Monday, 2 July 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Twenty-Six


“Who is that horrible man Colin? Tell me, I need to know. What is he to you, anyway? What on earth possessed you to bring him here to Chelsea?”
“He’s a business associate, that’s all. Why are you making such a fuss?”
“Why?” Nina Fox fumed, “Because poor Pip is in hospital, traumatised after what he did to her, that’s why!”
“Poor Pip,” Colin Fox echoed with an ill-disguised sneer, “What do you care about ‘poor Pip? She salves your conscience about her father, that’s all. Oh, I dare say it’s handy to have an unpaid housekeeper too…”
“How dare you! I love that girl. I give her a damn good allowance too, so less of the unpaid housekeeper if you don’t mind. Of course I’m doing it for Nathan. It’s the least I can do. But I love her like a sister. I do, I really do.”
“I do, I do,” he mimicked. “Listen to yourself Nina. You can’t even convince yourself for pity’s sake,”
“I do,” she repeated stubbornly.
“So why aren’t you at the patient’s bedside administering champagne and chocolates?”
“Because, like you, I’ve been with the police for bloody ages as well you know. Besides, I’ve spoken to Carol and she assures me Pip is much better. When they say she’s fit to come home I’ll go and collect her myself.”
“Home…? Huh!” he snorted.
“Why are you being so offensive?”  She paused. “You still haven’t answered my question,” she hissed, “What, exactly, is your connection with Steve Williams?”
“I told you, he’s a business associate.”
“Oh? And what kind of business would that be?”
“It’s none of yours, for a start.”
“You always were a sneaky bastard, all smiles to everyone’s face and not a scruple when it comes to going behind their backs.”
“Oh, and hark who’s talking!”
“Meaning what?”
“Meaning, sister mine, your going behind my back with our father.”
“He’s still our father, whatever he’s done.”
“Whatever he’s done? To you, to me, to our mother…you are joking?  Give me strength!  Not that any of that matters any more, I suppose, now poor Nina has no one else to turn to…”
“That’s right!” she yelled, “There’s no one else since…mum died.” She began to cry.
“Spare me the performance, Nina,” Colin Fox shouted back at her. “This is me you’re talking to. As far as you were concerned, mum was never anything more than a useful crutch. When April Showers came along, you dumped her just like you dumped everyone else.”
“That’s not true!”
“It is and you know it. You don’t give a damn about anyone but yourself, Nina, you never have and I dare say you never will. You’re using Pip to get at Nathan, just like you’re using Max for the same reason. You don’t love Nathan. You’ve never loved anyone but yourself. You’ve already sacrificed him to the publicity being a murderer’s ex brings with it, not to mention a nice touch of notoriety. What I want to know is why you bothered to get in touch with me. How do you plan to use me, Nina? Planning another sacrifice, are we? Come on, give, sis, I’m all ears.”
Brother and sister glared at each other across the room. To Nina’s relief, the doorbell rang. She went to the entry phone, glad of an excuse to turn her back on Colin. “Hello?”
“Nina?  It’s Fred Winter here. Carol’s with me. Can we come up?”
“Push the door,” she told him and replaced the receiver. “It’s Fred Winter,” she said, turning to face her brother again. “Maybe you’ll tell him whatever it is you’re not telling me?” she declared, the evenness of her tone belying the turmoil in both mind and body. Much as she welcomed he detective’s timely appearance, she also dreaded having to face him again, suspecting he realised only too well that she had not been completely honest with him about Max. Should she tell him about Max and Ray, she wondered? But what good would that do?  It was history. Besides, it was all so embarrassing. As for any suggestion that Max and Pip were lovers, she needn’t go into that, surely?
Yes, she decided, she would come clean to Fred Winter about Max and Pip. Her resolve strengthened as she went to open the door to the detective and Carol Brady. It’s high time people knew there’s more to Pip Sparrow than the victim the little minx so likes to make out she is.
Nina started, guiltily, as her brother’s words returned to haunt her. Did she really intend to ‘sacrifice’ Pip? But that must wait. She flung open the door, greeting Winter and Carol with a broad smile? “Oh, but it’s just so nice to see you, darlings. Come in, grab a chair and make yourselves comfortable. Can I get you drink?  I believe you’ve met my brother, Colin…”
“Good to see you again,” Colin Fox strode forward and shook both visitors’ hands warmly.
“Can I get you both a drink?” Nina repeated.
“A cup of coffee would be lovely if it’s no trouble,” said Carol.
“Coffee would go down a treat,” Winter agreed, “Milk no sugar for both us,” he added without thinking. Carol glared as if to point out she could speak up for herself, but he ignored the unspoken reprimand and turned his attention to Colin Fox as soon as Nina had left the room.
