Saturday, 14 May 2016

Fiction News - Updates

Update (3): Prior to serialising Mamelon, Book 2, I will be editing each episode of Book 1 to amend certain print errors (apologies for missing any); there will be NO significant changes to the story line. While these episodes will appear as 'updates' those who of you who have already read the novel can ignore.

Update (2): The first episode  of Mamelon, Book 2: The Purple Mountains will appear on the blog on Sunday, December 18. Apologies for the delay; first draft complete, just need to proof. - RT (Nov 20, 2011)

Update (1): I am making progress with Book 2 of 'Mamelon' and hope to have it ready to serialise on the blog by the autumn although various health problems (I am 70 now) may mean some delay; it will appear on the blog first as I will not be submitting it to a print publisher and serialising it chapter by chapter will allow me to correct any errors given that I cannot afford the services of a professional proof reader.

Meanwhile, thank you for your continuing interest in my published and unpublished fiction; it is very encouraging, and critical feedback is always helpful. As with the poetry blogs, I do not post comments but always read them, and will reply if you include an email address.

Update (2): (June 21, 2016): 'Blasphemy' is now available as an e-book on Google Play:

The sequel, 'Sacrilege', will follow in due course and I will announce it here. [Each novel will  disappear from the blog shortly as it become available on Google Play although this is likely to take some time.] Eventually, all my (revised novels (and poetry collections) will appear on Google Play. 
I'm afraid progress is slow regarding 'Mamelon' Book 2 due to computer and other (personal/ health) problems. However, am still hoping to upload it to the blog in serial form by Christmas. 

Update (3): (Oct 09, 2016): Several readers have emailed to say they had difficulty finding novels on the blog. Here are the links to first chapters, and you will find that each is preceded by a synopsis:

DOG ROSES  (gay-interest)

SACRILEGE (gay-interest/ crime)
[Sequel to Blasphemy – See Google Play – Blasphemy – Taber)

CATCHING UP WITH MURDER (gay-interest/crime)



MAMELON (fantasy) (Book One)

