4: the feet
‘Don’t worry, Britt dear,’ said Mrs Smith. ‘He’s not going to need them again. He won’t exactly be walking anywhere, will he? Now hurry up and cut them off.’
‘You pulled me out of the foot-lopping course,’ Britt muttered in perfect estuary English. She thought of all the insults the cops had thrown at her boss and wished she dared copy them. ‘So I don’t know how to do it.’
‘Behave. You have all the tools, and there won’t be much blood. The heart doesn’t pump after death.’
‘But what’s in the vessels obeys the laws of gravity,’ Britt said, suppressing: you horrible old turdburger. That McEwan had a nice way with words.
Mrs Smith was like all the evil witches from every fairy tale Britt had ever been forced to read as a child. Rosa Klebb probably had nothing on her either.
‘Why do you want his feet?’ she asked, hearing the nasty little whining tone in her voice.
‘They’ll be as handy a way as any to keep that greedy idiot McEwan and his bunch of filthy scroungers out of my way.’
Do all ancient spies talk like that? Britt asked herself as Smith opened her wizened little mouth again. Honestly it did look like a cat’s back— Britt corrected herself. She’d been pulled up for obscenity only the other day.
‘Not like that, child! Angle the scalpel,’ Smith said with an unfair snap in her voice. ‘You won’t get a neat enough line if you don’t. Think of tidying up the pastry round the edge of an apple pie.’
‘You think I like ever made a pie in my life?’
‘That’s where your fundamental problem lies. If you’d learned to handle all the demands and stresses involved in baking you wouldn’t make so much fuss about dismembering a useless member of humanity,’ Smith said, rabbitting on as usual.
‘Why do you really want his feet?’
‘Need to know only, I’m afraid, Britt. Need to know. Now get on with it. Put the feet under the hedge close to the ‘Welcome to Masham’ sign and get back to Harrogate. Bat your pretty little eyelashes at the old man and tell him the yeast’s back where it belongs. And I’ve got the stolen formula back.’
‘You’re as bad as a three-year-old boy. You do not need to know.’
Caroline Smith watched as Britt hacked first at one foot and then the next. Clearly the child had never jointed a chicken either.
At last! She’d managed to separate the skin and muscle and tendons. Only the actual joints remained. Caroline’s hands itched to help, but the old man had been insistent. Only Britt was to touch this body. And, obviously, only in gloves. At last it was done.
‘That’s better.’ Caroline always liked to encourage the young when she could. ‘Now, slide the feet into the bags. One to each. That’s right. And put them under the hedge. Then forget you were ever here.’
‘Plenty of people like saw me in Masham today.’
‘But not here they didn’t.’ Caroline Smith wondered whether the rising generation was really as clueless as it seemed or whether even her intake had exasperated the powers-that-were who’d fought the Cold War. At least she and her fellow officers had never asked questions. They’d done as they were told without protest, and they’d never shown fear. Ever.
That was harder to achieve now that she knew so much more than she’d ever known in the old days.
The yeast had been successfully introduced to Ingredient X in the lab and the stinks boys were certain the formula would do its work. Caroline hoped so. She did not want to have to go through all this again. And luckily guarding the lab wasn’t her pigeon. A whole secret army had been deployed for that.
If the project worked, the dry cleaners who’d wanted to kill Alec Guinness in that film of The Man in the White Suit would be nothing to what Big Pharma would do to suppress this.
Why the old man couldn’t have just asked Simon Theakston for a sample of the yeast, she’d never know. After all the Theakstons had always been exemplary patriots. He’d have given them a bit the second he knew why they wanted it.
Still, hers not to reason why. Hers but to do and… Well, she hoped it wouldn’t be hers to die this time. She still had a lot of work to do, as well as skills that shouldn’t be wasted. A few crime writers and their hangers-on like this one and Mackenzie could be easily spared, but a woman like her? No way, as Britt would say.
At last the tall pretty child had finished her ridiculously laboured packing and had the feet nicely settled, each one in the centre of its own freezer bag.
‘On your way, Britt.’
‘Don’t you need help with the…. the rest of him?’
Caroline smiled at the idea she should need any assistance from a child like this. She shook her white head and waved Britt away, with one final instruction.
‘And do not forget to bleach the gloves – neat bleach, remember – before putting a stone in each and dropping them into the river at Knaresborough. Have you got that?’
Caroline winced at the colloquialism, gave Britt time to get away, then walked towards the footless, one-handed corpse and stood looking down. She hoped she was leaving clear enough prints on the muddy surface of the road for McEwan and his team of clodhoppers to puzzle over.
‘Perhaps that’ll teach you to admire idiots who take death, pain and mutilation so carelessly,’ she said aloud to the dead crime writer’s sidekick, resisting the temptation to trample all over his body. ‘You disgusting little shit.’
Her farewells done, she set the charges, then strung the tripwire at bumper height from hedge to hedge. She didn’t want any lone motorcyclist to have his head whipped off. This way, even if a biker did make the mistake of coming along the road before her target, he’d only be catapulted off his bike and – likely enough – end up in the field over there with no more than a few bruises.
