Friday, 3 January 2014

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 27


“Burn the place down? Are you mad?” Cotter’s jaw dropped as he saw that Horton
 was deadly serious.
“Have you got a better idea how we kill our four birds with one stone?”
“But won’t it look suspicious? The police…”
“…will keep looking for Marc Philips and won’t bloody find him. It’s perfect. They can suspect what they like, get enough evidence to put poor old Marc away for life for all we should care. Because you and me, my flower, we know they won’t catch him, right?  It’s perfect,” he repeated with a guffaw that made even Cotter’s flesh creep. “It’s a shame about Mary of course, but that one’s down to, you my turtle dove, and there’s no help for it now, she’ll have to go.”  He poured himself another drink and kept hold of the bottle after Cotter shook his head. “There’s a can of petrol in the car. Go and get it.”
Cotter went to do as he was told, and then stopped dead in his tracks. “What about the other cars?”
“What about them? So they spotted Marc Philips and took it into their daft heads to have a word with him about this ‘n’ that. They could hardly drive away once burnt to a bloody crisp, could they?”
“But won’t people think…?”
“Cool it, flower, ok? Just cool it, damn you, “Horton snapped, “People can think what they bloody well like. Why should we care? Trust me, it’s perfect.”
“Someone might see us, they might already…” Cotter wailed.
“So? We’ll be first on the scene won’t we, devastated because we arrived too late to put the fire out.  We’ll be even more cut up when we discover how there was three dead bodies inside, won’t we, eh?” guffawing again. 
“Marc Philips?” Cotter remained sceptical.
Horton shrugged. “Probably legged it out the back and made his way…” He shrugged again, “…who knows where?  Who cares? We’ll give it a year or so then find you another ID.  Just try not to get ill in the meantime, yeah.” He chuckled.
Again, Cotter shivered. By now, though, anticipation was already running ahead of imagination.
“To think, flower, there’s some poor sod walking around out there who’s got a real treat in store. Doesn’t it just warm the cockles of your heart?  Horton guffawed yet again. This time Cotter joined in the raucous laughter.
Cotter made his way cautiously, to the car. He needn’t have worried. There was no one in sight.  Daz was right. Everything was panning out just perfect.  It was a shame about Mary though.  He paused, deep in thought. Maybe Daz would let him…but probably not…besides, the sooner this was over and done with, the better. Who’d ever have thought they would be killing not two or even three but four birds with one stone, five including Marc Phillips. I like that. Yes, I like that very much.   Permitting himself a sly, self-congratulatory chuckle, he proceeded to carry the can of petrol back to the cottage without so much as a glance right or left. Otherwise, he might have spotted the sun’s reflection on a pair of binoculars homing in on him from not so far away.
By the time Cotter returned with the can, Horton had gone to the pantry and opened the door. He was carrying a gun. Two pairs of eyes almost glowed in the gloom and muffled sounds (protests, pleas?) reached his ears, invaded his head, titillating every nuance of the man’s being. He fetched a knife and entered the large pantry.  By now the eyes of both bound and gagged victims were following his hands with mounting terror and practically leaping out of their sockets. Horton knelt down and slashed the rope at Liam Brady’s feet then went behind him and stuck the gun in his belt while hoisting him up by the armpits.  “Move,” was all he said as, ignoring Mary Bishop altogether, he prodded the young man towards the bedroom.
Liam Brady winced in agony as the blood rushed to his feet. He did as he was told but stumbled awkwardly, only to have the gun barrel prod him sharply in the back.  Was this the end, he wondered? It has to be, surely? There was no way Daz Horton would allow either of them to live now that he…remembered? 
Yes, he remembered. Not quite everything, but most things, not least how Horton and Sarah Manners tried to send him off the cliff in his own car. But, why in heaven’s name, why? It was a question that would be answered sooner than he could have anticipated.
They entered the bedroom. In spite of the gag, Liam gasped disbelievingly at the inert forms of Fred Winter and Carol…his mum…on the bed.  At first he thought they were dead then relief sent tremors through his body as he made out a slight rhythm of breathing.  Instinctively, he made to go to his mother before another stab in his back brought home the precarious nature of his situation. Horton had produced a chair and was telling him to sit down. He had barely sat down when Sarah arrived.
“Go and get our friend a drink,” said Horton with a knowing wink and removed the gag from Liam Brady’s parched mouth.  Sarah disappeared. Liam took several deep breaths in quick succession and vaguely took in the rest of the room.
Then he spotted it. Tweedledeaf.  There was no mistaking the same bear whose battered features had haunted his nightmares for so long. But...what on earth was it doing here of all places?
