Exclusive Inspector Rebus Story

Posted: 08/03/2010 |

THE VERY LAST DROP

An Inspector Rebus story By IAN RANKIN

‘And this is where the ghost’s usually seen,’ the guide said.  ‘So I hope nobody’s of a nervous disposition.’  His eyes were fixed on Rebus, though there four other people on the tour.  They had wandered through the brewery in their luminous health-and-safety vests and white hard-hats, climbing up flights of steps, ducking for low doorways, and were now huddled together on what seemed to be the building’s attic level.  The tour itself had been a retirement present.  Rebus had almost let the voucher lapse, until reminded by Siobhan Clarke, whose gift it had been.

‘Ghost?’ she asked now.  The guide nodded slowly.  His name was Albert Simms, and he’d told them to call him ‘Albie’  -  ‘not alibi, though I’ve provided a few in my time’.  This had been said at the very start of the tour, as they’d been trying the protective helmets for size.  Siobhan had made a joke of it, warning him that he was in the presence of police officers.  ‘Officer singular,’ Rebus had almost interrupted.

Almost.

Simms was currently looking uncomfortable, eyes darting around him.  ‘He’s usually only seen at night, our resident ghost.  More often, it’s the creaking of the floorboards the workers hear.  He paces up and down… up and down…’  He made a sweeping gesture with his arm.  The narrow walkway was flanked by rectangular stainless-steel fermentation tanks.  This was where the yeast did its work.  Some vats were three-quarters full, each topped with a thick layer of brown foam.  Others were empty, either clean or else waiting to be sluiced and scrubbed.

‘His name was Johnny Watt,’ Simms went on.  ‘Sixty years ago he died – almost to the day.’  Simms’ eyes were rheumy, his face blotchy and pockmarked.  He’d retired a decade back, but liked leading the tours.  They kept him fit.  ‘Johnny was up here on his own.  His job was to do the cleaning.  But the fumes got him.’  Simms pointed towards one of the busier vats.  ‘Take too deep a breath and you can turn dizzy.’

‘He fell in?’ Siobhan Clarke guessed.

‘Aye,’ Simms appeared to agree.  ‘That’s the story.  Banged his head and wasn’t found for a while.’  He slapped the rim of the nearest vat.  ‘They were made of stone back then, and metal-lined.’  His eyes were on Rebus again.  ‘A fall like that can do some damage.’

There were murmurs of agreement from the other visitors.

‘Two more stops,’ Simms told them, clapping his hands together.  ‘Then it’s the sample room…’

The sample room was laid out like a rural pub, its brickwork exposed.  Simms himself manned the pumps while the others removed their safety-ware.  Rebus offered a brief toast to the guide before taking his first gulp.

‘That was interesting,’ Siobhan offered.  Simms gave a nod of thanks.  ‘Is it really sixty years ago?  Almost exactly, I mean  -  or do you tell all the tours that?’

‘Sixty years next week,’ Simms confirmed.

‘Ever seen the ghost yourself, Albie?’

Simms’ face tightened.  ‘Once or twice,’ he admitted, handing her a glass and taking Rebus’s empty one.  ‘Just out the corner of my eye.’

‘And maybe after a couple of these,’ Rebus added, accepting the refill.  Simms gave him a stern look.

‘Johnny Watt was real enough, and he doesn’t seem to want to go away.  Quite a character he was, too.  The beer was free to employees back then, and no limits to how much you had.  Legend has it, Johnny Watt could sink a pint in three seconds flat and not be much slower by the tenth.’  Simms paused.  ‘None of which seemed to stop him being a hit with the ladies.’

Clarke wrinkled her nose.  ‘Wouldn’t have been a hit with me.’

‘Different times,’ Simms reminded her.  ‘Story goes, even the boss’s daughter took a bit of a shine to him…’

Rebus looked up from his glass, but Simms was busy handing a fresh pint to one of the other visitors.  He fixed his eyes on Siobhan Clarke instead, but she was being asked something by a woman who had come on the tour with her husband of twenty years.  It had been his birthday present.

