We bring you the gruesome conclusion to the gory story we started last week … will they catch the portrait killer?
by Zelda McLeich
xxAs I expected, computer searches just multiplied the haystacks without throwing up any East Midland needles. Not that the art classes were promising at first, either. Same litany everywhere: “We get shedloads of students through here; I can’t remember ’em all. Most beginners are rubbish, and most in similar ways, like this in fact. Some persevere, some don’t, some improve, some don’t. If they do, you start to spot personal styles and quirks, but …” and so on and so forth.
xxThe smaller, local groups in church halls and community centres were where we set most of our hopes, them being the sort of venue chosen for the killings and apparently places our killer had access. But at first they were no better and we got the same sort of analysis, albeit delivered in a less superior tone. In fact it was only as were leaving retired art teacher Derek Turton’s studio, the base of Long Eaton Life Drawing Circle, that we were called back with our first hint of a lead.
xx“Hold on a sec,” called Turton. “Let’s take another look at that last one. Yes, come to think of it, it does ring a bell. It’s Betsy, isn’t it?”
xx“No, sir,” said Mike; “that one’s Marzena — Polish lass, from Warsaw.”
xx“No, no, I mean the artist, the style. Betsy … let me think … Harding — that’s it. It’s the overdrawn lips, the wedge shaped nose, the weight of the lines. Like I said, most students start out a bit like that but they soon improve. It’s only when they’re good they can do it on purpose and then it looks accomplished. You know Picasso said it took him a lifetime to learn to draw like a child, but that’s why his stuff sells and this just looks crude. However many times you told Betsy to look carefully, compare the actual view to the picture as you go, get the proportions and positions sketched in first, loosen up, cut down the heaviness — especially that there are no lines in nature, just what our brains construct from boundaries and shadows … well, she never seemed to take it on board. But then she’d get so frustrated when everything looked wrong, still basically doing triangles for noses, ovals for eyes. Breasts aren’t just circles unless you’re Fernand Léger — which she definitely was not. Like I say, it still could be one of umpteen beginners, but the person this most brings to mind is no male, but Betsy Harding.”
xx“Would she be of the lesbian persuasion by any chance?” asked Mike.
xx“I couldn’t say either way — why on earth would you ask?”
xx“Yeah, Mike, why on earth?”
xx“Just if we’re thinking our killer has a sexual motivation … or maybe she’s a munter, psychotically jealous of better looking women?”
xx“I think you need to go on some sort of awareness course, Mike,” I said, “or at least one in the proper framing of questions.”
xx“Well, if it helps,” said Turton, “she was a well-built woman in her late twenties, early thirties, but not huge or ungainly. Not glamorous, but I wouldn’t say the sort they used to call ‘plain’, nor did I see any sign of self-image problems — not that folks can’t hide them well. It was more anger management she had trouble with, so in fact I can’t say she was here long enough for intimate acquaintance: I had to ask her to leave, or lose most of my regulars. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say ‘fruitloop’, but a person suffering from issues, which surfaced far too often for comfort — though I can’t imagine her as a murderer at all. But then we have any number of quirks at art sessions, from blokes who, if not obviously pervy, will turn on their heels and leave if they see it’s a male model or an older woman, to people who mutter weird things to themselves while they’re drawing — and Betsy never seemed odd in those ways, just annoyed with her own inability to capture on paper what she saw before her eyes.”
xx“In fact,” he added, “having seen those rather unpleasant photographs of the victims, I’d say that Betsy can’t be your killer.”
xx“On what basis?” I asked.
xx“On the basis that these pictures look something like the mutilated faces. Unless she’s come on in leaps and bounds, if Betsy Harding was drawing them, her sketches would probably look like normal faces!”
xxI suddenly felt the ghost of a sinking feeling pass over my soul (or some crap like that), but I just asked Mr Turton if he had any clue as to where we might find Miss Harding.
xx“I doubt it’s her, from what you say,” I said, as he checked contacts on his laptop, “but maybe she knows someone or something. Or maybe the idea they’d been to classes at all’s a dead end, if they’re still that bad.”
* * *
xxBetsy Harding wasn’t hard to trace. She’d lived much of her life with her widowed mother in Spondon. Mrs Harding told us she’d not long moved out to the village of Trelborne, where she’d found a small flat with a room big enough for a studio, so she could pursue her artistic ambitions. She supported herself by doing agency work at care homes and hospices around the Derby and Chesterfield areas. Her nursing training came in handy, even though it ‘hadn’t suited her much’ as a career, ‘for some reason’.
xxNo, she hadn’t had many boyfriends, ‘not long-term, anyroad’, but she had mates from work and ‘socialised a bit wi’ her arty pals’. Mrs H couldn’t name any of these, not having met them. Betsy was, of course, a lovely girl and still visited her owd Mam often; though, oddly enough, she hadn’t heard from her in a few days now.