Monday, 13 January 2014

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 30


“You are not getting out of this car, Fred Winter, until you tell me exactly what you’re up to.” Sadie Chapman laid a restraining hand on the detective’s arm.
“I’m not Liam, Sadie, so don’t talk to me as if I were knee high to a flaming grasshopper!” Winter snapped and tried to pull away.
Sadie’s grip tightened. “Is that what you think? That I’m a cradle snatcher?” Her face fell, became a picture of misery that genuinely surprised him. “I dare say his mother thinks that too,” she added with uncharacteristic bitterness. 
Winter’s guffaw wasn’t in the least forced. “My dear Sadie, you’re no more a cradle snatcher than I am!” In his mind’s eye he saw himself sitting next to the pretty student in the Dane John Gardens in Canterbury (What was her name?) struggling with an essay about Joseph Conrad. He guffawed again. He could see the girl’s face clearly enough, but no name sprang to mind. Then the face dissolved, suddenly, into another, to which he had no problem putting a name. Nor could he look away from the lovely violet eyes even as he collected himself sufficiently to carry on talking to Sadie Chapman. Ah, Carol, where did we go wrong? “You really mustn’t worry my dear. Young Liam has a mind of his own, like his mother. It’s my guess, that’s how he survived as Harry Smith. If he loves you, as I am sure he does, neither Carol nor wild horses come into the equation. Trust an old copper who’s seen it all.” He chuckled and gently prised her hand free from his arm but made no immediate move to get out of the car. 
“You’re not old.” He felt reassured by her mock seriousness.
“I dare say we can both give the devil a run for his money yet,” he remarked with a grin. “Now, Lovell’s on his way so you’ll soon have some company.  Whatever happens, don’t let anyone near the place until I give the word.  I mean that, Sadie, and make sure Lovell knows I mean it too. No matter what you see or hear, no one comes barging in until I say so. Understood?”
Sadie nodded, looking far from happy. “You’re mad, stark raving mad. If this Cotter bloke is in there, he’s not going to stand by and let you hand him over to the police or anyone else for that matter. He’ll kill you, just like he killed Liam’s dad. And the partner, how do you propose to deal with him? Horton’s no pushover from what precious little I’ve managed to piece together so far. It’s not as if anyone tells me much,” she added darkly.
“Trust me. And don’t worry about Liam. He adores you.” Winter tried to sound reassuring, but was already easing himself out of the passenger seat without waiting for a response. He strode, purposefully, towards the house, trying hard not to grimace with every painful step. At the door, he hesitated but a fraction before ringing the bell.
No reply.
He tried again, keeping his finger pressed against the buzzer longer this time.
Still there was no reply.
He bent down and peered through the letterbox. “It’s Fred Winter. You know me and you know I know you. And I know you’re in there. So you might as well let me in for a chat as carry on playing silly beggars. Because I’m not shifting my fat arse and that means you’re not shifting yours either, except to get off it one of you, and open the bloody door.”
A heavy silence dragged on for so long that Winter began to wonder whether perhaps his hunch hadn’t been way off target after all.
“You mess with us again, Mr Detective and next time you won’t get off so lightly,” came a rattled voice from within. Winter recognized Horton’s voice. A muffled exchange followed between it and another squeaky, protesting noise that Horton assumed to be Cotter’s.
“Are you mad?  If we let him in we’re done for!” Cotter was saying.
Horton shrugged. “We might as well hear what he’s got to say. Could be, we’re done for anyway so what have we got to lose?” He went to the door and opened it, holding on tightly to the revolver as he did so. “Come in, copper, and make yourself at home.”
“Ex-copper,” Winter reminded him, careful to keep his tone even, almost friendly. “I don’t mind if I do, thanks.” He stepped inside. 
From her vantage point in the car, Sadie Chapman felt her heart skip a beat and prayed for Lovell to hurry.
Both men had cleaned themselves up and changed their clothes.  Moreover, judging by the way shirts and jeans hung loose on Cotter and fitted tightly on Horton, Winter could only assume they had raided Sam Bishop’s wardrobe. (Where is Bishop, anyhow?)
Cotter had abandoned his Sarah Manners disguise. It came as something of a shock to Winter’s system to find himself confronted by this nervous, balding man who emanated none of the librarian’s authoritative manner or strident good looks.  Without waiting to be invited, he eased himself into a chair and summoned a leisurely smile as if he were, indeed, nothing more than old friend popping in for a chat. “I suppose you thought it was clever to come here? Sorry to disappoint you,” he began conversationally, “You must realize you haven’t a dog in hell’s chance of getting away with attempted murder, not to mention the success stories already notched up. How many is it now - two, three, four?  Let’s see…” counting on his fingers, “there’s Sean Brady of course, then there’s the real Marc Philips and James Morrissey. We  mustn’t forget Ruth Temple either. Bump her off too did you?  Silly question, of course you did. Oh, and let’s not miss out Sarah Manners. What happened to her, eh, the real one I mean?  It must have put a spanner in the works good and proper when Liam Brady turned up alive and kicking? I’ll say! Still, it was a good excuse to try again and maybe even manage to lose a few more spanners along the way, eh?”
“Not to mention the odd copper,” Horton sneered while pointing the gun directly at Winter and pretending to shoot. “Bang, bang, you’re dead!” He gave a loud guffaw. “It’s just like when we were kids, eh, playing cowboys and Indians…or maybe you preferred cops and robbers, eh, Fred my old son?” He guffawed again. Cotter, for his part, stayed silent, eyes darting between the detective and Horton as if he were some faintly hypnotised spectator at a tennis match. “Weird, isn’t it? All those clues when you’re a kid as to how you’re likely to turn out and no one picks up on them, just leaves you to follow the trail yourself. And here we are, at the end of the road, all grown up and still playing stupid games.”
“It’s the end of the road all right,” Winter agreed.
“For you, too, copper. I only have to pull the trigger and…whoosh…no more Fred Winter.”      
    “If that’s what turns you on.” Winter gave a nonchalant snort. “But then killing people must come as second nature to the pair of you by now.  Doesn’t it ever get tedious?  Mind you, killing a copper, even an ex-copper, that has to be a bit special I suppose…different, anyway. You might as well go out in a blaze of glory since all you’ve got to look forward to is fading away in some shit hole of a prison.” He looked pointedly at Cotter, “The old lags will have a field day with you. They’ll think Christmas has come early!”
    Cotter took the bait. “I can’t go to prison, Daz, I just can’t!” he wailed. “You’ve got to get us out of here.”
     “I’d say the ball’s in your court, Horton, wouldn’t you?” Winter’s icy smile belied his casual tone. “So what’s the plan? You can try using me as a hostage of course, but it won’t help you much. We’re too far into the game for that and you know it. As for killing me, well, go ahead and see where it gets you…”
    “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” said Horton bluntly. Winter recoiled involuntarily, in the chair. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You haven’t come to do a deal or talk us into giving ourselves up. You’re got a flaming death wish!” He threw back his head and roared with laughter. 
     Winter, to his utter consternation, found himself blushing. “Think what you like,” he snapped.
“See, Ralph, he can’t even deny it. Why is that?  I’ll tell you, shall I? Because once a copper always a copper and coppers are always supposed to tell the truth. You poor arse-hole, life got that damn pathetic for you has it?”
“Hark who’s talking!” Winter countered, forcing a laugh but feeling horribly exposed all the same. He hadn’t expected this.  It was wild, misinformed speculation on Horton’s part of course. Or was it?  Had some kind of death wish brought him here?  For a moment he honestly wondered, then (almost) dismissed the notion from his mind as nothing more than a preposterous fantasy on Horton’s part. Let him play amateur psychologist if he likes. Fred Winter knows himself better than that. Well, didn’t he?  He missed Helen, of course he did, but…
Winter gritted his teeth, forced draw on untapped reserves of willpower and professionalism in order to concentrate on the matter in hand. Turning to Cotter again, he jibed, “Cat got your tongue, Miss Manners? To think you had us all fooled as a woman who could hold her own with the best of ’em. Who’d have guessed what you were hiding in your knickers?”
“Why, you…” Cotter made an impotent lunge towards him. Winter forced himself not to stir. Cotter stopped suddenly, uttered a yelp and limped backwards to rejoin Horton.  “He can’t talk to me like that, Daz, can he? You can’t let him talk to me like that. Give me the gun, I’ll show him, damn me if I won’t.”
