Friday, 1 November 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 9


Twenty-two years earlier


“Don’t be a fool, Ralph, put the gun down.” Sean Brady tried to keep his voice calm, panic vying with amused incredulity to get the better of his stomach. “This is ridiculous. We can talk this through. We’re best mates for heaven’s sake.”
“You’re no mate of mine,” sniffed Cotter. “A mate doesn’t grass up another mate.”
“You’ve got it all wrong, Ralph, so just put the gun down and I’ll pour us both a stiff drink, okay?”
“Don’t move!” shouted Cotter, beads of sweat trickling down his face and getting in his eyes to the extent that he had to reach in his pocket for a tissue and dab at each eye, careful to keep pointed at Sean.  He was scared but angry too. Sean wasn’t going to put him down this time, no one was. He had a gun. He was in charge. It was...exhilarating. “You’re planning to tell Jean about me and Daz. Don’t try and deny it, Daz told me.”
“You and Daz…? What about you and Daz? What did Daz tell you? Put that thing down, Ralph, before someone gets hurt.”
Ralph felt the sex between his legs begin to stiffen and throb. Sean was afraid of him. Someone was afraid of him, Ralph Cotter. He almost wished the damn gun were loaded. “Jean mustn’t know about me and Daz,” he said doggedly. “It would do her head in.”
The penny dropped and so did Sean Brady’s jaw. “You and Daz are...?”
“Go on, say it, you know you’re dying to. Yes, we’re a couple of poufs, queers, homosexuals. Got a problem with that have you?”
“Bloody hell, you mean...? Well, stone me! Believe me, Ralph I had no idea. The thought never entered my head, honest,” Sean lied. “Look, mate, that’s your business. Not mine, not Jean’s, nobody’s. It’s down to you and Daz what you get up to when nobody’s looking. If it grabs you, go for it, that’s what I say.” Sean tried, without much success, to swallow the snigger that was tickling his throat.
They were in the Brady’s living room. Sean had answered the door to Ralph Cotter barely ten minutes previously and been glad to see his old friend. He and Carol had been rowing about her going clubbing two nights in a row, leaving him to baby-sit their son Liam. Liam would be five-years-old in just a couple of months. Sean adored the boy but a toddler was no company for a grown man.
He had gone to the sideboard, taken a pack of playing cards from a drawer and turned to show Ralph, a gleam in both eyes. He always beat his friend, hands down, at any card game. “You choose,” he started to say then took in a strange look on Ralph’s face - and the army surplus revolver in one hand.  True, he had half-expected a confrontation of sorts after letting slip a teasing remark to Daz Horton over a couple of lunchtime beers a few days earlier.  But he had expected the confrontation to come from his colleague, not Ralph.
“What Daz and me have got is special and I’m not going to let you ruin things. If you tell Jean, it will destroy her and she’ll make bloody sure she destroys me,” Cotter was saying.
“And shooting me will solve everything, will it?  Even you’ve got more sense than that, surely?  It’s not as if you’ve even got the bottle to use that thing, we both know that. Let’s face it Ralph, my old son, Action Man you’re not.  So stop playing silly beggars and let’s chat about things over a few drinks, yeah?  You know you couldn’t hurt a fly any more than I’d ever say or do anything to hurt you, not for the world.  We’re mates, for crying out loud. So, how about it?  Put the gun down, eh?”
“You never take me seriously,” Ralph Cotter wailed.
At that moment, a pyjama-clad toddler with a mop of blond curls and dressed in a blue woollen dressing gown a size too big, appeared in a doorway clutching a huge, shabby teddy bear with both ears missing.                        
“Daddy, noisy…”
“See what you’ve done?” Sean shouted at Cotter, “You’ve not only woken my son, you’ve scared him half to death!  Just you wait...” He approached the flushed, fretful child.
Cotter glanced at the boy and tried to smile reassuringly. Suddenly aware that Sean was heading towards him, he panicked. The threat of “Just you wait” boomed around the room like a massive echo that would ring in his ears for years to come. A rage in him, all the greater for its impotence, surged through every sinew of quivering flesh. His finger pulled the trigger.
The resulting explosion was terrifying.
