Monday, 23 December 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 24


“We can’t just break in like common criminals!” Harry Smith protested in the welcome shade of the monkey tree.
“There will be nothing common about it, I can assure you,” Winter told him. As   if to prove his point, the detective produced a set of skeleton keys from his jacket pocket. “Believe me no one will know we’ve been here so just make sure you don’t disturb anything and give the game away.”
“I don’t know…”
“Well, I do. Trust me, I’m a copper.” Winter not only continued to reassure his reluctant accomplice with a broad grin but also produced two pairs of surgical gloves. One pair, he handed to Harry while pulling on the other himself before trying a key in the door. It took five attempts before one fitted
“Suppose someone sees us?”
“Believe me, no one ever notices people entering by a front door. A window, yes…a back door, maybe. But a front door, never. “Eureka!” The door swung open and Winter strode confidently inside, leaving his nervous companion to shut the door. Nor did Harry Smith wait long before cautiously following, anxious to put the door between him and any prying eyes. 
“What now? Harry wanted to know, his voice barely above a whisper.
“We take a quick look around then scarper,” said Winter in his normal voice.
“What if…”
“No bloody ifs, alright?  Do as I say and let’s see if we can’t come up with something that will give us a clearer idea of just what we’re up against.  And for heaven’s sake, be careful.” Winter entered the sitting room, his eyes everywhere at once or so it seemed to an increasingly jittery Harry-Liam.
Winter looked in every room, searching this cupboard, that drawer, examining shelves and peering under the unmade bed with the speed and precision of someone with years of experience. He was alone in the main bedroom when he discovered, tucked among other personal items in a drawer, a birth certificate…for one, Marc Philips.
The detective frowned. If Sarah Manners had acted as a go-between for the sale of the house in Monk’s Porter, she may well have needed it for verification purposes of course. On the other hand…why hang on to it?  A birth certificate was something anyone would be sure to want back, surely?  He was still considering the matter when he heard movement and turned to find that Harry had entered the room and was looking around with the air of a furtive fox expecting to be sniffed out by a pack of hounds baying for his blood at any minute.  Winter replaced the certificate and decided it was time to leave. He was about to gesture the same to Liam when the young man’s expression changed suddenly.
“I’ve been here before,” he said slowly as if continuing to turn over the likelihood in his mind.
“Ah! What makes you think so? Do you recognize something…the wallpaper, the carpet…what?” Winter struggled to restrain his excitement, keeping his voice low and matter-of-fact.
Harry Smith shook his head. “No, nothing…but something is missing. Something isn’t here that was definitely here before…and I have been here before, I have,” he repeated stubbornly, countering Winter’s wary look with a meaningful glare.  
“So what’s missing? Come on, think, man, think!”  Winter urged, trying hard not to betray his exasperation. But Harry Smith continued to shake his head and give the impression of someone peering, desperately, through a thick fog. The birth certificate still dwelling on his mind, the detective instinctively decided it was time to play another hunch. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Let’s see if we can’t find out some more about the elusive Mr Philips.”
Harry did not say a word on the short drive to Monk’s Porter. Winter recognized the hallmarks of a man on auto-pilot. He could but guess at the young man’s torment. It was bad enough trying to remember something on the tip of a tongue that refused to deliver the goods. It had to be a thousand times worse for an amnesiac.  On impulse, he called Julie Simpson again. “Did you aunt ever mention whether Sarah Manners had any kind of allergy?”
“Oh, yes. Nuts. If she ate them or anything containing them, even flavouring, apparently she’d go…well, nuts,” she giggled then added apologetically, “It’s no laughing matter of course. It can prove fatal. I believe she had one or two nasty turns. Poor Auntie used to worry herself sick about it, always reading the ingredients on food labels etcetera whenever she went shopping. Why do you ask?”
“Do people grow out of that kind of thing?” neatly side-stepping her question with another.
“They might, I suppose,” she sounded doubtful, “But I gather Sarah had always been stuck with it, from birth I think. So it’s hardly likely, I imagine. You’ll have to ask her.”
“I will indeed,” Winter growled into the phone, suddenly remembering to ask about the wedding plans, but it was obvious from her tone that this was a bad time. Was there ever a good time, he wondered?  Julie managed a cheerful enough ‘Bye bye’ but hung up almost immediately.
