Friday, 29 June 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Twenty-five


“Take your time, Pip, dear,” said Carol Brady, pressing the distraught-looking girl’s hand as she lay propped up by pillows in a hospital bed.
“Just tell us what happened,” contributed DS Mike Pritchard quietly.
Winter said nothing.
They were seated in a curtained cubicle anxiously awaiting Pip Sparrow’s account of events.
“I went shopping…” Pip began, “and he…he appeared out of nowhere…said he had a gun and I had to do what he said. It was horrible. I was so scared…” she began to sob. Carol squeezed her hand encouragingly and he went on. “We went to a car and he made me get in. We drove to the caravan and…he tried to…to…rape me. I was terrified. I saw a razor blade on a shelf and managed to grab it. I didn’t mean to do it, it just happened. I was so scared…” she burst into tears.
“You were only defending yourself,” Carol murmured, “Anyone would have done the same.”
“So how did the fire start?” Pritchard wanted to know.
“When I…cut him...he started to fall. I couldn’t hold him. I tried to push him away from me, but…he pulled me to the floor. I panicked and struggled to get free. There was blood everywhere. It was horrible, horrible! I seem to remember we knocked something over as we fell, an ashtray I think. He had been smoking. Suddenly there was smoke and flames. I thought, oh, God, not again, not again! The next thing I remember was being in a field and some woman wrapping a coat around me,” she finished lamely, burst into tears again and fell into Carol’s open arms. “Will I go to prison?” she asked suddenly.
“Of course you won’t,” said Carol reassuringly.
“We will require a full statement later of course,”
“You’ll get one...” Carol glared at the Detective Sergeant, “when she’s feeling up to it and not before.”  Pritchard winced. “Now, Pip needs to rest.”
“She certainly does,” a nurse appeared and proceeded to take her patient’s temperature and blood pressure. “I said rest,” she repeated, casting a determined look at all three gathered around the bed.
“Hint taken...” Winter declared with a placatory grin. But if this was an attempt at humour, it washed over his companions completely. 
“What in heaven’s name were you thinking of, letting her go off on her own like that?   It must have crossed your mind that Williams could still be a threat, surely?  Pritchard demanded once they had passed through the ward’s swing doors into the corridor beyond.
“Williams?” put in Carol, “Is that the bastard’s name?”
Pritchard nodded. “He has a record as long as your arm, and for worse things even than rape I can tell you.”
“So why weren’t you keeping a close eye on him?” Winter snapped. He was feeling guilty enough without Pritchard rubbing his nose in it.
Pritchard shrugged. “As soon as you told us about the B&B, we paid the landlady a call.  Surprise, surprise, Williams had already checked out. Besides, he’s served his time. We can’t keep tables on every ex-con, for crying out loud. ” He squared up to Winter in a cold fury, “But you knew the score. You knew there was a calculated risk he could still be in the area. You knew, damn it, yet you let that poor kid go shopping by herself. Call yourself a copper?” he paused for breath, “But that’s just it, isn’t it? You’re not. You’re retired. Well, do us all a favour Fred and bloody well stay retired!” Pritchard stormed off. If he had looked back he would undoubtedly have been struck by an uncharacteristically vulnerable expression on Winter’s face.
“He’s right,” Winter muttered bitterly, “I screwed up. I should never have let her out of my sight. But, no, I don’t want to trail round the bloody shops so what do I do? I go off to the pub, happy as Larry, and the poor kid nearly gets herself killed.” He turned to Carol. “I hate to agree with the man, but Pritchard’s right. I’m no copper. I’m just a pathetic has-been who won’t face facts.”
“Self-pity really doesn’t suit you, “Carol snapped, and then a shade gentler, “Besides, you weren’t to know…” she pointed out.
“Of course I knew. I knew there was a risk. Any half decent copper would have stuck to Pip like glue.”