The gun jumped out of Cotter’s hand as if of its own accord and fell to the carpeted floor. A few yards away, Sean Brady lay perfectly still, blood oozing from the breast pocket of his shirt.  Absurdly, it went through Cotter’s mind that he still had a hard on. He went to the body, knelt and felt for a pulse. There was none. Sean Brady, his best mate, was dead. He, Ralph Cotter, had killed him in cold blood. “It wasn’t supposed to be loaded,” he tried to explain to the small boy who had come to stand beside him, still clutching his teddy bear.
“What’s the matter with daddy?”
“Nothing, he’s just...playing. We’re playing a game.”
“Can I play?”
“It’s back to bed with you, my lad,” Cotter forced himself to say and picked up the child in his arms. A pair of small hands fastened trustingly around his neck. “Well go and find mummy first, shall we?” thinking that he could hardly leave Liam in the house alone with his father’s dead body.  The boy nodded. Cotter carried him to the car. 
After sitting Liam in the passenger seat, he was about to go to the other side when the enormity of what had happened suddenly struck home. He had killed someone. Not only that, this boy was a witness. There was no hiding place. “Oh, God, what have I done?” he heard himself sob. Snatching up Liam in his arms again, he ran back to the house. The boy started screaming for the teddy bear left in the car but Cotter would not work that out until much later. Instead, he thought the child had suddenly become aware of what he’d done. He panicked. Having already shut the front door, he ran to the back of the house. The kitchen window was ajar. Dumping the boy on the patio, he managed to open it further and climb inside. In next to no time, he had put Liam to bed. The child was still screaming and had turned as white as chalk, his tear-stained face a picture of bewilderment and misery. “Be a good boy for Uncle Ralph until mummy comes home,” he told the lad.
“I want my teddy. Where’s daddy? Tell daddy I want my teddy,” Liam sobbed pitiably.
Cotter ran out of the room, down the stairs and back to the car. The slam of the front door a second time sounded like a gun being fired and he flung himself at the steering wheel, a gibbering wreck. There he remained for a good fifteen minutes, shaking uncontrollably, struggling to digest the enormity and impossibility of what he had done.
Slowly, the shaking eased and his mind began to clear. What next? Find Carol, go to the police or call an ambulance?  “No point in calling an ambulance, he’s dead,” he told the dwarf mascot dangling above his head. The word reverberated in his head for several seconds, forcing him out of the car. He vomited into the gutter, felt marginally better for it and got back inside. Daz would know what to do for the best, he always did. “Daz will see us alright,” he told the mascot, breathlessly, then drove like a man possessed to his lover’s house in Barnet.
“You did what?” Darren “Daz” Horton was incredulous.
“I didn’t mean to kill him. You’ve got to believe me. The gun wasn’t meant to be loaded,” protested Cotter, “I tried it out first. I did, honest. I pointed it at this garden gnome, closed my eyes and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. How the hell was I supposed to know there was another bullet in the damn thing? It’s not fair, Daz, it’s not bloody fair. Now I’m facing a life sentence and all I wanted to do was show Sean I meant business. He never takes anything seriously, including me.”
“Why am I not surprised?” commented Horton scathingly.
“What are we going to do?  I can’t go to jail, I just can’t! I’m scared, Daz!” Cotter wailed then burst into tears and fell into Horton’s brawny arms.
“Pull yourself together, man,” said Horton sharply and sent Cotter reeling with a hefty slap around the face.
Cotter went sprawling and collapsed in a heap on the floor, head in hands, whimpering softly.
“We need to buy ourselves some time to think things through,” said Horton and began pacing up and down. “We can’t stay here, that’s for sure. Someone will give the police my name, you can bet on it. They’ll already have yours, of course,” he added derisively. “How could you have been such a complete and utter nerd?  I don’t need this, Ralph, I don’t bloody need it!””
Cotter got shakily to his feet, nursing his cheek. “I’m sorry Daz,” he sobbed.
“So you should be,” retorted Horton, “So you bloody well should be!”  All at once he made a grab for the trembling younger man and caught him in a bear hug. Cotter breathed a sigh of relief. Daz would know what to do for the best. Daz would see him right. Didn’t he always?