Liam, Winter was pleased to see, caught on fast for all that he remained very subdued. The two men entered the cottage in Monk’s Porter by the front door, as if they had every right to do so. The police, Winter knew, had already searched the place and found nothing. But they had been looking for clues as to Marc Philips’ possible whereabouts. Whereas, he…?
Winter tugged at his beard. What did he expect to find here?  Lips pursed, a wry frown crossed the rugged face. A sixth sense told him, though, that he would not be disappointed. Nor, it transpired, was he. He found a pair of women’s panties draped over a stool in the bathroom.  Winter paid scant attention. So Philips had a girlfriend or he was a transvestite…so what? It was then that a man’s scream blasted his ears like dynamite.
Winter dashed into the next room - a bedroom - to find Liam prostrate on the floor. A thick piled rug had broken his fall and spread unevenly across the floor like a pool of blood. Thankfully, of the real stuff, there was no sign.
After heaving an unconscious Liam on to the bed, the baffled detective hurried to the bathroom, only to return minutes later with a wet flannel. He was still was wiping the pale, sweaty face, when the younger man’s eyes flew open and stared, blankly at first, into space before filling up with such terror that he sat bolt upright. “Take it easy now, yeah?” Winter struggled not to betray alarm. “Everything’s okay, Harry, you’re going to be just fine,” he murmured. “Don’t be frightened. There’s nothing at all to be frightened of, okay? Just try to relax. You fainted, that’s all. Now, take some deep breaths and try to relax,” he kept repeating and felt encouraged by the fact that Liam seemed to be taking notice and growing calmer by the second.
Gently but firmly, Winter pushed the trembling shoulders back against the starchy white pillows. “Now, take some deep breaths and try to relax,” continuing to make reassuring noises while wiping pellet-size drops of perspiration from the young man’s deeply furrowed brow.
Harry tried to speak but only an intelligible grunt emerged from the dribbling, quivering mouth. He flung out a hand towards the window.  Winter saw immediately what the young man meant. A hideously battered teddy bear, one ear missing and the other dangling by a thread, sat on the windowsill.
Winter could only stare, incredulous. “Tweedledeaf...!”  There was no room for doubt. Moreover, it was several minutes before he realized the involuntary cry had erupted from his own throat. Unable to tear his gaze away, Winter half expected the old bear to respond. He felt as if he were under a spell of sorts until it was broken by
a plaintive shriek from the figure on the bed.
Harry Smith screwed his eyes tightly shut.  This time, however, he remained conscious. Winter had to take what comfort he could from that.  
Forcing himself to stop staring at the teddy bear, Winter’s sweeping gaze took in the rest of the room. On the face of it, there was nothing extraordinary or untoward to alert the sensibilities of a suspicious copper, or anyone else for that matter.  He went to the wardrobe and opened the door. Surprisingly, the inside was bare.  Marc Philips was obviously a man who liked to travel light. It struck Winter as was odd, though, to say the least. He’d have expected to find at least a few items of clothing if only a raincoat for wet weekends.  He glanced at Harry who lay unmoving on the bed, hands by his side with both fists clenched. His eyes were still closed but his breathing more regular now. Winter thought it best to leave him to recover in his own time. 
The rug, where Harry’s fall had sent it sliding untidily across the floor, cried out to be straightened and replaced. Winter was about to do just that when he noticed a loose floorboard. Kneeling down, he examined it more closely. It surrendered easily to even the most cursory exploration. The detective found himself looking into a black hole. Intrigued, he lowered an arm and felt around inside. His fingers found what might have been a cardboard box.  Whatever, it would not budge.  Undeterred, Winter began to remove more floorboards with surprisingly little difficulty. Finally, with a grunt of satisfaction, he withdrew a hatbox from its hiding place.   .
“Bloody hell…!” By now Harry Smith had opened his eyes and begun to show an interest in the proceedings.  His reaction was much the same as Winter’s when the detective lifted the lid to reveal a very convincing wig and beard, plus a pair of horned rim spectacles which, on further examination, proved to contain plain glass.  There were other documents, including a medical card. Winter made a mental note of the name and surgery address of a local doctor.
