THE SOOTHMOOTHERS

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In addition to the four novels which make up her Shetland Quartet, Ann Cleeves has also written a short story, The Soothmoothers, which features Jimmy Perez. It was written for Radio 4's Red Herrings series, and broadcast on April 30th 2009, read by Marnie Baxter.

Guests at one of the best hotels in Shetland

'Ravenswick House' in this story does not share the location of the Busta House Hotel - but they have much in common, all the same!

I always take more than a professional interest in the guests who stay in the Ravenswick House. Partly it's a matter of pride. I manage one of the best hotels in Shetland and our visitors deserve more than a perfunctory welcome. It's an effort to get here and after thirteen hours on the ferry or a bumpy flight, the least they should expect is a pleasant smile and a cup of good tea by the fire. And partly of course it's curiosity; I've always been inquisitive by nature. These particular visitors fascinated me from the moment they walked in. They'd run down the steps from the car park through one of those gusty showers that come out of nowhere in the islands and arrived in the lobby shaking the rain from their clothes. A woman and two men, all soothmoothers. Confident English. You know the sort. Voices slightly too loud, expensive shoes, good haircuts. I could tell they were in Shetland on business, not pleasure.

It was hard to read the relationships. More than just colleagues, I was sure of that. There was an emotional charge, sexy, edgily flirtatious. But who was flirting with whom? It was hard to tell. I wouldn't have been surprised even if the men had turned out to be lovers and the woman a voyeur or a fixer. They'd booked single rooms and I put them on the same landing with views over Mousa. They continued their conversation as they followed me up the stairs. "A quick shower, then we'll meet up in the bar, shall we? A large G&T before dinner? At least we don't have to drive anywhere tonight." That was the woman and she looked at the younger man hungrily, as if she wanted him to take her into his arms. She was well-preserved but ten years older than him. Perhaps I'd found the cause of the sexual tension in the group. But I thought there were other secrets holding them all together. Of course they took no notice of me. They treated me like a servant, as if I was invisible, and they didn't realise I was listening.

The Ravenswick was built in the nineteenth century by an English gentleman and the hotel keeps the atmosphere of a country house. There's a library with leather chesterfields and the lounge has slightly faded Persian carpets on the polished floor. An ancient rocking horse stands on the landing. Only the perpetual sound of wind and water brings Shetland into the place.

I saw them again in the bar when I took their orders for dinner. They were the only people there. By now a force ten north-easterly had blown up and locals were staying at home. The hotel is so close to the shore that in a storm from the east it's like being in a ship; when waves break on the rocks below the spray rattles the windows and there's the smell of salt indoors. I stood for a minute watching before I approached them. That curiosity again. My daughter Edie always said I should be a writer. The woman sat between the men. She'd changed into a dress, something clinging, and wore diamond earrings. Her eyes glittered more brightly than the jewels. She's had more than one large G&T I thought before turning my attention to the men.

The older was called Jefferson, obviously the boss, but desperate to be liked. He called to Stan at the bar for another round of drinks. Although he must have been fifty, he wore jeans and an open necked shirt. He had a good body for his age. I guessed he played squash, took a run every morning. The young one, the object of the woman's desire, was blond and boyish. Still wearing the suit he'd arrived in, he seemed uncomfortable, over-dressed. He pulled off his tie and stuffed it in his pocket. The woman's attentions discomforted him too. Occasionally I saw him shoot an embarrassed glance at Jefferson and the older man would smile back in an almost encouraging way. It was as if he hoped his colleagues would end up together before the evening was through. As I watched, the woman left to go to the ladies and Jefferson said: "Look Larry, just keep her happy. Mel's an attractive woman. What harm would it do?"

I went off shift while they were eating their meal, so I don't know what Larry made of his boss's advice.

Another view of the hotel

When I woke the next morning my first thought was that the wind had dropped, then that it was very early and my sleep had been disturbed. Someone was screaming in a high-pitched tone, which verged on the hysterical. That would be Jenny Jamieson, who works in the kitchen and is one for a drama. Last time it was a dead rabbit that the cat had ripped apart. I pulled on my clothes and went downstairs. Jenny had gone into the bar, where we serve breakfast if the hotel is quiet, and she stood there, her mouth wide open.

"Will you shut up," I snapped. "You'll have the whole house awake." She clamped her mouth together and nodded towards the fireplace. There, slumped on the rug, was the English woman, Mel. Her face was blue and her eyes were swollen. Tight around her neck was a gentleman's tie. She was as dead as the rabbit that had caused Jenny's last screaming fit.

"Go and lay for breakfast in the dining room!"

Jenny nodded and left the room; I went to the bar and phoned Jimmy Perez. I was at school with Jimmy Perez. Shetland's that sort of place: Jenny was at school with my daughter. He's a Fair Islander and the story is that he has the strange name and the dark looks because his ancestors were washed ashore from El Gran Grifon, an Armada ship that was wrecked there. He had a crush on me when we were at the Anderson High, but he was too shy to do anything and I ended up marrying Tammy Leask. More importantly now, against everyone's expectations Jimmy Perez went on to join the police, working first in Aberdeen then back in Shetland as detective inspector.