“Very well, if you say so...” Carol was in no mood to argue. What is it about men that they have to wallow in self-pity at the first sign of things not going their way?”  She sighed, aware that she was doing Winter a grave injustice. They always expect a woman to give their ego a boost and let them think they’re the next best thing to Superman. She sighed again, the hint of a chuckle rising in her throat. Freddy is no exception in that respect, that’s for sure. However, she had the good sense to swallow the chuckle and refrain from voicing her thoughts aloud. Instead, she merely slipped an arm in his and propelled him, with some force, in the direction of the hospital car park.
“Poor Pip!” she exclaimed several times, “As if the poor girl hasn’t been through enough already! That brute Williams deserved everything he got if you ask me,” digging her fingers into Winter’s arm with such force that he gave a yelp.
“That hurt!” he protested.
“Don’t be such a baby, Freddy,” she responded crossly.
Neither exchanged a word on the drive back to The Green Man. For her part, Carol was torn between wanting to be with Liam and wanting to return to London as soon as possible while Winter continued to remonstrate with himself for allowing Pip Sparrow to all foul of the likes of Steve Williams. Even so, the more he mulled over her story, the less it rang quite true. 
“So what’s going on in that head of yours, Freddy?” Carol wanted to know, “Something’s bugging you. Am I right or am I right? You really mustn’t blame yourself you know. You weren’t to know what that madman had in mind any more than poor Pip.”
Winter pulled over into lay-by. “It doesn’t make any sense, Carol. Williams must have sussed that Pip had been following him when she called at the B&B. His seeing her again in Chelsea must have rung a dozen more alarm bells. So why should he hang around Canterbury, for crying out loud? It doesn’t make any sense,” he repeated.
“Who knows how that kind of person’s mind works?”
“I’m a copper, I’m supposed to know,” he muttered grimly.
Carol shrugged. “Well I’m sure I don’t know. Maybe he had unfinished business at the B&B or something.”
“Oh, he’d have stayed well clear. For all he knew, the police were on to him. He’d have scarpered pretty damn fast, probably soon after Pip left. So why leave London?  He couldn’t possibly have known I’d bring Pip to Herne Bay, let alone that she’d take it into her head to go shopping in Canterbury on her own. But if the kidnap was purely opportunist, what was he doing down here in the first place?  He should have been miles away by now.
Carol sighed. “Okay, you win. Turn the bloody car round and let’s go back.”
“What?” he looked genuinely surprised.
“I know you, Freddy Winter. You won’t rest until you’ve had a chat with those two biddies that run the B&B. And I’m not letting you go on your own, not the mood you’re in.”
“I’m not in a mood,” Winter protested.
“You’re in a foul mood, Freddy. You’re just the same whenever you can’t do a bloody crossword.”
“It would help if I had some half decent clues to go on,” Winter grumbled.
“So turn back and let’s see if we can’t find some,” Carol insisted. “Sometimes, Freddy, you are such a pain. That poor girl nearly gets raped and heaven only knows what else the bastard had in mind for her and you’re still not satisfied. You said yourself, he probably sussed that she’d followed him from Whitstable…where he’d just killed someone, for heaven’s sake”
“We don’t know that for sure,” he reminded her.
“Damn well near enough we do,” Carol was having none of it, “That makes Pip a potential murder witness, right?  If that isn’t motive enough to kidnap the poor child, I don’t know what is. We’ve already established it was probably sheer opportunism that made him grab her in Canterbury…well, haven’t we?”  Winter made no reply. “Does it bloody matter what he was doing there in the first place? There is such a thing as sheer coincidence, you know.”
“Not in my book there isn’t,” Winter growled, turned the ignition and proceeded to do a U-turn.  .
“Yes, well, we all know about that book of yours,” she commented dryly before lapsing into a resigned if not altogether dignified silence as they headed back towards Canterbury.
Winter was not surprised the find plenty of parking space in the forecourt of the B&B. Word travels fast. People might be curious about a police presence but, in his experience, they preferred to keep a safe distance. He gave an expressive grunt as he climbed out of the car. As if the police had nothing better to do than probe skeletons in every Tom, Dick and Mary’s cupboards…
Carol, ignoring the grunt, wasted no time ringing the doorbell.
It was a middle-aged woman wearing a tweed suit and sensible slippers who partially opened the front door, careful to keep a chain in place. Instinctively, Carol liked her.
