3: the torso
Simon Theakston was waiting for McEwan in the lobby of the White Bear Hotel, his agitated face a strikingly similar shade to its elegant taupe colour scheme.
‘Where is it, then?’ said McEwan, privately thanking God that the brewery owner, distraught though he might – understandably – be, was clearly a man who could be relied upon to keep his head in a crisis.
‘In the cellar. We’ve got stuff stored down there, and one of the staff discovered it when he went to collect some chairs. It’s all right, I’ve managed to calm him down.’
‘Where is he?’
‘In the bar. I thought he could do with a pick-up. Don’t worry, there’s someone with him and he’s been told not to say anything. The thing’s in the well—’
‘Yes. It’s been there for centuries. Never used, and it’s normally boarded up. He noticed the board had been pushed away, and when he went to secure it… Well, you’ll see for yourself.’
‘Right. Lead the way.’
Theakston took him down the corridor, past a series of bedrooms, and unlocked a heavy door at the far end. ‘We’ll need this,’ he said, producing a large torch from a ledge inside. ‘Mind the steps.’
McEwan followed the beam down a set of wooden stairs into a large, vaulted room like a church crypt, sunk in subterranean gloom. Hearing the distant drip of water, he shuddered. The place was like the waiting room for a Medieval torture chamber and he half expected to see a hump-backed, mono-toothed gaoler shuffling towards him with a set of manacles and the gloating, idiotic grin of a sadistic simpleton who is about to inflict serious pain. ‘Bloody hell,’ he muttered.
‘This way,’ said Theakston, his voice echoing around the lofty ceiling, and led him down a corridor into another large vaulted room, this time with a lower ceiling. In the centre was a sunken well with a knee-high brick surround. Theakston shone his torch into the grimy water, and McEwan could see, beneath the scum on the surface, a number of large black objects. For a moment, he wondered why they’d been identified as body parts, but then one of them turned slightly and he found himself staring into a solitary eye, its bulging white turned yellow like a small, polluted fried egg. A line of scum floated across it, so that, for a horrible, scrotum-tightening moment, it seemed to wink at him. He retreated, hastily – as if the place wasn’t creepy enough, for Christ’s sake. The last thing he needed was a game of human lucky-dip.
‘Any idea who it is?’ he asked. Rolf Harris echoed somewhere in the recesses of his mind. ‘Know what it is yet, kids?’ What a bloody stupid thing to say.
Theakston considered his asinine question for a moment, then said, gently, ‘I’m afraid not. There’s not really much to go on, is there?’
‘Well,’ said McEwan, ‘We’ll have to fish him out.’
Instructing Theakston to close the door behind them, he accompanied the brewery owner back upstairs, where he contacted the SOCOs.
An hour later, under the harsh white light of the SOCO team’s lamps, with plastic sheeting laid all around, they were peering once more into the well when McEwan heard a squelchy noise behind him and turned round to see Granny Smith glaring malevolently in his direction. Her open-toed sandals were now encased in a sturdy pair of galoshes, and a capacious, old-fashioned handbag was slung over one liver-spotted wrist. The hulking form of Western – ‘I do a good loom’ – stood proprietarily behind her.
Great, McEwan thought. Bloody marvellous. Miss Marple from the Secret Service or MI6 or whatever the bastards called themselves nowadays. ‘What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing here?’
Mrs Smith pursed her mouth into the puckered shape of a cat’s bottom.
‘Well, bugger off and observe something else. We’re busy.’
‘If I were you I’d concentrate on fishing – you and the laughing gnome over there.’ She pointed to a dwarfish, paper-suited member of the SOCO team who was squatting beside the rim of the well with an expression of fierce concentration and something that – in its upper parts at least – resembled a rod.
‘Sure it’s human, are you?’ asked Western.
Piper, the SOCO who had been absorbed in unwrapping what seemed to be an A4-size packet of soggy black cloth, looked up from his kneeling position and said, ‘Yes. And it’s male. At least—’ he paused, waggling his little finger in the air, ‘I think it is.’
‘Looks like the head’s coming up,’ said the gnome. ‘Yup,’ he said, as a black object roughly the size and shape of a rugby ball was borne aloft and deposited on the plastic sheeting. ‘Jackpot.’
