The Crime Readers' Association

Long Dark Winter Nights, by Marsali Taylor

‘So,’ said DI Gavin Macrae, waving away the last of Khalida’s emergency whisky stock, ‘her alibi is mountain-solid, unless there’s something in your testimony that breaks it.’

‘My testimony?’ I said, startled.

‘Her husband died,’ he said, ‘while she and her two sons were sitting in your introductory sailing meeting, under your eye as you talked about suitable clothing, water safety and putting the boats away afterwards.’

He was looking tired, with a faint frown between his level brows, and his dark red hair rumpling around his ears. He was still in his dark suit, which meant his visit was semi-official.

‘There were fifty people there,’ I protested, pouring the quarter-inch of Bells into his glass. ‘I’m not even sure which one she was.’

‘Mouse-coloured hair,’ Gavin said, ‘pulled back in a pony-tail. Thirty-three. From Sullom. Two boys of nine and eight, both with straight black hair in a short-back-and-sides.’

‘I remember them all right,’ I said. ‘The sort that have to be tied to the pier while you give the instructions, otherwise they’ll be halfway up the voe before you’ve told them what they’ve to do.’

At least they were keen, though. They’d sped in the door like unleashed greyhounds, a good ten minutes before seven.

Gavin sighed and sampled the Bell’s. ‘Remind me to bring you a bottle of decent whisky next time. I had to be present while a WPC interviewed them. Boys ten, police nil.’

‘The mother was wearing a pink padded jacket,’ my crew Anders said. ‘A very bright pink, and a big leather shoulder bag, and she looked flustered. She came in straight after the boys.’

I shook my head. ‘Tell us more about why you think it’s murder,’ I said. ‘Or at least why you think she did it.’

‘It’s murder,’ Gavin said, ‘because someone hit him very hard over the head with a smooth cylindrical object, probably a bottle. Then, once he was on the floor, they hit him again several times. Whoever did it took the weapon away. That’s another of our problems; there’s no trace of it on her, on her car, or in the house.’

‘Why her, then?’

‘Because he was a bad-tempered control-freak who expected his tea on the table at five prompt every day. Because he was hard on the boys and she adored them. Because he didn’t like her going out. Because she tried to leave him, just before Christmas, and he brought her back. Because she reads detective stories, especially the sort with unbreakable alibis. Look, let me explain. My gut instinct says she did it, but I can’t see how.’

Anders settled back into his corner. His pet, Rat, tightrope-walked along the front of the shelf, tail hooked, and jumped lightly onto his shoulder, peering down like a gargoyle. I leant forward, moving the cabin lantern aside to rest my elbows on the chart table.

‘Well,’ Gavin began, ‘he was alive when they left, together; the boys agreed on that. He was in the kitchen, about to make a cup of tea. She came into your meeting with the boys. Furthermore, she phoned him from the meeting, to tell him when it was to end.’

That rang a bell: a nervous-looking woman speaking on the phone, with a measured male voice rolling over her. She’d told him, ‘Ten minutes,’ and rung off hastily.

‘Half a dozen other people at the meeting heard her call, and heard him answering.’

I nodded. ‘I’ve placed her now. She certainly talked to somebody male. She was right beside me. I was trying to get the meeting going, and had to wait for her.’

‘Of the other parents who knew the husband, one is ready to swear it was his voice.’

‘Suppose,’ I said, ‘that it was just an answerphone she spoke to. It could have been. I remember thinking he was steamrolling her, and she rang off too quickly to hear the long bleep.’

‘No. His mobile has one of those automated things, and their house one is her voice.’

‘So he was definitely alive then,’ Anders said, ‘and she sat in our meeting listening all the way through. I am sure of that; the pink jacket was eye-catching, so I would have noticed if it had moved.’

‘No possibility,’ Gavin asked wistfully, ‘that she slipped out, leaving the jacket on a chair?’ We both shook our heads. He took a swig of the Bell’s, and frowned. ‘If ever there was a fatuous idea, that was it, and it shows the state I am now reduced to.’

‘It was a really short meeting,’ I said. ‘Sailing’s starting again, P5 and up, here are the forms, bring them back with cheques before the first session. Even if she’d slipped out, she wouldn’t have had time to drive to Sullom, kill him, and get back to the meeting.’

‘After the meeting,’ Gavin continued, ‘she took the boys round to Frankie’s for chips. That was a big treat for them, I gathered, and rather surprising in a woman who’d had to phone in where she was and how long she’d be there. She took them in, they queued, bought the chips and sat and ate them. My nasty police mind, of course, says it’s because she knew her husband was dead, and was waiting for a phone call.’

‘Accomplice?’ I said.

Gavin shook his head. ‘Mother-in-law, to say she’d found her son’s body lying by the kitchen door.’

‘What was she doing there? No chance she did it?’

‘He was the apple of her eye. According to the wife, every time she went out, Mother-in-law came down the hill to check Daughter-in-law’s dusting, hoovering and dish-cleanliness to give husband a run-down so that he could make Wife pull her socks up. I’m amazed she wasn’t murdered too, but I suppose finding the body was punishment enough.’

‘So,’ I said thoughtfully, ‘the wife could count on a witness to the fact he was killed while she was away. How soon did the police get there? Did she arrive back before them?’

‘Oh, yes, by a good five minutes.’

‘Was the mother-in-law with her all that time?’

‘No. She came out of the house and took the boys straight up to hers – they’d agreed that on the phone. The wife had maybe five minutes alone – time to hide the weapon, but we’ve virtually taken the house and garden apart, and there’s no trace of it. There is one of those Co-op bags with bottles in it by the door, but they’re all clean.’

‘That was enough time, though,’ I said, ‘to re-record the message on the answerphone. A man that bossy wouldn’t allow his wife’s voice on his phone.’

‘You think she killed him before she left? But the boys said she came out with them.’

‘They were run-on-aheaders. They’d be scrambling into the car arguing about who was going in the front as she hit the husband in the kitchen. You said he was making a cup of tea; he’d have had his back to her. Lift the bottle, whack. Ten seconds later, there she was, coming out of the door behind them.’

Gavin sat a little straighter, frowning. ‘She wouldn’t have had time to wash the bottle thoroughly enough to fool forensics, and it’s not in the car.’

I tried to imagine what I’d do to dispose of a bottle I’d just killed my husband with.

‘I’d have put it into a carrier bag, then into that big shoulder bag. You can still find it.’ I looked across the marina at the boating club’s bottle bank. ‘She’d just have dropped it in as she passed, with the boys charging ahead, as usual. I just hope, for your sake, that she left it in the carrier bag. Otherwise, your forensics are going to be busy doing green-glass jigsaws.’

‘It’s too complicated,’ Gavin groaned, ‘and we’ll never be allowed to cross-examine the boys properly, to establish that she really didn’t walk out of the door with them, not without asking leading questions that negate the answer.’

‘I expect she thought of that too,’ I said. ‘After all, she tried to leave before Christmas, and we’re in April now – plenty of time to work out the details. He should have let her take up belly-dancing or stained-glass window making, instead of keeping her in, brooding on failsafe ways to kill him, all those long dark winter nights.’




This story features characters from author Marsali’s Shetland series. Find out more here.

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