6: the legs
McEwan shivered with pleasurable anticipation as he followed Britt along the hallway of the White Bear. The Chief Constable had, in his latest ‘Mail from the Chief’ newsletter to members of his force, urged every single one of them to engage much more closely with the public. He had added that, given the significance of tourism to the local economy, it was also vitally important to be mindful of the particular needs of overseas visitors, should they have need of the services of the police.
However you looked at it, McEwan thought as he looked specifically at Britt’s delightfully tapering legs, he was simply obeying orders.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ he asked eagerly as the corridor made a right-angled turn.
‘I am in room seven,’ she replied, adding breathily – as if making a private joke – ‘or, you might say, oh, oh, seven!‘
‘Oh.’ He wasn’t sure how else to respond. It was vital that he didn’t seem foolish, but that wasn’t a big risk. He was doing splendidly so far. She was obviously smitten, and he couldn’t entirely blame her. A foreign girl, in a strange land, happy to be reeled in by the long arm of the law. She needed looking after. And seeing to.
‘Oh, oh!’ she exclaimed, but this time with annoyance rather than faked ecstasy.
‘What’s the matter?’ He dragged his eyes away from her legs. ‘Oh!’
Room seven was in front of them. The door had been flung wide open, but it was blocked by a chambermaid’s trolley. From inside came the sound of a middle-aged woman, warbling, I Don’t Know How to Love Him in a manner that would have brought tears to the eyes of Lord Lloyd Webber, although not because of any similarity between her voice and Sarah Brightman’s.
‘Do you mind?’ Britt demanded, poking her head round the door.
‘Sorry, love,’ replied the unseen chambermaid. ‘Don’t you like music?’
‘As a matter of fact, I do.’
‘Well, then, not to worry. I’ll only be ten minutes.’
McEwan’s heart sank.
‘Ten minutes?’ Britt asked anxiously. ‘Can’t you come back later?’
‘Sorry, love, I’ve started, so I’d better finish.’
‘Please, I don’t have much time.’
The face of the chambermaid appeared in the doorway. The woman didn’t bear any physical resemblance to Sarah Brightman, either. According to her name badge, she was called, somewhat improbably, ZuleikaTarbuck. She caught sight of McEwan hovering warily behind Britt, and her bushy eyebrows shot up.
She tossed her J-cloth onto the trolley, and shoved it out of the doorway, allowing Britt to shimmy into the room. As McEwan accorded the chambermaid a nervous smile, she bent her head towards Britt and murmured, ‘Scuse me for saying so, love, but if you’re planning to stay on in England, you could do a lot better.’
McEwan winced, but the woman took no notice as she pushed her trolley past him. A couple of yards down the hallway, she started to hum a mangled version of another classic melody.
The Phantom of the Opera.
‘Charming,’ McEwan muttered to himself.
But then Britt beckoned to him.
Those legs! One more lingering look at them, and his irritation vanished.
Caroline Smith inched forward in the basement. Somewhere a tap was dripping. The old man was sitting in his chair, with his back to her. The faint light of a guttering candle cast an eerie glow on the bald patch at the top of his head. The rest was darkness.
Something brushed her face, and it took a superhuman effort of will for her not to scream.
Just as well. In a matter of moments, she realised that her cheeks had merely touched a cobweb.
‘Sir,’ she whispered.
The old man did not move.
What had happened to him? Why was he so still, and so silent?
Her heart lurched. She could bear the suspense no longer. With three desperate strides, she reached the chair and turned so as to see the old man’s face.
A livid skull, its dimensions eerily reminiscent of Mr Western’s head, grinned at her.
She shut her eyes. A piercing scream split the night, and made her temples throb. Surely that was not her voice?
She groaned, and prised open her eyes to take in the horrific vision.
But suddenly, all she could see was the framed photograph that she had propped up on the dressing table of her bedroom in the White Bear. The cheerily beaming Ernest Smith, in relaxed mood on the beach at holiday time. Her late husband, the daring agent whose memory drove her on, at an age when so many of her colleagues had retired to a life of endless whist drives and repeats of ‘Poirot’.
There was no end, though, to the horrendous scream that had interrupted her nightmare. Her head throbbed, but she wasn’t convinced that the racket was solely to blame. Her limbs felt heavy, her eyelids ached.
