2: the hands
‘I’ll kill the bloody lot of them!’
Sitting on the low wall outside The White Bear Hotel only a hundred yards away from Theakston Brewery, the ejected crime writer drummed his still bootie-clad heels viciously into the stonework and plotted literary revenge.
He pictured a number of thick balding Yorkshire policemen, all with flat feet and bad breath, but couldn’t quite decide whether to stage a massacre on the opening page, or string out their torment right up to the final chapter.
If he was honest – which he admitted could be a borderline trait – the crime writer wasn’t enjoying the Harrogate festival as much as previous years. His publishers, he felt, were not quite so effusive in their praise, nor lavish in their lunches, as they had once been, and his royalty cheques of late had been going the way of his hairline rather than his waistline. A trend he was anxious to reverse, hence today’s failed attempt to gain some much-needed gritty insider realism for his next work.
‘Bastards,’ he muttered.
The other reason for his discomfort was having been publicly buttonholed in the bar at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate, where the crime writing festival had its home, by some damn Yank whippersnapper making outrageous claims of plagiarism against him. Him! As if an author of his standing would possibly resort to such low tricks. And if his latest plot bore uncanny resemblance to one entered in a competition for unpublished writers the previous year, where he just so happened to have been a judge, that was entirely coincidental. Although, perhaps with hindsight he should at least have changed a few names…
Still, damn the man, with his California tan and perfect veneers! The crime writer ran an experimental tongue round his own less-than-perfect teeth. If the way he’d been reduced to grinding them last night was anything to go by, he’d need a full set of dentures before the week was out.
‘Please to excuse me, but am I not knowing you, yes?’
The voice was young, foreign and female, any one of which would have been enough to send the crime writer’s pulse rate soaring.
He sucked in his bulging stomach and swivelled on the wall, completely forgetting the paper crime scene suit, which remained obstinately facing forwards. As he fought to disentangle himself he half-expected, the way his luck was running, to be confronted by a short fat woman with facial hair and a squint, but if anything the voice had not done justice to the girl who now approached out of the mist.
She was tall. Very tall, in fact. With legs that went all the way up and down again on the other side. She was also gorgeous. And twenty-something. And blonde.
‘Well, hel–lo,’ he drawled, Leslie Phillips-esque. Ding and, indeed, dong.
‘You are him, yes?’ the blonde said, doe-eyed and tentative. ‘For sure! I am buying all of your books. I am biggest fan! I am curling up with you very much on long winter nights, yes please?’
‘Oh, yes please,’ murmured the crime writer fervently.
The blonde tossed her long straight hair, causing a passing van driver to narrowly avoid both a twisted neck and a head-on collision as he sped by. Must have recognised me, thought the crime writer idly.
The blonde fingered the sleeve of his paper suit. ‘I am seeing these very much today,’ she said, frowning. Her lips parted on a gasp of realisation. ‘Ah! You are helping police, for sure. They come to you as famous detective in book, to solve crime in life, yes?’
‘Well, of course, the police contacted me,’ the crime writer said, casually smoothing down his thinning hair where the constable’s hand had actually made stinging contact several times. ‘I’ve just been speaking with the Chief Inspector in charge of the case, as a matter of fact.’
‘Then you help me, please?’ the blonde said beseechingly. ‘My … friend, he is missing here since two nights.’ She cuddled up closer to his arm and fixed him with a solemn gaze. ‘I am much frightened to be all alone.’
He patted her hand. ‘Don’t worry my dear … er, what is your name?’
The crime writer suppressed a groan.
‘—my dear, Britt. You have at your disposal one of the keenest literary minds in all of England. Now, where did you last see your friend?’
‘Oh, he was going to the brewery of the Old Peculier, for sure.’
‘Ah-ha!’ He hopped down off the wall, tearing the seat of his paper suit in the process, which somewhat took the swash out of his buckle. The blonde pretended fascination with the shrouded view while he fought his way out of what remained of the suit, a job made more difficult by its inside-outness, which the DCI had earlier pointed out. ‘To Theakstons! I’ll soon get to the bottom of things, never fear.’ And, with any luck, a pint or three of OP, too.
She took his arm again. She really was much taller than he was. The crime writer found his glasses seemed to have misted up. Must be the fog.
‘So,’ he murmured, eyes narrowed in deductive skill, ‘with that accent, that name, you must be Swedish.’
‘Oh no,’ Britt said with every appearance of wide-eyed innocence. ‘I am Norwegian.’
Back in the cooper’s workshop, DCI McEwan peered under the piece of stained sacking DS Smedley had indicated with the resigned air of someone who knows he isn’t going to like what he finds there. After a moment, he straightened.
‘So?’ he demanded. ‘Hands. You’ve seen ‘em before. Usually attached to arms, I grant you, but—’
‘There’s two of ‘em, Guv.’
‘What were you expecting? Tentacles? Now get ‘em fingerprinted before—’
‘Two right hands, Guv.’
‘Don’t be bloody stupid, man.’ McEwan lifted the sacking again, stared for a moment, let it drape back. ‘There’s two right hands.’
‘That’s handy,’ said a voice. Both policemen jumped. Smedley’s moustache bristled independently of the rest of him, like a mildly electrocuted rodent.
The large SIS man, Western, filled the doorway behind them.
‘Do you have to do that?’ McEwan yelped.
‘Standard operating procedure,’ Western said. ‘I do a good lurk as well.’
McEwan jerked his head to the sacking. ‘I don’t suppose you’d be willing to share any theories on whose extra extremity we have here?’
