Friday, 20 December 2013
Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 23
“The archives, did you say? Yes, of course you can see the archives. They only concern Monk’s Tallow, you understand. Sarah likes to keep her own records for the locals. Did you have a particular period in mind? Oh, really? Well, I dare say there will be files going that far back. Everything is clearly marked and dated and there’s even a catalogue although it’s not online I’m afraid. Sarah’s very proud of her archive collection…” the assistant rambled on pleasantly.
Winter had no idea what he expected to find in the Monk’s Tallow archives but had arrived at the library that morning in a state of peculiar anticipation, almost excitement.
He hadn’t slept well. It could be coincidence, of course. The tramp may have simply borne the same name and a strong likeness to the Marc Philips reported missing all those years ago. Mary Bishop, for all she was certain, could easily be mistaken. Likewise, it could be mere coincidence that the man for whom the police were now earnestly seeking was also called Marc Philips. Winter, though, had never quite believed in coincidence although he had to admit that, on this occasion, it left him with a worse muddle than ever to sort. It raised all manner of implications, mostly vague and well nigh impossible to contemplate. Contemplate them, though, he did, contradictory thoughts swirling like a whirlpool in his consciousness, sucking him in completely only long enough to allow a brief doze then spewing him back again to try and make sense of it all.
The amiable assistant was happy to leave him to it.
Winter spent the entire morning sifting through Sarah Manners’ musty-smelling but beautifully ordered files. Articles on Cotter’s untimely end made him grimace for remembering…Carol Brady, their affair, Helen’s miscarriage. The murder of Sean Brady paled almost into insignificance by comparison.
He could find no reference to the tramp. But if Mary Bishop was right, he had left Monk’s Tallow at about the same time as Cotter’s remains were discovered at the bottom of the cliff. So what…? Winter scratched his head for the umpteenth time. What was he supposed to make of it, if anything?
Winter swung round, startled, and found himself eyeball to eyeball with young Harry Smith (his logical mind still would not grasp the fact that he could be Liam Brady). “What are you doing here? Where’s Carol?”
“I had to come sooner or later, I reckon, so I guess it might as well be sooner. Besides…” he added with a half-hearted grin, “if I had to be here, I’d rather not be chasing demons on my own. What better company than a copper?”
“Ex-copper,” Winter reminded him dourly, “and one who doesn’t like surprises. Is Carol with you?”
Harry Smith shook his head. “She’s still in Herne Bay. Sadie was none too keen on my coming here, but she really put her foot down as far as Carol was concerned. She thinks it could be dangerous. Do you?” he asked, nonchalantly enough.
Winter wasn’t fooled and pursed his lips. The young man was scared, although he hid his feelings well. Worse, Liam Brady had no idea of what, precisely, he should be scared…or whom. Silently conceding a degree of admiration for his unexpected visitor, Winter did not, however, feel in the least inclined to appear welcoming. “So what do you think you’re playing at?” he growled, “Fancy yourself as Daniel walking into the lion’s den, do you? As if I haven’t got my work cut out as it is, without trying to make sure you stay in one piece…”
“You do think there are lions in Monk’s Tallow then.” It was not a question. Moreover, Harry Smith’s far from passing comment was made so disarmingly and with such a wickedly teasing expression that Winter saw something of Carol in the young man for the first time. He indicated open box files, neatly marked pages and various cuttings spread on a long trestle. “Take a look,” he invited.
Harry Smith merely shrugged but began to browse where Winter had studied closely before him. “None of this means a thing to me,” he was forced to admit after a while. “Do you think there’s some connection between my…Sean Brady’s killer and everything else that’s been going on lately?”
“There has to be,” Winter murmured, stroking his beard and addressing himself rather than his companion, “…although I’m damned if I can see what it is. Someone has had it in for Carol, you, even me recently. Sean Brady was killed over twenty years ago. On the face of it, there can be no connection. Yet here we both are, his son and…”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Harry Smith was quick to point out.
“Are you saying Carol doesn’t know her own flesh and blood?” Winter’s eyebrows shot up.
Harry Smith merely gave another shrug, looked away and said nothing. Winter was about to continue when the door opened noisily.
