An excerpt of Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves, the first U.S. edition of the best-selling mystery featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope (available May 7, 2013).
When Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope finds the body of a woman in the sauna of her local gym, a closer inspection reveals bruises around the victim’s throat. Vera’s team start their investigation and soon uncover details in the victim’s past that may explain her untimely death. But Vera knows from experience that there’s no such thing as a simple case, and this one grows more baffling by the minute.
Vera swam slowly. An elderly man with a bathing hat pulled like a fully stretched condom over his head went past her. He wasn’t a strong swimmer, but he was faster than she was. She was the sloth of the swimming world. But still she was almost faint with the effort of moving, with pulling the bulk of her body through the water.
She hated the sensation of water on her face—one splash and she imagined she was drowning—so she did a slow breaststroke with her chin a couple of inches from the surface of the pool. Looking, she suspected, like a giant turtle.
She managed to raise her head a little further to look at the clock on the wall. Nearly midday. Soon the fit and fabulous elderly would appear for aqua-aerobics. The women with painted toenails, floral bathing costumes and the smug realization that they’d be the last generation to retire early in some comfort. There’d be loud music, the sound distorted by a tortuous PA system and the appalling acoustics of the pool, so it would hardly seem like music at all. A young woman in Lycra would shout. Vera couldn’t bear the thought of it. She’d swum her regulation ten lengths. Well, eight. She couldn’t do self-deception if her life depended on it. And now, her lungs heaving, she really felt that her life did depend on it. So sod it! Five minutes in the steam room, a super-strength latte, then back to work.
The swimming had been her doctor’s idea. Vera had gone for a routine check-up, prepared for the usual lecture about her weight. She always lied about her alcohol intake, but her weight was obvious and couldn’t be hidden. The doctor was young, looked in fact like a bairn, dressed up in respectable adult clothes.
‘You do realize you’re killing yourself?’ She’d leaned forward across the desk so that Vera could see that the perfect skin was uncovered by make-up,
smell a discreet grown-up perfume.
‘I’m not frightened of dying,’ Vera had said. She liked making dramatic statements, but thought this one was probably true.
‘You might not die, of course.’ The doctor had a clear voice, a bit on the high side to make for pleasant listening. ‘Not immediately at least.’ And she’d listed the unpleasant possible symptoms that might result from Vera’s over-indulgence. An old-fashioned school prefect laying down the law. ‘It’s about time you started making some difficult lifestyle choices, Ms Stanhope.’
Inspector, Vera had wanted to say. Inspector Stanhope. Knowing that actually this child would be unimpressed by the rank.
And so Vera had joined the health club in this big out-of-town hotel, and most days she squeezed an hour from her day and swam ten lengths. Or eight. Never, she thought self-righteously, fewer than eight. She tried to choose a time when the pool was empty. Early mornings and evenings were impossible. Then
the changing room was overrun by the young, the skinny, tanned women who plugged themselves into iPods and used all the equipment in the gym. How could Vera expose her eczema-scaly legs, her flabby belly and cellulite in front of these twittering, giggling goddesses? Occasionally she would peer into the room that looked like an updated torture chamber, with huge machines and heaving, writhing bodies. The men were gleaming with sweat and she found
herself fascinated by them, by the slippery muscles, the heavy shoulders and the trainer-clad feet pounding on the treadmill.
Usually she came to the health club in mid-morning, dashing away from work with the excuse of a meeting. She’d chosen a place that was some distance from work; the last thing she wanted was to be recognized by someone she knew. She hadn’t told her colleagues she’d joined, and though perhaps they’d picked up the smell of chlorine on her skin or hair, they knew better than to comment. Now she reached the edge of the pool and stood up to catch her breath. It would be impossible to heave herself out as she’d seen the youngsters do. As she waded to the steps, one of the staff moved the line of floats into the middle of the pool to mark off the area reserved for aqua-aerobics. She was just in time.
The steam room smelled of cedar and eucalyptus. The steam was so thick that she couldn’t make out at first if anyone else was there. She didn’t mind sharing the room with other women—at least nobody here could see the detail of her ugliness. They might sense her bulk, but nothing else about her. Oddly, though, she felt vulnerable if she was alone here with a man. It wasn’t that she feared attack or even an inappropriate touch, the possibility that some nutter might expose himself. Only a swing door separated them from the noise of the pool. A scream would bring one of the staff. And she’d never been much scared by nutters. But there was an intimacy here that disturbed her. She felt that if she struck up a conversation she might reveal herself in a way that she would later regret. Almost naked, drugged by the heat and the smell, this was a place where an encounter might lead into disclosed confidences, difficult territory.
