Friday, 11 October 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 3

Bloody hell, Fred, you’re slipping! Winter remonstrated with himself as soon as Carol Brady opened her front door to him an hour later. He recognized her at once. 
True, Brady was a common enough name but the fact it had meant nothing to him didn’t say much for his copper’s nose, not to mention his memory. She was older, of course, but she’d kept her figure and could still turn heads, he’d bet on it.  It had to be a good twenty years, surely, since her husband, Sean, was shot in cold blood in his own house?  And Liam, what of the child who could only have been about five years old when he’d seen his father gunned down?  (How could he have forgotten the child’s name?)
“Well, well,” murmured Carol Brady, also remembering, “If it isn’t Freddy Winter. They must have made you a Chief Super by now, surely?”
“Err, Inspector. Well, ex-Inspector. They pensioned me off. It will be nearly two years soon.”
“So what brings you to this neck of the woods? Helen kicked you out for getting under her feet all the time, has she?”
“Helen died a year ago.”
Carol Brady looked genuinely sorry and opened the door wider. “I suppose you had better come in.”
As he entered the ground floor flat of a terraced house in North Street, he couldn’t refrain from mentally kicking himself. How could he have forgotten her? Only, he hadn’t, had he? He’d simply blocked her out because it was convenient and made him feel less uncomfortable. What sort of copper did that? More to the point, what did it say about the kind of man he was? 
Winter brushed both questions aside. He was getting sick and tired of being relentlessly cross-examined by his alter ego.        
“It’s a small world,” Carol Brady was saying as she showed him into a sitting room at the front of the house. “But not that small,” she added meaningfully. “Sit yourself down and I’ll fix us a drink. I have a feeling I may need one and you look as if you’ll fall down without a double.  I take it, you had no idea I was living here?”
“No drink, thanks. I’m driving. To be honest, I didn’t even know you’d moved back to London.”
“Honestly?”  The heavily pencilled eyebrows shot up and he took her meaning. Neither, though, was prepared to put into words what hung over them like the sword of Damocles. “It wasn’t easy, I can tell you. But I missed the place. You know what they say. East, west, home’s best.”
“But you’re from Leeds. I thought that was why you went back, to be home.”
“Yes, well, so did I but...” She sighed, ‘There always has to be a ‘but’, right?”
She shrugged. “I was wrong. End of story.” She handed him a large whiskey. He shook his head. “Go ahead.  It’s not as if we can’t both use one. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you drown in black coffee later.”  Matching her grim smile with one of his own, he accepted. They touched glasses. “Here’s to…whatever and… whatever.”
“To whatever...”
They drank and she refilled both glasses before placing the bottle a hand’s reach away on a low, glass top coffee table. “So, if this isn’t a social call and it can’t be official since you’re what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I’m sorry about Liam.” He drained his glass and reached for the bottle but had second thoughts.
She flung him a look of wry surprise and had no such compunction about topping up her own glass.  “You always did have a nose for everything, Freddy Winter. It’s like they say, I guess…once a copper always a copper.” He winced. No one else had ever called him Freddy. “So come on, cough. What the hell do you want?”
He told her about Julie Simpson’s visit and how Audrey Ellis had accused her, Carol, of being less than kind to Ruth Temple.
“So what damn business is it of yours anyway?” she wanted to know.
Winter shrugged. “Let’s just say I’ve been asked to clear up some loose ends shall we?”
“Poke your nose in, you mean,” she retorted. Her eyes flashed angrily. She had lovely eyes, he reflected involuntarily.  “How dare you walk back into my life, cool as you please, and accuse me, ME, of upsetting that silly cow?  It’s me who’s lost an only child. I’m the one who should be a candidate for the funny farm, not her”.
“She’s dead,” he reminded her.
“Oh? Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. She was just the type to...”
“Commit suicide?”
“You said it. I’m telling you, she was a bag of nerves.”
Winter frowned. Carol Brady’s assessment did not fit the image of Ruth Temple he had so far. “So why be so hard on her?” he asked with a directness that had her reaching for the two-thirds empty whiskey bottle.
