Friday, 18 October 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 5


“Trust you, Freddy Winter? You must be joking. I’d trust a monkey up a gum tree before I’d ever trust you again.”
“For heaven sake, Carol, it was years ago. You knew I’d never leave Helen.”
“Just like you knew I’d never leave Sean.”
“We’re even then.”
“Even? You walked out on me without a word. Not a word, Freddy Winter.”
“I left you a note.”
“And that makes it OK does it?”
Winter sighed. “What can I say?”
Carol Brady picked at a mushroom pizza – her favourite – with her fork. “Not a lot,” she agreed.
“So what the devil are we doing here?”
“If you need me to tell you that, Freddy, you damn well deserve to be retired,” she retorted, finally lifting a piece to her mouth then offering the oblique observation while still chewing on it, “Just like old times, isn’t it?”
“Isn’t it just?” He managed a weak grin. She was making fun of him, he knew, but didn’t mind too much. It seemed a small enough price to pay for her company, any company.  He ate alone too often these days, he realized. Nor was the irony lost on him that it should have taken Carol Brady, of all people, to break him of the habit. “But you’re not here because you still fancy me,” he commented and got stuck into a delicious lasagne.
“True,” she agreed.
“So you’ll come to Canterbury with me?” She shook her head. “So, why…? And don’t insult my intelligence with the old time’s sake routine, you know me better than that.”
“I thought I did once,” she said with a mouthful.  In spite of an ironic gleam in the violet eyes, she spoke without rancour as far as he could tell. “A week,” she said abruptly, “I’ll pay your expenses for one week. If you can track down our young earring freak, I may join you or I may not. Either way, you’ll still get your money.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“And I don’t want any favours.”
“A week isn’t long,” he pointed out.
“Long enough, surely?  I seem to recollect you were a good copper once. If you can’t flush him out, no one can.”
“I’m flattered. But I’ll need more than a week.”
Again, she shook her head. “It would be a waste of your time and my money.”
“I told you, I don’t want your money,” he repeated testily, “Besides,” he added with a wry grin, “I already have a client…of sorts.” Even as he spoke, Julie Simpson’s pretty, earnest expression leapt belatedly to mind.
“And I told you, I don’t want any favours.” The violet eyes flashed angrily and he resolved to leave that particular chestnut well alone, for now at least.
“So why...?”
Carol glared across the table at him. “You seem keen enough to put some old biddy’s mind to rest who hardly knew Liam,” she remarked acidly, “but if it’s asking too much to do the same for his mother...” They ate in silence for a while before she asked, “So when will you be going? To Canterbury, I mean.”
“Soon,” he promised then, “I need to think it through first. Let’s face it. I’m no more convinced it’s worth making the damn trip than you are.”
 Carol nearly choked on her side salad, reached for a glass of water and took several long gulps. As soon as she’d composed herself, she leaned across the table and looked him in the eye. “Being less than sure has never stopped you in the past. Why break the habit of a lifetime?”
“How would you know? We hadn’t set eyes on each other in over twenty years before last week. I hardly think you’re in a position to comment on my habits,” he returned evenly.
She sat back in her chair and let rip with a disparaging chuckle. “I just know,” she said, “and it has nothing to do with leopards and spots. I know you better than you know yourself, Freddy Winter, I always did.” The violet eyes held his protesting gaze.
Winter looked away. It was true of course. She had always been able to see right through him. That’s why he hadn’t been able to face her all those years ago but left her a note instead. She’d have known at once that he was making excuses. As it was, he’d gone running back to Helen, tail between his legs. Nor had he ever regretted it. He loved her and they had been happy. But could he honestly say, hand on heart, that he’d never given Carol Brady a thought?  Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say he’d never cared to take too close a look at the nature of his feelings for her?  Yet she wasn’t even his type. So what had he seen in her? She certainly had no dress sense. What had Audrey Ellis said, mutton dressed as lamb?   True, perhaps. But she had to be sexiest looking woman he’s ever met all the same. 
He looked up and grinned, remembering how sex between them had been exciting and lasted ages. Helen, he suspected, saw sex as little more than a purely functional means to a parenthood they would never achieve. He looked away again and felt guilty, not about the woman sitting opposite him but another, barely cold in her grave.