She saw that she was sharing the steam room with a woman, who sat in the corner, her knees bent, so that her feet rested on the marble bench. Her head
was tilted back and Vera thought she seemed completely relaxed. Vera envied her. Complete relaxation was a state she rarely achieved. The child-doctor
had suggested yoga and Vera went for one session, but found it excruciatingly boring. To hold a pose for what seemed like hours, to lie flat on one’s back
while thoughts and ideas charged around one’s head, sparking a need for action. How could that possibly be relaxing? Vera lowered herself carefully onto the marble, slippery with condensation, but still made a sound like a wet fart. No response from the tactful woman in the corner. Vera tried tipping back her head and shutting her eyes, but thoughts of work intruded. There was no specific case to trouble her. It had been unusually quiet since Christmas. But there was always something: a niggle about office politics, the memory of a lead that should have been followed. It was at these times of physical stillness that her brain was most active.
She opened her eyes and shot a jealous glance at the woman in the corner. The steam seemed less thick and Vera saw that she was middle-aged rather than
elderly. Short curly hair, a plain blue costume. Slender, with long, shapely legs. Only then, as a hidden draught cleared the mist again, did Vera realize that
her companion was too still and her skin was too pale. The object of Vera’s envy was dead.
Out in the pool area the aerobics class had begun. There was music, though only the thumping bass beat was discernible. Vera looked over the swing door. In the water the women were twisting their bodies and waving their hands in the air. She bent over the body and felt for a pulse, knowing as she did so that she wouldn’t find one. The woman had been murdered. There were petechiae in the whites of the eyes and bruising around the neck. She knew it was wrong, but a little voice in Vera’s head shouted in excitement. Now she hesitated. The last thing she wanted was to create mass panic. Neither was she prepared to greet medics or colleagues in a black bathing costume, which gave her the appearance of a small barrage balloon. She needed to dress first.
A young woman in the uniform dress of yellow polo shirt and yellow shorts was collecting sponge floats from the side of the pool. Vera waved her over.
‘Yes?’ A badge strung around the woman’s neck on a bit of nylon string said she was called Lisa. She dropped the floats into a pile, gave a professional smile.
‘There’s a dead woman in the steam room.’ The background noise was so loud that Vera had no anxiety that she’d be overheard.
But the girl had heard her. The smile disappeared. Lisa stared at her, speechless and horrified.
‘I’m the police,’ Vera said. ‘Detective Inspector Stanhope. Stand there. Don’t go in and don’t let anyone else in.’ Still no response. Lisa continued to stare. ‘Did you hear me?’
Lisa nodded—still, it seemed, unable to speak.
The changing room was almost empty because the class was continuing. Vera pulled her mobile from the locker and phoned Joe Ashworth, her sergeant. For a moment she considered lying. I was having coffee in the bar and the staff called me down when they found the body. But of course that wouldn’t do. She’d sweated in the steam room, sneezed. Her DNA would be there. Along with that of a countless number of health-club members. Besides, how many times had she ranted about the small lies told by witnesses to hide embarrassment?
With her free hand Vera pulled on her knickers. Once the class was over, people would be queuing up to use the steam room and she wasn’t sure the little
lassie in yellow had it in her to stop them.
‘I’ve got a suspicious death,’ she said. No need after all to go into how she came to be involved. She sketched in the details. ‘Get things moving and get yourself down here.’
‘Why isn’t it natural? Heat, exertion, you’d think heart attack. Maybe someone at the health club’s been watching too many cop shows on the telly? Put two
and two together and come up with five?’
‘The poor woman was strangled.’ Vera knew it was wrong, but she expected somehow that Ashworth could read her thoughts, was always irritated when it
was clear he couldn’t. Besides, would she really have called him out for a heart attack?
‘I’m just down the road,’ he said. ‘In that fancy garden centre to pick up a present for my mam’s birthday. I’ll be there in ten minutes.’