“Ah, Mr Winter…and…a friend, I see.” Sarah Manners had clearly been warned to expect two people.
If the librarian was on edge, it barely showed. Winter, though, was a professional and not much escaped him. “Miss Manners, this is my friend, Harry Smith. Harry, this is Sarah Manners. She runs things here. ” Winter introduced them, curious as to why the Manners woman had shown no obvious reaction on seeing Liam.
“Have we met before?” Harry Smith stretched out a hand.
“I don’t think so, although I have to say you look remarkably like someone I used to know. Yes, indeed. But they do say we all have a doppelganger, don’t they?” she tittered and accepted the proffered hand.
“So who do I remind you of?” Harry Smith enquired lightly without letting go of the woman’s hand.
“Liam Brady, I imagine,” said Winter lightly, “and you’re right. The likeness is remarkable.”
“Poor Liam…died,” Sarah Manners addressed Harry Smith, the gravel voice devoid of inflexion, and coolly withdrew her hand. “So, gentlemen, did you find what you’re looking for?”
“Do I take it you’re back at work now?” Winter countered casually.
“Oh yes. I’m not feeling a hundred per cent of course. But one has to make an effort, doesn’t one?”
“One does,” Winter agreed.
“So…has our little collection succeeded in rewarding your… efforts?”
“It has, yes,” said Winter cryptically then turned to his companion, “Come on, Harry, let’s go and get some lunch…unless Miss Manners wants us to put everything away where we found it?”
“There’s really no need. I always tell the staff to leave all files exactly as they are left, for my personal attention. That way, I can be sure everything goes where it should.”
“I imagine, it must also be fascinating to see what people have been looking at,” Winter couldn’t resist observing, albeit with a broad smile.
“It can be very revealing of human nature,” Sarah Manners smiled back politely, “A library, you know, is a veritable microcosm of human nature. We get all sorts here.”
“I bet you do,” said Winter. “Do you, by any chance, remember a man called Ralph Cotter?”
The woman in the doorway looked momentarily nonplussed. “I know the name of course. Such a dreadful business, it was. We still get people looking him up in the files from to time. Would you believe that out true crime section in the main library is one of the most popular? But then people are such ghouls aren’t they? Few of us would admit it but I suspect we all have a morbid fascination with death, especially murder.”
“But Cotter wasn’t murdered, surely? Winter noisily cleared his throat.
“He had killed someone, had he not? Even so…”
“Even so…?” Winter prompted after suitably reflective pause.
“No one deserves to drive over a cliff and be incinerated, do they? Beauty spot or no, they don’t call that stretch of road The Devil’s Elbow for nothing. I think…”
But Winter was not destined to know Sarah Manners’ train of thought at that particular moment in time. Harry Smith suddenly pushed past her and ran out of the room without a word. Winter rushed after him, flinging a parting glance at the librarian and mumbling an apology of sorts, a steely gleam in the eyes that could be construed however she wished. The woman responded with a curt nod. Even without casting a backward glance, he was acutely aware of her watching him run across the carpeted floor and through the double glass doors before signing to an assistant at the counter that she did not wish to be disturbed then retreating, breathlessly, from the outside world.
Winter caught up with Harry Smith at the church, of all places. The young man hadn’t struck the detective as being in the least religious. Harry was standing at the porch, peering through the open front door. Shadowy figures were moving about inside and someone was playing an organ.
“Looks like a wedding rehearsal,” Winter commented.
Harry Smith neither answered nor even acknowledged the other’s presence. Instead, he turned to the left then proceeded to walk slowly and morosely through the churchyard. He stopped, finally, at what must once have been a very decorative and elaborate tomb, now weather-stained and overgrown with weeds and moss. “That woman was one of the people I ran away from,” he said at last without looking at Winter.
Winter pricked up his ears “One of those who came to my house?”
“That, too…” was the cryptic reply.
“What do you mean, ‘too’? You remember her from somewhere else as well, is that it?”
“Yes. At least, I think so.”
“But you can’t be sure.”
