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An excerpt from

A Murder Of Crows

Ian Skewis

DCI Jack Russell made it to the top of the hill. He was exhausted, fighting for breath - but it was worth it, for the view was stunning. Beyond the shops and the houses that stood below he could clearly see the gentle golden swell of the farmer’s fields, the jagged forest, and the ruins of an old abbey that crumbled into a sea that stretched into the distant horizon - and all this crowned with a sky so impossibly blue it seemed to have been imported from the Mediterranean.

He opened the creaking gate and was met with the picturesque view of the abode of Alice Smith. It looked like the kind of house a child would draw - a typical two up, two down with a garden path winding its way up to the front door. The sound of the wind moaning through the surrounding vegetation made him feel isolated, vulnerable - and yet Jack kind of liked it. He imagined living up here, far from the madding crowd, and in perfect peace. He strolled leisurely through the garden which had been left to grow in wild abandon. A chaos of dead weeds draped the cracked paving stones and growing on either side were clusters of rosemary, thyme and other fragrant herbs that had grown into disarray, festooned with brambles and rambling roses.

As he approached he saw a monkey puzzle tree that stood to the right of the house, towering up into the blue and looking like it had been transported via satellite in high definition from some Jurassic age. He observed a seagull in the distance glide behind the upturned green branches, and then reappeared on the other side as a white pterosaur, lazily flapping its wings towards the cliffs at sea. To the left of the house stood a clump of conifers and silver birch, and below these were some rhododendrons and broom, the scent from which was sweet and overpowering. On arriving at the front door he realised that the house was in a state of abandon too. The once white paint was cracked and peeling and the windows on either side were filthy, so much so, they almost looked like they’d been deliberately tinted to block out the sun. He knocked on the door. It opened almost immediately.

A woman stood there with a vacant look on her face; elegant in her pearl necklace but wearing an old grey cardigan which looked two sizes too big for her with a white dress underneath. Her wispy, white hair was tied loosely back, giving her a slightly unkempt appearance, not unlike her garden.

‘I’m Detective Chief Inspector Jack Russell, I called you earlier,’ he said, with an air of authority and a stiff smile.

Her eyes brightened and her face beamed. ‘Do come in,’ she said graciously, opening the door wider.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and stepped inside.

It was like a sauna.

She shut the door and walked straight past him, singing ‘This way as if to a child. He smiled witheringly and followed her through the hallway and into the dining room, noting the family photos that sat on the sideboard, including one of her husband and son that took pride of place in front of the others, and then he marched through to the large Victorian kitchen, with its antique hob, and blue and white display plates, and a collection of sea shells on the window sill. But Jack had difficulty keeping up with Alice, who was surprisingly sprightly for her age, moving at such a pace that she momentarily disappeared from view, and he was about to beg her to slow down when he suddenly found himself walking straight into a jungle.

The conservatory was cluttered with plants of all shapes and sizes and he found Alice was already seated on some white wicker furniture as if she’d been there all that time. She was pulling a loose thread from her cardigan when he entered, and she smiled gaily, and gestured for him to sit. Her wild varieties of flora could be seen in huge cracked glaze vases on the uneven paving stone floor; others in terracotta pots that crammed the window sills, several of which were sitting on piles of old newspapers, ready to be re-potted, though Jack spied the layers of dust that had since settled on them. The conservatory was painted white, which gave the illusion of coolness, but all the windows were closed and so it was very humid. After he uncomfortably squeezed himself into a chair there was a moment of silence where all he could hear was the tiny snap, crackle and pop of moisture burrowing into the soil of each pot and he could see the condensation dripping from the geraniums that were hanging from the rafters and landing in irregular shaped spots on the floor. He was sweating profusely and about to suggest she keep a few windows open in her house when she reached for a glass jug of lemonade that sat partially hidden by the spider plant on the table.

‘Home made,’ she said with pride.

He smiled with relief as she poured him some and handed him his glass, the ice clinking satisfactorily. He drank deeply and looked a little sheepish as he realised he had finished his glass in one go. She smiled kindly and pushed the entire jug towards him. As he poured himself some more she seemed to read his thoughts and said, ‘I never open the windows because my plants don’t seem to like it.’Then she added in a tone that made him feel somewhat admonished, ‘You can take your jacket off,’ but he was more than happy to comply, and so he hung it on the back of his chair, which groaned under his weight. After that there was an uneasy pause.