‘Is it the same with you and your dad?’ the woman was asking Clarke.  ‘Did you buy him this for his birthday?’

Clarke replied with a shake of the head, then tried to hide the fact that she was smiling by taking a long sip from her glass.

‘You might say she’s my “companion”,’ Rebus explained to the woman.  ‘Charges by the hour.’

He was still quick on his toes; managed to dodge the beer as it splashed from Siobhan Clarke’s glass…

The next day, Rebus was back at the brewery, but this time in the board-room.  Photos lined the walls.  They showed the brewery in its heyday.  At that time, almost a century ago, there had been twenty other breweries in the city, and even this was half what there had been at one time.  Rebus studied a posed shot of delivery men with their dray-horse.  It was hitched to its cart, wooden barrels stacked on their sides in a careful pyramid.  The men stood with arms folded over their three-quarter-length aprons.  There was no date on the photograph.  The one next to it, however, was identified as ‘Workers and Managers, 1947’.  The faces were blurry.  Rebus wondered if one of them belonged to Johnny Watt, unaware that he had less than a year left to live.

On the wall opposite, past the large, polished oval table, were portraits of twenty or so men, the brewery managers.  Rebus looked at each of them in turn.  The one at the end was a colour photograph.  When the door opened and Rebus turned towards the sound, he saw the man from the portrait walk in.

‘Douglas Cropper,’ the man said, shaking Rebus’s hand.  He was dressed identically to his photo  -  dark blue suit, white shirt, burgundy tie.  He was around forty and looked the type who liked sports.  The tan was probably put there by nature.  The hair showed only a few flecks of grey at the temples.  ‘My secretary tells me you’re a policeman…’

‘Was a policeman,’ Rebus corrected him.  ‘Recently retired.  I might not have mentioned that to your secretary.’

‘So there’s no trouble then?’  Cropper had pulled out a chair and was gesturing for Rebus to sit down, too.

‘Cropper’s a popular name,’ Rebus said, nodding towards the line of photographs.

‘My grandfather and my great-grandfather,’ Cropper agreed, crossing one leg over the other.  ‘My father was the black sheep  -  he became a doctor.’

‘In one picture,’ Rebus said, ‘the inscription says “workers and managers”…’

Cropper gave a short laugh. ‘I know.  Makes it sound as if the managers don’t do any work.  I can assure you that’s not the case these days…’  

‘Your grandfather must have been in charge of the brewery when that accident happened,’ Rebus stated.

‘Accident?’

‘Johnny Watt.’

Cropper’s eyes widened a little.  ‘You’re interested in ghosts?’

Rebus offered a shrug, but didn’t say anything.  The silence lengthened until Cropper broke it.

‘Businesses weren’t so hot on health and safety back then, I’m afraid to say.  Lack of ventilation… and nobody partnering Mr Watt.’  Cropper leaned forward.  ‘But I’ve been here the best part of twenty years, on and off, and I’ve never seen anything out of the ordinary.’

‘You mean the ghost?  But other people have?’

It was Cropper’s turn to shrug.  ‘It’s a story, that’s all.  A bit of shadow… a squeaky floorboard…  Some people can’t help seeing things.’  Cropper sat back again and placed his hands behind his head.

‘Did your grandfather ever talk to you about it?’

‘Not that I remember.’

‘Was he still in charge when you started here?’

‘He was.’

Rebus thought for a moment.  ‘What would have happened after the accident?’ he asked.

‘I dare say the family would have been compensated  -  my grandfather was always very fair.  Plenty of evidence of it in the annals.’

‘Annals?’

‘The brewery’s records are extensive.’

‘Would they have anything to say about Johnny Watt?’

‘No idea.’

‘Could you maybe look?’

Cropper’s bright blue eyes drilled into Rebus’s.  ‘Mind explaining to me why?’
Rebus thought of Albie Simms’ words: Johnny Watt was real… and he doesn’t seem to want to go away…  But he didn’t say anything, just bided his time until Douglas Cropper sighed and began getting to his feet.

‘I’ll see what I can do,’ Cropper conceded.

‘Thank you, sir,’ Rebus said.

