Friday, 6 December 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 19

The present day


Horton drove off, and much later parked a discreet distance from the house in North Street. “Now all we have to do is sit tight and wait.” said Horton.
“Suppose…” Cotter wailed.
“Suppose you go and get us a take-away? Good idea. There’s a Chinese nosh place just around the corner. Mine’s a chicken chow mien with rice…boiled, none of your fried rubbish…and get us some tea as well…”
Cotter did as he was told. However, hours after they had finished the meal, the flat windows remained darkened, not a sign of life. “Go and have a sniff around, see what you can find,” Horton growled.
“What am I looking for?”
“How should I know? Anything that might give us a clue as to what the bloody hell’s going on.  I’ll wait here.”
“I don’t mind waiting while you go and have a look around.”
“Move it!” snapped Horton.
Cotter knew better than to argue. Nerves were getting frayed, tempers starting to rise. On reflection, he would be glad to put some distance between them for a while.  Horton in this mood was unpredictable, to say the least. 
It did not take long to let himself into the house and ferret around. Nothing appeared any different than on his previous visit.  In the bedroom, he shone a torch into a drawer of the bedside cupboard, acutely aware of the teddy bear staring at him, impassive and accusing. Cotter shivered. It made his flesh crawl, that ugly old bear. He fancied it could see right through him, past the Sarah Manners persona, beyond even the outward shell that was Ralph Cotter…into a being that lurked in nether regions of the soul…more hideous by far than any shabby teddy bear. Cotter glanced around nervously, half-expecting something or someone to leap out of the shadows and grapple him to the floor. He could feel clammy hands around his neck, throttling him. His mouth flew open and, involuntarily, let out a cough that sounded more like a squeak and made him jump.
Around midnight, Fred Winter pulled up outside the house in North Street. Horton recognized the burly figure instantly even before light from a lamppost gave the ex-cop’s face a lurid, ghostly dimension. “Shit!” he swore and wished he hadn’t pushed Ralph into rummaging the flat.  He should have gone himself. The truth was Ralph got on his nerves sometimes. He loved him dearly, he really did, but Ralph was such a wimp at heart.  It was hard for Horton to reconcile the diehard affection he felt for the man with the utter contempt that made him squirm whenever he woke early and contemplated Ralph sleeping form; the insipid baby face, the effeminate pout (even asleep), the naturally long eye lashes and slim body that many women would die for.  He grinned. An ironic turn of phrase there, considering how it had been necessary for the real Sarah Manners to do just that or Ralph would be doing porridge for sure.
As soon as Fred Winter was inside the house, Horton followed. “Don’t let Ralph panic!” he prayed to an unknown deity as he fumbled under the hydrangea bush for the front door key, thankful for whatever forward thinking had prompted him to insist Ralph replace it after entering the house rather than on leaving it.  Even so, by the time he reached the bedroom, Ralph had already panicked and the prostrate form of Fred Winter lay motionless across the bed. “Shit!” Horton growled aloud, glared at a trembling Cotter who looked absurd…face as white as a sheet and right arm brandishing a walking stick. “As if life wasn’t complicated enough…”
Winter lay half on, half off the bed. Horton leaned across and felt for a pulse, experienced mixed feelings when he found one then heaved the detective’s long legs on to the bed.
“Have I killed him Daz?” Cotter wailed.
“You’d know soon enough if you had,” retorted Horton acidly, “You’d be like the cat that’s got the cream, you know you would.” 
“I had no choice,” wailed Cotter.
“You mean you couldn’t resist having a go,” Horton growled.
“What do you think you’re doing?”  Horton demanded.
Cotter had reached for and was now holding the teddy bear up for inspection, his expression a curious mixture of distaste and fondness. “This is what we came for right?”
“Wrong. What self-respecting burglar is going to steal that monstrosity, for crying out loud? No, it’s too damn obvious. Someone might make a connection. We can’t risk it. We could have made out it was kids if you hadn’t blown it, you nerd!”