‘I just want to say that we’re doing everything we can to find your son but I need to ask you a few - ’

‘Okay, fire away,’she replied impatiently.

‘When did you last hear from your son?’he asked.

‘Last Christmas. He phoned to say he couldn’t make it.’

‘And when did you last actually see him?’

‘Two years ago.’ She smiled bitterly, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’

‘As I’m sure you’re aware a car that he had hired was discovered abandoned not too far from here. You had no idea that he was on his way to see you?’

Alice shook her head and sipped her lemonade.

‘Any other reason why he might come here?’

She shrugged, and as she placed her glass back on the table Jack noticed she was still wearing her wedding ring.

‘And your husband, William?’

‘Who?’ she asked, distractedly. ‘Oh. Gone, a long time ago.’

‘What do you think happened to him?’

She stared at him. ‘He died, Mr Russell.’

Jack heard that same sharp tone again, and he began to think that this version of Alice was much quicker on the uptake than the one he’d been informed about. And yet he knew her accent belied a pain, an anguish that she could barely conceal.

She brushed something from her lap and continued airily, ‘He was a fisherman, so I was used to him being away for long periods of time but then one day he didn’t come back. My son believes that he just walked out on us. He’s probably right.’

‘So you think he might still be alive?’

‘He might well be. But he’s dead to me.’ And she patted her lap again as if keeping time to some music that only she could hear, and deliberately avoided his eyes.

Jack’s gaze went back to the ring on her finger and he recalled the framed photo of William and Alistair that he had spied in the dining room and which so obviously stated the opposite.

‘Do you think there might be a connection between the disappearance of your husband and now your son?’

‘Yes.’

‘You think someone is responsible?’

‘Without a doubt,’ she replied. ‘And I know who.’

Jack leaned closer.‘Who do think is responsible, Alice?’

Her fingers stopped drumming and she looked right at him. ‘The police, of course - they’ve done sod all about any of this.’

Jack sat back, disappointed, ran a hand through his thinning hair.

Alice sighed,‘First my husband, now my son. Might as well be me next.’ Then she broke into a smile. ‘The bane of my life,’ she exclaimed, as if this was something wonderful, ‘All dead ends and undergarments now.’

Jack was puzzled at this last turn of phrase and mulled over it as he took a quick swig from his glass. As he did so the crystal caught the sun and cast a halo of light above Alice’s head - her martyrdom now seemed complete. He noticed a slight tremor had developed in her hand.

‘Did you know Alistair had a girlfriend?’ he asked quickly, as if changing the subject would rid her of her tic, which was growing steadily worse.

‘No I didn’t,’she said, blinking furiously.

Jack began to wonder if maybe he had caught Alice in a rare moment of clarity as she appeared to be degenerating before his eyes, so he decided to get to the point before she turned into the hopeless case that his predecessor DC Clements had so cruelly defined.

‘Do you think that maybe someone was after him, I mean, did he have enemies?’

‘He hasn’t spoken - to me - in...’

Alice slumped in her chair and with an unusually fast response, Jack deftly managed to catch her glass just before it fell from her hand. A few moments passed, during which he watched her carefully, and wondered if he should call a doctor. To lose a husband was bad enough but to lose her only child as well and to never know what really became of them was a terrible burden to bear. She couldn’t even grieve for them. Then she came to and looked at him blankly. He wanted to tell her there and then that everything would be all right, that he would find her son and her husband, but at the moment he was in the careless hands of ignorance and there was a distinct lack of clues.

‘I’ve forgotten...what was I trying to say?’

‘It’s alright,’said Jack,‘Let’s get you out into the fresh air.’

And he helped her out of her chair and through the house. By the time they had reached the front door she was sufficiently recovered to manage by herself but Jack maintained a close proximity as she shuffled unsteadily out into the sunshine. Jack felt angry. Where was the justice in this?