“I wasn’t. If anything, it was the other way around.” She drained her glass, refilled it and sat back in an ugly, shabby armchair without relinquishing the bottle. “She came to the funeral service we had for Liam. That’s about as far as you get when you haven’t got a body,” she explained with a cynical matter-of-factness that he would never have expected from the bubbly, warm-hearted woman he’d known years ago. “They said he might be washed up somewhere along the coast but, there again, he might not. He wasn’t.” She paused and took another sip from the glass. “We gave him a good send-off all the same.” She smiled as if remembering...
Her smile conveyed the oddest expression, not so much wistful as resentful but not quite that either.  Winter was disconcerted. It disturbed him no end to see her like this. He waited.
“She was okay at the service, the Temple woman I mean,” Carol went on, “She kept saying how sorry she was and it really got on my nerves but not half as much as she did later on. She kept phoning to ask how I was, and then she’d start asking all sorts of questions about Liam. I couldn’t do with it, Freddy, I really couldn’t.  She blamed herself for Liam’s getting a ‘thing’ about Monk’s Tallow. It was true enough, but she didn’t know the half of it. I told her to leave well alone and move on.  For heaven's sake, Freddy, I’m his mother! If I can make a stab at moving on, so could she. But she was having none of it so I changed the bloody phone number, didn’t I?  But did that put her off? No such luck. She started writing, still asking about Liam. Talk about taking liberties! I mean to say, she hardly knew him for heaven’s sake. It was driving me nuts.”
Winter grimaced, the irony not lost on him that, according to Audrey Ellis, Ruth had used the same phrase with reference to Carol. .
“What else could I do? I went round there and had it out with her, told her to leave me alone in no uncertain terms.”
“She agreed?”
“Not really, no. She did lay off Liam for a bit but then she wanted to know all about some friend of hers in Monk’s Tallow that she hadn’t seen for donkey’s years.”
“Don’t tell me…Sarah Manners?”
“That’s the one. I told here she was flogging a dead horse.” She paused, uttering a dry laugh as the familiar phrase hit home. “Are you sure you don’t want another drink?”  Winter shook his head. Carol Brady shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
“How well did you know Sarah Manners?”
 “I can’t say that I knew her at all, really.  I only met the woman once and then only because I was concerned about how much time Liam was spending in Monk’s Tallow. It was unsettling him. So I went down one day to have it out with him. Sarah Manners joined us for lunch in the pub. Not that you’d call it lunch as such, just a few beers and a packet of peanuts. She kept going on about the weather. I can’t say that I took to her one bit.  Not that I took against her either, if you know what I mean. Well, maybe I did,” Carol grinned artlessly, “but she was harmless enough, I suppose. I dare say she was only trying to make up for Liam barely saying a word.  No matter how hard I tried, Freddy, I couldn’t get into his head during that last year, never even came close. So she’d hardly have a clue, would she, the poor cow?  She probably had us down for a lost cause as far as mother-son relationships go.” 
Tears filled the striking violet eyes and she blinked them away. “Damn and damn it!” This time she took a swig straight from the bottle.
Grief, or was Carol Brady an alcoholic?  Winter did not care to hazard a guess and pressed on. “What did Ruth Temple want to know? What kind of questions did she keep asking?”
“About Liam, do you mean, or Sarah Manners?” 
“Either or both…whichever comes to mind.”
“You do know you’re being a real pain in the neck, Freddy?  I don’t need this hassle. So why don’t I just kick you out now and be done with it?”
 “And forgo the pleasure of drowning me in black coffee? I don’t think so,” inviting her to respond to a twinkle in the eyes as he knew she would. Hadn’t she always?
“Damn you too, Freddy Winter,” she chuckled.
It was a dry, hoarse sound but he thought he detected a faint hint of the fruity chuckle that had led him to be unfaithful to Helen. It had been his only lapse. He’d confessed. She had forgiven him. Their life together had never been quite the same of course but how could he have expected otherwise? Nor had he expected, or deserved  that, in time, both their marriage and their love had grown stronger than ever. “You were saying about Ruth Temple?” he prompted Carol.
“Why didn’t you come to see us after Sean died?” she put to him instead.
Winter shrugged. “It wasn’t my case.”
“Is that all I was by then, a case?” she spluttered into her glass and took another sip.
“We’d split up,” he reminded her, “It was none of my business.”
