1: the head
‘What do I think?’ Detective Chief Inspector McEwan peered into the wooden barrel again. ‘I think we’re screwed, that‘s what I think.’
According to the young man – standing in the doorway, making queasy gulping noises – the short wooden barrel was called a ‘Hog’s Head’, which was appropriate, given what had been stuffed inside it.
DS Smedley nodded at something red in the corner. ‘There’s more of him over here…’
McEwan settled back against one of the work benches, his white scene of crime suit crackling. Already beginning to sweat.
The cooperage was warm – one wall covered in little shields and badges, a small fire crackling in the corner, unidentifiable bits of wood and metal cluttering every available surface, and a huge selection of potential murder weapons.
The smell of oak shavings, wood smoke, and iron filings. Blood.
McEwan sniffed. ‘And you’ve no idea who he is?’
The cooper shook his head, pale cheeks wobbling. ‘Never seen him before. Can … can I go now?’ He tried for a smile. ‘Not feeling too good.’
‘Get one of the constables to drive you home. Tell them I said it was OK.’
The young man nodded, sneaked one last glance at the remains, then hurried out.
‘Poor sod.’ Smedley picked up a big hooked axe thing, with ’7′ carved into the handle.
‘The victim, or Mr Queasy-pants?’
‘Well, you come into work on a Monday morning, you don’t expect to find body parts all over the shop, do you?’ That was Smedley all over – the man might look like a mangy whippet with a loo-brush moustache, but he could out-mother any police officer in North Yorkshire.
McEwan peered into the barrel again. ‘We any closer to getting an ID?’
‘Yup.’ Smedley took a practice swing with his new toy, then pointed it at the fireplace. ‘Found his wallet in that pile of clothes over there. Driving licence says he’s one Thomas Preston. Photo matches the head. Doing a PNC check now.’ The DS pursed his lips beneath that great soup-strainer moustache and frowned. ‘We’ll run fingerprints soon as we can find his hands.’
‘OK, get on the phone to HQ, tell them I want that background check—’
‘Guv?’ A PC stuck his head around the door, saw the chopped-up bits of Thomas Preston. Gulped. Looked away. ‘Guv: we’ve got another one.’
Fog clung to the dark stone buildings in the courtyard, greasy wisps of white and grey, hiding the small town of Masham beyond the brewery walls. You could barely see the big Theakstons logo mounted less than twenty foot from the cooperage door.
The fog trapped the strangely beefy smell of fermenting hops, concentrating it in the courtyard. McEwan took a deep breath, a wide, contented smile spreading across his face. Nothing like a good lungful of beer to set you up for the day.
He peeled back the hood of his suit, enjoying the cool air on his ever-expanding bald patch.
A pair of grimy Transit Vans looked more abandoned than parked outside the visitor’s centre, their back doors lying open. The SOCO team wandered through the mist in white paper oversuits. Photographing things. Taking samples. Trying to lift latent prints. Singing a Britney Spears song, over and over and over again.
One of them was swearing, struggling against a pair of uniformed constables as they frogmarched him across the cobblestones. ‘Gerrof! I’m a squint. I am! Look, I’ve got the suit on and everything…’
They yanked him to a halt, right in front of McEwan.
He had little round glasses, a ginger goatee beard, and pointy teeth. ‘There seems to be some sort of misunderstanding, I was just—’
One of the officers smacked him across the back of the head.
‘Ow! What was that for?’
‘Caught him trying to sneak into the crime scene, sir.’
McEwan’s smile died. He jabbed the wriggling man in the chest with a chewed fingernail. ‘Listen up, sunshine. One: we don’t call scene of crime officers “squints” in this country. Two: you’ve got your SOC suit on inside out. Three: you’re an idiot.’
