Three very different women come together to complete an environmental survey. Three women who, in some way or another, know the meaning of betrayal....For team leader Rachael Lambert the project is the perfect opportunity to rebuild her confidence after a double-betrayal by her lover and boss, Peter Kemp. Botanist Anne Preece, on the other hand, sees it as a chance to indulge in a little deception of her own. And then there is Grace Fulwell, a strange, uncommunicative young woman with plenty of her own secrets to hide...
When Rachael arrives at the cottage, however, she is horrified to discover the body of her friend Bella Furness. Bella, it appears, has committed suicide--a verdict Rachael finds impossible to accept.
Only when the next death occurs does a fourth woman enter the picture--the unconventional Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, who must piece together the truth from these women's tangled lives in The Crow Trap.
Ann Cleeves's popular Vera Stanhope books have been made into the hit series “Vera” starring Brenda Blethyn and are available in the U.S. through Netflix and PBS.
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The Crow Trap
By Ann Cleeves
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Ann Cleeves
All rights reserved.
Rachael turned off the metalled road, then stopped with a jerk. There was a new tubular steel gate and she'd almost driven into it. One of the Holme Park tenants trying to impress. A ewe with a tatty coat and mucky behind nuzzled up to her as she got out of the car to open the gate. The ewe was fat. They didn't lamb up here until the end of April. The steel of the latch was so cold that it seemed to freeze to her fingers.
The track was worse than she remembered, pitted by frost. She drove slower than walking pace with two wheels on the verge. Still the exhaust bumped against a rock.
A mile on she realized she had taken the wrong track through the forest. She should have come out from the trees into open countryside, should by now have reached the ford. Instead she was on a sandy path, not so uneven but very narrow. On either side conifers blocked out the evening light. She drove on, hoping for a place to turn but the track divided into a footpath, the trees meeting over her head.
She had to reverse back to where the track forked. Branches scraped against the paintwork with the noise of chalk on a wet blackboard. The bumper hit a stone bank hidden by undergrowth. She pushed the gear into first and moved forward with a jerk before reversing again. When she reached the main track it was almost dark and she was shaking.
At the ford she stopped the car and got out to test its depth. Five years ago a student on his way back to Baikie's after a night in the pub had drowned, his car turned over by the force of the flash flood. The car headlights reflected from the surface, making it impossible to gauge the depth. It had been a dry spring so she decided to risk it. The water steamed and hissed as it hit the hot engine but she pulled out easily enough on the other side.
The track was blocked again by a gate, this time of wood. It was too dark to read but she knew there was a sign. Access to Black Law Farm and Baikie's Cottage only. She left the engine running while she opened the gate. The car was parked on a slope so the headlights shone up at an angle onto the open hillside. A movement must have caught her attention because she looked up and saw, caught in the beam, the silhouette of a figure, dressed for walking in a Gortex jacket and hood. There was a flash of reflected light and she guessed he was carrying binoculars or a camera. She was certain it was a man though the figure was too far away to tell. He turned and disappeared into the gloom.
She had the unpleasant sense that she had been watched for some time. As she drove the last half mile to the cottage she wondered who could be foolish enough to be out on the hill with so little light left.
Rachael decided not to call at the farm. It upset Dougie to be disturbed without warning. Bella would hear the car and come down to the cottage when Dougie was asleep if she got the chance. There was a light in the farmhouse kitchen but the curtains were drawn. The dogs barked loudly and chased from a barn into the yard. The noise seemed to echo round the hills and Rachael thought: that's good. She'll not miss that wherever she is. Then she saw the light upstairs and thought Bella was probably settling him down for the night.
She drove on through the yard which was scraped and clean. Baikie's Cottage was at the end of the track with a view of the valley, surrounded by trees which had been planted over the years to give some shelter from the wind.
The key was where it always was, under an ornamental chimney pot near the back door. Inside she groped for the light switch. The house smelled damp but she knew it was clean. She had come in November, after the last of the students, to scrub out. Bella had arrived with a couple of bottles of homemade wine and they'd made a day of it. They'd ended up in the farmhouse drinking Dougie's whisky. She slept in the guest room – Neville's room as Bella called it, though as far as she knew Neville hadn't been there for years – and had woken with the worst hangover of her life. It was the only time she'd ever slept in the farmhouse.
