Monday, 18 November 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 14


“Don’t you remember anything?”
“Not a thing!” Liam Brady told Sarah Manners, shaking his head in disbelief. “I know it was years ago could I forget something like that? It’s just so …weird!”
It was not the word that sprung to Cotter’s mind as he continued to smile encouragingly and tried to look sympathetic.A bloody good job too, he was thinking and the phrase brought an involuntary chuckle to his throat. It was not one that Sarah Manners would use. It still amused him, even after all these years, how he could get inside two people at the same time. He was Ralph Cotter, and yet he was Sarah Manners. He even thought like her. That is, he thought like the woman he had created for himself and in whom, as such, he took considerable pride. There were times when the male part of him felt trapped by the female persona and he would break into a cold sweat. Daz, though, always seemed to recognize these moods and would immediately take him in hand. Cotter’s throaty chuckle became a giggle. Daz could always be relied upon for that.
“It’s not funny,” Liam Brady groaned and wished the woman would stop her silly cackling.
“I’m sorry, I was miles away. No it isn’t funny. On the contrary, it’s very sad.”
“Sad? It’s sick, that’s what it is, sick!” Liam reached for the brandy bottle and helped himself. “The whole business is sick. Does that make me sick too? It must do, I suppose, if I can’t remember seeing my own father shot down in front of me. Shit! What a mess! Shit!” he drained the glass and, not having let go of the bottle, poured another almost as a matter of course. “Sorry,” he mumbled and went into a fit of hiccups.
“You’ve nothing to be sorry about,” the woman assured him, “I only hope it helps to talk.”
“It’ve no helps a lot...hic, hic...I’m so...hic...grateful.” He lay back in the chair, closed his eyes and drifted into an uneasy sleep. He did not feel either glass or bottle being removed from his grasp nor was he aware, later, of someone lifting his feet on to a padded stool and throwing a blanket over him. 
“You poor sod,” muttered Cotter at the sleeping form in the chair and was slightly surprised to realize that he meant it.  A coif of hair had fallen over the young man’s eyes and gave him a look of innocence in such a way that Cotter was reminded of the small boy of whom he had been so fond all those years ago.  But if he had been prone to sentimentality, the memory of that night killed any such emotional baggage stone dead.  He shook his head as if to clear it. Liam Brady was a liability. As such, he would have to be dealt with. He leaned to pull the blanket higher, to Brady’s chin. It would be a shame, he mused absently, if this handsome young man had to die.  Not that it would come to that, surely? All they had to do was allay any suspicions young Liam might, in time, come to have. And who was to say he’d ever have any at all? Besides, Daz would never buy the notion of another murder. He had only gone along with the others out of necessity whereas he, Ralph...
Cotter went and sat down again, poured the last of the brandy into his glass and studied the sleeping Brady without seeing him. The young man’s gentle breathing was easy on the ear and helped him relax while he pondered philosophically on his tally of deaths so far.  He should never have shot Sean of course. Even so, he would never forget the thrill of seeing the blood oozing on to the carpet and the impatient tugging of a small boy’s hand in his own. Nor would he ever forget the sight of Sarah Manners hurtling through the Ford’s windscreen.  (How he had loved that car!).  Or the thump of her body landing in the grave he had dug for her. Or the terrified expression on the tramp’s face that continued to visit him on bad nights. Then there was James Morrissey. A fine specimen of a man, Morrissey, he recalled with a stab of jealousy mingled with desire, although male or female he could not be sure. 
 He sighed, licked his lips and laughed aloud.  The joke was it has all been so easy. Certainly, there was no reason to suppose that, if needs must, disposing of Liam Brady should pose a problem. “That’s alright then,” he informed the bright-eyed gremlin that had perched on his right shoulder all evening and went to join Horton for a nightcap in the kitchen.
Monk’s Tallow was the last place on earth Carol Brady would have chosen to visit. But she was worried about Liam. Since he had got friendly with Sarah Manners and taken to visiting her most weekends he had changed.  It struck her as incredible that such a normal, lively, laid back young man could, almost overnight, become so moody, irritable and intense that she could scarcely believe it was the same person.  Moreover, it hurt to know that Liam felt he could discuss his father and the murder with Sarah bloody Manners but not with his own mother.  