“Let’s suppose, just suppose I find this young man?”
“Let’s not, shall we?  Supposing always ends in tears. If we haven’t learned that much by now, I defy even heaven to help us.”
“But just suppose...” he persisted.
“That it’s Liam?  Look, Freddy, we both know that the chances of Liam being alive are about as likely as pigs flying over Brixton.  But you need something to get stuck into and I need...God knows what I need! Reassurance…peace of mind… call it what you like…whatever it takes to stop me crying myself to sleep every night. Right now, though, I vote we drop the cobblers and enjoy the meal, okay?” Winter nodded. “Good.”  She smiled brightly, but only with her mouth. A strained sadness in the violet eyes refused to be so easily distracted.  He recognized the signs, sensed intuitively that she was baiting, using and playing with him all at the same time. It bothered him only slightly that, for now at any rate, he did not mind in the least.
They made small talk for a while then Winter, without conscious intention, found himself telling her about Helen and their life together.  Carol was a good listener and the evening passed pleasantly enough.  Later, he drove her home.  “Any chance of a nightcap?” he asked as she climbed, expertly, out of the passenger seat outside the house in North Street. She had always known, he recalled, how to be seductive without appearing common.
“Sure. So long as it’s not the proverbial sort you have in mind.” She flashed him a warning smile, went to the front door then spent a good few minutes rummaging in her bag for keys before leaving it open for him.
By the time Winter reached the door  of Carols’ flat, it was wide open and all the lights were on inside.  There was no sign of Carol. He entered and looked around for her. Once inside, instinct took off and fair shouted at him that something was wrong. “Carol?” 
After a few seconds she emerged from the bedroom visibly shaken. “Someone’s been here. Some bastard’s been in my flat, Freddy.”  She let him take her arm and lead her to the nearest chair. “Bloody hell, Freddy, someone’s been in my flat!” she repeated, close to tears. He grabbed a bottle from the dresser, saw there were no glasses to hand so poured a stiff whiskey into a mug and handed it to her. She drank, reached for the bottle and poured herself another but only sipped at it.
“Is there much missing?”
“That’s the queerest thing. There’s nothing missing. Not as far as I can tell, anyhow.”
“Any mess in the other rooms?”
“Nope, everything’s looking hunky bloody dory.”
“How do I know some creep’s been going through my things? I live here, Freddy, that’s how I know.”
“Are there any signs of a break-in?”
“You’re the copper, you tell me.”  As we went to check doors and windows, she got up suddenly and disappeared into the communal hall.  Minutes later, she returned waving a brass key at him. “It’s my spare key. I hide it under the stair carpet just in case. It’s always on the third stair, never anywhere else. I found it on the second.”
“And where do you hide your front door key?”
“Under the hydrangea bush by the front door, why?  Oh, I see what you’re getting at. But no one knew, Freddy, no one at all. No one, that is, except Liam and I suppose Julie may have known.”
 “There’s your answer.” Winter spread his hands despairingly. Would some people never learn? But I’ll check everything out anyway if that’s okay with you?”
“Be my guest.” She drank some more whiskey, relinquishing her hold on mug and bottle only long enough to ransack her bag for cigarettes.
 Winter did not take long confirming, to his own satisfaction at least, that there were no signs of anyone having forced an entry. It followed, therefore, that any intruder must have used a key.  At the same time, there was no evidence to suggest anything had been disturbed. True, there was scuffed earth around the hydrangea but that didn’t mean a thing.
After checking that Carol’s bedroom windows were secure, Winter was about to leave the room when, for no reason other than natural curiosity, he paused at the door for a last look.  There was nothing special about the room or its decor. But it had a feel of Carol about it and it amused him that so fanciful a thought should enter his head.On impulse, he crossed to a shelf above the bed. Deposited there, one glass eye dangling on a thread and its head held together with sticky tape was the ugliest teddy bear he had ever seen.  Winter it lifted up, gingerly, in case it should fall apart in his hands. “Hello, Tweedledumb,” he greeted the bear as he might an old friend and could have sworn its glass eye winked at him but, on second thoughts, put it down to a trick of the light. 
