Monday, 23 July 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Thirty-Two


“Colin and I have come to take you home Pip,” Nina Fox treated the pale figure in a hospital bed to her best smile. “Not before time, either, if you ask me. You look as white as a sheet. What or earth have they been doing to you in this place?”
“She’s just tired aren’t you Pip?” Colin Fox interposed, “If I remember rightly, you don’t get much sleep in hospitals. You’re kept awake half the night listening to people groaning and snoring, and then just when you’ve dozed off at last, some nurse wakes you up again with a cup of tea! Right, Pip?”
Pip nodded and flung them both a rueful smile. “I can’t wait to get out of here,” she confessed.
“There’s just one thing…” Nina began.
“Not here, Nina. It can wait.” Fox cautioned her.
“No it can’t,” Nina protested.
“What is it? What’s up?” Pip was anxious to know.
“Nothing’s up,” declared Colin Fox. Pip ignored him and studied Nina closely, quizzically.
“Before we go back to London, there’s something I have to do.”
“Nina…” muttered her brother warningly.
But Nina was determined. She had recognized the handwriting on the note pushed through her letterbox as the same as on previous notes. She still could not be sure it wasn’t Max’s since he could have disguised it and she had never been any good at recognizing handwriting. A sixth sense warned her not to tell anyone else although she had wanted to confide in Fred Winter and had even driven to Watford, but he was out when she called. “I need to go back to the cottage,” she told an astonished Pip, “I know it’s sounds ridiculous but it’s something I have to do if only for peace of mind. I keep having the most awful nightmares. I see Max lying in a pool of blood and that awful ‘Gypsy’ woman lunging at me like something out of Return of the Mummy. The police will have finished with it by now. It will be just as it was, an ordinary cottage like any other.  I need to see that. I need to feel…Well, ordinary again.”
“You could never be that,” muttered her brother.
A touch of sarcasm in his tone wasn’t lost on Nina who chose again to ignore him. “You don’t mind, do you?” she put itnto Pip, “You don’t have to come in with me. You and Colin can stay in the car. I won’t be long, I promise.”
“You’re mad,” said Fox flatly, “It will just bring everything flooding back and the nightmares will get worse.”
“They can’t get any worse,” Nina glared at her brother.
“I have them too,” Pip admitted and smiled encouragingly at Nina, “You’re right, it will probably do us both the world of good to go back. Colin can stay in the car while you and I…”
“Take a pleasant trip down Memory Lane?  Fox suggested.  “I don’t think so!” He let rip with an angry snort before stomping off in a huff wondering why Nina had let Pip stay in a general ward. He’d have expected his celebrity sister to insist on a private room. He sighed. Nina had always been full of contradictions. That same issue was still bugging him an hour or so later as he waited less than patiently in the car while both women braced themselves at the front door of number 22, preparing, he could only suppose, to wrestle with their demons within.
It was Nina who fumbled with a key in the lock, tentatively pushed open the door and was first to step inside. In a trance-like state, she walked through to the kitchen and stared at the spot where she had found Max lying in a pool of blood; there was still a stain on the floor. She sniffed. An odd smell was coming from somewhere but she couldn’t tell from where. She opened the back door to let in some fresh air.
 Everything was much as she remembered it. Although she was certain the police would have made a thorough search, there were no obvious signs. She turned to remark on this to Pip but the girl had already entered the master bedroom and was staring intently at the bed. Nina joined her nervously, more than half expecting to encounter the woman ‘Gypsy’ Kate in the doorway. “What are you doing?” Pip was leaning over the bed, both hands placed in the centre of a neatly fitting bottom sheet.
“This sheet is still warm,” she declared pensively, turned to face Nin and gave a little gasp. “Max!”
Nina swung round to fins Max Cutler at her elbow wearing only a lopsided smile and a pair of boxer shorts.
“I wasn’t expecting visitors,” he muttered sheepishly before crossing to a wardrobe from which he took a shirt and jeans sharing the same coat hanger and proceeded to dress quickly, without a trace of self-consciousness.
“Max!” Nina exclaimed again, completely at a loss for words.
“We’ve been so worried about you Max,” said Pip. “For all we knew, you were dead.”
“There was a time I wondered about that myself,” responded Max cheerfully, now opening a drawer, now sitting on the edge of the bed and pulling on a pair of socks.
“That woman, ‘Gypsy’…” Nina began
Max looked up sharply, “What do you know about Kate?”
“You do know she’s dead?” said Pip.
“We thought you…” Nina’s voice trailed away miserably.
“You thought I’d killed her?” Max was incredulous.
