5: the brains
‘This is getting ridiculous,’ said Chief Inspector McEwan, staring at Western’s body. ‘Like an episode of The Wire, or something.’
‘Or worse,’ said DS Smedley, stroking his moustache, his lips curling with distaste, ‘Midsomer Murders.’
The body was that of Mr Western, the MI6 operative/borderline thug who had had plenty to say for himself earlier in the day. He had nothing to say now, however, nor would he ever be likely to. Someone had shut him up. Permanently.
McEwan bent down, examining the body. He had fallen out of a doorway in the White Bear Hotel, looking like the result of some kind of scuffle or fight. Altercation. That would be the word he’d use when he came to write it up in his report. He groaned inwardly. Report. How many murders? Bodies? How many mismatching body parts? An explosion last night and now this. It wouldn’t be a report he’d be writing but a three volume Victorian novel.
The hotel was gearing up for breakfast. He could smell bacon and eggs coming from the kitchen. His stomach growled, reminding him that the last thing he had eaten was a Snickers bar seventeen hours ago. He had told the bar staff to keep everyone away and that he would be declaring this an official crime zone. Needless to say, that had gone down as well as expected.
He returned his attention to the late and, as far as he was concerned, unlamented Mr Western. Blood had stopped pumping from the wound, making the already red carpet even redder. It looked like his head was lying in a deep velvet pool. McEwan saw through the blood on the side of his head a hole, ragged and matted, just above his ear, where the blood and other matter had made its escape from his body. His eyes were open, staring. McEwan looked into them.
‘They used to say that a murder victim’s eyeballs held an imprint of the murderer,’ said Smedley. ‘Like in a camera.’
‘Really,’ said McEwan without standing or looking up. ‘And where did you discover this fascinating little gem?’
Smedley shrugged. ‘Some old horror film, I think.’
McEwan stood up. ‘Well, tempting though it would be to send his eyes down to Happy Snaps to be developed, I think we’re going to have to rely on good old fashioned police work to solve this one.’
Smedley looked down at the body. ‘Are those his brains leaking out there?’
‘We have to assume so,’ said McEwan. ‘Although he didn’t seem over-endowed with any earlier.’
‘What’ll we do? Work on this ourselves or give it to Mrs Smith and her lot? He was one of them.’
McEwan kept looking at the body. ‘I should think Mrs Smith from WI6 or SIS or ACRONYM or whoever will want to take charge. And she’s welcome to. But until then it’s one of ours, I’m afraid.’
DC Wise chose that moment to come back down the stairs. McEwan looked at her.
‘I knocked,’ the DC said, ‘but got no answer. So I knocked again. Still no answer. So— ‘
‘Is this going to take long? Only I retire in another twenty years.’
DC Wise flushed. ‘Sorry sir. Anyway, I used the hotel passkey and let myself in to her room. And Mrs Smith was either sleeping very heavily or doing a damned good impression. There was a bottle of pills on the bedside. Looks like she’d be out for some time.’
McEwan nodded. ‘Thank you.’ His tone softer than earlier. He looked at the foot of the body, into the doorway it had fallen through. He turned to the waitress standing sullenly watching him. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Well Suzanne, what’s through there?’
‘The toilets. The kitchens.’
‘Right. And did you see anyone coming or going down there? Probably in a hurry? Probably covered in blood?’
She shook her head.
‘I think I would have remembered.’
Christ, thought McEwan. Everyone’s a bloody comedian. ‘Thanks.’
He looked down again at the body. Smedley shut his mobile, turned to him. ‘Called the circus, SOCO’s on their way. Got some uniforms taping the hotel off. They’re not happy, going to have a lot of disappointed and hungry guests. When they’ve done that I’ve got them going round interviewing guests. See if anyone heard or saw anything suspicious. What do we do in the meantime?’
McEwan smiled. ‘Have breakfast. Shame to let it all go to waste.’
He began to walk towards the dining area then stopped, turned. ‘DC Wise?’
‘Our Mrs Smith was asleep, you said? Fast asleep?’
‘Doubt even Led Zeppelin in their prime could wake her, the strength of the sleeping pills she had.’
He smiled again, thinking it was winning and charming but due to a diet of stress, Theakstons OP, Snickers bars and lack of sleep, came off more like a grimace the Zodiac killer would pull before dispatching one of his victims.
‘Did you happen to see any papers when you were in her room?’
Wise frowned. ‘Papers?’
