Monday, 4 November 2013

Catching up With Murder - Chapter 10


“You have got to be out of your mind,” repeated Cotter for the umpteenth time, “It would be lunacy, sheer lunacy. We’d never get away with it, not in a million years.”
“Oh?  Why is that then? You look terrific in drag, you know you do. It’s only one step beyond.”
“Only one step beyond? Are you mad? You’re seriously suggesting I impersonate this woman and take on her identity? It’s absurd. Even if I did give it a go, and I’m not that stupid, she’ll have family and friends who’ll come looking for her. Besides, what about her car, we can’t just leave it there?  Plus there’s the small matter of a body.”
“No one is going to come looking for her, that’s the beauty of it. You heard what she said. Her flatmate’s on holiday and the boyfriend’s off on some contract in Bahrain or some such place. The job interview came completely out of the blue. We just bury the body somewhere. As for the car, there’s a garage in the village that can sort that one for us. I tell you what. I’ll come with you and if he doesn’t take you for Miss Sarah Manners, we’ll call the whole thing off.”
“You can’t call off what never got started!” yelled Cotter.
“So what’s the alternative, go on the run for the rest of your life? Or maybe you’d prefer a nice comfy jail?  This is manna from heaven, Ralph, we’d be mad not to give it our best shot.”
“We’ll get caught,” Cotter wailed.
“Maybe we will and maybe we won’t. But if you can’t come up with something better, you’re going to get caught anyway. This way, at least you have a fighting chance. And how about you give a thought to me for a change, eh? I don’t want to lose you, Ralph,” he added, and was relieved to see the other’s expression change from a look of frank disbelief to cautious consideration. “You can do it, you know you can. You’ll make a fantastic woman, you know you will. More to the point, we can stay together. Hell’s bells, we can get a place and live together and wife.”  Horton was grinning from ear to ear.
“We’d never get away with it.”
“We’ll never know unless we try,” Horton persisted. “It will be an adventure. Hell’s bells, can you imagine? It will be incredible...just you and me and no one any the wiser. We’d be mad not to give it a go. Think of the buzz, Ralph. Can’t you feel the adrenalin working overtime already?”
“All I feel is shit scared.”
“Trust me, Ralph. Would I let you down? I tell you, we can do it. You can do it.  Don’t you see? It’s a chance to stick two fingers up at the world and have the time of our lives. We’d be mad to let it slip through our fingers. Besides...” He grimaced, “take it from me, flower, you might as well be banged up in jail as do a runner and be looking over your shoulder every five minutes. Either we go for broke or you’re looking at a life sentence. Maybe you’re ready for that but I’m damn sure I’m not.  Come on, Ralph, say yes,” adopting a look and tone Cotter always found impossible to resist.
“What if the people at the garage see through me?”
Horton shrugged. “We’ll say you’re a drag queen, I’m your manager and we have a gig later.”
“You’ve always got an answer for everything!” retorted Cotter, stomach churning but starting to feel a touch excited.
“I try,” said Horton and gave his friend a big hug. “It will be such an adventure,” he murmured in Cotter’s ear.
“I bet that’s what kamikaze pilots tell themselves,” responded Ralph with feeling.  But it was true. He was terrified and the whole idea was preposterous. Yet, the prospect was an exciting one. The thrill of it began to fill his bladder until he had to break free and make a dash for the loo.
Horton fetched Sarah Manners’ suitcase from the car and avoided looking at the boot. Later, in Aunt Phoebe’s bedroom, Cotter sat at her dressing table and applied some make-up he found in the top drawer. He would have chosen none of it for himself but it would have to do. The woman’s clothes, on the other hand, were a near perfect fit. An emerald green jacket and skirt worn with an attractive white blouse suited him to a tee. He put on the gold charm bracelet, admired it and replaced it on the polished cedar surface. Horton had not wanted him to have it. Indeed, he had warned against it. But Cotter could see no harm in it. Charm bracelets were common enough, for heaven’s sake.  He held it up to the light, decided that the little monkey charm was his favourite and slipped it back on his wrist.
“You look fantastic!” Horton was exultant. “You’ll be fighting the blokes off, just you wait and see.”
“Fat chance!” returned Cotter modestly but allowed a smile of quiet satisfaction to play on the lipstick mouth as he reviewed his efforts in the mirror. He had always loved dressing up in women’s clothes.  He looked good and knew it. The hair would need some more work although, being naturally wavy, would pass muster for now. But the falsies were convincing enough and so was the rest. Daz was right. He made a terrific woman. Horton came and stood behind him and laid a hand on each shoulder. The pair gazed at each other in the mirror.  What Cotter saw in his lover’s eyes determined his shaky resolve. He would do anything for Daz, anything.