Harry Smith turned on Winter, eyes blazing. “Of course I can’t be bloody sure! How can I be sure of anything when I can’t even remember my own name?” The anger dissipated as quickly as it had arisen. His voice broke. “How can I be sure of anything?” he repeated, eyes still unnaturally bright but less with anger now than an unspoken plea for help.
“Why did you run off like that just now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, you must have some idea, “Winter insisted, “Being an amnesiac doesn’t make you a complete idiot,” he added brutally.
Harry Smith glared, tensed like a tiger about to pounce, thought better of it and gestured despairingly. “I can’t be sure,” he repeated miserably.
Winter made a stab in the dark. “Of what, that Sarah Manners was one of the people who came to my house and scared you off?”
Harry looked surprised then, “I think so. I can’t be sure. But there’s something else about the woman. I know her from somewhere else, I’m damn certain I do but how…and…from where…? It has sod all to do with her coming to your house too. I had a flashback. I get them sometimes. She was leaning over me. Someone else was peering over her shoulder. At least I thought so. Then I realised…oh, God! It was that damn teddy bear!” He clutched his head as if in pain. “There was blood. There’s always so much blood.” He wrenched his hands from his face. Plainly distraught, he looked Winter straight in the eye. “I see that bear and want to love it. Instead, I rip its stuffing out. That’s got to mean something right?”
“What do you think it means?” Winter demanded. He would have liked to go more gently but sensed this was not the time for kid gloves.
Harry Smith hesitated before whispering, “I think I might have killed someone.”
Winter shook his head, his manner as brusque as it was assertive. “Take it from me, you’re not the type. Oh, they come in all shapes and sizes, I grant you that. Some look as though butter wouldn’t melt. But they all have one thing in common. They all get up a good copper’s nose. And I’m a damn good copper.”
“You honestly believe that?” Harry Smith was sceptical.
“I do and you had better start believing it too. Who knows? It might even make you want to find out who you are?”
“And you think I don’t?”
“I think you’re scared,” said Winter with a matter-of-factness that was abrupt but not unkind. “Take it from me, no one get to face up to anything all the while they’re hell bent on running away from it.”
“You think you know everything, don’t you?” The handsome face grew flushed with anger. It was just the kind of spirited response Winter had not only expected but also hoped for.
The detective shook his head. “If I knew everything I’d have more to show for my life than an empty house and a pension,” he said gruffly, “But I can smell a killer a mile away and you don’t have that kind of smell. There’s nothing a hot bath, a decent deodorant and a change of clothes won’t have you coming up smelling of roses. Well, maybe not roses but I’m sure you get my gist…”
Harry Smith let rip with an involuntary burst of laughter then, “And how does Sarah Manners smell to you?”
Winter shrugged. “Let’s just say she’s no English rose…shall we? Now, are you planning a picnic among the tombstones or are you coming back to the pub with me? We can book you in. You can take that bath and I’ll even look you out a clean shirt. Then we can have a late lunch and…take it from there. What do you say?”
Harry Smith seemed to be mulling over the prospect then opened his mouth and promptly shut it again.
“The room’s on me, lunch too. I can’t say fairer than that, can I?”
“So where’s the catch?” demanded Harry warily.
“No catch. Later on we’ll take in the sights and see if you get any more of those flashbacks. Is it a deal?”
Harry Smith gave a long sigh before nodding his head. It was, after all, why he had followed Fred Winter to Monk’s Tallow in the first place. Sadie and Carol had both thrown a wobbly but he was adamant. Sadie knew him too well to argue for long but Carol had tried to dissuade him right up to the last minute. Even in defeat, she had wanted to come with him.
Sadie had not only understood this was something he had to do by himself but also she wasted no time pointing out to Carol that, in view of recent events, she would be safer in Herne Bay. “Harry will have enough on his plate without having to worry about you all the time. Besides, I could use some help behind the bar.”
To his relief, Carol had, finally, at least made a fair pretence at being convinced. He liked the woman a lot, had warmed to her from the start and even given her an impulsive goodbye hug. But it was Sadie from whom he’d had to tear himself away before he lost his nerve.
It was late afternoon by the time Fred Winter and Harry Smith were standing on The Devil’s Elbow, overlooking a calm, blue sea dotted with the occasional surfer and two speedboats racing each other in the distance.
