Monday, 11 June 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Twenty


“Wakey, wakey,” a husky voice murmured in his ear.
“What the hell…?” Max Cutler woke with a start. ‘Gypsy’ Kate’s mocking smile inches was only inches from his face. An evil looking lock knife blade at his throat pricked the flesh but lightly although sufficiently to draw a trickle of blood and warn him to exercise restraint. “Why, Kate, how nice!”
“The pleasure is all mine, Max,” Kate stroked his cheek with the blade, “because now I’ll get my money, won’t I?”
“Of course you will, my sweet. You didn’t think I’d forgotten, surely?”
“It never crossed my mind,” the big woman purred, “When you disappeared I thought, ah, that Max, he wants to play hide-and-seek. So here I am.”
“So here you are and looking fantastic, as always…” pushing the knife aside with one hand and drawing her face even closer to his with the other. They kissed and he heard the knife drop on the linoleum. It was only then he realized she was stark naked. In seconds she had slid under the duvet beside him and they were frantically making love.
Later, they showered together. “I’ll write you a cheque,” he promised between playful kisses.
“I’ve got a better idea. We’ll stroll down to the bank, you and I, and you can draw the cash out there and then.”
“No problem,” he lied between clenched teeth and pulled her into a soaking embrace.
Later, fully dressed, they shared some cans of cold beer in the kitchen. “I’ll have to get that window fixed,” Max commented dryly.
“Another beer first, eh?” she laughed, came to his end of the table and sunk her mouth into his neck before going to the fridge.
It was only as she crouched down and was in the act of retrieving the cans that the idea came to him. Without thinking, he grabbed an empty plant pot sitting on the windowsill and brought it crashing down on her head, just as she half turned towards him with intuitive alarm. She fell to the floor but still managed to partly raise herself so he hit her again, and again. Not until she lay unmoving at his feet did he dare relax. Leaning across the body, he grabbed a beer can from where it had rolled from the unconscious woman’s grasp, tugged at the ring and downed its contents with several long, nervous swallows. The cold beer was like a slap in the face, and enabled him to think more clearly. He knelt down to check her pulse; it was weak, very weak. But...she was still alive. Thank God for that.
He grabbed another can, took a long swig and then dashed into the bedroom, dribbling beer down his chin. He had barely thrown a few belongings into a sports bag when his nerves got the better of him and he had to make a run for the toilet. The bathroom was like a sanctuary. He sat, shaking, on the toilet seat for some time. Commonsense warned him there was no time to waste, but his feet seemed rooted to the mat on the floor. Get a move on, man, get a bloody move on, he kept telling himself. His legs, though, felt like lead and refused to budge.
Barely ten minutes could have passed, yet it seemed an eternity to Max before he could bring himself to make a move. Not a sound came from the kitchen.  He took the precaution of carrying a walking stick that had belonged to Nathan Sparrow’s father and always stood in a rack in the hall just inside the front door. Cautiously, he opened the kitchen door. Kate lay exactly as he had left her. Again, he knelt down and felt for a pulse. At first he could not find one and began to panic.  Then he had another idea, leapt up, removed a small mirror from the wall and held it a fraction from her mouth.  To his immense relief, it misted over slightly.
He was still kneeling, head bowed, suddenly so weary that his whole body felt on the verge of collapse…when a blow came from behind. Instantly, he lurched forward and tumbled, spinning, into a Black Hole.
“That will teach you to play silly beggars,” Pip Sparrow spat at him and proceeded to rant quite forcefully for a few seconds more. But Max Cutler was beyond hearing a word she said. 
Finally, Pip turned her attention to the unconscious woman lying beneath the inert Max. A slight heaving of the breasts told her the woman she recognized as someone known locally as ‘Gypsy’ Kate was still alive. Instinctively, she knew neither of them would be giving her any cause to worry for a good while yet, and took a look around.
The master bedroom still reeked of the other woman’s perfume while an untidy bed told its own story. She lay on the bed, closed her eyes and inhaled the pervading smell of body odour. In her mind’s eye, she watched the pair making love, the big woman in control. Suddenly, she burst out laughing. It struck her as so hilarious, the suave, handsome Max completely under someone else’s thumb, especially as that someone else was a woman years older than himself. Hadn’t she always suspected that, at heart, he was a mummy’s boy? Again, she burst into peals of laughter for comparing the large, sensuous Kate with that awful toad of a woman who was Max’s mother.
This wasn’t the first time Max had disappeared without a word although he had always turned up within thirty-six hours, usually less. On this occasion, it hadn’t taken Pip long to suspect he was holding up in Whitstable, but she had been careful to sound dismissive when Nina put the notion to her. Nina was embarrassed, never having actually confided to Pip that she and Max often used the cottage and unaware that Max had told her so himself. Since it belonged to Nathan and they had once made it their own love-nest, Nina had no wish to offend his daughter. Pretending mild surprise, Pip had quickly put Nina’s mind at rest regarding her own feelings. “I’m sure daddy would want you make good use of it,” she’d laughed with an ease feigned with difficulty. “As for Max going there…well, it’s a bit obvious don’t you think? Besides, what would he do there all on his own? No, our Max is probably drowning his sorrows with some whore or other in this bar and that without a care in the world about anyone but himself as usual.”