“We still could…”
“Oh, yeah, and kids would knock someone stone cold, would they, all for the sake of a teddy bear that’s falling to bits?  Somehow, I don’t think so. Come on, dummy and let’s get out of this hole before Sleeping Beauty wakes up. We’ll just have to hope for the best. But I’m warning you, flower, you’ll chuck that damn bear of yours a.s.a.p. or, so help me, I’ll chuck you. And if you think I’m kidding…try me and see.” He strode away, Cotter close behind, wringing his hands while getting a hard on for the sheer thrill of catching the cutting edge of Horton’s voice. “What about Liam?” he hardly dared to ask
Horton shrugged. “Sooner or later Winter will get together with Carol Brady, right?” Cotter nodded slowly. “So, it’s like I said. We find the mum and you can bet the son won’t be far away. We’ll just have to play it by ear for now, that’s all we can do.” He frowned. Winter would come to soon enough. When he did, he’d be asking questions. Like any copper, he wouldn’t only be demanding answers to those questions, but would make damn sure he got them.  So where did that leave himself and Cotter?  Coppers, Horton knew only too well, had a nasty habit of adding two and two to make three plus one.  They would just have to trust to luck, he decided. Whatever Fred Winter might suspect, he can’t prove a thing. As for this little shambles, who’s to say it wasn’t an everyday burglary that didn’t go quite according to plan? 
Cotter continued to make wailing noises that Horton ignored. He reasoned that whatever Fred Winter knew, or thought he knew, it could not amount to much, surely?  They had been too careful. There were no tracks for even the likes of an interfering ex-cop to follow.  It wasn’t as if they had left a murder trail or anything as…foolish, bizarre or obvious.
Horton glanced at the ‘woman’ beside him and grinned.  There was nothing in the least obvious about Sarah Manners and no mistake.  All they needed to do, he’d already convinced himself, was to sit tight and let matters run their course…into a natural dead-end.   One hand closed firmly on Cotter’s free arm. “Put that damn bear back where you found it and let’s get out of here before Sleeping Beauty wakes up.”
“But…” Cotter wailed.
“It will be okay, trust me.”
“What about Liam?”
“He’ll turn up, you’ll see. And when he does, we’ll finish what we started.”
“Will we, Daz? Will we, really?” Cotter’s face was flushed with excitement.
Horton nodded grimly. “Trust me,” he repeated. 
Breathing more heavily than ever, it was a much-relieved Cotter who laid the walking cane beside a motionless Fred Winter, content to let his lover and mentor lead him back to the car.
“Oh, my head…!”  Winter groaned as consciousness took hold. He became more aware of a room totally alien to him at first, its walls revolving, ceiling flapping like sheets on a washing line in a stiff breeze. Everything was a blur. He seemed to hear voices but could see no one. Instinctively, he knew he was alone.
Gradually, he began to identify items of furniture. Aware that he was lying on a bed and, thankfully, acknowledging the fact he was still alive, he began to appreciate that the room was slowing down. He began to feel less dizzy and, although his head continued to throb, his vision gradually cleared. “What the devil…?”  Someone had clobbered him from behind. How could he have been so careless? Then he remembered. Liam! He had been thinking about Liam when…
His eyes focused on an ugly old teddy bear, its ruin of a face and mangled body reminiscent of a decaying corpse. “We meet again Tweedledumb,” he groaned and managed a rueful grin. A rush of memories made his head start to swim again. The teddy bear wore a reproachful expression. Not accusing, just sad, as if it felt badly let down, betrayed even.  And hadn’t he, Fred Winter, done just that…let Carol and young Liam down, badly, all those years ago?
But enough was enough. There was no point in crying over spilt milk. He forced his mind back to the present. Who had hit him and what the devil were they doing in Carol’s flat?  In view of recent events, it would be stretching coincidence too far to even entertain the idea that he had disturbed a run of the mill burglary.  No, there was more to it than that, much more, there had to be, but…what? 
