Monday, 16 December 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 22


“How, exactly, did your aunt find out that Sarah Manners was living in Monk’s Tallow?” Winter was sprawled on his bed at The Fox and Hounds talking to Julie Simpson on his mobile phone. He listened carefully. “Do you have an address for the Hathaways?” 
Julie promised to look for Ruth’s address book and get back to him. “As far as I know, they hardly knew Sarah so they probably won’t be much help after all these years. Why do you want to know anyway?”  She was still slightly breathless, having just had a row with her mother over wedding plans.
“Something’s bothering me but I can’t put my finger on it,” Winter confessed, “It might help to chat to someone who knew her years ago, even if only slightly. Nothing ventured, nothing gained…”
After exchanging a few idle pleasantries, Winter hung up, although not before reminding her (twice) to call him back as soon as she found that address.  As it happened, he didn’t have to wait long. She called back within half an hour and gave him an address in Harlow.
Winter set off the next day after telephoning and speaking to Karen Hathaway who had seemed only too pleased to chat about Ruth Temple. “She was such a nice person. It’s so awful what happened. Poor Ruth, she never quite got over James Morrissey you know. She as good as told me that herself when I saw her last. When? Oh, a week or so before she died it would have been. I must say, she didn’t seem quite her usual self. Greg and I were devastated when we heard the news. I mean, suicide is …well…it’s just so…awful…isn’t?” she waffled on, “What’s that? Tomorrow evening? Yes, that will be fine.  You’ll stay for supper of course. Shall we say eight o’clock? Greg and I will look forward to it…”
What more he hoped to learn from the Hathaways about Sarah Manners - or Ruth Temple, for that matter - Winter hadn’t a clue. Even so, acting on hunches in the past had invariably paid off, and he had a gut feeling that Greg and Karen Hathaway were worth taking some trouble over.  He certainly hoped so.  Now, stuck in his third traffic snarl-up that day, he was beginning to wonder…
As it turned out, supper with the Hathaways proved to be well worth the wait. Winter found himself tucking into a superb coq au vin with relish.
“Like I said, I only met Sarah Manners once…” Greg Hathaway was saying,” but Ruth talked about her all the time. I used to think she was jealous and, of course, she had every right to be. I mean to say, she went and helped herself to poor Ruth’s boyfriend didn’t she?  Not that I cared much for Morrissey…”
“You knew James Morrissey?” Winter pricked up his ears.
“Not well, only very slightly in fact. To be honest, he struck me as a bit of a cold fish”
“More Ruth’s type than Sarah’s,” Karen Hathaway commented dryly, “Not that poor Ruth was a cold fish…” she blushed and hastily took a mouthful.
“There was certainly nothing cold about Sarah!”  Greg Hathaway grinned broadly, ignoring a cool glance from his wife across the table. “She wasn’t beautiful, exactly, but she had…what’s the word…charisma? That’s it. She certainly had plenty of that, even when she was drunk.  To be honest, that’s how I remember her, pissed as a newt at some party or other. She must have come on to every bloke there, I reckon.”
“How Ruth could stand such a person as a flatmate, I’ll never know,” murmured Karen Hathaway.
“She was waving her arms about, singing and dancing like a madwoman, “ Greg Hathaway continued, “I remember she was wearing a rather unusual charm bracelet and a silver elephant grazed my ear…” he burst out laughing.
“You let her get that close did you?” Karen Hathaway plainly did not see a funny side to the story. 
“She still wears it,” Winter told them, “I must remember to keep well clear of that elephant.”  This time, everyone laughed.
“She was unforgettable in more ways than one,” Greg Hathaway continued, “She went into some kind of fit before the party was over. Everyone thought she was just drunk at first then we realized it was more serious and someone called an ambulance. Apparently, so Ruth told me later, she was allergic to some flavouring or other in the punch. Ironic, really, since she only tried some because the Dry Martini ran out.”
“Nasty things, allergies,” Karen Hathaway tried to sound sympathetic, “My mother was allergic to tomatoes, you know…”
“Apparently, nut allergies are becoming more and more common…” her husband observed then launched into a tirade against Tony Blair’s handling of the Iraq crisis.
Was Blair allergic to nuts?  Winter found himself contemplating the idea as he tried, absently, to make a connection.  However, that facetious question remained purely hypothetical and a lively debate ensued.
Apart from enjoying a hearty meal and convivial company, the evening provided less useful information than a welcome distraction from the whole messy business. Declining the Hathaway’s’ kind offer to put him up for the night, Winter drove through the congestion-free darkness to reach Monk’s Tallow in the early hours.