He arrived before the two Englishmen came down for breakfast and I was grateful for that. I wouldn't have known how to break the news of the woman's death or how the matter should proceed. I was standing at the door of the bar when Perez came into the hotel. He always looks kind of scruffy. This morning I suppose there was some excuse: he must have come straight from his bed or from that of his woman who lives up the bank in Ravenswick. He stared at the body and for a moment he said nothing. He'd left the outside door open and I could hear the suck of the tide on the shingle.

"Who is she?"

"She signed the register as Melissa Forbes. Home address in Surrey. The rooms were booked on a company account. Jefferson Systems. I thought maybe they had a contract at Sullom Voe." Sullom Voe is where the oil comes ashore and it pulls in lots of southern workers.

"Has she stayed here before?"

I looked up at him, but it's always hard to tell what Jimmy's thinking. "I don't mind them as guests in the hotel."

"You're sure?" Wanting more from me. A different answer.

"No, I can't be sure."

"Anything stolen?"

"Her bag's still there under the chair."

He nodded as if that was just what he expected. You'd have to be pretty dumb to commit a theft in Shetland. It's hard to escape from here.

"Recognise the tie?"

I shook my head. "It could have belonged to one of her colleagues but I couldn't swear to it."

I expected Perez to approach the body. His stillness unnerved me. I'd always felt skittish in comparison to him, too talkative. Today though was not the time for chatter.

"Tell me about her companions," he said at last.

"Peter Jefferson and Laurence Jones." I paused. I wasn't sure what more there was to say. My thoughts about the three were pure speculation.

Perez smiled and for a moment I wondered how I could have chosen Tammy Leask instead of him. "Come on Margaret. You can do better than that. You're as good at the gossip as me."

So I found myself talking about what I'd seen the evening before. How the woman's eyes glittered in a feverish way as she looked out at the world over her glass, how Jones had shrunk away from her advances, as if even the brush of her arm against his sleeve disgusted him, how his boss had seemed to want to bring them together. Perez listened intently as if the answer to this violent death lay in the pictures I was creating with my words. "I had the feeling that Jefferson would have liked to see them in bed by the end of the night," I said at the end. And that was true. I'd thought it at the time.

"Literally?" Perez asked. "You mean he would have wanted to watch?"

I shrugged. "Perhaps. Yes, I think that would have excited him. But perhaps he just wanted to keep her sweet."

"Why would he want to do that?"

"Come on Jimmy, you're the detective, not me. I'd only be guessing."

"Guess away then," Perez said, with the smile that made me jealous of his woman still lying in her bed. "You've seen them together, I haven't. Detection is all about what if."

"Maybe she knew something about him, about his business practice."

"Blackmail, you mean," Perez said. "Aye, maybe. This looks like a crime of desperation." He paused. "Whatever the men had planned between them, she never did get to her bed, did she? She's still dressed. It looks like they left her here with her bottle of wine, the fire low. They escaped whatever she wanted from them."

"Then one of them came down and killed her."

He didn't answer that. Perhaps it was so obvious that it needed no answer. Perhaps.

"So," he said at last. "Let's play the game again. What if. We have a woman who drinks too much, who needs comfort at the end of a working day. Not so unusual. But why might she be unhappy? Maybe there's something on her conscience, something that haunts her, so she hates being alone after dark." He looked up at me and his voice took on a sharper edge. "You can tell where I'm going with this?"

I nodded. He must have worked it out already.

You tell it then, Margaret. You tell the rest of the story."

So I told it, the words cold and hard. Perhaps from the start all I'd wanted was to be listened to. "They were in Shetland on business a year ago. They weren't staying here but they came for early dinner. Paid by cash and I never knew their names. Drank too much, especially the woman and she insisted on driving back to the airport. My daughter had been out with her friends in Lerwick, got the bus back, started walking from the main road. She never arrived home. I found her body by the side of the road. Hit and run."

"We investigated." Perez's voice was quiet. "Checked all the hire cars. Everything was clean. It could have been a Shetland boy. They do drink driving too."

I shook my head. "Mel was sitting on her own by the fire after the men had gone to their beds. She thought sex would make her forget; when that wasn't on offer she was glad of someone to talk to. She told me what happened."

"Mel. So you were on first name terms."

"I gave birth to Edie," I said. "That woman killed her. It made us kind of intimate." I paused. I had to be fair to the woman. I owed her that. "She wanted to stop after she hit my girl, but the men made her drive on. A couple of hours we'll be away from the place."

"And the tie?"

"Jones left his jacket in the dining room. I took it from his pocket. The men were involved. I wanted them charged with murder."

Perez looked up. For an instant I thought he would put his arm around me. I would have liked that.

"You should have gone south with Tammy," he said. "Escaped when you had the chance." And he turned away, leaving me to follow him.


Raven Black  |  White Nights  |  Red Bones  |  Blue Lightning  |  Dead Water  |  Thin Air



Text © Ann Cleeves, 2009
Photos © Jean Rogers, 2008
Please do not reproduce without permission