“Ann Cleeves is one of my favorite mystery writers.”Louise Penny
On a hot summer on the Northumberland coast, Julie Armstrong arrives home from a night out to find her son murdered. Luke has been strangled, laid out in a bath of water and covered with wild flowers.
This stylized murder scene has Inspector Vera Stanhope and her team intrigued. But now, Vera must work quickly to find this killer who is making art out of death. As local residents are forced to share their private lives, sinister secrets are slowly unearthed.
And all the while the killer remains in their midst, waiting for an opportunity to prepare another beautiful, watery grave…
About the Author
Shetland and Vera are available on BritBox in the United States. An adaptation of The Long Call, the first book in her Two Rivers series, will premiere on BritBox in 2022.
The first Shetland novel, Raven Black, won the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel, and Ann was awarded the CWA Diamond Dagger in 2017. She lives in the United Kingdom.
Read an Excerpt
Julie stumbled from the taxi and watched it drive away. At the front gate she paused to compose herself. Best not to go in looking pissed after all those lectures she'd given the kids. The stars wheeled and dipped in the sky and she almost threw up. But she didn't care. It had been a good night, the first with the girls for ages. Though it wasn't the girls that had made it so special, she thought, and realized there was a great soppy beam on her face. Just as well it was dark and there was no one to see.
At the door she stopped again and scrabbled through the eyeliner pencils and lippy-stained tissues and loose change in her bag for her key. Her fingers found the scrap of paper which had been torn from a corner of a menu in the bar. A phone number and a name. Ring me soon. Then a little heart. The first man she'd touched since Geoff had left. She could still feel the bones of his spine against her fingers when they'd danced. It was a shame he'd had to leave early.
She snapped the bag shut and listened. Nothing. It was so quiet that she could hear the buzz of the evening's music as a pressure on her ears. Was it possible that Luke was asleep? Laura could sleep for England, but her son had never seemed to get the hang of it. Even now he'd left school and there was nothing to get up for, he was usually awake before her. She pushed open the door and listened again, slipping her feet out of the shoes that had been killing her since she'd got out of the metro hours before. God, she hadn't danced like that since she was twenty-five. There was silence. No music, no television, no beeping computer. Thank the Lord, she thought. Thank the fucking Lord. She wanted sleep and sexy dreams. Somewhere on the street outside an engine was started.
She switched on the light. The glare hurt her head and turned her stomach again. She let go of her bag and ran up the stairs to the bathroom, tripping halfway up. No way was she going to be sick on the new hall carpet. The bathroom door was shut and she saw a crack of light showing underneath it. From the airing cupboard there came the faint gurgle of water which meant the tank was refilling. And wasn't that typical? It took hours of persuasion to get Luke into the shower in the morning, then he decided to have a bath in the middle of the night. She knocked on the bathroom door but there was no urgency about it. The queasiness had passed again.
Luke didn't answer. He must be in one of his moods. Julie knew it wasn't his fault and she should be patient, but sometimes she wanted to strangle him when he went all weird on her. She crossed the landing to Laura's room. Looking down at her daughter, she came over suddenly sentimental, thought she should make the effort to spend more time with her. Fourteen was a difficult age for a girl and Julie had been so caught up with Luke lately that Laura almost seemed like a stranger. She'd grown up without Julie noticing. She lay on her back, her spiky hair very black against the pillow, snoring slightly, her mouth open. It was a bad time for hay fever. Julie saw that the window was open and, although it was so hot, she shut it to keep out the pollen. The moonlight splashed onto the field behind the house where they'd been cutting grass.
She returned to the bathroom and banged on the door with the flat of her palm. 'Hey, are you going to be in there all night?' With the third bang, the door opened. It hadn't been locked. There was a smell of bath oil, heavy and sweet, which Julie didn't recognize as hers. Luke's clothes were neatly folded on the toilet seat.
He had always been beautiful, even as a baby. Much lovelier than Laura, which had never seemed fair. It was the blond hair and the dark eyes, the long, dark eyelashes. Julie stared at him, submerged beneath the bath water, his hair rising, like fronds of seaweed, towards the surface. She couldn't see his body because of the flowers. They floated on the perfumed water. Only the flower heads, not the stems or the leaves. There were the big ox-eye daisies which had grown in the cornfields when she was a kid. Overblown poppies, the red petals translucent now. And enormous blue blossoms, which she had seen before in gardens in the village, but which she couldn't name.
Julie must have screamed. She heard the sound as if someone else had made it. But still Laura slept and Julie had to shake her to wake her. The girl's eyes opened suddenly, very wide. She looked terrified and Julie found herself muttering, knowing that she was lying, 'It's all right, pet. Everything's all right. But you have to get up.'
Laura swung her legs out of bed. She was trembling, but not really awake. Julie put her arm around her and supported her as they stumbled together down the stairs.
