Friday, 13 July 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Twenty-Nine


“You can go and see the Misses Pearce while I go and have another word with Nina Fox and that brother of hers.”
“So why does it have to be me?” Carol wanted to know, “Why should I be the one to drive all the way back to bloody Canterbury?”
“Because they’re more likely to open up to you,” Winter cajoled, “As for driving all the way back to Canterbury, you could always take the train instead.”
“May I remind you, Freddy, that this is your investigation, not mine.”
“Oh, please yourself. You probably won’t get much out of them anyway, the mood you’re in.”
“I’m in a mood? Stones and glasshouses, Freddy, stones and glasshouses...”
Winter took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just that it’s all so damn frustrating. It would help if we knew what Cutler’s running so scared about. Did he kill ‘Gypsy’ Kate?  Is that what’s behind his doing a runner every five minutes? Somehow I don’t think so. No, he has something somebody wants, and wants badly. But what and who…and where the devil is he?”
“It’s a mess,” Carol agreed. “Of course I’ll go to Canterbury and see what I can find out.”
“You’re a treasure,” said Winter.
“You’d do well to remember that, Freddy Winter,” Carol teased and made no attempt to extricate herself from his unexpected embrace.
“How could I forget when you’re always reminding me?” He chuckled in her ear and kissed her on the lips. She responded and was disappointed when he gently but firmly pushed her away.
“I have to go. Apparently Nina isn’t needed on set until this afternoon.  If I don’t go now, I’ll miss her.”
“Yes, well, how can I compete with the lovely Nina?” Carol complained, but a twinkle in the lovely violet eyes told Winter that she wasn’t being peevish.
“You, my dear, can compete with anyone,” he assured her, “You’ll be the most glamorous granny of them all, you’ll see.” He realized his mistake at once and cursed himself for a bloody fool. The light in Carol’s eyes faded. The smile on her lips died, as sure as a candle snuffed out by a sudden draught. She looked away. “Carol...” he started to apologize.
“Don’t Freddy. Don’t say another word.”
“Why can’t you just be happy for them?” Winter blundered on, “Having a baby should be such a happy time, for everyone.”
Carol turned and looked him in the eye, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Of course I’m happy for them. I want to be happy for me, too, but I can’t. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know, I only wish I did. Well, maybe I do.” She appeared on the point of saying something else but changed her mind. “I can’t bear feeling like this, Freddy, I can’t bear it.”  He tried to take her in his arms again, but she retreated. “Don’t touch me, Freddy, just...don’t touch me. And don’t you dare say another word or I’ll…Damn it, I don’t know. I don’t know anything any more. It’s like that bigger picture of yours. I can’t see where I fit into mine any more than you can see where Max Cutler fits into yours.” She paused and collected herself. “I’ll go to Canterbury for you, Freddy. But don’t suggest I go to Herne Bay while I’m down there. That’s what you intended, isn’t it? Now, don’t deny it, Freddy, I can read you like a bloody book. They’re my family not yours so just stay out of it. Do you hear me, Freddy? No? Then read my lips, STAY OUT OF IT.”  She stormed out of the room.
As it happened, Nina Fox was not at the Chelsea apartment. “She’s driven down to Canterbury to collect Pip from the hospital,” Colin Fox told the detective while glancing at his watch, “and I’m afraid I have to be somewhere…”
“Could I use the loo before you go?” Winter grimaced.
“What? Oh, well, yes, I suppose so. Look, let yourself out, will you? I mean to say, if you can’t trust a copper…well, who the devil can you trust?” He gave a peculiar laugh that didn’t quite ring true and rushed off.
Although genuinely needing to use the toilet, Winter welcomed an opportunity to have a good look around.  He returned to the through-lounge in as much in a fog as ever. Crossing to the hearth he regarded Billy Pike’s painting. Crude, hideous, yet quite brilliant, it grabbed the eye and all but dominated the room. Carol’s words in Islington about the bird having flown, sprung to mind. The bird in the painting certainly wasn’t going anywhere, he observed with a dry chuckle. Its expression of sheer terror sent shivers down his spine and it was hard to believe the artist was still at school. Something else Carol had said at the same time came unbidden and unexpectedly to mind. Something about Margaret Pearce’s wheelchair, wasn’t it?  Woods and trees, she’d reminded him. Another dry chuckle rose in his throat. But she hadn’t reminded him, had she. “Let that be a warning to you, Freddy,” had been her exact words. Let that be a warning.
