To recap....Mrs McHaggarty, my mother in law, came to visit over the bank-holiday weekend, a visit that coincided with my annual hedgehog parasite survey. All was going reasonably well until she bursted into my laboratory and proceeded to fall about the place in a drunken manner. The result of this merriment was that Mrs McH claimed to have broken at least one ankle whilst slipping on some hedgehog blood near the operating table. My wife was forced to take her home to convalesce whilst I remained at the institute. The evening then took a sinister turn when I first encountered a hoodie wearing would-be thief in the institute, and then discovered one of my dissected hedgehogs in the stew that my wife had prepared before leaving. We pick up this story at the point where I have lowered the mangled head of the hedgehog back into its broth.
Leaving the kitchen, my mind was full of doubt, suspicion, disbelief and anger. It simply was not possible that my wife would play such a cruel trick. I know that sometimes we have our differences, and that she is fond of the occasional practical trick at my expense, but this was beyond any acceptable sense of humour! There had to be another explantion, but I was at a loss to explain how hedgehog 113 had ended up as part of my intended evening meal.
The evening wore on as I paced up and down the institute, a mild feeling of paranoia beginning to creep into my mind. What if there was something I didn't know about the McHaggarty family? What if the presence of my wife's mother had somehow triggered some kind of bizarrre hedgehog-boiling instinct in my poor wife?
The half empty Talisker bottle stood lonely on the coffee table. It's dark amber liquid clinging to the sides, completely still, as if it had set, in time and beyond time, here we go again, its pure origins in the glen holding secrets of untold pleasures.....
Shut up I told myself.
The glass was half full and in my hand not twenty seconds later, Mrs McH's lipstick smeared along the rim. I turned it round and drank quickly from the other side - my first taste of the seductive firewater in several years. I didn't even notice it going down. Twenty minutes later I didn't notice that I had emptied the bottle. Had it really been half full I asked myself, a languid inner voice floating through the haze that had descended like a gentle mist over my senses. I began to laugh at the ideas that had plagued me earlier. It simply couldn't be true. There must be a rational explanation. Rational, rationale, rationing, racing, ranting, rambunctious, ribald rintintini froogle skesquash.
Oh dear, I told myself, I have allowed myself to become drunk. There is a good reason why I normally don't allow this to happen, that reason being that I become completely unable to articulate myself in my native tongue, and by that I don't mean that I become vague and slurred. It is a rare condition, something akin to the phenomenon of speaking in tongues that sometimes afflicts those with strong religious convictions. Quite literally, I start to speak jibberish....
'Is this man known to you sir?' asked the policeman.
'Kan boodle ihm qua hoopa frangle ha ha' I replied, speaking nonsense as if it were my native tongue. It was 12:30am and I had been awoken from a vivid dream by the sound of heavy knocking at the door. At first I had ignored it, presuming in my drunken half-awake state that my treacherous wife had forgotten her keys. But the knocking was too heavy to have come from her delicate knuckles and persisted long enough for me find enough presence of mind to head for the Institute's front door. I had opened it to be confronted by the sight of a policeman, a police lady and the bedraggled form of the hoodie-wearing thief I had earlier seen off the premises.
'Can you answer the question please sir. Do you know this man?'
I shook my head.
'Take his hood off', whispered the police lady.
'Hacth ja foom fluff', I echoed as best I could.
The policeman reached up and pulled the hood back to reveal an unshaven and gaunt looking young man with a full head of dark thick hair and several days of beard. He looked, even in my drunken state, a bit like Ravel, my faithful research assistant who had been missing these last few days after not reporting back from his traverse of Hadrians Wall under the premise that it would bring him 20 years good luck.
....that nose, those eyes, lips, cheeks.....
Good grief, it was himself!
'Habul!" I cried.
'Who?' asked the policeman. 'Are you sure sir?'
'Gamel!' I cried, unable to articulate what my eyes could now plainly see. 'Im gum splat hero me'
I'm sure I saw both police person's eyes roll from left to right simultaneously. 'We observed this man running through the village two hours ago. Upon his apprehension, he pointed repeatedly in the direction of the institute but spoke to us in a language neither of us understood...'
'Ugmanium!' I blurted, which was drunken nonsense for Romanian, the preferred language of my faithful research assistant who now stood, head bowed in front of me. I placed one hand clumsily on his shoulder and gripped it slightly to convey my feelings of gratitude that he had returned unharmed.
'Then...' continued the policeman in a somber tone, 'he said in rather broken English that his name is....what did he call himself Joan?'
'Miron' said the policewoman.
'Miron' repeated the policeman.
At the sound of this name my heart skipped yet another beat. I had heard this name only once before, one night several months ago when I had persuaded Ravel to talk about his family. Miron was the name that Ravel had given to his twin brother, a man who had turned to the dark side of Romanian society and was, according to Ravel, mixed up with some underground organisation that specialised in organised crime, a gang known locally as....the Mafia.
'Fuck me' I swore, in perfect English, the shock of being unexpectedly confronted by a gangster in place of his missing brother having the not-unpredictable effect of immediately sobering me up somewhat (likely as a result of the massive shot of adrenaline that had just been released into my bloodstream).
'Steady on, sir,' said the policeman. 'This man claimed to have been looking for some food for his brother, who is apparently living rough about ten miles away. His English is very poor and it took us quite a while to translate. In the end one of our colleagues used an online translation programme...'
'Ravel...here...ten miles?' I blurted.
'You know his brother sir?'
'Course...Ravel my friend. Working here, research, very loyal. Never....him....bad!' I was not completely over the effect of drinking half a bottle of Talisker a few hours earlier. My arm was now unsteadily pointing at the man called Miron, one finger extended. 'J' accuse!' I shouted.
'Sorry sir, just what are you accusing this man of'? asked the policewoman.
'Hedgehog....boiled....bad. Wife not guilty. Miron....why? Where Ravel....what done to him? Why you here?'
The man called Miron fixed me with the steely glare of a Romanian Gangster caught red handed and desparate enough to try anything. For a few moments he didn't answer at all, then suddenly his eyes softened and he lowered his head once again. The words that came out of his mouth were slow, strongly accented towards the languages of Eastern Europe and grammatically incorrect. But they carried an emotion and meaning that was loud and clear to all present.
'Ravel.....' he said solemnly, 'Ravel in accident. Not good condition. He needs food. I come here, find dead hudgehog. My people like hudgehog stew when times are bad. Not much meat but fills stomach a little. Then he comes along and waves arms like old woman with a broom scaring chickens. I want no fight now so I go. Ravel still hungry. He need food and you delay. We must go now but you are so drunk. Look at you. No question why Ravel run away. Pah!'
I stared at the man called Miron with an open mouth, not quite sure of what I was hearing. The accused had turned into the accuser! I was at a complete loss for words. Was he telling even a shred of truth? Could we trust him?
'Miron has indicated that he will take us to his brother' said the policeman. 'As you are known to his brother, we think you should accompany us. Please get your coat and secure the institute Dr McCrumble. The car is just over there.'
I looked at each figure in turn, my mind trying to turn over the apparent facts and make sense of what was happening. A few moments later I slowly turned and shuffled back inside to fetch my coat as instructed. On my way to the bedroom I passed the kitchen and couldn't help but breathe in the aroma of hedgehog stew coming from the kitchen. I was drunk-hungry, but there was someone with a greater need than mine. So I quickly located a tupperware box and ladelled some of the thin stew into it, making sure that the head remained in the pan. Then I grabbed my coat and proceeded back outside, my head still incredibly groggy from the alcohol saturation. I had no doubt at that moment that it was going to be a long and difficult night.....