They stood like that, wrapped up in each other's arms, on the doorstep of the neighbour's house and the silhouette thrown on the wall by the street light made Julie think of people in a crazy three-legged race. One of those pub crawls that students went in for. She leaned against the bell until the lights upstairs went on and footsteps came and she had someone to share the nightmare with.
It disturbed Felicity Calvert that she'd become so preoccupied with sex. Once, in the doctor's waiting room, she'd read a magazine which claimed that adolescent boys thought about sex every six minutes. Then she'd found it hard to believe. How could these young men lead a normal life – go to college, watch a film, play football – when they were so frequently distracted? And what of her own son? Watching James playing on the floor with his Lego, it had been impossible to imagine that in a few years he would be similarly obsessed. But now she thought that an interval of six minutes between sexual daydreams could be a conservative estimate. In her case at least. For a while now an awareness of her body and its responses had been with her whatever she was doing, an uneasy, occasionally pleasurable background to the stuff of everyday life. For someone of her age this seemed inappropriate. It was as if she'd attended a funeral wearing pink.
She was in the garden picking the first of the strawberries. She lifted the net carefully, sliding her hand underneath between the mesh and the straw bedding. They were still small but there should be enough for James's tea. She tasted one. It was warm from the sun and very sweet. Glancing at her watch she saw it was almost time for the school bus. Ten more minutes and she'd have to wash her hands and walk down the lane to meet him. She didn't always go. He claimed he was old enough to make his own way to the house and of course that was true. But today he'd have his violin and he'd be glad to see her because she could help him carry his stuff. She wondered briefly whether it would be the old bus driver or the young one with the muscular arms and the sleeveless T-shirt, then looked at her watch again. Only two minutes since she'd last considered sex. The thought returned that at her age it was quite ridiculous.
Felicity was forty-seven. She had a husband and four children. She had, for goodness' sake, a grandchild. In a few days Peter, her husband, would be sixty. The bubbles of lust surfaced at random, when she was least expecting them. She hadn't talked about this to Peter. Of course not. He certainly wasn't the object of her desire. These days they seldom made love.
She got up and walked across the grass to the kitchen. Fox Mill stood on the site of an old water mill. It was a big house, built in the thirties, a coastal retreat for a ship owner from the city. And it looked like a ship with its smooth, curved lines, the mill race flowing past it. A big, art deco ship, stranded quite out of place in the flat farmland, with its prow pointed to the North Sea and its stern facing the Northumberland hills on the horizon. A long veranda stretched along one side like a deck, impractical here where it was seldom warm enough to sit outside. She loved the house. They would never have afforded it on an academic's salary, but Peter's parents had died soon after he and Felicity had married and all their money had come to him.
She put the basket of strawberries on the table and checked her face in the mirror in the hall, running her fingers through her hair and adding a splash of lipstick. She was older than the mothers of James's friends and hated the idea of embarrassing him.
* * *
In the lane the elders were in flower. Their scent made her head swim and caught at the back of her throat. On either side of the lane the corn was ripening. The crop was too dense for flowers there, but in the field which they owned, close to the house, there were buttercups and clover and purple vetch. The pitted tarmac shimmered in the distance with heat haze. The sun had shone without a break for three days.
This weekend it was Peter's birthday and she was planning what they might do. On Friday night the boys would come. She thought of them as boys, though Samuel, at least, was as old as her. But if it stayed like this, on Saturday there could be a picnic on the beach, a trip to the Farnes to see puffins and guillemots. James would love that. She squinted at the sky, wondering if she could sense an approaching cold front, the faintest cloud on the horizon. There was nothing. It might even be warm enough to swim, she thought, and imagined the waves breaking on her body.
When she reached the end of the lane there was no sign of the bus. She hoisted herself onto the wooden platform where once the churns from the farm had stood to wait for the milk lorry. The wood was hot and smelled of pitch. She lay back and faced the sun.
In two years James would move on to secondary school. She dreaded it. Peter talked about him going to a private day school in the city, to the school which he'd attended. She'd seen the boys in their striped blazers on the metro. They'd seemed very confident and loud to her.
'But how would he get there?' she'd said. This wasn't her real objection. She didn't think it would be good for James to be pushed. He was a slow and dreamy boy. He'd do better working at his own pace. The comprehensive in the next village would suit him better. Even the high school in Morpeth, where their other children had been students, had seemed demanding to her.
'I'd take him and bring him back,' Peter had said. 'There'll be lots going on after school. He can hang on until I've finished work.'
That had made her even less favourably disposed to the plan. The time that she had with James when he arrived home from school was special. Without it, she thought, he would be lost to her.
She heard the bus growling up the bank and sat upright, squinting against the sun as it approached. The driver was Stan, the old man. She waved at him to hide her disappointment. Usually three of them got off at this stop – the twin girls from the farm and James. Today a stranger climbed out first, a young woman wearing strappy leather sandals and a red and gold sleeveless dress with a fitted bodice and full, swirling skirt. Felicity loved the dress, the way the skirt fell and the exuberance of the colours – the young today seemed to choose black or grey even in summer – and when she saw the woman help James off the bus with his bags and violin, she was immediately drawn to her. The twins crossed the road and ran up the track to the farmhouse, the bus drove off and the three of them were left, standing a little awkwardly, by the hedge.
