Cold Earth: New Excerpt

Cold Earth is the 7th book in the Shetland Island Mystery series (available April 18, 2017).

In the dark days of a Shetland winter, torrential rain triggers a landslide that crosses the main road and sweeps down to the sea.

At the burial of his old friend Magnus Tait, Jimmy Perez watches the flood of mud and water smash through a house in its path. Everyone thinks the home is uninhabited, but in the wreckage he finds the body of a dark-haired woman wearing a red silk dress. Perez soon becomes obsessed with tracing her identity and realizes he must find out who she was and how she died.

Chapter One

The land slipped while Jimmy Perez was standing beside the grave. The dead man’s family had come from Foula originally and they’d carried the coffin on two oars, the way bodies were always brought for burial on that island. The pall-bearers were distant relatives whose forebears had moved south to England, but they must have thought the tradition worth reviving. They’d had time to plan the occasion; Magnus had suffered a stroke and had been in hospital for six weeks before he died. Perez had visited him every Sunday, sat by his bed and talked about the old times. Not the bad old times, when Magnus had been accused of murder, but the more recent good times, when Ravenswick had included him in all their community events. Magnus had come to love the parties and the dances and the Sunday teas. He’d never responded to Perez’s chat in the hospital, and his death had come as no surprise.

The coffin was lowered into the grave before the landslide started. Perez looked away from the hole in the ground, as the first earth was scattered on the coffin, and saw the community of Ravenswick stretching away from him. He could see Hillhead, Magnus’s croft, right at the top of the bank next to the converted chapel where Perez lived with his stepdaughter Cassie. Nearer to the coast was the kirk and the manse that had been turned into a private home, much grander than the kirk itself. There were the polytunnels at Gilsetter farm and a tiny croft house hidden from the road. He didn’t know who stayed there now. The school where Cassie was a pupil was further north, not visible from the cemetery; and hidden by the headland was the Ravenswick Hotel and a smart holiday complex of Scandinavian chalets. This was his home and he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

The view was filtered by the rain. It seemed it had been raining for months. There’d been talk of cancelling Up Helly Aa two weeks earlier because of the weather, but the fire festival had never been stopped in peacetime and had gone ahead, despite the storm-force winds and the downpour. Now Perez turned his attention back to the minister’s words, but at the same time he was remembering Fran, Cassie’s mother and the love of his life, who was buried here too.

The landslide made no noise at first. The hill had been heavily grazed all year; sheep had tugged at the grass, disturbing the roots, exposing the black peat beneath. Now, after months of deluge, water had seeped under the surface, loosening the earth, and it was as if the whole hillside was starting to move. The contour of the landscape changed, exposing the rock below. But at this point Perez had turned back to look at the grave where Magnus Tait had just been laid to rest, and he had no warning of what was to come.

The rumbling started when the landslide picked up speed and gathered boulders and the stones from field dykes. When it crossed the main road it missed a car but ploughed into the small croft. Relentless as a river in flood, the mountain of earth moved with a power that flattened the outhouses of the tiny croft house and forced its way through the main building, smashing windows and breaking down the door. Perez heard the noise when it hit the house as a roar, and felt it as a vibration under his feet. He turned at the same time as the other mourners. In Shetland, cemeteries are located by water. Before roads were built, bodies were carried to their graves by boat. The Ravenswick graveyard lay on flat land at the bottom of a valley next to the sea, in the shelter of a headland. Now the steep valley was filling with mud and debris and the landslide was gathering speed as it rolled towards them. The sound was so thunderous that the mourners had warning of its approach. They paused for a second and then scattered, clambering for higher ground. Perez put his arm round an elderly neighbour and almost carried him to safety. The minister, a middle-aged woman, was helped by one of the younger men. They were just in time. They watched as headstones were tipped over like dominoes and the landslide rolled across the pebble beach beyond and into the water. Fran’s headstone was simple and had been carved by a friend of hers, a sculptor. It was engraved with the image of a curlew, her favourite bird. Perez watched the tide of mud sweep it away.

*   *   *

Perez recovered his composure very quickly. There was nothing of Fran left in the grave and he didn’t need a stone to remember her by. He turned to check that everyone was well. He wondered what Magnus Tait, who had been a recluse for much of his life, would have made of the drama at his funeral. He thought Magnus would have given a shy grin and chuckled. He’d suggest that they all go back to the community hall for a dram. No point standing out here in the wild, boys. No point at all. Because, except for the minister, the mourners were all men. This was an old-fashioned funeral and women didn’t go to the grave. They were a small group. While people had made more of an effort to get to know Magnus towards the end of his life, he had few contacts outside Ravenswick. Now they stood, shaken by the power of the landslide. From a distance they would have looked like giant sheep scattered over the hillside, aimless and lost.

