Monday, 2 December 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 18


“Do we need to worry about Carol Brady?” Cotter wanted to know.
“I don’t think so.” Daz shook his head.
Cotter, however, was not convinced. But it won’t do any harm to make sure. I think I’ll pay the lady a visit, he thought, but did voice his decision aloud. His lover hated to be contradicted.
For the first time in ages, Cotter took himself off to the cottage in Monk’s Porter and assumed his Marc Philips persona.  It was strange but curiously exciting to become a man again. It always amazed him how the wig, a shock of wavy, sandy coloured hair, altered his appearance so dramatically.
He was about to pull up outside the house in Camden Town when a tall thickset man with a shock of grey hair emerged from a side road, walked briskly up the path and rang .the doorbell. There was something oddly familiar about the man. Cotter parked, waited and watched.  He could just make out the figure of Carol Brady (it has to be her in those garish clothes, surely?) as she opened the door and let her burly visitor inside.  “I know you,” he muttered pensively and racked his memory for a name.  It came to him, as names often do, while his thoughts were heading along an altogether different track. Bloody hell, it’s Fred Winter.
It was a sobering discovery. What the devil did that old buzzard want with Carol Brady?  Hadn’t he read somewhere that Winter had retired, something about wanting to spend more time with his wife...didn’t she have cancer or something?  Retired or no, a cop was a cop and Winter had never been one to risk underestimating...or you paid the price, too right you did! “Shit!” Cotter groaned and kept his eyes on the faded blue front door.
It seemed an eternity to Cotter before Winter returned to his car and drove away. He followed at a discreet distance. Carol Brady could wait, too right she could. He needed to know what Fred Winter was up to. Finding out where the former detective lived would be as good a start as any. Nor did Winter disappoint him but drove directly to Watford, too preoccupied with unsettling thoughts about Carol Brady to even notice he was being followed.
After a while, Cotter headed back to Monk’s Tallow but took care to arrive as Sarah Manners. It would not do for Marc Phillips to be seen calling, especially given the monstrous idea that was not yet fully formed in his head. He needed to but time, chew a few things over with Daz.  Although…maybe not.  He sighed. Daz would only accuse him of getting into a state as usual. But they were in this caper together, weren’t they? They would see it through together, every step of the way. Besides, he didn’t need to remind himself that his long-time lover had a peculiar fetish for the unexpected.  Hadn’t he demonstrated it often enough? He grimaced. At such times, he, Ralph, would invariably panic and get worked up enough to all but wet himself for sheer excitement. “I’ll show you…” he muttered, although he wasn’t sure what he meant or whom he was addressing.
Cotter grinned inwardly, well aware of the severity of any punishment his lover would mete out for soiling his briefs.  Even so, perhaps it would be better to bide his time for now? After all, a pleasure deferred…
The next day Cotter, as Marc Phillips, drove back to Camden Town and rang Carol Brady’s the doorbell. There was no response and he was about to leave when a small, rotund woman with thin, untidy hair opened the door. “Who are you?”
“I’m looking for Carol.”
“She’s probably at work but you can try knocking.”  She pushed past him and scurried, crab-like, along path and street. Cotter entered the gloomy hallway and banged on the flat door. Again, he got no response. He looked around, felt along the ledge over the door then tried the stairs.  A key presented itself, tucked under the stair carpet, after only a cursory search.  Unable to suppress a smug grunt, he took a pair of gloves from a pocket, slipped them on and let himself in.
The flat was unimpressive, poorly decorated and the furnishings looked both ill matched and second-hand. Moving with the agility of a cat, Cotter searched the flat, taking care to leave everything seemingly undisturbed. He had no idea what he was looking for but would know what it was if and when he found it. In one drawer of a bedside table, he found some personal documents, scoured pages of a diary and flicked through an address book but neither yielded much of any interest. He frowned. While several comments about appointments and some general reminders written in bold capital letters caught his eye, there was nothing here to suggest the woman might present a threat of any kind.  