But Horton clearly had no intention of surrendering the weapon. Instead, he continued to taunt the detective with a vicious sarcasm, “Sorry to disappoint you, copper. You’re free to walk out of here any time you like. Have a nice day, yeah?”
“And what about you, are you coming with me?”  Winter may have been caught momentarily off guard but he was no fool. Two can play at this game.
Horton guffawed again. “Thanks for the invite, copper but – no thanks. We walk out that door with you and we kiss our freedom goodbye, right?”
“Try walking out that door without me and you’re dead meat,” Winter retorted, resisting an impulse to cross his fingers. He glanced at his watch. Had Lovell arrived on the scene yet, he wondered?
“What are we going to do?” an erstwhile Sarah Manners was sobbing now. “You said everything would be okay, you promised…” Cotter rounded on Horton accusingly.
Horton’s eyes hadn’t left the detective’s face.  Winter was bluffing, he was sure of it.  The old buzzard was right about one thing, though, he was certain of that too.  This is endgame. “You won’t mind if my partner and I have a few words in private?” Winter shrugged, spread his hands and shook his head. “Go in the bedroom, flower. I’ll be right with you. No, not that one,” he snapped as Cotter made to go into the same room where Sam Bishop lay trussed on the bed. “Go on, I’ll be right there,” he repeated encouragingly,  “and shut the damn door.” Cotter did as he was told but left the door slightly ajar.
Horton turned his attention back to the detective. “You’re not so clever, copper. You and I both know the score. Ralph and me may well have come to a dead-end but at least we’ve had a good run. Can you honestly say that?  No, I didn’t think so. It shows, you know. One look in them baby blues and anyone can see you’re nothing more than a done-for has-been who’s wondering what the devil it’s all been about.”  Then, after a long pause, “Am I right or am I right?” he leered.
Winter shrugged, hoping to convey a nonchalance he was far from feeling. “Think what you like, I’m not the one whose life is on the line here.”
In spite of himself, the detective visibly winced. It required a maximum of effort to keep his voice steady and controlled. “It’s like you said, we both know the score,” he responded cryptically.
Horton shrugged. “See you later, alligator…” he sneered and followed Cotter into the bedroom.
“In a while, crocodile…” Winter muttered. But if the other man heard, he gave no sign.
In the bedroom, Cotter was standing by the window. He was trembling. Gazing at a flowering hydrangea, gently caressed by shadows in a fast failing light, he did not turn round upon hearing Horton enter, close the door behind him and approach.
“We will be okay, Daz? You do have a plan?”
“Have I ever let you down?”  In an uncharacteristic gesture of affection, Horton slipped his hand in Cotter’s. “It’s you and me against the world, flower, right? What chance does this fucked-up old world stand against the likes of you and me, eh? We’ve been there, done that, and what the heck?  So we have to start what?  You’re not going to chicken out on me now, are you?” he chuckled.
Cotter felt suddenly much calmer. It was good to hear the familiar sound in his ear, feel the large, rough hand squeeze his own so …lovingly? He had often wondered if Daz really loved him, since he had never said so. Now, at last, he thought he knew. It was a good feeling.  Daz would have a plan. Everything was going to be just fine. . He half turned, still debating with himself whether or not to give Daz a big hug and a long, sloppy kiss…when Horton pulled the trigger and blew his lover’s brains out.
For a long time, Horton knelt in that gloomy room, Cotter’s head in his lap, wide eyes unseeing that he could not bear to close.  Would Fred Winter still be there, he wondered? Of course he would. The detective, too, had known the whole fucked-up score. Winter would wait for as long as it took him, Darren Andrew Horton, to come to a decision. Twice, three times, four times, he raised the gun barrel to his head and rammed it against his skull.  Each time he lowered it, cuddled Cotter and sought hard and long for a glimpse of - what?  Redemption…justification…blame…love, even?  Had it been love that kept them together? He’d often wondered…
But the sightless eyes were giving nothing away.
Horton was getting cramp. He shifted his position slightly. Cotter’s body felt like a ton weight in his lap. He leaned over the pale, already partially discoloured face and kissed the cold lips.
Once again he raised the gun to his head then changed his mind and rammed the barrel in his mouth instead. Without taking his eyes from Cotter’s, his finger stroked the trigger. “You can do it, Daz, you can do it,” the already stiffening corpse - whose dry, matted hair he had begun to stroke with his free hand - seemed to be urging him.”  He couldn’t resist a chuckle. It wasn’t like Ralph to sound so confident. There had to be an ulterior motive of course and he thought he knew what it was. Ralph would not be able to stand being on his own for long…whether it in heaven or hell. Is there a hell? He had never given it much thought before but now he wished, fervently, that he knew for sure. You can do it, you know you can, a familiar voice in his head kept saying. But, could he?
On hearing the first shot, Winter had resisted his first impulse to investigate, barely shifting in his chair even, but waited, expectantly, for a second. When it didn’t come, he helped himself to a stiff drink then decided it was time he found out what had happened to Sam Bishop.  He went into the main bedroom, freed the terrified man but held a finger to his lips as he removed the gag. “Say nothing,” he whispered, “just leave the house, quietly. A friend of mine is waiting in her car outside. Wait there until the police come, if they’re not here already. And make sure no one, NO ONE, comes within an inch of the front door before I give the word. Do you understand?”
Sam Bishop nodded, swallowing hard, having long since given up even trying to make any sense of the situation. “It’s nightmare, a bloody nightmare,” he croaked back, “Just get me out of here!”  Careful, in spite of a growing desperation, to keep his voice low, he stammered, “My wife…?”
 Winter shook his head. “Later. She’s fine,” he added, trying hard not to imagine the pale, battered face as he had seen it last. “Go now, but keep very quiet,” he whispered. Sam Bishop did not need to be told twice. Seconds later he was gone, his toupee slipping… Like a furry bat out of hell… Winter chuckled, grateful for a snatch of humour to help ease his discomfiture.
As soon as Bishop had left, the detective went and put an ear to the wall. But there was barely a sound issuing from the next room and no voices. One of them had to be dead, he reasoned. In which case, what the devil was the other one (it had to be Horton, surely?) playing at?  Or maybe Horton had flunked it and both were still alive?  Anything was possible. You might as well face it, Fred Winter. Reason has no place in this particular equation.  He returned to the same chair in the sitting room but not before taking a swig from a half-empty bottle of excellent white rum on the table. Nor did he let go of the bottle.  
By the time he heard the second shot, the detective had lapsed into a maudlin, if not morbid state.  His earlier exchange with Horton kept returning to haunt him. He had been acting on a hunch, a copper’s nose. There was no question of any ulterior motive, certainly no death wish. The whole idea was fanciful, absurd in the extreme.  Sure, he had been unhappy since Helen died and there had been times, now and then, when he’d wished…that he was dead? No, never that. Even so, it would have been nice to go first, perhaps…
The second shot continued to reverberate in his head for some time, far longer than the first.
He had no inclination to go and see whether Horton had shot himself or flunked it.  Nor had he the slightest desire to stare death in the face. Not his own, or anyone else’s.  Oh, he’d seen plenty of dead bodies in his time. It went with the territory, after all. He’d long since ceased to be squeamish about death.
When he’d first looked upon Helen’s pretty, made-up face in the funeral parlour, it had been hard to believe at first that she wasn’t asleep. Then he’d caught a glimpse of something immensely sad, beyond the subtle hairdressing skills and undertaker’s arts – and hadn’t like what he saw. He’d left abruptly, caught up not only in an overwhelming grief but also an abiding fear. Yes, he, Fred Winter, was afraid. In his job, he could expect to be called upon to deal with all sorts. And hadn’t he taken everything and everyone in his stride? But this…this was personal. Helen’s death (taking another swig of rum and spluttering on it) had…yes, unmanned him. “Shit!” he growled, scrambled awkwardly to his feet and, lurching only a little, left the house.   
Sadie Chapman gave a cry of relief, ran towards the detective, embraced him in a big hug and chose to ignore the obvious fact that he’d been drinking heavily.
Over her right shoulder, Winter could just make out Charlie Lovell’s concerned expression as well as Pritchard’s red hair and some bodiless flak jackets. Mouth wide open, he promptly forgot what he was going to say then discovered he couldn’t shut it again.
For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Fred Winter passed out cold.

