10: the bottom
‘Question number, erm…’ The quizmaster frowned down at the sheet and whispered to her neighbour: ‘Hey, beardie, what question are we on?’
‘I think so.’
‘But do you know so?’
‘Er… what was the question again?’
‘That’s what I’m asking you!’
‘Get on with it!’ shouted someone from the crowd. They were getting impatient, sensing that the highlight of their weekend was being spoiled by two crime writers who didn’t seem to know their arse from a plot-hole in one of their novels. ‘It’s question seven!’
‘Keep your hair on!’ retorted the quizmaster, then noticed the heckler’s bald, freckled pate. ‘Or not, in your case. Maybe you could keep your gob shut, though.’
‘Easy, tiger!’ hissed her bearded partner. ‘These are paying punters, remember.’
‘He’s no paying punter. That’s that wee bald shyster, Gregory Whatsisface.’
‘Just read out the question. And have a crisp.’
‘Don’t mind if I do. These are quite nice, aren’t they?’
‘Even nicer because they’re on the house.’
‘Question number nine, ladies and gents: What was Raymond Chandler’s middle name?’
Caroline was on edge. In all the time she’d known the old man – all the fleeting trysts they’d had where orders and information had been passed on a ‘need to know’ basis – she had never seen him behaving quite so recklessly. What was that all about, heckling Val McDermid? Maybe it was the whisky. Maybe that’s why he was quietly chuckling to himself. She leaned forward.
‘Are you alright, sir?’
‘Alright? Couldn’t be better, Smith. Couldn’t be…’ He stopped as the big-haired woman turned to him, eager to lap up whatever bon mot he coughed up. He whispered something to her and she wandered off, smiling flirtatiously over her shoulder.
Was that a tinge of jealousy Caroline was feeling? Maybe it was. And so what? After all these years, did she not deserve a certain consideration? ‘Sir, what did you whisper to that… woman?’
‘Oh, don’t mind her. I sent her to the bar for another quadruple. She’ll be back in a few minutes with a glass of burgundy. Or maybe she won’t be back at all.’
‘I don’t quite…’
‘No, Smith, you don’t, do you? That’s always been your problem – despite a wealth of lucid evidence set before you, you’ve never quite added it all up. Not like that Scandinavian subordinate of yours.’
‘What? Who?’ she said, reaching for a crisp. The staff had put baskets of them on every table. Caroline didn’t normally indulge in such crude bar snacks but she felt like throwing caution to the wind. She felt like tipping the whole basket over the old man’s shiny head. How dare he sing the praises of that Nordic slut?
‘Don’t touch,’ said the old man, clamping her wrist in his iron grip. ‘If you want to enjoy the show, I advise you to resist the crisps. Otherwise you are the show.’
She squinted at him. It was all so confusing. ‘What?’
‘Number eight,’ the quizmaster piped up. ‘Erm… hey, beardie – was it number eight or nine?’
‘We’re on eleven now.’
‘OK…’ The quizmaster cleared her throat. Those crisps really made you thirsty. ‘Number fifteen: What was Raymond Chandler’s middle name?’
‘…unable to get it through parliament. And then the following year, 2007, that’s when this hive beetle threat was discovered, putting the movement even more on the defensive. That, DCI McEwan, is a potted history of the Pro Mead Society. Phew, I need a drink now, as long as it’s not honey-based. Where’s that bottle?’
McEwan half-opened his eyes. ‘Pardon?’
‘You haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said, have you?’ snapped Helen/Britt.
No, just Helen – Britt was long gone. But McEwan had only just been with her, lost in a fantasy in which they had frolicked through the fjords, he in his bermuda shorts and she in the tiniest bikini, despite the extreme cold. Who cared about the weather? They had love.
‘What? Well, yes, I was listening a bit… I mean, I missed some of the middle, I think, but…’
‘Never mind. Look, we must get moving – this quiz will be underway now and we’ve got work to do. I’ll run it by you again on the way over.’
‘Hang on,’ he said, prizing himself off the bed, ‘why have we got work to do? This is my case, remember? And you’ve done your bit.’
He saw himself in the mirror and tucked his shirt in. It was as if he had been in bed with Britt. If he closed his eyes, he could almost believe it, and sense her presence there in the room with him. But then Helen had to open her mouth:
‘I haven’t even started yet, DCI McEwan.’
Caroline knew there was a but. There were a billion buts, all queuing up and waiting to be fired at the old man. It’s just that she couldn’t single one out right now. ‘But…’
‘I’ll think of one for you,’ he said, adjusting his eye-patch. ‘BUT why have I deployed Ingredient X on the entire quiz-going contingent of this… this carnival of cliché?’