Caroline checked that all was well, then jogged off down the road away from Masham, enjoying the clean look of the moonlight and the way it slid slyly through the hedges and around the leaves.
Britt’s ignorance of the connection between the idiot Mackenzie, Thomas Preston and their own corpse was an unexpected blessing, but it was unlikely to be shared by the rest of the world. Some bee-keeping expert would crack the ‘Scandinavian shirker-bees’ code as soon as look at you. Even the careless, beer-glugging plods would get there in the end. A little ingenuity was going to be needed, and even more disinformation planted around the place. Like the fishy footprints she’d just left beside the body.
For a moment, Caroline was tempted to have a few spare limbs removed from other people. That would definitely muddy the waters and drag any number of red herrings across the trail. And she had more than enough candidates she’d like to kill. Starting with McEwan.
‘James Bond’s granny indeed!’ she muttered aloud.
Like a lot of people who habitually talk to themselves, McEwan clearly didn’t realise that his lips shaped every word he wanted to say. And when you’d grown up with a deaf father, as Caroline had, you could lip-read better than you could hear.
‘James Bond’s granny.’
Horrible little man.
She would enjoy seeing him make an ass of himself. Eat his words, too. But first, the lab, where the yeast and Ingredient X were being nurtured with the kind of care usually given only to saviours of mankind.
Perhaps that wasn’t surprising: if all went well, they would be just exactly that.
Brilliant lip-reader though she was, she didn’t have the best of hearing any longer, so she saw the formula-stealer’s Land Rover before she heard it, even though he wasn’t using his headlights. No surprise that, of course, on his kind of mission.
Luckily, he hadn’t clocked her. But then she was dressed in full wetsuit and night-vision goggles. She eeled her way through the hedge and waited until he’d passed.
Any second now and he’d hit the trip… There it was: terrific. One of her better explosions. The rest of the third man would be spread all over the surrounding countryside now. And the chilly-looking moonlight was nicely warmed up by the conflagration. Shooting orange and yellow flames transformed the view. She rather wished she had a camera with her.
And, yes, someone had alerted the idiot plods, just as the old man had hoped. Sirens were urgently wailing from about four different directions. It was all going to plan.
Would Britt have the wit to disappear as quickly as the old man wanted? If not and they got her, would she break? There was always one weak link in the chain. Caroline shivered.
She hated being out in the cold like this, even in her wetsuit. The real action was taking place at the lab and in the Harrogate basement, where the old man was sitting in the makeshift ops room, spinning his web, waiting for news.
Her minute phone vibrated in her bra. Unzipping the bloody wetsuit was as hard as usual, but she got the phone out in the end and read the text.
Good work CU2morro
With a beatific smile relaxing all the muscles in her face and smoothing out some of the wrinkles, Caroline jogged steadily across the fields to the hollow tree where she’d cached her cardi and the rest of her clothes.
There she set to work, peeling off the wetsuit, hating the way the tight rubber caught chunks of her slack skin and pinched it painfully. She was glad there was no one to see her spare tyres or the ancient elephant’s-breath-coloured underwear she couldn’t bring herself to throw away. When you’d been brought up by people who remembered the war and believed thriftiness was a lot closer to godliness than cleanliness, you never threw away anything that still had elastic in it.
Dressed at last, she rolled up the wetsuit, pushed it into the plastic bag and tied that around her waist. Another good ten minutes’ jogging would bring her to the nearest storm drain that would, if the old man were right, whisk the evidence away from all prying eyes.
Memories of his multifarious duplicities crossed her mind. Was he setting her up for discovery? Would she find herself in an interview room at the local nick, facing that idiot McEwan?
Oh, heaven! Taking on a clot like him would be fun.
She did as the old man had ordered and jogged in a wide loop back to Masham. The birds were sounding almost hysterical with joy as they greeted the pinky dawn.
Caroline let herself soundlessly in to the hotel. A long hot shower with plenty of the delicious Penhaligon’s English Fern shower gel – she’d brought it north with her – would soothe most of the aches and pains the night’s excitements had drilled into her aging body. Then she could have a couple of hours’ kip before her pre-arranged wake-up call.
She could be seen at breakfast and then she and Mr Western could drive her sedate old car back to Harrogate as planned. All should be well.
The stairs creaked in spite of all her care. She hesitated, pressed against the wall. A door opened into the downstairs foyer and light poured out. Should she make a run for it? As she hesitated, she saw movement and knew she had to stay.
A tall man in dark clothes toppled out of the doorway and on to the red carpet, with all the dead weight of a felled sequoia.
Caroline peered downwards, trying to identify him. In this light, without her night-vision goggles, all she saw was the hole in his temple, very dark against the pasty skin. And then she heard McEwan’s voice:
‘I don’t care if the old turdburger’s asleep. She brought this bugger Western up north with her and she’s got questions to answer. Go and get her.’
Caroline fled upstairs.