7: the teeth
The crime festival at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate was buzzing, but the frenzied atmosphere had nothing to do with the excitement of catching a glimpse of Ian Rankin or Val McDermid in the crowded bar. Everywhere the gossip, fuelled by Theakstons beer, was about the murder of Malcolm Mackenzie. He’d never been particularly liked: when he was on the bestseller list people pretended to be friendly, but as his sales slumped so did the need to be pleasant to him. His death had become a topic of academic interest. These people wrote and read about crime fiction. Surely one of them should have the knowledge and intelligence to find his killer.
In her makeshift office off the hotel lobby, Tracey could hear the excited voices. She found the sound strangely intimidating, like a swarm of bees, angry and unstable. More frightening than that. Bees could only sting once. After that first sting, the internal organs were destroyed and the bee died. Humans could attack over and over again. Tracey had kept bees since she’d first moved to Harrogate, had a small hive on her allotment, and had become beguiled by the creatures. She wished she were there now watching the workers flying home heavy with nectar, instead of fending off the prurient, obsessive crime readers. On the table in front of her lay the notebook, where once Malcolm Mackenzie had scribbled his best ideas.
McEwan had toothache. It had started as a dull ache when he’d realized that his one-to-one with Britt was never going to happen. And perhaps it was the toothache making him unusually pessimistic, but now he knew the encounter would never have played out as he’d hoped. Perhaps the sudden fire alarm had been a good thing. Deep down he was aware that Britt was well out of his league. She’d have scared him shitless or found him wanting in every possible way. He felt deeply depressed, not just by the failure of the encounter with the beautiful Scandinavian, but by his acceptance that it would never have worked. He was becoming middle-aged. Sensible.
The drive from Masham to Harrogate took him through beautiful countryside but he didn’t notice it. The pain in his jaw became fierce, stabbing. He’d need surgery, he thought. At the very least the tooth would have to be removed. There was no parking space left in the Crown hotel and he chose to block in the flashest vehicle there. A Jag with an obvious personalised plate: CWS 10. For a moment his depression lifted, as he thought of the face of the wealthy owner as he realised he’d been trapped by McEwan’s elderly Rover. Bloody writers. They were all millionaires and it would serve one of them right to wait. His mood fell again when, in the lobby, he bumped into the small, affable figure of Simon Theakston. McEwan had never liked affable.
‘What are you doing here?’ Then after a long pause he added, ‘Sir.’
‘Coming to the rescue of a maiden in distress.’
Distracted by the toothache, McEwan didn’t have a clue what the mild-mannered gent was going on about. ‘What?’
‘Tracey Williams gave me a ring. There was something she wanted to discuss.’
‘She phoned me too.’ For a moment McEwan felt a stab of resentment. Surely the manager of the Crime Writing Festival couldn’t think that Simon Theakston would be of more help to her than one of Yorkshire’s finest policeman? But the new mature McEwan tried to keep his voice polite. ‘We’d better go in then and see what she wants. Probably police business and then you can be on your way.’
Tracey was sitting behind a trestle table and seemed surprised and a little disturbed to see the men arrive together.
‘Simon, Inspector McEwan. I’m sorry to have dragged you from Masham. I might be over-reacting, but I thought you should see this.’
McEwan leaned forward and took the notebook. ‘What’s so important?’
Simon Theakston peered over his shoulder.
‘Sorry sir, like I said before, this is police business. No need to keep you.’
‘Really,’ Tracey said, ‘I think Simon should stay. He might be able to help. And it does involve him in a way.’
She blushed becomingly. McEwan decided that he preferred English rose to Norwegian goddess any day. Even Norwegian sex goddess. ‘Of course,’ he said.
‘The police who searched Mr Mackenzie’s room brought me some of his belongings to forward to his relatives in Scotland. I don’t think they can have read this. Not in any detail. Otherwise they’d have passed it on to you immediately.’
‘Why? What’s in it?’
‘It’s obviously the book where he jotted down stray ideas for his novels. There are scraps of dialogue, character details.’
‘And?’ McEwan thought Tracey had a lovely voice but he wished she’d get to the point. He had a phone call to make to the emergency dentist.
‘Well, listen to this.’ She took back the book and began to read. ‘Traditional murder mystery set in the Dales. After all, it worked for Peter Robinson… He made a fortune… Set in small brewery, eg Masham. Title? Specific Gravity? NO! Body part (head!!!) found in barrel. Gory always works. Look at bloody MacBride. Motive? Stolen special yeast formula? No, not exciting enough. Publishers are looking for thrillers these days. Everything has to be pacy. Need to include the secret services. Or secret codes. Wonder if I could work in a critique of the Catholic church…’ She looked up. ‘Look, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I’m right, aren’t I? It does seem to predict the tragedy at Masham. Poor Thomas Preston was found in the cooperage there, his head in a barrel? And Simon did mention some problem with stolen yeast.’
‘Not barrel actually,’ Simon Theakston muttered. ‘Not if we’re being strictly accurate. We call it a hog’s head.’
McEwan glared at him and said nothing. He was trying to get his head round several ideas at once. And he’d never been good at that.