‘You’re supposed to be retired,’ Dr Curt said.

In the past, the two men would normally have met in the city mortuary, but Rebus had arrived at the pathologist’s office at the university, where Curt maintained a full teaching load between autopsies.  The desk between them was old, ornate, and wooden.  The wall behind Curt was lined with bookshelves, though Rebus doubted the books themselves got much use.  A laptop sat on the desk, its cover closed.  There was no paperwork anywhere.

‘I am retired,’ Rebus stated.

‘Funny way of showing it…’  Curt opened a drawer and lifted out a leather-bound ledger-book.  A page had been marked.  He opened the book and turned it to face Rebus.

‘Report of the post-mortem examination,’ Curt explained.  ‘Written in the finest copper-plate lettering by Professor William Shiels.’

‘Were you ever taught by him?’ Rebus asked.

‘Do I really look that old?’

‘Sorry.’  Rebus peered at the handwritten notes.  ‘You’ve had a read?’

‘Professor Shiels was a great man, John.’

‘I’m not saying he wasn’t.’

‘Contusions… fractured skull… internal bleeding to the brain…  We see those injuries most days even now.’

‘Drunks on a Saturday night?’ Rebus guessed.  Curt nodded his agreement.

‘Drink and drugs, John.  Our friend Mr Watt fell eleven feet on to an inch-thick steel floor.  Unconscious from the fumes, no way to defend himself…’

‘The major damage was to the base of the skull,’ Rebus commented, running a finger along the words on the page.

‘We don’t always fall forehead first,’ Curt cautioned.  Something in his tone made Rebus look up.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

Curt gave a twitch of the mouth.  ‘I did a bit of digging.  Those vats give off carbon dioxide.  Ventilation’s an issue, same now as it was back then.  There are plenty of recorded cases of brewery employees falling into the vats.  It’s worse if someone tries to help.  They dive into the beer to rescue their friend, and come up for air… take a deep breath and suddenly they’re in as much trouble as the other fellow.’

‘What a way to go…’

‘I believe one or two had to climb out and go to the toilet a couple of times prior to drowning,’ Curt offered.  Rebus smiled, as was expected.

‘Okay,’ he said.  ‘Carbon dioxide poisoning… but what is it you’re not saying?’

‘The vat our friend fell into was empty, John.  Hence the injuries.  He didn’t drown in beer  -  there was no beer.’

Finally, Rebus got it.

‘No beer,’ he said quietly, ‘meaning no fermenting.  No carbon dioxide.’  His eyes met the pathologist’s.  Curt was nodding slowly.

‘So what was it caused him to pass out?’ Curt asked.  ‘Of course, he could have just tripped and fallen, but then I’d expect to see signs that he’d tried to stop his fall.’

Rebus rubbed a hand over the ledger-book.  ‘No injuries to the hands,’ he stated.

‘None whatsoever,’ Professor Curt agreed.

Rebus’s next stop was the National Library of Scotland, where a one-day reader’s pass allowed him access to a microfiche machine.  A member of staff threaded the spool of film home and showed Rebus how to wind it to the relevant pages and adjust the focus.  It was a slow process  -  Rebus kept stopping to read various stories and sports reports, and to smile at some of the advertisements.  The film contained a year’s worth of Scotsman newspapers, the year in question being 1948.  I was one year old, Rebus thought to himself.  Eventually he came to news of Johnny Watt’s demise.  It must have been a quiet day in the office: they’d sent a journalist and a photographer.  Workers had gathered in the brewery yard.  They looked numbed.  The manager, Mr Joseph Cropper, had been interviewed.  Rebus read the piece through twice, remembering the portrait of Douglas Cropper’s grandfather  -  stern of face and long of sideburn.  Then he spooled forwards through the following seven days.  There was coverage of the funeral, along with another photograph.  Rebus wondered if the horse pulling the carriage had been borrowed from the brewery.  Warriston Cemetery was the destination.  Watt and his family had lived in the Stockbridge area for umpteen generations.  He had no wife, but three brothers and a sister.  Watt had died at the age of twenty, and had served a year in the army towards the end of World War Two.  Rebus paused for a moment, pondering that: you survived a war, only to die in your home town three years later.  Watt had only been working at the brewery for eleven months.  Joseph Cropper told the reporter that the young man had been ‘full of energy, a hard worker with excellent prospects.’  In the photo showing the procession into the cemetery, Cropper was central.  There was a woman next to him, identified as his wife.  She wore black, her eyes to the ground, her husband gripping her arm.  She was skinny and slight, in contrast to the man she’d married.  Rebus leaned in a little further towards the screen, then wound the film back to the previous photo.  Twenty minutes later, he was still looking.