Harry Smith frowned. As he watched Winter return the items to the hat box, drop it back into its hiding place and carefully replace the floorboards, his mind, like the detective’s was racing ahead of itself. If Marc Philips was a fake, who the hell was he and why disguise himself?  More to the point, perhaps…whatever happened to the real Marc Philips?  A chill ran down his spine as a string of possibilities played on his imagination, all of them nasty.
Winter, meanwhile, was thinking along much the same lines but had taken several steps further in what had struck even his suspicious mind as a completely absurd hypothesis…
If Marc Philips was not who he pretended to be, who was to say he existed at all? Anyone could put on a false wig, beard and glasses…even someone local like…
Daz Horton’s name sprung to mind.
Harry had already, excitedly, explained it was the same teddy bear that had gone missing from Monkey Tree cottage although he had no idea why he should remember seeing it there and nothing else. So how had it ended up here if Horton hadn’t brought it…or Sarah Manners…but why?  Liam Brady, the detective mused pensively, would have good cause to remember that particular toy. Moreover, it followed that there had to be a connection with Ralph Cotter. But what, damn it…what?  His copper’s nose began to twitch.  He stroked his beard. Suppose, just suppose the tramp’s body had been substituted for Cotter’s all those years ago? That would mean…
“Shit!” the detective swore aloud. But if Cotter was still alive, where the devil was he hiding out - he and Marc Philips both…in Monk’s Tallow? It seemed unlikely. At the same time, if he was right and Philips did not exist as the residents of Monk’s Porter knew him…
Nothing, as usual, was making much sense.
The two men exchanged few words on the drive back to The Fox and Hounds. Winter told Harry Smith to go ahead and he would join him at the bar in a few minutes.  He called Carol. Sadie answered the phone and asked eagerly after Harry. Winter did his best to reassure her and restrain his impatience to speak to Carol. She came on the line, also anxious for news about Harry-Liam, but took the trouble to enquire about himself too. Winter could feel his cheeks burning and was relieved she could not see him. “Can you recall whether Ralph Cotter was buried or cremated?” 
“What sort of question is that? Of course I remember. I went to the damn funeral, didn’t I?  Why on earth do you want to know?”
“You went to the funeral of your husband’s murderer?” the grizzled detective could not conceal his astonishment. “Doesn’t that strike you as being bizarre, to say the least?”
“It’s what our Americans cousins call ‘closure’,” said Carol in clipped tones that warned him to tread carefully, “and if you must know, he was buried. Jean Cotter didn’t hold with cremation although why, in this instance, I can’t imagine since he was burnt to a bloody crisp anyway. She had the whole works, church choir and all. Mind you, it gave the press a field day and she probably made a pretty penny out of it.”
“Didn’t you?” Winter couldn’t resist asking.
“Of course I did. I had a child to support, remember? If she could get blood money for playing the grieving widow, so could I.  I earned it too, we both did.”
“Where is he buried?”  She told him. “One more thing, Carol, did the teddy bear ever turn up? You didn’t give it away or anything…?”
“Give it away? Not bloody likely. That bear was family, for heaven’s sake. Look, Freddy, what the hell’s going on down there?  And don’t tell me ‘nothing’. It’s me you’re talking to, not some halfwit colleague.”
“Sorry, Carol, you’re breaking up. I’ll call you again later. Bye.” He hit the off button, keeping his finger on it till the tiny screen went blank.
For a while, he  continued to sit there, pondering the unlikely, then turned the mobile back on, thought about calling Charlie Lovell but hit Arthur Bailey’s name in the directory instead. Lovell had his hands full and would, in any case, think he had finally lost his marbles.
“You want me to…what?” Bailey was more shocked than surprised.
“Trust me, Arthur, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t dead important.”
“We’d have to get Jean Cotter’s permission and why should she agree to have her husband’s body exhumed just on some daft hunch of yours? Besides, I seem to recall there wasn’t much left of it anyway.”
“She married again, didn’t she? I’m sure she’ll want to make sure she isn’t a bigamist, I know I would,” responded Winter with a chuckle and was relieved to hear another at the other end. Arthur Bailey, he knew, would do his damn best.
“Suppose she agrees…what then?”
“Try for a DNA sample and see if it matches with any you can get of Cotter’s. There must be something.”
