip to be standing on the doorstep, but she must have returned to the car. Obviously, she was no more anxious to see Billy than he was to see her. Understandable in the circumstances, I guess. Bad memories and all that…
He walked slowly back to the car, only to discover the passenger seat vacated and no sign of Pip. He frowned. There really was no telling with that girl. Well, if she thinks I’m going to wait or drive around looking for her, she can damn well think again. It had been something of a novelty at first, sex with a girl still at school and planning to go to university. Besides, he couldn’t deny he was scared she might talk to someone about Ray’s death. But now she bored him although, sexually at least, she had proved a remarkably apt pupil. He grinned. Who’d have thought pretty but prim Pip Sparrow is a secret sex maniac? He laughed aloud. The girl couldn’t be trusted, of course. Even so, he was fairly confident by now that she’d keep quiet about the fact it was he, not her father, who had killed Ray. It was, after all, her word against his. It was unlikely anyone would take her story seriously. All the same, it wouldn’t do to get on the wrong side of this strange girl. Besides, she only had to blab to Nina about their affair to cause havoc enough. For now, at least, he would go along with her feeble attempts at blackmail…and enjoy the sex.
At this precise moment in time, however, Max Cutler couldn’t really give a damn about Pip Sparrow, Nina Fox, or anything other than a sudden craving for a decent shot of cocaine.  In addition, a picture of ‘Gypsy’ Kate’s plump ivory cheeks, the long, frizzy raven hair and breasts designed to send any hot-blooded male’s pulse racing sprung to mind. Nor would it be ignored.  Max glanced at the petrol gauge, judged it to be about full enough and headed for Whitstable.
Back at the Chelsea apartment, Nina Fox slammed the phone down and took several deep breaths. Her father was the last person she expected or wanted to call. What did he want, she wondered? Almost immediately, she answered her own question. In a word, money…what else? He’d admitted to following her success in the newspapers. With ‘parental pride’ or so he’d said. Huh! If he really thought she’d fall for that one, he didn’t know his own daughter very well. How could he? He’d walked out of her life when she was barely eight years old, leaving her mother with a small mountain of unpaid bills and serious mortgage arrears, plus the daunting prospect of raising two young children on her own.
She was thinking fondly of her mother and close to tears when the phone rang again. Her hand hovered over the receiver. Finally, she picked it up.
“Nina?” a friend’s voice babbled in her ear, but failed to reach her consciousness as she grappled with mixed feelings of relief and disappointment. At the same time, a screwed up piece of paper in one clenched fist seemed to burn a hole in her hand. She let it drop. “Look, darling, I’ll call you back,” she called down the phone without any clear idea to whom she was speaking, hastily replaced the receiver before the person could protest, bent down to retrieve the ball of notepaper, opened it up and re-read the horrid note scrawled in red ink yet again. Your turn next. Whatever could it mean? She grimaced and stared at the telephone, half expecting it to burst into life again at any second. It had to be nothing more than coincidence that her father should have chosen a Friday on which to call her after all these years…surely?
The first anonymous note had been pushed through the letterbox six weeks earlier. Scrawled in red ink on a plain notepaper, the unspecified threat was always the same:  Your turn next.
At first, she had put it down to some crank with a fixation about her sit-com character, April Divine. Her agent was invariably flooded with fan mail every day, some of it weird to say the least. But these notes had arrived every Friday, hand delivered to her home address. She had even sought Pip’s advice about whether or not to call the police. The girl had merely shrugged and told her to ignore the notes.
“You’re famous, Nina. Millions of people watch you on their TV screen twice a week,” Nathan Sparrow’s daughter had coolly pointed out, “Some of them are bound to be weirdoes. The police won’t take this seriously and nor should you. I’d throw the thing away and forget about it if I were you.”
Try as she might, however, Nina had been unable to forget. Neither, on the other hand, could she fault Pip’s appraisal of the situation. Instead of throwing the note in the bin, however, she recovered the crumpled, un-addressed envelope from the floor, went upstairs and placed both note and envelope in a drawer. Why, exactly, she could not have explained, but it seemed the right thing to do.
The telephone rang again. She almost picked up the bedroom extension then thought better of it and let the infernal machine give out several more shrill beeps before, thankfully, they ceased. It might have been her father calling or it might not. Whatever, he would try again; she didn’t doubt it for an instant. So what should she do, agree to see him, tell him to fuck off and leave her alone? “I hate you,” she told the silent telephone, “but you’re my father…” She sighed.  The last thing she needed was for him to show up again just as her career was taking off.  It wasn’t as if she owed him anything, quite the contrary. Yet she had felt so alone since her mother’s death. Pip had been a rock but somehow the girl managed to keep her distance even while seeming close and caring.
Nina sighed again. She really couldn’t make out Pip at all. But she owed it to Nathan to do her best by the girl and she did visit her father often.  There was still a chance Pip could persuade Nathan to see her, talk to her, explain…
She picked up the phone and dialled Carol Brady’s number. There was no reply. She put the receiver down, as if replaying a scene in slow motion, only to pick it up again almost immediately, resolving all at once to call her brother Colin in New York. Then she thought better of it and slammed the damn thing down again. Colin only ever insisted she tell the boozy bastard to go to hell. Oh, and he’s absolutely right, of course.
Yet again the phone rang. She hesitated before murmuring hoarsely, “Yes, this is Nina Fox. Hello daddy.”

To be continued on Monday