Albert Simms seemed surprised to see him.

Simms had just finished one of his brewery tours.  Rebus was sitting at a table in the sample room, nursing the best part of a pint of IPA.  It had been a busy tour: eight guests in all.  They offered Rebus half-smiles and glances but kept their distance.  Simms poured them their drinks but then seemed in a hurry for them to finish, ushering them from the room.  It was five minutes before he returned.  Rebus was behind the pumps, topping up his glass.

‘No mention of Johnny Watt’s ghost,’ Rebus commented.

‘No.’  Simms was tidying the vests and hard-hats into a plastic storage container.

‘Do you want a drink?  My shout.’

Simms thought about it, then nodded.  He approached the bar and eased himself on to one of the stools.  There was a blue folder lying nearby, but he tried his best to ignore it.

‘Always amazes me,’ Rebus said, ‘the way we humans hang on to things  -  records, I mean.  Chitties and receipts and old photographs.  Brewery’s got quite a collection.  Same goes for the libraries and the medical college.’  Rebus handed over Simms’ drink.  The man made no attempt to pick it up.

‘Joseph Cropper’s wife never had a daughter,’ Rebus began to explain.  ‘I got that from Joseph’s grandson, your current boss.  He showed me the archives.  So much stuff there…’  He paused.  ‘When Johnny Watt died, how long had you been working here, Albie?’

‘Not long.’

Rebus nodded and opened the folder, showing Simms the photo from the Scotsman, the one of the brewery workers in the yard.  He tapped a particular face.  A young man, seated on a corner of the wagon, legs dangling, shoulders hunched.  ‘You’ve not really changed, you know.  How old were you?  Fifteen?’

‘You sound as if you know.’  Simms had taken the photocopy from Rebus and was studying it.

‘The police keep records, too, Albie.  We never throw anything away.  Bit of trouble in your youth  -  nicking stuff; fights.  Brandishing a razor on one particular occasion  -  you did a bit of juvenile time for that.  Is that when Joseph Cropper met you? He was the charitable type, according to his grandson.  Liked to visit prisons, talk to the men and the juveniles.  You were about to be released, he offered you a job.  But there were strings attached, weren’t there?’

‘Were there?’  Simms tossed the sheet of paper on to the bar, picked up the glass and drank from it.

‘I think so,’ Rebus said.  ‘In fact, I’d go so far as to say I know so.’  He rubbed a hand down his cheek.  ‘Be a bugger to prove, mind, but I don’t think I need to do that.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because you want to be caught.  You’re an old man now, maybe only a short while left, but it’s been plaguing you.  How many years is it, Albie?  How long have you been seeing Johnny Watt’s ghost?’

Albert Simms wiped foam from his top lip with his knuckles, but didn’t say anything.

‘I’ve been to take a look at your house,’ Rebus continued.  ‘Nice place.  Semi-detached; quiet street off Colinton Road.  Didn’t take much searching to come up with the transaction.  You bought it from new a couple of months after Johnny Watt died.  No mortgage.  I mean, houses were maybe more affordable back then, but on wages like yours?  I’ve seen your pay slips, Albie  -  they’re in the company files, too.  So where did the money come from?’

‘Go on then  -  tell me.’

‘Joseph Cropper didn’t have a daughter.  You told me he did because you knew fine well it would jar, if I ever did any digging.  I’d start to wonder why you told that particular lie.  He had a wife though, younger than him.’  Rebus showed Simms a copy of the photo from the cemetery.  ‘See how her husband’s keeping a grip on her?  She’s either about to faint or he’s just letting everyone know who the boss is.  To be honest, my money would be on both.  You can’t see her face but there’s a photo she sat for in a studio…’  Rebus slid it from the folder. 

