8: the fingers
Dreda Say Mitchell
DCI McEwan sat in the back of the car and watched the countryside as they headed back to Masham for the development. Then he turned his attention to the file that lay on his lap. It was a list of all that year’s guests at the festival. He knew one of those names held the key to the mystery but which one was it? And what was the mystery anyway? Of course, he knew all that year’s guests professionally. There was Natasha Cooper, Harrogate’s self-styled ‘Queen Of Vice’ and Martyn ‘Teflon’ Waites, who’d beaten a murder rap the year before – and not for the first time. He’d had most of them in his interview room over the years on various charges and it was always the same story:
‘You ain’t got nothing on me copper. I’ll be back in Betty’s Teashop by teatime…’
And they always were.
His heart missed a beat when he saw Britt’s name. How close he’d come. What a meeting of minds, not to mention other things that would have been, he and the flaxen-haired temptress from Bergen. He decided on reflection, that he’d simply make up the details and then start spreading the story around the police canteen.
As the Theakstons Old Peculier Brewery came into view, he remembered all the times he’d pleaded with the licensing authorities to put a stop to this annual depravity-fest in their town and the inevitable spike in murders and booksignings that followed. Why, he begged, don’t you tell them to take it somewhere more appropriate – don’t they have conference centres in Baltimore? But the committee always gave the go-ahead and he knew why. All its members had half-finished novels of their own, usually involving a Wizard looking for Mr. Right in the Vatican. What had happened to his town?
Simon Theakston was waiting for him as his car pulled up. They shook hands. McEwan looked him the eye. ‘You seem a little nervous, Mr. Theakston…’
‘Nervous? Of course I’m not nervous. It’s you who should be nervous Detective Inspector. Half of Harrogate’s been chopped up in beer barrels and you’re no closer to finding the killer. I hear the higher-ups in Leeds are wondering if you’re the right man for the job…’
McEwan held his gaze. ‘You’re not nervous? Perhaps slightly guilty, then? You start to get a feel for these things when you’ve been in the job as long as I have.’
Simon Theakston showed his teeth. ‘You ain’t got nothing on me, copper. I’ll be back in Betty’s Teashop by teatime.’
McEwan put his hand on Simon’s shoulder. ‘Hey Simon, relax, I’m joshing with you. I know you’re not the killer – you’re the sponsor, how could you be? Now what have you got for me?’
Simon looked across the windswept Yorkshire countryside. He lowered his voice and whispered, ‘There’s someone who wants to meet you…’
McEwan leaned forward and gasped hopefully, ‘Really? She’s not a Norwegian blonde is she?’
‘No, you’ll know who it is when you meet him. He thinks he can break open the case for you. But he wants something in return’
McEwan noticed a curtain fluttering high above, in an upstairs room in the brewery.
‘OK. Let’s do it.’
They walked through the brewery and up several flights of stairs to a dusty corridor. At the end was a heavy wooden door. Simon knocked politely and leaned to push it open. Inside was an office that didn’t seem to have been used since Victorian times. The curtains were drawn and in the dust and half-light, sitting at a desk, was a shadowy figure. McEwan turned as Simon left and the door closed behind him. He drew closer to the figure. On the desk, he noticed a bee-keepers mask and a pair of heavy gloves and he could hear a humming which he realized was a cage containing unusual species of bees. The figure spoke.
‘Good afternoon, Inspector. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.’
McEwan strained to catch the features of the man who’d spoken in a soft Yorkshire accent. ‘I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure?’
‘Oh, but you have. You recall the murder victim you found dismembered and mutilated in a hogs head?’
‘Of course – the unfortunate Mr. Thomas Preston.’
The figure smiled. ‘Well, I am Thomas Preston.’
McEwan groaned inwardly. It was the oldest trick in the book, the dead man who turned out to be alive,
‘Well, I must say, Mr. Preston, A&E have done a very good job patching you up.’ Preston took some flowers from a vase on the desk and pressed them through the bars of the bees’ cage. McEwan noticed, as he did so, that Preston was missing two fingers on his left hand. Perhaps he’d begun dismembering himself only to realize that he was supposed to be faking it. The hungry bees inside fell on the flowers and gleefully sucked their stamen. McEwan sighed. ‘So who was the body in the hogs head?’
‘That? A medical student sold it to me for a tenner and a bottle of Scotch. You know what they’re like. Then I spoofed the DNA and the fingerprints. You can read how do it any crime novel.’
If only, McEwan thought, someone would sell him Britt’s body for a tenner and a bottle of Scotch…
‘Alright my friend, what’s going on? You’d better put me in the picture or I’m taking you down town and booking you for wasting police time and criminal damage with regard to a hogs head.’
Preston shook his bee cage.
