9: the unmentionables
‘A double agent?’ Caroline Smith had liked Mr Western quite a bit. And all the time he was working for those militants at the Pro Mead Society.
‘Known for months.’ The old man bent his head slightly while he adjusted his Union Jack eye patch. His scalp was shiny and dotted with freckles.
For a moment Caroline was reminded of yesterday’s nightmare. Luckily, when the old man sat up, there was no sign of Mr Western’s livid grinning skull.
‘You could have told me, sir.’
‘Need to know, Smith. Not personal.’
All these years and he still didn’t trust her. Oh, well. She shouldn’t be surprised. Part of the job. Like establishing a makeshift ops room in the basement of a fast food restaurant. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. But the constant smell of burgers was making her feel queasy.
She looked at the glass in her hand. Filled to brimming with whisky. A treble, at least. Even if she’d been feeling OK, this would have played havoc with her digestion, not to mention her head. She put the glass to her lips and wet them. She made a crooning sound to cover the shudder that started in her belly and rippled through to her shoulders. Give her a pint of Theakstons Old Peculier any day.
‘Sandals.’ The old man pointed his glass at her feet.
‘Um, yes.’ She wriggled her toes, impressed as ever by his mastery of the non-sequitur. ‘You like them?’
‘Gah.’ He pulled a face like he’d sucked a lemon. ‘How old are they?’
‘I don’t remember exactly.’ She’d bought them from a market stall in Chile sometime in the late seventies while she was working on Operation Love, a mission aimed at cultivating General Pinochet’s amorous feelings for Mrs Thatcher. A roaring success it was, too. The sandals’ leather straps were a bit worn now and one of the buckles was all of a dangle, but the old man was mistaken. They still had a good ten or fifteen years’ wear in them yet.
He grunted. Peered at her with his one eye. ‘Amnesia.’
‘I suppose.’ She didn’t think her forgetfulness was a pathological condition, but he might have a point. Almost all her mother’s side of the family had suffered from Alzheimer’s. ‘My memory’s generally very good. Maybe I should get it tested, though.’
‘Not you, Smith. The guinea pig.’
She looked at him. Shook her head slowly. He’d lost her.
‘New shoes. Appearances are important.’
‘First thing tomorrow, sir.’
‘Good. Where were we?’
‘You were talking about a guinea pig.’
‘Ah, yes.’ He winked. Or maybe he just blinked. Hard to tell what the hidden eyelid was doing. ‘Ingredient X marks the spot, Smith.’
Her heart kicked up a notch. ‘You mean … a successful lab test?’
‘Even better.’ He grinned. ‘Field test.’ He grinned wider. ‘Human guinea pig.’
Oh, this was exciting. ‘Who?’
DCI McEwan felt as if he knew her. Good Lord, he certainly wished he did. ‘Can I help you?’ he asked, his voice tight.
She’d bumped into him in the corridor, grabbed his sleeve and stood there staring at him. All six feet of her. And that was just her legs.
Maybe she was wondering why he was loitering outside the hotel toilets. He was about to explain, but finally she smiled at him and his knees buckled. He remained upright, but only just.
She spoke in a lilting accent he couldn’t quite place. ‘I have a thing for you.’
His face burned. He hadn’t been this embarrassed since his teens. That time he had his dirty laundry examined by airport security on the way home from a family holiday to Dublin, he’d almost cried. ‘You do?’
‘Yes. It is in my room.’
Ah. An actual thing. ‘Well … I’m in the middle of some important work.’
‘You are a brave, strong policeman. Such large muskles.’ She touched his arm. Squeezed the bicep. ‘Like a Fjord horse.’
‘Very nice of you to sleep with me. I mean, say that to me. Of you to say that.’ Turdbuckets, he was turning into a fourteen-year-old again.
She put her hand to her mouth and bit the tip of her index finger.
McEwan put his hand on the corridor wall to support himself. Maybe DS Smedley would return from the bathroom and help him out here. Catch him when he fainted.
She glanced around. ‘Yes, please. It is best to show you in the privates.’
He moved from one foot to the other. And back again.
Her eyes twinkled. ‘I am to be staying at this hotel as a guest. Will you come?’
‘I hope so.’ McEwan had the strangest feeling he’d met her before. ‘What’s your name?’
She leaned towards him, pressed something hard into his ribs and whispered, ‘My name is Britt and you’re in deep doodoo, officer.’
‘I need to—’
They were in the crazy woman’s hotel room. DCI McEwan was sitting on a chair, his hands tied behind his back, ankles tied to the legs.
The crazy woman pressed play on a tape recorder sitting on the dresser. ‘Just answer the question, DCI McEwan.’