I was still thinking this was all a dead end. At best Betsy might lead us to the killer — might even be in danger herself, on the off chance it was one of her friends. Perhaps someone like her would be the front that lures the victims to their doom: xx“Oh sorry, Betsy couldn’t make it so it’s just us — do sit down …”
xxThen Debbie, who had helped Mrs H clear the tea things away, beckoned to me excitedly to come and join her in the kitchen.
xxStuck to the fridge with an assortment of souvenir magnets, was a collection of drawings, of the kind only a mother could love. Landscapes, portraits and life studies, in the same lumpy style as our killer (excuse me if I don’t know the proper art-crit terminology), though, to be fair, not quite so distorted. Just uneven ears and eyes, noses a bit off-centre …
xx“These are ‘er better efforts, poor love,” said Betsy’s Mam. “‘Er Dad, God rest ‘is soul, were allus tellin’ ‘er she were wastin’ ‘er time ‘cos she were rubbish. I don’t know nowt about art, meself, but she were always sure she’d get the ‘ang of it one day. She said these ones looked a bit more like the models — not that I’d know — and stuck ’em up to encourage her. She allus took her failures to heart so.”
* * *
xxMeanwhile, Mike and Eric had been out and about, revisiting the art schools, classes and groups. And indeed, Betsy or someone answering her description was indeed known — not to say notorious — in all the murder locations and a few more besides. She’d attended the group but got disruptive and freaked people out when her pictures didn’t go right and either been asked to stop coming or kept away in what they assumed was embarrassment. But no, of course she wun’t alone in being a bit rubbish or ‘a hopeless case’ as an artist. We got a couple of names for guys she seemed to know, who also only came a few times, and were only a bit more competent; and one, Jack Riley, stood out. A moody character, by all accounts, didn’t say much, but ‘a bit scary’, made people feel uneasy. We got an address for him in Morbury Wodehouse, the stop before Trelborne on the Chesterfield line. And we found he had a bit of previous too, in the antisocial behaviour bracket.
xx“Right, let’s check ’em both out,” I said. “Morbury first, on account of it’s closest. Let’s go see Mr Riley’s artistic efforts.”
* * *
xxThe Riley residence was one of those typical eyesores that seem to be allocated to every Victorian terrace, usually at one end or the other. Old furniture and extracts of motorbike on what was once a front lawn, a driveway down the side, cluttered with stuff
xx“I think ‘e’s away, the snotty git,” grunted his neighbour. “Not been here for a few days, but that weird bird he hangs round with sometimes has been over. Think she uses ‘is garrij — or ‘studio’, as ‘e calls it.”
xx“Thanks,” I called back. “Yer not goin’ far, are yer? We might need to ask a question or two.”
xx“Miserable owd bugger,” said Mike, when we got out of earshot. “Can’t see any sign of anyone indoors.”
xx“Well, we should check this ‘studio’, then,” I said, just as Debbie came running round the corner.
xx“In the garage ma’am ,” she panted: “I think we’ve got another one. Hanged this time!”
xxWe rushed round the corner and to the garage. Sure enough, peering through the gap in the door, we could just make out the form of a woman’s body hanging by a chair. The door was locked but Mike found a length of iron and prised it open.
xx“Too late — much too late,” I said as we walked in to be hit by the scent of death.
xxThe garage contained a work bench strewn with assorted artist’s equipment and a large mirror, an easel and a couple of chairs, one of which was in the middle of the floor. The girl’s feet brushed against it as she swung in the breeze from the open door.
xx“The fucked-up bastard!” exclaimed Mike. “Look; he’s turned the easel so the poor lass can see this shitty picture while she’s dying.”
xx“It’s weird, though,” said Debbie. “This pic’s as distorted as the others, but the face hasn’t been cut up at all.”
xxThat was when I remembered what Mr Turton had said.
xx“Shit! We’ve got it the wrong way round, guys. If Betsy Harding was drawing the mutilated faces, her sketches would probably look like normal ones. Those pictures weren’t drawn to look like the cut-up faces. The faces were cut up to look like the badly-drawn pics!”
xx“Shit, yes,” added Debbie, cottoning on. “So the easel hasn’t been turned to face the model. It were already that way round, so the artist could look in the mirror!”
xx“You’re kidding!” gasped Mike.
xx“Think so?” I said. “Look what it says on the pic.”
xxMike stepped round to see. He swore as he bumped into the swinging body of Betsy Harding — and as he read the inscription at the bottom of the crude effort …