Frantically, Winter emptied the inside pocket of his jacket on to a table and retrieved the snapshot of Max Cutler and ‘Gypsy’ Kate that he’d found in the caravan. He turned it over and read again: K & M, June 2nd 2004 – thanks for a wonderful day – B. Could that be ‘B’ for Billy, he wondered? He peered at the signature in the right hand corner of the painting. If not the same scrawl, it was certainly very similar. Again, he rummaged among the clutter on the table and picked up one of the threatening letters Nina had given him. Carefully, he looked from painting to photo to letter, examining the handwriting on each. It would need to be verified of course, but he’d stake his life on its being the same.
“But why on earth should Billy Pike want to threaten Nina?” he asked the bird in the fiery bush. Unless…Perhaps the words ‘your turn next’ weren’t meant to be taken as a threat at all but a warning of some kind?  Winter continued to stare as if hypnotised at the painting. The bird…could it be a sparrow? He recalled what Gary Williams had said about the dead boy and the terrified expression on his face. Not that this told him much, Winter had to concede. Even if the bird in the painting represented Johnny Sparrow, it was only to be expected the child would have been terrified. Given that Billy Pike hadn’t spoken since the fire, it seemed reasonable enough for him to find other ways of expressing his horror of that night. Why, though, should Billy think Nina Fox would be interested? Then he remembered the boy hadn’t given the painting to Nina but to Max.  Winter shrugged. Well, why not? he asked himself. By all accounts the two of them were close. But why send the letters to Nina?”
Winter continued to speculate. Suppose there was no threat and never had been? Suppose the painting and the letters were indeed a warning? But a warning about what...or even whom?
The more Winter tried to tell himself he was being too fanciful for words, the greater impact on his consciousness the Pike boy’s painting continued to invoke. It was all so …weird. He started. Now, where had he heard that expression only recently? Ah, yes.  Gary Williams had described Pip’s expression at the scene of the fire as ‘weird’. Winter frowned. Even at the time, he’d thought it an odd choice of adjective. Distressed, stunned, shocked, any of these would have fit…but... weird?  Apparently the senior Williams had thought much the same. So had Steve Williams been exaggerating or...intuitive?
Winter shook his head and tried to walk away from the painting, but it was as if it had a will of its own and his feet adamantly refused to budge from the spot.
How many deaths had Pip Sparrow been associated with? There was her mother and brother in the fire, Ray Bannister - for whose murder Pip’s own father was serving time - and Steve Williams, killed by Pip in self-defence. Two of these would have been tragic coincidence enough…but three? There was Nina’s mother, too. He must ask her about that. This is madness, Fred, worse than clutching at bloody straws! Either you really have passed your sell-by date or...
His blood ran cold. The alternative was too appalling to contemplate. Yet, contemplate it he already had and must now follow it through. It could well be and probably was that Pip Sparrow was nothing more or less than the unfortunate victim of a tragic train of events. Either that, he confided mutely to a fly just landed on the painting’s wooden frame, or young Pip has an incredible talent for murder.
Meanwhile, in Canterbury, Carol was trying to comfort a near hysterical Cessy Pearce. “It was all true, I swear it. But we didn’t want anyone to make the connection, you see. If the police knew Max was Margaret’s godson, they might have found out about the flat and put two and two together. But it was all true, every word... well everything important. I did see him in Whitstable and he wasn’t in any fit state to drive so that’s why I followed him. He’s been here with that horrible Williams man too. After I brought him back to the B& B, he made us promise that we wouldn’t let on to anyone he was here, especially if Williams turned up, which of course he did. It was awful, having to be so careful all the time. He couldn’t stay forever of course. The flat in London seemed the ideal solution.”
“That was my idea,” said Margaret Pearce. “Cessy is quite right. Most of what we told you was true. As you can imagine, Max’s being here put a dreadful strain on all of us. But he was ill. The poor boy had received a very nasty blow to the head. We couldn’t let him leave until he was feeling much better or we’d have packed him off to London sooner.”
“But why tell Freddy and me that he’d been here at all. And all that stuff about his going off without a word…?”
“Oh, dear. We thought we were helping, we really did!” Cessy sobbed.
“That was my idea too,” Margaret explained. “We wanted to put you off the scent. At the same time…” She paused.
“At the same time you wanted our help?” Carol suggested.
Both sisters nodded. “We couldn’t betray him,” Margaret went on, “but he’s obviously out of his depth…” She paused again.
“We thought you should know something of what has really been going on because, well, you’re not the police and perhaps you can help him. You seem like a nice couple,” Cessy added with a tight smile. Carol drowned the laughter in her throat with a discreet fit of coughing. The notion that she and Freddy should be taken for a couple came as something of a shock. She couldn’t decide whether to be amused or horrified. “Are you alright? Can I get you a glass of water?”
