Thin Air by Ann Cleeves is the 6th Shetland Island mystery, in which Detective Jimmy Perez investigates the case of a vacationing woman who disappeared into the mist (available May 5, 2015).
A group of old university friends leave the bright lights of London and travel to Shetland to celebrate the marriage of one of their friends. But, one of them, Eleanor, disappears—apparently into thin air. It's mid-summer, a time of light nights and unexpected mists. And then Eleanor's body is discovered lying in a small loch close to the cliff edge.
Detectives Jimmy Perez and Willow Reeves are dispatched to investigate. Before she went missing, Eleanor claimed to have seen the ghost of a local child who drowned in the 1920s. Her interest in the ghost had seemed unhealthy—obsessive, even—to her friends: an indication of a troubled mind. But Jimmy and Willow are convinced that there is more to Eleanor's death than they first thought.
Is there a secret that lies behind the myth? One so shocking that someone would kill—many years later—to protect?
The music started. A single chord played on fiddle and accordion, a breathless moment of silence when the scene was fixed in Polly’s head like a photograph, and then the Meoness community hall was jumping. Polly had spent thirteen hours on the overnight boat from Aberdeen to Lerwick and when she’d first come ashore the ground had seemed to shift under her feet, and this was another kind of illusion. The music appeared to bounce from the walls and the floor and to push people towards the centre of the room, to lift them onto their feet. Even the home-made bunting and the balloons strung from the rafters seemed to dance. The band’s rhythm set toes tapping and heads nodding. Children in party clothes clapped and elderly relatives clambered from their chairs to join in. A young mother jiggled a baby on her knee. Lowrie took the hand of his new bride, Caroline, and led her onto the dance floor to show her off to his family once more.
This was the hamefarin’. Lowrie was a Shetlander, and after years of courtship Caroline had finally persuaded him, or bullied him, to marry her. The real wedding had taken place close to Caroline’s home in Kent and her two closest friends had followed her to Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island, to complete the celebration. And they’d brought their men with them.
‘Doesn’t she look gorgeous?’ It was Eleanor, crouching beside Polly’s chair.
The two women had known Caroline since they were students; she was their voice of reason and their sister-in-arms. They’d been her bridesmaids in Kent and now they were dressed up again in the cream silk dresses they’d chosen together in London. They’d made the trek north to be part of the hamefarin’. They’d followed Caroline round the room for the bridal march and now they admired again her elegance, her poise, and her very expensive frock.
‘It’s what she’s wanted since she first laid eyes on Lowrie during Freshers’ Week,’ Eleanor went on. ‘It was obvious even then that she’d get her way. She’s a determined lady, our Caroline.’
‘Lowrie doesn’t seem to mind too much. He hasn’t stopped beaming since they got married.’
Eleanor laughed. ‘Isn’t this all such fun?’
Polly thought she hadn’t seen Eleanor so happy for months. ‘Great fun,’ she said. Polly seldom relaxed in social situations, but decided she was actually rather enjoying herself tonight. She smiled back at her friend and felt a moment of connection, of tenderness. Since her parents had died, these people were the only family she had. Then she decided that the drink must be making her maudlin.
‘They’ll be setting out supper soon.’ Eleanor had to shout to make herself heard over the band. Her face was flushed and her eyes were bright as if she had a fever. ‘The friends of the bride and groom have to help serve. It’s the tradition.’
The music stopped and the guests clapped and laughed. Polly’s partner, Marcus, had been dancing with Lowrie’s mother. His dancing had been lively, even if he couldn’t quite follow the steps. He came over to them, still following the beat of the music, almost skipping.
‘It’s supper time,’ Eleanor said to him. ‘You have to help put out the trestles. Ian’s weighing in already. We’ll come through in a moment to act as waitresses.’
Marcus dropped a kiss onto Polly’s head and disappeared. Polly was proud that she hadn’t asked him if he was having a good time. She was always anxious about their relationship and could tell that her need for reassurance was beginning to irritate him.