The two men had met almost a year ago to the day in a supermarket. Daz had been wearing a short-sleeved shirt and Bermuda shorts. Ralph could not keep his eyes off the builder’s rippling muscles and mat of reddish hair that appeared to cover his entire body.  Catching the other’s questioning glance, he looked away sheepishly and pulled a can of tuna from the shelf. He hated tuna.  The pair had passed down the aisle in similar fashion, Ralph all but mesmerized and Daz pretending indifference. At the baked beans, Daz came and stood beside Ralph. “Do I know you?” he barked and made poor Ralph jump.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“So why are you looking me over like a bitch on heat?”
“I don’t know,” Ralph stuttered. It did not occur to him to deny it.
“You fancy me, don’t you?” in such a loud voice that several people had looked up from their shopping trolleys, startled and curious. Ralph blushed furiously and said nothing. “Cat got your tongue, has it?” Ralph started to edge away but the taller, stronger man seized his arm. “Care to put your money where your mouth is?” The deep voice boomed. Ralph looked up, saw the big man was grinning ear to ear, and grinned back. Each understood the other perfectly. After departing their separate checkouts, it seemed the most natural thing in the world for Ralph to dump his carrier bags on the rear seat of Horton’s car, sit back and enjoy the drive to a semi-detached in Barnet that had since become a second home.
Daz had daily mood swings. One minute he could be tough, uncompromising, even violent and the next he was a big softie. Ralph liked that. Daz made him feel that he mattered. Jean, his wife, on the other hand only wanted someone she could call to heel whenever she chose.  Even in bed, her domination did nothing for him. Her aggression had excited him once but now he found it boring, predictable, sensing that his only function was to fulfil a fantasy for which she lacked the imagination. Daz, on the other hand, was something else.
“We’ll drive down to Aunt Phoebe’s,” Horton announced decisively. Cotter bit his lower lip, stopped crying and expressed some surprise that Daz had never mentioned an Aunt Phoebe before. “We’re not close but she’s a nice enough old girl and I’m all family she’s got.  My uncle left her well provided for besides a cottage in the country. She’s in Austria at the moment on some coach tour in the Tyrol. And guess who has a key to the cottage?” Cotter’s face lit up. “Got it in one,” Horton guffawed and shook Ralph roughly by the shoulders. “You and I, my turtle dove, are going on a little holiday.”
“I’ll have to go home and get some things.”
“Are you stark raving mad or what?  The kid saw you, didn’t he? The cops are probably going through your knickers drawer right now!  Wait here while I go and throw some things into a bag. We’ll go shopping for you another time. Trust me, flower. We’ll get this caper sorted you’ll see. Can’t have anyone locking up my turtle dove and throwing away the key, can I?” and paused to kiss Cotter hard on the mouth before disappearing upstairs.
Within the hour, they were well on their way to Monk’s Tallow.
They took Cotter’s car.  “There’s no point in taking both cars,” Horton pointed out, “and we can hardly leave yours outside my front door.”
“Won’t the police be looking for it?”
“Exactly, so we’ll just have to hope for the best, stay off the main roads where possible and dump it somewhere later. In the meantime, no one is going to look in Auntie’s Phoebe’s garage...if only because she hasn’t got a car!” he chortled.  “Trust me Ralph and don’t look so worried. Mind you,” he leered, “you’ve been a naughty boy and you know what happens to naughty boys...” saliva trickling from the thick, slightly parted lips.  Cotter trembled with anticipation as Horton glanced in his direction, saw the bulge in his jeans and chortled again.
They were still some miles from Monk’s Tallow when they tuned a bend and saw a woman just ahead, standing beside a green hatchback, carrying a small suitcase and waving frantically.
“Don’t stop,” hissed Cotter but Horton already had a foot on the brake.
“My engine won’t start. Could you give me a lift to the nearest telephone? I’d be so grateful.”
“No,” Cotter whispered.
“Sure, jump in the back,” said Horton airily and the woman did not need to be told twice.
“I’m Sarah Manners,” she told them in a friendly enough, if slightly superior tone.