‘Dead men don’t run illicit bee rackets, Inspector. For some time now, I’ve been importing rare strains of bee from the United States. Totally illegally, of course. You know how the authorities feel about that sort of thing. FBI, CIA, MI6 – no sense of humour, these people. Do you know what a Mottled Californian fetches on the black market in Britain’s bee community? We’re talking serious money here, Inspector. Money beyond the wildest imaginings of a poor policeman with his meagre perks and pension. Unfortunately your colleagues in the Met’s Apiary Squad were closing in. With the help of their friends in MI6, they monitored a trawler load of Tennessee Peach Bees from the USA to a secluded beach in Dorset and impounded the lot. I took quite a hit. And when I discovered an MI6 man was in town, I knew the game was up. But now that I’ve arranged my own murder, the game is very much down again…’
McEwan was thinking about Britt. ‘Um, well, right, I see. I’ll tell you what, let’s go down the station and sort it out there, shall we? I can see a number of interesting charges on the horizon already.’
The humming of Preston’s bees suggested otherwise. Their owner shook his head.
‘You’ve got a real murder to solve. Malcolm Mackenzie, isn’t it? You don’t get commendations for solving murders that didn’t happen, you get them for the ones that did. You don’t want to be issuing parking tickets in Masham for the rest of your career, do you? And I might be able to help you with that.’
McEwan was a professional. He knew the score. He was being offered a deal. Off the record in a place where there were no CCTVs, no recordings and no notes. No one would ever know. And Preston had a point. Only the previous week McEwan had stopped a motorbike because its licence plate was hanging a bit drunk, only to be told by its rider, ‘Up yours Plod. You can’t touch me.’ And there was a whole world out there. Huddersfield, Dewsbury, even Leeds. He’d had enough of playing the small town cop. But then he walked over to a window and looked down below to where Smedley was resting on the car, arms folded, chatting with an old lady, perhaps offering advice on a lost cat. That was real community policing. That’s what he’d joined the service for. He turned to face Preston.
‘Alright, what’s the deal?’
‘Well, let’s say you lose all the evidence in the Tom Preston murder case and then conclude that the death of the nosey MI6 chap was all a ghastly accident. Then perhaps I might be able to pass on a bit of gossip to do with the Mackenzie case.’
McEwan had a think. He had no real evidence in the Tom Preston murder case anyway and he’d nearly forgotten about the MI6 chap.
‘Alright, you’ve just bought yourself some time. Now what about Mackenzie?’
‘I happened to know Mr. Mackenzie professionally. He sometimes bought bees from me. Nothing too heavy, the odd drone here and there, maybe a Queen when he was feeling flush. We used to chat – you know he was the plotter extraordinaire? He was the one who came up with the Jack The Ripper novel where the victims actually committed suicide in order to frame The Duke Of Clarence. Well, he knew someone who was looking for help with the plot of a novel. He did what he could but then she started getting a bit nasty, cutting his bees in half and threatening to go to the papers, that sort of thing. The last time I saw him he was a worried man. Then he happens to get himself murdered. Coincidence perhaps? And of course, his plot book disappeared.’
‘I thought you might.’
McEwan felt his stomach turn. What a bunch of animals these writers were.
‘Did he mention a name?’
‘As a matter of fact he did. Does ‘Tracey’ mean anything to you?’
‘Are you sure it wasn’t Britt?’
McEwan was a desperate man, he’d do anything for a second chance with the Bergen Cleopatra.
‘No, it was definitely Tracey. And one other thing, you know tonight’s the Harrogate Crime Festival Quiz Night, don’t you? If I were you I’d make sure you’re down there with an armed response team. Everyone will be there and it’s bound to kick off.’
‘You think the killer will strike again?’
‘No, it’ll just kick off. You know how seriously these writers take their Quiz Night. When the rows start about what Raymond Chandler’s middle name really was, they all start pulling out sharpened screwdrivers, breaking bottles and kicking over tables. It’s going to be hell.’
What light there was in the room began to fail. There was only one thing left for McEwan to ask.
‘Was it you? With the yeast, I mean?’
Preston went shamed-faced. ‘Well really Inspector, that’s a bit of a low blow…’
‘It was, wasn’t it?’
Preston began to choke and howl and the tears began to run down his face,
‘Yes, it was me, I did it…’
McEwan looked at him with contempt,
‘I’ve seen some sick sods in my time. Murderers, cutthroats, bogus disabled badge displayers — but you, you are the sickest sod in the sick sod roll of honour. You sick…’
The stairs echoed as McEwan clattered down them, hurrying to get back to the car. He should have worked it out long before. He’d been behind the game all along. But now he had a name and a place and the net was closing and the cards were being dealt. He had until the end of the Quiz Night to break the case and put the killer in the slammer.
‘Smedley, let’s go. Call Central and tell them I want shooters, shields and a back-up team on stand-by. Now, put your foot down, we need to get to the Harrogate Festival Quiz Night before anyone else gets killed. And tell them to arrest a woman from Bergen called Britt and keep her under guard in my office until I get back.’
‘On what charge?’
‘What do I care? ‘Possession of long legs with intent’ or something.’
The wheels on the car spun as Smedley sent the gravel outside the brewery showering into the air. As they sped off down the drive, Smedley asked, ‘Who was it you were talking to?’
McEwan looked backwards and upwards at the top floor of the brewery through the rear window,
‘That? That was just a nobody. But I tell you who we do need to find.’
He looked at Smedley as he said a single name. ‘Tracey.’