Relieved that guests had their own back door keys, he let himself into the Fox and Hounds, removed his shoes before clambering up the stairs and was soon slumped on his bed fast asleep before he had even thought about undressing.
The dawn chorus broke irritatingly early. Winter resisted an impulse to bury his head under the pillows and lay, half-listening to the birdsong, half-contemplating a persistent problem he had concerning Sarah Manners. Put simply, could someone have changed so much even during a period of some twenty years?  The answer was probably, yes. And did it really matter anyway? He sighed. The answer was almost certainly, no. So why, oh why, could he not simply dismiss the damn women from his head altogether?  Something stirred at the back of his mind, nagged at him for a while then retreated, drowned by a palpable chattering and singing by the cream of nature’s own.
The frenzied buzz of media reporting has lessened (since there was little or nothing to report) and the residents of Monk’s Tallow were making a brave stab at carrying on with their everyday lives. Lovell having informed him that his team were still desperately trying to track down the elusive Marc Philips, Winter decided to pay another call on Sarah Manners. He was curious about her connection with Philips, not least because everywhere he looked within his own narrow sphere of preoccupation, there appeared to be a connection, however tenuous, with the librarian.
“He was only a casual friend, hardly a friend at all really,” Sarah Manners told him over a cup of tea. Horton was out. Winter sensed that she was nervous, unsure of herself.  “He fell in love with Monk’s Tallow. People do, you know. I promised to let him know when a property became vacant and when it did, liased with an Estate Agent for him. He travels a lot in his job, you see. It was no skin off my nose. If you can’t do someone an innocent little favour now and then, it’s a poor world wouldn’t you say?”  Winter nodded, wondering why she had felt obliged to say ‘innocent’.  “If there’s anything shady about the man, I really wouldn’t know.”
“I’m not sure anyone is suggesting there might be.” Winter tried to sound reassuring. “The police just want to find him, if only to eliminate him from their enquiries.”
“Yes, well, they’ll have their work cut out. Like I said, Marc moves around a lot. Sometimes we see him when he decides to pop down, sometimes we don’t. It’s not unusual to hear nothing from him for months at a time.”
“I imagine he’ll read about the murder in the newspapers,” Winter commented, stroking his beard, “He’ll know the police are anxious to ask him a few questions.”
“Possibly not if he’s abroad somewhere…”
Winter considered his next question carefully. “From what you know of the man, do you think he’s capable of murder?”
 Sarah Manners, too, waited a few moments before replying. “Who really knows what people are capable of in certain circumstances? When all’s said and done, I suspect we all have a capacity for murder. Let’s face it, Mr Winter…err, Fred…it’s a pretty basic instinct. Most of us can control it most of the time, while some of us…” The slim shoulders gave a meaningful shrug. “As a policeman, I’m sure you’ve seen some unlikely murderers in your time?”
Winter nodded. “I dare say there comes a time when all of us have to confront the dark side of human nature. What we choose to do about it…well, who knows until it happens?  I certainly hope I’m no potential murderer, don’t you?”  He meant it as a joke. But the librarian’s response was surprising, to say the least.  Instead of making light of it, she got angry.
“What kind of a question is that? Do I look like the kind of person who could kill someone in cold blood? Really, Mr Winter, I find your whole manner not only distressing but very offensive. I’m not sure what this poor girl’s death has to do with you in the first place but it certainly has nothing to do with me. I doubt whether it has anything to do with Marc Philips either. What is it with you, anyway? How dare you come into my house and start tossing the most outrageous accusations about… as if I were a suspect, for heaven’s sake!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” Winter began apologetically.
“Yes, well, I’m sorry too,” the woman had risen angrily to her feet but now sat down again. “Perhaps I over-reacted. I’m not well, you see. I should be back at work by now but…I’m just not up to it yet.  This whole business has upset me more than I could have thought possible. That poor girl…she was so young and pretty.  And to think her killer is still at large…it’s too much.”
“I had better go…”
“Yes, I think you had,” Sarah Manners agreed coolly then adopted a more conciliatory tone. “You’ll have to bear with me. I’m not myself at the moment, not myself at all…”
“I’ll let myself out.”
On his way back to The Fox and Hounds, Winter called Julie Simpson again. “Did James Morrissey have any family in the UK?”
“James? Why on earth do you want to know about James?”
 “Well, did he?” Winter repeated tersely.