Immediately below, a craggy shoreline may have provided a haven for various species of marine life but it also posed a dark and eerie threat even to the casual observer on a beautiful day.
Winter found himself trying to imagine how it must feel to be hurtling, trapped and doomed, to that rugged, watery grave. Just prior to the moment of impact…did a person have time to think about anything – or anyone - or had sheer terror completely taken over by then? He shivered despite the warmth of a sunshine dancing on the water like nymphs in a fairy story. “Fairy story indeed!” he chuckled. Whatever would Miss Parker have made of that little burst of fancy? He chuckled again. She would almost certainly have told him, with customary briskness, that it was all very well…but now was neither the time nor place. He glanced at his companion. Harry Smith was staring, trance-like, at the rocks below, his face expressionless albeit an unhealthy shade of puce. Winter strolled away apace and left him to…whatever. How did you attempt to assemble thought, he wondered, in the absence of memory?
Harry Smith found himself utterly captivated by the gentle swish and swirl of waves lapping at the rocks below. After a while he could not see a thing. It was as if a mist had fallen and all he could make out, in the total absence of colour, was pure sound. Swish and swirl, swish and swirl. Then the mist parted, slightly, like a curtain. Suddenly, he was peering through a chink at a body lying prostrate on a floor. Someone else and a small boy were leaning over it. As the chink widened, so the scene changed. He saw two different people …a man and a woman, or two men, he couldn’t be sure. They were bundling what he took to be the figure of a third person into the passenger seat. Now the car was on the move. It stopped. A blur of action took place that he couldn’t begin to make out. Now the car started up again. It was gathering speed, heading straight for the cliff edge. The nearside door opened and something tumbled on to a grass verge or ledge while the vehicle continued to plunge to its inevitable destruction. The crash, when it came, roared in his ears. Against a sheet of white flame he saw the imprint of a giant teddy bear before it, too, was engulfed by the inferno. A huge explosion rocked the earth beneath his feet. He stumbled, lost his balance and fell. The curtain closed again. Thankfully, he let the mist relieve him of his remaining senses and plunged headlong into a darkness that posed neither threat nor danger.
“Are you okay? You fainted…” Fred Winter’s voice seemed far away.
“I think so.” Harry managed to sit up. He looked around, dazedly at first till his head began to clear. “They tried to kill me,” he muttered then repeated with growing agitation, “They tried to kill me!”
“Who tried to kill you… how?” Winter probed gently. It was obvious the young man had experienced some kind of revelation, likewise that his state of mind was chaotic. “Hang in there,” he muttered, sensing intuitively that Harry was clinging to a shred of memory, just as a desperate man might cling to a blade of grass to save himself from falling over a cliff.
“They tried to kill me,” Harry Smith kept saying over and over, quietly now, his manner shocked and disbelieving.
“Who, Harry? Who tried to kill you?” Winter persisted.
The hunched figure on the grass, rocking to and fro, looked up, wide-eyed and questioning into Winter’s concerned expression. “Harry? Who’s Harry? My name isn’t Harry. It wasn’t Harry they were trying to kill. It was me…me, me, me,” he kept repeating.
“So who are you, Harry?” Winter hardly dared to breathe, let alone hope that they were on the edge of a breakthrough.
“Not Harry. I’m…Oh, God, who am I?” He burst into tears. Nor did he resist Winter’s comforting arm around his trembling shoulders as the detective knelt beside him on the grass. .
It was a while before Harry Smith stopped shaking and crying. Winter lent him a handkerchief and helped him to his feet. The detective glanced at his watch. With luck they would reach Monkey Tree cottage before either of its residents returned from work. “Come on, lad, lean on me…”
Winter assisted the young man he had privately thought of as Liam Brady for some time back to the car. His mind was made up. Even so, he decided that it would be unwise, at this particular moment in time, to relate either their destination or what on earth he expected to gain by breaking and entering. It would not help to give Liam any more cause to be scared than he had already. However, a key to this whole damn muddle of a mystery lay somewhere.
Since all roads appeared to lead back to Sarah Manners, what better place to start looking than at Monkey Tree Cottage?
To be continued