Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Thirty-Three


“Colin!” Max Cutler forced a crooked smile.
“Hello Max,” drawled Fox without relaxing his hold on the gun so much as a finger muscle.
“You know each other?” Pip was genuinely surprised.
“Oh, yes. Max and I are old friends aren’t we, Max?”
Max glared at Pip, “You didn’t tell me you’d brought him along,” he said accusingly.
“You didn’t ask me,” she pointed out and gave a petulant little shrug before demanding, “What’s with the gun, Colin?  You don’t need a gun, for heaven’s sake. Put it away. Guns scare me.”
“They scare me too,” Max had to admit, yet with a rueful grin that enhanced his handsome features even further and reminded Pip what had attracted her to him in the first place, apart from the added pleasure of putting one over on Nina.
Nina stirred on the floor, moaning softly. Max moved towards her.
“Stay right where you are Max,” Fox barked warningly and turned to Pip. “See to her, Pip.”
Pip went to Nina and helped her back on to the stool. As soon as she felt able to manage, the latter wasted no time shaking off the girl’s arm. “Get your paws off me,” she told Pip angrily and was no less forthcoming with her brother, “What the devil do you think you’re playing at, pointing a gun at people like that? What on earth are you doing with a gun in the first place?”
Somewhat sheepishly, Fox pocketed the weapon. “You never know when you might need one,” he said without taking his eyes off Max. “I’ve had it ages. Don’t fuss so, sis. Everyone has a gun in the States.”
“This isn’t the United States and I bet everyone doesn’t carry one in their damn pockets even there,” Nina snapped, fraught with exhaustion. “Besides, you’re back in England now in case you’ve forgotten. We’re supposed to be a civilised country, for goodness sake.”
“It doesn’t hurt to remind the enemy you’re no soft touch,” Fox retorted with a dry laugh that sent shivers down Nina’s spine.
“Max isn’t the enemy, he’s…well, just Max,” Nina responded, trying to sound forceful while feeling as though she were teetering on the edge of another fainting fit. This is ridiculous, she remonstrated with herself, I can do better than this. At the same time she gave her arm a discreet pinch to remind herself that she wasn’t playing a scene. Improbable though it was, this was for real. “What happened?” she murmured to no one in particular, playing for time although she wasn’t sure why.
“You fainted,” Pip told her.
“Oh, yes,” Nina summoned up her best smile, “just when the conversation was getting so interesting too…” glaring at Pip.
“Pip, help Nina to the car and wait for me there. I want a quiet word with Max before we join you.”
“Get off me! I can manage quite well by myself thank you.” Nina shrugged off the assisting hand on her arm and succeeded in getting to her feet without assistance. “Anything you have to say to Max you can say in front of me,” she told her brother bluntly. “I don’t know what’s going on between you two but I mean to find out.”
“All in good time, sis, all in good time. Now, be a good girl and wait for me in the car. I promise I’ll come clean just as soon as Max and I have ironed out a few things.”
“Like what?” Nina demanded. “If you’re somehow mixed up in whatever mess Max has managed to get himself into this time, tell me, I want to know.”
“Do as he says Nina,” said Max, “It will be okay, honest.”
“As if I can believe a word you say!” Nina seethed and would have tackled her brother again, but a look in Max’s eyes made her think again. He was trying to warn her. But warn me against what? Not Colin, surely? It made no sense. She sighed, still trying to make sense of the fact that, by her own admission, Pip had killed Ray Bannister. Max may have stabbed him in the first place but it was she, Pip, or so it appeared, who had finished the poor man off. Feeling increasingly nauseous, she staggered towards the door, Pip close on her heels ready to catch her if she fell.
As she drew level with Colin, Nina tried to read her brother’s expression, but it was giving nothing away. A flickering grin failed to reassure her. Inconsequentially, she thought for the first time how much like their father he looked. What am I saying? she remonstrated with herself in dismay. The comparison filled her with a sense of foreboding she could not have begun to put into words. She didn’t try. Instead, she stumbled out of the house and towards the car. Beside her, Pip trotted like an obedient puppy. Nina shivered, reflecting that it was this same cool, passive composure about the girl that she had always found disquieting while  at the same time feeling obliged to let her feelings for Nathan override.
Inside the cottage, Colin Fox was once again pointing a gun directly at Max Cutler. “Where are they Max?”
“Where are what?” Max feigned ignorance.
“Don’t play games with me, Max, I’m in no mood, nor is Klaus. He wants the letters back, the ones you gave ‘Gypsy’ in lieu of readies and which she, in turn, used to try and put the screws on Klaus. That wasn’t very clever, Max, not very clever at all.”
“I didn’t know she’d resort to blackmail,” protested Max. “How was I to know she’d be so stupid?”
“She slept with you, didn’t she?” Fox observed dryly, “That must have told you she kept her brains in her fanny, for a start. Mind you, she’ll be sorely missed.”