‘Did you know the first victim then?’ he demanded, looking up at Tracey. ‘I mean, you talk as if you knew him.’ The question came out more violently than he’d intended and he softened his voice when he saw that he’d frightened her. ‘Nobody told me.’
‘I didn’t know him well,’ she said, ‘but Tom Preston was an acquaintance. We’d met several times at the North Yorkshire Beekeepers’ Social.’ She blushed again. ‘He did ask me out to dinner once.’
‘Where did you go?’ Somewhere smart, McEwan guessed. One of those poncy Harrogate wine bars where they charged you a fiver for a pint of lager piss. He’d never compete with that.
‘Nowhere.’ She sighed. ‘I was waiting for him to phone to sort out the details. I’m sure he would have done if he hadn’t been…’ she paused, choosing the right words ‘…unavoidably delayed.’
McEwan thought with some satisfaction that she’d have a long wait for the dinner now. He jotted some notes of his own on a scrap of paper he’d found in his pocket, partly because his memory was so unreliable and partly because members of the public expected police officers to take notes. He didn’t want Tracey to think he wasn’t good at his job.
‘And you’re saying that this writer chap, this Mackenzie, actually planned Preston’s murder?’
‘Of course not!’ Tracey looked shocked. ‘This is obviously fiction. You can tell he was trying to write a bestseller. Look at the references to other authors. It’s obviously just a terrible coincidence that poor Tom died in the same way.’
McEwan had never believed in coincidence. Not when it came to murder.
‘Did they know each other?’ he asked. ‘I mean, this beekeeping chappie and the writer?’
‘How would they?’ Tracey said. ‘Mackenzie was a Scot and Tom had never left North Yorkshire as far as I know.’
‘So,’ Theakston said in his pleasant, unassuming way, ‘you were the only link between them.’ Then seeing her face and sensing McEwan’s hostility, he added quickly: ‘I’m so sorry, my dear. That was ungallant.’ He paused. ‘And untrue. I knew them both too. Mackenzie had requested a tour of the brewery. He had plans, he said, of a novel set there. I spent all day with him in Masham a few days ago and bought him a very good lunch in the White Bear. Actually, he led me to believe that he’d already sold an option to a film company. If that had happened it would have been excellent publicity for the business. Certainly I had no reason to want him dead.’
Tracey’s mobile phone rang. McEwan nodded to her, encouraging her to take the call. He needed time to think about all this new information that was rolling around in his head. No wonder Mackenzie had appeared at the crime scene in Masham like a rat up a drainpipe. It must have seemed a heaven-sent opportunity to see the police in action in a venue he’d already chosen for the setting of his novel. Or had he gone further and created the opportunity? Committed murder for the sake of his art? And why hadn’t Simon Theakston admitted an acquaintance with the writer before now?
He stared out of the window at the happy festival-goers who were drinking pints in the sunshine and felt his mind go blank. All those questions and not one answer.
Then he saw that Tracey was trembling. Her face was white and he thought she would faint, had one blissful moment when he imagined cradling her in his arms and waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Then her words penetrated the daydream. She was still speaking into the phone.
‘No, Tom, of course I’m not angry.’ She looked across the table at McEwan with confused and pleading eyes. ‘Of course I understand that you had to go to Newcastle if your mother was very ill. And I can see how you might have left your phone charger behind in the panic. Yes, I would still love to have dinner with you. Next Wednesday would be perfect.’
McEwan reached out and pulled the phone from her hand. ‘Hello! Who is that?’ But the line was dead and when he tried to dial the number he was taken straight to voice mail.
‘Have I got this straight?’ he demanded. ‘That guy on the phone was claiming to be Thomas Preston? A guy who was murdered in the cooperage in Masham? Who’d been cut up into pieces and whose head was found in a barrel?’
‘Hog’s head,’ Theakston interrupted apologetically.
‘Not claiming to be,’ Tracey said. ‘That definitely was Tom. I recognised the voice at once and he talked about things that only he could know.’
Now McEwan’s toothache was back big style. He put his head in his hands and thought this was probably the biggest cock-up he’d made in his life. Bigger even than the time he’d backed a patrol car into the Chief Constable’s Merc, bigger than when he’d pulled his Superintendent’s wife into the station for soliciting. Could he blame the whole mess on Granny Smith and her cronies? After all, she’d demanded to take over the case. But no, it had been one of his men who’d ID’d the victim in the first place, using the driving licence in his clothes and a brief glimpse at a head that had spent several hours upside down in a barrel.
Now they’d have to start from the beginning again. He’d wait for days to get DNA back from the lab at Wetherby so he’d have to work the old-fashioned way. He pushed the buttons on his phone and yelled at Smedley. ‘The first corpse. There’s some question about the ID. Start checking the dental records.’
He stood up and went to the window. Outside a crowd had gathered and were laughing and jeering. The owner of the Jag had returned and wasn’t pleased. Granny Smith was waving her bag at the drinkers, obviously furious. He was thinking that a car like that was wasted on her and wondering how she could have got from Masham to Harrogate before him, when the elderly woman noticed him. She came so close to the window that he could see the yellow of her eyes and hear her words clearly even through the glass.
‘Move your car, you moron. We need to get back to Masham. There’s been a development.’