“Don’t worry, we know you didn’t… now,” Pip interposed. “The police already know who killed her.”
“It was that man Williams,” Nina murmured to no one in particular and went to sit down on a stool in front of the dressing table before her legs gave way under her.
“He’s dead too,” Pip told Max in the same helpful tone she might have used to give someone directions.
“Williams is dead?” Max stammered. The handsome face, already pale, had turned a shade of grey.
“I killed him,” Pip added casually. “He tried it on so I…”
“Killed him, just like that?” Max plainly did not believe her, nor was Nina in the least surprised since she still had some difficulty accepting the fact herself. The task was made no easier by hearing the girl calmly admit to Max that she had killed a man, elfin face impassive, voice utterly devoid of emotion. 
“He tried it on,” Pip repeated. “What was I supposed to do, let the bastard go ahead and rape me?”
“Rape you?” To the amazement of both women, Max threw back his head and roared with laughter.
“It isn’t funny, Max,” Nina snapped, putting one hand to her head that had begun to throb.
Max stopped laughing as suddenly as he had started. “You’re right, it’s not funny.  The very idea of a nymphomaniac fending off any man is bloody hilarious,” he snarled at Pip. The two glared at one another without speaking.
“It’s true then?  You two are... lovers.” said Nina after a long silence, looking from one to the other with undisguised contempt.
“Hardly lovers,” Max sneered. “Oh, I can’t deny it was good sex, but…lovers? No way were we ever that.”
“So why…?” Nina demanded although, even to her own ears, her voice sounded small and pathetic.
Max shrugged. “The little bitch was blackmailing me, why else?”
“Blackmailing you?  Why should a sex maniac like you need to be blackmailed before he’ll jump into bed with a seventeen year old girl still at school?” asked Nina, jumping to her feet and flinging them both a withering look.
“Go on, Max, tell her,” Pip purred encouragement. “Go on, I dare you. Tell her why I was blackmailing you. Or shall I?” she added with such viciousness and scorn in her voice that Nina, feeling herself go weak at the knees, sat down hard on the stool again.
“It was an accident,” Max glanced pleadingly at Nina before glaring at Pip again. “You were there, so you know damn well it was an accident.”
“What was an accident?” Nina’s head began to throb more wildly than ever and she felt faint but willed herself to remain attentive.
“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Max shouted at her and his voice ripped through her head like machine gun fire.
“Who, kill who?” she asked dazedly.
“Why, Ray of course.” It was Pip who answered, fixing Nina with a queer smile. Through a mist starting to form before Nina’s eyes, the girl’s face took on a fiendish look that she kept telling herself had to be in her imagination but wasn’t entirely convinced.
“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Max repeated, looking directly at Nina. “We argued. He’d been cutting sandwiches…was carrying a knife…somehow I…stabbed him…He fell…I panicked…ran…just kept on running…kept on running,” he repeated with tears in his eyes.
“Poor Max,” it was Pip’s turn to sneer,” No thought for your dying boyfriend, only himself.” She glanced at Nina when the latter made no comment. “You don’t have a problem with your bloke being a pouf?” pointing disparagingly at Max.
“Why should I?” Nina replied evenly, “You obviously don’t,” she flung at the girl, angrily shaking her hair so that it caught the sunlight streaming through a window and might have been a shower of sparks. “But Nathan…” she tossed his name into the arena, struggling to come to grips with what was being said. “Why should Nathan…?
“Lie?” Pip almost spat at her, “Why should Daddy lie? Why, but to protect you of course.”
Nina wanted to protest, but no words came to her rescue. Hadn’t she suspected as much?  So why, oh why, hadn’t she insisted that Nathan see her and made him voice his suspicions so…? So, what? So she could convince him that she hadn’t killed Ray, accept that he could have thought her capable of such a thing?  It was the latter, after all, that had destroyed their relationship, more even than his being in prison. It had left her with nothing.
Max, Nina reflected grimly, was not the only one guilty of running away. In a frantic effort to deflect attention away from her own thoughts, Nina turned on Pip. “You knew this? You knew, but said nothing and let your father take the blame? How could you do that? What kind of a monster are you?”
“If he was daft enough to carry the can for you, more fool him,” Pip hissed. “If anyone’s to blame, it’s you. If he hadn’t loved you, he’d never have put himself in the frame like that, never!”
“And that’s what you can’t stand isn’t it, that he loves me?” Nina hissed back.
“Dying?” said Max suddenly and stared at Pip, “You said I left Ray dying. He wasn’t dead then?”
“Not right away, no,” Pip admitted.
“So why didn’t you call for a bloody ambulance?” Nina was on her feet, screaming at the girl.