“I’m afraid we have no vacancies at the moment,” the women said apologetically.
“Really?” commented a disbelieving Winter, “I suppose that’s why your car park is practically empty?”
“My sister and I are not taking any new guests at the moment,” said the woman, glaring at Winter, “...not that I have to explain myself to you or anyone else,” she added with a show of spirit that made Carol warm to her even more.
“I dare say,” Winter responded gruffly, “...but we don’t want a room. We would, however, very much appreciate a few minutes of your time.”
“Are you the police?”
“No, we’re looking for a friend of ours,”  Carol explained, “and we think you may be able to help. It’s not the man the police will already have questioned you about,” she added hastily.
“Oh, you know about that.”  The woman tensed and seemed close to tears. “So who, exactly, are you if you’re not the police?”
She’s frightened, thought Carol with a rush of adrenalin as well as sympathy although a sixth sense warned her to say nothing. Instead, she left it to Winter to repeat and elaborate slightly on what she had already said. She heard little of it though, but continued to observe the small, doughty little woman in tweeds.
“So you see,” Winter was saying, “we really would appreciate a few minutes of your time.”
They waited, with growing impatience, while the woman turned over the situation in her mind. It was unlike Cessy Pearce to dither. At the same time, she had to admit, she was out of her depth and perhaps these people could help. The woman, especially, seemed a pleasant, genuine sort.
As if reading her mind, Carol spoke up. “I’m Carol Brady, by the way, and this is my friend Fred Winter. Freddy is a retired policeman.” She chose her words carefully, “We don’t have anything to do with the police investigation into…recent events. We just want to find our friend.” She turned to Winter. “Show the lady Max Cutler’s photo, Freddy.”
Winter extracted the snap from his wallet and showed the woman, who made no attempt to release the chain. Her reaction took Carol and Winter completely by surprise. The search for Max Cutler had seemed a good enough excuse to justify their presence; they certainly hadn’t expected a positive response. The woman, though, appeared quite overcome. Clearly, she recognized Cutler although, at first, she said nothing. “Oh dear, oh dear,” she muttered at last then, “I suppose you had better come in,” releasing the chain and opening the door. “Oh dear, oh dear,” she kept repeating as she led them into a small lounge. Seated in a wheelchair was another woman, slightly older in appearance but plainly related; they could easily have been taken for twins. “Margaret, dear, this is…oh dear…” she turned to Carol.
“Carol Brady and Fred Winter,” Carol supplied with an encouraging smile. Winter, too, raised a smile, thankful that Carol hadn’t insisted on introducing him as Freddy. Oh, how I hate it when she me that, he blatantly lied to an alter ego that knew better than to contradict.
“I’m Cessy Pearce and this is my sister Margaret. Do sit down,” the small woman added and went to sit beside her sister. “Margaret, dear, they want to know about Max,” she told the older woman whose reaction, too, surprised their guests. Carol started. If Cessy has struck her as being frightened, she contemplated pensively, Margaret was plainly angry.
“In that case, I will leave you to it,” Margaret Pearce snorted and wheeled herself out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
“I must apologize for my sister. She’s not had an easy time of it lately. Well, neither of us has, what with the police and everything…” the strong, almost masculine voice tailed off lamely.
“You’ve seen Max?” Winter put to her directly and she visibly pulled herself together.
“Oh, yes. Such a charming young man; I recognized him from his picture in the papers of course.  He and Nina Fox, they make such a lovely couple. Margaret and I have watched April Showers since the very first episode, you know,” she added with a childish excitement that Winter and Carol both found a trifle incongruous in this stout, rather severe apparition in tweeds.
“Max stayed here?” asked Winter with a deceptive mildness that fooled no one, least of all Cessy Pearce.
“No never. That is, not in the usual way of things…” she became flummoxed and then visibly collected herself, straightened her shoulders and doggedly continued, “The first time Max came here was with…that man…you know, the one the police were asking about…” the strong voice dropped to a whisper.
“Steve Williams?” Winter could contain neither his surprise nor astonishment. This was not how he had envisaged their visit unfolding at all. “Did you tell the police this,” a vague suspicion prompted him to ask.
