Monday, 14 October 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 4


“I must see you. It is most urgent, a matter of life and death you could say.”
       Winter stared at the answering machine and played the message again. There could be no doubting that Audrey Ellis was in a state of near panic. He picked up the receiver, dialled 1471 and hit the required 3.  It struck him, as it always did, how strange it felt not to be clutching the mobile although he’d never understand why since land line phones had been around a good deal longer.
Less than a two hours drive later, found Winter comfortably ensconced in Audrey Ellis’ sitting room sipping tea poured straight from the pot.  The little woman was as repetitive as she was profuse with her apologies. “I feel such a fool,” she kept saying, “What must you be thinking?”
“You say you were watching a programme about Canterbury?”                       
“That’s right, yes. My late husband, Peter and I both grew up there. So, you see, I was especially interested.  He and I used to love watching the cricket every summer. I still love the game,” she sighed, “but I can’t get out and about to matches like I used to. Besides...” hesitating before she added, “…it’s not half as much fun going on your own is it?”  Tears filled her eyes then, suddenly, the lined face brightened. “Oh, but I do so love cricket, don’t you?  It’s such a clean, gentlemanly game.  No hooligans, on or off the pitch. The occasional high spirits perhaps, but nothing like the disgraceful behaviour you can expect to find at a football match these days.” She sighed again, “Dear Peter. He’s been dead a few years now, of course...”
 Winter let her ramble on until he judged that she was ready to return to the matter in hand. “You say the camera homed in on a crowd scene and that’s when you thought you saw Liam Brady?”
“Well, yes.” She started in her seat, blushed and raised her eyes to heaven. “So I telephoned you at once, didn’t I?  How silly of me! I suppose it’s because we’d been talking about him only the other day. It must have been playing on my mind more than I realised.  The camera stayed with the young man a good second or two. He was with a very pretty girl, you see.  I have to say, he was the spitting image of young Liam. But I realize now, of course, that’s all it was, an uncanny likeness.  What can I have been thinking of? I can’t apologize enough, Mr Winter.”
“So why didn’t you call me again and say you were mistaken?”  She became flustered. “Could it be because you’re not convinced you were mistaken?” he put it to her bluntly. She became even more flustered. “I have a friend at the BBC. I dare say I could obtain a copy of the programme...” he began.
“Oh, there’s no need for that, none at all. I videoed it, you see. As I said, Canterbury is my home town so I was especially interested.”
“Excellent. So let’s see it again shall we? Just stop when we get to the young man who resembles Liam Brady.”
“Well, if you’re sure? I don’t want to waste any more of your time than I already have.”
“I might as well take a look while I’m here,” he pointed out, “Besides I’m very fond of Canterbury myself. My late wife’s parents lived there for some years.”
“Oh! My, what a small world it is!” She clapped her hands like an excited schoolgirl, crossed the room and ran a video that was already in the machine.  Winter smiled inwardly, certain that she’d had no intention of letting him leave without seeing it. “There!” She knew exactly where and when to hit the pause button and he guessed she must have done it umpteen times already.
The young man had dark hair, roguish good looks and what might have been designer stubble or the start of a beard. An earring, in the shape of a cross, dangled from his right ear. Winter spotted it at once. “Did Liam Brady wear an earring like that?”
Not that I recall,” Audrey Ellis admitted and launched into further apologies. Winter was only half-listening. He stared hard at the screen, looking for some resemblance to Carol and saw none. He had no recollection of Sean Brady whatever but recalled seeing a wedding photograph on the sideboard in her sitting room and made a mental note to take a closer look next time.  There would have to be a next time, he’d already decided, without caring to examine either his motives or his conscience.
“How about the woman with him, have you ever seen her before?”
“Never,” she was sure of that at least.
“But he could be Liam Brady?”
“Certainly, although...well, he can’t be, can he? Liam Brady is dead. But I was so sure at first. When the camera closed in, I got into such a state. I thought I was having a heart attack, I really did. I just had to tell someone. As soon as I felt able, I telephoned you. Now I’ve had more time to think, I can’t be him, can it?” she repeated agitatedly.
Winter hit the rewind button on the remote. “May I borrow the video for a while?  I’d like to show it to Carol Brady.”