Horton decided the voice was on the fruity side and immediately summed up the young woman as having a mind of her own. He liked that. “I’m Darren but everyone calls me Daz,” he told her but made no reference to Ralph. Nor did Sarah Manners pry but was content to chatter non-stop to Daz for the next few miles. He supposed she might be nervous about being in a car late at night with two strange men but somehow did not think so. The woman oozed confidence as well as a certain feminine charm. She had a way of gesticulating that Horton found at once irritating and delightful.  Cotter, for his part, remained grim faced and unimpressed. Even so, he could not help admiring a gold charm bracelet dangling from one wrist.
The crash, when it came, took everyone by surprise. A fox ran into the headlights and froze. The woman’s scream distracted Horton. Instead of driving straight on as he intended to, he tried to swerve, momentarily lost control and drove towards a clump of trees. He braked sharply, realizing his mistake even as he did so. The car slewed to a jolting halt. His whole body dragged on the seat belt until he thought he must surely split in two. Cotter gave a shriek. There was a sound of breaking glass. Both men were sickeningly aware of their passenger’s body hurtling through the windscreen before they lost consciousness.
Horton came to first and, although badly winded, wasted no time dragging Cotter clear of the wreckage. The Ford was a write-off.  He picked up the girl and laid her beside Cotter. She was dead.  He stared into bloody face. Eyes, wide open, accused and blamed him. “All for a bloody fox!” he remonstrated with himself. How could he have not followed his gut instinct to drive straight at it?  He’d cocked up good and proper and now look where it had got them. He knelt beside the girl and felt again for a pulse but knew he was wasting his time. As we went to close the dead woman’s eyes, it crossed his mind that their expression reminded him of Ralph’s after a good hiding… angry, spent and insatiable.
The glimmer of an idea flickered in Daz Horton’s head but he dismissed it as too fanciful for words. An owl flew overhead. He looked up and watched its shadowy wings glide, swoop, soar. The idea, not the owl, performed an about-turn. It settled on a ledge at the forefront of his mind and stayed there. Beside him, Ralph stirred and moaned. Horton, his head throbbing and the rest of him feeling as if he had been put through a wringer, forced himself to pay attention. “Are you okay?”
“What kind of stupid question is that?” grumbled Cotter but managed to sit up, nursing his head in both hands.
“Can you stand?” assisting Ralph to his feet without waiting for an answer. “I feel terrible,” then “How’s the girl?”
“Dead,” Horton told him flatly. Cotter took one look at the corpse, saw not the young woman’s face but Sean Brady’s and vomited.
Horton went to the car and, to his astonishment, started it up at the first attempt. Watched by a dazed, uncomprehending Ralph, he went to the boot and removed a blanket before returning to Cotter and the dead girl.  The former, shivering, held out his hand for the blanket only to be disappointed. Horton wrapped the body in the blanket without a word, carried it to the boot and laid it gently inside.  After satisfying himself that the boot would not spring open, he joined Cotter and slumped beside him.
“It doesn’t seem very respectful to shove her in the boot,” Cotter ventured.
Horton shrugged. “It will have to do for now.” He took several deep breaths and got to his feet. “Come on. We can still make Monk’s Tallow by midnight.”
“Shouldn’t we tell the police?”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Horton reminded him and Cotter had the grace to blush. “First things first, let’s get to the damn cottage and take the rest as it comes,” stifling a yawn, “I could sleep forever.”
Neither man would ever recall much about the rest of that fateful journey. Horton took several wrong turnings and it was nearly 1.30 am by the time they arrived at the cottage. Without bothering to put the car in the garage, they staggered inside, found the main bedroom, dropped, full clothed, on to an unmade double bed and fell almost immediately into an exhausted sleep.
Horton woke first, with a blinding headache, and made his way to the bathroom. Aunt Phoebe, he recalled, was something of a hypochondriac. Sure enough, a cursory glance in the glass panelled cabinet on the wall revealed an array of medicines that included a large bottle of aspirin. He swallowed two, washed them down with water from the tap then wished he hadn’t as he raised his head again only for a searing pain to strike across both eyes.  He made his way to the kitchen, plugged in an electric kettle, ransacked some cupboards and was relieved to discover a packet of powdered milk along with tea, coffee and a tin of biscuits in one of them.
By the time Cotter came to join him, Horton was on his third cup of tea, had wolfed more than half the digestives and devised an incredible plan.

To be continued on Monday