“Well, no. They didn’t ask. They only wanted to know about Mr Williams. Well, that isn’t strictly true. They did want to know if anyone else was with him or if he had any visitors when he stayed here. But he always came alone and that’s what I told them. There was Max of course, but it was only the once and I’d quite forgotten. Well, no, I hadn’t forgotten, of course I hadn’t. But Max is such a nice young man and he’s got himself into such a pickle, I didn’t want to make things any worse for him, especially now…”
“Especially now…?” Winter prompted.
Cessy Pearce wrung her hands. “The poor boy was obviously hurt and in no fit state to drive. I couldn’t stop him so I followed him…”
“I think you had better start at the beginning, Cessy, don’t you?” Carol suggested. The other woman threw her a grateful glance. Carol’s use of her first name had an instant calming effect.
“You’re right, of course,” she agreed and told them how she had recognized Max Cutler a second time in Whitstable, followed him to the caravan, eventually brought him back to the B&B and cared for him. “What else could I do? The poor boy was in such a state. Margaret was furious. She said I should inform the police. But he didn’t want that and, well, who was I to pry?  He told us that if that horrible Williams man turned up, as of course he did, we shouldn’t let on he was here. Believe me, it put a terrible strain on us both, especially poor Margaret. She disapproved so, you see. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a strong woman in spite of being disabled and has a heart of gold but…well…she ‘s inclined to take the moral high ground and, well, something was obviously not quite right about the situation poor Max had got himself into…” Her voice dropped to a barely audible whisper again.
“Is that why you didn’t tell the police about Max?” Winter asked.
“I suppose so,” Cessy looked more than a little abashed, “But it’s not as though I was withholding evidence. I mean to say, Max can’t possibly have had anything to do with that poor girl being abducted and…well, whatever. The police told us what happened. Margaret and I were shocked, I can tell you. Not that we ever liked or trusted the man. To be honest, we were a little afraid of him. Oh, he was pleasant and polite enough. It was his general manner, you see, it made one feel so uncomfortable without one quite knowing why. Max was appalled when we told him the news, but I could tell he wasn’t surprised that the man was capable of such a thing. Mind you, he was more concerned about the girl…”
“Where is Max now?” Winter demanded more brusquely than he intended.
“If he’s still here, you must tell us,” said Carol, “I promise we don’t mean him any harm, we just want to help. His mother is very worried about him,” she added intuitively.
“Oh, dear me, yes, that poor woman, I dare say she’ll be frantic!” Cessy Pearce exclaimed, “Margaret and I don’t have children of our own, of course. but I can imagine…Oh, yes.”
“So?” Winter persisted, more gently, taking his cue from Carol but ignoring her warning glare. “Is he still here?”
“Here?” Cessy Pearce seemed nonplussed, “Max? Oh, no. He’s gone, thank goodness. Imagine, if the police had found him here? They searched the whole house, you know, went through it with a fine toothcomb, even our bedrooms, Margaret’s and mine. It was a dreadful experience, I can tell you, dreadful. It made us feel so…dirty,” she added and began shivering. Carol went to her and put an arm around the other woman’s shoulders. At this, Cessy promptly perked up again and gave a little cry. “Oh, and I haven’t even offered you a cup of tea!”
As if on cue, Margaret Pearce propelled herself into the room again, a tea tray perfectly balanced across her lap.
“Do you have any idea where Max may have gone?” Winter was anxious to know even as he sipped at a cup of Earl Grey.
The two sisters caught each other’s eye. “Well…” Cessy began hesitantly.
Margaret interrupted her sister. “After all Cessy has done for that young man, and she probably saved his life, he didn’t even have the common courtesy to tell us he was leaving, let alone where he was likely to go next. Good riddance, I say. We’ve had enough, Mr Winter, more than enough. This whole affair has been most upsetting, not to mention bad for business. Not only do we have no idea where Max Cutler is now but, frankly, neither Cessy nor I could give a damn.”
For her part, Cessy merely nodded.
Now it was the turn of Carol and Winter to catch each other’s eye. Neither was in any doubt the sisters were lying.

To be continued on Monday