He sighed. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ve never heard of a Mr Western.’
‘Secret Service? Likes to loom?’
‘Sounds like Granny Smith. Can imagine her with a loom. Weaving herself a new cardigan.’
‘Interesting.’ She pursed her lips. ‘What about Simon Theakston? You know him?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Do you remember when you last met him?’
‘At the brewery.’
‘And before that?’
‘I’m not sure. Probably earlier. Also at the brewery.’
‘You don’t remember meeting him here?’
He took a deep breath. Better to play along. She was volatile. Tying him up at gunpoint. Pretending to be from the Outer Hebrides or somewhere one minute, the South East the next. ‘I didn’t meet him here.’
‘Do you remember meeting me at my hotel in Masham?’
A trick question? He’d call her on it and see how she’d respond. ‘Why would anyone stay in two hotels?’
‘I don’t want to hurt you.’ She picked up the gun.
‘Put that down.’ McEwan sighed. ‘I’ve never seen you before. Put it down. Please.’
She lowered the gun onto the bed.
‘Thank you. What do you want, Britt?’
‘To be left alone to do my job. But your officers have orders to arrest me. You forced my hand. Which is probably good news for you.’
Poor girl was totally deluded. A history of mental illness, no doubt. ‘Maybe there’s someone you can call—’
‘How about Tracey Williams?’
‘You know Tracey?’ Tracey of the lovely voice. ‘As a matter of fact, I’m looking for her.’
‘Do you recall her mentioning that Tom Preston was alive?’
She said no such thing. ‘I can’t discuss the case.’
‘Tom said you were surprised to see him. You shouldn’t have been.’
‘Tom who?’ Call her bluff.
Shit. ‘You know him?’
‘What about your toothache?’
She was doing some of that Derren Brown crap on him, wasn’t she? Cold reading him. ‘I don’t have a toothache.’
‘The pair of severed feet?’
If ever there was any doubt that she was a nutjob, this was it. Severed bloody feet? ‘You really do have a grisly imagination.’
‘OK. DCI McEwan, there’s little doubt that you have RA.’
‘RA? What the hell are you talking about?’
Oh, that was a good one.
She walked over to the bedside table and opened the drawer. She removed something from it and walked towards McEwan.
She showed him. It was a small brown block, wrapped in cellophane. She started to unwrap it.
Oh, bollocks. She was going to pump him full of drugs. ‘I’ll arrest you for that.’
‘Why should I do that?’
‘Because I have the antidote.’
‘I’m fine. I don’t need a bloody antidote.’
‘That’s not true.’ She shook her head. ‘Your memories are disappearing. One by one. More recent memories are the first to fade. Then older ones. Eventually, you’ll remember nothing at all.’
‘What a preposterous statement.’
‘Is it? Let’s see. Do you remember Tom Preston? Yes or no?’
Of course he did. ‘Yes.’
Tracey? Who the hell was Tracey? ‘I don’t know anyone called Tracey,’ he said.
Britt walked over to the tape recorder. Pressed rewind. ‘Listen.’ She pressed play.
McEwan listened. Heard himself say he was looking for Tracey, but couldn’t believe what he was hearing. This was some kind of trick.
She turned the tape off. ‘You’re going to have to trust me.’
Such a good trick that McEwan wasn’t entirely sure it was a trick. Derren Brown would be hard pushed to pull this off. That was McEwan’s voice on the tape. He’d seen her press record. And that was him saying he was looking for Tracey. Oh, crap. It was true. He was losing his mind. ‘What about the toothache?’ he asked. ‘That’s not a memory. That’s a physical condition. And I don’t have it any longer.’
‘It’s a symptom of exposure to Ingredient X. After a while, the toothache disappears. In your case, you forgot you even had it.’
‘Because of the Random Amnesia?’
‘Will I forget who you are?’
‘You already have. And almost certainly will again. Best estimates are that in three days you’ll have lost all core memories. You’ll still be able to establish new ones, but they’ll disappear in time too.’
‘Sounds great. How come you’re such an expert?’
‘It’s my business to know everything there is to know about Ingredient X.’
‘Ingredient X? And I’ve been exposed to it?’
‘Commonly it’s administered via food. Have you eaten anything recently you haven’t prepared yourself?’
McEwan recalled the knockout fried breakfast this morning. ‘I believe I have.’
‘Probably that, then.’
She held out the little brown block of resin she’d taken from her bedside table. ‘Eat it and your memory will be fine in no time at all.’
McEwan sat back. ‘I’m no druggie,’ he said.
‘You really are an idiot,’ she told him. ‘It’s not drugs. This is yeast. Now open wide.’