The men had set out tables and benches in a smaller room, and Lowrie’s friends were handing out mugs of soup to the waiting guests. Eleanor and Polly took a tray each. Eleanor was enjoying herself immensely. She was showing off, flirting with the old men and revelling in the attention. Then there were bannocks and platters of mutton and salt beef. Bannocks and flesh, Lowrie had called it. Polly was vegetarian and the mounds of meat at the end of her fingertips as she carried the plates from the kitchen made her feel a little queasy. There was a sense of dislocation about the whole event. It was being on the ship for thirteen hours the night before and spending all day in the open air. The strangeness of the evening light. Eleanor being so manic. Polly sipped tea and nibbled on a piece of wedding cake and thought she could still feel the rolling of the ship under her feet.
When the meal was over she and Marcus helped to clear the tables, then the band began to play again and, despite her protests, she was swung into an eightsome reel. She found herself in the centre of the circle, being passed from man to man and then spinning. Lowrie’s father was her partner. He had his arms crossed and braced and the force of the movement almost lifted her from her feet. She’d thought of him as an elderly man and hadn’t expected him to be so strong. There was a fleeting and astonishing moment of sexual desire. When the music stopped she saw that she was trembling. It was the physical effort and an odd excitement. There was no sign of Eleanor or Marcus and she went outside for air.
It must have been nearly eleven o’clock, but it was still light. Lowrie said that in Shetland this was called the ‘simmer dim’, the summer dusk. So far north it never really got dark in June and now the shore was all grey and silver. Polly spent her working life analysing folk tales and she could understand how Shetlanders had come to create the trowes, the little people with magical powers. It must be a result of the dramatic seasons and the strange light. It occurred to her that she might write a paper on it. There might be interest from Scandinavian academics.
From the hall behind her came the sound of the band finishing another tune, laughter and the clink of crockery being washed up in the kitchen. On the beach below a couple sat, smoking. Polly could see them only as silhouettes. Then a little girl appeared on the shore, apparently from nowhere. She was dressed in white and the low light caught her and she seemed to shine. The dress was high-waisted and trimmed with lace and she wore white ribbons in her hair. She stretched out her arms to hold the skirt wide and skipped across the sand, dancing to the music in her head. As Polly watched, the girl turned to her and, very serious, curtsied. Polly stood and clapped her hands.
She looked around her to see if there were any other adults watching. She hadn’t noticed the girl in the party earlier, but she must be there with her parents. Perhaps she belonged to the couple sitting below her. But when she turned back to the tideline the girl had vanished and all that was left was a shimmering reflection of the rising moon in the water.
When the party ended they couldn’t sleep. Caroline and Lowrie had disappeared back to Lowrie’s parents’ house. Polly, Eleanor and their men had booked a holiday cottage called Sletts within walking distance of the Meoness community hall, and now the four of them sat outside it on white wooden chairs and watched the tide ebb. No background noise except the water and their own murmured conversation. The occasional echoing splash of wine being poured into large glasses. Polly felt the dizziness return and thought again that she’d had far too much to drink. She turned back to face her friends and realized they were in the middle of a conversation.
‘Did you see Lowrie’s cousin’s kiddie?’ The envy in Eleanor’s voice was palpable. ‘Little Vaila. Only four weeks old.’
Eleanor was thirty-six and desperate for a baby. There’d been a late miscarriage, and the child would have been a girl. None of them knew what to say. There was a long silence.
‘I saw something really weird when you were all out for a walk this afternoon,’ Eleanor went on, obviously deciding to change the subject. Perhaps she understood that talk of babies embarrassed them. ‘There was a young girl dancing on the beach. She was all in white. A kind of old-fashioned party dress. She seemed a bit young to be on her own, but when I went out to talk to her she’d disappeared. Into thin air.’
‘What are you saying?’ Her husband Ian’s voice was teasing, but not unkind. ‘You don’t think you saw a ghost?’
Polly didn’t speak. She was remembering the girl she’d seen dancing on the sand.
‘I’m not sure,’ Eleanor said. ‘I could easily believe in ghosts in a place like this. All this history so close to the surface. Some of the research I’ve been doing for Bright Star has been compelling. Really, I think a lot of the people I’ve talked to believed they’ve had a supernatural encounter.’