While she felt much inclined to turn up unannounced, Carol had a change of heart at the last minute and called Liam to say she was on her way. He had spent the entire weekend with the Manners woman and her partner. Nor had he given any indication as to whether or not he intended returning to work on Monday. He had left his mobile turned off all day so, on Tuesday morning, Carol decided that enough was enough. A visit from Julie Simpson the previous evening had all but clinched her resolve. If she had disliked the very sound of Sarah Manners’ name by now, Julie’s revelations about the woman’s strange behaviour in the past unsettled her even more. If Liam was having an affair with the Manners woman, she wanted to know about it. If he wasn’t, she still wanted to know about it. Either way, the woman was plainly a bad influence. “A mother has to do what a mother has to do,” remained her battle cry throughout the tiresome drive to Monk’s Tallow.
She took a wrong turning and ended up approaching the village from a cliff road that involved having to negotiate a wicked bend.  Not until afterwards did she realize it must have been the infamous Devil’s Elbow.  “I really don’t see what all the fuss is about,” she remarked to Liam later. “I’ve met worse. You’d have to be driving like a maniac for it to be a problem. If you go mad, well, you deserve all you get of course.” They had met for lunch in The Fox and Hounds except that lunches were off because the microwave had exploded earlier. The menu, such as it was, now consisted of sandwiches, salted peanuts and crisps.
“Sarah is looking forward to meeting you,” Liam told her with the same sullen expression he invariably adopted these days.
“Likewise,” she lied, having promised herself that she would not pick a quarrel but remain calm and polite, whatever it might take to suss the woman out and get Liam to see some sense.  As if on cue, a smartly dressed woman with short black hair streaked with grey joined them. She wore designer sunglasses that, as far as Carol was concerned, gave her an affected air before she uttered a syllable.
“So pleased to meet you Carol,” oozed a deep but very feminine voice as Sarah Manners stretched out a hand. Carol rose slightly in her seat, shook the hand, glanced at the bitten down finger nails with frank disapproval and sat down again. Liam had leapt to his feet and was holding out a chair for the Manners woman whose slick smile reminded Carol of a dippy woman in a TV shampoo advert. She found herself wondering what shampoo the Manners woman used. Whatever, she was no advert for it. Her hair was a mess. Unless, of course, she supposed, it was meant to resemble a hedgehog. “I was so pleased when Liam called to say you were coming to see our little hamlet for yourself. It can’t have been easy for you, considering....”
“If you’re referring to Ralph Cotter, I really couldn’t give a damn. I put all that behind me years ago,” she lied convincingly, “Besides, I never liked the man. Quite apart from the fact that he killed my husband, I don’t give a toss that he came to a sticky end. Nor should you,” Carol added, glaring meaningfully at Liam.
Sarah Manners, too, turned her attention to Liam. “The most interesting man came into the library this morning...” and proceeded to rabbit on about some archaeological dig about to take place a few miles away in Monk’s Porter.
Carol quietly seethed. She might as well not have been there for all the notice they took of her.  It made want to puke to watch Liam lap up the woman’s every word. He even insisted on prising open her salted peanuts after the awful fingernails had failed at several attempts.  She had to be about her own age, Carol decided, and should know better than to get involved with someone as vulnerable as Liam, who could easily be her son.  “But he’s my son so...hands off!” she fumed inwardly but somehow managed to keep smiling.
“Did you have a pleasant journey down?” Sarah Manners turned to Carol as she rose to go. “You certainly chose a lovely day for it. But I’m afraid I must love and leave you both.  Sadly, some of us have to work even on a day like this,” uttering a titter that made Carol’s stomach heave, “So pleased to have met you at last Carol,” she gushed, seizing both Carol’s hands in her own and holding them for several seconds. Carol visibly cringed. But the woman neither let go nor dropped the shiny lipstick smile.
Although she could not see the eyes behind the sunglasses, Carol sensed they were sizing her up. She also sensed a feeling of malevolence on a par with her own. “This woman is an enemy,” she told herself and gave a start of surprise. In spite of her preconceived misgivings, she hadn’t thought of Sarah Manners in quite those terms.
The hands released their grip. “I hope we meet again soon murmured the librarian.”  Carol forced a smile. It even sounded like a lie. Was her son deaf as well as stupid, she wondered?  She nodded politely. The woman turned on her sensible flat heels and made her way to the pub entrance, accompanied by Liam.
