Friday, 13 December 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 21

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


“I can see you’re busy…” Winter murmured. He had begun to regret paying a courtesy call at the local nick. Extra police had been drafted in to help find the young fair worker’s killer and its corridors seemed busier than Victoria station during the rush hour.  He introduced himself to the desk sergeant who was pleasant enough but less than interested. “We’re all pretty stretched at the moment, that’s for sure,” said the young man who struck Winter as barely old enough to wear a uniform in the first place, let alone sergeant’s stripes.
      “Pleased to meet you, sir, I’m sure. You’ll be glad to be well out of it I dare say.”
      “So long as you stay out of it,” said a voice behind him and a red haired young man in a suit appeared from behind a filing cabinet. “No offence sir, but we haven’t time to humour retired coppers, even those with your reputation.” The tone was light enough, the expression relaxed and not unfriendly.
       “I get the message,” responded Winter equably. “I merely thought it polite to drop in and say hello.”
      “Huh, that’ll be the day!” A loud snort from an open doorway blasted Winter’s ear just to the detective’s right. “Once a copper always a copper…and what ex-copper can resist sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted?”
      “I was trying to be diplomatic sir,” said the young DS, although Winter couldn’t be sure whether it was he who was being addressed or the older man whom he had turned to face with a critical eye.
      “You look a mess,” Winter declared mildly. “That must mean you have some clout around here.”
      “You’re looking at a DCI no less. As for looking a mess, it comes from being up all bloody night getting nowhere fast.”
      “As you’re sergeant quite rightly observed,” Winter felt bound to observe, albeit with a broad grin, “I’m glad to be out of all that.”
      “Huh, and pigs might fly!” The grim expression broke into a wide, if weary, smile. “It’s good to see you Fred.”
      “You too Charlie,” Winter approached and the two men shook hands warmly.
      “Organize some tea and biscuits will you, Mike,” Detective Chief Inspector Charlie Lovell addressed the red haired young man. “We’ll be in my office. This way, Fred, I might as well hear what’s on your mind now as later. Oh, and Mike, if there’s any of those chocolate digestives left…” Detective Sergeant Mike Pritchard nodded and muttered something inaudible. Whatever it was, it amused the desk sergeant, whose fruity chuckle followed the two old friends down a corridor and into an obviously makeshift office comprising the bare essentials. “It’s hardly what either of us are accustomed to, I’m afraid,” Lovell apologized with a grin, “But beggars can’t be choosers in such rustic corners of the world. I believe it was a stationery cupboard until a few days ago.” Both men laughed.
      They chatted briefly about old times until a sheepish looking Pritchard had delivered tea and biscuits on a tray and dutifully deposited them on Lovell’s desk.  “Ah, chocolate digestives ‘n’ all I see!  Now, that’s I what I call a good result, Mike,” enthused Lovell. But the DS merely nodded and left the room. The two men burst out laughing. “He’s a good copper,” Lovell told his guest, “but he can be a bit of a pain sometimes. You’ll remember the type, I’m sure.”  
     Winter nodded and helped himself to a biscuit. “I’m really not interested in the murder, Charlie. Hand on heart, it’s all yours and welcome.”
      “So what brings you to Monk’s Tallow? And don’t tell me you’ve been looking through your wedding album and got sentimental because I won’t believe a word of it. I know you, Fred Winter. You’re up to something.”
      “To be honest Charlie, I’m not sure why I’m here. I suppose you could say I’m on a fishing expedition.”
      “Well, let me know if you land anything that might be of the slightest use to me.  Right now I’m barely stabbing in the dark.  I have no witnesses and the body lay in the pouring rain all night so forensics won’t be too happy either.  Some kid thinks he saw the girl with one of the weekenders from Monk’s Porter that afternoon but he can’t be sure and the fellow’s obviously gone back to wherever he calls home.  The neighbours don’t seem to know a lot about him but neither have they any complaints.  It could be something or nothing, probably nothing the way my luck’s been running lately.” He frowned, then “Sorry, Fred, it can’t have been easy for you either since Helen…” 
      “Died?” Winter supplied the word so many people preferred to avoid although it was, he had to admit, something of a novelty to find it in a fellow copper even if they had known each other for the best part of thirty years. An uncomfortable few seconds passed. Both men were suddenly aware of the distance between them. One was not only enjoying his third marriage but also engaged in a murder enquiry while the other hadn’t a clue what he was about in more ways than one.