‘I bet they were all weirdos.’
‘No! Ordinary people who’d had extraordinary experiences.’
‘You’re on holiday now,’ Ian said. ‘You don’t need to think about work, or the company or the new commission. You’ll make yourself ill again. Just relax and let it go.’ The others laughed uneasily, hoping that he’d dealt with the awkwardness and they could enjoy the evening once more.
It occurred to Polly that Ian had only agreed to come to Shetland because she and Marcus would be there. He couldn’t quite face his wife on his own, even though her depression seemed to have lifted a little in the last couple of months. After the miscarriage he’d believed that she was unravelling, that he was losing her. Polly didn’t know if he’d even wanted a baby. Perhaps he just wanted Eleanor back the way she was when they’d first met. Stylish and uncomplicated, full of pranks and larks. Fun.
Eleanor flushed. She’d been drinking since early evening. She worked in television and usually she could hold her booze, but tonight even she seemed a little drunk. ‘Perhaps you think I’m going mad again, that I should be back in the loony bin.’ She stared out at the water. ‘Or perhaps you believe I’m inventing things. To get attention.’
There was another silence. For a moment Polly was tempted to speak, to say that she’d seen a child dressed in white dancing on the beach too, but still she stayed silent. A sort of betrayal.
‘Only when you claim to have seen spirits from the other side.’ Ian was dismissive. He was a sound engineer. A bit of a nerd. He clearly thought the whole conversation was ridiculous and he was feeling awkward, way out of his comfort zone.
It was as dark now as it would get and a mist was rising from the sea to cover the remaining light. Polly shivered. She was wearing a padded jacket, but it was cold. ‘We should go in,’ she said. ‘I’m ready for bed.’
‘You believe me, don’t you, Pol?’ Eleanor had been a beauty when she was a student, in a grown-up, voluptuous way that had made Polly look like a grey, malnourished child. Ian leaned forward and lit a fat white candle on the table. The light flickered and Polly saw lines under her friend’s eyes. Stress and a kind of desperation. She was wearing a theatrical black evening cloak over her bridesmaid’s dress. ‘There was a little girl just outside the house here when I woke up from my sleep this afternoon. When you were all out walking. And then she disappeared. She just seemed to walk into the sea.’
‘Of course I believe you.’ Polly wanted to show her support for Eleanor, to stop her talking about children and embarrassing herself. She paused. ‘I probably saw her myself this evening, when I left the hall to catch my breath just after supper. She was playing out on the beach. I don’t think she was a ghost, though. Just a local child dressed up for the party, and this afternoon she probably ran home up the track.’ Polly didn’t say that the girl she’d seen during the hamefarin’ had also disappeared while she was looking away. That would have encouraged Eleanor in her fancies, and she wanted her friend back too. The closeness they’d had. The laughs and the silliness.
She stood up and carried the glasses into the house. The men followed. She wondered what Marcus was making of all this. He was Polly’s new man – newish at least – and she was still amazed that they were a couple. She felt like a giddy teenager when she thought about him. He’d agreed to the party immediately when she’d tentatively asked if he fancied it. ‘Shetland in midsummer? Of course.’ With the huge schoolboy grin that had attracted her in the first place. ‘And if we’re going north, where better than to go to Unst, the furthest north it’s possible to be and still be in the UK.’ For him, it seemed, life was nothing but new experiences.
Through the kitchen window Polly saw that Eleanor was still sitting outside. The mist had slid as far as the house now and the image was blurred. It was as if Eleanor was made of ice and was slowly melting. Polly went to the door and shouted out to her.
‘Come in, lovely. You’ll catch your death.’
Eleanor waved. ‘Give me a few minutes. I’ll be there very soon.’ She blew out the candle.
Turning to go to her room, Polly thought she caught sight of a white figure dancing along the tideline.
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 series has been made into the hit televison series “Vera,” and stars Brenda Blethyn. The Shetland novels feature Inspector Jimmy Perez and are being filmed by the BBC and are titled “Shetland.” Raven Black, the first Shetland novel, won the CWA Gold Dagger. Ann Cleeves lives in England.