Friday, 20 July 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Thirty-One


“There’s no one in,” called a thin, hard-faced woman leaning against a broom on the steps of a house several doors along the road, “Dan Pike works on Saturdays and Mary’s just popped out to the shops. Young Billy might be in but he may not be of a mind to answer the door. A mind of his own, that lad,” she declared and returned to her sweeping.
Winter bent down and called through the letterbox. “Billy? Are you there, Billy? My name is Fred Winter. I’d like to talk to you about Max Cutler.”
There was no reply, but Winter could hear someone moving about. Stanley took no interest in the proceedings but was content to sniff around in the small front garden.
“It’s alright to open the door, Billy, I promise. I think Max may be in a lot of trouble and I want to help him. I’m not the police,” he added, I’m…” What am I, exactly, Winter wondered? “I suppose you could say I’m a private investigator. I used to be a policeman but I’m retired now.”
The door remained firmly shut.
Winter tried again. “Mrs Cutler is very worried about her son and has asked me to try and find him. I’m asking all his friends if they can help. You are a friend of his, I believe?”
Winter struggled to curtail his frustration. At the same time, he felt foolish. What on earth did he think he was playing at asking questions when the lad couldn’t - or wouldn’t - speak? “Look, Billy, my neck is starting to ache for bending down like this.” Winter sighed, straightened up, and waited. The thin woman was leaning on her broom again watching his every move.
After an even longer pause, a fresh-faced young lad, barely in his teens, finally opened the front door.
“May I come in?” Winter asked.
The boy subjected him to a long, searching look.  It was Stanley who broke the ice. The little dog bounded up to the boy, wagging his tail. Billy grinned and bent to pat the dog’s head. Glancing to his left, he caught the eye of the thin woman, still leaning on her broom, and poked out his tongue. The woman muttered something unintelligible and resumed her sweeping. Tossing Winter a conspiratorial grin, Billy stood aside for him to enter, Stanley close on his heels. 
Billy Pike led the detective into a small sitting room and gestured for him to be seated. Still making a fuss of Stanley but remaining on his feet, he stared enquiringly at his visitor.
Winter came straight to the point. “Do you know where Max Cutler is?” Billy shook his head. “Have you seen him recently?” Again, Billy shook his head. Winter extracted the snapshot of Max and ‘Gypsy’ Kate from the inside pocket of his jacket and held it out to Billy. “Did you take this photograph?”
Billy took the photograph and examined it carefully. His expression and body language ran the gamut from surprise to pleasure to an air of wistfulness, and then serious thought. Finally, he handed it back to Winter nodding his head. Winter hesitated but not for long. Indicating the smiling image of ‘Gypsy’ Kate, he said slowly and clearly, “Did you know she’s dead?”
It was Billy’s turn to hesitate but, finally, he nodded.
“How do you know? Did Max tell you?” But Billy merely shrugged and pointed in turn to a newspaper, portable radio and television sets.
“Some people think Max may have killed her,” Winter began. Billy shook his head and his eyes lit up with anger and disbelief. “No, I don’t think he did either,” said Winter and the boy visibly relaxed, “But I can’t help him if I can’t find him. I must find him, Billy, it’s very important.” But the sound of a key turning in the front door momentarily distracted them both.
“Billy? I’m home, love. What the…what’s going on?”  a woman Winter took to be Billy’s mother gasped with astonishment and alarm upon entering the room and discovering Winter there with Billy. Then she spotted the dog.  Stanley barked and made her jump.
“Shut up Stanley,” Winter growled warningly. “Mrs Pike? My name is Fred Winter…” he began, rising to his feet.
“I don’t care who you are, you’ve no right to be in my house let alone talking to my son. Get out, now, and take that animal with you before I call the police!”
“Mrs Pike, I…” Winter tried again, contriving a look of abject apology that was wasted on Mary Pike.
Billy took his mother’s arm, indicating that Winter meant no harm and he, Billy, felt perfectly comfortable talking to him. He took a personal organizer from a back pocket of his jeans and wrote the single word, Max.