“I take it Klaus sent Williams to get the letters and failing that…”
“He killed her, yes, the idiot. That wasn’t very clever either. It would seem no one has been very clever. So it’s up to you to break the mould. Tell me where the letters are and all the rest of Kate’s little mementoes of a colourful life, and then I won’t have to kill you. Klaus doesn’t want you dead, Max. He’s still very fond of you.”
“He wouldn’t want his wife and kids to know that, though, right? Not to mention his hardy Catholic followers who wouldn’t be so quick to jump when the boss says jump if they knew he really prefers men to women. Fat chance! Has he managed to get you into bed with him yet, by the way? No, probably not. He likes tough, handsome hound dog types with a touch of spirit. I’d say you’re more of a spaniel, all flab and heavy breathing.”
Fox’s finger on the trigger tightened perceptibly. Almost at once, though, he relaxed and smiled. “I haven’t time for this bullshit, Cutler, and neither have you. Now, either you tell me where the letters are or…”
“Or, what…?” Cutler challenged, “The women are…”
“Outside,” Fox reminded him, “so they won’t see a thing. You try to overpower me, we fight and...Oh dear, dear, the gun goes off.  Bang, bang, you’re dead. Oh dear, what a terrible accident. Who’s to say any different?”
“That won’t help you find the letters.”
“I dare say you have them well hidden. If I don’t find them, the chances are no one else will either. So they won’t be a threat, will they, not to Wiseman or anyone else you and that Spanish bitch may have felt inclined to put the finger on?”
“You’re bluffing,” said Max, resisting a nervous swallow. “You wouldn’t dare go back to Wiseman without those letters.”
“Oh, but I think he’ll sleep better for knowing you and ‘Gypsy’ are out of the picture, don’t you?”
The tension between the two men confronting each other across the bedroom was tangible. Like bull and matador, thought Max Cutler, grimly aware that the comparison placed him as the bull.
“If I tell you where to find them, how do I know you won’t kill me anyway?”
“You don’t,” Fox agreed, “but if you don’t tell me you’ll never know, will you?”
“Maybe you’re underestimating Nina, maybe not. But Pip, she’s something else. That girl has an evil mind and evil minds can read other evil minds as easily as reading a book. You kill me, and she’ll know. What’s more, she’ll let you know she knows. I feel sorry for you already…”
“The letters…!” Fox yelled.
“They’re not here, that’s for sure,” Cutler paused, and then, “I’ll tell you what, Colin, I’ll take you to them. We can even take your car if you like. You can drive. The women can tag along just to make sure I get where we’re going safely. They can keep me company on the way home, too, while you have a good read or burn-up or whatever it is you have in mind for the contents of Kate’s little red box.  Do we have a deal?”
“Like I said, if I don’t get the letters the chances are no on else will either,” Fox reminded him.
“Ah but do you really want to take that chance?” Max teased. “Klaus may not be quite as philosophical as you. He might even take the view that, since you too have failed him, he has no more use for you either. We’re all of us expendable, Fox, including you.”
Fox hesitated and appeared to be turning this over in his mind. Cutler forced himself to relax, silently praying for some respite, however brief, relying on the same confident smile that had got him out of previous scrapes to put the bullfighter on the defensive.
“Okay,” Fox growled, “but behave, or else...”
“I’m always a good boy, me,” said Max Cutler with a wink meant to convey a nonchalance he was far from feeling.
The two men left the cottage, Fox trailing a little behind.
In the car, the two women were sitting in the back seat, two pairs of eyes fixed anxiously on the front door of number 22.
“I never imagined Colin would even have a gun, let alone point it at anyone,” murmured Nina, more to herself than her companion.
“People are full of surprises,” was Pip’s only comment. It was enough to make Nina turn on her in a fury.
“Well, you certainly are!” she snapped, “My God, yes. Look at you, sweet seventeen, as if butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth and all the time…”
“Yes? All the time…what, exactly? Go on, Nina, say it, you know you’re dying to. All the time the time, what...?”
The girl was close to tears. Nina calmed down instantly. “I can understand you being attracted to a man like Max but…murder? No. You’re lying to protect your father, I realise that. But telling the police you killed Ray won’t help him. They won’t believe you, any more than I do.”  What am I saying? Who am I kidding? I’m not scared of I? The sound of her own voice was a great comfort to Nina. Moreover, even as she spoke the words, she began to believe them.
“My father is safest where he is…away from you,” Pip hissed, “and, yes, you’re probably right, no one would believe me. It’s true all the same. I killed Ray just like I killed that creep Steve Williams. What’s more, I enjoyed every second of it.”
“No one blames you for killing a man who tried to rape you,” said Nina gently only to be completely taken aback by Pip’s reaction.
Pip burst out laughing. “Rape me? Oh, he wanted sex all right, but that’s all. Me, I had something else in mind.” The laughter ceased abruptly and the elfin face blazed contempt. “So the bastard got more than he bargained for, so what?” She appeared to relax, her tone merely conversational. “He deserved everything he got. What do they call it, poetic justice?”