Horton was beside himself with excitement. It was all he could do to suppress the sexual urge pummelling him like boxing gloves. He could almost hear the roar of a crowd. True, what he and Ralph were contemplating would be a strictly private performance. At the same time, there was no chance of its taking place behind closed doors.  Rather, they would be in full view of an unsuspecting public. He could not have imagined a greater thrill. “We’ll slay ’em flower, just you wait and see if we don’t.  Damn it, Ralph, we’ll slay ’em!”
True to form, Cotter passed his first test with flying colours. Horton refused to let him telephone but accompanied him to the garage at the other end of the village. No one paid them any attention although Cotter could scarcely control either panic feelings or hot flushes from the neck upwards. The garage manager, who introduced himself as Steve, agreed to fetch the car and see to any necessary repairs. “Sign this, will you? It gives me permission to pick up the vehicle and will save you having to tag along.”
Cotter almost fainted. His mind went blank. What was the woman’s name? Who the hell was he supposed to be?
“Come on Sarah,” Horton was saying then, turning to the manager, “Miss Manners is still very shaken-up from the accident.”
“Of course,” Steve sympathised. Cotter signed the name, Sarah Manners, in a wild indecipherable scrawl and hoped for the best. Steve barely glanced at it but nodded knowingly while Horton explained they were staying at his Aunt Phoebe’s cottage. “I know the old lady well,” the mechanic told them, “Just you leave it with me. I’ll call you as soon as everything’s sorted, okay?”  They were in a small office and the telephone rang. Steve picked up the receiver and began chatting amiably into it. Horton signalled they would leave him to it and ushered Cotter away.
Cotter’s hot flushes had intensified. “I thought I’d die when he asked for a signature,” he wailed.
“You did brilliant, my turtle dove, bloody brilliant. We’ll have to watch that one though and get practising.”
Back at the cottage, Horton raided the drinks cabinet, expressing a heartfelt wish that aunt Phoebe occasionally partook of something stronger than sherry. Even so, sherry was better than nothing and both men began to feel calmer.
“What now?” Cotter was almost afraid to ask. “What do we do with the body?”
“That will have to wait until dark. There’s no rush. I’ve put the car in the garage. First, you and I have to make a little trip.”
“A trip, where?”
“Well, to London, flower, of course. We need to get the rest of her things and make out she’s done a total bunk.”
“Go to her flat, do you mean?” Cotter was horrified. “But...where, how?” he stammered.
“I’ve had a good rummage in her bag,” Horton revealed, producing a beige shoulder bag from beside a chair. “Keys, cash, credit cards, they’re all here, plus a bank statement for an address in the East End. It will be a piece of cake, no sweat.”
“I can’t do it,” Cotter was adamant. “You’ll have to go on your own.” 
“You’ll do as you’re bloody well told,” fumed Horton, his expression no longer pleasantly benign but one of fierce intimidation.  Cotter went weak at the knees. “First things first though,” Horton leered, “Upstairs with you, my turtle dove, at the double!” He leapt to his feet, grabbed Cotter by the scruff of the neck and propelled him, whimpering excitedly, to the bedroom; it was the only upper room, boasting a delightful countryside view rolling like a breezy green sea towards the Downs.
They waited until the next day before driving back to London, found the flat easily enough and even managed to find a parking space without too much difficulty.
Cotter, already starting to revel in his new role, anticipated doing some shopping in Oxford Street later.
“I need to choose my own clothes,” he simpered in a feminine way that turned both men on.
“Let’s get this over first, right?”  Horton was less than enthusiastic as he tried several keys in the lock before the front door finally swung open. They had reached the fourth floor of a small apartment block and a door at the end of a long, dingy, graffiti decorated passage.
As they were about to enter, a voice called out, “Hey, you, what do you think you’re at?” a po-faced woman wearing an ill-fitting red wig shouted at them from a few doors along.
Giving Cotter such a push that he all but fell inside the door, Horton gave the woman his best smile. “We’re friends of Sarah’s. She said it would be okay to let ourselves in.”
“Well, I suppose it’s alright if you’ve got a key,” the woman conceded, “I don’t know, I’m sure. The world and his mother do as they damn well please around here these days,” she grumbled and disappeared, slamming the door as if to drive her grievance home. Horton uttered a low, relieved whistle and followed Cotter inside.
The flat was more spacious, better furnished and more tastefully decorated than either would have expected from such surroundings. It had a comfortable, lived-in feel to it and both bedrooms reflected lively, if not extrovert, personalities. Horton quickly identified which room Sarah Manners had occupied by a framed photograph, of herself and a young man, displayed on a small cupboard beside the bed.  The same glance took in a suitcase on top of a pine wardrobe and wasted no time emptying drawers and stuffing clothes into it.  Cotter, meanwhile, had no stomach for it but determinedly took some Dutch courage from a half bottle of vodka left on a table in the main living room. It was not long before Horton joined him.