Gently, Winter replaced the bear on the shelf. As a rule, he would not have described himself as a sentimentalist. Yet he could easily see how this tatty old teddy bear had, in all probability, won the hearts of children and adults alike since Victorian times. No less appealing had been its erstwhile companion, Tweedledeaf, in spite of its having lost both ears.  Winter seemed to recall that it had also been minus part of an arm.
His own sense of loss still raw, Winter’s heart went out to young Liam Brady and he wished, not for the first time, that he had made an effort to visit Carol and the boy during what must have been a bleak time after Sean’s murder.  He tried to recollect what he could of Ralph Cotter but little came to mind except it was generally believed he’d driven his car over that cliff deliberately, out of contrition. His heart skipped a beat.  It was so weird that – accident or suicide – Cotter should have met his end in Monk’s Tallow of all places.  He made a mental note to do some research on Cotter then, abruptly, left the room and returned to Carol.
She had lit a cigarette but seemed calmer. “Find anything?”  Winter shook his head. “So they must have sussed out the keys, right?” He nodded. “In other words, serves me bloody right for making it easy for them.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t have to, I know that look even if it has been twenty odd years.”
“Are you sure nothing’s been taken?”
“Positive. The only things worth nicking are in a drawer in the bedroom. That’s where I keep my passport, some cash and jewellery…the usual stuff. It was the first place I looked. Nothing’s missing. I half wish there was, it mightn’t feel so damn creepy.” She gave a shudder and inhaled on the cigarette, something he’d noticed she rarely did. “I can’t even call the police, can I? It’s not as if I’ve been burgled or anything. They’ll just think I’m being hysterical.”
“Not necessarily.” Winter felt obliged to contradict.
“Come off it, Freddy, it’s me you’re talking to. I bet you’ve dealt with hundreds of people convinced they could smell smoke when there hasn’t even been a fire.” 
Winter shrugged. It was true, although thousands would have been nearer the mark. But there was nothing to be gained by saying so. Carol was upset enough. “I can call round first thing tomorrow and change the locks if that would help?”
Would you? I’d appreciate that, I really would although...” her voice tailed off and she appeared to become distressed again. “You don’t suppose it could have been...”
“Liam? No, I don’t. Neither do you,” he said firmly while an image of Miss Parker, calling an inattentive young Winter to order, seemed to stalk every word like a benign ghost. “Liam’s dead.”
“So why have we been discussing Canterbury?”
Winter shrugged. “You tell me.”
“But you’ll go?”
“I’ve already been in touch with an old colleague there,” he admitted.  It’s not as if I have anything better to do. Besides, Canterbury is a nice place. It will do me good to get out of Watford for a bit.”
“I imagine it would do anyone good to get out of Watford for a bit,” she observed acidly although Winter felt reassured to see the pale face break into a rueful grin.
 “I have a spare room if you’d rather not be on your own tonight,” he offered. She shook her head. “Or I can crash down on your sofa?”
“I’m a big girl now, Freddy. Just make some coffee and shut up, will you?”
Winter, tight lipped, set about making the coffee. It was turned midnight by the time he finally let himself out of Carol’s flat. Driving home, it surprised him, as it always did, that there were so many people about. 
 Carol Brady put a chair against the flat door then checked every window again before she went to bed. Tired but not sleepy, she tried to avoid thinking about Freddy Winter but without much success. Eventually, she gave it up for a dead loss and let her mind dwell on the young copper with whom she’d had an unlikely affair more years ago than she cared to acknowledge.
 She’d gone clubbing with a girl called Liz something-or-other. (Whatever happened to Liz something-or-other?). Liz had soon got off with a ginger haired lad and she, Carol, was stuck with his mate, a pimply youth whose conversation was limited to the occasional ‘yes’ or ‘no’ punctuated by numerous grunts. She left early, caught a shower and ducked into a McDonalds. A young man with masses of black hair took her eye.  She had bought a hot chocolate then, ignoring numerous empty seats and tables, gone over to him and sat down. “Do you mind if I join you? I’m not in the mood for being on my own right now.”