      The telephone rang.  “Lovell…”
     “See you later Charlie,” Winter mouthed and got to his feet. The other man waved and pulled a face while still barking instructions down to some hapless soul on the receiving end. 
     After a few mundane words with the obliging desk sergeant, Winter made his way to The Fox and Hounds, changed his mind and visited the little church instead. A portly vicar appeared to be giving some kind of press conference in the grounds and if anyone noticed Winter slip inside, they paid no attention.  
       Apart from a woman fussing over a flower arrangement, the church was empty. She looked up, a surprised look on her face, as Winter approached. But her greeting was friendly enough. “You’re most welcome. Are you a relative,” she added in a hushed, conspiratorial voice. Winter was nonplussed. “…of that poor girl,” the woman was close to tears. 
      Winter shook his head. “Just a visitor,” he explained and sensed her disappointment. “I got married here some years ago.”
      “Oh? How interesting…” Mary Bishop brightened, “And your wife, is she with you?”
      “She died.”
      “I’m so sorry. I’ll leave you to your memories then, shall I?”
     “There’s really no need to leave on my account,” Winter assured her, “I just dropped by to…” he finished lamely and shrugged, uncharacteristically embarrassed all of a sudden. 
      “I’m Mary Bishop, by the way.” She held out a slim, pretty hand for all Winter guessed she had to be in her forties.  
      “Fred Winter.”
      “Will you be staying in Monk’s Tallow long, Mr Winter, or are we just passing through?” Winter winced.       He hated it when people referred to “we” when it wasn’t in the least appropriate.
      “We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?” he told her and, even to his own ears, sounded petulant. “It depends…” He tried to sound apologetic.
      “There’s certainly a lot going on to keep people on their toes,” said Mary Bishop, grimly. “They say that poor girl who was murdered was only in her teens...but looked older…not that it’s relevant really, I suppose.  No one local could be responsible of course. It has to be one of those fair people, surely?  Mind you, people come from all over to the summer fair so…who knows?”
      “You’re absolutely right…who knows?” Winter agreed.
      “Well, I’ve finished here now so I’ll leave you to your thoughts.  It has been so nice meeting you Mr Winter.”
      “Likewise…it’s Mrs Bishop?”  She nodded, returned another smile that belied her years then promptly did as she had said and left him to his thoughts.
      Winter sat in a pew for a while, enjoying the peace and tranquillity of his surroundings and gazing, unmoved, at a huge stained glass portrait of the crucified Christ incorporated into a window that towered above the altar. Never a religious man, he had felt even farther removed from religion since Helen’s death. Had it really been necessary for her to endure such pain? Couldn’t a merciful God have found some other way? Even so, there was an air of spirituality about the place…and memories…good and bad… flitting in and out of his mind more fragile and colourful than the wings of a butterfly. He couldn’t help but be affected even though he failed to catch the butterfly and experienced a surge of regret for that.  It would have been a comfort to hold, for a moment at least, the sense of beauty (spirituality?) briefly overwhelming the feelings of loss, guilt and loneliness that has threatened to overwhelm him completely until… Julie Simpson came to his house that day?
      As he walked slowly towards the same side exit from which he had come, Winder found himself examining his motives for coming to Monk’s Tallow yet again. Did it really have anything to do with a few tragic accidents that could be easily explained away…or Liam Brady’s apparent identity crisis …or Carol Brady’s reappearance in his life?  He couldn’t deny that she still had the power to distract him. Yet, was it so surprising? They had been lovers once, after all. 
      Winter stroked his beard and felt compelled to ask what, if anything, did he still feel for Carol after all these years? “Nothing,” he told the enigmatic face of Christ to which, involuntarily, he cast a final glance. Yet, even to his own ears, there was a perceptible absence of conviction in his voice and it rang disturbingly hollow in the empty church. 
      He quickened his step, anxious to be out in the sunshine once more, free of fanciful thoughts and Gothic spirits. His thoughts turned to Sarah Manners and her partner…an odd couple and no mistake. Moreover, he could have sworn both of them had recognized him. How, why?  He felt besieged by unanswered questions while, like his old friend Charlie Lovell, getting nowhere fast. 