‘She pulled rank, took some papers from a crime scene yesterday. That murdered crime writer. I’m sure she’ll still have them in her room. Give us something to read over breakfast.’
‘Brains. That’s what we need. Let’s put our heads together. What have we got?’ McEwan talked as he shoved the last bit of fried egg and sausage into his mouth. He was a generous eater; his habit of talking with his mouth full ensured his junior officers shared his breakfast.
And what a breakfast. He had asked for as much fried food and ketchup as possible piled on one plate. It had looked like Heart Attack Island on Lake Heinz.
Smedley picked foreign matter from his moustache, began to talk. ‘Thomas Preston. Dead and in pieces.’
‘Two right hands,’ said Wise.
‘A dead crime writer,’ said Smedley. ‘I read one of his books, you know. Getting killed’s probably payback for the way he murdered the English language.’
McEwan was busy mopping up the various juices from his plate. He was trying not to be reminded of what he had earlier seen oozing out of Mr Western’s skull. ‘Plus the geriatric division of MI6, dodgy Norwegians, kidnapped yeast— ‘
‘Now returned,’ said Smedley.
‘Now returned. And this.’ He pointed to the papers that had been found with the late Malcolm Mackenzie. He had looked through them before starting to eat and hadn’t understood a word.
SOCO had arrived and, with their white paper body suits and forensic examination tools, had created an ambience of biohazard in the hotel which wasn’t perhaps the way to attract new business but was giving the guests memories to take home with them that they previously wouldn’t have encountered.
McEwan pushed his plate away, brought the papers towards him again. Wise had had no trouble taking them from Mrs Smith’s room. The old woman had been snoring so loudly she sounded like an asthmatic tiger.
And now the papers were with them. They were print-outs of various articles taken from the internet, all from serious, peer-reviewed scientific journals. And they all concerned the same thing. Bees.
‘Thomas Preston,’ said McEwan. ‘He was a beekeeper, wasn’t he?’
‘He was,’ said DC Wise.
‘Yes,’ said DS Smedley, who then frowned. ‘Wonder what he made of them all disappearing?’
‘Probably cut up about it,’ said Wise. ‘In pieces.’
‘That’s enough,’ said McEwan. ‘Bees. These articles are about bees. Thomas Preston kept bees. Wrote an article in Beekeepers’ Quarterly about apathetic Scandinavian drones. Shirker bees.’
Smedley shrugged. ‘So?’
McEwan picked up the papers, flourished them before his junior officer’s face. ‘Read these.’
Smedley did so. McEwan waited. He put them down, scratched his moustache. ‘Still don’t get it.’
‘What’s it about?’
Smedley looked at the papers again.
McEwan sighed. ‘And yeast.’ He was nearly shouting. ‘Bees and yeast.’ Wise was looking between the pair of them, frowning. ‘Read it again.’
Smedley did so.
Smedley looked up. ‘Still bees . . .’
McEwan looked like he wanted to hit him.
‘Guv, you tell me what it says,’ Wise said.
‘It’s talking about bees being under threat from a parasite called the small hive beetle,’ said McEwan, referring to the notes before him. ‘They burrow into honeycombs and cause so much damage the bees have to abandon the hive.’
Wise was still frowning. ‘So?’
McEwan looked at the papers. ‘When bees are under threat, they release an alarm pheromone. This brings loads of other worker bees to their aid. But the beetles can use this to find the hives. In fact, they can get there before the other bees and move in, take over, hatch eggs. And you know how they do this?’
He looked between the other two. Nothing. Blank faces.
McEwan sat back as if his words had made everything clear. Smedley and Wise exchanged looks.
‘Right, Guv,’ said Smedley. ‘Yeast. Right.’
McEwan sighed. ‘Don’t you see the connection?’
They shook their heads.
‘These hive beetles carry a type of yeast that ferments the pollen in the hives and releases chemicals that . . .’ He lost his place, had to read from the paper. ‘ . . . mimic the alarm pheromones of the bees. Now d’you see?’
Smedley was frowning hard, as if the act of screwing up his forehead would allow understanding to flood his brain. ‘No boss, sorry . . .’
McEwan shook his head. The only sighted man in the kingdom of the blind. ‘Bees. Thomas Preston was a beekeeper. Researching into apathetic shirker bees. Malcolm Mackenzie died with a whole load of papers on him about bees, beetles and yeast. The Theakstons brewery has recently been at the centre of a yeastnapping.’ He sat back. ‘Now d’you see?’
