Monday, 25 June 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Twenty-Four

The Present Day
Re-enter Fred Winter


“I’m telling you, Mr Winter. That man is evil. If looks could kill, I wouldn’t be here talking to you now. I’m frightened.” Pip Sparrow’s voice shook with an emotion that Fred Winter did not, for one minute, doubt was genuine. So why, he wondered, did he not quite believe the girl?
“Did he actually threaten you?” the detective insisted gently.
Pip shook her head. “Not exactly, no, but heaven only knows what might have happened if I hadn’t run off…”
“Not a lot, with other people in the next room,” Winter murmured dryly.
The girl blushed, visibly winced, and then appeared to pull herself together. “He didn’t have to,” she said tearfully, “You don’t always have to hear a threat spoken to know it’s there, do you?”
Winter nodded. It was true enough. Years of experience had taught him not to dismiss a person’s fears as mere imagination simply because they could not be properly substantiated, leastwise not as far as the strict letter of the law demanded. “You’re absolutely certain it’s the same man you saw leave the house in Whitstable and followed here to Canterbury?”
“Absolutely…. You can ask Nina if you don’t believe me…” she said sulkily, and Winter could tell she was scarcely able to control a rising anger.
“I will,” he told her, but not unkindly. “What I don’t understand is why the pair of you followed this man in the first place?  For that matter, what on earth did you think you were playing at by going back to the house at all?  If, as you say, you thought Max Cutler and the woman ‘Gypsy’ were dead, why didn’t you just call the police?” Winter asked while, at the same time, increasingly self-conscious of the fact that that he had been in no rush to inform them of his own suspicions.
Winter sighed exasperatedly. It was beginning to look as if the tall balding man had killed ‘Gypsy’ and dumped her body in the shed. But where was Cutler been while all this was going on, and is he alive or dead? “Why did you go back to the house?” he repeated.
Pip shrugged. “I don’t know,” she admitted candidly. “I suppose we still couldn’t quite believe our own eyes and wanted to make sure. Then we saw this man come out of number 22 and, well, he has to be a suspect, doesn’t he?  It seemed only natural to follow him. It gave us the shock of our lives, I can tell you, when we got back to the apartment and found him there, cool as you please, making himself at home and passing himself off as a mate of Nina’s brother.”
She uttered the last words with such distaste that Winter felt bound to say, “You don’t like Colin Fox?”
Pip gave another shrug. “I hardly know him, but from what Nina tells me, he’s a waste of space. Besides, what’s his connection with this weirdo?  You tell me that.”
It was Winter’s turn to give a little shrug. “I only wish I could,” he said with feeling.
“I’m frightened,” Pip repeated, “I don’t want to go back there. It’s all right for Nina, Colin’s her brother and I dare say she’s safe enough. Besides, she can always turn to her dad if she wants. But I haven’t anyone or anywhere else to go. I’m telling you, that man wants me dead. He even…”
“Yes?” Winter prompted, ears pricked.
Pip hesitated then, “He knew who I was, even said something about being there when the old house caught fire and my mum and little brother…” She burst into tears, and Winter put a comforting arm around the trembling shoulders. “It made me think that, well, maybe those horrible notes weren’t meant for Nina at all. Maybe they were meant for me. It’s not as if they were addressed to anyone. We just assumed…” She burst into another flood of tears and gratefully accepted a large handkerchief.
“You didn’t recognize him as being an old neighbour?”
Pip shook her head and blew her nose. “The first time I set eyes on him was seeing him run away from number 22.”
“Running?” Winter pounced on the word, “He was running?”
“Like he couldn’t wait to get shot of the place,” Pip lied glibly.
“You do realize you’ll have to tell all this to the police?” he told her, “You and Nina both.”
“But I’m telling you…” the girl insisted.
“That isn’t good enough, I’m afraid. You have important information regarding a crime and withholding such information is a serious business. Even so, it’s getting late. I dare say it can wait until morning. The chances are you’ve already put the wind up our friend Williams. He’ll not be staying at the B&B any more or my name’s not Fred Winter. No, he’ll keep till morning. In the meantime, I am taking you to stay with some friends of mine. You’ll be safe there while we decide how to proceed. Carol’s there too. I know she’ll be glad to see you.” 
