Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from The Darkest Evening – a brilliant new DCI Vera Stanhope novel to savour from Ann Cleeves
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Get comfortable this evening with a glass of wine and an excerpt from The Darkest Evening, the new DCI Vera Stanhope novel from bestselling author Ann Cleeves!
About the book
Driving home during a swirling blizzard, Vera Stanhope’s only thought is to get there quickly.
But with the snow driving down heavily, she becomes disorientated and loses her way. Ploughing on, she sees a car slewed off the road ahead of her. With the driver’s door open, Vera assumes the driver has sought shelter but when she inspects the car she is shocked to find a young toddler strapped in the back seat.
Afraid they will freeze, Vera takes the child and drives on, arriving at Brockburn, a run-down stately home she immediately recognises as the house her father Hector grew up in.
Inside Brockburn a party is in full swing, with music and laughter to herald the coming Christmas. But outside in the snow, a young woman lies dead and Vera knows immediately she has a new case. Could she be the child’s mother and, if it is, what happened to her?
A classic country house mystery with a contemporary twist, Ann Cleeves returns with a brilliant new Vera novel to savour.
Read the excerpt:
It was dark and freezing and Vera was starting to panic. Halfway home, she’d known the journey was a mistake. She should have listened to the team and spent the night in Kimmerston, waiting for the storm to blow over, but she’d thought she knew better. She’d mocked her colleagues for their anxiety, told them that extreme weather was unusual this early in the winter, even in rural Northumberland. And when was the weather forecast ever accurate?
She’d left the police station in a light dusting of snow, a gusty wind blowing it away from the street and into tiny drifts at the kerbs and in shop doorways. Now, on the higher ground, there was a blizzard and the flakes were so big and so thick that she had to lean forward and peer through the windscreen in an attempt to see her way. There were no lights, and even with four-wheel drive she was anxious that she’d come off the narrow road. She’d seen no other traffic since leaving the last village and felt completely alone, disorientated. She drove this route most days, had told her sergeant Joe Ashworth she could do it blindfolded, but now she was lost and felt bewildered and scared.
She came to a crossroads and changed gear, preparing to stop, so she wouldn’t have to use the brakes and cause a skid. There was a finger sign but the village names were covered with snow. She had a moment of real fear then, a complete lack of recognition. In her headlights she saw trees on one side of the road, a thick plantation of spruce. She must have missed a turn earlier. She left the engine running but climbed out to clear the signpost. In one direction was Sawley Bridge and in the other Kirkhill. Kirkhill would bring her closer to home, so she turned right. The road started to rise and her wheels spun. The snow was so deep here that she worried she would get stuck, but there was one set of tyre tracks for her to follow now. Some other foolish soul had been here not long before her and must have made it through.
She seemed to reach the top of a low hill and, in the distance, saw a light below her, almost hidden by the blizzard. The outskirts of Kirkhill village, perhaps. There was a pub in Kirkhill, and she had a feeling that it did food and had rooms. There were worse places to spend a night. The team need never know she’d made an arse of herself. Already she was starting to relax; she could feel the fire warming her bones and taste the first pint of beer. But when she turned the next bend, she almost drove into a car that had slewed off the road and come to a stop just before hitting a five-bar gate. The vehicle was white, almost camouflaged in the snow. The foolish soul hadn’t made it through after all. Vera pulled slowly past the car and came to a stop. The driver’s door was open and it was possible that someone had fallen out. She found a torch in the dashboard and climbed down from the Land Rover. The wind eased for a while and everything was very quiet and still.
Any footprints had been covered by the blown snow, but it seemed that the driver had been able to walk away from the crash. There was no sign of a casualty nearby and, now she was close to it, Vera could see that the car was unharmed. She was about to return to the Land Rover and continue her drive, when she heard a noise. A cry. She shone her torch into the back of the car and saw a toddler, strapped into a seat. The child was wrapped up in a red snow suit and wore small red wellies. It was impossible for her to guess gender or age. Vera’s experience of small children was limited.
‘Hello!’ She was aiming at jolly, friendly, but the child started to whimper. ‘What’s your name?’
The child stopped crying and stared impassively.
‘Where’s your mam, pet?’
Nothing. Vera pulled her mobile phone from her pocket. There was no signal. Not unusual here in the hills. She supposed the driver had walked away to see if she could get better reception to call for help. Vera had already decided that the car had been driven by a woman. A small woman. The seat was pulled right forward towards the steering wheel. She must have left the child, knowing she wouldn’t get very far carrying it. Even if the toddler, staring at Vera from the seat in the back of the car, was old enough to walk, the snow was so deep that it would be impossible for the child to move through it. The red boots were so small that they were more fashion statement than practical bad-weather footwear.
But Vera was troubled. Wouldn’t a mother have shut the door, to keep out the bitter wind? She felt the prospect of a fire and beer disappearing. She lifted out the child’s car seat and strapped
it beside her in the Land Rover, struggling to slot the seat belt to hold it firmly in place. It seemed a complicated sort of set-up. Parenthood must be a challenging business these days.
