Monday, 16 July 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Thirty


“Thanks for agreeing to see me,” said Winter.
“Don’t thank me. Thank whoever pulled the strings to get you in to see me without a pass.”
“That may be but, even so, I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t agreed,” Winter pointed out.
Nathan Sparrow shrugged. “A visitor is a visitor. I don’t get many.”
“You daughter, Pip, she visits every week, I believe?”
“If you know, why ask?” countered Sparrow, the pale drawn face still good looking but as expressionless as the warder’s standing by the door.
“Did you know she’s been involved in…an accident?”
“They told me. She’s alright though?” The dark eyes lit up with a spark of genuine concern
“She’s fine. She’s still in hospital, but it’s only precautionary measure. Nina plans to drive down to Canterbury and bring her home. In a couple of days, I believe. I’m sure you’ll see her yourself soon enough.”
Sparrow nodded. “She’s a good girl, hasn’t missed a week since they put me in this hell-hole.”
“You don’t like prison?”
“What kind of a damn fool question is that? I hate it here, wouldn’t you?”
Winter shrugged. “So why are you here?”
“You know why. I killed someone.”
“Yes, really/ Look here, Winter, I don’t play mind games so whatever it is you’ve come to say, spit it out or…”
“Or what…you’ll return to that home-from-home cell you love so much?”
“Damn you, Winter, what do you want from me?” Sparrow raised his voice and sprung to his feet. The warder approached. Winter guessed Sparrow must have seen him out of the corner of one eye because he promptly sat down again, visibly struggling to regain a vestige of self-control. He continued to glare at the detective across the table, but said nothing. Instead, he kept taking deep breaths until he became calmer.
“Did you kill Ray Bannister?” Winter asked after a while.
“A jury said I did.”
“I’m asking you,” Winter persisted.
“You know I did.”
“So tell me. Tell me you killed Ray Bannister and why.”
“I’m sure you’ll have read a transcript of the trial…”
“I haven’t had time. Besides, I’d rather hear it from you.”
Nathan Sparrow paused only fractionally but it was enough to convince Winter the man was about to lie. “Yes, I killed Ray Bannister. I discovered he and Nina were having an affair, had been for years. We argued about it. I stabbed him with a kitchen knife. In France, I dare say they’d have called it a crime of passion. Unfortunately for me, this is England.”
“Who are you protecting?”
Nathan Sparrow threw back his head and laughed, “Oh, no, not you as well? Not, not that old chestnut again! Give me a break, Winter, can’t you? God knows, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told I’m lying to protect Nina.  It’s a pretty theory, I agree. It just so happens to be a load of bullshit. I love Nina. Oh, yes, I still love her,” he repeated as Winter raised a quizzical eyebrow, “but not enough to serve a prison sentence for her. Love may be blind, but you can take it from me, it’s not that blind.”
“You stabbed Ray Bannister in a blind rage,” Winter commented dryly.
“That’s different…”
“So we’re agreed you’re not protecting Nina from getting her just deserts, right?”
“I’m glad you see it that way.” Sparrow’s face muscles relaxed perceptibly.
“So who are you protecting…Pip?” asked Winter so matter-of-factly that Sparrow did not immediately grasp the question.
A spasm passed across Nathan Sparrow’s face. Winter winced involuntarily. He recognized fear when he saw it. Almost in the same instant, however, Sparrow recovered his composure, taking several more deep breaths before he uttered a word. “That is the most absurd suggestion I have ever heard,” the prisoner replied evenly, “It doesn’t even deserve an answer.”
“Even so, I’d appreciate one,” said Winter whose tight smile plainly threw down an unspoken challenge.
Sparrow took his time. “What is it about coppers? They get some mad idea and even get to follow it up, but no one ever thinks to put them in a madhouse where they belong and throw away the key.”
Winter shrugged. “Maybe it’s because we’re cleverer than most madmen.”
“The very idea’s insane.  Pip’s just a child.  She’ll be taking her A-level exams soon, for chrissake. Whoever heard of a killer taking A-levels?”