“There’s a typewriter in the flatmate’s room,” he spluttered after taking a long swig from the bottle.
“So, it’s perfect. We type out a note and everyone will think she’s just taken off on a whim like people do.”
“Do they?” Cotter was not convinced.
“Take it from me, flower, they do it all the time.”
“So what do we say?” After much debate, they settled on the one word, ‘Sorry’, and typed ‘Sarah’ underneath. “Not very original, is it?”
“It will do the trick,” Horton assured him. “The least said, the less likely it is anyone will get suspicious. They may not take it too well but, tough. There’s no reason to suppose anything different than she fancied getting away from it all so she’s gone and done just that.”
“But people don’t just take off without a word to anyone. What about the flatmate, the boyfriend, family? They’ll go to the police, whatever it takes to find her.”
“But they won’t find her, will they? Because that will be our secret, yours and mine. Take it for me, there’s only so much looking anyone can do. They can huff and puff and blow down the Houses of bloody Parliament for all the good it will do ’em. Trust me Ralph. Everything’s going to be just fine.  Better than that, it will be bloody brilliant.” He squeezed Cotter’s arm, and then checked himself. “Hell’s bells! I’ll have to get used to calling you Sarah, won’t I?”
Cotter made no reply. His head and body ached and everything was happening too fast for his liking. He could barely focus. Yet, he couldn’t deny that the feel of silk against his skin and a growing sense of femininity, despite all misgivings, provided a sensation and experience he relished.  He began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Horton’s impossible scheme might work.  Could he carry it off?  A response to the second question came without thinking, Why not?
They buried Sarah Manners in the early hours of the next morning. While Horton shone a torch, Cotter dug the grave and sweated buckets. It was Horton, though, who dropped the body, wrapped in the same blanket, into the hole and filled it in. Both men wore bandanas around nose and mouth.
Nothing had prepared them for the stench of decaying flesh that hit them as soon as Horton flung open the boot. He had slammed it shut again and ran back to the house, Cotter already way ahead.  Now, both men stood awkwardly at the makeshift grave, struggling to digest what they were doing there. “Should we say a few words?” whimpered Cotter. Horton nodded without speaking. They stood, heads bowed, in a silence heavily pregnant with fear, punctuated by mixed feelings of regret and shame.
“We have no choice,” said Horton at last and began to recite a mumbled version of the Lord’s Prayer.  It occurred to Cotter that this would have to suffice all three of them. Panic lunged at him like an assassin from the darkness. Sensing as much, Horton put an arm around his friend’s shoulders and gave him a reassuring hug. “We’ll be fine, you’ll see. We’ll be bloody fine.”  They took their leave of Sarah Manners then and tried not to jump out of their skins whenever the torchlight played tricks on them, every other bush and tree revealing something or someone out to get them.
Next, they drove to the Village Green, turned all the lights off and made their way to a nearby bus shelter.  The word was a tramp had been sleeping there for weeks. “We can but hope,” Horton mutely offered up a second prayer and shone the torch. A young-old face, clean-shaven apart from some stubble, loomed into view accompanied by the rasping noises of an ungentle snoring. “You’ll do. You’ll do nicely,” Horton told the tramp in a soft, eerie voice that made Cotter’s flesh creep. “Come on feller, let’s get you home.” He helped the wheezy figure to his feet and beckoned Cotter to lend a hand.
“What the...?” a dazed voice broke from the dribbling mouth.
“Let’s get you home,” repeated Horton soothingly and the dead weight dangling between them like a sack of potatoes drifted off to sleep again. It did not make another sound, even as they heaved it into the space recently vacated by the late Sarah Manners.
Horton drove the Ford to the Devil’s Elbow. By the light of a watery moon, trying to force its way through a blanket of cloud, they littered the front seats with Cotter’s personal possessions, including his wedding ring, and dumped their anonymous passenger in the front seat. For a split second the bleary eyes opened, flung a drunk, questioning look at them and closed again.  Horton turned the key in the ignition and leapt clear as the car hurtled a few yards down the slope, veered erratically and went over the cliff. Heart in mouths, they waited for an explosion. It seemed an age before it came, followed by a blinding flash and tongues of fire leaping into the blackness, briefly turning the cliff face crimson.
“I loved that car,” Cotter murmured.
“Let’s go,” said Horton.It’s a long walk back to the cottage.”
“Then what…?”
Horton shrugged. “We get on with the rest of our lives.”
“Just like that…?” Cotter was sceptical.