With difficulty, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand. At the third attempt, his legs held up under the strain and he began, slowly, to feel a real sense of who and where he was once more. He sat down again, breathing more easily now, exploring the back of his head, gingerly, with one hand. There was no blood although, without a shadow of a doubt, he had been out cold for a bit. He glanced at his watch. It was late. Carol would be wondering what on earth had happened to him? He rummaged in his jacket pocket for the mobile. “Damn!” The battery needed recharging. He staggered to the little hallway just inside the flat door and went to pick up the telephone resting in its cream cradle on a wall shelf – when he saw the wire had been cut.  “Damn and blast!” he swore again, loudly.
His own voice rattling through his head like a burst of machine gun fire, Winter stumbled into the kitchen, ran the cold water tap into cupped hands and proceeded to splash his face.  A few minutes later found him, dripping, in the cold night air and relieved to be there.  He was even more relieved to see the car where he had left it and how, at first glance, everything seemed in order. Having remembered to retrieve Carol’s holdall, he now flung it on the back seat. Doubtful whether he was fit to drive but seeing nothing else for it, he eased himself into the driving seat and sat for a while until the fuzziness in his head had cleared and only a dull ache remained. He reached for the ignition key and would have run the engine had he not first glanced in the mirror.  The worn, lined face looking back at him dissembled rapidly. An ugly teddy bear stared back at him with the same reproachful expression he had imagined earlier. Winter sighed, took it as a warning and waited a little longer before heading back to Watford.
Meanwhile, in the cosy warmth of Fred Winter’s kitchen, Harry Smith had quickly taken to the woman who was, in all probability, his mother.  He had sat in the cafĂ© for hours and, on leaving, intended making his way back to Herne Bay. But his feet plainly had other ideas and carried him, protesting under his breath, back to Fred Winter’s house. It has come as a shock to find the woman, Carol Brady, there. He had realised who she was, of course, as soon as he set eyes on her but the only recognition had been on her part. She knows me. He could tell at once. She, though, was a total stranger to him. The light in her face died, like a candle all but snuffed out, only to flare again and settle, flickering, as if determined to fulfil whatever purpose for which it had been lit in the first place.
Carol Brady was a remarkable woman, Harry Smith quickly decided. She didn’t flap or fuss in what, after all, had to be as difficult a set of circumstances as any two people could ever expect to find each other. He liked her and wished he could feel something more. But she meant nothing to him, absolutely nothing. Worse, it was painful to see the distress this caused her, just as it was impossible not to admire the way she appeared to take it in her stride. In many ways she reminded him of Sadie, especially in the way she appeared, almost instinctively, to understand him, sense his needs and put those before his own. It took a very special woman, he realized, to accept him as Harry Smith when, inside, she must have been desperate to reclaim her son. But he wasn’t ready for any of that. Her willingness to sit and chat with Harry Smith and get to know him not only earned her his heartfelt gratitude but also a respect they grew by leaps and bounds.
He tried to explain why he had left the house earlier.“I don’t know who they were but I didn’t trust them and I certainly wasn’t going anywhere with them. No way. I may be a psychological mess but I still have basic instincts and I trust those. I have to,” he added, “they are all I can trust.”
“You can trust me Harry, Fred too. By the sounds of it, you’ve found yourself someone else you can trust as well.”
“I’d trust Sadie with my life,” he said simply and was reluctant to withdraw when Carol reached across the table to grasp them, lightly, in her own.
Carol bit her lip when Liam snatched his hands away and hid them under the table. It hurt to call this vulnerable young man Harry.  Oh, she understood that Harry Smith should not, must not be put under any pressure or he might well crack up under the strain.  Anyone could see the poor love was close to breaking point. But how could she ever think of him as anyone else but Liam, her son, who was dead and now, miraculously, was alive again?  I mustn’t cry. I mustn’t let him see how much I’m hurting. You’ve got to be strong for him Carol. She sighed. Suddenly, it seemed as though she had spent all her life being strong for other people and, for an instant, she’d have given anything for someone to give her a big hug and let her cry on their shoulder. Even Freddie Winter would have done. Well, perhaps. Inwardly, she smiled and felt a whole lot better for it. You must be desperate, girl, if you’re ready to settle for Freddie Winter a second time around.  “Do you think those people will come back?”