Come on, Fred, get off your backside and do what a man has to do. This place is a tip. Helen must be turning in her grave. Winter, sprawled in his favourite armchair, lifted one eye, risked a glance around the room and closed it again.  For a while longer, he ignored the persistent, nagging voice in his head. Finally, he could stand it no longer. He got up, made his way through a jumble of newspapers, magazines, beer cans and dirty plates to the window, took one look at the garden - and wished he hadn’t.
He went to the bathroom, spared a passing glance at a mirror over the washbasin and tried to remember the last time he’d had an encounter with soap and water. “You look rough, my friend, really rough,” he told the sombre reflection with a total absence of remorse.
The doorbell rang. He ignored it. It rang again, and again, and again.
“Go away, I’m out!” he yelled.
“I’m not going anywhere so you might as well let me in!” Carol Brady’s voice shouted back at him through the letterbox.
Winter groaned. Carol was not a woman to take no for an answer. Was that why, he wondered, he had written her a note all those years ago rather than tell her to her face it was over between them? He groaned again. Why had he listened to Julie Simpson?  Why hadn’t he stuck to his guns and told her to find someone else to chase after her fantasies. Only, they hadn’t been fantasies, had they?  He’d found himself on a murder trail the weirdest creative mind could not have composed for the worst pulp fiction. Even if it had, no one would have thought it remotely credible. And fiction had to be credible, didn’t it?  We mustn’t feel we’re being taken for a ride. Yet, he had been, hadn’t he?  He’d been taken for a ride by his own stupid conscience and Carol Brady was right there in the thick of it, dragging on his nerves like a carthorse taking coals to Newcastle. Do I love her?  “Damn the woman,” he growled.
“I know you’re in there, Freddy, so let me in!”
No, he didn’t love her. Nor had he ever. Helen meant everything to him. Now he had nothing. Listen to yourself, you self-pitying slob.  What are you, a man or a mouse? No, he didn’t love her. Oh, but I’ve missed her. Yes, he’d certainly missed her.
Winter sighed. He had missed them all…Julie Simpson, Sadie, young Liam, Arthur Bailey, Charlie Lovell, even Pritchard and dotty old Audrey Ellis. It had been good while it lasted, good to feel…useful again.
“Either you let me in or buy a new front door because there won’t be much of it left by the time I’m through!”  Carol Brady’s voice had an edge to it that he recognized. She meant business.
Sighing wearily and reflecting that he felt twice his age (probably just as well since he looked it?) Winter went to the door and opened it a fraction. “What do you want, Carol?”  
“Never mind what I want,” she returned breezily, “It’s bloody obvious what you want – a good wash and tidy up for starters!” She barged her way noisily into the house and he made no attempt to stop her, if for no better reason than it would have been a waste of time and energy. She looked around, hand on hips. 
So much like Miss Parker on the warpath, Winter reflected and heaved  a sigh. For what was he sighing, he asked himself, defeat,  resignation, pleasure...? The detective frowned and permitted himself a wry smile. Yes, pleasure was definitely in the frame. 
 “My, Freddy, you certainly know how to turn a place upside down. What a mess!” She flung him an accusing look. “I’ve heard you can tell how a person lives by the way he looks. Now I know it’s true. What are you trying to prove, Freddy…that old coppers don’t fade away, they just end up on a rubbish tip?”
“Less of the old,” he complained irritably. She’d always had this effect on him since the first time they met. He’d never known such a woman for knowing how to get under a man’s skin.
“You know me, Freddy Winter, I speak as I find.”
“You don’t know the half of it!”
“No, and I haven’t got time to hear it either. Go and get washed and changed and I’ll see what I can do about making this place halfway respectable. But you’ll have to look me out an old shirt and jeans or something, I’m not ruining this outfit to save your face so don’t think for one minute I am…”
He realized then that she was dressed up to the nines and looked…fantastic.
“You’re looking okay,” he conceded, “Going somewhere?”
“Julie Simpson’s wedding.”
“It’s on then?” He had begun to wonder.
“Yes, and we’re been invited.”
“By ‘we’ I take it you mean, you and Liam?”
“No thickhead, you and me. Besides, Liam’s going with Sadie.” She glanced at her watch. “They will be here to pick us up in less than an hour so we’d better get our skates on.”
In Winter’s bedroom, Carol began to undress. He stared, open-mouthed, for several seconds before it occurred to him to look away. “I haven’t got anything you haven’t seen before, so gawp all you like. Now, get me a shirt. Don’t bother, this one will do.” She picked up a striped shirt left hanging carelessly over the back of a chair, retrieved a pair of jeans from the floor and slipped into them. Right, that’s me ready for a spot of spit ‘n’ polish. Now let’s see how long it takes you to get ready for a wedding, shall we?”           
“What gives you the right to barge in here and start telling me what to do?”
“You’re right, I’m out of order. Now, are you going to do me proud at this wedding or do I have to tell my son and his…fiancĂ©e…that I had to give you up for a bad job?”
She stood, glaring, hands on hips again, the lovely violet eyes issuing a challenge he could not refuse.
Miles away, Horton’s eyes were barely open. He could have been asleep. Only, he wasn’t.
A sound like waves crashing about his ears, Horton turned his head a fraction, the better to observe a uniformed police constable lolling in an armchair beside the hospital bed while flicking through pages of a magazine.
In his mind’s eye, Horton saw Ralph Cotter’s face. How could he ever have thought murder was easy? Killing his lover had been the hardest thing he’d ever done. Yet, he had no regrets. Poor Ralph would never have coped with a life behind bars. As for himself…would he fare any better, he wondered? Why, oh, why had he fired the gun into the bed instead of his mouth? How can I have so lost my nerve at the last second? Could it be that fate hadn’t quite finished with him just yet…?
A young doctor arrived, nodded to the constable and proceeded to curtain off the bed. Horton pricked up his ears at the sound of retreating footsteps. The constable had left, to answer a call of nature perhaps?
The doctor was speaking but Horton did not hear a word. The glimmer of an idea was taking shape in his mind like sunshine penetrating layers of mist.
Bending over Horton and resting a stethoscope on his chest, the doctor bowed his head. Caught completely off guard by the attack, he did not even cry out. Seconds later, he could only manage a low, croaking noise. Nor did the young registrar struggle for long as large, determined hands tightened their grip around his neck…
If no one stops me before I get out of this damn ward, I’m home and dry, Horton kept telling himself as he walked slowly, purposefully, towards the doors at the end of the ward, If no one stops me...
No one did.