“You’re a friend of Max?” the woman asked, still suspicious but marginally less hostile.  Winter nodded. “Oh, well, I suppose it’s alright if Billy says so. But you should have waited until my husband or I were here instead of barging in cool as you please and pestering our Billy.”
“I can assure you I’m not pestering Billy,” Winter started to protest, thought better of it and attempted a more conciliatory tone. “Max Cutler is missing,” he explained to Mary Pike, “and I’ve been asked by his mother to try and find him. I thought maybe Billy might have some idea where he may have gone since they are such good friends.”
“Max has been good to Billy,” Mary Pike agreed and her expression softened, “I dare say, you mean no harm. Billy seems to like you. He doesn’t take to everyone, that’s for sure.” She turned to Billy. “You don’t mind Mr Winter asking you a few questions about Max?” Billy shook his head.  His mother turned back to Winter with a stiff smile. “Would you care for a cup of tea or coffee?” pointedly ignoring the dog’s presence. But Billy caught her arm and pointed to Stanley, head cocked on one side, brown eyes appealing directly to Mary Pike. “I dare say I can the dog a saucer of water,” she muttered.
 “A cup of tea would be lovely,” Winter responded warmly, and then pointed to the dog. “Stanley would love some tea too if there’s any going spare. He likes it lukewarm with lots of milk…” he added with a broad, placatory smile. Mary Pike appeared not to hear, gave her son a look of mild exasperation and disappeared into the kitchen.
“I’ve seen some of your paintings,” Winter told the boy, “You’re very talented.” The lad’s face flushed with pleasure. “Tell me, though, why did you send those anonymous notes to Nina Fox?”
Yet again, Billy’s expression relayed a rapid change of emotions. The question obviously took him by surprise but he quickly collected himself. At first he shook his head in denial, holding Winter’s steady gaze with one of his own. Then he looked away, knelt down and signalled to the dog. Stanley, never backward in coming forward, scampered up to the lad and made no resistance when swept up into the boy’s arms. When Billy chose to look directly at Winter again, he was biting on his lower lip as if undecided about what to do next. Finally, he nodded although his expression was one of defiance. Certainly, there was no hint of shame or regret as Winter might have expected.
“Why did you send the notes, Billy?” the detective repeated.
Billy wrote on his personal organizer and held it up for Winter to see. Winter read the single word, ‘Pip’.
“You don’t like Pip, is that it?”  Billy nodded. “You don’t trust here either, right?” Again, Billy nodded. “The notes were meant as some kind of warning, is that it?” Billy nodded yet again, this time with tangible relief. “You think Pip might hurt Max?” Another nod confirmed Winter’s own suspicions about the girl. “Would she hurt Nina too?” But this time Billy merely shrugged. Winter tried another approach. “Do you suspect Pip of starting the fire?”
Billy nodded and wrote, again a single word, ‘deliberate’. He became very agitated and added, ‘dangerous’.
Winter nodded to show that he not only understood but was also in agreement. He was mystified, though, as to why the boy should wait until now to convey his feelings and said so. Billy shrugged again and wrote. ‘Who would believe me?  No proof’.
“So what makes you think Pip would deliberately…”? Winter started to say but Billy was already writing.  Winter read the word, ‘saw’. 
“You saw Pip start the fire?” he asked incredulously. The boy nodded. His cheeks has lost their rosy glow and turned almost white. There was a passion, too, in the boy’s eyes that Winter recognized only too well as desperation. “I believe you,” he said.
The lad’s relief was palpable. Winter pressed his advantage. “If you have any idea at all where Max might be you must tell me, Billy. Pip is dangerous. She might be sick but that doesn’t make her any less dangerous. On the contrary, she’s probably more so. If you ask me, she’s weaving a nasty little web and Max is as likely as anyone else to be caught up in it. Now, think very carefully, Billy, because I’m not going to ask you again. Do you have any idea at all where I might find Max?”
The boy gave a long, heavy sigh before writing again on the tiny screen, ‘Whitstable’.