She ended the call and continued dressing. Somehow her skirt had fallen on top of her costume and had a damp patch at the back. Looked as if she’d pissed herself. She swore under her breath, walked back to the pool area, avoiding the footbath and aware of disapproving glares. This wasn’t a place for the fully
clad. She needed to find a manager, but she didn’t want to leave the scene. The aerobics class was reaching its climax. A conga of prancing ladies—with one
or two gents—circled the pool. The music stopped and the conga fell apart in a laughing, chattering heap. Lycra-woman shouted into her microphone that
they’d all done very well and she looked forward to seeing them next time.
Vera snatched her moment, and the microphone, from the hand of the instructor. Paused for a second. She’d always enjoyed being the centre of attention. Was aware that she was considered at times a figure of fun, but minded that less than being ignored.
‘Ladies and gentlemen.’
They stared, disturbed it seemed by this change to routine, by this woman who was so obviously out of place. What was going on? A demonstration perhaps?
The Fat People’s Democratic Front insisting on the right to be unhealthy? This, at least, was how Vera judged their reaction. But she had her clothes on and
that gave her a sense of superiority. From here she could see the wrinkled necks and the bingo-wings; she looked down on the untinted roots of their hair.
‘I’m Inspector Vera Stanhope of Northumbria Police.’ Glancing up, she saw Joe Ashworth emerge from the changing rooms with a man in a suit whom she took to be part of the hotel management. He’d been even quicker than she’d expected. ‘I regret to say that there’s been a sudden death in the club and I ask
for your cooperation in the matter. Please return to the changing rooms. Once you’re dressed, you’ll be asked to wait in the lounge for a short while until we
take a few details. We’ll inconvenience you as little as possible, but we might need to contact you further.’ She looked across the water at Ashworth and his companion. Both nodded to show they too had understood what was expected of them.
The pool emptied slowly. They were all curious and excited. Like a bunch of school kids, Vera thought. At least there’d be no complaints about their being
kept waiting for statements to be taken. They had too much time on their hands and not enough excitement in their lives. It was hard to believe that one of them might be a murderer.
Ashworth moved around the pool to join her, followed by the suit. The stranger was young, eager to please, small and bouncy and round. She’d worried that the hotel management might be obstructive: murder might not be good for business; but this man seemed as excited as the pensioners in the pool. He stood on the balls of his feet and rubbed his hands together. It seemed to Vera that he was thinking what a good story he’d have to tell his lass when he got home that night, and hoping that his picture might appear on the local television news. These days everyone wanted their moment of fame.
‘This is Ryan Taylor,’ Ashworth said. ‘Duty manager.’
‘Anything I can do, Inspector?’
‘Aye. Rustle up some tea and coffee. Lots of it, and serve it in the lounge. With biscuits. Sandwiches. We’ll be keeping folk hanging around for a long time and it’s already lunchtime. Best keep them sweet.’
‘You can charge them for it,’ she said, catching his drift. ‘The fees at this place, they can afford a couple of quid for a fancy coffee.’
His face brightened. The death of a strange middle-aged woman wasn’t so much a tragedy for him, she thought. More a marketing opportunity. She
expected him to leave them, but he just moved a couple of yards away and talked into the walkie-talkie he had clipped to his belt.
Lisa still stood just outside the steam-room door. She was pale. Vera wondered if she’d opened the door and looked inside. A young lass like her, Vera would
have expected a reaction more similar to that of the manager. Death wouldn’t be real for her. It would be the first scene of a TV drama.
‘Have you touched anything?’ Vera asked. ‘No problem, like, if you have. But you need to tell me. Fingerprints. You know.’ But the outside of the door
would be the only place they’d get fingerprints, she thought. No chance inside with all that steam. The fingerprint powder would turn to sludge.
At last Lisa did speak. A small, timid voice. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I didn’t touch anything.’
‘Are you all right, pet?’
The young woman seemed to pull herself together, smiled. ‘Yeah, sure.’
‘Been on duty all day?’
‘Since eight this morning.’
Vera pulled a pair of latex gloves over her hands. Joe had given them to her earlier. He was a real Boy Scout, Joe, and always prepared. Looking down at
her fingers, she was reminded of the old man in the swimming cap. Would she recognize him with his kecks on? Maybe not. She opened the steam-room door. ‘Take a peep,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry. It’s not that gruesome. But I’d like to know if you recognize her. Could save us a fair bit of time.’ Behind Lisa’s head Joe Ashworth was frowning and shaking his head, all disapproval and indignation. He seemed to think women were delicate flowers who couldn’t survive without his protection.
‘I don’t really know any of the names,’ Lisa said. ‘You don’t in the pool. If you’re running a class, that’s a bit different.’