‘Yes! Yes, that’s the but I was going to ask, but…’
‘Do you think this was an academic exercise, Smith? Do you think we have been working so hard to develop Ingredient X and its amnesiac effects for the good of science? Or perhaps you believed we were working for the good of mankind? Pah! Mankind? Where is the good in a civilisation that permits such a celebration of its own evil and depravity as this? ‘Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed!’
‘Hang on…’ Caroline had finally put her finger on one of those slippery buts. Actually it was a new one, but it had barged straight to the front of the queue (no surprise – this was a French but). ‘Mais… I mean, but… why did you call it a ‘carnival of the cliché’?’
The old man knocked back his whisky in disgust. ‘What kind of a but is that? There are a thousand buts more worthy than that. Why don’t you ask me why I want everyone hopped up on Ingredient X? Why not ask—?’
‘Answer me: why carnival of the cliché?’
‘Why, old man?’
‘Because these people are all fools! Every one of them! Look at them, with their silly quizzes and their formulaic plots! Where is the room for real literature? Where are the original voices, the works of true genius?’
Not only was the old man standing up and shouting, but the room had fallen silent and all eyes were upon him. He slowly sat down. Murmuring recommenced, and things were back to normal within seconds.
‘Question forty-two… Erm, beardie?’
‘Question ninety-two, please.’
‘Is my belly-button an innie or an outie?’
Caroline’s mind was whirring. Not with the innie/outie conundrum, but with the question of what was driving the old man with such a passion. She thought of his chosen cover: the scabrous literary agent. She thought of the fact that all his plans seem to have been centred around this, a crime writing festival. She thought of his pretentious habit of dropping Shakespeare quotes. She thought of the long hours he spent beneath that fast food place, ostensibly planning operations but perhaps doing something else on his laptop. Perhaps slyly writing novels at the taxpayer’s expense?
‘It’s easy to knock crime novels,’ she said, trying her hand. ‘Things always look easier from the outside, don’t they? Maybe if you actually tried writing one of these crime novels yourself, struggling to get to grips with ridiculously complicated plots and trying to work out satisfying denouements when little that went before made sense… maybe if you tried that, you’d—’
‘Tried?’ he screamed. Then more quietly: ‘Tried? Oh, if you knew who you were talking to… If you knew what you were talking to! There is more of value in one of my sentences that the entire output of every writer here!’
Play this carefully, Caroline.
He thinks you’re dumb: let him.
‘Oh, are you a writer, then?’
‘Am… am I a writer? My dear, I am writing. I am literature itself, quite frankly. I am the embodiment of all that can be ignited twixt pen and page… and not one of those bastards ever recognised it!’
‘Those… publishers! Oh, I know why. They want to keep me out. When true talent comes along, the mediocre majority gets scared. And that is who the gatekeepers of literature are these days, Smith. Mediocre philistines! For too long they have gorged themselves at the teat of the docile pig that is—’
‘…the book-buying public! No more, Smith! The world will see what evil it has engendered in the name of populist entertainment! And then… And then…’
‘Sir, there’s some sort of… what’s that, a film crew?’
‘It’s an outside broadcast unit, Smith. See him there with the microphone? That’s Radio 4′s Mark Lawson, doing his live Harrogate coverage for Front Row.’
‘…after which the Pro Mead Society regrouped and reinvented itself. This was 2007. All of those years of setbacks – only ten or eleven of which I have just told you about – only served to toughen it up and give it a much more aggressive outlook.’
‘Eh? Were you saying something?’
‘You bastard! You complete and utter…’
McEwan drifted off again. This time they were on a windmill. Was that Norway? It didn’t matter: they were on it and she was still in that bikini. But there was danger! She was holding onto the end of a sail, he on the opposite one and trying to get to her, trying to reach her before—
‘McEwan, you useless moron! Have you not listened to a word I’ve said?’
‘No, I did. Mead… yeah, I get it. Made from honey. Erm, oldest known distilled beverage, or something, erm…’
Helen shook her head and fished another square wrap from her pocket. ‘Look, have some more yeast. You’ve still got the RA. The main thing for you to know is that Tracey is being held by—’
‘That’s what I need to do – jump off this windmill, find a big branch and jam the mill with it. Then the sail will stop and I’ll be able to save her!’
Helen was driving. She looked discreetly at McEwan, noting the dullness in his eyes and the drool on his chin. Without even swerving she flicked out her left fist and jabbed him in the ear. McEwan’s head immediately filled with sharp pain and white noise.
