Ann Cleeves Excerpt: The Seagull

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves is the eighth book in the Vera Stanhope series—a searing new novel about corruption deep in the heart of a community and fragile, fracturing family relationships (available September 5, 2017).

A visit to her local prison brings DI Vera Stanhope face to face with an old enemy: former detective superintendent, and now inmate, John Brace. Brace was convicted of corruption and involvement in the death of a gamekeeper – and Vera played a key part in his downfall.

Now, Brace promises Vera information about the disappearance of Robbie Marshall, a notorious wheeler-dealer who disappeared in the mid-nineties, if she will look out for his daughter and grandchildren. He tells her that Marshall is dead and that his body is buried close to St Mary’s Island in Whitley Bay. However, when a search team investigates, officers find not one skeleton, but two.

This cold case case takes Vera back in time, and very close to home, as Brace and Marshall, along with a mysterious stranger known only as ‘the Prof’, were close friends of Hector, her father. Together, they were the 'Gang of Four’, regulars at a glamorous nightclub called The Seagull. Hector had been one of the last people to see Marshall alive. As the past begins to collide dangerously with the present, Vera confronts her prejudices and unwanted memories to dig out the truth . . .

Chapter One

John watched the door from his wheelchair and wondered who’d be dragged in to speak to them today. An orderly carried through a mug of tea and left it on the floor beside him, though he must have realized it would be impossible for John to reach it from his chair. John considered yelling at him to show a bit of respect but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Because there was a visitor, there were chocolate biscuits on a plate in the chaplain’s office, but they wouldn’t be brought out until after the lecture. A treat released only if the group behaved well. They’d formed a circle in the chapel, a group of elderly men with the same grey skin and ill-fitting clothes, and John wondered how it had come to this. He had no place here. When he’d first arrived he’d been consumed by an anger that had kept him awake at night, planning revenge, dreaming of hurt. But the routine had become reassuring, and now he lived from meal to meal and he was drowsy for most of the time. He seemed to pass his days in aimless half-sleep, waiting for the stretch to be over and for life to begin again, for those small occasional moments of joy that made everything worthwhile. At one time he’d looked forward to these meetings as a break from the everyday boredom of the wing; now he resented them for reminding him of the world outside.

Around him the men were chatting, but the sound washed over him and, despite the background noise, he still heard the visitor arriving before the rest of them. The sound of the key in the lock at the other end of the corridor, the heavy bell sound of the gate opening, then being locked again, and of the keys being returned to the belt pouch. One time he’d been the visitor being shown through the door, but that had been so long ago that it felt as though he was remembering another person. Or a character in a story. There were footsteps on the polished lino, then the keys were out again. Now the other men could hear the sound and there was a murmur of anticipation. Poor suckers. Each week they thought there’d be someone interesting. A bonny young woman or a lawyer who might have ideas to get them out. A journalist who might want to buy their story and make them a fortune. And each week they were disappointed.

The chaplain came through first. He was a pleaser with a nervous laugh and bad breath. John had had yes-men like the chaplain on his team and had got rid of them as soon as he could get away with it. John thought this would be a cushy number for a God-botherer. In prison, you had a captive audience and when people were desperate, you could convince them to believe in anything. Bribe them along to the services with tea in china mugs and chocolate biscuits. Listen to their stories of hardship and innocence. Then they’d get religion. Some of them might mean it; they’d read the Bible in their cells even when the screws weren’t looking, walk away from fights on the landings. But John would bet that it wouldn’t last once they got out.

The chaplain stood aside to let the visitor walk through, before turning to lock the door again. John sensed the waiting men’s disappointment before he looked up. There was obviously nothing to catch their interest in the new arrival. Nothing glamorous to bring a touch of colour to their grey lives. No young lass in tight jeans or flimsy top. No pretty young man for those who were that way inclined. He shifted his wheelchair so that he could see round the men who’d already shifted their attention back to their neighbours. The woman stood just inside the door and was caught in a patch of coloured light; sunshine coming through the one stained-glass window made it look as if she was standing in a pool of red water. She was big and she wore a tent-shaped dress covered in purple flowers. Her legs were bare, and on her feet were the kind of sandals that walkers and climbers might wear. He could tell just from the way she stood and stared back at them that this was the last place she wanted to be. She was impatient, and she wanted this over.

Something stirred in his memory. It was the way she stood there, legs planted apart as if it would take a bulldozer to shift her, brown button-eyes scanning the room. He was in a house in the hills drinking whisky. Sitting here, with the background smell of onions and disinfectant that permeated every space in the institution, he could taste the peat in the whisky and feel the heat from an open fire on his face. He could remember the shared obsession that had lost him his job and had ultimately landed him in this hellish place, away from one of the few people who’d ever needed him. He’d seen this woman since then, of course, but that was the memory that stuck with him. And he sensed a wisp of hope, of an idea, the possibility of escape. The appearance of the newcomer was almost miraculous. He wasn’t a religious man, but occasionally, here in the chapel, he’d prayed for divine intervention and now it seemed that his prayers had been answered. Because this was Vera Stanhope. This was Hector’s daughter, a police inspector. And he had information to trade.


Copyright © 2017 Ann Cleeves.

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Ann Cleeves was the Malice Domestic Honored International Visitor in 2015. In 2016, she was a Left Coast Crime International Guest of Honor.

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