Had something inappropriate been put in the complimentary After Eight mint that she had found on her pillow the previous night? By someone who knew her weakness for chocolate?
What was that noise? Groggily, she decided that it must be the hotel fire alarm. In all likelihood, nothing was amiss. But you never knew. It would be dreadful to ignore the alarm and then receive your come-uppance by being incinerated.
With difficulty, she swung her protesting legs over the side of the bed, and hobbled across the floor to the wardrobe. Even in an emergency, she wouldn’t abandon all her standards. She reached for her cardigan; impossible to feel dressed without it.
So much had already happened that was not in the old man’s script. If an adversary had set fire to the hotel, was she the intended target? Or someone else?
Tracey Williams checked her watch for the fifth time in as many minutes. She was an efficient person, and she thought it was a courtesy if other people did their best to be efficient as well. How long would McEwan take to get to the Crown? He had seemed to understand the urgency of her message, and sounded positively eager to join her. But he didn’t inspire complete confidence.
She was sitting in a chair next to the bed once occupied by Malcolm Mackenzie. No visible trace of the dead crime writer’s presence remained. Tracey knew that at least one deceased crime writer’s memory was commemorated in a Harrogate hotel. There was a wall plaque, and her old room was now something of a shrine. Was there any chance of Malcolm Mackenzie achieving a comparable degree of immortality? She rather doubted it.
A knock on the door made her jump out of the chair. She had done the detective a disservice – he had done the journey in remarkably quick time. She checked her watch yet again and realised that, in truth, nobody could do it so quickly.
‘Who is it?’ she called out.
‘Ellory Keen,’ an American voice drawled.
At once, Tracey relaxed. Keen was one of the Festival’s regular attendees. He was extraordinarily well-informed about crime fiction, and indeed crime in general. His questions at the end of panels were apt to expose the fact that he knew rather more about the subject than those who wrote about it for a living. But he had become very belligerent when he buttonholed Malcolm Mackenzie in the Crown bar and made his accusation of plagiarism.
‘Come in,’ Tracey said.
The door opened, and the tanned and athletic figure of Ellory Keen marched through it. At once, his gaze travelled across the room, as if he were trying to spot a previously unnoticed spatter of blood.
‘Can I help you, Ellory?’
‘I wonder if I could have a quick look round now that the police have cleared out.’
‘What on earth for?’
‘It’s that guy Mackenzie. It’s bad enough that he stole the plot of my competition entry. But I talked to him in the bar when he was a member of the judging panel. I was trying to build a rapport with him, and I mentioned some of my other story ideas. I’m worried that he stole those as well.’
‘If he did,’ Tracey said, ‘he isn’t in the right place to sell them to a publisher now, is he?’
Keen frowned. ‘How can I be sure that he didn’t share them with his publisher? Or agent? Maybe they’ve already hired another guy to write them up, and turn them into best-sellers.’
‘I can’t believe it’s likely. The poor fellow only just died.’
‘I’ve heard about publishers and agents,’ Keen growled. ‘I wouldn’t put anything past them.’
‘In my experience,’ Tracey protested, ‘publishers and agents are very decent people.’
‘Are you a writer?’
‘I rest my case. Now, may I have a look-see?’
Since he was already prowling around the room, she gave a defeated shrug. ‘I suppose so. Not that there’s anything to find.’
Keen clambered down on to his hands and knees, and peered under the bed, before checking all the drawers, and behind the wardrobe and dressing table.
‘Do you know if anything has been taken from this room?’
Tracey wondered whether Ellory Keen was being entirely frank with her. Could it be that the material she had put in her bag for McEwan to consider was the real object of Keen’s search? And if so, what were the implications?
‘I believe Malcolm’s personal effects may have been sent on to his family in Scotland.’
Ellory Keen looked aghast. ‘Can I have the address?’
‘I’m sure we can supply it, if you check with the welcome desk later this morning.’ She couldn’t resist adding, ‘I suppose you may want to express your condolences.’
‘Why…yes, yes, of course.’
At least he had the grace to flush beneath the tan. He dusted himself down and said, ‘Thanks, anyway. Maybe I’ll see you at the quiz?’