“Carol?” The moist eyes lit up. “She’s okay, Carol.”
“We’ll go there now and you can call Nina on the way to tell her you’re with me, quite safe, and there’s nothing for her to worry about. It might be a good idea,” he added, “not to tell her where we are for the moment, but just say I’ll call her myself later this evening.”
“You think she’ll tell Colin Fox and he’ll tell that man Steve Williams,” Pip cried out in alarm. It was not a question. Nor could Winter deny it was true. So he said nothing, able to offer no solid reassurance yet anxious to prevent another tearful outburst.
On arrival at The Green Man, Stanley, tail wagging furiously, beat everyone else in the rush to greet Winter and his young companion.
“Why, Pip! Oh, what a nice surprise! How lovely to see you…” Carol gave the girl a hug and flung Winter a distrustful, questioning glance that he ignored.  After the introductions had been made, all five settled in the sitting room for a cosy meal of chicken and chips provided by Sadie, ably assisted by Liam who fussed at her every move. Carol remained conspicuously seated although, Winter had to admit, redeemed herself by chatting to young Pip and doing her best to make the girl feel at ease and welcome. Liam also provided some cans of beer and soft drinks while, knowingly, passing his mother a large malt whiskey.
“I wouldn’t mind something stronger myself,” commented Pip, but no one appeared to hear so she settled for an orange juice rather than risk being seen in anything less than a favourable light since that might ruin a plan that had been forming slowly but surely at the back of her mind. Of two things she was sure. Firstly, she would be safe here. Secondly, being here placed her ideally for the execution of that same plan, ridding her of Steve Williams once and for all.
A smile lit the otherwise plain and serious looking face. Adrenalin began to flow faster, warding off a distinct chill in the marrow. Whatever Steve Williams knew or thought he knew about her part in the fire or, for that matter, in Ray Bannister’s death…soon, very soon, it would be of no importance, let alone a threat. At the same time, she found herself listening, against her will, to a voice asking, Will it never end?  She gave a little shrug and blinked away a tear, no real idea what was meant by ‘it’. But she recognized the voice and trusted it, far more than she would ever trust the likes of those human voices assailing her now with crumbs of comfort and reassurance. What possible use could they be to her, these people, with her father in prison?
“You look tired, Pip. Come with me and I’ll show you to your room. I’ve laid out some clean towels, and you’re welcome to have a bath or take a shower any time. Tomorrow we’ll see about finding a change of clothes…” Sadie rose and addressed the girl, smiling broadly.
Pip started, as if waking from a dream. “Thanks Sadie. I can’t tell you how grateful I am  to all of you  for taking me in like this…” looking from one to the other with a shy, sad smile to which everyone present responded reassuringly. Only the dog uttered a soft, low, growl from the back of its throat.
Instantly silenced by a glare from Winter, accompanied by the nudge of a slipper against its white belly, Stanley gave a little whimper and went back to sleep.
Once in bed, Pip’s eyelids closed contentedly. Fred Winter had taken considerable interest in her explanation as to why Nina had not kept her appointment with him at the Christchurch Gate. “She was anxious about Colin, you see. You can imagine how we both felt when we found the other man there too, the very person we’d seen running away from the scene of a murder! And the way he looked at me, Mr Winter, it was so scary, I can’t tell you. I was so frightened. I still am…” At this point the grizzled detective had leaned across and patted her hand reassuringly.
The ghost of a smile played about the girl’s lips before she finally succumbed to gentle, persuasive waves of sleep - and a welcome escapism. She had Fred Winter where she wanted him, on her side. Their visit to the police in the morning would, she was certain of it, be a piece of cake. As for Steve Williams, he would soon be out of the picture altogether if her plan worked. And it will, won’t it? she pleaded mutely for reassurance. But she was already fast asleep. If her subconscious responded, she remained blissfully unaware.
Pritchard was livid and Lovell no less so. But each reserved his forthright expression of it for Winter, treating the girl gently and with considerable sympathy. After Pip was led away, quietly sobbing, to the canteen, the pair turned on Winter accusingly.
“You should have let us know right away,” snapped Lovell. “How could you have just sat on it, for chrissake?”