 “I’ll have to call you back,” said Julie and hung up before Winter could soften his tone. He hadn’t meant to snap, he never did. Some things just…came out that way now and then. Well, not infrequently, if he was honest. Helen had found a way to deal with it. Quite simply, she’d ignore him. A grin crossed the deeply lined face. So, too, had Carol Brady he seemed to recall.
 Julie Simpson was true to her word and gave him another address, in Leeds this time. Winter groaned but took care to thank her profusely and enquire after the wedding plans. “Don’t ask!” was her laughing reply, although Winter thought he detected an edge to it that suggested all was not going entirely to plan.  On the drive to Leeds, Winter decided that, as a wedding present, he would not charge Julie a fee for what had to be a wild goose chase, surely? And yet…what was it niggling at him all the time. What was staring him in the face that he couldn’t see?
 He found the address easily enough by using his laptop to call up a street map on the Internet. Julie had said there was no phone number in her aunt’s address book, simply the entry ‘Rose Morrissey’ who might have been mother, sister, aunt…? It was anyone’s guess.
So it was that the following afternoon found Winter ringing the doorbell of a semi-detached in a suburb of Leeds, prepared for anything and anyone. It was a man who opened the door. Winter, undeterred by the other’s look of open hostility, guessed he was in his forties.
“Whatever it is you’re selling, I’m not interested so push off. Go and pester somebody else.” He started to close the door.
“I’m not selling anything,” Winter hastily explained. “I only want a few minutes of your time, that’s all.  I’m looking for Rose Morrissey. I’ve been driving half the day…” he added in the hope that he might, at least, extract the offer of a cup of tea.
“Then I’m afraid you’ve had a wasted journey because she’s dead,” was the short reply and the door continued to close in Winter’s face.
“Did you know the Morrisseys…James perhaps?”  Winter asked while having to raise his voice several anxious octaves as the door all but shut on him.  It paused then edged open again slightly.
“Are you a friend of James?”
“Not exactly, but I knew Ruth Temple,” Winter lied easily, settling for a half truth. He knew of the dead woman, after all. True to say, by now, he felt as if he had known her personally.
The door opened even wider. “I heard about Ruth.  If you ask me, it was a crying shame she and James never got it together. She was so right for him. But what does he do? Gets stuck on that Sarah Manners, doesn’t he? Know about Sarah, do you? Of course you do or you wouldn’t be here. You’d better come in. I’m Clive Morrissey, by the way. James was my brother.”
“Fred Winter,” entering with renewed anticipation of a cup of tea. Nor was he disappointed and they were soon chatting amiably in a spacious, if dowdy kitchen whose high ceiling reinforced a sense of all space and little room.
“She was no good for James, the Manners girl,” Morrissey was saying, “You could say she was, literally, the death of him. He never got over her disappearance.  When he heard from Ruth that she might be down in Sussex somewhere, he dropped everything and took the next flight to London.  She didn’t want to know, of course. I could have told him that, anyone could, except maybe Ruth. She was mad about James, you know. Things could have been so different, if only…” He sighed and took a sip of tea, “But we can’t help who we fall in love with, I suppose. You only have to look at my mum and dad,” he added cryptically.
“Do you think your brother’s death was an accident or…”
“Suicide..?” Morrissey shrugged, “No one likes to think about that, of course, but I honestly don’t think so. More likely, he was in such a state after Sarah dumped him a second time that he just wasn’t concentrating. They said at the inquest it’s a bad stretch of road.”
“It is.” Winter nodded.
“Even so, James was a damn good driver. He won rallies, you know. That bitch must have got to him once and for all to send him over some bloody cliff!”
“What was she like, Sarah, in the days before she…disappeared?”
Morrissey gave another shrug. “You mean took off, don’t you?  I dare say she had some bloke in tow, the poor sod.  Oh, she was pretty enough, I suppose, but nothing special in the looks department. If you ask me, she was as common as muck, for all her airs and graces. Mind you, she was nobody’s fool and there’s no denying she had what it takes to get men drooling after her.  She could wind a man around her little finger at first sight. “
“Is that what happened to James?”
Morrissey nodded. “He was hooked before he knew it. The worst part is I don’t think she gave a toss about him. Well, she couldn’t have, could she, the way she ran off like that?  Ruth, on the other hand, loved him to bits. Why the fool couldn’t see it beats me. If he’d only stuck with Ruth, he could have been happy and would probably be alive today. Instead…”
“Did James have no idea at all why Sarah should up and leave like that?”