“Surely not…?”  Although Winter’s immediate reaction was one of scepticism, he then began to consider the possibility more carefully. Why not? It makes sense of sorts. Who would think of looking for anyone at the scene of a murder? Forensics will have finished going over the place by now. Indeed, there was no reason for the police to remain in the least interested in number 22 Waterfield Road, none at all.
“Did Max tell you that?” Billy nodded. “When, where…?” Billy wrote, ‘school’. “Max met you after school, is that what you’re saying?” Billy nodded again.  Winter tugged at his beard. He had no reason to disbelieve Billy, but…why should Max confide in the boy?
Before he could put the question to Billy, the lad wrote again, ‘clever’. Winter could only nod in agreement. Then Billy wrote, ‘Nina’.  “He wants you to tell Nina, is that it?”  Billy nodded, plainly delighted to be able to communicate with the detective so easily. The lad wrote again, ‘note.’ “Max wants you to send Nina another note, this time telling her where to find him?” Billy nodded then shook his head and wrote, ‘sent’. “You’ve already sent the note?” the boy nodded.
Mary Pike reappeared with a cup of tea. “I’m sorry, Mrs Pike. Thanks all the same but I have to dash. Billy has been very helpful,” he gave the boy a look to show that he was impressed as well as grateful. Billy merely grinned and happily let Stanley lick his face. The dog jumped down and ran to Winter.
“Billy has certainly taken a shine to you and your dog,” observed Mary Pike laughingly as she accompanied Winter to the front door, Billy close behind. “He’s a good boy,” she added inconsequentially, I only wish…” but she did not need to say any more. Winter understood only too well what that wish must be.
Debating whether to go home or drive straight to Chelsea for a choice word or two with Nina Fox, Winter plumped for the former option. After a shower and a fried egg sandwich, he felt ready to call Carol.
Sensing that Carol regretted telling him that Liam was not her biological son almost as soon as the words were out, he had tried to be tactful and not pressed her. She, in turn, had lapsed into a morose silence for which Winter had been unable to find any words to break. Nor was this from choice or a show of tact. Her revelation had genuinely shocked him. Now, though, he was undecided as to whether he was shocked that Liam was not her son or that she had chosen not to tell him until now. She had once thought Liam dead until he, Fred Winter, had proven otherwise. In the course of their desperate search for Liam, they had become close, very close. He felt a sense of betrayal. Neither did the sure knowledge that he was being irrational make Carol’s refusal to confide in him until now any the less hurtful.
He picked up the telephone. No response, just a teasing ringing tone. He called her on the mobile; again, no reply. Concerned, he consulted with Stanley as to whether he should drive to Camden Town or Chelsea. The little white dog cocked its head on one side and gave Winter an accusing look. “Okay, so I’m a coward,” Winter conceded irritably, “But we have a job to do and, so help me, I’m damn well going to get on with it. And don’t look at me like that, either, or I’ll leave you behind,” he muttered. Recognizing this was no idle threat, Stanley turned away, tail up and refusing to wag, as if to demonstrate his displeasure then went to sit at the front door. “Sulk then,” muttered Winter, searching for his car keys, “See if I care!”
On the drive to Chelsea, Winter wondered what on earth he was going to say to Nina Fox. By rights, of course, he should warn her of his suspicions regarding young Pip. At the same time, he hadn’t a shred of evidence with which to back them up. “We need evidence, Stanley,” he called out to the little dog dozing in the back seat, “but how the devil do we get any?” The animal merely whimpered without opening its eyes. Winter sighed. “Dream on, Stanley. It’s not as if there’s much else to wag your tail about,” he muttered and remonstrated with himself yet again. Why am I talking to a bloody dog, for heaven’s sake? As for Nina Fox, “We can but try,” he told the white, curled-up image in his rear view mirror.