“I thought it was a copper’s vocation to mind everyone else’s business?”
 “Not another copper’s business, it isn’t,” he replied evenly and tried not to let her see that she had rattled him. Her expression told another story. Even after all these years, she knew him too well not to realize she was sailing close to the wind and was relishing it.
 “Liam kept asking for you.”
 Winter winced. “It wouldn’t have been appropriate,” he insisted.
“To hell with appropriate, Freddy! We needed you. But not a word from you, not a bleeding word. You didn’t phone. You didn’t write. Ralph Cotter could have shot all three of us for all you gave a toss.  You can’t begin to imagine what it was like, no one could. I was left with a dead husband they wouldn’t let me bury for weeks on my hands and a five-year-old in shock who’d seen his dad murdered before his very eyes. And did everyone come rushing to help? Like hell they did. Oh there were all the usual suspects that go with a big police job of course, not to mention a shrink who was supposed to be brilliant with kids. Huh! She never got the chance to prove it with my Liam, I can tell you. He couldn’t stand her from the off.”
“Did he ever talk about it?”
“Not much and what he did say was down to me. He needed to talk, get it out of his system. Any fool could see that. I told ’em to leave it to me but, oh no, everyone else knew better. I was only his mum, after all. So they let the so-called experts scare him half to death and he never did open up properly. He turned in on himself, the way kids do sometimes. He was stubborn, too, like his dad. No power on earth was going to make him talk if he didn’t want to. Not that he didn’t want to, I think he did,” she corrected herself, “But he was just five and small for his age. It must have seemed to him like he was being got at by aliens, the poor kid.”
“I seem to recall that he and Sean were close.”
“Like hand and glove. That’s what made it so awful. He never asked about his dad, you see. Not till he started going down to Monks bloody Tallow, he didn’t, anyhow.  I could have strangled Julie when I found out. As for her Auntie Ruth...” She paused and gave a long sigh. “No one’s fault really of course...” as the fingers of one hand played idly with a wedding ring on the other. “He’d ask for his teddy bear all the time but never his dad.”
“His teddy bear…?”
“As far as anyone could make out, Liam came downstairs with his teddy bear just as Ralph shot Sean. We think Liam ran after Ralph and tried to get into the car. Ralph often took him for rides.  I know it sounds daft, with his dad lying on the floor bleeding to death, but he must have been terrified and, well, they were best mates him and Liam. Ralph must have pushed Liam away and, for whatever reason, took off with the bloody teddy bear. The bane of my life for years, it was, that bear. It was one of a pair that used to belong to Liam’s grandfather.”
“Tweedledeaf and Tweedledumb…” Winter murmured and was more than slightly taken aback that that such a distant, inconsequential memory should have sprung, unbidden, to mind. 
“Fancy you remembering that! Yes. One with its ears ripped off and the other one with no gob!”  She paused again, lost in thought. “It was poor old deafie we lost. Liam spent hours, years, comforting the bear that got left behind. I suppose he must have identified with it or something.”
“Or something...” Winter agreed and added, almost as an afterthought, “I’m sorry. It must have been terrible for you both.”  He spread his hands apologetically.
She recalled the gesture vividly. Hadn’t he said and done the self-same thing all those years ago when he’d told her it was over and he was going back to Helen?  She’d always known he would of course. Helen Winter had everything…looks, style, charm…the lot. She had also just had a second miscarriage and Freddy was having a bad time of it too. There was no point in crying over spilt milk. Besides, she’d done with crying over men. It troubled her, though, that she hadn’t even been able to cry for Liam.
“Ruth Temple was like a dog at a bone,” Carol resumed suddenly. Winter started but was instantly all ears, the more so for being let off the hook so easily. “She wasn’t going to let go so, in the end, I suppose you could say I really gave her something to chew on.”
Winter waited.
“Did you ever meet Ralph Cotter?”
He became fidgety. She wasn’t going to let the past alone, was she?
“Not personally, no.”
“It probably felt as if you did though, right? Seeing his face plastered all over the media for weeks"
 “I remember it of course. But Helen and I were away a lot of the time.”
“So you were, I forgot. You pissed off to a fancy villa in Spain.”
 “A time share apartment,” he corrected her.