Morrissey shook his head. “No one did. James was frantic. Apart from anything else, he was terrified she might get ill or worse. Ruth kept an eye out for her you see, everyone did.”
 “She had this allergy…”
 “Ah, yes.” Winter recalled Greg Hathaway alluding to an allergy.
“Anything nutty, in any shape or form, would make her freak out. Apparently, it could be life threatening.  She’d had several close calls according to James. He must have rung around all the hospitals in the country during those early months after she did a runner.”
Winter stroked his beard. Hadn’t Carol Brady said something about eating peanuts the only time she’d had lunch with Sarah and Liam in Monk’s Tallow?  And what was it Audrey Ellis had said Ruth Temple told her?  She’s driving me nuts.  Suppose Audrey hadn’t been wearing her hearing aid and what Ruth had actually said was something like…She doesn’t eat nuts…?  Do people outgrow allergies?  On the other hand, there was the bracelet. It has to be the same Sarah Manners…well, doesn’t it?  Yet, just suppose…
Winter frowned. The alternative was too unlikely if not impossible to contemplate.
“I’m sorry I can’t be of more help to you,” said Morrissey. Winter took the hint and left soon afterwards.
The next day, Winter’s sensibilities received something of a shock. He had taken to coming to the little church in Monk’s Tallow now and then, just to sit and ponder, sometimes merely enjoy the peace and quiet. He half hoped to bump into Mary Bishop again but there was never any sign. Instead, he sat and doodled just as he had done at school years ago whenever he felt bored…or troubled.  He fancied he could hear Miss Parker’s sharp reprimand, Pay attention, Winter, if you want to learn something. If you don’t, go ahead and scribble. It will get you nowhere fast, you’ll see.  She had been quite right, of course. And here he was, getting nowhere fast. He wondered whether Charlie Lovell was having any better luck and, for no particular reason, doubted it. 
He contemplated his doodling, could make no sense of it whatsoever and idly turned over the page. It was the printout of Marc Philips. Such a pity it was the wrong one, he mused gloomily. Not that it mattered to him, it didn’t. Even so, it would have given his old friend a lead of sorts to follow up. “Probably a dead-end anyway,” he muttered. Why was it life is so full of dead-ends? “Good question, Fred.” He had to chuckle. Old age really was catching up with him fast…
“Good heavens, I know that face!”
 A familiar voice immediately followed the hand that touched Winter lightly on the shoulder and all but caused him to jump out of his skin. He looked up to find Mary Bishop smiling down at him. She leaned forward, retrieved the printout and examined it closely. “Yes, it’s him alright…”
“You know him?” Winter expressed astonishment.
“Not exactly, but I know the face. He passed by here once, years ago. I remember him because Sam and I hadn’t long moved in.  I filled a flask for him and packed him some sandwiches a couple of times. He was sleeping rough, you see, and we felt sorry for him. Well, you do, don’t you. Not that people around here can handle that kind of thing, it’s too much for them. But living in London for years…well, you get used to the homeless don’t you?  I have to say, it doesn’t bode well for the twentieth-first century. Don’t you agree? I mean, whatever would Dickens say if he knew there were still beggars on the streets and people sleeping rough in this day and age?  It makes the flesh creep, it really does…”
“Are you sure it’s him?” Winter could not believe his ears.
      “Oh, yes, it’s him alright.”
“So what happened to him?”
“How should I know? He wasn’t the type to keep in touch, that’s for sure. One morning he simply wasn’t there any more. He used to sleep in the bus shelter opposite the church and…must have decided to move on, I suppose. They do, don’t they, those kind of people? It’s very sad, of course. Even so, it must be nice to do your own thing like that and let the devil take the hindmost…” she murmured, gave a long sigh and wore such a wistful expression that Winter’s sudden perception of Mary Bishop was one of a very unhappy woman.
“So when was this?” Winter was intrigued.
“Oh, donkey’s years ago…” She sat down in the pew immediately behind him, “a good twenty, I’d say.”
“Yet you’re sure this is him?”
“Oh, yes. Apart from the fact we hadn’t long moved here, it was around the same time as some madman crashed at the Devil’s Elbow. There was a bigger fuss than usual, police everywhere. Apparently the driver was on the run. It was in all the papers. He’d killed someone and…”
But Winter’s agile mind had taken off in all directions at once and he barely caught another word she said.  The ‘madman’…had to be Ralph Cotter, surely?  So what? 
Nothing, as usual, made much sense.

To be continued