He turned to look at his mother as if expecting her to have all the answers. In a way, she did.  The violet eyes remained shut.  She lay quite still. Thankfully, he could still make out a slight heaving of breasts. Winter, too, was breathing steadily. Thank God.
He looked again at the bear then back to Carol Brady’s pale, drawn face. He wanted to ask what the hell was going on but could barely manage a croak, “Mum?” There was no answer of course. Suddenly, her face began to blur to be replaced by another.  Now it was a man lying there, face a chalky white. There was blood too, lots of it. A man with…yes, a gun…and a small child hugging, yes, a battered teddy bear with one ear missing and the other dangling by a thread.  He recognized the scene only too well. Usually it would burst upon him in a flash and vanish as if in a puff of smoke. But this time was different. This time, he could see the child plainly. Oh, my God. He recognized himself. Moreover, the second he did, everything else fell into place….faces, places, dates…his dead father, his mother…Sadie…and…
The man leaning over his father with a gun in his hand turned round.
 “Uncle Ralph?”  Liam cried aloud, “What is it, Uncle Ralph, what’s the matter?” a child’s voice echoed around the room and made it spin, spin, spin…but he held on and did not fall off…shut his eyes only briefly and when he opened them again the image had gone and he was being untied…blood rushing to his wrists…the duct tape ripped from his mouth so that it hurt like hell. Sarah Manners was helping him take a long drink of water and it was so welcome yet there was something about her expression that was so…familiar? 
Liam strained to focus. He knew those eyes. Hadn’t he just been looking into them?  “Uncle Ralph?” he spluttered although unsure whether he was addressing the man who had just killed his father or…
 The librarian’s face had turned a jaundiced colour.
“No!” Liam Brady shook his head in disbelief. “It can’t be. You can’t be…My God, Uncle Ralph, it’s you!”
Cotter dashed out of the room.
“Well, well, we are on the ball today, aren’t we?” Horton, just behind him, leaned forward and sneered into Liam Brady’s stunned profile, stroking his cheek with the gun barrel. “Welcome back to the real world.” He uttered a loud, ugly, guffaw that blasted his captive’s ears and sent his pulse racing.
As Liam struggled to come to terms with his memory, it felt rather like he was getting the worst of round after round in a boxing ring.  Every part of him ached. How did Mary fit into this, he wondered?  Instantly, he started guiltily for not having given her a thought for some time. How much she did know about Sarah Manners? Had she guessed the librarian’s secret, that ‘she’ was really a ‘he’? Is that why she had to…die? 
We are going to die, all of us.  He felt sick. Seconds later, he heard Mary scream.
As soon as Liam Brady spoke his name, Cotter made a dash for the loo. No one except Daz on rare occasions had called him by his birth name for so many years that he had actually begun to think of himself as Sarah Manners. Watching the disbelief in Liam Brady’s eyes turn to hate, contempt, loathing, all in the same instant, had upset him terribly. He sat on the loo for a good ten minutes, letting his bowels take the strain and feeling marginally better for it.
His thoughts turned to Mary Bishop. Poor Mary, she would be terrified. Maybe he could, after all…
The pantry was easily big enough for two. Cotter untied her feet with a kitchen knife and indicated that he was about to remove the gag. “Not a word, Mary, not one word,” he mumbled warningly. She shook her head, amazed at her capacity to stay calm. Once the tape had been peeled off, she was content just to breathe through her mouth for a while. “Would you like a drink?” Mary Bishop nodded and hoped this would mean he intended to untie her hands as well…but no such luck.  Sticking the knife into his belt, he went to the sink, came back with a cupful of water and held it to her dry lips. She drank eagerly, spilling much of the lukewarm liquid down her dress.
Cotter knelt beside the woman and stroked her hair. “I’m sorry, Mary, I really am. I wouldn’t have hurt you for the world.”
“And now?” she wanted to know. The person she had only ever known as Sarah Manners shook her…his…head. Mary, involuntarily, did the same. She still could not quite believe it. “You certainly had everyone fooled,” she told him and Cotter thought he detected a note of admiration in the sweet, remarkably controlled voice. “Did you kill that girl?” she asked with a directness that made him blush.