In the event, there appeared to be no one at home at the Chelsea apartment. Winter digested this fact with mixed feelings. He felt some relief and some concern. Why concerned? Winter scratched his ear. “I wish I knew,” he told Stanley. The dog was wide awake again and wagging its tail. “It’s not as if Nina is any immediate danger.” Stanley growled. “Do you think so? But why should she be, unless…” Winter swore aloud. Stanley growled again. “Okay, Nina will have received Billy’s note. Even if she ignores it, it’s sure to get her thinking. She’ll know now or at least have grounds for suspecting that Max is holding up at the cottage…” Suppose she had shared this knowledge with her brother...and Pip? “I don’t trust that man,” Winter confided to Stanley and swore again as he needed to swerve to avoid a motorcyclist who had not only appeared out of nowhere but was also showing no regard for a 40 mph speed limit.
His mobile phone rang. He glanced at the screen, saw that it was Carol calling and pulled over on to the hard shoulder. “Where are you? Why haven’t you been answering my calls? I’ve been worried about you.”
“There has to be a first time for everything I suppose.” Winter groaned. There was no talking to Carol sometimes. “Where are you, anyway? Nina said she drove all the way to your house and you were out. That wasn’t very polite of you now, Freddy, was it?”
“She should have called me first, the silly woman. Did she say why?”
“Only that she wanted to see you about something she preferred not to talk about over the phone.”
“She should still have called first,” Winter repeated irritably. “So where are you anyway?”
“I’m in Chatham, stuck in a traffic jam.”
“Chatham? What on earth are you doing in Chatham?”
“I was on the way to Canterbury that’s what,” she informed him coolly. Her voice sounded slurred.
“Have you been drinking?”
“Of course I haven’t,” she snapped angrily, “If you don’t know my views on drink driving by now you must be either stupid or deaf. No, I…Well, if you must know I thought I’d pop down to Herne Bay and…Well, maybe it’s time Liam knew the truth.”
“So why the change of heart…?”
“What makes you think I’ve had a change of heart?”
“The mood you’re in,” Winter growled.
“So where are you?” changing the subject.
“Somewhere on the M2 if you must know.”
“Oh? Going where?”
“I was worried about you. I thought you might have gone back to The Green Man to spill the beans to Liam.”
“You don’t think I should?”
“Let sleeping dogs lie, that’s what I say.”
“Yes, well, a fat lot you know.” She paused. “My God, you can be a lying toad sometimes, Freddy. You’re going to Whitstable, aren’t you?  You’ve got a lead on Max, haven’t you? The Pike boy did know something, didn’t he? But that’s the last place…so, why not?  I call that bloody clever, Freddy, don’t you?”
“Or stupid,” he muttered into the phone.
“True. But, look, you can’t go on your own. I’m halfway there already. Once I get out of this bloody traffic jam, I’ll follow you. Wait for me by the harbour. Don’t you dare go breaking into that house again without me to keep an eye on you or I’ll never speak to you again.”
“Carol, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I don’t give a toss what you think, just be sure and wait for me by the harbour. Honestly, Freddy, for a copper you can be so dense sometimes. Suppose anything should happen to you? Who would know? No, just for once, you’ll do as you’re damn well told.”
“Yes, Miss Parker,” murmured a much chastened Winter, but the image of his old schoolteacher, as vivid in his rear view mirror as if she were peering over his shoulder, was shattered as suddenly as it had appeared by a flurry of second thoughts. “Either go and see Liam or go home,” he told Carol bluntly, “You’ll only get in my way and, well, it could be dangerous.”
“That settles it then. Wait for me.”
“I mean it Carol, this could turn nasty.”
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Carol declared, mischievously echoing the immoral line Gone with the Wind.
“That was Gable’s line, not Leigh’s.” Winter reminded her tersely.
“So? Why should men always get the best lines?”
“Carol, I…Damn...!” She had already cut him off. He tried calling again, but only a female voice mail message crackled in his ear giving him the option to leave a message after the tone.  “Women!” he snorted, but couldn’t resist a broad grin. 
On the back seat, Stanley uttered a low ‘woof’ but whether in agreement or disapproval Winter couldn’t tell since the little dog’s eyes remained firmly shut.

To be continued o Monday

Please Note:  I will post an additional chapter on Wednesday next week, and again the following week; the story will conclude on Friday, August 3rd after which I am taking a break from blogging until October 1st when a new serial will start.