Vera jotted down the white car’s number plate on the back of a receipt she happened to have in her bag, then scrabbled for a clean scrap of paper. She wrote a note and left it inside the white car’s dash. ‘I’ve got your baby. It’s safe.’ With her phone number. Then she thought again and put her work business card beside it. The last thing she needed was an accusation of kidnap.
She drove on, even more slowly than she had before, hoping to catch a glimpse in her headlights of a struggling woman. She’d thought she’d come across her sooner than this. Vera swore under her breath. This was going to take longer than she’d expected. At least the child beside her was quiet, asleep and breathing gently.
The snow thinned and then stopped. The clouds broke and a slight crescent moon appeared. Vera drove round a bend in the road and suddenly she knew exactly where she was. There was a long wall covered with frozen ivy, two pillars marking the entrance to a drive which once must have been very grand, a sign with a coat of arms, faded and covered with snow. But Vera knew what was there. One word: Brockburn. The coat of arms would belong to the Stanhope family.
The light she’d seen from the hill must have come from here. At the entrance she paused and the memories came tumbling in. She’d been dragged here a few times by her father, Hector, when he’d been on his uppers and demanding that the family recognize that he too had a claim to a place in the sun. Each year they’d gatecrashed the gathering before the New Year’s Day hunt. Hector would be in his element, chatting to the local farmers who remembered him as a boy. The black sheep returned to the fold, to drink whisky out of a small plastic glass, while the hounds grew restive and the glistening horses paced outside the big house. Proving that he too honoured tradition.
The family had been unfailingly polite. That branch of the clan used politeness as a weapon of mass destruction. But Hector had always come away humiliated and angry. Vera, who’d never felt any obligation to be loyal to her father, had understood the family’s point of view. Hector would be rude and demanding, usually halfway drunk on the most recent visits. She’d been hugely embarrassed and they’d been kind to her.
On the last visit Vera had been a teenager, perhaps fifteen years old, already a little overweight, awkward, defensive. She couldn’t remember now why she’d been there. Hector had no qualms about leaving her home alone, even as a young child. Perhaps he’d been more nervous about the encounters than she’d realized and had seen her as some kind of shield, or perhaps he’d thought the family would be more sympathetic if they saw he had a daughter to support. It had been a summer afternoon, the sun full and warm, flooding the place with light. They’d sat on the terrace drinking tea, eating thin sandwiches that disappeared in two bites. There’d been meringues. Even now Vera could remember the meringues – all at once crisp and chewy, the intense sweetness contrasting with the soft, bland double cream – more clearly than she could recall the other people who sat at the table. The background sound had been the call of wood pigeons and the faint strains of Bach, coming from a radio in the house.
Sitting with them had been three generations of women: Elizabeth, white-haired and wiry, wife of Hector’s elder brother Sebastian; Harriet, the very glamorous wife of Hector’s nephew Crispin; and her daughter Juliet, a toddler with blonde curls and a knowing stare. If the men were in the house, they’d kept well away. There’d been a conversation, which must have been about money, but which was so hedged around with euphemism that Vera hadn’t been able to work out what was being said. Besides, she’d been focused on the meringues, wondering if it would be rude to take the one which remained on the plate. As always, Hector had left empty-handed and bitter, swearing revenge all the way home.
Now Sebastian and Elizabeth were long dead. Even Hector’s nephew Crispin had passed on. Vera had seen the notice in the local paper but hadn’t gone to the funeral; she’d known it would be a showy affair and anyway, she wouldn’t have been welcome. Only the two women, Harriet and her daughter Juliet, were left, and by now Juliet would be an adult, approaching middle-age.
The baby in the car seat stirred and Vera was brought back to the present. The heating in the Land Rover had never been very effective and she was starting to feel cold. She turned into the drive. The snow was churned by tyre tracks; she hoped that didn’t mean her smart relatives had left the house. She felt strangely anxious about seeing them again, but they would have a phone and the child’s mother might have made her way here. It was the closest form of habitation to the abandoned car. Besides, Vera thought, if she could face murderers and rapists, she wasn’t going to be intimidated by a few weak-chinned minor aristos.
There were more cars than she’d expected parked on the long drive. Some were covered with snow, so had been there for a while, others had clear windscreens. It seemed the Stanhopes had guests. Vera looked at the sleeping baby, lifted out the car seat and made her way to the house.
The sight was like something from a fairy tale. Magical. The flurry of snow had passed and there was moonlight, and a sky flecked with stars. A large cedar stood close to grand stone steps, which were lit from below. The tree had been decorated with hundreds of fairy lights, all white, all twinkling. The ground-floor curtains had been left open and Vera saw a huge Christmas tree, decorated completely in silver. A handful of people, most of them young or very well-preserved middle-aged and all grandly dressed, glasses in their hands, were gathered around an open fire. She checked her watch. Only seven o’clock. Too early in the evening for a party surely? A gathering before dinner perhaps. The house was big enough to accommodate all the guests and this branch of the family might be wealthy enough for lavish entertaining. She wouldn’t know. Some of them had turned out for Hector’s funeral but, since then, there’d been no contact. She paused for a moment, Cinderella looking in: the fifteen-year-old girl again, excluded. Suddenly aware of a different, more glamorous life which would never be hers.