Perez stared back up the bank. He was thinking that if the landslide had started a mile further north, the Ravenswick school would be as devastated as the croft house, which looked as if it had been smashed by a bomb. The slide had missed the farm at Gilsetter and the old manse by less than that distance. He looked at the ruin.

‘Who lives in there?’ He couldn’t believe that anyone inside would still be alive. They’d be smothered by mud or crushed by the debris caught up in the slide. But he couldn’t remember anyone living in the croft since Minnie Laurenson had died.

‘I think it’s empty, Jimmy. Stuart Henderson’s son stayed there for a while, but he moved out months ago.’ The speaker was Kevin Hay, a big, middle-aged man who lived at Gilsetter and farmed most of the Ravenswick land. Perez couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Hay in a shirt and tie. Probably at the last Ravenswick funeral. His black hair was so wet with the rain that it was plastered to his forehead. It looked as if it had been painted on.

‘It hasn’t been let out?’ Accommodation was still so tight that at this time of year even holiday homes were rented to oil or gas workers. There were few empty houses in Shetland.

‘Not as far as I know.’ Hay seemed less sure now. ‘I haven’t noticed anyone in there. No cars parked outside. But the sycamores and our polytunnels mean we can’t see it from the house.’

‘Unlikely that it’s occupied then,’ Perez said. It would be hard to manage so far from town without a vehicle. The other mourners were now gathering together around the minister. She was calm and composed and seemed to be taking charge. He supposed they were making plans for getting home. The cemetery car park was on higher ground and their vehicles were undamaged, but some lived on the other side of the slip. ‘I’d like to check it out, though.’

There were sheep tracks running up the valley slopes and Perez and Hay followed one of these. They looked down on the ruined house from above. Now the landslide had passed through, there was no sound but the rain. A strange eerie silence after the reverberating noise caused by the slip. People had already called the emergency services and soon there would be fire engines and police cars, but not yet.

The main walls of the croft house were almost intact, but the surge of the slide had weakened the inside walls and the roof had collapsed over half of the house, giving glimpses of the interior. Everything was black, the colour of the peaty earth. Perez slid further down the bank so that he could get a better view of the exposed rooms.

Hay followed, but put a hand on Perez’s shoulder. ‘Don’t get too close, Jimmy. The hill’s not too stable. There could be another slide. And I don’t think there’s anyone to save in there. No point putting your life at risk.’

Perez nodded. He saw that the mourners had reached the car park and people were driving away north, carrying with them friends who lived to the south of the slide. He supposed they’d be moving on to the community hall. The women would have a spread laid out. No point wasting that, and they’d all be ready for a hot drink.

‘We should join them, Jimmy,’ Kevin Hay said. ‘Nothing we can do here.’ In the distance they heard the sound of sirens. He looked back at the hill, worried about another landslide.

‘You go. I need to stay anyway.’ Perez looked beyond the house. There’d been a lean-to shed on the back of the kitchen and that had been completely destroyed: glass and the corrugated iron roof would have been swept into the mud. Beyond it, though, a stone wall that separated the small garden from the open grazing beyond was almost undamaged; it seemed to have funnelled the landslip through a gap where a wooden gate had once been. Nearest the space, the edges of the wall were ragged, eaten away like unravelled knitting, but beyond the gap on each side they were quite solid. The tide of earth had deposited debris there, thrown it up on its way through. Perez saw a bedhead, a couple of plastic garden chairs that must have been stored in the lean-to. And something else, bright against the grey wall and the black soil. A splash of red. Brighter than blood.

He scrambled down the bank towards it. A woman’s body had been left behind by the ebbing tide of earth. She wore a red silk dress, exotic, glamorous. Not the thing for a February day in Shetland, even if she’d been indoors when the landslide swept her away. Her hair and her eyes were black and Perez felt a strange atavistic connection. She could be Spanish, like his ancestors of centuries ago. Kevin Hay was already walking back to the cars and Perez stood alone with her until the emergency services arrived.


Copyright © 2017 Ann Cleeves.

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Ann Cleeves writes two series of traditional mysteries, both of which have been turned into hit TV series. The Vera Stanhope books have been made into the hit series Vera starring Brenda Blethyn. The Shetland novels feature Inspector Jimmy Perez and are being filmed by the BBC and titled Shetland. Both series are also available in the U.S. through Netflix, PBS, and Acorn TV. Ann Cleeves lives in England.