Rachael switched on the Calor Gas cylinder outside then went into the kitchen to put on the kettle for coffee. The kitchen was tiny – a modern extension so narrow that she could touch both walls at once. She plugged in the rusty fridge, shut the door and was relieved when it began to hum. The gas flame spluttered but the kettle wasn't even warm. While she waited for it to boil she walked through to the living room and shut the curtains to keep out the draught. Once they had been grey velvet but the sun had faded them in strips and now the pile was quite smooth. There was a sofa covered with an Indian bedspread which Rachael had brought the year before from home, a couple of armchairs which needed something to hide the stains, books spotted with mildew and in one corner a fox in a glass case. The surroundings were so familiar that Rachael took no notice of them. She thought only about getting warm. Even inside it was so cold now that her breath came in clouds.
The grate was laid with paper and kindling but there were no logs in the basket on the hearth. There were matches on the mantelpiece but they were damp. After several attempts to strike one Rachael twisted newspaper into a spill and lit it from the gas flame in the kitchen. She nurtured the fire, remembering old tricks from the last time. The kettle squealed and she made instant coffee from an emergency jar she had brought in her bag. She drank it crouched over the fire, tending it until she was certain it would not go out.
She emptied the car then put a pan of water on the stove. She'd have pasta for supper, and a glass of the wine she planned to have with Bella later. She took out the basket to fetch some logs. They were stacked at the back of a high, open-fronted shed, which also housed a rusting tractor and some piled bales of straw. The lights from the house didn't reach that far and she carried a torch. Outside it was clear and icily cold. The stars in the wide sky, unpolluted by street lamps, seemed brighter than at home.
Bella had arranged her suicide as efficiently as she had done everything else in her life. In the torchlight she swung, hanging from a noose made of strong, nylon rope. Her face was white. She had prepared for the occasion by putting on lipstick and the silk top Rachael had bought her as a thank-you present after last season. Her black shoes shone so the torchlight reflected from them. She'd pulled two bales away from the wall and climbed onto them to tie the rope round a beam. Then, when she was ready, she had kicked one away.
Of course there was a note. She had thought of that too. It was addressed to Rachael and apologized that she had to be the one to find the body: I couldn't put Dougie through that and I knew you'd cope. It went on to remind Rachael that the kitchen door of the farmhouse was open so she'd be able to get to the phone without disturbing anyone – meaning Dougie again. But there was no real explanation for the suicide. She just said that she couldn't take any more. She had known that Rachael would find her before the end of the evening because she had left the log bucket empty. Rachael had always realized that Bella was a clever woman.
When Rachael saw Bella, swinging, recognizable by the silk top, the smartly permed hair, the lipstick, but not really Bella, because Bella had never been that still in her life, she was furious. She was out of her mind with anger. She wanted to use the body as a punch bag, to thump it in the stomach. She wanted to climb onto a bale and slap the white, lifeless face. Because Bella had been a friend. So what right did she have to do this without discussing it with Rachael first? And because, since she heard that the project would go ahead, Rachael had been looking forward to this evening. She'd imagined sitting in Baikie's Cottage with Bella and sharing a bottle of wine and a bucketful of gossip.
But she didn't hit the body. Instead she turned and punched the bale of straw, over and over again until her knuckles were scratched and bleeding.
Later she realized how long she must have been in the tractor shed. When she went back to the cottage the pan of water was boiling and it had taken half an hour for that lousy gas flame even to get the kettle warm.CHAPTER 2
The cottage, which had come to be known as Baikie's, was bought from the farm soon after the war by Constance Baikie. She had been a naturalist and illustrator, a spinster. Once she had walked the hills in search of inspiration but obesity soon restricted her ramblings. She had taken to sitting in an armchair and only drawing the birds, plants and insects she could see from her window. This was her most prolific period. The original plates from her books sold for surprisingly large sums. A London gallery took her up and organized an annual exhibition. No one knew exactly what she did with all her money, she lived very frugally. For diversion she wrote spitefully funny letters to learned magazines ridiculing the research of her colleagues.
Dougie, still fit and active then, brought all her supplies from Kimmerston once a week in his Land Rover. She never offered to pay him for this service but each year at Christmas she gave him a sketch of the farm or the surrounding hills. Later Bella found them stacked in a pile in the drawer of his desk and had them framed. Miss Baikie wasn't lonely. She received visitors graciously but expected them to bring gifts – cream cakes, biscuits and bottles of whisky.
In 1980 Miss Baikie died suddenly. Dougie, calling one morning with the milk, found her sitting by the window. She had been there all night. In her will she launched a charitable trust to encourage environmental education and research, and donated the cottage to that. She stipulated that the trust should not benefit anyone under eighteen. She had always disliked children. Undergraduates used Baikie's as a base for their fieldwork. Rachael had spent the previous spring there to complete her MSc. When the committee decided they needed new blood she was elected a trustee.