He was about to leave when he noticed the teddy bear. (How could I have missed it?)
Cotter’s heart missed a beat. A rush of memories sent him reeling. Hadn’t he told Horton about the two teddy bears more times than he cared to recall.  In turn, Horton hadn’t minced his words in warning Ralph that his obsession with the bear he’d unintentionally carried away from the Brady house years ago bordered on lunacy.
“Mark my words, that damn bear will see the pair of us swing yet,” Horton had scolded more than once. “Chuck it, or I’ll chuck you.”
Cotter had been mortified. “It’s a piece of history, that teddy. You can’t chuck history.”
“Maybe that’s why it has a nasty habit of repeating itself,” grunted Horton but hadn’t felt inclined to pursue the matter.
Now, Cotter picked up the bear and grimaced. It was ugly, shabby and its head was only hanging on to the rest of it thanks to a liberal application of masking tape.  There was a hole, badly darned, where its mouth should have been; its eyes put him in mind of a pet dog given as a Christmas present. After nearly fourteen years, it badly needed to be put down. No member of the family, including himself, had been able to face taking the poor mutt to the vet. By the next morning it was dead. It had been his first and only pet. “I’ve got a bad feeling about you,” Cotter told the bear and had to resist an impulse to pulverise its ghastly face before replacing it.
He left, careful to return the key to its hiding place under the stair carpet (Oh, shit! Now, was it the second or third stair?). It occurred to him that it mightn’t be a bad idea to drive over to Fred Winter’s house and have a good sniff around. But the traffic was bad so he headed home instead.
Horton was furious. “I’m coming with you next time,” he insisted. “It makes me nervous when you’re charging around getting into heaven knows what. You should have told me what you were up to!”
But Cotter had other ideas and drove off early the next day, leaving Horton still fast asleep. He hadn’t expected to enjoy playing the role of Marc Phillips so much that it titillated him no end.
He found Carol Brady exactly where and about the time he expected, just as her diary had so helpfully revealed. As soon as the chance came, he grabbed it, slammed his foot on the accelerator and drove straight at her. At the last split second, he swerved. He would never know why, he just did.  Even so, a figure appeared out of nowhere and sent her flying. A glimpse of the woman’s terrified expression, the screeching of tyres and the pounding of his own heartbeat...all these stayed in his head and frayed his nerve-endings throughout the journey home. 
As he pulled up outside the cottage in Monk’s Tallow, he had no clear recollection of how he had arrived there. He could already hear Horton yelling at him Hell’s bells, Ralph, are you a total nutcase or what?.He felt physically sick and needed to unwind, let of steam, re-assert his own identity. Hopefully, Daz would be inside because, for sure, he was in no mood to wait...
“Damn, it, I’m not letting you go on your own and, this time, there’ll be no sneaking out behind my back!” Horton complained much later. Cotter merely nodded, looking none the worse for a good beating; Daz hadn’t touched his face this time. Sex had been fantastic, as always. Yet, there had been a marked difference on this occasion, for Cotter at least. Eyes tight shut and fists clenched he had, as always, relished every excruciating second. Only, this time wasn’t Daz dominating his thoughts and every timbre of his being...but Mary Bishop. Nor had he, Cotter, been the victim portrayed by the movie showing in his head.  She had lain where he lay now, helpless, while he administered her just deserts for being such a desirable...slut!
“Slut, slut, slut…!” Horton was chanting and it was not only music to Cotter’s ears, it was sheer inspiration.
The next day, Cotter took off yet again. Daz could rant and rave as much as he liked, this one was down to him.  On this occasion, he had more luck and caught Carol Brady a nasty blow as she flung herself out of his path at the last second. Again, he sped away. He glanced in the rear view mirror. The face that looked back at him was effeminate, true, but wore a look of wide-eyed masculinity that sent his pulse racing. This was a side to himself he had never envisaged. The mirror clouded over and Carol Brady’s face, stained with fear, superimposed itself on his reflection but only fleetingly. It was replaced by another. The prevailing image was that of Mary Bishop’s beguiling looks transformed by sheer terror as the car filled with the scent of her perfume until he could scarcely breathe and had to wind down a window.