“Me neither,” he had admitted candidly, a sheepish grin lighting up what she read as a very caring face. They chatted like old friends for nearly an hour.
“Can we go back to your place?” she had asked, amazed at the brazen nerve of it.
 “I don’t think my wife would understand,” he chuckled, “How about your place?”
 “My husband would have a problem with that. Besides, we might wake the baby up.”
 “You’re a mum? You don’t look old enough.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, even to that hotel across the street if you’re game.” He followed her glance.
 “Aren’t you in the least bit worried that I might be an axe murderer?”
 “I don’t see any axe. Besides, I can take of myself. It’s like I said, I don’t want to be on my own tonight.”
 “Your husband...”
  “Doesn’t understand me...”
  They had both laughed, extraordinarily comfortable with each other.
 “There’s something you should know.”
  “So long as you’re not a closet gay...”
  “Worse, I’m a copper.” 
  In the present day, Carol chuckled into her pillow. It had come as a shock and must have shown on her face. “Does that put you off? It does a lot of people.”
“I can’t say it’s the best come-on I’ve ever had”, she had to admit, “but I’m not most people nor am I easily put off. I’m still game if you are?”
 “Then what are we waiting for?”
  She had never done anything like that in her life before. Even now, years later, she could hardly believe it of herself.
  Their affair lasted three years.
 Carol sighed. Chalk and cheese they may have been but they had been good together. Liam adored his new “Uncle Freddy” and they had even talked about leaving their respective partners and moving in together.
 While she and Sean continued to drift apart, however, she’d never really believed Freddy would leave Helen. Even so, it had come as a shock when he dumped her.
They had arranged to meet for a meal but he hadn’t shown up. “It goes with the territory if you take on a copper,” he’d told her more than once. She’d caught on fast. So she hadn’t give it too much thought this time either but waited at a corner table for someone to come over and tell her he’d telephoned to say he would be late or couldn’t make it at all. A young waiter had eventually hastened across, full of apologies, and handed her a white envelope. She’d known instinctively what was in it, made her way to the bar and gone through several large scotches before finally getting around to reading the letter. More angry than hurt that he hadn’t the nerve to tell her face to face, she’d got very drunk and, to this day, could not remember getting home. What she did remember, only too well, was thinking how she was through with men and would ask Sean for a divorce.
Ten day later, Ralph Cotter turned up at the house in Chiswick and shot Sean Brady dead.
Carol heaved a guilty sigh. She and Sean had rowed and she’d left the house in a huff. If only she’d stayed in that night, things might have turned out differently.
There had been nothing much else going on in the world at the time so the case had grabbed the headlines. Even the broadsheets gave Sean a good spread. She and Liam were portrayed as helpless victims until she wanted to scream at everyone, especially the postman, to leave them alone.  But the greater the tragedy, the more lucrative the rewards to be had and she’d be damned if she would sneeze at any, whatever it took. Even in the thick of it all, though, it had amused her how the notion prevailed that Sean must have been carrying on with Jean Cotter. The more she or Jean Cotter denied and protested, the greater a general assumption that it had to be true.  (What other motive could there have been?)
Carol chuckled into the pillow. Ralph Cotter’s wife was a big, buxom woman who liked to rule the roost. If news on the grapevine was anything to go by, she had neither changed much nor wasted any time finding herself another partner to terrorise.  Not that Jean was unattractive, on the contrary.  Even so, butch was a word Carol always associated with Jean Cotter. That may have suited Ralph, whom Carol had always privately considered to be a bit of wimp, but it certainly would not have suited Sean.  Carol giggled into the pillow. Sean liked a woman to be feminine, desirable and… passive. While she had always taken care of her looks, passivity was, quite simply, not in her nature. But she had adored Sean once so taken her mother’s advice.
“A girl who knows her onions will always let a man think he’s in control,” her mother would say with a knowing wink, “It keeps him sweet and she gets to wear the trousers.” 
Her parents, Carol reflected wryly, had enjoyed a good marriage. “Nice work if you can get it,” she yawned into a pillow, violet eyes filling with tears that obstinately refused to fall.

To be continued on Friday