Carol shook her head. “Just give me a moment,” she managed to say before hastily putting personal considerations aside and returning to the business in hand. “Sorry. I get a nasty tickle in the throat sometimes. Now, where were we? Oh, yes, you were saying that Max is out of his depth…”
“Well and truly,” declared Cessy, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
It stuck Carol as odd that she seemed more upset and concerned about her sister’s godson than Margaret did herself. It was the latter, though, who answered, in a clipped, no-nonsense tone of voice. “Max has always been weak. Oh, he can charm the birds from the trees and has the looks of a Greek god. But it’s a charade. He’s all front and no substance. I blame his mother of course. Annie dotes on him, and like most doting mothers has also been the ruin of him.”
“Ruin…?” Carol was curious about Margaret choice of the word.
“That does seem a little strong, dear...” Cessy ventured tentatively.
Carol glanced from one to the other. It was easy to tell who ruled the roost here. She sensed a degree of self-defensiveness in Margaret but didn’t doubt that she had always been the dominant sister. Perhaps, though, being forced into a wheelchair contributed to the woman’s dour expression? It crossed her mind and pulled at her heartstrings that she hadn’t yet seen Margaret Pearce smile.
Margaret bit her lip and gave her sister a long, penetrating look. It struck Carol that the woman was giving serious thought to her sister’s likely reaction to whatever it was she was poised to say.
Involuntarily, Cessy leaned forward as if anxious to catch her sister’s every word.
“He’s into drugs. The cocaine I know about, but heaven knows what else.” Margaret’s voice had dropped an octave or two.
“Oh!” Cessy gave a little squeak.
“I didn’t want you to worry, dear,” Margaret told her sister, hands clasped so tightly in her lap the knuckles had turned white. She turned to Carol. “That’s why I thought we should tell you as much as we dared without giving poor Max away. I see now, I was wrong,” she admitted, “and it would have been better for everyone if you could have spoken to Max yourself. I’m sorry we misled you. It was my idea, not Cessy’s. She was against it from the start. She told me I was being over protective and now I can see she was right. No one can help Max now unless he can be persuaded to help himself.”
“I did wonder if it was drugs,” Cessy murmured, wringing her blue-veined hands.
“How long have you known?” Carol contemplated the poker-faced woman in her wheelchair with mounting admiration as well as sympathy.
“He’s like a son to me, you see,” Margaret struggle to explain. For an instant, the tight lips relaxed a fraction and a light appeared in the woman’s eyes that might have been the prelude to a smile. If so, it failed to materialised and quickly lapsed into its customary enigmatic expression.  “It began just before he started to get involved with Nina Fox and that London crowd. He used to ask to borrow money sometimes. At first, I was only too happy to lend it. But he never returned a penny and the amounts grew larger every time. Eventually, I put it to him that his mother had far more money than I so why didn’t he ask her?  That’s when he told me about the cocaine. I told him I wouldn’t lend him any more money but would pay for him to get medical help, counselling whatever...” She paused. “He wasn’t even angry, didn’t throw a tantrum or anything like that. He just kissed me on the cheek and left without a word. We never discussed the subject again. I should have said something, of course I should. I don’t know why I didn’t. Heaven knows, he needs a firm hand.  I suppose I was…afraid…of losing him.  Oh, I’ve been so stupid!”
Carol was moved. This was not an emotional woman, yet she had poured out her heart as best she could.
Cessy rose, crossed to the wheelchair and gave her sister a big hug. “You mustn’t blame yourself dear. Max is his own worst enemy, just like that mother of his. It’s time he grew up, and it seems to me the best way we can help him do that is to help Carol and Mr Winter find him before the police do.” She turned to Carol. “Max told us the police would be looking for him but that he hadn’t done anything bad.  So you can imagine how surprised and relieved we were when they didn’t ask about him.”
“What else did he tell you?” Carol asked quietly.
“Not a lot,” Cessy admitted. She remained by the wheelchair, one hand in her sister’s. “Perhaps he confided more in you, dear, he always did?”
Margaret started to shake her head then appeared to have second thoughts. “He told me someone had been killed and there was every chance the police might suspect him of killing her.”
“Oh!” Cessy gave a little gasp. The grip on her sister’s hand visibly tightened.
“Her? He definitely said ‘her’?” Carol insisted gently.
“Oh, yes, it was definitely a woman. At the time I was too shocked and anxious about Max to give it much thought. Later, of course, I put two and two together. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that Cessy found him wandering around Whitstable, hurt and in a complete daze, and then, the very next day, we read how a woman has been found murdered in same street. According to the local paper, she was a bad lot, into drugs too. But I believe him, Mrs Brady. Max well may be headstrong and a little wild, but he doesn’t have it in him to kill anyone. Oh, yes, he’s selfish, self-centred and out for all he can get. But he can be very kind, too, and thoughtful.”
