Leaning back in his office chair, Maurice Gains shook his head at Diane Fry and wagged a long finger. ‘We don’t call it horse meat, as a rule, Sergeant. We prefer “cheval”.’
‘Oh?’ said Fry. ‘Why not call a spade a spade?’
‘Because of the sensitivities of the British consumer.’
Fry didn’t think Maurice Gains looked the sensitive type. Sensitive to the size of his own bank account, maybe. And that was about it. He was the type of businessman she hated most. Supercilious, complacent, obsessed with his own success.
‘We don’t eat cow, do we?’ he said. ‘We eat beef. We don’t eat pig — we eat pork, or ham. You see, it protects the housewife from having to picture the actual living creature when she’s doing her shopping in the supermarket. If we give it a different name, it becomes just another product on the shelf. It’s all about the image.’
Well, it would have to be. The unit occupied by R amp; G Enterprises was all about image, too. Money had been spent on the entrance and signage, a smart logo that must have been professionally designed. The carpets in reception and in the manager’s office were deeper and more luxurious than anything ever dreamed of at E Division headquarters. Fry had been ushered to a low, modernist lounge chair that Gavin Murfin would have had difficulty getting out of again, if he’d been with her. But this was one interview she’d felt might be better done alone.
‘Who eats this product of yours?’ she said.
‘Well, cheval has always been popular among the French and Belgian working classes, usually in urban areas. You may have seen the specialist butchers’ shops in Paris, the boucheries chevalines, with those wonderful gilded horse-head advertising signs?’
‘I can’t say that I have,’ said Fry. ‘I must be promenading on the wrong boulevards.’
Gains smiled, a condescending smile which got right on her nerves. ‘Well, in recent years, horse meat has become more popular in the fashionable arrondissements. A lot of French consumers began switching from beef to horse when mad cow disease appeared. Cheval is marketed as a healthy, low-fat alternative to British beef.’
‘They started eating horse instead of our beef?’
‘Yes. Ironically, it’s often our horses they’re eating,’ said Gains. ‘And even young people in France have taken to horse meat. I’m told there’s a horse meat dining society known as Le Pony Club. But Italy and Eastern Europe are big markets, too, and parts of Japan and China.’
‘We don’t eat horse meat in this country, though.’
‘Historically, that’s true. Though, actually, people have been eating horse meat for some time, without being aware of it. There was a Food Standards Agency investigation a few years ago which found salami on sale in the UK containing horse and donkey meat, without it being mentioned on the food label. No one died of shock. And times change, you know. We’re living in a much more multi-cultural country.’
‘So I’ve heard.’
Gains had a habit of stroking his hand along the smooth grain of his desk. A possessive, self-satisfied gesture, Fry thought.
‘I’m not just talking about ethnic minorities,’ he said, ‘but the large numbers of our fellow EU citizens who now live and work in the UK. Many of them are from countries where horse meat is perfectly acceptable. Indeed, the meat is highly regarded by some communities. And quite rightly, given its low fat content and excellent flavour.’
‘You think you can make horse meat part of the British diet?’
‘We acknowledge that we have a bit of a PR challenge on our hands. But it’s not an insurmountable problem. In fact, there’s a precedent. Thanks to the Asian and Caribbean communities, goat meat has become more common in the UK market during the last couple of decades. Now we just want to widen the food experience a little. The time is absolutely right, when you consider the increasingly health-conscious environment, the public awareness of the risks of eating too much fat. Horse meat is splendidly healthy, with half the fat of beef and ten times the Omega Threes to reduce your cholesterol. It’s free from bird ’flu, mad cow disease, tuberculosis, Foot and Mouth, and tape worm — all the scourges of our traditional meat industries. There’s a huge opportunity for a dynamic, enterprising company to break new ground.’
‘And that’s you?’
He smiled smugly. ‘Absolutely. R amp; G Enterprises are ideally positioned in the market place, Sergeant. We saw an opportunity, and we’re taking it. That’s what enterprise is all about. One day, we’ll expand into Europe and take on the French and Belgians at their own game. A shame we can’t establish a market in the USA. But the Americans are most against eating horse meat.’
Fry looked at the company logo, etched into the window of the manager’s office.