‘What? No, but I’m—’
‘I know who you are, Dipstick. My wife reads your bloody books! The amount of nights I’ve had to lie there looking at your ugly mug on the back cover…’ McEwan poked him again. ‘Now bugger off out of it, and if I catch you sneaking in here again I’m going to rip off your scrotum and wear it as a shower cap. Understand?’
The man shut his mouth, pouted, then stared at his blue plastic booties. Shrugged. ‘Was only trying to … you know, for research and—’
‘Get him out of here.’
The constables tightened their grip on his armpits and dragged him towards the big wooden brewery gates. ‘Hey! No, but we can—’ Someone hit him again. ‘Ow! OK, OK, I’m coming quietly.’
There was a crowd gathered outside the gates, gazing in through the blue-and-white ‘Police’ tape. The little man shouted over his shoulder. ‘If your wife’s a fan maybe I could … get her a signed copy or something? No? How about I put her in a book? She could be— Ow! Stop doing that.’
The officers hauled up the tape and threw him out onto the road.
McEwan shuddered, staring at the knot of hungry faces. ‘Creepy little bastards.’
DS Smedley appeared at the Chief Inspector’s side. ‘Press here already?’
‘Worse: crime writers. Every time they have that sodding festival the streets are full of shifty-looking weirdoes.’
‘Yeah, well, I managed to get the PNC search chased up – nothing. No criminal record, no cautions, not so much as scratching himself in a suspicious manner. Our victim’s cleaner than a nun dipped in Tippex.’
‘Nah, no one’s that clean. You don’t get chopped up into seventeen different bits for no reason. Keep digging: Thomas Preston’s dirty somewhere.’
‘You’re sure?’ DCI McEwan pointed at the barrel again. ‘Go on, just take another quick look, Mr Theakston. Try to picture him a lot taller and a bit less … dismembery.’
The man in the blue double-breasted blazer did as he was asked, then grimaced. Owning a brewery probably didn’t prepare you for stuff like this. ‘Definitely not one of the team here.’
He fiddled with the knot on his stripy tie, ran a hand across his forehead. ‘Yes.’
‘It’s a family business, Chief Inspector. I know every single person who works here. This man isn’t one of the team. He’s never been one of the team. I honestly have no idea who he is. Sorry.’
McEwan placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘Well, thanks for taking a look for us, sir. It must have been a quite a shock.’ He gave the shoulder a squeeze. ‘What you need is a good strong drink.’
‘Trust me, sir, it’s for the best. Now why don’t we get you to the visitors’ centre for a nice pint of OP. I’ll keep you company if you like?’
‘But I’m fine, really, I don’t need to—’
‘Nonsense, it’s no trouble. I insist. Can’t have you drinking alone, can we?’
McEwan placed a hand in the middle of the man’s back and steered him out into the courtyard. ‘I understand cheese and onion crisps are also very good for shock…’ He drifted to a halt, watching as four SOC officers, still wearing their white oversuits, froze in the act of loading cases of Old Peculier into the back of their Transit Van.
‘Ah…’ The nearest officer looked at the case of bottled beer in his hands, then up at McEwan. Cheeks going pink. ‘We were … I mean … em…’
‘Yes…’ McEwan cleared his throat. ‘Collecting samples for fingerprinting. Very good. Very thorough. Can’t be too careful when we’re investigating a murder, can we Mr Theakston?’
Sigh. ‘How many do you need?’
‘Well, evidentiary procedures take time, sir. And obviously we’ll have to keep hold of them until any trial, just in case the defence team need to conduct their own analysis. And we’ll be modelling for statistical accuracy, so … six—’
One of the SOC officers coughed.
McEwan nodded. ‘Ten cases ought to do it, sir.’
‘Again? You took half a dozen when you were here last week.’
‘Ah yes.’ McEwan led him past the vans and in through the visitors’ centre doors. ‘But you see that was a completely different investigation. We’ve got to be careful about cross contamination of evidence. Speaking of which, have those Norwegian gangsters been back in touch?’
‘What? Oh, no. Not yet.’