The End

Friday, 10 January 2014

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 29


“Never mind that now!” Winter snapped, “Get the duvet, shove it under the door and block the smoke. DO IT, WOMAN, NOW, before we all choke to death!”
“He’s right mum.” Liam squeezed his mother’s hand before both mother and son launched into fits of violent coughing.
Carol stared through watery eyes at the smoke pouring with rapidly increasing intensity through the gap between door and floor, finally appeared to appreciate the gravity of their situation and hastened to do as she was told.
“There’s a knife under the bed. Get it and cut us free….NOW, woman, not next year!”
“Okay, keep your hair on!” she snapped back. Winter grinned, much relieved to see Carol displaying signs of her old self. 
It did not take long to free the two men. Resisting every impulse to see to Liam first, Carol’s native commonsense told her that Freddy Winter must be her priority, if only because he was in the best shape to get them out of this mess.
“Can you stand?” the detective asked Liam. Brady nodded, tried to get up but fell back. Carol gave a sharp cry and was instantly on her knees beside him. “How about you, Carol, can you manage?”
“Don’t worry about us, just get us out of here!” she yelled. Wads of acrid smoke were already finding their way past the duvet, thickening all the time.
Winter staggered to the bed, leaned over the inert form of Mary Bishop and felt for a pulse. He found one but it was very weak. Next, he grabbed a chair and hurled it through a window, using a jumper lying on the floor to clear most of the remaining glass from its frame.  “Carol, you help Liam and I’ll take Mary!” he barked and hoped she would not look behind her and see flames starting to lick at the duvet and crawl, slowly but surely, across the carpet.  But Liam had already spotted the danger and, leaning heavily on his mother, dragged himself to his feet. “Good man.”  Winter nodded approvingly. “Now, let’s get the hell out of here.”
It took time and time was not on their side. Winter fought hard to restrain a growing impatience as Carol climbed gingerly through the window, broken glass pricking bare arms and legs, before helping Liam, assisted by Winter, to safety.
By now the flames were quickly taking hold. Winter dashed to the bed, seized Mary Bishop in both arms and flung her over one shoulder. Mindful of the intense heat on his back, he scrambled through the open window with seconds to spare before the entire cottage went up in a huge fireball.  He did not dare look back but ran until he judged they were quite safe, lay his burden down as gently as he could, then slumped on the ground, gasping for breath, an almighty explosion ringing in his ears.
“Thank God, you’re safe!” He looked up to find Sadie Chapman, of all people, dropping to her knees beside him, her finer features contorted by a desperate anxiety. Carol and Liam…?”
“They’re fine,” she assured him and he thought he saw a trace of pain in the tired eyes. He tried to sit up and would have fallen flat on his back if she had not taken charge and helped him to sit.
The cottage was well ablaze. There was smoke everywhere. The wind was blowing it towards some trees. Relieved, he heard the distinctive wail of fire engines, saw two appear out of the corner of one eye, closely followed by an ambulance. He thought he heard Mike Pritchard’s voice, grating as ever on the nerves. But the smoke…trees…danger there…and…cover? Alarm bells replace the clamour of sirens in his head. “Cotter, Horton,” he tried to say but, try as he might, could only manage a croak, unintelligible even to his own ears.
“You’re a fine one and no mistake!” Charlie Lovell appeared – his face at least, if not the rest of him – hovering briefly within the rapidly narrowing perimeters of Winter’s hazy vision. One last effort to speak coherently proved too much…
Winter lost consciousness.
Cotter and Horton waited until the very last minute before haring through the tunnel of smoke towards the trees. Draped in wet towels, a handkerchief tied around nose and mouth, they did not stop until well among the trees, Cotter stumbled and fell heavily.  He let out a yelp, clamped a hand over his mouth and continued to moan softly. “I think it’s broken,” he wailed, nursing his right ankle and looking at Horton as if half expecting a good hiding for impeding their escape.
Horton knelt and with surprising tenderness probed the injured ankle with his fingers. Cotter yelped again. “I don’t think it’s broken but I can’t say for sure until I take a closer look and we haven’t got time for that now, that’s for sure.  I guess it’s piggy back time, flower. Climb on my back and don’t near throttle me like you did once before, remember?” Both men chuckled and it came as no small relief to ease the tension a little. Once, years ago, they had challenged the Bishops to a race across the village green, Mary on Sam’s back and Cotter on Horton’s. Sam had won easily. Poor Horton, close behind, had been all but asphyxiated by Cotter’s frantic hold around his neck.
Hoisting Cotter on his back, Horton ran a few more yards then doubled back in the direction of the village, albeit taking a long circuitous route. Cotter soon cottoned on and began to panic. “What are you doing? You’re going the wrong way. We can’t go back to the village, that’s the first place they’ll be looking for us! We’ll be sitting ducks.  We have to get well clear or we’re done for, right?”
“Wrong, my turtle dove,” panted Horton, “it’s the last place they’ll be looking for us, especially where I have in mind…” He ran on, ignoring Cotter’s various sighs, grunts, and snorts of undisguised scepticism in between stifled yelps of pain.  On the outskirts of Monk’s Tallow, Horton told Cotter he would have to get down and walk.
“I can’t, it hurts!” Cotter wailed.
“I’ll help you. But me giving you a piggy back is going to draw attention to us and we don’t want that, right?” Cotter shook his head. “So lean on me and, with luck, people will just think their estimable librarian is a bit pissed…”
“What, in the middle of the day?” Sarah Manners sounded suitably shocked. Both men roared with laughter.
At the Bishops’ house there was no reply at first. Horton rang the doorbell again. “Sam, are you there? It’s me, Daz. Open up, I need a word. It’s important,”
It was several minutes before an unkempt Sam Bishop opened the door. His unshaven face brightened upon seeing Horton but he scowled as soon as he saw his friend had company.
“Where’s my wife?” he shouted at the librarian, who was hopping on one leg, grimacing as if in pain.
Horton smirked inwardly. It was evident from the way he slurred his words that Bishop had been drinking. That would suit his little plan very well. “Not now, Sam” he snapped, “Later, not now.” He pushed his way past Bishop, Cotter having to struggle to keep his balance, let alone keep up.
Bishop laid a hand on Cotter’s arm. “You’re welcome here any time, Daz, you know that.  But this one can sling her hook right now unless she tells me where Mary is!”  “Well, what have you got to say for yourself, you miserable piece of baggage?” But Cotter jerked free and literally tumbled into a chair. 
“Later, Sam, later,” Horton repeated, “Sarah’s hurt her ankle badly. Got any brandy?” 
“If you think I’m wasting good brandy on the likes of her, you can think again,” muttered Bishop. Then, as if for the first time, he began to take in their smoke smudged faces and generally dishevelled appearance. “Looks to me as if you could both do with a double,” he declared grudgingly, flung Sarah Manners a dirty look and went to fetch the drinks. He was pouring from a handsome, cut glass decanter, wondering what the devil was going on, when Horton came from behind and brought the gun butt crashing down against the back of his head, thus depriving him, temporarily at least, of an answer.
Horton dragged his old friend and chess partner into a bedroom, tied and gagged him to be on the safe side then rejoined Cotter.
“We can’t stay here,” Cotter protested.
“We can and we will, till it gets dark anyhow. Then I’ll go and nick a car and we’re away…”
“You make it sound so easy!” Cotter was sceptical.
“It will be, you’ll see. Most of the turnips around here forget to lock their cars, let alone turn on an alarm. It’ll be like taking candy from a baby. Meanwhile, we get cleaned up, help ourselves to a change of clothes and…Bob’s your uncle, we’re as fresh as a couple of daisies and ready for whatever. Now, let’s look at that ankle…” He was already tugging at Cotter’s shoe. Barely had he started peeling off the sock before the room resounded with piercing shrieks that were not, Horton reflected with a chuckle, in the least Sarah Manners-like. “Shut up, will you?  Talk about making enough noise to wake the dead….”