Smedley kept frowning. Eventually he nodded his head. ‘Yeah . . . there’s a . . . connection there . . .’
He started frowning again. ‘But what does it mean?’
‘I don’t know. Not yet, anyway.’ He dropped his voice, continued talking as if to a very young, very backward child. ‘We’ll have to find out. We’re police. It’s what we do for a living, right?’
Smedley nodded. ‘Right . . .’
‘Right . . .’ The voice came from behind McEwan. He turned. The head SOCO was standing there. Small, round, female, fiercely Yorkshire and about as far away from the TV CSI as it was possible to be.
‘Helen. What you got?’
‘Well, it’s not a pretty sight. Looks like the cause of death was being stabbed with something.’
‘Thanks. Anything more specific?’
‘Well . . . we haven’t done any tests yet, but it was long and sharp. A thick ice pick. Something from the tool shed. A stiletto.’
‘The knife or the shoe?’
‘Take your pick.’ She laughed. ‘Take your pick. See what I did there?’
‘Yeah, really funny. Anything else?’
‘Nothing for now. Let you know more when we know more. Hey that’s good, that. Should be a catch phrase.’
The CSI wandered off, laughing at her own jokes. McEwan turned to his team.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘Plan of action. Smedley, you— ‘ His words were interrupted by the arrival of a uniform. He crossed to McEwan.
‘Sir . . . sir . . .’ The officer’s face was virtually drained, like he was in shock.
‘Go on,’ said McEwan. ‘My day can’t possibly get any worse.’
‘We . . . we just found a pair of feet . . .’
‘I stand corrected. Where?’
‘By the . . . sign on the . . . way in . . . by the . . . brewery . . .’
‘Thank you.’ He turned to the other two. ‘Change of plan. I think a visit to the brewery is in order.’
Smedley’s face lit up. ‘Does Theakstons do one of them honey beers?’
‘I don’t know. Why?’
Smedley shrugged. ‘Dunno. Just wondering. I’ve had one. They’re nice.’
As they moved towards the door, McEwan’s mobile rang. ‘I’ll catch you up,’ he said, and answered it.
‘Chief Inspector McEwan?’
A woman’s voice. Familiar, but not overly so.
‘From the Crime Writing Festival.’
‘You mean the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate. Must use the full name.’
‘I met you yesterday.’
Only yesterday? Seemed like weeks ago. Months. ‘Of course. What can I do for you, Tracey?’
‘Well . . . we’ve been clearing out Malcolm Mackenzie’s room. And we’ve found something that’s . . . well, let’s just say, I think you need to come and see it.’
‘I’m just on the way to . . .’ He stopped himself. What would he rather do? Examine the latest body parts discovered or get over to Harrogate and spend some time with Tracey Williams? The hotel had a bar. His mind was made up. ‘I’ll be there as soon as I can. Crown Hotel?’
She said it was. He hung up, made for the door once more.
‘Excuse me . . .’
He stopped, sighed, turned. He would get out of this place at some point. ‘I’m in a h—’ The words died in his mouth. ‘Can I help you?’
Standing before him was one of the most stunning women he had ever seen. Tall, blonde, statuesque. Like he had fed his beautiful woman requirements into a computer and they had sent him her.
‘Can I help you?’ he said again, his throat suddenly dry, his voice suddenly high.
‘For sure,’ she said, with an accent he couldn’t place. ‘You are the brave, strong policeman solving this nasty murder, yes?’
He blushed. But didn’t deny it. ‘That’s me.’
‘I am to be staying at this hotel as a guest.’
‘Well . . . very nice to have you. I mean, here. To see you. Here.’
‘Oh.’ She put her hand to her mouth, widening it in a perfect O along with her eyes. His mind started to think things it wouldn’t be in his best interests to mention.
‘You have some . . . information?’ Please say yes, he thought.
‘About the man who was killed? Here?’ She pointed to the floor. ‘Is very traumatic, no?’
‘Yes. It must be.’
‘Scares me to be alone. Makes me to shake and shiver.’
She did so. Again, his mind began to wander.
McEwan moved from foot to foot. He was becoming uncomfortable. ‘Can I … er …’
She touched his arm. It felt like angels alighting. ‘I think I saw something. Someone.’
‘From my room.’ She pointed to the hallway. ‘Is along here. I need for you to join me there. Will you come?’
‘I hope so,’ he said.
‘My name is Britt, by the way.’
She walked off.
McEwan couldn’t follow her quick enough.