Nina stubbornly refused to believe it. “No!” She shook her head, “This is some stupid fantasy of yours, and I suggest you snap out of it young lady or you’ll make a lot of trouble for yourself.”
“A fantasy...? You should be so lucky. Rather, I should say that cow of a mother of yours...”
“My mother, what do you mean?”
“I can’t imagine why the vodka didn’t show up in the post-mortem. Maybe she looked such a mess nobody thought to test for alcohol, what with the truck driver admitting it was his fault. Huh! Like hell, it was. The woman was drunk if she had but known it. There again, I suppose vodka in hot lemon mightn’t show up anyway. What do you reckon?”  But Nina could only stare, appalled. “Oh, look, the men are coming out. Something tells me we’re in for a little joyride. Max doesn’t look too happy, does he?”
Nina turned and looked out of the car window, glad of a distraction. She kept telling herself that Pip was lying. The poor girl had been through a terrible ordeal that had affected her mind. It was only to be expected, after all. The awful strain was sure to tell one way or another. What do they call it…posttraumatic stress?  Yes, that’s it. Poor Pip is so stressed she doesn’t know what she was saying. Lacing Mother’s hot lemon drink with vodka, the very idea!  Either Pip had been watching too much television or reading too many crime novels. On the other hand…But she wouldn’t think about that. The alternative was unthinkable, too sick even for a mixed-up teenager’s fantasy. Even so, she couldn’t deny that Pip had sounded horribly plausible. Her head began spinning again. It took every ounce of willpower to peer through a grey fog threatening to engulf her and struggle to focus on the poorly defined shapes of two figures approaching the vehicle.
The fog cleared as quickly as it had overtaken her. Nina observed the two men as they climbed into the car, Max in the driving seat. Both men, she thought, looked tense, her brother the more so. Max appeared outwardly relaxed, but she wasn’t fooled. Colin had a determined look about him she recognized of old and she might have been looking at their father’s tight lips and jutting jaw. Invariably, both always meant there was trouble in store. But what kind of trouble, exactly, and for whom, she wondered nervously? She kept telling herself that her own brother couldn’t possibly mean her any harm, but wasn’t entirely convinced.
As for Max, Nona met his eyes fleetingly in the rear view mirror, confirming her worst fears. There was no mistaking the expression she read in them. Max was frightened for his life.
Nina lay back and closed her eyes. What should she do? What could she do when she couldn’t even think straight? This whole situation was surreal, worse than dying on stage. Not that she ever had died on stage. It remained a blot on her professional career that no one had ever offered her a stage part. A better analogy perhaps was that sickening sense of being written out of a sit-com only a few months prior to April Showers, dumped without even an opportunity to make a dramatic exit.  Almost at once her face lit up. Audiences had never taken off whereas April Showers... I’m famous now. Nothing and no one can touch me. The ghost of Ray Bannister rose before her eyes only to vanish like a puff of smoke.
Nina gave herself a metaphorical shaking. She mustn’t think about Ray. As for Max, he could take care of himself well enough. Nor was Colin the hard man he liked to play at sometimes. It was all performance with him, too, so nothing to worry about unduly there. And Pip? Nina wished she could fall asleep. On the contrary, although her eyes stayed closed, she remained wide-awake. The spinning top in her head was suddenly replaced by a caricature of Pip Sparrow’s face, its eyes and mouth invoking a cruel humour for which no amount of subconscious effort could put aside or make excuses.
Yes, Nina finally conceded with a sinking feeling as the ugly face spun and slowed, spun and slowed in her mind’s eye…of Pip she was afraid.
“Where are we going?” Pip wanted to know.
“You had better ask our chauffeur,” said Colin Fox lightly, stroking the revolver in his hand as if it were a pet.
“We’re heading for Canterbury,” Pip commented.
“So why ask?” growled Max.
“I just wondered, that’s all, there’s no need to bite my head off.”
Max said nothing but gritted his teeth and concentrated on the road ahead. Loath though he was to involve the Pearce sisters in this unholy mess he had got himself into, he couldn’t didn’t see that he had any choice. Glancing in the wing mirror, he saw a white Ford Sierra on his tail and instinctively slammed his foot on the accelerator. Nina had opened her eyes. They exchanged glances. Try as he might, he could spot no clue in them as to how she was feeling. Did she still care for him, he wondered? Did he still care for her?  Did we ever really care for each other? But if these had been rhetorical questions, the answers that nevertheless sprung to mind surprised even Max himself.
Nina kept her eyes on the receding Sierra. There was no sign of Fred Winter’s blue Volvo that she had glimpsed barely a minute ago. Had anyone else noticed? She could only pray they hadn’t and glanced furtively at Pip. Pip, though, seemed to be engrossed in a mermaid tattoo on the back of Colin’s neck. Nina permitted herself a small sigh of relief but could not bring herself to speculate what Fred Winter might be planning. For now, at least, it was enough to know he was on their trail.

To be continued on Friday