‘You with me now?’
‘What? Did… did you just thump me?’
‘Are you with me?’
‘Eh? What do you…?’
Helen pulled up outside the Crown Hotel and killed the engine. ‘Tracey has been abducted by my boss. She’s in one of the rooms here while he carries out his evil plan. He’s insane, Chief. I’ve had my doubts about his motives over the past year or so but now he’s gone over the edge.’
McEwan was breathing deep, scanning all around. His senses were kicking into overdrive as if waking from a deep sleep to the smell of smoke. The Chief was back, and the words ‘abducted’, ‘insane’ and ‘evil plan’ were blaring in his head like alarm pheromones in the antennae of worker bees. He grabbed the handle and threw the door wide, shouting, ‘Right – let’s kick some bottom!’
‘Here we are in the Crown Hotel in Harrogate, where some of the most avid fans of the genre are gathered for the highlight of the weekend: the quiz. But this is no ordinary quiz, and the fans are no less extraordinary. A healthy and vital genre attracts knowledgeable and cultured aficionados, and I’m going to try to give you a sense of that by picking a couple of people at random… Sir, what has been the highlight of this weekend for you?’
‘Well, there’s a light up there in the ceiling. See it? That’s a pretty high light.’
‘Erm, OK, moving on… Madam, do you have a favourite author?’
‘Well… I can’t think of—’
‘Can you just name some you like?’
‘I can’t remember any names.’
‘How about books? What books have you enjoyed?’
‘Have you ever even read a book?’
‘I… I’m really not sure.’
‘Alright, alright… Sir, how do you respond to the criticism than the crime genre is formulaic?’
‘Well, I’d say that Stuart MacBride’s belly-button is an outie. Although I’m not sure. Maybe you should ask him?’
‘Thank you. I’m making way across the room now. As luck would have it, I seem to have picked some unrepresentative fans, but that should now all be made good… Stuart MacBride, could I just ask you, do you feel that the crime genre is a valid part of our literary culture? Or do you see these books as throwaway entertainment? I’m deliberately loading the question there but I think you’re up to it.’
‘Yeah, certainly. Here, have a look for yourself.’
‘Erm… er… for the audience at home, I can confirm that… Stuart MacBride’s belly-button is… Oh god…’
‘What the bloody hell’s going on here?’
Helen finally caught up with McEwan in the entrance to the hall where the quiz was being held. Something wasn’t right – the quizmasters were arguing with each other and people were acting weirdly. What looked like a radio production team pushed through the crowd and hurried to the exit.
‘This is bad,’ said a bespectacled journalist as he swept past. ‘They’re never going to let me cover crime again after this.’
‘Wasn’t that him from the radio?’ said Helen after they’d gone.
‘What, Terry Wogan? I don’t think so.’
McEwan noticed Granny Smith on the far side of the room, frantically jabbing keys on her phone. A bald man in an eye-patch next to her stood up and started booming with manic laughter. ‘Mwah ha ha! My master plan has succeeded! You are all finished! Mwaaah ha ha ha!’
‘There he is!’ said McEwan, reaching for his cuffs. ‘There’s that boss of yours! Let’s collar him and find Tracey.’
‘Who?’ said Helen.
‘Mr Bond Villain over there with the eye-patch. He couldn’t make himself more obvious if he had a Persian cat in his lap.’
But Helen was shaking her head. ‘That’s not my boss. He’s just an eccentric old fart’
‘What? Then who—?’
‘Guv!’ puffed DS Smedley, bursting through a side door. ‘Thank God I found you… There’s been a development!’
McEwan swung round, fists clenching. ‘WHAT NOW?’
Smedley opened his mouth to answer but no words came out. Then a faint smile took shape, growing into a full-blown manic grin. Keeping eye contact with McEwan he yanked his tie aside and started unbuttoning his shirt.
‘Smedley, what the bloody hell are you doing?’
The DS shuffled off his shirt and jacket and undid his belt, trousers dropping around his ankles. He stepped out of them, sucking deep breaths and rolling his shoulders like a boxer before the bell for round one. But no boxer had ever looked quite like this. No boxer had ever graced a ring wearing a yellow and black-striped cat-suit.
‘Behold!’ Smedley roared, spreading his arms wide to reveal the translucent, grotesquely veined wings beneath. ‘Behold the true colours of Smedley, Lord of the Bees!’
Helen tugged McEwan’s arm. ‘That’s my boss.’