Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves is the 6th installment of the Vera Stanhope Mystery Series about a collection of murders that seem to be connected by one seemingly innocent neighborhood. What are the residents of Harbour Street trying to hide? (Available December 1, 2015)
As the snow falls thickly on Newcastle, the shouts and laughter of Christmas revelers break the muffled silence. Detective Joe Ashworth and his daughter Jessie are swept along in the jostling crowd onto the Metro.
But when the train is stopped due to the bad weather, and the other passengers fade into the swirling snow, Jessie notices that one lady hasn't left the train: Margaret Krukowski has been fatally stabbed.
Arriving at the scene, DI Vera Stanhope is relieved to have an excuse to escape the holiday festivities. As she stands on the silent, snow-covered station platform, Vera feels a familiar buzz of anticipation, sensing that this will be a complex and unusual case.
Then, just days later, a second woman is murdered. Vera knows that to find the key to this new killing she needs to understand what had been troubling Margaret so deeply before she died – before another life is lost. She can feel in her bones that there's a link. Retracing Margaret's final steps, Vera finds herself searching deep into the hidden past of this seemingly innocent neighborhood, led by clues that keep revolving around one street…
Why are the residents of Harbour Street so reluctant to speak?
Joe pushed through the crowd. It was just before Christmas and the Metro trains were full of shoppers clutching carrier bags stuffed with useless presents. Babies were left to scream in expensive buggies. People who’d been drinking early spilled out from office parties, stumbling down the escalators and onto the trains. Youths used language Joe wouldn’t want his children to hear. Today, though, he’d had no option about using the Metro. Sal had been adamant that she needed the car.
It was just him and his daughter. She was in the school choir and there’d been a performance in Newcastle Cathedral. Carols by candlelight, because even at four o’clock it was dark in the building. Beautiful singing that made him feel like crying. His boss, Vera Stanhope, always said that he was a romantic fool. Then out into the rush-hour evening, and it was just starting to snow, so Jessie was excited all over again. She was a soloist and had hit all the right notes, so the choirmaster had given her a special mention at the end. Christmas was only ten days away, though she was too old now to believe in Santa. But there was snow. Tiny little flakes twisting in the gusty wind like mini-tornadoes.
In the Metro he held her hand. They were standing, because all the seats were taken. In the space by the door stood two young girls, hardly older than Jessie, but their faces orange with make-up and their eyes black with liner and mascara. Squashed beside them, two lads. He watched what was going on there and hated what he saw, the pawing and the groping. Vera also called him a prude. He wouldn’t have minded so much if the encounter had been affectionate, but there was something unpleasant about the way the boys spoke to the lasses. Putting them down for their lack of street cred, mocking. Joe thought he’d like to bring the girls into the police station. Let Vera give them a pep talk about feminism – a woman’s right to respect. The thought made him smile. He looked at the badge on the girls’ blazers. One of the private schools in town. He and Sal had wondered about sending Jessie private. She was as bright as a button and they had high hopes for her. Certainly university. Maybe one of the grand ones. Watching the simpering and defensive girls, he wasn’t so sure about the posh school now.
The train pulled into a station. In the lights on the platform he saw that it was snowing even more heavily, the flakes bigger, settling on the terraced roofs. A woman with a long coat got on and took a recently vacated seat further down the carriage. Joe had been eyeing it up for Jessie and felt an irrational antipathy towards the woman. She had silver hair and discreet make-up, the fitted coat reaching almost to the ground. Despite her age – she must be seventy – there was something elegant about her. He thought she had money and wondered why she hadn’t called a taxi, instead of squashing into the Metro with the rest of them. At the next station a group of men filled the carriage. Suits and ties, briefcases. Loud voices talking about some sales conference. The mood he was in, Joe hated them too, for their brashness. The showing-off. Every station, a shifting tide of people, but he and Jessie were squashed into a corner by the door now, and he could see nothing but the back of a fat man wearing a Newcastle United sweatshirt. No jacket. A Geordie hard man.
