11: the heart (and soul)
‘Well?’ Helen tugged at McEwan’s sleeve. ‘Don’t just stand there, do something!’
He puffed out his cheeks. Looked around the room. Sighed. ‘What do you want to drink?’
‘Are you serious? This is no time for messing about: didn’t you hear what Smedley said?’
‘Trust me, he’s said worse.’ McEwan pushed his way to the alcove at the side of the room, where a little knot of people in ‘Billingham’s Babes’ T-shirts were counting their way through a pile of change over and over again. ‘Scuse me ladies, police business.’ He showed them his warrant card.
They parted before him. ‘Pint of OP, squire.’ He looked over his shoulder. ‘And a…?’
Helen scrunched up her face, balled her fists. ‘Can’t you see what’s happening here?’
‘Every year, these bloody crime writers turn up and act like a bunch of drunken egotistical orang-utans. To be honest,’ he waved a hand at the gibbering crowd, ‘this is a pretty standard Saturday night for festival season.’ He frowned. ‘Well, DS Smedley dressed as a giant bee is new, but other than that…’
‘For God’s sake, McEwan, this is serious!’ She looked away. ‘Rum and Diet Coke.’
Up on the stage Val McDermid and the hairy Scottish bloke launched into a rude song about two horny nuns and a hedgehog called ‘Nigel’. They appeared to be making the words up as they went along, and not doing a very good job of it.
Crisps. Crisps would be a good idea too. McEwan ordered two packets of cheese and onion to go with his pint. That was the trouble with this Random Amnesia stuff – he couldn’t remember if he’d had any lunch or not. And that yeast of Helens had left a strange Marmitey taste in his mouth.
Kind of hard to believe she’d passed herself off as Britt: the tall, pneumatic, blonde Scandinavian sexpot with legs that looked as if they could crush a man’s ribcage. If he was very, very lucky. There was something deeply disturbing, arousing, and not right about the whole thing.
Yes, not right at all…
Or there was something wrong with him. Something stopping him from concentrating.
Under the circumstances, it was probably best to neck his beer, then go arrest someone. Either the bald old man with the eye patch, going ‘Bwahahahahahaha…’, or Smedley, Lord of the Bees. Or maybe both?
‘Right…’ He swallowed the whole pint down in three huge gulps. Shame to waste it, but a Policeman’s lot and all that.
On the other side of the room, Smedley grinned at him, then turned and waggled his backside. A little black rubber sting swung back and forth like an obscene tail.
That took care of who got banged up first.
The quiz night crowd were trying to join in with the Ballad of Nigel the Naughty Hedgehog, even though it was pretty bleeding obvious that none of them knew the words. They bumped and swayed, hands above their heads, waving mobile phones at the stage as McEwan shoved his way over to Smedley, Helen struggling along behind him.
‘Excuse me; coming through; out of the way you greasy-haired keyboard-jockey…’ Until he was standing next to the table where Granny Smith was swearing into her phone, the bald-headed pirate was ranting about the state of British fiction, and Smedley was doing a strange figure-of-eight dance.
‘Nice costume.’ McEwan pulled out his handcuffs. Tilted his head on one side – for some reason, things were getting easier to think about. Helen/Britt’s legs didn’t tug at his brain and other regions. Well, not as much anyway. ‘So…’ He pointed at Smedley. ‘You’re a super-villain evil genius now?’
Big grin. ‘Well, weekends mostly. It gets me out of the house. And I’m not evil, I’m inspired!’
Up on the stage, the singing degenerated into a fist fight.
‘No, you’re an idiot in a leotard. And you’re nicked.’
‘Can’t you smell it?’ Smedley stopped, mid-dance, and posed like an angry tea pot. ‘That’s the smell of the world changing! And when it’s finished, the people will rise up, cast off the filthy swill of beer, and embrace the wonders of MEAD!’
He finished with both hands in the air, and paused for applause. Didn’t get any.
‘Oh don’t look at me like that.’ Smedley pulled a little hipflask from a pocket in his bee costume, unscrewed the top and took a hit. ‘It’s too late for you to do anything about it anyway. You see: this lot,’ he jerked his head towards Granny Smith and her mad friend, ‘have been very short sighted. So I had to step in and take control. Ingredient X? On its own it induces random amnesia.’ Smedley swept a hand around, indicating the room full of gibbering idiots. ‘Do they look like they’ve got amnesia?’
For the life of him, McEwan couldn’t remember. ‘Erm…’
‘Utterly preposterous!’ Granny Smith clicked her phone shut, stuffed it back into her voluminous tartan handbag, and pulled out a Glock 9mm. She pointed it at Smedley’s face. ‘The Secret Intelligence Service has not been under the control of some bushy-moustached pervert in a stripy leotard. Now a cleaning team will be here in half an hour to … tidy up. Until then—’
‘Take a look around you, Caroline,’ Smedley gave a little hop-skip. This is what happens when you mix Ingredient X with – and I’m going to leave a little dramatic pause here to build up tension – Preparation Y!’