By the time Liam returned, Carol had fetched them both another drink from the bar and had almost finished hers. “Well, that was cosy wasn’t it? I might as well have been one of the beer mats for all you two cared!”
“No one asked you to come down,” retorted Liam peevishly. “Anyway, Sarah thinks you’re very nice.”
“Huh!”  Carol drained her glass.
“What have you got against her? She’s okay, mum, honest. She’s good to be with. I can talk to her.”
“Why can’t you talk to me? I’m your mother for heaven’s sake, that’s what mothers are for...”
“We’ve never been able to talk, you know that.”
It was true. Carol had no riposte for that one. “I tried once, years ago, to talk to you about your dad but...well, you didn’t want to know. The doctors said I mustn’t pressure you. It had to come from you, they said. So I left the subject well alone.”
“How could you do that? How could you just leave it? I saw my dad murdered for crying out loud!”
“And how does knowing that help?” she demanded hotly. “Does it help you remember? Do you want to remember? What can Sarah bloody Manners do for you that I can’t?”
“She listens,” Liam muttered irritably. He could not deny that his mother had hit a nail on the head. He could not remember a thing and, no, he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Everything was such a muddle. Sarah understood that. She understood him so much better than anyone. They would talk for hours about everything and nothing. Yet whenever he wanted to focus on what he’d been reading over and over in the archives about the murder, Cotter meeting his end at the Devil’s Elbow, everything...she was there for him. She listened.  That was something his mother had never done or even Julie.  Not that he had much to say.  He could only speculate and try to remember. He would get into a state and she would let him snuggle against her and stroke his hair. There was nothing sexual about it. It was a comfort. “God knows, I need plenty of that right now,” he’d have liked to tell his mother but did not know how.
“Why do you keep coming here, that’s what I want to know? What on earth is there for a healthy young man in a dump like Monk’s Tallow?  Julie told me you took her to the Devil’s Elbow and got all spaced out. If you ask me, it’s just plain morbid.”
“It’s a link with Dad,” Liam tried to explain.
“And what am I, something the cat dragged in?”
“There’s no talking to you in this mood,” Liam complained and scrambled to his feet.
“No, you’d rather talk to that Manners woman!” Carol shouted.
“Too right, I would!” yelled Liam and ran out of the bar.
“It’s about time you grew up!” was Carol’s parting shot but, if he heard, Liam gave no sign and did not look back. Carol suppressed a scream of frustration and even resisted another drink. Resignedly, she made her way back to the car. A few days later, he would be all apologies and giving her a big hug. It had been the same pattern for months. He only had to be away from Monk’s Tallow for a few days to seem pretty much restored to his usual self.
What was it about the Manners woman, Carol wondered all the way home? She didn’t seem the seductive type. Moreover she believed Liam when he said his relationship with the librarian was not a sexual one. So, what then?  Not to mention, why?  
There was something else too, nagging away at the back of her mind. Carol could not place it but it troubled her all the same. She disliked the woman and had never met her before. Yet, she had experienced the oddest rapport when the librarian seized her hands before returning to work.  It had been a calculated ploy for Liam’s benefit of course. She was certain of it. There had been nothing impulsive about the gesture. It was a performance, no more or less. Even so, something about the woman’s body language had struck her as vaguely but disturbingly...familiar. 
She shrugged and concentrated wholly on getting home. Clearly, her dislike of the Manners woman was affecting her sensibilities as well as her temper.
Liam’s mood swings grew worse as they became more frequent. He would find an excuse to row with everyone…his mother, work colleagues, even Julie. He and Julie had been best mates for years. He knew his mother hoped they would get together as an item but that was never on the cards. They were too much like brother and sister to ever become lovers. Besides, she was practically engaged to someone else. The truth was she had precious little time for him now.
It seemed to Liam that Sarah Manners was the only person who really cared that he was so unhappy. He only had to be around people for a short while and they got on his nerves, Sarah being the only exception.  Subsequently, he made a point of visiting Monk’s Tallow more and more often. She was always pleased to see him and her partner, Daz, appeared to have no problem with the close friendship that developed between them.  It was purely platonic. He would talk and she would listen, or vice versa. Alternatively, they would debate political and social affairs of the day with an intensity that always remained good-humoured.  Sometimes he could not face returning to London on the Monday and would stay over another day, even longer, to the extent that even Daz began to refer to the spare room at the cottage as “Liam’s room”.