Cotter drove furiously to Monk’s Porter, changed, and was soon back at the cottage in Monk’s Tallow relating all, breathlessly, to a livid Horton of whose company he was genuinely glad when they returned to Watford the next day. Not that his lover had allowed him any choice in the matter. Cotter still ached all over as a result of Horton’s relentless disciplining the previous night. “And you needn’t think our friend Marc Phillips is getting the upper hand either,” Daz had snarled, “He’s a sometime convenience, no more or less. You, my turtledove, are Sarah bloody Manners and don’t you forget it!  As for this detective geezer, you had better show me before you dump us in the shit once and for all!” 
Consequently, it was Monk’s Tallow’s resident librarian who drove to Watford where both men had the shock of their lives when they saw Liam Brady turn up on Fred Winter’s doorstep. 
“Shit!” Horton growled.
“It can’t be. It just can’t be,” wailed Cotter.  The blood drained from his face until it turned a shade of off-white, not unlike the favourite Sarah Manners trouser suit he was wearing, reserved though it was for strictly off-duty excursions. “It can’t be,” he repeated a third time.
“Well, it’s him and no mistake,” snapped Horton, “Hell’s bells, he must have more lives than a cat, damn and blast it!” They saw Fred Winter open the door and, after a long pause, show Liam inside. “But what’s he doing here? Besides, we should have heard from the cops by now, let’s face it.  None of it makes any sense unless, maybe...”
“I’m scared, Daz,” Cotter moaned.
“Shut up and let me think,” Horton barked and chose to ignore the sulky expression on Ralph’s prettily made-up face. “The way I see it, there can only be one reason why we haven’t had a visit from the law and that’s because they don’t know what’s happened any more than we do.  Young Liam can’t have told them a thing - and why not?  I’ll tell you why not, shall I?” Cotter nodded dumbly. “My guess is he doesn’t know either. He’s got bloody amnesia. That’s what he’s got, flower, bloody amnesia...”
“But for how long?” wailed Cotter.
Horton shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, flower, but at least it buys us some time. I could be wrong, I suppose, but nothing else makes sense. How he survived the crash, God only knows. I knew we should have belted him in, I just knew it.  He must have been thrown clear or maybe he came round before the car went over and somehow managed to jump out. Hell’s bells, what a turn up for the book eh?” he guffawed.
“So what do we do now, Daz?” whined Cotter.
“We wait, my turtledove, we wait,” Horton told him and snickered, a gleam in the eyes that made Cotter shudder with an anticipation soon visible in the crotch of his trousers. “There’s only one way to find out if I’m right but we need this Fred Winter character out of the way first.”
“You mean bump him off?”
“Don’t be daft, he’s a copper. No, we wait, my flower. For now, at least, we just wait...”
They did not have to wait too long. After less than hour, Fred Winter emerged alone and drove away. “Good. Now we can pay our old mate Liam a little visit without any interruptions,” Horton declared, pursing his lips reflectively.
“But, suppose...” Cotter stammered.
“Suppose, my arse!” retorted Horton, “Come on, let’s go.”
“Maybe I should wait here?” Cotter suggested weakly.
“We’re in this together, right? Besides, if I’m guessing wrong about him having amnesia, I’ll need you to lend a hand.”
“Oh, all right,” muttered Cotter crossly but took his time wrenching opening the passenger door all the same. Nor did he start breathing properly again until Liam Brady opened the front door of Fred Winter’s house, stared at them blankly.
“Yes?” Liam asked.
“We’re friends of Fred’s,” explained Horton with growing confidence. “There’s been an accident, nothing serious though.  But the hospital may have to keep him in overnight so he’d like you to bring a few things. Can we come in?  We can give you a lift just as soon as you’re ready.”