‘I wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ she assured him.
The fire alarm sounded at the worst moment, as far as McEwan was concerned. Not quite the worst possible moment, but pretty bad by any standard. Britt had just shut the door, and shut out the chambermaid’s cacophonous wailing, when the din from the alarm forced the two of them to put their hands to their ears.
‘Oh God,’ he moaned. ‘A fire. The last thing I need.’
‘Ignore it,’ Britt said.
Those legs! They seemed longer than ever. How did she do it – some kind of optical illusion?
He shook his head. ‘No, you’d better go down.’
‘All right.’ She advanced towards him.
‘I mean, downstairs. Me too. If the place is burning down…’
‘It will be a – how you say? – false alarm.’
‘We can’t take a chance. People know that I’m in the hotel.’ He gestured to the fire drill instructions that hung on the wall; as usual, they were accompanied by a floor plan that bore no evident relationship to the geography of the hotel as he understood it. ‘If I don’t show up outside the main entrance within a couple of minutes, and there is a fire, people will be up here like a flash anyway, looking for me.’
‘You mean they would risk their lives for you?’ She was genuinely amazed.
Uncomfortably, he said, ‘Britt, it’s a risk I can’t take. Listen, we have plenty of time. If this is a false alarm, we can be back here in fifteen minutes. If the hotel is reduced to ashes, well, we can…find somewhere else.’
Before she could argue, or do something with Those Legs that he found impossible to resist, he had bustled past her and yanked open the door. As he strode out into the hallway, someone cannoned into him.
‘You again!’ she said. ‘Get moving! Are you deaf or something, can’t you hear the alarm?’
Reluctantly, he followed the plump lady along the hallway. Soon they were outside, where a large group of hotel workers and guests had congregated.
‘It’s all right,’ one of the kitchen workers said. ‘This isn’t the first time the alarm has gone off. It’s a state of the art system, you see. Very sensitive. Probably caught a whiff of cigarette smoke from the no-smoking area round by the loading bay. Someone having a crafty fag. Reassuring, though. Better to be safe than sorry, eh?’
McEwan flinched as a vision of Britt’s legs crowded his imagination. ‘You think so?’
Caroline Smith jabbed him in the ribs with a forefinger as sharp as a knitting needle. ‘I’ve only just realised. What on earth were you doing in Britt’s room?’
He gritted his teeth, trying to dream up a smart put-down answer, and gave himself a moment to ponder by consulting his watch. Inevitably, given the way this morning was turning out, it had stopped.
‘Answer me!’ Caroline insisted. ‘Come on, out with it!’
‘Another time,’ he muttered. ‘Right now, I’m late for an urgent appointment in Harrogate.’
The instant the bedroom door closed behind Ellory Keen, Tracey opened her bag and took another look at the small ring-bound notebook that had caused her to telephone McEwan. It bore the title Ideas Book, and was a collection of jottings in the deceased writer’s characteristic illegible scrawl. She was, however, accomplished at the art of interpreting illegible scrawl, and no doubt that was why she had spotted something that a cursory check by the bored police constable who had trawled through the dead man’s things had missed.
Time was speeding by. McEwan might turn up, as he’d promised, but even if he did, would he agree with her interpretation of what she had found? As a law-abiding citizen, she had done the right thing by alerting the police, but the more she thought about it, the more she fretted that nothing would be done.
She needed to confide in someone reliable, who could help her to make sure that the truth about this series of appalling events did come out, and that justice was done. She reached for her mobile, and dialled a number she knew – for the best professional reasons – off by heart.
‘Theakstons Brewery,’ a voice said. ‘How may I help you?’
‘Please may I speak to Simon Theakston?’
Britt listened carefully until the footsteps of McEwan and Caroline Smith had faded into nothingness. The fire alarm continued to shrill, but for the moment she was almost past caring about the prospect of imminent immolation. Things were not, to put it mildly, going according to plan.
She took out her phone and scrolled through the numbers in the memory. Before she’d found the one she was looking for, the ringtone sang.
Ride of the Valkyrie. Somehow, it seemed appropriate to the situation.
The caller ID flashed up on the screen.
Britt exhaled. What else could possibly go wrong?
The name she was looking at was Ellory Keen.