“If there had been a switch, don’t you think someone would have sussed?”
“Why should they?  There was no reason to suppose the charred remains in that car weren’t Cotter’s.”
“And now there is?”
“Too right, there is.” Winter exuded more confidence than he felt and it did the trick.
“It’s not on my patch,” Bailey was at pains to point out.
“True, but I wouldn’t mind betting you know someone whose patch it is and that they owe you a favour.”
“You wish!”
“Come off it, Arthur, the world and his dog owe you a favour. When have I ever asked for one?”
“More times than I’ve had hot dinners,” commented Bailey ruefully.
“Well, what’s one more hot dinner between friends?” Winter cajoled. 
After a long pause, “I’ll see what I can do but no promises.”
“You’re a star.”
“I’m an idiot.” Bailey hung up.   
That evening, Harry Smith was quiet and restless. He barely spoke over dinner and excused himself almost immediately afterwards, without bothering with a desert, leaving Winter to devour a strawberry ice cream sundae with relish. 
Across the room, the Bishops, too, were sampling a Fox and Hounds “special” lamb roast. Mary nodded and Winter nodded back. Sam Bishop did not appear to notice this mute exchange or, if he did, chose to ignore it. They were a glum couple, thought Winter, not for the first time. Then Sarah Manners arrived. She was alone.   Mary Bishop immediately brightened at the sight of her friend while her husband’s welcoming nod was but cursory. The librarian sat next to Mary, made no attempt to order anything but seemed content just to chat. Again, Winter could not help but notice how tactile the two women were with each other.
After about ten minutes, Sam Bishop left. The severity of his expression gave Winter cause to speculate further on whether he mightn’t find his wife’s behaviour towards her friend… disconcerting, to say the least.
Sarah Manners spotted Winter at once and waved. It was an indifferent wave, merely acknowledging his presence. Certainly, it could in no way be construed as an invitation to join the two women. Winter waved back. The light caught the charm bracelet on her wrist, plunging the detective into deep thought.  If Sarah Manners was not who she claimed to be…who was she? And if she was wearing Sarah’s bracelet, how did she come by it? It was a puzzle and no mistake. The glimmer of a notion crossed his mind but he dismissed it to nether regions as too fantastic for words.
His thoughts turned again to Philips, another likely figment of the imagination. Did Sarah Manners know this?  Could that be the reason she helped him purchase the cottage in Monk’s Porter, because he could not do so freely in his own name? Could Marc Philips and Ralph Cotter be one and the same?  The detective shook his head. It made no sense. If Philips did not exist then the implication had to be that Cotter was still alive.  If so, where was he and how did Sarah Manners fit into the general scheme of things?
Winter went to the bar and ordered another beer.
The medical card found among the wig and other items continued to play on his nerves. If, for argument’s sake, Cotter was alive, it made sense that he would need a medical card in an assumed name. But that did not explain the disguise. He could easily have grown his own beard, dyed his own hair and worn plain glass spectacles. If he had already acquired another man’s identity, why bother with the theatricals? Unless he was living locally, of course, in which case he wouldn’t want the GP to know who he was, but why should that matter if he was known under an assumed name anyway?
Winter watched Mary Bishop and Sarah Manners leave the dining area, arm in arm, giggling like a couple of schoolgirls. The absurd notion that had struck him briefly earlier returned to haunt him. If the librarian wasn not the real Sarah Manners, it might explain James Morrissey’s distress…enough to cause him to lose control of his car or even commit suicide.  His suicide, in turn, might explain Ruth Temple’s. But where did Liam and Carol Brady fit in to all this? And what about the teddy bear? Suppose Liam had recognized the teddy bear? It might have proved enough to send him over the edge…figuratively speaking, maybe even literally. But how did the damn bear got to Monkey Tree cottage if Cotter hadn't taken it there himself, and why move it to Marc Philips’ bedroom? If Cotter and Philips were one and the same person, that meant he was not only local but also had to be well known to Sarah Manners and her partner.  Unless…
Winter shook his head again. Impossible…
He drained his glass and made his way to the bar for another pint. “Impossible!” he barked at a bemused barman.
Across the bar, he could see into another room where Sam Bishop was leaning heavily on the bar, knocking back shorts like nobody’s business.

To be continued