“You saw the state that girl is in,” retorted Winter, “In my professional judgement, she was in no fit state to talk to you about anything last night.”
“Oh, well, who am I to argue with your professional judgement?” Pritchard echoed scathingly.
“That’s right,” Winter glared daggers at the young sergeant.
“But you’re retired, man. You’re not a professional any more, you’re …” Lovell blustered, at a loss for words.
“A liability,” hissed Pritchard.
“And that’s all the thanks I get, is it, for giving you a lead on a killer? I might just as well have “sat” on the information and got on with my own investigation. Yours isn’t the only time that’s valuable, you know.” Angry but a little abashed all the same, Winter half rose from his seat.
“Sit down Fred,” barked Lovell. Winter knew that tone of voice only too well and did as he was told, albeit muttering a string of barely audible obscenities. “Now, just you listen to me.  In future, you will share any – but any - information with either DS Pritchard or myself immediately. Immediately, do you understand?  There will be no holding back, no dragging of feet and no more professional judgements. Do I make myself clear?
“As crystal,” muttered a seemingly abashed Winter although Lovell wasn’t fooled for one minute any more than was Mike Pritchard. “Will you bring Williams in?”
“Of course,” Lovell growled, “although it was not a good idea to go chasing after him like that. He’ll know we’re on to him now.”
“And he’s had plenty of time to make himself scarce,” Pritchard added, “He won’t be dropping in at the B&B in again in a hurry, that’s for sure.”
Winter began stroking his beard. “He wasn’t staying there then?” he asked with an air of innocence that fooled no one. “The B&B couldn’t be a front could it? May I ask for what, exactly?”
“No, you may not,” snarled Pritchard.
Lovell hesitated. “It’s run by two sisters, half sisters actually. And, yes, we have reason to believe that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Whatever’s going on there, our friend Steve Williams is involved up to his neck. Oh, yes, we’ve had our eye on chummy for a while.” Winter raised an eyebrow and tugged at his beard. “Miss Sparrow’s barging in like that will certainly have upset the applecart, not to mention put the mockers on a bloody good lead,” he finished, staring stonily across the desk.
“A lead, you say?  May I ask in what sense, a lead?” Winter persisted.
“I wish I knew,” murmured Lovell pensively.
“Williams will be miles away by now,” snapped Pritchard, glaring accusingly at Winter.
“So a young girl mistook him for her uncle, what’s the big deal?” Winter responded blandly.
“You don’t honestly believe a pro like Williams would fall for that, do you?” Lovell was openly disparaging, “Get out of my sight, Fred. Just…get out of my sight.  Pritchard will take your statement. WPC Wright is already taking Miss Sparrow’s even as we speak. You can be sure our colleagues in the Met will be in touch with Miss Fox before either of you leave this building. I hope, for both your sakes, that her version of events will substantiate yours and Miss Sparrow’s,” he added then, for good measure, “I’m sure it will, practically word for word.”
“That’s all right then,” Winter smiled and spread his hands in a gesture wide open to interpretation. “Shall we go Mike?”
“Get him out of here, Mike!” Lovell shouted across the desk, already tugging open a drawer, anxious for liquid respite. “And Fred…” Winter started but did not look round. “Keep a sharp eye on that young lady!” he yelled before the door had quite closed after the two men.
In spite of himself, Lovell couldn’t resist a chuckle. Fred Winter might be inclined to do his own thing in his own way and bugger everyone else…but he was a useful man to have on your side. Even so, he took an extra long swig before reaching for the phone…
After lunch, Pip told Winter that, if he didn’t mind, she wanted to do some shopping. “I can’t keep borrowing Sadie’s things,” she explained, “Besides, she’s not my size.”
“Especially now,” Winter observed with a broad grin. Both laughed and the sound helped sweep away the remains of a difficult morning at the police station. It had been less of an ordeal than Pip had expected but an ordeal all the same. Winter, for his part, had disliked being made to feel like a naughty schoolboy. He hesitated, recalling that the B&B to which Pip had followed Steve Williams was nearby. Lovell’s parting words, too, were on his mind. But Williams would almost certainly already have flown the nest, probably minutes after Pip had left the B&B. If he hadn’t, more fool him because he’d be in police custody by now.  “I’ll meet you at the Christchurch Gate in, what, a couple of hours?” he agreed.