“They do say there has to be a first time for everything…”
“Pip would no more hurt a fly than…”
“You would?” The two men stared at each other, no longer glaring but sizing each other up.
“I didn’t mean to kill Bannister. I was angry…”
Winter waited for the other man to continue but Sparrow lapsed into a surly silence. Suddenly, he flared up again. “You have no right to barge in here and make outrageous allegations about my daughter!”
“You’re right, I haven’t. So get up and go back to your cell. I wouldn’t dream of stopping you even if I could. Go on. What are you sitting there for, listening to me babble on?” Winter placed both elbows on the table and craned his head forward. “Or could it be you’ve been thinking along similar lines yourself? God knows, a man has time enough to think when he’s inside…”
Nathan Sparrow stared straight ahead, not at Winter but, rather, through him. “Pip is just a child,” he repeated stubbornly, “just a child…”
“You had another child too,” Winter reminded him and was almost moved to apologize when he saw tears in the other man’s eyes.
“Johnny,” Sparrow murmured in a choked voice.
“Yes, Johnny. His mother too…your wife, Jane.”
“An accident, a terrible accident...”
“Are you sure? Are you really, really sure?”
“An accident, a terrible accident…” Sparrow repeated.
“Like the death of Ray Bannister? Pip was there, right? I’d say your family was pretty damn accident-prone wouldn’t you?”
Sparrow shook his head and appeared to focus on his tormentor again. “I may deserve to be in prison but I don’t deserve this, no father does. How can you sit there in all conscience and imply my little Pip could have had anything, anything to do with…it’s sick!  And you’re sick too, Winter. If you were a dog, I’d have you put down. But you’re not, are you? You’re a copper.”
“Ex-copper,” Winter pointed out.
“One a copper always a copper,” Sparrow retorted. “You can do what you like, say what you like, and the chances of your getting so much as a tap on the wrist for it are next to nil. You don’t have any children, do you?” Taken aback by the question, Winter could only shake his head. “I thought not, or you’d know that a child is the most precious thing in the whole world. Any parent would die for their kids. So you’re barking up the wrong tree, see?  I’d die, too, before I’d say a word against her, let alone even consider she’s…”
“A psychopath,” said Winter quietly, “I think the word you want is psychopath.”
“She’s an angel, Winter. Pip is my little angel. An angel, I tell you, an angel! So just sod off and leave me alone!” He leapt to his feet and strode towards the door with a curt nod to the warder to indicate he was ready to return to his cell.
“Does she smoke?” Winter called after him. Sparrow stopped, paused and swung round. “Does Pip smoke?” Winter repeated.
“No,” Sparrow all but spat at the detective, “It’s a disgusting habit.”
“So is murder,” responded Winter so matter-of-factly that even the warder gave him a queer look.
Sparrow turned his back and nodded to the warder again to unlock the heavy steel door.
“Ask her,” Winter called after him again. “I dare you,” he taunted. “They do say angels never yell lies, Sparrow, so ask her. ASK HER.” But warder and prisoner had already left the room and the door had slammed shut behind them.
Winter kept his elbows on the table, resting his head in cupped hands while he waited for someone to escort him out of the prison. Am I mad? It is only a hunch, after all, and a pretty sick one too. Sparrow got that right at least. So why is it squatting in a corner of my head like the bird in that bloody painting?
Although he had no answer to that, it gave him an idea.
“Go and see Billy Pike?” Carol stared at Winter in blank astonishment, “Whatever for?  The poor kid can’t even speak. How on earth do you expect Billy Pike to help us find Max?”
They were strolling on Hampstead Heath, Stanley scampering just ahead, tail wagging furiously. Winter, somewhat ponderously, told her his suspicions about Pip Sparrow.
“For heaven’s sake Freddy, have you completely lost it, or what? She’s only a child. Well, nearly eighteen, but that’s still a child from where you and I are standing. Talk about red herrings, you’re piling them up by the bucketful. Even if you were right, which I doubt, it has nothing to do with us. So let’s just concentrate on the business in hand and find Max Cutler shall we?”