Horton already had a foot inside the door. Liam-Harry stood back, feeling distinctly uneasy as the couple pushed past him. “Wait in the lounge,” he mumbled and pointed. The man, he reflected, was a big burly bloke who carried himself confidently, if brusquely. The woman, on the other hand, seemed nervous and unsure of herself. He found himself wondering about their relationship and did not doubt for a moment that here was a man who liked a woman to know her place…and a woman who was only too happy to oblige. Yet something did not ring true. He could not put a finger on it. Their story was plausible enough. Could it be the couple themselves that somehow failed to convince him…but, of what? 
Liam was puzzled, confused. Why, he kept asking himself, did he not feel the slightest concern for Fred Winter?  The only explanation was that he did not believe a word he had been told about any “accident”.
“I’ll be right back…” he told them, smiling in a way he hoped would convey a mix of casual politeness and mild dismay.  In the kitchen, he hesitated only a fraction at the back door then fled.
He ran, loped and finally walked, panting, through a maze of alleyways and side roads before ducking into a café whose windows were so steamed-up no one could tell if it was empty or bursting at the seams. In the event it was neither. An elderly trio sat at a table chatting over cups of tea while two young women in one corner kept taking time off from devouring egg and chips to toss meaningful glances at a gay couple in the opposite corner. 
Liam ordered a large mug of tea, much relieved to discover that he had enough small change in his jeans pocket to pay for it then went and sat down at a table nearest the counter which gave him not only an overall view of the café but, more importantly, its steamed-up door and windows.  They gave him a sense of security. No one would find him there, he was sure of it. But why, he wondered, should the odd couple have lied to him? Why on earth should anyone intend him harm?  “Who am I?” he demanded of finger scrawls on the glass, assorted stains on the plastic tablecloths and – not least – a motley bunch of characters that kept throwing curious glances in his direction. Certainly, the Three Wise Men and teenage gigglers were undecided as to who was providing the most entertainment…the gay couple holding hands and kissing or the newcomer muttering to himself like nobody’s business.
Aware suddenly that he was a focus of attention and why, Liam shut up. Instead he tried to remember. But nothing came to aid or rescue. No images came to mind that meant anything. He caught glimpses of faces but might as well have been peering through the café windows, no way of telling who was who or what was what. Places, objects passed in front of his eyes but it was like watching a blurred slideshow. The only thing that had any meaning was a teddy bear…a shabby, tatty lump of mangled fur that no more conjured up a name than any of the faces but invoked powerful feelings all the same. Nor were these feelings in the least unpleasant. On the contrary, the teddy bear gave him a warm glow, like cold hands at a cosy fire. Yet how did that explain the nightmare? Why should he stab the teddy bear?  Words sprung unbidden to mind, a quotation of sorts…something along the lines of a man killing the thing he loves. 
Not for the first time, Harry Smith asked himself the question, “Who have I killed?”
The more the cold mug shook in his grasp, the harder Liam clutched at it. His teeth began to chatter. He staggered to his feet, lurched towards the counter and ordered another cup of tea in a low, mumbling voice.
“This is a respectable café, not a drop-in for those with nothing better to do than act queer,” said the young woman behind the counter and gave him a frosty look.
“I can pay,” Liam muttered, hoped it was true and counted out the exact money on to the counter’s much-battered wooden surface.
“Well, I suppose…but don’t you go disturbing anybody or you’ll be slinging your hook before you know it,” she declared loudly, plainly enjoying the unspoken approval of pensioners and teenagers alike while the gay couple showed no interest whatsoever but continued to have eyes only for each other.