There was a moment’s silence.
‘Eh?’ McEwan glanced at Helen. Maybe if he asked her nicely, she’d put on the Britt costume again. No, there was something important going on. Wasn’t there? He frowned. For some God-forsaken reason, Detective Sergeant Smedley was dressed as bee. ‘Have I been drinking?’
‘Really not your fault that you’re forgetting stuff, McEwan. You see, I’ve been slipping their Ingredient X into your tea for the last three weeks. Ingredient X and Preparation Y.’ Smedley ran a finger through his moustache. ‘But for some reason you’ve been unusually resistant to its cumulative powers… You wouldn’t believe how much I had to put into your tomato sauce this morning to tip you over the edge. But this lot, these crime writers and their hangers on, just one dose sprinkled onto the free crisps was enough to create all this!’
Bloody hell, it was hot in here. Britt did have lovely legs. He should probably get a pint or something to keep him going till clocking off time. Why couldn’t he concentrate on anything for more than a…? Ooh, beer. Someone had left a full bottle of OP on the table. Shame to let it go to waste. He helped himself.
‘Ahhh…’ Still cold. Wasn’t he going to arrest someone?
Smedley curled his top lip. ‘And you’re not the only one I’ve been slipping it to. The old bald idiot has been on a steady diet of cheeseburgers with special Preparation Y sauce! It breeds psychosis, paranoia, delusions, and occasional flatulence… That’s a side effect; we’re still working on it.’
‘This is absurd!’ Granny Smith waved the gun in his face.
‘Are you sure? Think about it, Caroline. Don’t you recognise me?’ Smedley whirled round until his back was to the table. He hunched over, scrubbed his hands across his face and through his hair, rearranging it over his bald patch. When he turned back around, he looked completely different – the walrus moustache was gone, replaced by a trendy goatee, his nose squint and broken, jaw wide and manly, hair sticking up like one of those idiots on the X-Factor.
‘Recognise me now, Caroline?’
‘Dear God…’ Granny Smith collapsed into her seat. ‘It’s you! The manager of the burger bar above Gregory’s secret base!’ She slumped, burying her head in her hands. ‘It’s true. Then… Then everything we did, all those deaths…?’
Someone on the next table took off their pants, put them on their head, then ran around the room. ‘Look at me, I’m a Womble!’
‘It wasn’t for nothing.’ The old man stood. ‘You said it yourself, Caroline: why don’t I try writing a crime novel if I think it’s so easy? Well, what do you think all this has been about? I have written the finest crime novel in the world, and I’ve done it in flesh and blood and bone!’
He plucked the gun from Granny Smith’s hand and sent a round cracking into the ceiling. ‘Listen up, you talentless bunch of hacks – here’s a lesson in writing for you!’ Another shot sent a plume of plaster drifting down from the crenulated ceiling. ‘Adverbs are not your friends, he said angrily! And neither is alliteration! Or exclamation marks! My dog’s bum produces better literature than any one of you!’
‘Ahh,’ Smedley ruffled his hands across his face again, and there was the familiar loo-brush moustache and disappointed vulture face, ‘you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself, Caroline. Preparation Y, in the right doses, gives one the ability to impersonate anyone. That’s how Helen here managed to pass so convincingly as a Britt. And Inspector, perhaps you remember…’ Scrub, scrub, scrub.
Thomas Preston, looking just like he had in the brewery, both times: when he was dead, then when he was alive again. Only now wearing a skin-tight bee costume. ‘Come on, McEwan, how do you think I got you to swallow that idiotic story about buying the head off a medical student? Thomas Preston thought he could challenge me for the chairmanship of the PMS. Our rivalry began in the summer of 2008 when a consignment of Malaysian Bees went missing from Heathrow, and—’
‘ENOUGH!’ The old man with the eye patch sent a shot thumping into the wall by Smedley’s head. ‘Exposition as dialogue is the worst possible sin. SHOW DON’T TELL!’
‘You know what?’ McEwan downed the last of his beer, weighed up the empty bottle in his hand, then battered the old man over the back of the bald head with it.
‘Oh…’ It was hard to tell if he went cross-eyed or not – what with the eye patch and all – but he keeled over sideways and thumped to the floor; the gun spun across the carpet.
‘Under the circumstances,’ Smedley picked it up and pointed it at McEwan, ‘I think I’ll keep hold of this. Even now my team of highly-trained Peruvian Ninja Bees are swarming into every crisp manufacturer in the land, laden with Preparation Y. They’ll pollinate every packet of cheese and onion, prawn cocktail, beef, chicken, salt and vinegar… You get the idea anyway.’