“That isn’t worthy of you, Pip,” Nina had retorted angrily, “Alright, Max is no angel. But there’s more to him than being…”
“A creep…?”
“Possibly, but there’s a good side to him too, and I should know. So should you, seeing as how he’s been kind enough to give you driving lessons.”
Pip laughed aloud. This conversation had, of course, had taken place before she had informed Nina not only about the relationship between herself and Max but also concerning Max and Ray Bannister. So much had happened since. Abruptly, she stopped laughing and frowned. Nina’s reaction to being told her lover was bisexual still puzzled her. She had expected hysterics, a tantrum at the very least. But Nina had gone strangely quiet, her face strained and very pale. Pip shrugged. It was so typical of Nina, being such a drama queen, to take the news as if she were acting a part. Even now, equipped with all the facts, the woman continued to treat her almost as if nothing had happened. It would have taken a shrewd observer to notice an edge to the veneer of amiability that existed between them. If any sense of enduring closeness survived, it was down to a mutual attempt at civility for the sake of keeping up appearances.
Pip pouted thoughtfully. She did wonder about Carol Brady’s friend, Fred Winter, but couldn’t envisage the grizzled ex-detective as posing much of a threat to either her comfortable life in Chelsea or her plans for Nina. How could she not keep reminding herself that Nina was, after all, responsible for her father’s being in prison?  Besides, she was only a second rate actress and didn’t deserve the champagne lifestyle she led so blatantly.
Dragging her thoughts back top the present, but reluctant to leave the bedroom and all its sensuous connotations, Pip nevertheless returned to the kitchen, stood over the still form of Max Cutler and watched the blood oozing from an ugly gash across the back of his head. She knelt, dipped a finger in it and licked it clean. The red, sticky stuff tasted warm, slightly sweet and, oh, how it excited her!
In her mind’s eye, Pip revisited another such occasion when she’d had cause to draw Max’s blood, albeit accidentally. They were making love and his mobile phone rang. She forbade him to answer it. But he ignored her and reached for it in the pocket of his jacket draped across a chair by the bed. She’d bitten his finger and drawn blood. He’d taken one look and passed out, oblivious to her shrieks of laughter. She had reached in the same jacket for something to bind the finger, only to retrieve a lace edged hanky she recognized as belonging to Nina by the scorch mark in one corner. It had been too good an opportunity to miss. Guiding the unconscious man’s finger, she had scrawled. ‘Your turn next’ across the white linen.
It had been a poor copy of the others of course, but so smudged, who would know? She could just imagine the effect it would have on Nina.  Let’s see what you make of that, Nina bloody Fox. She had then tossed the handkerchief under the bed before tearing a strip of her own nightdress to bandage Max’s finger.
Max had come round, his handsome face a picture of embarrassment. (How could he explain the blood had reminded him of that fateful day at Ray Bannister’s flat? Besides, he suspected she had already guessed). Together they had laughed off the incident and continued their lovemaking, preferring for mutual convenience to believe nothing was quite the lie they both knew it to be.
Pip scowled. It wasn’t all pretence, surely?  We’re good together, Max and me. But the words churning up her insides sounded less than convincing. Yet again, she dragged her thoughts back to the present situation and instantly felt better. It had been so thoughtful of Max to leave the walking stick resting against a cupboard, ready for her to pick up and bring crashing down on his head. It struck her as very funny, observing him slumped across the large woman’s stomach like a sack of potatoes. The latter was beginning to stir slightly and utter low moaning noises that made Pip think of a cow. She giggled, and was still smiling broadly as she left by the front door a short while later and headed for the local railway station.
Parked a little further up the road on the opposite side, Nina silently prayed that Pip would not spot the car. She had been sorely tempted to follow the girl into the cottage. Only pride and an instinct for self-preservation prevented her. It wasn’t difficult to imagine flinging open the bedroom door and confronting the pair of them, Pip and Max, in bed. Yet it was one scene she had no desire to play. She no longer doubted for a moment that Pip had meant every word about sleeping with Max and about Max’s relationship with Ray Bannister. At first confused and angry, all Nina felt now was an infinite sadness, betrayed by two people she had thought genuinely cared for her.  Oh, she’d known Max was no more in love with her than she with him. But she cared for him a lot and had honestly thought it was reciprocal.
Nina sighed. She wasn’t even frightened any more. That is, she wasn’t frightened for herself. Had Pip taken precautions, she wondered? Did a seventeen-year-old have the sense to play safe with a man like Max? 