Harry shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. Somehow I doubt it though, not tonight at any rate.”
But they’re not gone for good, be sure of it.  The unspoken thought continued to hover between them even as unmistakable sound of a key was heard in the front door.
“Freddy, what on earth…? You look awful!” Carol tried to look sympathetic as Fred stumbled into the room. Harry Smith jumped up and fetched a double brandy without being asked. Soon afterwards, all three were engaged in a council of war as Winter finished relating events at the Camden flat.
“Do you think there’s a connection with the people who tried to con Liam…I mean, Harry?” she corrected herself hastily.
“I’m damn sure of it.” Winter looked closely at Harry Smith. “Are you sure you didn’t recognize them? No distant bell ringing somewhere?”
Harry Smith shook his head. “I never saw them before as far as I know. But I knew they meant trouble, no mistake about that. Don’t ask me how, I just knew.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” sighed Carol wearily, “Why should anyone want to kill me, let alone my son?”
“Kill you?” Harry started, alarmed. Carol briefly related the circumstances of her “accident” and the previous attempt to run her down. “Bloody hell…!” His genuine concern touched her and she leaned forward to place a hand on his. He hastily snatched it way, refusing to meet her tearful look.
“In my experience,” Winter continued, ignoring the tension that had arisen between the other two, “when nothing makes sense, you look for a common denominator and work outwards from there.”
“And only common denominator is me.” Harry Smith forced himself to say.
Winter ran a hand through his shock of grey hair. “It’s quite possible, my young friend, you could be right. Only time will tell. For now, though, there is only one common denominator that springs to mind.”
“Monk’s Tallow,” declared Carol flatly.
Winter nodded and looked again at Harry-Liam. “No bells there either?” The young man shook his head. “Think man, think,” he urged more roughly than he meant. He was puzzled and he didn’t like it one bit. But if Harry-Liam held the key to this particular puzzle, he was giving nothing away. “Fair enough,” he conceded with a tight smile, “If you don’t remember, you don’t remember.”
“I want to remember. I need to remember,” said Harry Smith, I really do…” But no one was entirely convinced, least of all himself.
“Perhaps a doctor…” Carol suggested.
“No doctors!” Harry was adamant. Winter felt inclined to agree. Brady had proved he was no head case. He’d lost his memory that was all. It would either come back of its own accord or…
“So, what do we do now?” Carol looked and sounded exasperated as she reached for the whiskey bottle. “We all go down to Monk’s Tallow and see what we can dig up, I suppose.”
“I’ll go to Monk’s Tallow, you and Harry here can follow me down if and when I find out what the devil’s going on.”
“I can’t stay here.” Harry Smith paled significantly, his voice choking.
“I should say not,” Carol agreed, “And if you think I’m staying here on my own, you can think again.”
“I’m sure Sadie will welcome the pair of you with open arms.” Winter’s unexpectedly warm response took them both by surprise. “Well, Harry. What do you say? As far as we know our friends haven’t made any connection with Herne Bay. What safer place to lie low while I look into things?”
“I ran out on her,” he reminded the ex-policeman with a rueful grin from which the latter took much encouragement.
“Bollocks. If ever a couple were made for each other, you two are it. You can use the phone in the bedroom, it’s more private.”
Harry Smith opened his mouth as if to protest, apparently thought better of it, and left the room.
“So what makes you think this Sadie woman will welcome me with open arms?” Carol was fuming. “How dare you land me in it like that? I’m his mother, for heaven’s sake!”
“You’ll like Sadie,” Winter promised her with a grin, “so long as you give her a chance and don’t come the over-protective mother for whom no one’s ever going to be good enough for her precious son.”
“As if I would…!” Carol glared. “But…”
“No buts. It makes sense and you know it. Or maybe you haven’t got the head on the shoulders you used to have?”

“The one that fell for the likes of you, do you mean?” Carol retorted, lips trembling but unable to conceal the glimmer of a smile in the wide, violet eyes.    

To be continued