The cottage was much as Constance had left it. The furniture had all been hers. Fanciful students imagined that they saw her ghost, late at night.
'Not if it was moving,' said a lecturer who'd known her. 'If it moved it couldn't have been Connie. So far as I remember she never did. Not while I knew her.'
Rachael didn't believe in ghosts.
That's what she told Anne and Grace the next day when they fussed over her. Rachael had planned to start work immediately on the mapping but she was made to go over it all again. It was her first time as team leader and in one sense she resented the distraction. As it was she was nervous about taking charge. They were at Baikie's for the survey and not to chat, but when Anne and Grace turned up to start work she had to tell them what had happened to Bella.
Anne was a local woman and Rachael had worked with her before. She was older than Rachael, very confident, and Rachael wasn't sure how she'd take to being told what to do. Grace had come highly recommended, but Rachael had never met her before. She'd had no say in the zoologist's appointment, which still rankled. Grace was pale and thin and news of the suicide seemed to drain her of the little colour she had. It seemed an overreaction. Bella, after all, had been a stranger.
Anne wanted to know all the details, however.
'How dreadful!' she said, when the tale of the discovery of the body had been told. 'What did you do then?' 'I went back to Black Law and used the phone.' She'd gone in quietly, not wanting to scare Dougie, though realizing he'd probably expect Bella to be banging around. She'd been unnerved to hear voices coming from upstairs and wondered for a moment if she'd imagined the whole thing. She'd crept up the stairs thinking: God, I'll look a real fool if Bella comes out and catches me. Then there'd been a loud blast of music and she'd realized that the voices were coming from the television in Dougie's room.
'I don't think I'd know who to call in the event of a suicide.' Anne's voice was sympathetic but slightly amused which annoyed Rachael. Christ, she thought, I hope we're not going to get on each other's nerves already.
'I dialled 999. I didn't know what else to do. The operator put me through to the police and they arranged for a doctor to come. I should have thought Dougie would need one anyway.'
The doctor's name was Wilson. She'd worried that he would get lost on the way but he'd visited Dougie before and anyway he knew the area. He was driving a Range Rover and wore walking boots and breeches, and looked like a vet.
'He said Bella'd been dead for at least two hours,' she said, 'then a policeman turned up. They arranged for an undertaker to come out from Kimmerston.'
She'd offered to drive out to the fork in the track to show the undertaker the way. Mr Drummond had been very sweet considering the dreadful drive and the time of night. He had a round cherubic face and specs and said that suicides were always very upsetting. Then the doctor had to send for an ambulance to take Dougie away. He couldn't stay in Black Law with no one to look after him. Perhaps the doctor was waiting for her to volunteer but she couldn't face that, even for a day. She thought it would almost have been nicer for Dougie to go out with Mr Drummond and Bella, but she could hardly suggest it.
'How was Mr Furness?' Anne asked. 'Did you have to tell him?' Rachael thought Anne was enjoying the drama. She'd always been a bit of a drama queen.
'Of course,' she said. That was what Bella had wanted.
'Did he understand?'
'How did he take it?'
'Did you tell him that she'd killed herself?'
'No. Just that she was dead.'
She and the doctor had stood outside the farmhouse in the freshly scraped yard, watching the ambulance drivers lift Dougie out on the trolley. The doctor was shivering though she had stopped feeling cold.
'I suppose it was the strain,' Wilson had said. 'Living all the way out here. Keeping the farm going and caring for Mr Furness. It's not as if she was born to it. I suppose something just snapped.'
'No,' she'd said firmly. 'Really. It couldn't have been like that. Bella loved Black Law. She enjoyed every minute of her time here.'
Then he gave her a pitying look, because he thought she couldn't face up to the reality of the situation. For the first time she wondered what Bella had meant by not being able to take any more.
When the ambulance, the doctor and the undertaker had driven away in convoy she was left with the young policeman. He watched the tail lights of the other vehicles disappear into the darkness with a sort of wistfulness, as if he were being abandoned, then he said: 'Do you know if there's any booze in the house?' She could tell he was eager to get inside, but that didn't seem very professional even when he added: 'I expect you could do with a drink.'
She found a bottle of whisky in the cupboard in the living room. They sat in the kitchen where it was warmer. He poured himself a drink without waiting to be asked and passed the bottle to her.
'What are you doing all the way out here?' 'Working.'
'You work for the Furnesses?'