There was a tense silence during which the head was unwrapped and Mrs Smith and McEwan glared at each other over the heads of the kneeling SOCOs. ‘It’s that Scottish bloke,’ said Piper. ‘The little squirt who was sniffing round the place yesterday, pretending to be Taggart.’
‘The writer?’ McEwan bent over to look.
‘Yeah. McBumFace or whatever his name is.’
‘Mr Benn, more like it.’ The gnome glanced over. ‘He was the Milk Tray man today by the look of things. That’s a balaclava.’
‘Plonker.’ McEwan shook his head in disgust. ‘What the hell was he doing poncing around down here like that?’
‘He could,’ said Mrs Smith, in the patient tones of one explaining something to an exceptionally dim child, ‘have been killed upstairs and brought here afterwards and cut up on the spot.’
‘I know that,’ snapped McEwan, ‘but I’d have thought that somebody lugging a stiff round a hotel might – just might – be slightly conspicuous.’
Mrs Smith ignored this. Her attention was fixed on the next item being handed out of the well which, judging from the size, looked as if it might be the unfortunate writer’s torso. Bound around the black cloth in which it was wrapped was a piece of rope, and attached to it were a bundle of papers in a plastic zip-loc bag.
‘Perhaps it’s an unfinished masterpiece,’ said Piper.
‘Whatever it is,’ said Mrs Smith, ‘I shall take charge of it.’
‘No you bloody well won’t,’ said McEwan. ‘It’s evidence. ”Exactly,’ retorted Mrs Smith. ‘It’s im-por-tant,‘ she spelt out, hitting each syllable with patronising emphasis.
‘That’s why we need to have it analysed,’ spluttered McEwan. ‘And I’m not accustomed,’ he added, pompously, ‘to being treated like an idiot.’
Mrs Smith looked him up and down. ‘You surprise me, dear.’ Shrugging, she turned away and began delving in the pockets of her lumpy cardigan.
Western stepped forward so that his enormous, booteed shoes were right next to Piper’s knees. He watched in silence for a few moments as the SOCO commenced detaching the bag from its moorings, then said, ‘When you’re ready.’
Piper turned to McEwan. ‘Guv?’
‘For heaven’s sake.’ Mrs Smith snapped on a pair of plastic gloves and, deftly tweaking the zip-loc bag from Piper’s grasp, popped it into an evidence wallet and, opening her capacious handbag, dropped it in and closed the clasp with a snap that echoed round the cavernous room.
Just then, footsteps echoed from the direction of the corridor and a nervous-looking young PC appeared. ‘Guv? Someone upstairs to see you. From that crime writers’ do in Harrogate. Says it’s urgent.’
‘Bloody hell… All right, Jackson, I’m on my way. And you,’ he snarled, turning to Mrs Smith, ‘don’t touch anything else till I get back.’
A slim, pretty young woman with an anxious expression was waiting for him in the hotel lobby. As he walked towards her, McEwan straightened his back and pushed out his chest. ‘Detective Chief Inspector McEwan,’ he said, stressing the ‘Chief’ bit. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Tracey Williams. I’m sorry to bother you, but when I spoke to Simon Theakston, he suggested I come over. One of our authors has gone missing. It’s odd, because he’s usually in the bar at the Crown, and he’s supposed to be doing an event in half-an-hour. No-one’s seen him, but I know he came up here yesterday, and when we heard what happened, we thought perhaps…’ She tailed off, looking uncomfortable.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Aah… Well, Ms Williams, I’m afraid he’s made his last appearance.’
Tracey Williams frowned. ‘I don’t understand. Is he in some sort of trouble?’
‘You could say that. Why don’t you come and sit down and I’ll get someone to fetch you a cup of tea, and I shall explain.’
‘All right,’ said Tracey, doubtfully. ‘Only, if he can’t make it, I’ll need to phone my colleagues so that we can organise a replacement.’
‘What was it, this event?’ asked McEwan, steering her towards one of the sofas.
Tracey took a brightly coloured programme and leafed through it to find the correct page. ‘This.’
McEwan took the programme. Beside a photograph of Mackenzie – taken quite a few years ago, he reckoned – there was a heading in bold type: ’11.30am – Fun With Body Parts: 100 Ways to Dispose of a Corpse.’