“Do you think that’s wise?  I mean, that would be awfully upsetting for her surely?”
Winter shrugged. “It has to be worth a try.”
“But why…?  Or do you think there might be something in it?” Audrey Ellis whispered. “There can’t be, of course but...well...they never found a body did they?”
“It’s highly unlikely anyone could survive a crash like that. I’ve made a few enquiries and it appears Brady wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The car probably snagged on a ledge or something and flung him through the windscreen.  The water’s very choppy around there at the best of times. He wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
“You know the area?” She made no attempt to conceal either surprise or curiosity.
Winter pretended not to hear. He did not want to talk about Helen. “It’s a nasty bend. People have been crashing there for years.”
“But there must be warning signs, safety barriers and such like, surely?”
“Yes, of course. But there’s no telling some people. They think they’re invincible, that driving with due care and attention is for wimps.”
Audrey Ellis continued to fret long after the video recorder had ceased its whirring noise, emitted a loud click and let her retrieve the tape. “Even so,” she began, “No body means...”
“It means just that, no body. So don’t let’s get carried away, alright?” He almost snapped and could almost hear Miss Parker telling him to mind his manners. .
Audrey Ellis merely nodded. “I’ve read far too many crime novels, isn’t that what you’re saying?”
He grinned. “Well, if the cap fits...” He took the video from her and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to show Mrs Brady?”
“No more than you’re sure that this young man isn’t Liam Brady. Now, how about we have another cup of tea?”
“Touché, Mr Winter.” A tremulous smile playing on the thin cracked lips broadened considerably as she hastened to oblige.
Winter watched the blue-veined hands at work and wondered what an earth he thought he was playing at.  Since he was in no doubt that the young man in the video was not Liam Brady, why, indeed, show Carol?   Grudgingly conceding that his interest in this whole business may be less than professional, there had to be more to it than curiosity, surely? He turned his attention to a standard lamp. “Forgive me for asking, Miss Ellis, but why do you keep the lamp on in broad daylight?”
“Oh, that! Another of my little fantasies, I’m afraid. My late husband had poor eyesight and it helped him to see better when he was reading. I like to leave it on. It makes me feel he’s in the room with me. Silly, I know. But it’s a comfort...if you can understand that. It makes no sense, of course, none at all.”
Winter understood perfectly.
“You can’t be serious?” Carol Brady was angry and upset. “It’s bloody obvious you haven’t any children. If you had, you’d know better than to ask such a thing.”
“All I’m asking is that you take a look at it,” he repeated smoothly. “The old lady is very anxious that you should. It would put her mind at rest.”
“Oh, yes, and what about mine? Do you honestly expect me to put myself through the wringer just because some old biddy has a bee in her bonnet?  You have no idea what you’re asking, none at all.  You always were an unfeeling bastard.”
“There was a time you thought I was Mr Wonderful,” he reminded her gruffly.
“There was a time when dinosaurs walked the earth but that doesn’t mean we want them back,” she retorted. “Clear off, Freddy, just GO.”
“Can I at least borrow a recent photograph so I can compare for myself?”
“Damn you, Freddy, but if that what it takes to get rid of you...” She left the room. Winter crossed to the sideboard and examined the wedding picture in its cheap frame. Try as he might, he couldn’t make out the faintest resemblance between the groom and the young man in the video.
“Here you are,” Carol re-entered the room holding out a small photograph. “And make sure you give it back. If you don’t, I’ll make your life such a misery, you’ll wish you’d never been born.” 
He didn’t doubt her for a moment. She flung him another scathing look. A lesser man may well have bolted there and then. Winter, however, was not finished with her yet.  “Where was this taken?” he asked without thinking.
 “Look again.”
 He studied the photograph and recognized the pub even before squinting to read the sign that read The Fox and Hounds. “Monk’s Tallow,” he murmured and it was a while before he could shake off a tingling sensation. It was the weirdest feeling, as if someone had just walked over his grave. He’d often wondered what the old saying meant. Now he thought he knew.
Liam Brady, Winter had to admit, bore more than a passing resemblance to the young man with the earring. He could well see why Audrey Ellis had thrown a wobbly.