She seemed to hear his thoughts and turned and said, ‘Don’t worry. It doesn’t happen a lot.’ He knew she was lying but he just smiled and let it pass. ‘It is very hot today,’ he said, excusing her. And it was. It felt like the height of summer, not the middle of September.

‘That storm isn’t finished yet,’ she said, staring vacantly into the distance.

Jack was puzzled. ‘You mean the storm from a couple of weeks ago?’

‘Oh there’s nothing mysterious about it, Mr Russell. It’s because we live in a valley. The weather remains in stasis here. If it rains then it rains for days, likewise if it’s sunny, we get a long spell of it. The weather gets stuck in Hobbs Brae, like it’s on a cycle.’ She smiled at her own ability to form words again, getting her old sparkle back.

Jack understood. The air was close. Something needed to give. And he found himself struck by a sudden urge to go home, back to Glasgow, back to his family. It took him by surprise. Perhaps he was already giving in, unconsciously preparing for retirement; kidding himself that he could do this one last time because something about this particular case seemed to be pushing him out of his usual comfort zone. Nothing about it said open and shut. It refused to obey the laws of order and consequence. It tipped the scales in favour of something indefinable. And that made him feel unsure, vulnerable...

‘Let me introduce you to Alfred,’ she said.

‘Who?’

‘Alfred,’ she repeated, smiling patiently.‘We built him a long time ago.’

Jack was perplexed, and she laughed and said, ‘This way’ in that patronising tone again, which proved she was indeed back to her old self, and she led him through the garden, which was bathed in a honeycomb glow as the sun now reached its zenith, melting an ice cream cloud in the sky, whilst midges danced in lazy circles above the abundant undergrowth. Alice stopped suddenly and pointed, smiling broadly. Something about this pose touched him. Perhaps it was the way her faded white dress reminded him of an old-fashioned smock, the kind that Victorian artists would once have worn. This, coupled by her sunny disposition, seemed to transfer her back to a time more suited to her dress sense, an age of enlightenment, where Alice would still be in control of all her faculties. Jack smiled secretly, his desire to reverse her ill fortune now temporarily complete. He followed the line of her arm to her finger, which was pointing towards one of the abandoned fields. In the middle stood a wooden cross.

‘A scarecrow,’ he said flatly.

‘Alfred,’ she replied brightly, ‘We built him in remembrance of things lost.’She suddenly looked rueful. ‘There he stands and watches the sea in case my husband should ever return.’

Jack looked at her and said what had been on his mind for some time now.

‘You do know it’s unlikely that your husband will return.’

‘I know,’ she replied, and laughed as if he’d said something funny, yet he saw her brush a tear away.

‘Why did you call him Alfred?’ he enquired.

Alice laughed again and clapped her hands together. ‘Because he was so useless at scaring the crows. They just use him as something to perch on. So we called him Alfred, after that film about the birds by Hitchcock.’

‘Ah,’he smiled, ‘Alfred.’

‘What was your name again?’

‘Jack,’ he said amiably, ‘Jack Russell.’

She smiled faintly and took a step closer, narrowing her eyes as if to study him. ‘The dogged detective,’she said with a smirk and Jack laughed. Then she added, ‘You have kind eyes.’And then she turned to stare out to sea once more. She seemed lost, so utterly alone. A breeze picked up and the leaves of the nearby bushes showed their silvery undersides, and Jack was reminded how peaceful it was up here. He didn’t want to leave, because it seemed like an act of cruelty to do so but he knew that he must - he had a suspect to question.

‘We’ll do everything we can, I promise,’ he said, backing off.

‘Can you feel that?’she suddenly asked, without looking at him.

Jack shook his head. Then Alice turned and looked right at him.

‘Something is coming.’

Her delivery of this mysterious statement confounded Jack for a moment but he didn’t have the time to consider what she had meant by it. He smiled awkwardly and said, ‘Sorry, I have to go now, duty calls.’ He reached the gate and she called out to him, ‘Drive carefully.’He nodded and smiled pityingly at her, not bothering to tell her he had left his car at the hotel and would be walking it back. He closed the gate and walked quickly down the hill, thinking forward to his next plan of action.

And blissfully unaware that he was being followed...