His mother’s disapproval merely served to endorse Liam’s growing conviction that Sarah Manners was the best thing that had happened in his life since breaking up with ex-fiancée, Sylvia, two years previously.
One evening, after a bad day at the architect’s office where he worked, Liam drove down to Monk’s Tallow unannounced.  There was a tacit understanding that he would always call first. On this occasion, however, both Sarah and Daz appeared to have left their mobiles switched off and there was only a ringing tone to be heard.
Intending to try again later, Liam slammed his foot on the accelerator and enjoyed the spread of a warm glow in the nether regions, imagining the warmth of a greeting that never failed to lift his flagging spirits. Since learning about his father’s murder, he had felt disproportionately unsettled without understanding why. It had come as a shock, of course. But surely, as a grown man, he should be able to deal with it better than this?  Disregarding his mother’s pleas that he should see a doctor or Julie’s suggestion that he consult a counsellor, he had sought and found a curious solace in Monk’s Tallow. For hours, he would sit on the beach below the Devil’s Elbow and listen to the waves spinning tales of fathers and sons playing football in the park, going to the zoo, flying a kite...all the things he had missed out on.  Yet, his mother had done her best and he had never missed his dad so...why now?  But the waves had to answer for him, just more stories. Sometimes Sarah would sit with him and they would rarely speak but...listen...soak up the crying of seagulls...the yells of children...occasional barking of cream van chimes...a world away from London’s rush and grime.
Arriving at the cottage, it struck Liam as peculiar that all the lights were on. He tried telephoning again but still got no response so rang the doorbell then remembered it had been out of order for some time and went round the back. 
Finding the back door unlocked, he let himself in and called out. No one answered. He cocked an ear and thought he heard noises coming from the spare room, ‘his’ room.  Perhaps for that reason, it did not enter his head to knock.
On his opening the door, two figures on the bed gave a huge start. Two pairs of eyes stared at him with such outraged astonishment and frank hostility that Liam went weak at the knees. Daz might as well have lashed out at him with the riding crop he held, poised to strike Sarah’s naked body. She was lying on the bed, ‘his’ bed, on her belly, gagged, handcuffed to the bedpost, face turned towards him, eyes wide and shining. Daz stood over her, naked but for a leather hood whose eye slits glowed like neon balls in the dim lamplight, the mouth having just emitted a stream of perfect smoke rings.
Liam gave a gasp, swallowed bile, fled into the room opposite that happened to be the main bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed shaking like a leaf. 
It occurred to him that he’d never been in this room before. Beginning to feel like an intruder, he got shakily to his feet. Why should he mind what Sarah and Daz got up to in their private lives, he told himself angrily? It was their business, no one else’s, least of all his. Hadn’t they been kind to him and become good friends? Nothing else mattered.
His breathing became easier. A quickening heartbeat, triggering palpitations like a charge of electricity through his whole body, began to ease.
He would go to the sitting room, he decided, and wait. Nor would he mention what he had seen unless they did.  Already heading for the door, he stopped suddenly. Out of the corner of one eye, he had spotted something that should not be there, something that stunned him beyond belief.
In a daze, he returned to sit on the bed and stare in wide-eyed consternation at a huge, tatty teddy bear, its earless head resting against a pillow.  "Tweedledeaf," he gasped, unable to quite grasp the evidence of his own eyes. “ on earth...?  It isn’t isn’t possible,” he kept repeating, needing to hear the sound of a voice if only be be sure he was not dreaming, but scarcely recognizing .the childlike whimper as his own.
He leaned forward and gingerly touched the bear.  It was real enough. He picked it up, instinctively hugging it close to his chest. Instantly, images started to flash at him from all sides. He saw people, one of them a child, but they had no faces. He heard sounds but could not place them. The room turned red, like a pool of blood. An awful smell made him want to vomit. More blank faces, sounds and smells began attacking from all sides.
He did not hear padded footsteps approaching from behind.
The blow came as a blessed relief. It struck the back of his neck and sent him sprawling, senseless, across the bed.
“Oh dear,” wailed Cotter wringing his hands, “Oh dear, oh dear!”

To be continued