“I’ll come and give you a hand,” Carol called after her and couldn’t help wondering why a rising star like Nina Fox didn’t have a maid as she followed close on the soap star’s heels.
“You’ll be wondering about Steve Williams,” said Fox, sprawling in an armchair. “I’ve already told the police all I know and, honestly, that’s not a lot. I hardly know the man. We’ve been in on a few business deals together, that’s all. He is…was,” Fox corrected himself blushing, “an accountant, like me. We work for different companies, but sometimes it’s not a bad idea to join forces.  A little rivalry is a good thing. but too much can sometimes prove costly.” He smiled.
In other words, mused the detective wryly, mind your own damn business, Fred Winter, you’ll get precious little information out of me. Winter chuckled. He wouldn’t waste too much time on Colin Fox.  They were two a penny, these types who liked to give the impression they were helping the police with their enquiries while, in reality, they were giving damn all away. “How well did Williams know Max Cutler?” he asked.
Fox looked genuinely surprised. “Did he know Max?” he put the question back to Winter, “It’s news to me if he did.”
“His name is in Cutler’s mobile phone directory,” said Winter matter-of-factly, “so I naturally assumed they knew each other.”
“You have Max’s mobile? Why, you sly old sod…” It was Fox’s turn to give a hearty chuckle. “Does Nina know that? No, she can’t or she’d have said. I wouldn’t mind betting the cops don’t know either.”
Winter shrugged. “If you’re a betting man,” he said noncommittally. “You’re quite sure Williams never mentioned Max in the course of your…business dealings?” he insisted, returning to his original question.
Fox shook his head. “I’d have remembered. To be honest, Winter, I don’t much care for the likes of Max Cutler. Nina is better off without him. If you ask me, she’s worrying herself sick over nothing. He’s probably attached himself to some other fancy piece for his own selfish reasons.”
Winter frowned. Obviously, Nina hadn’t told her brother about Cutler’s relationship with the woman, ‘Gypsy’. Was that down to pride…or guilt?  He must find a way to encourage the delightful Ms Fox to be more forthcoming. Was Carol faring any better, he wondered and swallowed another chuckle.  If not, it wouldn’t be for want to trying. “So, Mr Fox,” he said conversationally, “How long are you planning to stay in London?”
“Is that a diplomatic way of suggesting I don’t stray too far?” Fox grinned. “The police were nowhere near as subtle, I must say.”
“I was just making conversation,” Winter protested mildly.
“Ah conversation,” drawled Fox, “a dying art, so they tell me. So let’s do a spot of mouth to mouth, shall we? You first, Winter. You’re the one burning up with lots to say, after all…”
“Better that than holding out on people, wouldn’t you agree?” responded Winter with an answering smile that spoke volumes.
Fox pursed his lips.  This Fred Winter was nobody’s fool. Well, neither am I.  “I love the States. Bu, my, how I miss dirty, overcrowded, ugly old London…”
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Carol was having precious little success trying to draw out Nina on the subject of Steve Williams.        
“I keep telling you, Carol, the police too. Why does everyone keep asking me the same questions? Yes, I’m sure he’s the man Pip and I saw running away from the cottage. And, no, I hadn’t a clue my brother knew him. Pip and I were shocked when we came back here and found the pair of them chatting away like old friends.  If you must know, we were pretty scared too. When he followed Pip into the kitchen…”
“She was alone with him?”  Nina nodded. “I would have gone with her, but Colin wanted to know where we’d been and…heaven only knows what that creature said to her.”
“She said nothing to you about it?”
“Not a word. Oh, Carol, it’s all such a mess!” She collapsed sobbing in Carol’s arms. First Max disappears, and now all this. Where is Max, for heaven’s sake?”
“Not long ago you were telling me he was dead,” Carol reminded her tersely and felt the woman in her arms tense.
“I did think so…then. But Pip swears he was alive when she left the cottage.”
Carol pricked up her ears. “When Pip left the cottage? But I thought you were together?”
Nina sprung apart, pale-faced and looking haggard. Certainly, the woman confronting Carol bore little resemblance to the airbrushed beauty that frequently decorated glossy magazine covers for months as well as appearing three times weekly in April Showers. “That isn’t strictly true,” she admitted shamefacedly. “But it makes no difference and, well, it made sense to keep things simple,” she murmured lamely.
“What makes no difference?  Look, the coffee’s made. So why don’t we sit at the table and enjoy a cup. The men can wait.  I need to know what it is you’re holding back, Nina, and I think you need to tell me.”