“Whatever. So were you back in time for the grand finale? You do remember what happened?”
  “Cotter had some kind of accident, I believe.”
  “You believe? Didn’t show much interest, did you? I wonder why?”
  “What has all this got to do with Ruth Temple?” he countered testily. 
"I'd have thought that was obvious. They found what was left of Ralph  in the burnt out remains of his old Ford... at the bottom of a cliff in Monks Tallow. I tell you, Freddy, if I believed in such things I’d say the damn place has a curse on it.”  
  Winter’s stomach turned a double somersault. “You told Ruth Temple about Cotter?”
  “I gave it to her lock, stock and smoking barrel. She went a real funny colour. People do, you know, when you mention murder. Well, of course you know, more than most, I imagine. They have a ghoulish curiosity that gives ’em goose pimples, so long as it’s far enough away from their own front door. Any nearer and they’re running for the loo.”
“Did Ruth Temple run for the loo?” Winter could not resist asking.
“I’ll say. And nearly tripped over her feet,” Carol Brady’s laugh was spontaneous this time. The drawn features instantly relaxed. A cloud in the violet eyes was replaced by a brief, mischievous twinkle. An image passed across Winter’s inner vision of someone lighting a candle then having second thoughts and feeling obliged to snuff it out. “Some coffee, I think...”
Carol got up and left the room but left the door ajar.  While it occurred to Fred Winter that momentum would undoubtedly be best served were he to follow her, a pressing need to get his head together took priority.  Instead, he lay back in the shabby but comfy sofa, listening to kitchen sounds and reflecting on how a small, small world was getting even smaller all the time.
Details of Sean Brady’s murder cane flooding back as if the grisly event had taken place only the day before. It was true what he’d said about not being on the case so less involved that he might have been. He had simply neglected to tell her how he’d specifically asked not to be put on the case at the outset. Not only would their affair have become public knowledge and undoubtedly compromised his whole career but his marriage was in deep enough trouble already without giving the tabloids a field day. So he’d taken the compassionate leave he’d refused immediately after Helen’s miscarriage and absented himself from the entire ugly mess.
In Spain, he and Helen began to build bridges although it would take far longer for any wounds to start healing. He hadn’t confessed his affair with Carol Brady from choice. She’s somehow got whiff of it and asked him outright. A week later, Sean Brady was shot dead in his own sitting room in front of his young son.
Winter stroked his beard. No definitive motive behind Sean Brady’s murder ever came to light as far as he was aware.  There had been much media speculation at the time of course. While most newspapers favoured the theory that Sean Brady was having an affair with Cotter’s wife, their editors were careful how they fed such tit-bits to their readers.
For a short while, Brady’s murder caught the nation’s morbid fascination. The two men had been best mates since schooldays. Each had acted as best man at the other’s wedding. That a five-year old should have witnessed the shooting gave society a golden opportunity to make a meal of such favourite pastimes as wringing hands at rising crime levels and crying for a revision of gun laws, not to mention weeping for the loss of innocence and laying odds that grieving relatives knew a sight more than they were letting on.
Winter rebuked himself shamefacedly. Carol was right. He should have found a way to get in touch.  It had been too easy to close the file on her and young Liam. He groaned. As if there was any such thing as a closed file...
Carol returned with a tray, kicked open the door, ignored his half-hearted offers to assist and banged it down on the table. “I’m guessing that you still take it black, no sugar…right?”
“I’ll help myself to sugar if you don’t mind.” He leaned forward and heaped two teaspoonfuls into the nearest mug.
“What’s this? Not sweet enough as you are any more?”  She spoke lightly and appeared to be teasing but Winter could all but feel the perfect rows of teeth sinking into his neck as she added, “And there was me thinking old habits die hard...”
Ignoring this barbed innuendo, Winter asked the question on his mind. “So what did Ruth Temple make of your stunning revelations?” he enquired, evenly enough but unable to suppress more than a touch of sarcasm.
Carol Brady shrugged, reached for a cigarette packet, changed her mind and let it fall where it had lain undisturbed since they had entered the room.  “One minute she couldn’t tell me how sorry she was and the next she was asking me if I thought my son killed himself.”
“And do you?” he felt compelled to ask.