Cotter quietened but continued to sob, sigh and bite his lip during the entire process of Horton’s ministrations, nor letting up for some time afterwards.
Meanwhile, in a private room at Brighton General Hospital, Fred Winter opened his eyes and was pleasantly surprised to see Sadie Chapman, lying back in a chair beside the bed fast asleep. He glanced out of a window, saw that daylight was fading and wondered if it was the same day or…
 “How long have I been here?” He murmured and hadn’t meant to ask the question aloud but it was enough to jolt Sadie awake.
 “Thank heavens you’re all right. You’ve been out for hours.”
 “Only hours, you say?” That’s all right then.  Feeling reassured, he asked after the others.
“Carol’s fine. She’s been giving the doctors merry hell because they want to keep her in for observation. Mary Bishop is apparently ‘stable’ whatever that means.” She hesitated.
 “And Liam?” he prompted gently.
 Sadie shrugged. “He’s fine, apart from a splitting headache, as far as I can tell. I saw him not long ago, just before they took him down to X-Ray.”
 “He seems to remember just about everything. He and Carol are very close,” she added almost wistfully.
 “So…how is he with you?” Winter could see she was close to tears but a stubborn streak in him insisted he must not let this remarkable woman sell herself short.
 Sadie merely gave another shrug and said nothing. Winter waited and was finally rewarded with a wry smile. “He was pleased to see me, so I suppose that must count for something,” she said quietly.
Winter was trying to think of an appropriately encouraging comment when an image slipped into his mind and stuck there. He saw the blazing cottage, thick smoke carried towards some trees on a stiff breeze forming what could almost be described as a tunnel of sorts. “Cotter, Horton?” he sat up and glared questioningly and with such ferocity at Sadie Chapman that the poor woman started in alarm. “I don’t know,” she stammered, “I did hear they weren’t found in the house when the fire fighters finally went in but they can’t have got far, surely?”   
The detective lay back on the pillows, his thoughts so jumping ahead and tumbling over each other that he had to close his eyes to reassemble them in any lucid form. To Sadie Chapman’s relief, he seemed much calmer when he opened them again.  He spotted a nurse in uniform pause to chat with a patient in the bed opposite and called her over. “Nurse, I’m leaving so I’d be grateful if someone can bring my clothes.”
“You need to rest, Mr Winter. And it’s sister, not nurse,” Maggie Kershaw told him in a crisp, no-nonsense voice reminiscent of Miss Parker.
Winter shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. I need to get out of here and I need to do it now, this minute. So whatever it takes, please arrange it. I’ll gladly sign myself out if that will make you happy.”
“It certainly won’t make me happy, Mr Winter. But if you insist…” she sighed and walked away in the brisk, efficient, but never hurried manner of nursing staff the world over. Minutes later a male nurse appeared with the detective’s clothes, looking much the worse for their earlier mangling. He was holding out a discharge form and already reaching for the biro tucked behind one ear.
Winter snatched the form. “Do you have a car?” he asked Sadie, who nodded but looked disapproving.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea, Fred.”
“Nor am I but needs must as the devil drives, eh?”
Not long afterwards, they were sitting in Sadie’s blue Cavalier about to leave the hospital car park when another vehicle pulled alongside and DS Mike Pritchard wound down his window, the better to say his piece. “Where do you think you’re going, Winter? I was just on my way to see you. My guv’nor thinks you can tie up a few loose ends for us…”
“I dare say,” commented Winter dryly, “But I have things to do, sorry. You’ll want to talk to the others, too, of course. Well, don’t let me keep you.  By the way, is it true you let Cotter and Horton get clean away?”
“Cotter?” the younger man reddened and looked perplexed.
“Oh, never mind. It’s a long story. Get Lovell to fill you in and while you’re at it tell him I’ll be at the Bishops’ place. I need to see Sam Bishop urgently.”
“You’ll be lucky,” retorted Pritchard, “We’ve been trying to get hold of him for hours. He seems to have gone walkabout. Out looking for his wife, the locals seem to think. They have a few choice ideas of their own about Mary Bishop and Sarah Manners, it appears.”
“I’m sure they do.” Winter did not doubt that for one minute, “Just remember to tell Charlie where I’ve gone, okay?” He turned to the woman beside him, “Step on it Sadie, I’ve got a feeling we’re running late.”
“Look here, I don’t think…” Pritchard started to protest. But the Cavalier was already on its way back to Monk’s Tallow and his thoughts might as well have been meant for a passing seagull.
All credit to Pritchard (he must have learned his lesson) Winter noted approvingly less than five minutes later as familiar bars conjuring up childhood images of a masked man on a white horse blared in his pocket. He read Lovell’s name on the tiny screen. “Hello Charlie,” he said cheerfully, ignoring the stream of verbal abuse that followed. “No, I’m not up to anything. I’m just paying Sam Bishop a friendly call. You can’t object to that, surely?” He grinned, glad that Sadie Chapman could not hear what was being said, for all she was plainly a woman of the world. “Holding out on you? Now, would I do that? Talking of which, how come you haven’t filled Pritchard in on the Sarah Manners charade. What do you mean, giving you bullshit? I’ve told you everything I know, what more do you want… evidence, for heaven’s sake?” This time he held the phone away from his ear while Lovell continued to make no attempt to choose his words carefully. “Look, I haven’t time for all this. Meet me at the Bishops place as soon as you can but don’t do anything until you’ve spoken to Sadie first. Yes, Sadie Chapman, she’s in the driving seat…”
“Fat chance!” he heard Sadie snort next to him as he gestured to her to make a right turn.
“Yes, well, maybe it is one of my daft hunches but, well, you know me, never one to walk away. Bye Charlie, see you soon I hope.” He switched the phone off and laid it on the shelf above the glove compartment.
“So what is this daft hunch of yours?” Sadie wanted to know. Winter, though, was giving nothing away just yet. He merely scratched an ear and made no immediate reply. How could he? Wasn’t he still mulling it over in his head, far from sure himself that he wasn’t barking up the wrong tree? Not for the first time, Fred, not for the first time. He chuckled and began to relax. Not for a moment did the notion occur to him that they should turn back.   
“You heard Pritchard. Sam Bishop’s nowhere to be found. What makes you think he’s going to turn up just to oblige you, Mr Detective?”
“Turn left, left again then straight ahead till I tell you to stop,” was all Fred Winter trusted himself to say.
 Sam Bishop out cold in the bedroom, Cotter and Horton were swigging brandy and exchanging reminiscences…anything to take their minds off their situation. Cotter was no fool. Things couldn’t get much worse…could they? At the same time, if Horton said he had a plan, he was more than happy to go along with that.  He was dog tired, his ankle hurt and his lungs felt as if they had been yanked out, soaked in petrol and thrust back inside.
“So we get ourselves a car, what then?” he wanted to know. “Besides, there will be roadblocks, the whole caboodle, we won’t get very far.”
“Do I know every side road and short cut around here like the back of my hand or do I not?” Horton demanded, feigning an indignant air. “Have faith, my turtle-dove, have faith. When did I ever let you down, eh?”
“I’m scared, Daz. Where will it end?”
Horton knelt beside his long-time lover stretched out on the sofa and tweaked his nose. “Nothing’s going to end, flower, you’ll see. It will be a new beginning. Once we get sorted it will be you and me against the world, just like it’s always been. Nothing’s going to change because of a few hiccups and some nosy bastard of a detective sticking his oar in. Now, am I right or am I right?”
Cotter managed a weak smile but couldn’t help thinking how he much preferred his partner when he was beating the living daylights out of him. That was an act of love he understood. This gentle, considerate, reassuring, all but romantic Daz was practically a stranger.  Oh, he was grateful. But it was unnerving, almost surreal. Even so, he returned his partner’s unexpected kiss on the lips with a passion that had nothing to do with gratitude.