The lights in the carriage flickered, and there was a moment of complete darkness. Somewhere a young woman gave a small scream. The lights came back on and the train pulled into a station. Partington, nearly the end of the line. The snow was an inch deep on the platform. Joe hoped Sal was home, the central heating on and tea nearly ready. She’d talked about getting a tree. He’d have been happy with an artificial one – his mam had never bothered with the real thing – but Sal was like a kid at Christmas, buzzing with preparations and excitement. He imagined walking into the house and the smell of pine and something cooking. Wondered again why he’d thought this marriage – this family – might not be enough for him.
He decided that they’d get a taxi home from Mardle Metro. Sal had said she’d come to pick them up, but he didn’t want her driving in this weather. A taxi would cost a fortune all the way home, but it’d be worth it. The Metro doors were still open and he caught a brief glimpse of the passengers sitting opposite, saw that the cold air had blown in a flurry of snowflakes that clung to their hair. He’d dressed smartly for the cathedral, and Jessie was only wearing her school coat over her uniform. He put his arm around her, hoping to keep her warm.
The tannoy buzzed and the driver spoke.
‘Sorry, folk. There’s a problem on the line. Wrong sort of snow.’ Muffled laughter from the passengers, too full of seasonal cheer and strong lager to be irritated by the disruption. ‘This is where we stop. A bus will be along shortly to continue the journey, if you follow one of my colleagues to the main road.’ A good-natured groan. The passengers stumbled out, complaining about the cold, but rather enjoying the drama. It would be a good story to tell in the pub that night. Ashworth held on to Jessie. Let the drunks and the weirdos get off first. He was feeling in his pocket for his mobile, to call a taxi, as he stepped onto the platform. They were only one stop from Mardle. Really this was no big deal, and again he thought there was no need to drag Sal out. He tucked Jessie under his overcoat, held her close to his body, as he searched for the number. The other passengers were following a Metro guy in a green jacket; they were drifting away, invisible already in the falling snow.
In the train the lights were still on, but they were faint. There was no sign of the driver. Jessie nudged Joe in the ribs.
‘Look. That lady hasn’t moved.’
‘Don’t worry.’ Joe had the phone to his ear. The number was ringing. ‘She’ll be asleep. Had too much to drink at lunchtime maybe.’ Then he saw that Jessie was pointing to the elderly woman in the long coat.
He was about to say that the driver wouldn’t drive off without checking that all the carriages were clear when Jessie slipped out from under his arm and ran through the open Metro door. She shook the woman gently by the shoulder. She’d always been a kind lass and Joe was proud of her, but sometimes he wished she wouldn’t interfere.
The taxi firm answered his phone call at the same time as Jessie screamed.
There was only one house on Harbour Street; the other buildings were businesses. It was tall and grey, almost black with the coal dust that also coloured the little beach on the other side of the harbour wall. Three storeys, a basement and an attic. Imposing. Carved above the door, a date: 1885. There was a light in the basement window and inside a woman was taking sheets from a drying rack that had been suspended over the stove. She folded them expertly, held them corner-to-corner and stretched them, before putting them on the table. Upstairs other windows were lit too, but from the pavement there was no way of seeing who was inside.
Next to the house was Malcolm Kerr’s yard, separated from the road by a rusting metal fence topped with ferocious spikes, the gates fastened with a huge chain and giant padlock. A couple of elderly boats, bits of engine, odd bulbous shapes covered by tarpaulin – it had the feel of a scrapyard. Malcolm ran the seabird trips out to Coquet Island and in the winter, when the Lucy-May attracted fewer charters, he worked in the yard, making repairs to his neighbours’ boats. The snow had started to soften the harsh silhouettes in the yard, making them mysterious and hardly recognizable. In one corner stood a shed, built from corrugated iron and wood. Malcolm often worked there all night, drinking cans of beer, but this evening the place was dark and quiet and there were no footmarks in the snow.
Next door to the yard was the lifeboat station, housing the inshore lifeboat, and outside it, to the seaward side, sat the tractor and trailer that would carry the vessel to the water in emergencies or on exercise. Then came the Mardle Fisheries: alive, buzzing with sound, background music from the telly on the wall, laughter from the people in the queue. During the day the fisheries sold wet fish, much of it locally caught, retail and wholesale from a long, low building at the back. In the evening it was a fish-and-chip shop, with a sit-in restaurant by the side. Behind the fryers two women dressed in white were flushed with heat, despite the snowflakes blowing in through the open door. There was a line of people spilling onto the street. All local. Mardle wasn’t a place for tourists, even in the summer. There was nothing beyond the fisheries except the harbour, enclosed by the wall. The boats there were dark shadows, half-hidden by the drifting flakes.