“You don’t deserve an answer to that any more than she did,” replied Carol Brady, perfectly calm, violet eyes shooting daggers.
“But did she get one?” he wanted to know.
“No, she bloody didn’t.”
“And what would it have been if she had?”
She bristled, reached for a cigarette again and changed her mind a second time. “I’m his mother, Freddy. It was an accident of course.”
He watched her reach for the packet, take a cigarette and light it from a heavy silver table lighter.  It was one of the things he had always admired about her, an uncanny ability to reply to a question without answering it. He remembered telling her she should go into politics and was hard put to resist laughing aloud. “Do you happen to have an address for Sarah Manners?”
“I dare say she’s in Liam’s address book but why the interest? Leave well alone, can’t you? You can talk to her till the pair of you are blue in the face and it won’t change a thing.  What is it about coppers that you’re never happy unless you’re raking over old bones?”
“Maybe it’s because, more often than not, it’s a sure way to get to see the bigger picture,” he growled more defensively than he intended.
“Ah, yes, the famous bigger picture that has everyone with their own mind-boggling interpretations as to its hidden depths. Tell me about it.”
 “Don’t you want to know the truth?”
“Truth…?  Truth…? I have my truth, Freddy. It stares me in the face every time I look in the mirror. It’s every knock on the door, every time the phone rings. But I can live with it, just about. I don’t need some clever-arse copper (pardon me, ex-copper) to come along with another version of the truth to get my leg over. It’s done and finished.  Read my lips, Freddy. I DON’T GIVE A TOSS.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Give me strength!”
“You must be curious, Carol, surely? It’s only human nature,” he persisted.
“So what, exactly, must I be curious about, Freddy?  Curious about why my husband had to die or what the devil Ralph Cotter was doing in a godforsaken hole like Monk’s Tallow just so that my son could work himself into such a state about it some twenty years later? You know, it got so that Liam didn’t even know what day of the bloody week it was half the time. Or maybe you think I should be curious as to why Ruth Temple chose to give a damn good impression of being a schizophrenic? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you. If that’s your bigger picture, you can stuff it.”   She reached agitatedly for a second cigarette while the first was still smouldering in the ashtray.
“That’s no picture at all, it’s just a muddle.” Winter attempted reasoning with her while, at the same time, wondering if he wasn’t simply trying to convince himself. “The Monk’s Tallow connection, it has to be worth following up. Don’t you see? That’s where the bigger picture lies, damn it. Three people are dead and not one from natural causes, four if we include Ruth Temple. Think about it. Three people drive off the same damn cliff…Cotter, James Morrissey and your Liam.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “It’s too much of a coincidence. And this Sarah Manners, how the devil does she fit in?”
“By all means let’s think about it,” she snorted and took several puffs of the cigarette in quick succession, “Why not? The more the merrier! Let’s throw in Sean for good measure and make it five, shall we?”      
“Forget Sean...”
“I wish!”
“You know what I mean...”
“Too right, I do. We forgot about him once before, remember?”
 Winter ignored the dig. “On the face of it, there is no real connection between these people. Ah, but there is. There’s Monk’s Tallow. That’s our centrepiece. All we have to do now is fill in the surrounds and, well, who knows what we might find?”
“The bigger picture?” she sneered and blew a near perfect smoke ring.
“Don’t knock it Carol. We’re all a part of it, just like it’s a part of us.”
“You haven’t changed much, Freddy. I thought you had at first but you haven’t. You’re still the same pompous bugger playing at being the thinking man’s copper. Do you want to stay for supper, by the way, there’s plenty?  It’s only spaghetti Bolognese but you used to have a passion for it, I seem to remember.”
“I still do,” he managed to say, caught off guard by her sudden change of tack.
“Then let’s go and grab us some passion, shall we?” She rose, stubbed out first the second cigarette then the one she’d abandoned, reached for the packet then had a change of heart. “I’m trying to give up the damn things...”
“Good luck,” he said and meant it.
“Fat chance, you mean!”  She shrugged, picked up the packet and went to the door. Winter was already on his feet. She paused at the door and looked him straight in the eye. “Why is it, Freddy, that your bigger picture always has to be murder?”
He shrugged. “Good question,” he conceded mutely and followed her out of the room into the kitchen.

To be continued on Monday