To be concluded

Monday, 6 January 2014

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 28


“Something’s wrong, I tell you,” Sadie Chapman insisted into the telephone, “Carol Brady promised she would ring me every evening around nine and last night she didn’t call. I haven’t even heard from my…” she hesitated and thought better of going down that path, “…from Freddy Winter either.”
“As far as I know, Fred Winter is not an investigating officer in this enquiry, snapped Mike Pritchard, “but I’ll pass your concerns on to my guv’nor when I see him. His name, for your information, is DI Lovell, that’s Detective Chief Inspector Lovell. And you are again…?   Ah, yes, well, thank you for calling Miss Chapman. Sorry, Ms Chapman, Yes, I’ll be sure to pass the message on…goodbye.” Pritchard wearily hung up and decided he needed a decent take-away before he could walk another step. He dialled a local pizza company and wondered, absently, why Carol Brady’s name rang a bell.
Undeterred, Sadie rummaged through her memory cells until she came up with the name of Winter’s former colleague now living in Canterbury.  Rather than call the police station and risk being put through to a dozen well-meaning but predictably unhelpful contacts, she dived into the telephone directory. After working through numerous A. Baileys, she finally hit upon the right one. To her pleasant surprise he wasn’t in the least dismissive and, if anything, appeared to share her growing apprehension.
“It could be nothing, of course,” Sadie felt obliged to tell Bailey, “but, somehow, I don’t think so. Oh, Carol Brady may have her faults…don’t we all?  But I definitely got the impression she’s a woman who means what she says. If she says she’ll do a thing, wild horses won’t stop her.  Not to ring at all last night, it’s…well…frankly, Mr Bailey, I’m worried sick.”
“Leave it with me, Mrs Chapman (she didn’t bother to correct him and only ever called herself Ms to put the likes of Detective Sergeant Mike Pritchard in his place) and I’ll get on to it right away.”
“You need to speak to a Chief Inspector Lovell and don’t settle for anyone less,” she emphasized and felt reassured by the dry chuckle coming down the line.
“Be assured, Mrs Chapman, if I can’t get hold of Charlie Lovell I’ll go down there myself. But try not to worry, okay?  Fred Winter knows his stuff. Blimey, he should, he’s notched up more scalps than most people have had hot dogs in Hyde Park. Leave it with me and you can take it as read I’ll be in touch as soon as I find out anything.”
“Make sure you do,” said Sadie and gave Bailey her mobile number but wryly refrained from mentioning she was a vegetarian. She put the phone down, promptly picked it up again and hit the keys with practised precision. “Iris, is that you? Look, sweetheart, I need a big favour. Can you work tonight?  Great, you’ve saved my life. Phil will be in so you should be okay, just the two of you. Me? I have to shoot off somewhere…bit of a crisis…you know how it is. What? No, nothing I can’t handle. Phil will lock up. I have to run now, sorry. And thanks again.”
She put the phone down and went to find a road atlas, not having a clue how to find her way to Monk’s Tallow. Fred Winter may be able to take care of himself and she suspected Carol Brady was of the same brass mettle but Harry was vulnerable and she couldn’t hang around exchanging trivia with punters all day while the man she loved could, for all she knew, be in deep trouble. It crossed her mind, as she flung a coat, on that she must love him even more than she had let herself believe if a frantic pulse and heartbeat were anything to go by. “Oh, well, in for a penny…” she muttered, scrabbling around in a drawer with one hand for car keys only to discover she had, all the time, been clutching them in the other.
Meanwhile, in Monk’s Tallow, Charlie Lovell was berating his tight-lipped sergeant for hugging information to himself. “I didn’t think it was important sir,” the unfortunate Pritchard protested, “but I did remember to tell you anyway…” he pointed out.
“By which time a swallow could have flown south and back again!” Lovell complained heatedly. At the same time, he had to admit, they had other fish to fry and Arthur Bailey wouldn’t be the first to get his knickers in a twist over a bit of skirt. He grinned inwardly. By all accounts, according to Fred, Sadie Chapman was a bit of all right. “Get over to The Fox and Hounds and see if anyone’s seen Fred Winter or the Brady woman.  And don’t take no for an answer. Talk to people…and I mean talk. Mike, not interrogate. As soon as you find someone who has anything to say worth listening to, be sure you damn well listen, okay?  Then get back to me pronto.
“It’s probably nothing. All the same… Fred Winter’s no amateur and if he’s on to something…better to be safe than sorry.”
“But sir, I’ve got a thousand things to do!” Mike Pritchard protested.
“Well, now you’ve got a thousand and one. So the sooner you sort it the sooner you can get on with the rest, right?  Oh, and take young Dave Beale with you. He’s another one who looks as though he could use some exercise,” glancing pointedly at Pritchard’s hint of a paunch.
“Yes guv,” murmured the hapless Pritchard, saw it was useless to argue and went in search of DC Beale.
It was Beale who quickly established that Fred Winter and Carol Brady had been last seen leaving the car park of The Fox and Hounds in a hurry, heading off in the direction on Monk’s Porter.  Pritchard called Lovell.
“Get over there,” Lovell barked down the line. “Sniff around the Philips place and see what you can find out but be discreet.  Let me know if you find out anything or need any help. Oh, and Mike, if you spot Philips…leave well alone, okay?  If he’s our man, I don’t want him scared off.”
“You know me, guv, discretion’s my middle name,” Pritchard assured him and hung up before he could catch the full blast of Lovell’s snort in his ear.
In fact, Pritchard waited until he had satisfied himself that Horton was armed before calling Lovell again.
“You did…what?” Lovell was furious.
“I thought it best to ascertain…” Pritchard began, feeling aggrieved.
“Yes, yes, I dare say…” Lovell snapped back irritably, “So what, exactly, have you ascertained apart from the fact that Horton and Sarah Manners are at the cottage and Horton could well be armed? Did you see any sign of Fred Winter, apart from his car, or Mary Bishop, apart from hers? Or Carol Brady, for that matter, not to mention Harry Smith or whatever his name is…?”  He’d heard of too many cooks, but this was ridiculous.
“No sir.”
“Did you look?”
“Well, no sir.  But Winter and Mrs Bishop, at least, must be in the cottage, surely?”
“You’ve ascertained that for certain, have you sergeant?”
“Whatever, Horton’s armed, guv. I’m sure of it.” Pritchard repeated doggedly.
“Yes, well, let’s hope for all our sakes you’re mistaken and this is nothing more than a storm in a bloody teacup. Because if it isn’t…forewarned is forearmed, sergeant, and you’ll do well to remember that. Next time, do as you’re damn well told and leave the war to those who’ve won a few battles in their time. Now, stay put and don’t move. If anyone leaves the cottage, get young Beale to follow and tell him to maintain contact but do nothing, NOTHING, sergeant, until we know what we have here. And if it is just a Mad Hatter’s tea party, I’ll have your guts for garters, you can bet on it.” Lovell slammed down the phone and tried to avoid paying too much attention to a tightening of his stomach muscles while he set about organizing what he prayed would not turn out to be a hostage situation.  What the hell was going on, for crying out loud?  Nothing, probably, he kept telling himself. Oh, but who am I kidding?  Given that Fred Winter was in the thick of things, something was definitely up.
The phone rang. Lovell snatched it up impatiently and he found himself talking to Arthur Bailey. At the same time, he spotted a scrap of paper sticking out from under a file with a telephone number scrawled across it and a message to call back. He pulled it out and read Bailey’s name with dismay while the other proceeded to enlighten him about Fred Winter’s suspicions. 
Lovell was about to dismiss any link between Sarah Manners and the death of Liam Brady years ago as nonsense when Bailey dropped his first bombshell. “You’re joking!” Lovell shouted down the line as it began to crackle and break up just as the other man was coolly informing him that the body in the grave bearing Ralph Cotter’s headstone was not Cotter’s. It was, to say the least, an unexpected blow. He had been   on the Brady murder case himself and remembered it well.
Barely had Lovell recovered from the first, when Bailey dropped his second bombshell. “For heaven’s sake…”was all he could say as he listened, incredulously, to the gruff, earnest voice repeating itself several times until satisfied Lovell had heard him correctly. Liam Brady, Carol Brady’s “deceased” son - the very same who had witnessed his father’s death all that time ago - was apparently not only alive and well but using the name of Harry Smith… that same Harry Smith, it would seem, last seen in Monk’s Tallow with Fred Winter talking to Mary Bishop, whose distraught husband was convinced she had run off with Sarah Manners. It occurred to Lovell that maybe she had done just that and they were hiding out at the Philips place. But Winter’s involvement - not to mention Winter’s car found parked some distance from the cottage - put the mockers on that little theory as sure as eggs was eggs.
“Yes, yes, Arthur, as soon as I hear anything you and Sadie Chapman will be the first to know,” he told Bailey, replaced the receiver then grabbed it again.   “…Yes, sir, I did say armed officers…” he found himself repeating seconds later while struggling to keep his tone respectful “…and, no, I can’t guarantee the situation warrants it, you’ll just have to trust me on this one sir. Yes, yes, I appreciate my head will be one of the first to roll if it turn out to be a wild goose chase. No sir, the press have not – and will not – be informed unless…Yes sir, I understand the need for caution…but Fred Winter…yes sir, Fred Winter, he’s one of those we think…yes sir, I’ll get on to it right away…”