'No, for an environmental agency. Peter Kemp Associates. We're doing an Environmental Impact Assessment. We've been given permission to use the cottage down the track as a base.'
He looked blank.
'You've heard about the proposed quarry in the National Park?'
'Yes.' But his voice was uncertain. He sounded like a boy, optimistically trying to bluff his way through an unlearned lesson, so she told him. About the quarry, the planning application, the legal requirement for a survey to assess damage.
'We've been hired to do the survey and the report.'
'You stay all the way out here on your own?'
'Only tonight. My colleagues arrive tomorrow.' She looked out of the window at the lightening sky. 'Today.'
'That'll be Peter Kemp.'
'No. Peter doesn't do much casework now. Anne Preece is a botanist. Grace Fullwell's a mammal expert.'
'Oh aye.' He paused. 'And you have to go out in the hills. Counting things?'
'Something like that. There's a recognized methodology.'
'Isn't it dangerous?'
'For women you mean?'
'Well, for anyone.'
'We leave a record of our route and the time we expect to be back at base. If there's a problem the others can organize a search.'
'I'd not want to be out there without a radio.' He shuddered as if he felt suddenly cold. 'I'd not want to be out there at all.'
She saw that he was prolonging the conversation so he didn't have to set off up the track alone in the dark.
'You're not a country boy,' she said.
'Does it show?' He grinned. 'No. Newcastle born and bred. But Jan, the wife, thought the country would be a better place to bring up the bairn so I put in for transfer. Best thing I ever did.'
Excerpted from The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves. Copyright © 1999 Ann Cleeves. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Rachael,
Part Three: Vera,
About the Author,
Also by Ann Cleeves,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Debut novel in the Vera Stanhope series. In the Northern Pennines there are plans to open a new slate quarry. Three women are employed to conduct an environmental survey. Bella Furness, whose cottage holds right of way to the site of the quarry, commits suicide and shortly afterwards one of the women involved in the survey fails to return home. Vera makes her first appearance at Bella's funeral and then is the investigating officer when the missing woman is found murdered. Ann Cleeves has created an intriguing character in Vera Stanhope. She is the sort of detective who more or less does as she pleases, very hands-on. There are many twists in this, keeping me guessing until the end.
The lives of various women intertwine in this tale of ecology vs business, secrets vs privacy, and mystery in the northern Pennines. Each woman has a tale to tell in this novel, told from several different points of view; but not every woman survives to reveal all. And so the mystery grows, under shadow of hills, and guarded by crows. The real-world crow trap invites its prey with a captured bird. But who is prey and who is predator here? Ann Cleeves creates her cast of characters and their relationships convincingly and enthrallingly, introducing Vera—protagonist now of her own TV series—very quietly and giving great depth to the character I’d previously only known from TV. Fans of the series will recognize hints but the story’s still vivid and new—after all, the books did come first, and I’m eager to read more. Disclosure: I wasn’t in the Pennines when I bought this but I wasn’t far away, and I love the TV series.
Many twists and turns with interesting characters. Good reading.
THE CROW TRAP by Ann Cleeves is the first in the Vera Stanhope mystery series. I was prompted to begin this series after reading Ms. Cleeves’ Shetland series. I am a huge Ann Cleeves fan. I realized she was the author of the very popular ‘Vera’ books and that an equally popular British TV series starring Brenda Blethyn was based on the Vera Stanhope mysteries. I had to get started reading! There is nothing I like more than ‘binge-reading’ a good mystery series. I liked the book but I didn’t get much of a ‘take’ on Vera Stanhope, as she didn’t appear ‘till half-way through the book. I have read and heard that the following books delve more deeply into the ‘Vera’ character. Vera lives and works in Northumberland (northeastern England). She is extremely cranky, opinionated, insightful, messy and very insensitive of others. I would have liked more scenes with her long-suffering assistant, Joe Ashworth. I assume he will be ‘fleshed-out’ in later titles. A great sense of place; a many-layered plot; complex characters; mystery and suspense make this an excellent introduction to a great mystery series. Three women are hired to complete an environmental study on the countryside where a new quarry operation is proposed. Ann Preece, Rachel Lambert and Grace Fulwell all seem to be brilliant naturalists, but all three are full of secrets, insecurities and somewhat troubled pasts. There are many questions. What prompted Bella to take her own life? Who is in favor of the quarry? and who is against it? and for what reasons? What connection does Vera have with this area? Where is Grace’s father? Vera is an excellent listener and is very insightful with others. She particularly understands her home turf and knows that the past often influences the future in very unexpected ways. I can’t wait to read more of the books in this series.