The visitors’ centre was warm inside, a cheery coal fire crackling away in a big stone hearth. A walkway ran all the way around the room, splitting it into two levels – down here it was all police officers, up there it was all elderly men and women. A bus party from Darlington who’d got a very nasty surprise halfway through the brewery tour.
A couple of uniformed PCs were running up and down with trays of teas and coffees. Keeping already dodgy bladders full to brimming, while everyone waited to be interviewed.
A plump little old lady in a baggy peach cardigan stopped in front of McEwan and smiled. ‘Excuse me, are you—’
‘One of the nice constables will see to you, madam.’ He marched straight past her to the bar, elbowing a sergeant out of the way so he was right in front of the barmaid. ‘Two pints of OP, please, love.’ McEwan flashed his warrant card. ‘Police business.’
The young woman curled her top lip. ‘It’s always police business with you lot. Do you ever actually pay for a pint?’
‘And some cheese and onion, if you’ve got any.’ McEwan turned his back on her. ‘Well, if the Norwegians do get in touch, Mr Theakston, let me know, OK? I mean, I’ve heard of some weird stuff getting kidnapped, you know: garden gnomes, dogs … even had a grand piano go missing once. I mean, how do you kidnap a grand piano? Must weigh a ton. But yeast?’
‘Ahem. Excuse me.’ The old lady tapped McEwan on the shoulder. One of those crazy tweed-and-twinset types, used to getting their own way.
‘I said one of the constables would—’
‘Couldn’t help overhearing. Someone kidnapped your yeast?’ She stuck a hand out for the brewery owner to shake. ‘Why would Norwegians want to do that?’
Theakston smiled. ‘Oh, they didn’t get all of the yeast – that would be a disaster – just a sample of it. It’s a special strain unique to the brewery. Been a family secret for generations.’
‘And the Norwegians want it because…?’
McEwan turned on her. ‘Ever tasted Norwegian beer? That’s why. Now I’ve been polite, but I’m going to have to ask you to go back to your friends and WAIT FOR A BLOODY CONSTABLE!’
The room went silent, a small circle of clear space appearing around them as uniform, CID and SOCOs shuffled back.
The old lady raised an eyebrow. ‘What’s your name, young man?’
McEwan hauled out his warrant card again. ‘Detective Chief Inspector.’
‘Oh, that’s nice.’ She dug into a vast tartan handbag. ‘I’ve got one just like it. Only mine says Secret Intelligence Service.’ She held it up for them to look at.
McEwan groaned. Wonderful, just what he needed: James Bond’s granny. ‘So tell me, ‘Mrs Smith’, what’s an MI6 Reports Officer doing with a party of OAPs from Darlington?’
‘Oh, I didn’t come on the bus. I drove up with Mr Western here.’ She pointed at a vast lump of muscle in a sharp black suit. ‘And do try to keep up, dear: we’ve not been called MI6 for years.’ Her ID went back in the handbag.
McEwan stared at her. ‘Still haven’t told me why you’re here.’
Smile. ‘You’ve got something of mine.’
‘No I don’t.’
‘Yes you do.’ Mrs Smith pulled on the smile again. ‘It’s in a barrel in the cooper’s workshop.’
‘You want Thomas Preston’s head?’
‘And everything else. I’m sorry, but this isn’t your case any more.’ She patted him on the arm. ‘Never mind though, eh? Probably for the best.’
McEwan clenched his fists. ‘Now you listen to me, you jumped-up, wrinkly, evil, little, civil service turdburger—’
‘Hoy!’ Mr Western stepped forwards. ‘Play nice.’
‘—this is a police matter and you are not—’
‘Guv?’ DS Smedley pushed through the circle of constables. ‘Guv?’
‘—taking this case away from—’
McEwan swung around. ‘WHAT?’
Smedley shrank back a step. ‘Er… We found something. You’ve gotta come see it. And I mean, like, right now.’