“Let’s just say the old biddy hasn’t entirely lost her marbles, shall we?”
“There’s a resemblance then?”
“Striking, I’d say,” he muttered, “earring or no earring,” then “Are you sure you won’t...?”
“Do you want some coffee?” she cut in abruptly.
“Tea would be nice.”
“Come through and I’ll put the kettle on.”
Winter followed her through to the kitchen. It was small but bright and boasted more than its fair share of mod cons, very different to the one in Dorking where he had rather enjoyed chatting with dear old Audrey Ellis. Not that he wasn’t enjoying Carol’s company, he was. But a tangible tension remained between them stretching across a gap of some twenty years and widening. Small wonder then, he supposed, that he didn’t feel anywhere near as relaxed as the last time he’d sat here enjoying spaghetti Bolognese.  He chuckled. If Julie Simpson reminded him of Miss Parker, Audrey Ellis had to be everyone’s favourite granny.
“What’s so funny?” He told her.
“She sounds like an interfering old bat me,” was Carol’s verdict. “What’s her interest in Liam anyway?”
“Very little, as far as I could tell. She only met him a couple of times but enough to give her a nasty shock when she thought she saw him on TV.”
“Believe in ghosts, too, does she?”
Winter said nothing but watched her reach for some tea bags. It crossed his mind that Audrey Ellis would not have approved as he glanced again at the snapshot in his hand. “A fuller beard would have suited him, even an earring,” he mused absently.
Carol Brady looked, saw what he was doing and uttered a fruity little laugh. “Just about anything and everything suited my Liam,” she said. A fierce pride in her voice cut him to the quick. “He was that good looking and had his father’s charm too. Shove Sean in a dung heap and he’d always get up smelling of roses. Liam was the same.
“He took after his mum then,” Winter observed and meant it. They both laughed. It went a long way towards easing the tension between them. “You’re still a good looking woman, Carol.”
“And you’re still a man who likes to get his own way even if it means charming the birds from the trees. Well, this bird’s not for charming, Freddy, so be warned.” She was smiling, her tone joking. Winter, however, knew better than to ignore the warning and nodded, an uncertain grin speaking volumes. She seemed on the verge of saying something else but turned away. “It happened to me once.” She said suddenly, her back still turned.
“I thought I saw Liam on TV. It was about a year ago and I was watching a programme about the Foot and Mouth outbreak. This publican was being interviewed about its effect on trade. The camera started panning this huge room that was two thirds empty. It lingered on this couple in a corner and they both looked up. Only for a split second, you understand. But I was so sure it was Liam I took the next train to York.” She turned and faced him. “Yes, York, not bloody Canterbury.”
Winter hardly recognized her for an instant, such was the raw pain etched on Carol Brady’s face.  A lump came to his throat. Nor would it budge as he watched that pain give way to a look of grim determination. “They had no idea at the inn where the TV interview was shot.  As far as they were concerned, Liam was just another anonymous customer who hadn’t even been staying there.  Even so, I spent two weeks, two bloody weeks, trying bars, cafés, shops, you name it, shoving that snap you’ve got there under people’s noses, asking - practically begging - if they had seen him.”  She gave an unfunny laugh. “They must have thought I was the original madwoman escaped from the attic.”
Winter, felt much as he imagined a spider might, suspended by a single thread, and could only observe as she caught her breath, the violet eyes peering at him as if through a fog.
“One day, a young woman told me she’d seen Liam working in a record store. I ran nearly all the way.” Carol shrugged. “It wasn’t Liam of course, nothing like him.” She shrugged again. “That was it, I’d had enough. It was like losing him a second time, worse even.” She turned her back and continued making the tea.
Winter knew when to leave well alone and did not mention the video again. He pocketed the photograph of Liam and they chatted for a good hour, over endless mugs of tea, about everything and nothing.
Carol saw him to the front door and closed it after him without waiting to watch him drive away. He experienced an inexplicable sense of disappointment as he approached the blue Volvo parked a few yards away. Something made him pause and turn. Carol ran up to him and grabbed his arm. “What were you saying about an earring?” she demanded.
“Earring…?”  Winter was momentarily perplexed. Seconds later, the penny dropped and he realized she was referring to the video. “That was ages ago!” he protested laughing, “Why the sudden interest?”