'This is Miss Marsh,' James said. 'She's working at our school.'
The woman had a big straw bag strung by a leather strap over her shoulder. She held out a hand which was very brown and long and bony. The bag slipped down her arm and Felicity saw that it contained files and a library book.
'Lily.' Her voice was clear. 'I'm a student. This is my last teaching practice.' She smiled as if she expected Felicity to be pleased to meet her.
'I told her she could come and stay in our cottage,' James said and set off up the lane, unencumbered, not caring which of the adults carried his things.
Felicity was not quite sure what to say.
'He did mention I was looking for somewhere?' Lily asked.
Felicity shook her head.
'Oh dear, how embarrassing.' But she didn't seem very embarrassed. She seemed to be remarkably self-assured, to find the incident amusing. 'It's been such a nightmare travelling from Newcastle every day without a car. The head asked in assembly if anyone knew of accommodation. We were thinking of a B&B or someone wanting a paying guest. And yesterday James said you had a cottage to let. I tried to phone this afternoon but there was no answer. He said you'd be in the garden and to come anyway. I presumed he'd discussed it with you. It was hard to say no ...'
'Oh yes,' Felicity agreed. 'He can be very insistent.'
'Look, it's not a problem. It's a lovely afternoon. I'll walk into the village and there's a bus from there into town at six.'
'Let me think about it,' Felicity said. 'Come and have some tea.'
There had been tenants in the cottage before, but it had never quite worked out. In the early days they'd been glad of an extra source of income. Even with the money from Peter's parents the mortgage repayments had been a nightmare. Then, with three children under five, they had thought it might house a nanny or au pair. But there had been complaints about the cold and a dripping tap and the lack of modern convenience. And they hadn't been comfortable having a stranger living so close to the family. They'd felt the responsibility for the tenant as an extra stress. Although none of them had been particularly trouble-some, it had always been a relief to see them go. 'Never again,' Peter had said when the last resident, a homesick Swedish au pair, had left. Felicity wasn't sure how he would feel about another young woman on the doorstep, even if it was only four weeks until the end of term.
As they sat at the table in the kitchen, with the breeze from the sea blowing the muslin curtain at the open window, Felicity Calvert thought she probably would let the young woman have the place if she wanted it. Peter wouldn't mind too much if it was for a short time.
James was sitting beside them at the table, surrounded by scissors, scraps of cut paper and glue. He was drinking orange juice and making a birthday card for his father. It was an elaborate affair with photos of Peter taken from old albums and stuck as a collage around a big 60 made out of ribbon and glitter. Lily admired it and asked about the early photographs. Felicity sensed James's pleasure in her interest and felt a stab of gratitude.
'If you live in Newcastle,' she said, 'I suppose you wouldn't want the cottage at weekends.' She thought that would be another point to make to Peter. She'd only be here during the week. And you work such long hours you wouldn't notice she's around.
* * *
The cottage stood beyond the meadow with the wild flowers in it. Besides the garden, this was the only land they owned. Viewed from the house the building looked so small and squat it was hard to believe that anyone could live there. A path had been trampled across the field and Felicity wondered who had been here since the grass had grown up. James probably. He used it as a den when he had friends to play, though they kept the building locked and she couldn't remember him asking for a key lately.
'Cottage makes it sound more grand than it is,' she said. 'It's only one up and one down with a bathroom built on the back. The gardener lived here when our house was first built. It was a pigsty before then, I think; some sort of outhouse anyway.'
The door was fastened by a padlock. She unlocked it then hesitated, feeling suddenly uneasy. She wished she'd had a chance to look around the building before inviting the stranger in. She should have left Lily in the kitchen while she checked the state of the place.
But although she was aware at once of the damp, it was tidy enough. The grate was empty, though she couldn't remember cleaning it after her youngest daughter and her husband had been here at Christmas. The pans were hanging in their place on the wall and the oilskin cloth on the table had been wiped down. It was pleasantly cool after the heat in the meadow. She pushed open the window.
'They're cutting grass at the farm,' she said. 'You can smell it from here.'
Lily had stepped inside. It was impossible to tell what she thought of the place. Felicity had expected her to fall in love with it and felt offended. It was as if an overture of friendship had been rejected. She led the woman through to the small bathroom. Pointing out that the shower was new and the tiles had recently been replaced, she felt like an estate agent desperate for a sale. Why am I behaving like this? she thought. I wasn't even sure I wanted her here.
At last Lily spoke. 'Can we look upstairs?' And she started up the tight wooden steps which led straight from the kitchen. Felicity felt the same uneasiness as when she'd paused at the door of the cottage. She would have liked to be there first.
Excerpted from "Hidden Depths"
Copyright © 2007 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.