‘I take it Patrick Rawson is the “R” in R amp; G Enterprises, Mr Gains?’
‘Yes, poor Patrick. Do you know how it happened?’
‘I spoke to Deborah yesterday. She said it was a robbery. Unusual place for it to happen.’
‘We can’t be sure of the circumstances,’ said Fry stiffly.
‘Pity. I was hoping you might have some news.’
‘How did you and Mr Rawson happen to go into business together?’
‘Well, it didn’t just “happen”,’ said Gains. ‘We had talked about the possibility for some time. Years, I suppose. We met through Hawley and Sons, the abattoir owners. I used to work for the Meat and Livestock Commission. Then, about a year ago, we agreed that the time had come, and we put the package together.’
‘Mr Rawson put up some of his own money?’
‘Yes. I was fortunate — I had an inheritance from my father, a few thousand I had put away for just such an eventuality. Patrick, I believe, raised some equity from his property in Sutton Coldfield.’
‘He used his house as security?’
‘That’s right. But the majority of the finance came from our business loan. That has to be serviced, and paid back first. But we’re building the enterprise well. Everyone will be happy with the outcome, I believe.’
Fry tried to ignore the complacent smile. ‘Do you know Michael Clay, Mr Gains?’
‘Oh, Clay? I gather he’s worked with Patrick on some other projects. But I’ve never met him.’
‘He’s not involved with R amp; G?’
‘No, that’s just the two of us. Me and Patrick.’
Fry was vaguely disappointed. At the moment, Michael Clay could only be counted as an elusive witness. But ever since she’d spoken to Erin Lacey in Great Barr this morning, she’d been bothered by a nagging feeling that he would soon turn out to be something more than that.
‘I see. And, Mr Gains, I have to ask you — were you aware that Patrick Rawson was the subject of a Trading Standards investigation?’
Gains hesitated, for the first time. ‘Yes, I was. It was quite well known in the trade. But no charges were ever brought against him, so I couldn’t see any problem. Innocent until proven guilty, eh, Sergeant?’
‘So they say.’
‘Patrick is in regular touch — sorry, was in regular touch. He phoned on Monday, in fact. Just for a chat, nothing specific.’
‘He was in his car when he phoned, I suppose?’
‘Yes, I believe he was.’
Fry was interested that Maurice Gains had volunteered the information about Rawson’s phone call before she asked the question. Clearly, this man wasn’t stupid.
‘Was that the last time you spoke?’
‘And he was happy with how things were going?’ said Fry. ‘No problems?’
‘None at all. Between you and me, we talked about future expansion. We’re modelling ourselves on a well-established Belgian company, which does the whole job — buys the horses, slaughters them, carries out the butchering, then packages and distributes the meat. But that’s for the future. We’re only just getting a toe-hold on the market at the moment.’
‘You’d be looking to buy a slaughterhouse, then? Like Hawleys, for example?’
‘Yes, that would be ideal,’ said Gains. ‘We’ve already had talks with Hawleys. Of course, the equine side of their business is a drop in the ocean. The countries supplying the most horse meat in Europe are Poland and Romania. And we do need certain types of horse. The optimum age for slaughter is between ten and fifteen years, the minimum about seven. Funnily enough, the older the horse, the more tender the meat. It’s the opposite of other meats.’
‘No young horses?’
‘Well, foal is OK up to fifteen months, but it’s a specialized market. Italy likes white meat from very young horses, but the French prefer red. We think the UK market will favour red meat, too.’
Through a window, Fry could see into the packing room, where women dressed head to toe in white plastic aprons, hats and hair nets, were processing the meat. The steaks she could see going through the line were enormous — big slabs of purplish-black meat, thickly marbled with fat.
Gains had followed her gaze. ‘The taste is a bit sweet, compared to beef,’ he admitted. ‘Traditionally, it was thought that it would never suit the British palate, even if we didn’t have a cultural problem to overcome. But the taste can easily be improved with seasoning and spices. Like lamb, it goes rather well with herbs such as rosemary or sage. You really should try it.’
Fry wished there was some way she could shake Maurice Gains’ complacency, make that hand stop stroking the smooth wood of his desk, just for a moment.
‘Mr Gains, an outbreak of trichinosis from eating infected horse meat isn’t very good news for you, is it?’ she said.