On the other side of the road stood the Coble pub, and already the snow was flattened and hard where people had crossed between it and the chip shop. Outside, a couple of hardy smokers leaned against the wall for shelter from the worst of the weather. Next to the pub was the low, squat building of the harbour-master’s office; beyond that some rough ground that was used as a car park, and then, opposite the big residential house with the brightly lit basement, stood St Bartholomew’s Church. Victorian Gothic, a church built for seamen and pitmen, now regularly attended by a handful of elderly women. At the end of the street, like a beacon or a square glowing moon, shone the yellow cube with the black M that marked the Metro station. The end of the line. People waited on the platform to get into town for Friday-night partying, but no trains came.
This was Harbour Street.
In the big house Kate Dewar carried the linen up the stairs to the airing cupboard, pausing briefly outside the numbered doors. Not listening. Kate would never eavesdrop on her guests. But this was her territory and she liked to know who was at home. The house seemed quiet. Perhaps the snow was causing travel problems. She was glad her kids were already in; she’d heard them arrive earlier and imagined them slouched on the couch in the basement flat, watching TV. She had a rule about finishing homework before switching on the set, but it was nearly the end of term and today she wasn’t going to push it.
Climbing the stairs, she thought she heard the front door opening, but, stopping to listen, there was no other sound. It must be the wind, rattling the letter box. She could always tell when the wind was northerly because of that particular noise. The airing cupboard was on the attic landing, between Margaret’s room and the shelf where she placed extra sachets of coffee and tea, a tin of home-made biscuits. Beside the shelf was a small fridge with a carton of fresh milk inside. There were hospitality trays in each of the rooms, but she liked her guests to feel welcome. It was the small touches that brought them back. They certainly didn’t come for the location; there was little that was attractive about Harbour Street. An arched window looked out across Malcolm’s yard and beyond the fisheries to the sea. It was still snowing. She saw the flakes billow in a triangle of light shed by a street lamp. Out at sea a light buoy flashed red. Her husband had worked on the rigs and she still felt a mixture of guilt and grief when she thought of the vast space beyond her doorstep.
Kate stood for a moment and listened to the music in her head. She coaxed the tune to life, hummed it. A song for winter, clear and spare. For love in winter. And again she thought of Stuart and the unlikely infatuation that had hit her in middle age; she was breathless and astounded, aware that at this moment she’d sacrifice everything for her new man. He was more important than Ryan’s nightmares, his prowling through the neighbourhood at night like a feral animal, unable to sleep, his occasional outbursts of temper. More important than Chloe’s exam results and her terrifying ambition. Stuart, old and wiry, more like a mountaineer than a musician, had brought Kate back to life.
On her way back to the flat she bumped into George Enderby by the front door. He had snowflakes clinging to his woollen overcoat and his big, good-natured face beamed down at her. ‘What do you think, Kate? Snow for Christmas. The kids will be excited.’ He had one of those rich, posh, southern voices that made her think of a politician or an actor.
Kate thought that her kids were super-cool these days, and they’d consider building snowmen to be beneath them. But George was so innocent with this fantasy of a perfect family life that she couldn’t disabuse him.
‘Yeah,’ she said.
George worked as a publisher’s rep and he travelled with a big wheelie suitcase full of books. Often he left copies for her children. Chloe liked some of them, the thick ones about other worlds, but although Ryan pretended to be interested he wasn’t a great reader. He took the books in order to please. At the back of Kate’s mind there was always a niggle of anxiety about Ryan. He was no real trouble, but despite his easy smile she suspected he was unhappy and she wasn’t sure what she could do about it. And there were occasional flashes of temper that reminded her of Rob. But Harbour Street took up all her time and her energy, and Stuart took up all of her dreams. Ryan had stopped talking to her years before. She told herself that the boy was still young, and that kids were complicated and never confided in their parents.
George had a wife, but they’d never had any children. He’d told her that once. He’d told her a lot of things during late nights, as he took his usual nightcap in the visitors’ lounge. He’d sip whisky and she’d look at her watch and wonder when he’d go to bed. She ran the guest house pretty much by herself. There was only Margaret to help in the kitchen, and the last few days she hadn’t been much use.