‘Still, you should be able to tell us if she’s a regular. She might do one of your classes too.’
Lisa hesitated, then looked inside.
‘Have you seen her before?’ Vera demanded. What was it with the lass? Vera couldn’t be doing with these weak and wilting young women.
‘I’m not sure. They all look much the same, don’t they?’ And Vera supposed they did. Just as all the skinny young women looked the same to her.
‘Can we get this steam switched off?’ Vera didn’t know what damp and warmth did to a corpse, but she didn’t suppose it would help preserve it. ‘Without
going in there, I mean.’
Taylor bounced over to her. ‘Sure, I’ll organize it now.’ He hesitated. ‘Is there anything else I can do to help?’
‘I’m assuming she died here this morning,’ Vera said. ‘I mean, the place would have been cleaned overnight. Someone would have noticed if she was in the steam room then.’
‘Sure. Of course.’
But the words seemed forced to her. ‘Really? This is a murder inquiry. I’m not fussed about your hygiene regime.’
‘We’ve been having problems with our cleaning staff. A couple of the regular girls are off sick. I brought in a temp, but he’s not brilliant. I’m not saying he didn’t clean in here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d sloped off early.’
‘Where did you get him from?’ Vera tried not to sound too keen, but felt a spark of interest. New member of staff. Dead punter. Didn’t necessarily
mean there was a connection, but it would make life a whole lot easier if the temporary cleaner had a conviction for killing middle-aged women. Or if the
victim turned out to be his estranged wife.
‘He’s the son of our receptionist. University student home for the holidays.’
‘Right.’ She should have known life couldn’t be that simple. ‘I’ll need to talk to him. And to all the staff who were on duty.’ She thought she’d rather do the staff interviews. Leave the jolly old buggers to Ashworth, who had the patience of a saint. ‘You’ll have a record of all the health-club members who checked in today?’
There was an entry system with swipe cards. She assumed each card had an individual chip and didn’t just activate the turnstile.
‘Aye,’ he said, but again he didn’t sound too convinced. ‘All the IT is done from headquarters in Tunbridge Wells. I assume they’ll have the records.’ Vera thought she’d get Holly onto that. It’d be a boring kind of job, hanging on the end of the phone while some geek worked his magic with the computer. Holly, her most recently appointed DC, was young and bonny and bright and, even without seeing her, the geek would want to prove how clever he was. Holly was also known to get a bit above herself, and Vera occasionally gave her boring jobs to put her in her place.
‘There’s no way a non-member could get into the pool area?’
‘In theory,’ Taylor said. ‘Unless she was a guest of someone who does belong to the club. Then we’d ask the member to show her own card at the desk and sign
the guest in.’
Vera replayed her own visits to the club in her head. She was always in a hurry, often swiped the plastic card upside down so that the turnstile wouldn’t work, and dropped her towel because she was flustered, holding up the people behind her. But there was usually a yellow-clad woman at the nearby desk to put her straight.
‘You said “In theory”,’ Vera said. ‘What about in practice? How hard would it be for an impostor to get in?’
‘Not hard at all. You’d have to know the set-up, but there are ways round the system.’
‘Such as?’ Something about the round little man was starting to irritate. It was his good humour, she thought. Nothing seemed to rattle him. Happy people
really got on her tits.
‘Well, you could claim to have forgotten your card. People do that all the time. We’d ask you to sign in, but we’d never check your signature against a members’ list. Karen on the desk would just click you through.’
‘So you could sign it as anything?’
‘How else could you get round the system?’
‘Borrow a card from a mate. We’re pretty sure that happens all the time, especially with younger members. Each card has a photo, but we don’t usually look at them. It’s there for its deterrent effect as much as anything.’ He seemed quite unconcerned that the system was being abused— to find it rather a joke.
‘Great,’ Vera said. ‘Bloody great.’ But really she was already intrigued by the complications of the case. She was a good detective. She didn’t often enough get the chance to prove it.
Copyright © 2011 by Ann Cleeves.
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Ann Cleeves is reader-in-residence for the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, and was twice shortlisted for the Dagger Award before winning the first Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for Raven Black, the first in the Jimmy Perez series which also includes White Nights, Red Bones, and Blue Lightning. Vera, the television show based on the Vera Stanhope series, is now filming its third season. It is available to stream on Netflix. Ann Cleeves lives in Yorkshire, England.