‘No connection with us,’ snapped Gains, losing his composure for just a moment. ‘I made a call this morning, and I’m told the suspect meat came from Poland. Brought in by some Polish workers living in a multi-occupancy property in Birmingham. That’s up to the Polish authorities to deal with, if they’re the country of origin.’
‘But, Mr Gains, don’t you think you might have something more serious to deal with than a PR challenge?’ she said.
‘We’ll take all the steps that are necessary to protect our brand.’
‘“Protect your brand”? That wasn’t what I meant.’
‘I don’t know what you do mean, then.’
‘I mean animal rights activists,’ said Fry. ‘Some of the protest groups out there can be pretty extreme in their actions. You must have taken that into account?’
‘We considered it, naturally,’ said Gains. ‘It was a factor that our business partners raised at the planning stage.’
‘Our financial backers. Banks, I mean. They don’t play any active role in the business, but we needed finance to meet our start-up costs. So we had to put together a business proposal for them, and the public reaction was factored into that. But we’re not dealing with live animals here, you see. Currently, all our meat comes from Italy. It’s boned, cut and packaged in a plant near Turin, then shipped back to the UK in refrigerated lorries. You won’t find any ponies gambolling around in paddocks waiting to go on to the slaughter line. Not here. There’s nothing for the animal rights fanatics to get steamed up about.’
‘You think not?’
‘Look, we’re only distributing to specialist shops at the moment, and a few restaurants where the owners are willing to be innovative. But wait until we get our products into Tesco and Waitrose. Then public acceptance will soon follow.’
‘I’m glad you’re so confident.’
‘I suppose it might just be me, Sergeant, but I don’t understand where these animal lovers are coming from,’ said Gains. ‘Why do people who eat cows and sheep get so upset at the idea of eating a horse?’
‘They think of them as companions, not food.’
‘That’s the way most of us think about dogs, isn’t it? Yet the Chinese and Koreans eat dog meat, even consider it a delicacy. One man’s pet is another man’s protein.’ Gains smiled. ‘Isn’t that right, Sergeant?’
Fry was relieved to get out of the R amp; G distribution centre. Though the smell had been clean, and maybe even overly hygienic, there had been a strange contradiction in the sight of those purple slabs of meat being handled and shipped out. By the time she got back to her car, she was very glad that Gavin Murfin wasn’t with her. She couldn’t have stood it if he’d produced something to eat right at this moment.
A message from Murfin was waiting on her phone. There must have been no signal while she was inside R amp; G Enterprises.
‘Thought you might like to know,’ said Murfin when she called him back. ‘SOCOs lifted some latent prints from that gate on Longstone Moor. They’ve visited the farmer and printed him for comparison, but some of the latents don’t match. Could be you were right, Diane.’
‘Well, actually, Ben Cooper was right.’
‘I’ll tell him that.’
Fry sighed. ‘Yes, do.’
‘Are you OK, Diane?’
‘Yes, I’m fine. I’ve just escaped from a vision of the future — R amp; G Enterprises.’
She told Murfin about her visit, not leaving out the slabs of meat.
‘I know you said Patrick Rawson had a finger in a lot of pies,’ said Murfin when she’d finished, ‘but I didn’t realize some of the pies were made of horse meat.’
Fry winced. ‘Don’t, Gavin.’
‘Oh, got to go,’ said Murfin. ‘There’s something happening.’
But he’d gone. And Fry had to sit tapping her fingers on the steering wheel while she waited for him to phone back.
‘What’s going on?’
‘We’re just picking up a suspect,’ said Murfin breathlessly. ‘The DI’s taking the lead, and we’re on the way there now.’
‘Who, Gavin? Who is it?’
‘It seems we’ve got information on some youth who has Patrick Rawson’s wallet and credit cards in his possession. His mum saw the appeals on TV and shopped him. Good news, eh?’
Fry looked at the frontage of R amp; G Enterprises, with its smoked glass and its designer logo. Had she just wasted a precious hour of her life being patronized by Maurice Gains while all the action was happening elsewhere? And on her case, too?
‘Yeah. That’s great news, Gavin.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Murfin. ‘And one more thing: we’ve got another body.’