“I was only half-listening but never mind that now,” she said in a rush, “What did you mean?” He told her. “But that’s...the weirdest thing.”  She stuck a thumb in her mouth and stared at him wide-eyed. Suddenly, her panic evaporated and she was much calmer.
“What on earth’s the matter?”
“It’s probably nothing. You had better come back inside.”
“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“Are we going to watch this bloody video or not?” she flung at him and returned to the house without waiting for an answer. Winter pocketed his car keys and followed, aware that the tingling sensation had returned.
Carol put the video in the machine herself and went to hand Winter the remote but her hand seemed to stick fast to it and she would not, could not let go. “Liam and I were having lunch in Monk’s Tallow,” she began. “It was the day Sarah Manners joined us and she passed some remark about a young man who was sitting at one of the tables with his girlfriend and wearing an earring. Sarah said she liked it but I made it clear I didn’t. Liam sided with Sarah, even said he’d seen one in some jewellery store or other and thought about treating himself.  I over-reacted, I’m afraid. I didn’t give a sod about the damn earring. It was the way he took her side against me that got up my nose. I saw red, I guess. Anyway, I lost it with both of them. Then the barman came over and told me to shut up or get lost. Well, in so many words, he was more polite than that, certainly more than I deserved.” She managed a rueful grin. “So I shut up and stuffed myself with salted peanuts while they made cosy small talk as if I wasn’t even there.”
“What kind of earring?”
“A cross...”
“It doesn’t mean a thing,” Winter was quick to point out.
“I know,” she muttered, relinquishing her hold on the remote.
Winter hit the play button.  He misjudged the scene in question and had to hit rewind and play several times either side of it. Finally, he froze the screen at precisely the moment when the young man glanced up and, unknowingly, looked into the camera. Carol gave a little squeak. Winter’s eyes did not leave her face. “Well?” he asked after she had been staring at the screen, thumb in mouth, for several interminable minutes. Suddenly, she grabbed the video remote and hit the stop button. An old black and white movie leapt out at them, snarling like an alley cat. Winter looked around for the TV remote, eventually found it and turned the damn thing off. “Well?” he asked again.
“You were right about the old biddy. She isn’t cuckoo, far from it.”
“It could be Liam?”
“Of course it can’t be Liam,” she snapped.
“Supposing Liam is alive?” he ventured.
“But he isn’t, is he? He’s dead.”
“But if he were alive?” Winter persisted, despising himself for it. Her face was a wreck.
“If he were alive,” she said slowly, violet eyes fixed on the blank screen, “I’d say that was my son.”  She began to tremble violently and made no attempt to push him away as he put an arm around her and pulled her close.
Neither spoke. Nor did they move away from the sofa even after Carol had stopped trembling and disengaged herself. “It’s like him, very like him, that’s all.” She said at last in a small voice that he barely heard.
“So you’ll come to Canterbury with me?” he pressed her gently.
Carol jumped to her feet and glared down at him. “Not on your life, Freddy Winter, not on your bloody life!” she screamed and slammed out of the room.
The door swung on its hinges. Winter heard another door slam and guessed, correctly, that she had shut herself in the bedroom. He gazed, quizzically, at a leaf pattern on the carpet for some minutes before getting up and letting himself out. “What next, Fred?” he kept asking himself over and over on the drive home, “What bloody next?”
Two boys dashed out from behind a line of parked cars. Winter slammed on the brakes. Both lads stopped short. One poked out his tongue and raised two fingers.  The second youth looked badly shaken and put up no resistance when his friend grabbed an arm and all but dragged him to the kerb opposite. They scampered into an alleyway without looking back.
Winter muttered “Shit!” and drove on but had to pull up again barely a mile down the road. His hands on the wheel were shaking and he was sweating heavily. In anyone else he’d have put it down to an understandable reaction. But he was a copper, trained to deal with the unexpected.  “Ex-copper,” he reminded himself ruefully and with a bitterness that surprised him. Did he really miss the job so much that the prospect of a wild goose chase to Canterbury, let alone Monk’s Tallow, was as good as it gets?

Winter grimaced, declined to answer, and drove on.

To be continued on Friday