A sob escaped as Granny Smith banged her wrinkly forehead on the tabletop. ‘I killed people! Blew them up, dismembered them, all for nothing…’
‘Little does anyone realise the sheer scope of what’s about to hit the country. People running about, behaving like crime writers. And I hold the only cure known to man.’ He held up his hip flask. ‘MEAD!’
Looked like they were all screwed then. All the crisps in the country poisoned, the secret intelligence service implicated in mass murder, the… Something. McEwan frowned. He was right in the middle of doing something, wasn’t he? Something about bees and yeast? What on earth was Detective Sergeant Smedley wearing?
Helen backed up, one hand pressed against her chest. ‘You’ve lost your mind, Smedley. You can’t taint every packet of crisps in the country, there’ll be chaos!’
‘Only till they start drinking mead. You see? In one fell stroke, all those years of struggle will be behind us: the Pro Mead Society will reign supreme!’
‘What am I supposed to be doing again?’ McEwan frowned at the empty Theakstons bottle in his hand. Was it his round?
‘Arrest him!’ Helen grabbed McEwan by the arm, and pointed at DS Smedley. ‘He’s going to poison the country so everyone has to drink mead!’
‘Mead?’ McEwan shuddered. ‘I sodding hate mead. Now: beer, that’s a proper drink. Anyone want a pint?’
‘I don’t believe it.’ She slapped him. ‘How can you think of beer at a time like…’ She stood there with her mouth open, staring at the bottle in his hand. ‘Of course!’
Great, at least someone understood what was going on.
‘Ordinary beer wouldn’t do it, but Theakstons… It’s not the yeast that’s the cure, it’s how it’s brewed with the other ingredients! That’s why it took so much Ingredient X and Preparation Y to push you over the edge – you’ve been inoculating yourself. Here…’ She snatched another full bottle off the table and pressed it into his hands. ‘Drink this.’
‘Never mind that, just drink the damn beer!’
Got to admit he was thirsty anyway. Even warm, the beer slipped down a treat, that rich warm taste oozing through his mind like…
Things snapped back into focus: the murders, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Pro Mead Society, Smedley Lord of the Bees. McEwan held out his hand to the mad detective sergeant. ‘Give me the gun.’
‘Oh I don’t think so.’ Smedley backed towards the door, keeping the Glock trained on McEwan. ‘Now, if you don’t mind – the Beemobile is waiting for me.’
‘First tell me what you’ve done with Tracey Williams!’
‘I’d say she’s closer than you’d think. Her and Simon Theakston.’ Smedley grinned. ‘Look under the table.’
Now there was something you didn’t see every day: both Tracey and the brewery head were stuck to the underside of the table, cocooned in silver duct tape. McEwan reached in and ripped the gag from Simon Theakston’s mouth.
‘I heard everything! If you stop him, I’ll give you a lifetime’s supply of Old Peculier!’
Sounded like a fair deal. McEwan stepped forwards, balling his fists.
‘Hold it right there!’ Smedley raised the gun.
‘Tell you what,’ McEwan put on his nastiest smile, ‘if I was you, I’d make sure the safety catch was off before threatening people, you chutney-sniffing poop-monkey!’
Helen nodded. ‘Yeah, you look like a right idiot waving a gun about with the safety catch still on.’
‘I…’ The right idiot in the bee suit squinted at the gun, turning it back and forth. ‘Where’s the—’
Smack – McEwan kicked him squarely in the crotch, hard enough to make his stinger fall off. Smedley’s eyes went wide, his face bright pink, then he crumpled to the carpet and made high-pitched squeaking noises.
‘Moron.’ McEwan picked the gun from the floor. ‘It’s the oldest crime writing mistake in the book – Glocks don’t have safety catches. You’re under arrest. All of you.’
‘Even me?’ Helen laid her head against McEwan’s chest.
Something stirred deep inside him. It might have been love, or it might have been indigestion … but what the hell. ‘OK, not you. But everyone else is nicked. Especially Smedley.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Now, any chance you can put on the Britt costume again?’
Simon Theakston was as good as his word, and every month a whole container of Old Peculier turned up on McEwan’s doorstep. Granny Smith was given five life sentences for murder and dismemberment. The Old Man with the eye patch was struck from the Agent’s Register and committed to Happydale Sanatorium for the criminally insane – where he has the padded cell next door to Detective Sergeant Smedley, who now sings soprano in the asylum choir. Helen moved in with McEwan, and they lived happily ever after. And if he forgets her birthday now and then, well, at least he’s got an excuse…