“And such fun to be with,” Cessy chimed in. “Margaret’s quite right. She may have something of a blind spot where Max is concerned…I’m sorry, dear, but it’s true…” She broke off to place her free arm around Margaret’s hunched shoulders without taking her eyes off Carol. “You can take it from us. Max is no murderer. Heaven’s no! He wouldn’t have the nerve, for a start. Oh, I’m fond of Max, very fond. But that doesn’t stop me seeing him for what he is. At heart, I’m afraid to say, dear Max is a coward. That’s why he’s running away now, because he has never learned to face up to his responsibilities.”
“Or his mother,” Margaret added bitterly.
“Or his mother,” Cessy agreed. “I often wonder what happened there, you know. When Margaret first brought her home, she seemed such a nice woman. Marriage was the ruin of her. He was very comfortably off, you see. So perhaps it was having more money than sense that changed poor Annie.”
“He used to hit her, the beast,” Margaret said, her tone sharper and more clipped than ever. “It was a blessing when he died. By then, of course, she was already lavishing all the love meant for the husband on the son. I felt so sorry for them both. But we all have our crosses to bear. We just have to make the best of things. There’s no point in thrusting them on to other people. It’s not only unfair, it’s cruel.”
“Do you know where Max might have gone now?  Please, please, tell me if you have even the faintest idea.” Carol pleaded.
Both women shook their heads.
“I think we can all do with a nice cup of tea,” Cessy declared and started to head towards a door leading to the kitchen.
“I’ll get it,” Margaret had already passed by her sister, “You can keep our guest company.”
Cessy obediently returned to sit opposite Carol. Neither woman spoke. Now and then, one would catch the other’s eye, conveying a polite smile before looking quickly away. There was much to digest…
Later, at the front door while saying their goodbyes, Margaret Pearce commented to Carol, “It’s not the police Max is afraid of, you know. It’s something to do with that Williams man and…”
“And…?” Carol prompted.
“When Cessy found him in the caravan, he was very anxious about a small steel box about the size of the average cash box. Even though he was delirious at the time, he wouldn’t leave without it. It was also the first thing he asked us for when he recovered his senses.”
“That’s true,” Cessy was quick to confirm.
“Do you know what was in the box?” Carol asked.
Cessy shook her head. “It was locked.”
“Max had the key in his jeans pocket. I found it when I was loading his clothes into the washing machine. They were covered in blood…”
“You looked?” Cessy was genuinely shocked.
“I thought it might give us a clue as to exactly what kind of trouble, he was in,” explained her sister, and had the grace to blush.
“So what was in the box?” Carol wanted to know.
“Not a lot. Some receipts, letters and other documents.”
“Did you read them?” Carol felt obliged to ask.
“Certainly not,” Margaret Pearce protested, “I’m not a prying person by nature, Mrs Brady, quite the contrary. That is, well, I did give them a cursory glance,” she admitted sheepishly, “but only because I was so concerned about poor Max.”
“And..?” Carol had to prompt her again.
“I saw nothing that made any sense. The letters were obviously very personal so, naturally, I didn’t read them. They all began ‘My Dearest Max’. I did skip to the end of one. It was signed, ‘K’. The other stuff didn’t strike me as of much importance.”
“That woman who was murdered, her name was Kate, although people called her ‘Gypsy’. I read it in the local paper. That must be it, ‘K’ for Kate!” Cessy exclaimed. “Whatever could Max having been thinking of, getting involved with such a person? Oh, but love letters,” she clapped her hands, “How romantic!”
“I hardly think Max is the type to put his life on the line for a woman,” Margaret Pearce was in no doubt. “Mind you, that’s always been the trouble with Max. He keeps his brains between his balls!” She nodded a curt farewell to Carol, swivelled round and returned to the sitting room.
“Oh, dear…!” Cessy reverted to her favourite phrase. In this case, thought Carol, it just about summed everything up neatly. 
“Everything will be alright, you’ll see,” she tried to assure poor Cessy who looked as if she were about to collapse where she stood. Cessy managed a brave smile. Nor did she close the door until Carol had reached the car and climbed into the driving seat.
Carol, for her own part, was still feeling more than a little daunted by Margaret Pearce’s raw philosophy, invoked earlier with such force and yet so little passion as she, Carol, understood the word, at the cutting edge of that woman’s strong, baritone voice. Moreover, more than a passing wave of sympathy for Max Cutler washed over her as she continued to stare, uneasily, at the steering wheel.
For the first time, she began to feel afraid for that young man.

To be continued on Monday