Caroline was watching the old man introduce himself to the rest of their quiz team. ‘Gregory Jayne,’ he said, as he shook each of them by the hand. ‘Literary agent.’
Being a lit agent was a fine cover. He got to read, drink, and swan around at parties. And the demands on his time were minimal. According to the old man, the best literary agents got up about midday and knocked off about two. And usually had Mondays and Fridays off. Which gave him plenty of time to be a proper agent.
‘Modern stuff,’ he was saying now to an author with a Californian tan and dazzling dental veneers. ‘Not my bag. Fond of Hammett. Cain. Woolrich.’
‘Gah. Not hugely.’
The author’s hand jerked away from the old man’s as if he’d just heard the old man was carrying a contagious disease.
‘Gregory, darling.’ They were joined by a woman with big hair whose name escaped Caroline. She air-kissed the old man. ‘Such a shame about dear Malcolm.’
‘Literary world.’ The old man nodded sagely. ‘Tragic loss.’
In his own way, the old man had been quite fond of Malcolm. He’d even answered Malcolm’s emails once or twice over the years.
‘I wanted to talk to you about him,’ the Californian said.
‘Please.’ The old man gestured for the Californian to continue.
‘Malcolm Mackenzie stole my manuscript.’
The whole table went quiet. The quiet infected the next table. And the one on the other side. And those infected the surrounding tables. And before long the entire hall was silent. The old man had said nothing. But one of his hands was under the table and the Californian’s face was turning white. Caroline could only assume that the old man was employing a little pressure to the annoying fellow’s unmentionables. Those fingers could punch through a block of wood. No guessing what they might do to soft tissue.
‘Malcolm Mackenzie.’ The old man’s voice was loud. As if he wanted everyone to hear. ‘Was no plagiarist.’
The Californian’s mouth was open. His veneers were quite splendid.
The Californian gaped and nodded.
‘His own work. Yes?’
The Californian nodded again.
He coughed. ‘All his own work, yeah.’
‘Good. Now leave.’
The Californian didn’t wait for a second telling. He was off in a bent-over crab-like scuttle.
The old man watched him leave the room. Then he turned to the woman who’d air-kissed him earlier. ‘You know him?’
‘Ellory Keen. Totally talentless, Gregory, darling. Don’t pay any heed.’
… ‘And Simon Theakston took a private helicopter from Harrogate to Masham. That’s how he got there before you. And when you arrived and didn’t comment on him being there first, he thought it odd and called me.’
‘I think that’s it.’ DCI McEwan could remember everything now. At least he thought he could. But then he hadn’t been able to tell when he’d forgotten everything, so he couldn’t be sure. What he was sure about was that he had to get to the quiz night at the Crime Festival.
But Britt had just poured him a glass of wine. It would be rude not to accept after all she’d just done for him.
They clinked glasses.
‘A quick one. Drink, I mean. A quick drink. Then I must go find Tracey.’
‘I can help you with that,’ she said.
He stared at her. ‘You can?’
‘She’s been kidnapped. And I know who has her. But first, I have to come clean.’
She got up and placed her wine on the dresser. She reached up and tugged at her hair. Lifted it right off. A blonde wig. She did something with her eyes. And they changed colour. Contact lenses. Very clever. She kicked off her shoes. Suddenly she was twelve inches shorter. ‘Close your eyes, officer.’
Oh, Christ. He did as instructed. Tempted to peek but behaved himself for once. Waited and waited and waited.
And finally she said, ‘OK. Open them now.’
Good grief. He couldn’t have been more shocked if she’d been standing there completely starkers.
‘Da-naaaa!’ She flung her arms out and held a pose.
The transformation was extraordinary. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he’d never have believed it. But there was no doubt that the woman in the baggy jumper standing in front of him – small, round, fiercely Yorkshire and always up for a laugh – was Helen, the head Scene Of Crime Officer.
‘What the hell?’ There was a corset on the bed and acres of bandages all over the floor. Hard to believe that lot had been holding all of her in. Impressive.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll explain everything,’ Britt/Helen said. ‘Make yourself comfortable, though. It might take a little while.’
McEwan stretched out on the bed, careful not to spill his wine. The feeling hadn’t yet come back into his fingers completely and he didn’t want to make a mess of her sheets. With wine. Didn’t want to spill wine on the sheets. God, no, he didn’t fancy Helen. Him and the head SOCO, never.
‘You’ve heard of PMS?’
‘Well, yes.’ He’d much rather not talk about it though.
‘Good. Because that’s where it all starts. The Pro Mead Society, or PMS – see what I did there? – was established in 1964…’