‘Have you had a good day, George?’
She knew that business was tough for him. He’d confided that too. ‘I wouldn’t know what to do, Kate, without my work. Books are what I live and breathe.’ She’d sensed that he didn’t need to work to earn a living. He had that laid-back confidence and careless attitude to money that comes with being born rich. She thought he wasn’t happily married, though even when he was very drunk he was never unpleasant about his wife. ‘My Diana is a marvel,’ he’d say, ‘a wonderful woman.’
Now he was shaking himself out of his overcoat. ‘Usual room, Kate?’
‘Of course.’ George liked the big room at the back of the house looking out over the sea and didn’t mind that it was the most expensive in the place. My bosses are used to London prices, Kate. They never quibble about my expenses.
‘I’m just here for a couple of days this time. Then on my way south again. Unless the snow is as heavy as the forecast. Then you might have an unexpected guest for Christmas dinner.’ He smiled sadly and she thought he’d love that. A proper family Christmas lunch with her and the kids, sitting around the table in the basement, him carving the turkey. But this year there would be Stuart too, and she wasn’t sure what George would make of that. She had a sneaky suspicion that George Enderby fancied her rotten.
‘I’ll put a pot of tea in the lounge.’ This was a ritual too. He’d sit in the lounge with his laptop and his books, drinking tea and eating Margaret’s biscuits. Then, because she didn’t provide evening meals, he’d go out into the street – either to the fish shop or the Coble – for his supper and come back with a few pints inside him, to sit up drinking whisky until midnight.
As she entered the basement she saw the kids were watching telly. She thought perhaps there’d been something else on and they’d changed channel when they’d heard her on the stairs. Something unsuitable. She was a control freak and wanted to know what they were watching. Sometimes she wondered if she was too strict with them. Perhaps that was why they didn’t talk to her any more. They were almost grown-up, after all. She saw the way other kids behaved, what they got away with. But she knew what she’d been like when she was young: sex and drugs and the music scene. She’d never finished her exams and she wanted better for them.
They were still in their school uniform and Kate was going to send them to change, but then she held her tongue. No sense starting an argument. Choose your battles.She’d seen that in a women’s magazine and thought it made sense.
The reply was a muffled grunt from Chloe. Then Ryan turned and gave one of his smiles that always reminded her of his father and made her stomach flip because it was like looking at a ghost.
In the kitchen Kate prepared George’s tray. A cloth, leaf tea in the pot, a cup and a strainer. Milk in a jug. Sometimes Ryan laughed at her efforts. ‘This is Mardle, Mam! You’re not in charge of the Ritz.’ And Kate knew that the kids got teased for her attempt to maintain standards – the cloth napkins at the tea table even though they were just eating pizza, her insistence on manners. But she was sure that the small things mattered, and she wanted to prepare them for the future. She wanted more for them than life in a rundown street in a rundown town. She’d known better than that herself once – her father had been an accountant with his own business, until it had fallen apart in the recession – and it still rankled that she’d ended up like this.
The lounge was empty. George would still be in his room. Kate set down the tray, switched on the gas fire and drew the curtains. The snow had blown into a small drift against the window.
She was thinking that she’d get a casserole out of the freezer for their supper, when the doorbell rang. If it was another visitor, trapped in the town by the weather, she could put them in room six. She opened the door.
Outside there was an enormous woman. She wore a shapeless anorak over a tweed skirt. A wide face and small brown eyes. Her hair was covered by the anorak hood. On her feet, wellingtons. Her hair and her body were covered in snow. Behind her another figure, but hidden by her bulk, so that it was impossible to make out any detail.
The abominable snow-woman, Kate thought.
The woman spoke. ‘Let us in, pet, will you? It’s freezing out here. My name’s Stanhope. Inspector Vera Stanhope.’
Copyright © 2015 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 and PBS. Raven Black, the first Shetland novel, won the CWA Gold Dagger. Thin Air, the sixth Shetland novel, was shortlisted for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year in 2015 and Ann was presented the Lee Child Dead Good Readers' Award for Best Loner or Detective for Vera the same year. Ann Cleeves lives in England.