“No, not just like that… We work at it. Talking of which, don’t forget you have a job interview tomorrow. Lucky for us, the Manners woman wanted to get the feel of the place first.”
“I can’t!” wailed Cotter.
“You can and you bloody will,” Horton snapped, never in the best of moods when having to walk any distance.
“What do I know about being a librarian? Besides, suppose they’ve seen a picture of her?”
“You don’t send bloody photos with a job application, you nerd. Who knows? You might even get the job. I bet you have impeccable references,” he sniggered, seemed to find this increasingly hilarious and chuckled softly to himself all the way home.
“In the unlikely event I get the job, what then?” Cotter wanted to know. “We can’t stay at the cottage forever. Your aunt will be back in about a week, right?”
“Let me worry about that. I always could get round aunt Phoebe. She has a spare room, don’t forget. We can always get a place of our own later. I can commute and you, you lucky bugger, will be practically living over the shop...or library, in this case,” he spluttered, remembering where they were just in time and all but choked on a would-be guffaw.
“I don’t know anything about libraries,” whinged Cotter in a harsh, despairing whisper.
“It can’t be difficult.” Horton had sized the prospect up at once. “And you’ve seen the local library. It’s the size of a pea. Trust me, flower, it will be a doddle. You enjoy reading, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, but...”
“No buts. You can’t duck out now. Go in there, guns blazing, and leave the rest to fate.”
“We seem to be leaving just about everything to fate,” observed Cotter dryly.
Horton shrugged. “What will be, will be, my turtle dove. What will be, will be.”
As fate or whatever would have it, Cotter got the job. The interview was a nightmare but he gained confidence as he went along, surpassing himself in the art of intelligent waffle.  Invited to take a seat at one end of a long, highly polished table, he found himself opposite a bespectacled, grey haired man who lived up to Cotter’s epitome of a librarian and was flanked on either side by two women, one about his own age and another considerably older.  They were friendliness itself and Cotter soon began to relax and almost enjoy himself.  The older woman voiced doubts concerning any young person’s motives for leaving London. “Why Monk’s Tallow, Miss Manners?” she asked, plainly intrigued, “What can our little hamlet possibly offer than London cannot?”
“Peace and quiet,” said Cotter without having to think about it and drew a chorus of polite laughter. Sensing that more was required of him, he pressed on. “I love the countryside and I love my job so what better than to combine the two?” Three heads nodded in unison and Cotter was reminded of three brass monkeys on the sideboard at home. Home. Jean, his wife, would be worried about him. She would know by now, of course, about Sean. It was a sobering thought. “I’m sorry,” dragging his mind back to the interview, “can you repeat that please? I didn’t quite catch what you said.” The younger woman stared reproachfully at him and asked the same question in a sterner, rebuking tone of voice. It struck Cotter that he had probably blown it, experienced a huge sense of relief and became more relaxed than ever. It came as something of a shock when, within an hour of arriving back at th cottage, the telephone rang and he was offered the post.
“Well done!” Horton was jubilant. “Believe me, flower, the Force is with us all the way on this little caper.  This calls for a celebration. What say we introduce ourselves at the local drinking hole?”  Not sure whether he was feeling euphoric or merely dazed, Cotter agreed. The evening was a resounding success with only one minor hiccup when Cotter walked into the Men’s toilet, to a chorus of wolf whistles from its occupants.
Both men were fast asleep when the shrill, persistent ring of a doorbell woke Horton a little after midnight.  He clambered out of bed, grabbed a dressing gown and was still slipping into it as he made his way downstairs. On the doorstep stood two, grim looking, uniformed policemen.
“Mr Horton?  Mr Darren Horton?” the taller one enquired politely. Horton’s heart sank. “Yes, I’m Darren Horton. What can I do for you? It’s past midnight, for heaven’s sake.”  Even as he spoke, his mind took off through a maze of awful possibilities. They couldn’t know about Ralph, surely?  It was too soon. Besides, there was nothing to link him to Ralph. We've been too careful, thought of everything...haven't we?
“May we come inside?” They did not wait for an answer. “Apologies for the lateness of the hour sir but we have received a call from the British Consulate in Vienna. We tried your London address earlier and a neighbour thought you might be here.”  That would be Mrs Catchpole at number ten, thought Horton irritably, waving the two officers to a seat.
“I’m afraid we have some bad news for you”, the shorter one began and looked acutely uncomfortable. “It’s about your aunt, Mrs Matthews...” he went on. But Horton only caught the gist. Nothing else mattered. He had heard enough already. Aunt Phoebe was dead.

Fond though he had been of the old girl, Horton’s first thought was for himself. The cottage would be his now.  Good old Auntie, she could not have timed her death more fortuitously if she had tried.

To be continued on Friday