“Murder is everyone’s business,” growled Winter, “but you could be right about the red herrings. There does seem to be more than enough to go around.”
“You’re telling me,” agreed Carol, with feeling.
“But you have to admit, it’s an amazing co-incidence? June and Johnny Sparrow, Ray Bannister, Steve Williams…all dead,  and surprise, surprise, Pip Sparrow manages to be present at each and every death. There’s the late Mrs Fox, too, don’t forget, although it’s true there’s nothing to put sweet little Pip on the scene at that particular sticky end…”
“Listen to yourself, Freddy. You’re being absurd. I’ve heard of clutching at straws but this is ridiculous. I agree there’s something, well, odd about the girl. But that doesn’t make her a killer, for heaven’s sake. Besides, it’s like I said, it’s none of our business.”
“You don’t believe that any more than I do,” declared Winter flatly. “You’re every bit as curious as I am.”
“Curious, maybe, but there’s such a thing as innocent until proven guilty and, let’s face it Freddy, you haven’t a shred of evidence. You’re always telling me not to make assumptions, for crying out loud!”
“I also recall telling you there is no such thing as coincidence, never mind a bloody string of the damn things!” snorted Winter, looking around for the dog that had disappeared into some trees. “I’m not making any assumptions either. I’m merely trying to focus…”
“On that bigger picture of yours, I know. But this time you’re wrong, Freddy.” She paused. “My God, I hope you’re wrong anyway. It would be too horrible for words if it were true.” She paused again. Winter whistled for the dog but Stanley did not appear. “What possible motive could Pip have for murder?” Carol challenged him scathingly.
Winter shrugged. “Jealousy perhaps..? She’s devoted to Nathan. Possessive women have been known to commit murder.”
“Women, yes, not children,” retorted Carol. All the same, a chill settled on her stomach that would not go away. For all his faults, Freddy Winter was nobody’s fool.
“Children too,” said Winter grimly, “although why she should kill Bannister, I haven’t a clue. Whatever she had in mind, though, it obviously went badly wrong. There’s no way she’d have knowingly put her father in the frame...” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Nina mentioned she was delayed that day. If she’d turned up on time it could have been her instead of Nathan the police found kneeling over the body with a knife in her hand…”
“Oh, come on, Freddy, now you’re letting that sordid imagination of yours run away with you?”
“A sordid imagination, is that what you really think?”
Carol sighed. “To be honest, Freddy, I don’t know what I think any more. If you must know, I don’t have any more faith in myself than…”
“You do in me, is that it? Well, thanks for the vote of confidence.” Winter strode head and whistled again for the little dog that still didn’t reappear. “Stanley!” he yelled.
Carol had to run to catch up with him. “It’s not you, it’s me,” she muttered crossly, “I’m all over the place at the moment.”
“Tell me about it!” Winter exploded/ “I know this business with Pip Sparrow sounds crazy, maybe it is, but I can’t get it out of my head. It’s spinning around like some bloody humming top and giving me such a headache, I can’t tell you…”
“Forget Pip Sparrow for a second. What about me?” Carol flared, “I’m falling apart here and all you care about is your…bigger picture! Aren’t I a part of that? Don’t I deserve a little consideration now and then?”
They had come to a dead stop on a grassy slope leading down to the ponds. There was a strong breeze. Carol’s hair looked a mess, he thought before taking in a hurt and anger in her expression such as he had only seen once before, years ago, when they had broken off their affair. Only days afterwards, her husband has been shot down in cold blood and he had so wanted to go to her, comfort her and little Liam. But Helen and he had been struggling to come to terms with another miscarriage and he hadn’t any comfort to spare.
Wordlessly, Winter held out his arms and Carol fell into them, sobbing. He led her to a nearby bench and they sat down.
“I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me,” he said gently.
“What about going to see Billy Pike? Shouldn’t we…?”