Lovell hung up, not unimpressed to discover that Fred Winter’s name still carried clout in high places. As his chief had said, he could be an oddball at times but he’d also been a damn good copper. Nor does a damn good copper suddenly stop being one just because he takes early retirement. He kicked open the door, slipping into his jacket as he went, and burst into the main incident room. “Okay now, you lot, listen here…”
Horton gave a loud guffaw and let his tongue loll like a panting dog’s. Behind him, two women on the bed remained collapsed in an untidy heap.
On the floor, Liam Brady lay inert with a sticky red stuff pouring from a gash on the side of his head. Ahead, a grim-faced Fred Winter allowed the knife in his left hand to prick Cotter’s throat without drawing blood. His right arm tightened its grip on Cotter’s neck.  It had to be Cotter, he knew for sure now. It couldn’t be anyone else. Certainly, this was no woman’s body pressed hard and impotent against his, rage and terror coursing through the veins, vying for supremacy like a cornered animal’s.
Cotter yelped.
“Throw the gun over here, Horton. One stupid move and I’ll slit the lady’s throat…or should I say your boyfriend’s?”
Horton paled at the jibe, reached in his pocket and slowly withdrew the gun. At the same time, his surly mouth broke into a broad, lopsided grin. He pointed the weapon directly at Winter.
“If you want to shoot me, go ahead,” the detective growled, “That is, if you want to watch your boyfriend bleed to death. Believe me, I’m not bluffing.”
“Oh, but I think you are,” Horton jeered. Cops don’t slit people’s throats. It’s not in the manual.”
“Ex-cop,” Winter corrected him, “…and one with nothing to lose.”
“Please, Daz, do as he says,” Cotter croaked, face bright red and tears rolling down his cheeks.
Ignoring Cotter, Horton refused to let his attention waver from Winter’s fierce, penetrating stare. “What about the others?” he taunted Winter. “Who’s going to save them if I kill you?”
“Who’s going to save me if you don’t?” Winter countered, drawing the flat of the shiny blade across Cotter’s throat.
“Daz, please…” Cotter begged.
“You’re bluffing, Winter…” Horton took aim and focused entirely on the detective’s expression. Was it his imagination or did it falter a fraction? He tightened his grip on the gun handle and loosened the safety catch, just like he’d seen them do in the movies.  The cold metal pressing against his hand began to feel as if it was a part of him. There was some comfort to be had after all.
A gurgling sound rose in Cotter’s throat and Horton was reminded of a baby with a dummy in its mouth. He began to laugh. No wonder Ralph had used a gun to kill Sean Brady. This was fun, the best he’d ever had. You should have told me what fun it is. He threw an accusing look at poor Ralph who was not only sobbing but dribbling now too. You disgust me.  As soon as the thought occurred, Horton was genuinely shocked and filled with remorse. Yet, did he really care if Fred Winter carried out his threat?  But if poor Ralph bled to death, that would leave him, Horton, all alone. He would hate that. No, he could not allow that. “You haven’t got the bottle, copper...” he sneered, forefinger lightly caressing the trigger as if it were a lover’s nipple. 
Without warning, Horton shifted the weapon slightly in his hand and pointed it at Liam Brady. His eyes, though, did not leave Winter’s face. “Go ahead, cut his throat. I’ll still have a few bullets left after I’ve killed your girlfriend’s little lad here…” He began to squeeze the nipple.
Winter did not lose his nerve. At the same time, he felt old. He’d had his fill of playing mind games and doing battle with his conscience. Well, it has to be something like that doesn’t it?  The truth was, he would never know why he dropped the knife and let Cotter go. Inconsequently, he felt bound to say, “She’s not my girlfriend.”
Cotter hastily retrieved the knife and waved it in Winter’s face, “I ought to…” he spluttered, visibly recovering fast from his ordeal.
“Leave it, Ralph, we don’t have time for that. We’ve got a plan to put into action, right?”
“Right, Daz,” Cotter giggled, dropped the knife and kicked it across the floor before going to stand by his partner.
“Kneel down copper. Let’s hear you beg. And get those big hands of yours up where I can see them,” Horton snarled.
“You’ll have a long wait,” Winter retorted but sank slowly to his knees. He did not raise his hands, however and ignored repeated gestures from Horton to do so. “If you’re going to use that thing you might as well use it now. Never shot anyone before, though, have you Daz?” He was guessing but had clearly hit a nerve. Horton got angry, held out the gun at arm’s length, mouth and nostrils smoking, eyes red and flaring like a pony Winter had once seen rip its belly on a barbed wire fence at his uncle’s farm years ago. 
Horton’s rage dissipated as quickly as it had arisen and he burst out laughing. “No such luck, copper, no such luck.  Tie the bugger up, my turtle dove. We don’t want any more distractions do we?” He laughed again until tears were streaming down his face.
Winter continued to observe Horton intently, even as Cotter tied his hands then ankles behind his back. He was quite mad of course. But that was the least of the detective’s concerns. A fine mess you’ve got yourself into this time, Fred Winter. Let’s see you wriggle out of this one then. He winced as Cotter linked the ropes that bound his wrists and ankles, jerking his legs sharply.  Falling on one side, he bit his lip rather than give his captors the satisfaction of hearing him cry out.  Cotter pulled the knots tighter.
Winter was facing the bed. In the gloomy space underneath, he caught a glimpse of something shiny. His heart leapt. It was the kitchen knife. Out of the corner of one eye he thought he saw Carol Brady move slightly. She was the only one with her hands still free. Winter allowed himself to feel a trifle optimistic, only to have his hopes dashed when Horton, too, must have spotted something and ordered Cotter to tie the woman’s hands.
“Oh, and with what?” Cotter demanded.
“I don’t know, do I?  Use your socks for all I care, just do it and get on with it. It’s high time we were out of here. “Oh, forget it. She’s dead to the world anyway,” he grumbled as Cotter continued to flap. “That is, if she isn’t now, she soon will be,” he added then flung his head back and guffawed.  Winter gave an involuntary shiver. It was, he thought, one of the most menacing sounds he had ever heard.
Carol moaned softly appeared to give her captors no further cause for concern. 
“Come on, let’s go.” Horton went to the door, but paused long enough to fling Winter a long, evil look. “Enjoy the fireworks,” he cackled then was gone, Cotter panting at his heels. Winter heard a key turn in the lock. Not long afterwards, he caught the first, strong, unmistakeable whiff of petrol…
He looked around. Liam was stirring. One glance at the ashen face and glazed expression, however, was enough to tell the detective that he couldn’t be relied upon for any immediate help. Mary Bishop was, as far as he could tell, still unconscious. “Carol?” he called out, “Carol, can you hear me? Wake up, Carol.” He could smell burning now. Shit, they’ve set the place alight. “Carol, wake up you stupid mare!” he yelled.
Carol opened her eyes. “What the…?” she groaned and thought she heard Freddy Winter’s voice calling her.
“Carol!”  There it was again. Slowly, her eyes began to focus. She became aware of someone’s breathing next to her and found herself staring at a woman she did not recognize.
“Carol! It’s me, Freddy. I’m down here, on the bloody floor. Pull yourself together woman!” Winter yelled again. He was feeling very tired, his movements, such as they were, were sluggish enough without being encumbered by the cords that had him trussed like a roasting chicken. In spite of himself, he could not resist a rueful grin. It wasn’t the most reassuring of comparisons to make in the circumstances, he had to admit.
Smoke had begun to drift under the door.
“Carol, for heaven’s sake...!”
Shakily, Carol sat up. Slowly her vision cleared. She saw Winter and attempted to grapple with the implications of his being apparently tied up. Then she looked at the woman lying beside her again and saw that she, too, had been bound. Her face looks a mess too, poor thing. She began to cough and looked enquiringly at Freddy Winter but neither saw nor heard his plea for help as her heavy eyes focused on Liam lying, unconscious and bloodied, inches away from the detective. “Liam!”  Her breath quick and rasping, she forced herself to clamber off the bed, dropped to her knees beside her son and cradled his head in her lap. 
“Carol, the knife, under the bed…. Get the knife, Carol!” Winter found himself yelling although she was right next to him.
She gave no sign of having heard but leaned over to kiss her son’s bruised face, ran her fingers through the hair, damp with blood, and kept saying, “Liam, Liam. Oh, Liam, my poor darling, what have they done to you?” She started coughing again. Her eyes turned instinctively but blindly to the door. By now smoke was pouring through the tiny gap between its base and the floor carpet. 
“Get something to stuff up the gap, Carol, Carol, can you hear me? Do as I say, woman, before we all choke to bloody death! Carol, for pity’s sake, listen to me damn it!”  It crossed her mind that it was so typical of Freddy Winter to lose his temper.  “Carol, snap out of it or we’re done for, all of us, Liam too. You have to make an effort Carol, for Liam.”
Make an effort, for Liam? Of course I must make an effort for Liam. He’s my son, isn’t he?  What the hell does Freddy think he‘s playing at, talking to me like this? She coughed again. Only, this time it struck here why she did it. For a moment she could only stare at an ugly black cloud rising from what had become a rush of thickening smoke under the door.
Carol started screaming then, and did not stop until Liam opened his eyes and murmured, “Mum?”

To be continued