      Winter sighed. Of one thing he was certain.  Whatever the bigger picture, Sarah Manners and her partner were central to it.
      That evening, he called Carol from his room at The Fox And Hounds. She sounded cheerful and, as far as he could make out, was getting on well with Sadie. The latter had indeed, by all accounts, welcomed them both with open arms. “How are things between you and…?” he began.
      “Harry and I are fine,” replied the voice reminiscent of a wilful, strong-minded young woman with whom he had once been hopelessly infatuated. (Had it been infatuation or love?) “Keep in touch, okay?” she said briskly, “Bye.”  Carol put the phone down.  
      Winter sighed. If Helen had been a butterfly in his life, Carol Brady was his sword of Damocles.  The comparison brought a smile to his lips. Suddenly his appetite returned and, with it, an inspired thirst for a decent pint.  He went downstairs, ordered supper and, with eager anticipation, carried the first beer he had seen in ages with a good head on it to the only empty table in view.  His eyes wandered across the dimly lit but crowded room and spotted a familiar figure.  They rested fleetingly on Mary Bishop for a moment. Then he almost choked on his beer. For the woman with whom she was engaged in animated conversation, side profile only partially visible to him, was Sarah Manners. “Cosy,” he murmured to himself and watched the pair with growing fascination. 
      Both women were being very tactile, to say the least. Did this merely demonstrate closeness between friends, he wondered, or were they just a little tipsy? Or was Mary Bishop unashamedly flirting with her companion?
      “Hello!” Mary Bishop spotted him and waved. Sarah Manners turned just as Winter opted to wave back rather than try and pretend he hadn’t noticed and slip away. Mary beckoned. Winter began to thread his way through the crowd. Miss Manners, for her part, didn’t look too pleased to see him, her smile of welcome a trifle strained he thought. “How nice to see you again,” Mary Bishop enthused, “This is my dear friend…”
      “We’ve met,” the other woman cut her short, “Hello again Mr Winter.”
      “Please, call me Fred, everyone does.”
      “Fred and I met in the church,” Mary revealed, lowering her voice as if it were a closely guarded secret. 
     “My late wife and I were married there.” Winter smiled at Sarah Manners whose lips barely flickered.
      “What do you think of our murder then?” Mary Bishop continued to talk in a husky whisper that, to Winter’s keen ear, came across as both amusing and sexually stimulating. 
      He found himself comparing the two women.  Mary was attractive and vivacious. She put her friend in the shade somewhat although, he had to admit there was something about the Manners woman that was. well, interesting, to say the least. Whatever it was, though, he reflected amusedly, it certainly wasn’t sex appeal. Even so, she wasn’t unattractive and her clothes were smart even if they didn’t do a lot for her. Undoubtedly, her dress sense left something to be desired while Mary Bishop, on the other hand, demonstrated a flair for colour and knew how to catch the eye. Mary oozed femininity. By contrast, there was something hard, almost masculine, about Sarah Manners.  (But now I’m just being unkind, surely?).
      “I’m sure Fred is fascinated by it all, aren’t you?” murmured the subject of his thoughts. “Did he tell you he’s a policeman, Mary dear?”
      “Are you really?” Mary Bishop’s green eyes widened appreciatively.
      “A retired policeman,” Winter corrected Sarah Manners with a bland smile while watching every nuance of her expression. 
      “Nevertheless, old habits die hard. I’m sure you’d love to get your hands on the case.” The lipstick barely moved.
      “One always likes to assist the police with their enquiries given half a chance, wouldn’t you agree?”  Winter joked.  Mary Bishop laughed but her companion did not appear to find the comment in the least bit funny. 
      “It’s so hot in here!” Sarah Manners put a hand to her forehead. Winter observed a pretty charm bracelet on her left wrist decorated with animals. A silver elephant in particular caught his eye and he couldn’t help thinking how the bracelet would have looked far better on Mary Bishop. “Do you mind awfully if we leave dear?” she asked her friend.