‘Not at all,’ Western said blandly. ‘Not without my colleague’s say-so.’
McEwan became aware for the first time that the space in shadow behind Western was empty. ‘Hang on. Where is Granny Smith?’
‘I could tell you,’ Western said, looming some more, deadpan, ‘but then—’
‘Don’t tell me,’ McEwan snapped. ‘You’d be forced to kill me, right?’
‘Oh no.’ Western cracked his first smile of the day. ‘There’d be nothing forced about it.’
Mrs Smith had chosen the loft where Theakstons varieties of hops were stored to have a private word with Simon Theakston. Having filled him in, she was now inspecting the bales of sweet-smelling dried petals, although, not being a beer drinker, she was somewhat reminded of potpourri.
In contrast to the plump woman’s serene expression, the brewery owner looked devastated.
‘Are you sure?’ he asked faintly. ‘I mean … well, the whole idea is simply monstrous!’
‘Oh yes, dear,’ Mrs Smith said. ‘We’ve been keeping local plod out of the loop, but, what with recent developments, I thought it best if you were brought up to speed on the gravity—’ she smiled ‘—the very specific gravity, one might say, of the situation.’
‘But, something like this would be a national disaster… Are you sure this is even possible?’
Mrs Smith’s reply was forestalled by the thud of policeman’s boots on the wooden stairs.
‘Hoy! What the bloody hell d’you think you’re doing, interfering with my witness?’ McEwan demanded. ‘You can’t just—’
‘Oh, I think you’ll find I can, Chief Inspector,’ Smith interrupted, smiling. ‘Besides, Mr Theakston didn’t see or hear anything that might concern you.’ She pulled a wodge of paperwork from the depths of the tartan handbag, waved it under his nose. ‘And, just to prove it, this is a copy of the Official Secrets Act. How many shall I put you down for?’
McEwan went toe-to-open-toe with her sensible white sandals. ‘Now, listen here, you old bat—’
More bootsteps and DS Smedley appeared before the DCI could reach full stride.
‘Guv! This has just been found outside the main gate.’ He produced a small canister with a label attached. ‘Addressed to Mr Theakston. Might be from the yeast-nappers.’
Simon Theakston looked dubiously at the proffered canister. ‘Is it safe to handle?’
‘Well, the SOCO lads have given it a quick rattle, and it didn’t go off.’
‘It’s from the Norwegians,’ said Mrs Smith.
‘Can tell just by looking, can you?’ McEwan demanded.
‘No, dear.’ Mrs Smith pointed to the label. ‘But it says here ‘takk så mye’.’
‘Oh, thank you so much,’ McEwan said, sarky.
‘I didn’t know you spoke Norwegian, Chief Inspector.’
Carefully, Theakston removed the lid and peered inside. ‘My God…’
‘More body parts?’ McEwan asked hopefully. ‘Only, we’re missing a couple of left hands…’
Theakston’s expression was bewildered. ‘It’s … yeast.’
‘What? The missing yeast?’
‘Quite possibly,’ Theakston murmured, glancing at Mrs Smith. ‘But I thought you said they were going to—’
‘They still might,’ Smith said warningly, reaching for the canister.
‘Don’t touch that!’ McEwan barked. ‘It’s evidence. And it might be infected!’
There was a long pause. Mrs Smith rolled her eyes. DS Smedley inspected his nails.
‘So, they only borrowed the yeast?’ McEwan said, ears going pink. ‘Why?’
‘I’m sure you’ll figure it out, dear.’ Mrs Smith patted his arm. ‘Eventually.’
‘Ah, if this does turn out to be the kidnapped yeast, Chief Inspector…’ Simon Theakston cleared his throat. ‘Well, it would seem your chaps might not be needing all those extra cases of Old Peculier after all, hm?’
McEwan was still smarting over the exchange as he and Smedley thumped down the wooden staircases leading from the upper levels of the brewery.
‘Tell me you’ve found out more about Mr bloody-jigsaw Preston,’ he snapped.
‘Not much, Guv. Apparently he was an avid apiarist – er, beekeeper,’ Smedley amended, seeing the DCI’s expression. ‘Wrote for Beekeepers’ Quarterly. Just had an article published on this worrying new strain of apathetic drones from Scandinavia. ‘Shirker bees’ it was called.’
‘Oh well, that’s bloody fascinating, I’m sure.’ McEwan’s voice dripped. ‘And bugger all to do with this case!’
But as their footsteps faded on the stairs, a figure moved out of the shadows, and smiled.
As darkness fell on Masham, the crime writer also emerged from the shadows. Seeing the place still thronged by his fellow scribes earlier, he’d talked Britt out of making a daytime return to the brewery. She’d fallen in with his plans for a nocturnal visit with heartening enthusiasm, and agreed to meet him near the main gate at the stroke of midnight.
He had dressed in his best ninja black, complete with silk balaclava that he only wore for special occasions, and he’d hoped the Norwegian lovely would be suitably impressed by his covert infiltration expertise. Perhaps even enough to be coaxed back to his suite at the Crown later for a more personal demonstration.
‘Where is she?’ he muttered, stumbling along the uneven flags that lined the narrow approach. The balaclava had inadvertently been through a machine hot wash and was somewhat smaller than intended, with the resultant restriction in his vision.
Perhaps it was for this reason that the crime writer did not see the figure who stepped out into his path until he almost fell over them. He tipped his head back, stretching the balaclava until his eyes more or less lined up with the holes.
His first thought was: ‘What the hell are you doing here?’
And his last was: ‘Ooh! That’s a big knife…’