‘Very pretty, I think you’ll agree.  This came from Douglas Cropper, by the way.  Families keep a lot of stuff, too, don’t they?  She’d been at school with Johnny Watt.  Johnny, with his eye for the ladies.  Joseph Cropper couldn’t have his wife causing a scandal, could he?  Her in her late-teens, him in his early-thirties…’  Rebus leaned across the bar a little, so that his face was close to that of the man with the sagging shoulders and face. 

‘Could he?’ he repeated.

‘You can’t prove anything, you said as much yourself.’

‘But you wanted someone to find out.  When you found out I was a cop, you zeroed in on me.  You wanted to whet my appetite, because you needed to be found out, Albie.  That’s at the heart of this, always has been.  Guilt gnawing away at you down the decades.’

‘Not down the decades  -  just these past few years.’  Simms took a deep breath.  ‘It was only meant to be the frighteners.  I was a tough kid but I wasn’t big.  Johnny was big and fast, and that bit older.  I just wanted him on the ground while I gave him the warning.’  Simms’ eyes were growing glassy.

‘You hit him too hard,’ Rebus commented.  ‘Did you push him in or did he fall?’

‘He fell.  Even then I didn’t know he was dead.  The boss… when he heard…’  Simms sniffed and swallowed hard.  ‘That was the both of us, locked together… we couldn’t tell.  They were still hanging people back then.’

‘They hanged a man at Perth jail in ‘48,’ Rebus acknowledged.  ‘I read it in the Scotsman.’
Simms managed a weak smile.  ‘I knew you were the man, soon as I saw you.  The kind who likes a mystery.  Do you do crosswords?’

‘Can’t abide them.’  Rebus paused for a mouthful of IPA.  ‘The money was to hush you up?’

‘I told him he didn’t need to  -  working for him, that was what I wanted.  He said the money would get me a clean start anywhere in the world.’  Simms shook his head slowly.  ‘I bought the house instead.  He didn’t like that, but he was stuck with it  -  what was he going to do?’

‘The two of you never talked about it again?’

‘What was there to talk about?’

‘Did Cropper’s wife ever suspect?’

‘Why should she?  Post-mortem was what we had to fear.  Once they’d declared it an accident, that was that.’ 
Rebus sat in silence, waiting until Albert Simms made eye contact, then asked a question of his own.  ‘So what are we going to do, Albie?’

Albert Simms exhaled noisily.  ‘I suppose you’ll be taking me in.’

‘Can’t do that,’ Rebus said.  ‘I’m retired.  It’s up to you.  Next natural step.  I think you’ve already done the hard part.’

Simms thought for a moment, then nodded slowly.  ‘No more ghosts,’ he said quietly, almost to himself, as he stared up the ceiling of the sample room.

‘Maybe, maybe not,’ Rebus said.

‘Been here long?’ Siobhan Clarke asked as she entered the Oxford Bar.

‘What else am I going to do?’  Rebus replied.  ‘Now I’m on the scrap-heap.  What about you  -  hard day at the office?’

‘Do you really want to hear about it?’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I know what you’re like.  Soon as you get a whiff of a case  -  mine or anyone else’s  -  you’ll want to have a go at it yourself.’

‘Maybe I’m a changed man, Siobhan.’

‘Aye, right.’  She rolled her eyes and told the landlord she’d have a gin and tonic.

‘Double?’ he asked.

‘Why not?’  She looked at Rebus.  ‘Same again?  Then you can make me jealous by telling me stories of your life of leisure.’

‘Maybe I’ll do that,’ said Rebus, raising his pint-glass and draining it to the very last drop.

Feb 16-18 2010

 

(With thanks to my old school-friend Steve Parkes for brewing info!)

Pictures © Iain Mclean

Ian very kindly wrote The Very Last Drop to help the work of Royal Blind. If you have enjoyed reading it you may consider making a donation to our charity.