Pip nodded. “You’re welcome to come too, of course…but I think you’ll be bored,” she added with a grin.
“I think so too,” Winter was in no doubt. “I’ll wait for you in the café, okay?” Pip nodded again and began threading her way through the High Street crowds. Winter frowned as he watched her go, a spring in her step of the kind he had often observed in women embarking on a shopping spree. Perhaps he should have gone with her after all? But no harm could come to the girl in Canterbury High Street, surely? No, he was being over cautious. Besides, there was no point in alarming the poor child.
He grunted, surprised that he could still think of Pip Sparrow as a child. She was a young woman, nearly eighteen. Yet, he mused while making his way to a favourite pub, there was so much of the child about her still albeit in complete contradiction to the cool composure she often emanated. For sure, she was a mixed bag of emotions. Perhaps, Winter found himself wondering as he ordered a pint, this explained why he could never quite trust or believe her.
Pip hated shopping, wasted little time buying a few basic items and was careful to drop the receipts into her shoulder bag. Next, she made her way to the bus station and did not have to wait long for a bus to Selling. It seemed in no time at all that she was sitting in the old-fashioned gypsy caravan. “Why here?” she demanded, “The police will be keeping an eye on it, surely?”
“Why should they?” countered Steve Williams, “They’ve already been over it with a fine tooth comb and it’s not as if it’s a murder scene or a crime scene at all for that matter. No, my sweet, the police have no interest in this heap of junk, I can assure you, other than putting up a few sticks and some pretty ribbon around it. Why do you imagine that is? Could it be a hint, do you think?”
“I like it here,” Pip protested, ignoring his weak attempt at humour and looking around with genuine admiration. “It has atmosphere…”
“Fine…. If it’s atmosphere you want, how about we try the bed for size? That’s why we’re here, after all.”
“Why here?” Pip repeated.
“Why not…?  Like you said, it has atmosphere. Some might even say a gypsy caravan is romantic. Besides, it’s handy for me and well out of anyone’s way for you. You don’t want your fancy London friends knowing what a murdering little slag you are, do you?”
“So you like a bit of rough, eh?” Pip began to undress.
“Hey, what are you doing? It’s me what gets to take your clothes off, savvy? I must say, you look good enough to eat in that dress,” he drooled, “All it needs is a school blazer and a cute straw hat to complete the picture.”
Pip gave a nonchalant shrug. “Come on then, get romantic.” She spread her legs, hands in the pockets of the candy-striped dress.
Williams approached, began fumbling with the buttons and slobbering at her neck. He didn’t notice that one hand was no longer in a pocket but behind her back. Nor did he feel the razor blade at first, just a graze beneath the ear, now sweeping down to his throat.  He screamed just once, and even that was cut short by a thick, gurgling sound.
Pip watched, fascinated, as the eyes turned glassy, bulging like a toad’s. The mouth opened wider, as if to express surprise. He tried to cling to her but soon let go and fell in a heap on the floor. A rush of blood drowned any further attempt at speech, soaking her clothes. His hands tried to clutch at her ankles. She kicked them free. 
The blood all but hypnotised her; it was everywhere. Kneeling beside Williams, conscious of her clothes sticking to every inch of flesh, she dipped a finger into the red pool spreading across the caravan floor and put it to her mouth. It never occurred to her to feel for a pulse. He would die anyway; it was of no consequence to her when.
She glanced at her watch. Reluctantly, she leapt into action.
It was a party of ramblers who spotted the fire and came to investigate. They found a young woman, barely that even, no more than a girl, her clothes torn and covered in blood wandering, dazedly, in a field clutching a shoulder bag. Behind her, only yards away, raged an inferno that had once been a gypsy caravan.
“You poor, wee thing!” a woman cried, taking off her coat and hastily wrapping it around the girl’s trembling body.
“I killed him,” the distraught girl’s words hung in the hair, crackling and gathering momentum like the smoke and flames, “He tried to…rape me… and…I…killed him.”
Nor did Pip Sparrow need to fake a faint that sent her sprawling to the ground.

To be continued on Friday