“Among others,” he boasted and began to tell her the whole story from its grisly start to…well, it didn’t have an ending yet, did it?  Should he tell her, he wondered? Should he prepare her for flames licking at the pretty face (pretty, in spite of the bruising) and perfumed flesh until all that was left were charred bones?  Or would she already be dead by then, he wondered, overcome by smoke? A hand stroked her neck.  Such a pretty neck, it almost seemed a shame to…
“You’re an extraordinary person but, then, I always thought you were.” Mary Bishop forced herself to smile and, successfully, fought off shudders prompted by those long, slim, she-male fingers at her throat.  “A very exciting person…” she added, lying through teeth that would gladly have drawn blood if her hands weren’t tied, rendering the exercise pointless.  Don’t provoke her…him…oh, God, what a mess! She found herself thinking of Sam and silently vowed she would make everything up to him if she ever got out of this…alive?  What did she mean…alive?  Surely they didn’t mean to kill her, did they?  What else can they do, you stupid woman? They can hardly let you go free – or Harry Smith – knowing what you know. She wondered just how much Harry Smith knew. Too much, obviously…
She had barely wrenched her mind back to the immediate danger when, without any warning, ‘Sarah Manners’ kissed her on the mouth. It was a long, hard kiss and the fingers at her neck dug into the flesh. Fleetingly, she almost enjoyed the taste of lips on hers that had figured so prominently in her dreams for years. All at once, she remembered…managed to jerk her head away and wanted to vomit. Instead, she screamed.
Before the scream had died away, Horton jumped on Cotter from behind, dragged him off the hysterical woman and was laying into him like a madman with his fists. Cotter neither made a sound nor put up even a token resistance. He lay on the cold pantry floor, content to let Horton beat him to a pulp, relieved to have the situation taken out of his hands. Not until he began to whimper did the beating stop and Horton get to his feet, flinging Mary Bishop an accusing look as if she, alone, were to blame for the whole, sickening mess. Well, wasn’t she? The woman was evil. She was Eve, Delilah, Helen of Troy all rolled into one.  How could poor Ralph have done anything else but fall for the bitch?
 The slap Horton dealt her took Mary Bishop completely by surprise and sent her reeling, crying out in pain, against the pantry wall.  He glared menacingly at her.  But the rage in him ebbed as quickly as it had risen. This was no Eve, no Delilah or Helen of Troy, for crying out loud. Oh, she wasn’t bad looking but nothing special.  His thoughts flew to Sam. Poor Sam, how had he put up with her all these years?  They would be doing his chess partner a big favour.
In the bedroom, Winter had begun to stir even before Mary Bishop screamed. Some seventh sense warned him not to try and sit up or utter a sound, which was easy enough since he could barely move anyway and his throat was parched. He heard voices from a distance. They seemed vaguely familiar. He forced his eyes open a fraction and peered through a mist that, slowly, began to clear enough to permit some vision of sorts. The voices were significantly closer now. He recognized them. At the same time he managed to link two hazy figures just ahead with the voiced and was able to distinguish one from the other. Daz Horton and Liam Brady…what the devil…? 
Sarah Manners appeared in the doorway. Through half-closed eyes Winter made out the librarian’s agitated manner but her exchange with Liam was like a mime play and  he could not hear a word at first…then he caught snatches…could have sworn he heard her call Liam by name. Liam? Had the young man remembered who he was then…and what else?  He saw her dash out of the room, near hysterical it seemed to the detective.  There followed an exchange of sorts between Harry-Liam and Horton comprising mostly of sharp words and dark looks. Several times, Liam attempted to rise from his chair. On each occasion, Horton, wearing a menacing sneer, waved something at him. Liam promptly sat down again. Winter risked opening his eyes a fraction further to confirm what he had already guessed.  Shit, he’s got a gun.  Then he heard a woman scream.
Winter’s first instinct was to glance, surreptitiously, at the body on the bed beside him. But Carol Brady lay quite still, completely out of it, her face a pale mask. Only the gentle rhythm of her breathing told him that she was alive.
Winter heard Liam shout her name and saw him try to get to his feet. This time, Horton did not settle for waving the gun and issuing a curt command to stay put. After the briefest hesitation, Horton slammed the weapon against the side of his captive’s head and sent him flying.
Liam Brady collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Horton rushed out of the room, although not so panicked by the scream that he forgot to lock the door after him. Winter grimaced. Whatever Horton and the librarian had in mind for them all, the omens were not looking good. He tried to sit up but fell back, helplessly. His whole body - outside and in – felt like a tightly rolled wad of cotton wool. Don’t be such a wimp, Fred. You can do it. You have to, for crying out loud. He tried again.
“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” Horton had seen at a glance what was up. Mary Bishop’s state of part undress spoke volumes.  After dragging Cotter off the woman he dealt her an almighty slap across the face. The screaming was instantly replaced by a hysterical sobbing.  “You’re all the same,” shouted Horton at her, “You damn women, you’re all the same, teasers the lot of you.” He rounded on Cotter. “As for you, you bastard…for years I’ve stood by you, been faithful, looked after you… and this is how you repay me. Not content with getting your leg over that little slag from the fair, you’re at it again with this one. I ought to…” He laid into his lover like a man possessed. Raising a fist to strike yet again….
The doorbell rang.