“Billy isn’t going anywhere. Besides, it’s only a long shot. He’ll keep for a while longer and so will Max Cutler. Now, talk to me.”
Carol snuggled against him and said nothing for a long time. Stanley had reappeared and was chasing a grey squirrel. When the squirrel scrambled up a nearby tree, the dog tried to follow but soon gave up and squatted immediately below a branch where Winter could just make out the squirrel, perched on its haunches, unconcernedly scratching its nose. Stanley began barking. The squirrel’s response was to climb higher into the leafy branches and disappear out of sight. Stanley flopped on his belly, yelped once as if from sheer frustration and remained there, stock still, eyes fixed on a lofty clump of leaves amongst which possibly, or possibly not, the squirrel had taken refuge. Could be, you’re barking up the wrong tree, old son, Winter mutely commiserated with the little white dog.
“I’m thrilled about the baby, I really am,” Carol stirred, lifting her head from Winter’s chest and fumbling in her bag for a tissue. “It’s just that…it makes me feel so…old. It’s not as if I’m likely to any more children of my own…or that I never wanted any…” She burst into tears. Winter waited. “I suppose I’m jealous,” she admitted, “Me, jealous!  I can’t believe I’m being so …stupid.”
“It’s understandable,” murmured Winter awkwardly, “Sadie’s a very attractive woman?”
“Oh, I’m not jealous of Sadie. I envy her, yes, but I’m not jealous of her. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to Liam.”
“What then?” Winter felt awkward, confused, “I don’t understand.”
Carol shrugged. “You and me both…. I suppose I’m jealous that she’s having a baby and… I never will.”
“You have Liam,” Winter reminded her gently.
Carol paused before lifting her face to his, the lovely violet eyes filled with tears. She shook her head. “That’s just it, Freddy. Liam isn’t my son.”
Winter could only stare in mute astonishment.
“I can’t have children, Freddy, I never could. He’s Sean’s son. His mother was one of Sean’s bits on the side.” She did not speak again for a while and edged away when Winter tried to put his arms around her again. “She didn’t want him,” Carol blurted, “and Sean did. So did I…He paid her not to have an abortion and she was only too happy to let us bring Liam up as our own. It’s even my name along with Sean’s on the birth certificate. No one suspected a thing. I just took a short holiday and came back with a baby, pretending it had come as a complete surprise. It happens, you know. Some women never even realize they’re pregnant until their waters break. Besides, people will believe anything if you can show them a piece of paper with your name on it.” She uttered a dry laugh. “Perjury was the least of our worries. We were so determined, you see, that Liam would never know the truth. Oh, I had my doubts, of course I did. But the first time I held him in my arms, I knew we were doing the right thing. It was the most wonderful feeling, I can’t tell you. I felt as though he were mine from the start. He was mine, is mine,” she said fiercely.
“Of course he’s yours,” said Winter uncertainly, shocked to the core, “There’s more to being a parent than biology,” he murmured lamely. What the hell do I know about being a parent, after all?
“But he isn’t, not really, and now that woman’s going to be a grandmother. Not me, her. And she has a right to know. Liam has a right to know. And I can’t bear it, Freddy, I can’t bear it.”
She wasn’t crying now, but her voice was eerily steady. Like the calm before a storm, Winter, brooded, wracking his brains for something to say, but only platitudes came to mind so he said nothing.
Carol rose and walked slowly down the grassy slope. The dog scrambled up and ran towards her. She knelt down and let the wiry terrier lick her face. The bloody dog knows how to show his feelings better than I do, Winter remonstrated with himself as he watched the pair, feeling horribly excluded. Unbidden and unwanted, young Billy Pike’s painting sprung to mind. Winter experienced a sudden rush of empathy for that poor bird in the pyracantha bush. Not for long though. Didn’t he have a job to do, a case to crack? 
Instantly, Winter brightened, self-control reasserted. Billy Pike had to be his next port of call, with or without Carol.

To be continued on Friday