“A man like Max…” Nina murmured the words, unsure what she meant by them. “Perhaps I should be asking myself about a man like Ray?” she mused, again aloud. She had known Ray Bannister slept around although they never discussed his private life. But they had been close, and some things you just know without any need for words. They enjoyed the same books, the same movies, and agreed on more major issues than where they had agreed to differ. It didn’t matter that he was gay. Even so, she wished she had known that his secret love was Max Cutler. She would have…what?  Perhaps it was just as well, after all, that she hadn’t guessed, suspected even.  So why didn’t I? Ray and Max were old friends. Shouldn’t that have alerted her to at least wonder about their relationship? “How could I have been so blind, so stupid?” But no one answered her. Perhaps now was as good a time as any to warn Max and Pip that Ray was HIV positive…
Nina opened the car door, and then closed it again. She did this three times while Pip was still inside the cottage. Finally, she decided to tackle Max alone. She didn’t doubt in the least that he was holed up inside the cottage, their love nest, as he always liked to call it. Although she never contradicted him, it wasn’t the same for her; the place held too many wonderful memories of times she had spent there with Nathan. Even if Max had bedded Pip there, the cottage itself played no part in her feeling of betrayal.
 In Nina’s reckoning, it could not have been more than half an hour before Pip emerged alone and proceeded to walk briskly in the direction of the railway station. Waiting until the girl had turned a corner, Nina braced herself yet again to quit the welcome refuge offered by the car. After several attempts she swore, “F**k this, to hell with it!” and was soon turning Nathan’s key in the front door of 22 Waterfield Road.
Once inside, Nina lost her hard won determination and became frightened again. She knew the place better than she knew her own hand. Something’s wrong, very wrong. It was if the walls themselves were crying out for her to be on her guard. She quickly discovered why. On entering the kitchen she found Max lying on the floor, his head in a pool of blood. “Oh, my God…!” She knelt beside him, sought frantically for a pulse and could find none.
In spite of a weakness in both legs, she managed to get up, go to the sink and pour herself a glass of water. Luckily, a glass was on hand or she was convinced she’d have fainted on the spot. “Now what?” she demanded of her reflection in the kitchen window. Frantically she rummaged in her bag for her mobile phone, but in vain. Had she left it in the car? “Why isn’t the damn thing ever where it should be when I want it!” she wailed, and ran into the sitting room. She was about to dial 999 on the land line phone when she heard sounds like someone moving about in the main bedroom. Heart in mouth, she tiptoed in that direction, saw the door was ajar and was about to peer into the room when the door was flung open by an Amazon of a woman, her face covered in blood.
Towering over Nina like some avenging angel, the woman opened her mouth as if to speak but fell forward into the actress’s arms before she could utter a sound.
Stumbling under the woman’s weight, Nina gave a shriek and backed away, letting the body crash to the floor. Nina shrieked again, ran back to the sitting room and got as far as lifting the telephone receiver. Then she had second thoughts and hastily replaced it. She mustn’t get involved in whatever had happened here, the publicity machine would grind her into tiny pieces. There was Pip to consider too. She must speak to Nathan’s daughter first, if only to put her own mind at rest.
Nina burst into tears. Suppose Max was right and Pip’s boast about sleeping with him was pure fantasy on the girl’s part? At the same time, a nagging suspicion refused to budge altogether. Whatever, how could she possibly involve the girl or herself in all this?  No, that would never do. Tearing herself away from the phone, she went to the wine cabinet and poured herself a very large brandy.
Some semblance of composure recovered after a second, even larger brandy, Nina returned to the kitchen. Once again, she felt for Max’s pulse and could find none. You’re wasting your time. Max is dead, four walls, windows and doors screamed at her until she had to put both hands over her ears, the noise was deafening. Come on, woman, pull yourself together and THINK, she tried telling herself, but it was a while before she uncovered her ears and was able to consider Max’s body almost dispassionately.
I’ll telephone the police from a call box, that’s what I’ll do. Or why do anything?  Suppose someone saw and recognized her? Why risk incriminating herself in any way? The body would be discovered sooner or later. Let the police draw their own conclusions. “Oh!” she wailed, “I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it!” and ran to the front door where she paused for breath. Walk, Nina, don’t run. You mustn’t draw attention to yourself, she kept telling herself while unnecessarily adjusting and re-adjusting her sunglasses. Several deep breaths later, she summoned sufficient confidence to make her way back to the car and drive away.
If she had waited just a few minutes more, although it was already getting dark, Nina might have seen a tall, balding man with a moustache alight from a handsome Porsche, its windows darkened so no one could peer inside.
The man sauntered casually enough up to number 22 and rang the doorbell several times with growing impatience. Having waited a good five minutes in vain, his whole body stiffening with a perceptible air of suppressed rage, he proceeded along a private footpath leading to the rear with the sharp, quickening footfall of someone whose purpose is anything but benign.

To be continued on Friday