      “Leave?” Mary sounded disappointed but quickly rallied, “No, of course not. You’re still not quite yourself after all.”  She turned to Winter, “Poor Sarah had a bad fall. But it takes more than that to keep a good woman down, doesn’t it dear?” She laughed again, a light breezy sound of which Winter approved.  Their companion visibly winced. The lipstick flickered and the librarian’s eyes gave Winter an icy glance before she turned and headed towards the nearest exit. “So nice to chat, Fred, we must do it again before you leave. I’d love to hear all about your adventures as a policeman.” Mary Bishop flung him a dazzling smile and hurried after Sarah.
      “Adventures, huh…!” Winter snorted. “Muddles, more like…”
      “What’s this? Talking to yourself now, eh?  Old age must be catching up with you faster than I’d ever have believed,” a familiar voice chuckled at his left ear.  
      Winter turned, his face already breaking into a wide grin. “Hello Charlie.”
      “A pint is it?”  Winter nodded and the two men made their way to the bar. “I see you’ve met the estimable Miss Manners…” Winter nodded again just as Lovell caught the barman’s eye. A couple at a nearby table got up and left so Winter homed in quickly and grabbed it. Soon after, the two men were chatting about old times over two healthy pints that Winter couldn’t help remarking made s welcome change from the invariable short measures served up in London pubs.
      “So how’s the investigation coming along Charlie?” 
      The other man shrugged, “It’s not, to be honest.”
      “What about that kid you mentioned who says he saw the girl with someone. Has he been much help?”
      Lovell took a long swig from his glass. “He seems pretty sure he saw her with the weekender, Marc Philips, but he’s not certain of the time and we still haven’t been able to track down Philips to confirm.  Even our friend, Sarah Manners, doesn’t appear to have a London address for him. All she could tell us is that he’s a manager in something to do with imports and exports…which could mean anything.”
      “Why should she know anything at all?” Winter was curious.
      “Apparently, they’re old friends. She helped him get the cottage, liased with the Estate Agent on his behalf, that kind of thing.”
     “Does he have any form?”
     “No such luck. The computer came up with a Marc Philips but only because he was reported missing years ago and there’s no resemblance, even allowing for the time gap.” Lovell produced a printout from an inside pocket and handed it to Winter. That girl was murdered four days ago, Fred, and we’re no nearer to finding her killer now than when she was found,” he groaned. “All we know is that she had a row with a boyfriend the day before but he has a cast iron alibi.  According to her mother, she was inclined to go after anything in trousers…which doesn’t exactly narrow the field of potential suspects down. It might as well have been you or me for all anyone has the foggiest idea whodunit.  But enough doom and gloom, what do you think of Mary Bishop? She’s quite something, eh? No spring chicken, I grant you, but I’d swap places with her old man any day!”
      “And you a respectable married man!” Winter feigned shock and both men roared with laughter.
"Actually, I wouldn’t mind a quick word with her before I leave Monk’s Tallow. I should have asked for her address”
      “You are getting old!” Lovell chuckled then, “Here…” Lovell wrote an address on the back of the printout and handed it over. “Everyone knows the Bishops so don’t worry, no one can get me on the Data Protection Act.”  
      The two men laughed companionably and Lovell indicated his empty glass. Winter drained his own, only too glad to take his turn at the bar, painfully aware that he had spent far too much time alone since Helen died. What was it the poet, John Donne, wrote? ‘No man is an island’…but that was all he could remember. Winter sighed. “If the cap fits,” he muttered inaudibly.
      Without any conscious effort or sense of guilt, Winter’s thoughts flew to Carol Brady. There was something of Mary Bishop about her, he reflected with a quiet chuckle. True, the two women were as alike as chalk and cheese. Carol, though, could easily have been taken for a brasher, less refined version of Mary Bishop.  
      The chuckle became a guffaw.  He had to concede that ‘refined’ was hardly an epithet applicable to Carol Brady. Yet he had adored her once, hadn’t he?  Memory, like a mirror image of the pair of them making love, leapt unbidden and unexpected, to his mind’s eye. Small wonder, he reflected wryly. Sex with no other woman in his life, including Helen, had been anywhere near as enjoyable as with Carol. Not until he met her had he understood how much of a hands-on art-form passion could be.   
      “That’ll be four pounds forty please,” said the barman.
      Winter started. The mirror shattered. Its pieces flew everywhere, like a meteor shower, bringing him, too, crashing to earth with a vengeance. 

To be continued