“It doesn’t make any difference,” Nina repeated irritably, but did not shrug off the arm that assisted her to a chair at the table. “If you must know…” she began. The rest followed in such a torrent of words that Carol frequently had to make Nina stop and start again, more slowly and intelligibly this time.
“So Pip was in the house on her own and you went in afterwards?” Nina nodded tearfully. “And Pip says Max was alive when she left the house?” Nina nodded again. “But you thought he was dead?”
“I couldn’t find a pulse,” she sobbed, “but I could easily have been mistaken. I was in such a state. I was angry, upset…”
“Angry?” Carol pounced on the word.
“I thought Pip…and Max…I didn’t expect to find Max lying in pool of blood. I didn’t know what to think. It even crossed my mind that they may have argued and Pip…until that awful woman flung herself at me like a beast out of hell. It was awful, awful!”
“Woman, what awful woman...?” Carol was intrigued.
“Huge, she was, covered in blood. Came out of nowhere, she did, and flung herself at me. Somehow I managed to keep my balance and…dropped her. It was horrible, horrible.”
“Gypsy Kate,” Carol murmured.
“What? Oh, yes, I believe that’s what they called her. I had no idea she and Max were…lovers. I thought…well, he and Pip…”
“You thought Max and Pip were lovers?” Carol was incredulous.
“Pip told me so herself. You can imagine the row that erupted after that little bombshell.” She managed a rueful little smile. “Max denied it of course.”
“Is that what you argued about, why you threw him out?”
Nina barely hesitated before replying, “Yes.”  She suspected the lie would return to haunt her but saw no harm in it. It was hardly relevant and could do no one any good to know that Ray and Max were lovers. Oh, God, what next? She shivered, and was glad of Carol Brady’s comforting arm. 
“And do you still think Max was lying?”
“No. Oh, I don’t know. Teenager girls do get crushes on older men, don’t they? Maybe Max was telling the truth and it was all in her head. That’s the first thought that went through mine when that awful woman fell into my arms. Not who she was or whether she was half alive or dead, but that Max may have been telling the truth about Pip if he was having an affair with this…’Gypsy’ person.”
“And was she alive or dead when you left her?” Carol asked quietly.
Nina shook her head. “I haven’t the faintest idea. It was all too much to take in. I kept thinking I must find Pip so dashed out of the house and drove straight to the railway station. Luckily she’d missed one train and was waiting for the next. We drove back to the house. I thought Max was dead, but Pip kept saying he was still alive. We had to know for sure. We were approaching the house when we saw that horrible man, Williams, come out of the house and drive away. It was Pip’s idea to follow him, not mine.”
“So what did you intend to do about Max or even Gypsy? For all the pair of you knew they could have been bleeding to death. Didn’t you even call an ambulance?” Carol was appalled.
“I know, I know. But Pip was so determined. Besides, what good would it have done for the pair of us to get involved? It was just as Pip said. If Max was dead he didn’t need our help and if he was still alive, well, he could damn well call for an ambulance himself. I knew it was wrong. But I was so confused, upset and, yes, angry. Perhaps I was so angry with Max I didn’t bloody care whether he lived or died. I know, I know, that’s a terrible thing to say. But anger…well, it distorts everything doesn’t it?”
Carol had no answer to that heartfelt plea. Did Nina really expect her to help justify what she’d done?
“You won’t tell the police, will you?  Promise me you won’t tell a soul. What good would it do?  It’s pretty obvious this ‘Gypsy’ woman killed Max or at least tried to. The police think Williams killed her and presumably tried to kill poor Pip because he suspected she knew something.  Why put poor Pip through any more hoops? Hasn’t the child suffered enough?”
Carol was partially inclined to agree. Even so, “It’s not as simple as that, Nina, and you know it. I won’t tell the police, but I’ll have to tell Freddy. He’ll know what to do for the best. He can be an impossible, bloody-minded so-and-so when he likes but he’s a damn good copper and his heart is in the right place.”
“Do you love him?” Nina asked unexpectedly.
Carol gave a pensive little shrug. She was beginning to feel weighed down by everything and everyone…Nina, Pip, Freddy, Liam, Sadie, the baby. “Come on,” she rallied quickly enough without answering the question, “the men will be wondering where we’ve got to. I’ll take the tray, you open the door.”
As soon as the two women re-entered the room, Winter could tell from her tight-lipped expression that Carol had found out something useful. She was a diamond, and no mistake. He sighed, aware too that she was very unhappy and he wasn’t helping. Even so, he was impatient to get out of this place and see how much of the bigger picture she had managed to piece together. For another half an hour, though, he was obliged to contribute occasionally to a seemingly endless stream of small talk while, try as he might, unable to catch Carol’s eye.

To be continued on Friday