Liam sighed. He missed Sadie terribly. Perhaps the best thing would be to return to The Green Man and pretend Fred Winter did not exist?  They had got by okay so far, he and Sadie…well, hadn’t they? Why spoil everything? “Because none of it is real,” his alter ego was quick to point out. “Everything is a sham. You’re a sham.” But I love Sadie, that’s real enough. “So prove it. Feelings, if they are real, can survive anything…even the truth. If you love her, and she loves you, the truth won’t matter. You’ll be together as a real couple, not a pair of losers pretending you’re on a winning streak!”  We’re not.  “Well, that’s how it looks. Do you want to spend the rest of your life playing at being in love or take a chance on it being the real thing?  What have you got to lose?” 
“Everything,” Harry Smith groaned aloud.
The gay couple got up and left. Five pairs of eyes watched them go while the sixth started into his mug as if the muddy brown liquid that passed for tea might hold the solution to all his problems.  “You have to go back, face Fred Winter and the woman who says she’s your mother,” his distorted reflection declared. I can’t. “You can.” I can’t. “You must”. What about Popeye and Olive Oil?  Liam’s thoughts turned to the unsavoury couple that had practically barged their way into Fred Winter’s house.  But there was no answer, only the sound of chairs scraping the lino floor as the Three Wise Men prepared to leave.
Meanwhile, back at Fred Winter’s house, Cotter continued to whine and wail while Horton slumped thoughtfully in the detective’s favourite armchair, sipping at his best malt.
“I tell you, Liam knows. He must know or why else would he do a runner?” Cotter groaned.
“Trust me, he knows sod all,” said Horton with a firmness that went some way towards easing poor Cotter’s frantic state of mind. “If he’d had so much as a clue who we are, he wouldn’t have bothered with play-acting, he’d have let us have it good and proper then called the Old Bill.”
“I’m not so sure…” Cotter remained sceptical.
“Well I am.”
“So what do we do now, wait?”
“Wait for what, Christmas? No, my flower, we catch up with young Liam and sort our little problem once and for all.”
“He could be anywhere.”
“So he could, but somehow I don’t think so. I think our Liam will be doing exactly what half the bloody world does when it gets its knickers in a twist.”
“And what might that be?” demanded Cotter, emulating Sarah Manners at her most peevish.
Horton shrugged. “He’ll hot foot it back to mum of course.”
“But if he’s lost his memory, he may not know he even has a mum!” Cotter pointed out with growing exasperation.
“Ah, but basic instinct, flower, basic instinct... it never lets you down even if you haven’t got the foggiest idea where it’s coming from. Mark my words, our Liam will be banging on his mum’s front door right now.”
“Then we had better get a move on,” snapped Cotter, unconvinced.
“I suppose we better had,” Horton agreed parting reluctantly with his glass and leaping to his feet with such unexpected alacrity that Cotter took several paces backwards in alarm, sent a lamp stand flying in the process and promptly burst into tears. “Don’t you worry about a thing, my turtledove,” murmured Horton and gathered his old friend in a bear hug. “Our Liam won’t know what’s hit him by the time we’re through and the same goes for that nosey parker, Fred Winter, you’ll see.”
Cotter, enjoying the hug, felt totally reassured. Suddenly, Horton thrust him away and banged his palm against the side of his head. “What is it, Daz, what’s up?”
“The bear…that bloody teddy bear you said Carol Brady’s kept all these years!  If young Liam recollects we’ve got its other half or goes and tells anyone else, we’re in big trouble, my turtle dove. It won’t take a genius to put two and two together and come up with the right bloody answer.  I warned you. Didn’t I warn you that damn bear would be the death of us yet?” But he let Cotter stammer and sweat without waiting for an answer. “Come on, we’re wasting time.”
Each made a simultaneous dash for the front door.
“Suppose we don’t find Liam in time?” Cotter wailed.
“We find his mum, we find Liam,” muttered Horton crossly. He had a bad feeling about all this.
“And then what?” Cotter insisted.
“We finish what we started, what else?” snapped Horton. Even so, he took care to avoid meeting the anxious expression in his companion’s eyes. . 

The front door had barely closed on its latest drama before they were heading for the car at a brisk walk. 

To be continued