“It probably wouldn’t have done any good.” Max sank on the bed, head in his hands. “If only the silly sod hadn’t kept hold of that bloody knife! He looked up at Nina. “It was an accident, I swear. I didn’t mean to stab him.”
“Once maybe,” said Nina between clenched teeth, “But twice, three times? A frenzied attack, the police said, “and you’re asking me to believe it was an accident? You make me sick!” she glared at Pip, “The pair of you make me want to throw up!”
“I only stabbed him the once,” Max protested, and looked genuinely shocked.
“You were probably so spaced out, you didn’t know what you were doing,” Nina shouted, “Been snorting coke had you, Max? And where did that come from, eh, your girlfriend ‘Gypsy’ Kate? Is that what this latest little caper of yours is all about? Eh, Max? Rubbed a few people up the wrong way, have you? So why am I not surprised?” She was screaming at him now without even realizing it.
“I only stabbed him the once,” Max yelled back at her. “We fought, the knife slipped, and he fell. I saw he was bleeding and panicked. I went to stay with friends in Dorset. I didn’t even know Ray was dead until I read it in the newspapers and how Nathan had confessed. I was devastated.”
“But not so devastated that you were prepared to take the blame yourself,” Nina put to him coldly. Her voice had dropped to a throaty whisper. Her head was swimming. She put a hand to her forehead and was forced to sit on the stool again. “Oh, how the two of you must have been sniggering up your sleeves at me!” she groaned.
“You were the last thing on our minds,” Pip jeered.
“The knife slipped,” Max was saying to himself. “It did! It just…slipped. There wasn’t any frenzied attack, that’s absurd!”
“Then they can’t have the same radio, television and newspaper reports in Dorset as they do in the rest of the country,” Nina retorted, “or you’d know that’s what happened. It was headline news at time and all over again during the trial. But I dare say you were stoned out of your mind then too,” she flung at him bitterly.
“Maybe,” he muttered. “Well, can you blame me? Do you think I liked having someone take the blame for something I did?”
“So why did you?”
“You’re a coward,” Nina told him bluntly. “A killer, a coward and…God only knows what else...!”
“I did not attack Ray,” Max repeated and turned, imploringly to Pip, “You were there, damn it. You saw what happened. Tell her. Tell me.”
“I was behind the sofa,” Pip reminded him.
“What?” Nina exclaimed.
“Don’t ask,” Max told her and continued to question Pip. “So what, exactly, did you hear? Did Ray say anything before he died?”
Pip looked from one to the other, a strange look on her face, and took her time. “There was so much blood…so much blood,” she said again. A strange light appeared in her eyes that emanated neither shock nor grief. If anything, Nina was inclined to describe it as excitement. A sudden, terrible suspicion made her blood run cold. “There was nothing I could have done for him, nothing anyone could have done, so where was the harm in…” Pip went on and   turned on Nina, eyes blazing, “You were late!” she screamed. “Why were you late? You weren’t supposed to be late. It wasn’t meant to happen like that. It’s your fault Ray’s dead. It’s your fault Daddy’s in prison. .Everything is your fault. This whole bloody mess is your fault!”
“It was you...You killed Ray.” It was not a question. Nina’s voice was barely a croak as incredulity turned to horror.
“Pip?” it was Max’s turn to sound incredulous.
Pip quickly recovered her composure. “Prove it,” she hissed.
“But…why?” Nina was feeling faint again but managed to retain a focus of sorts on the petite figure standing, forlornly it seemed to her, by the door.
Pip shrugged. “It happened. How was I supposed to know there would be a fight? I was upset, angry.” She turned on Max. “I saw you and Ray in bed. It was horrible, horrible! He deserved all he got. You’ll get what you deserve too, both of you, just see if you don’t. I hate you.”
“But your father is in prison, and you put him there,” Nina murmured wearily, fighting to keep her eyes open.
“At least he’s out of your clutches,” Pip sneered. “He hates you, too. That’s why he won’t see you. It’s me he loves, and that’s why he only wants to see me.”
She’s mad, star raving mad.  The thought crossed Nina’s mind even as she swallowed some bile rising in her parched throat.
“You’re mad!” Max echoed Nina’s thoughts. The accusation stung Pip all the more forcibly for the quiet, flatness of his voice.
“I’m not the one of the run,” Pip reminded him. “So tell us Max, since it appears to be confession time all round, what or who exactly are you running from?”
“Yes, tell us Max,” said a new voice.
Three pairs of eyes darted to the doorway where Colin Fox stood, pointing a gun directly at Max.
Nina slipped off the stool and sprawled across the floor in a dead faint.

To be continued on Wednesday