Horton froze. Cotter began to panic. Even Mary Bishop appeared momentarily stunned.
“What do we do, Daz, what do we do?” Cotter whimpered piteously.
“We answer the bloody door, that’s what we do,” Cotter jerked a thumb at the Bishop woman, “and make sure you keep her quieter than a bloody grave unless you want to be digging your own…” He braced himself and went to the door. Mary Bishop opened her mouth to scream again but Cotter’s fist got to it before she could utter another sound.
Horton could not have put a name to the smartly dressed, red haired figure at the door but had seen him around the village a lot lately and knew for a fact he was Old Bill. “Yes?” 
Detective sergeant Mike Pritchard introduced himself, flashed ID, and would have pocketed it again had the other man not snatched it, and appeared to examine it with exaggerated thoroughness before returning it without a word. “We’ve had reports of the cottage being occupied, sir. Naturally, we have to investigate. You’ll be well aware, of course, that we’re anxious to track down the owner. It’s our belief he can help us with our enquiries. Is Mr Philips at home?”
Horton shook his head. “Sarah and I come to look over to the place from time to time…check for any mail, you know.”
“You have a forwarding address for Mr Philips?”
Again, Horton shook his head. “It’s only ever junk mail. We just bin it. Otherwise he’d never get in the front door for a mountain of the stuff.” He flung the constable a wry grin.
“Miss Manners is with you, yes?”
“Yes. Did you want a word with her? She can’t give you any more information than I can, I’m afraid,” he added apologetically.
Pritchard was instantly on his guard, curious as to what lay behind this sudden change of attitude from frank hostility to something resembling polite co-operation. He wouldn’t mind betting, either, that the bulge in Horton’s jacket pocket was not a paperback novel. “You can come in and search the place if you don’t believe me officer. Sarah and I haven’t set eyes on Marc for weeks. Hand on heart...” He made the gesture with a mocking look that sent Pritchard’s hackles into overdrive. He was sorely tempted to take up Horton’s offer but his instructions had been merely to ascertain the man’s presence and that of his partner-in-crime. Of one thing he could be sure. The others must be alive or Horton would never have risked coming to the door. Even as he spoke, his eyes peered over Horton’s shoulder into the small hall. Like Horton, though, it was giving nothing away.
“Thank you, sir. Sorry to have bothered you and Miss Manners.” Pritchard gave a friendly wave and left.  Horton, he was sure, did not suspect a thing. Lovell, when he finally got here, would be well pleased.
Horton watched him go, his stomach performing somersaults. You stupid geezer, take me for a bloody fool do you? Whether Pritchard was on his own or had company, Mary Bishop’s car and that interfering sod Fred Winter’s told their own story. It didn’t mean they had to be in the house of course. They could be busy making daisy chains just about anywhere. Huh! Chance would be a fine thing and that copper’s nobody’s fool…
Reluctant for a moment to go back inside, Horton sighed heavily and shut the door. There was no time to waste. He returned to the pantry, almost tripping over the can of petrol from where it squatted under a shabby print of the Madonna and Child. (Did Ralph have no taste at all?)  
“Who was it?” Cotter demanded. His eyes remained fixed on the can and his Adam’s apple suddenly became very active.
“Old Bill of course. Why? Who were you expecting, the Avon lady?” Horton growled. Ignoring Cotter’s stifled cry, he knelt and hauled the partially conscious Mary Bishop over one shoulder, returned to the bedroom and waited, impatiently, at the door while his partner fumbled with the key. “It’s only a key, it won’t explode in your hand,” he grumbled. But still Cotter’s trembling fingers could not open the door.  Getting angrier by the second, Horton snatched it, rammed it in the lock, turned it with deliberate precision, kicked the door wide open the instant it swung ajar and strode into the room, anxious to dump his load. Cotter followed, chewing anxiously on a thumbnail.
Carol Brady lay where they had left her, demonstrating no signs of movement. Liam was stirring on the floor, moaning, and plainly posed no immediate threat.  It was not until he was actually in the process of dropping Mary Bishop on to the bed that Horton realized what was wrong.
Where the devil was Fred Winter?
He heard a flurry of movement behind him and imagined the worst but it took a few more seconds to heave Mary Bishop off his shoulder and turn round. Damn, damn, damn. Winter had Ralph in an arm lock, the kitchen knife at his throat, and clearly meant business.

In his jacket pocket, the same gun Cotter had used to kill Sean Brady gave Horton small comfort.  He could live with having to kill people. A man does what he has to do, right? But shooting someone down in cold blood was something else. It was ugly. Worse, it was pointless. Where was the satisfaction to be had in pointing a gun and pulling the trigger?  Any fool could do that. Besides, there was something else to consider...
He had never used a gun in his life. 

To be continued