Too Good to Be True

Ann Cleeves

Too Good to Be True

A book in the Shetland series, 2016

To the library staff who made me

an enthusiastic reader and continue

to share their passion for books

1 The Call for Help

Jimmy Perez stood at the gate. There was a solid house at the end of the path, with a big garden and trees behind it. This would be a good place for kids to grow up, he thought. It was just getting dark and there was a light on in the kitchen. He could see the table was laid for supper with a pretty cloth and matching napkins. It all looked very perfect. His ex-wife Sarah had always liked things to be perfect. He felt a stab of envy. His ex-wife had a lovely house, money and a family. The love of his life had recently died, and the child he was raising wasn’t his.

But he had travelled all the way from Shetland to the Scottish Borders because Sarah had said that she needed his help. It was too late to turn back now. Perez opened the gate and walked up the path. Sarah must have been looking out for him because the door opened before he knocked. She looked older than he’d expected. Stressed. Not so perfect after all.

‘Come in. We can talk. Tom’s still at work.’ Tom was her husband now, a doctor.

Perez had only met him once and found him nice enough. A bit boring. Tom had a famous brother who was an MP, so perhaps the brother was the exciting one in the family. Then Perez remembered that he’d always found Sarah a bit boring too, so maybe his ex-wife and Tom were well matched.

‘What is this about?’ he said. ‘Why all the drama?’ They were standing in the hall. Close enough for him to smell Sarah’s hair; the shampoo was the same she had always used.

‘A woman in the village died. They’re blaming Tom.’

‘The police are blaming him? Or the medical authorities?’

‘No!’ She seemed cross that he hadn’t understood. ‘People in the village. There’s gossip. Everywhere we go people are talking about it. Even people we thought were our friends.’

Perez wasn’t sure what to say. It seemed he had been dragged away from his home just because Sarah’s friends were talking behind her back. He wanted to leave this perfect house and drive straight back to Aberdeen and the ferry to the Shetland Islands. To his job as a police inspector, to his stepdaughter Cassie and their untidy house by the water.

‘I don’t see how I can help,’ he said.

‘If you can find out what really happened we might be left in peace,’ Sarah said. He could see she was almost crying. ‘It’s not just me and Tom. It’s getting to the children too. One of the kids in their school asked if their dad was a killer.’

‘Are the police involved at all?’ he asked.

‘They were called but they decided it was suicide. Or a terrible accident. The case is closed.’

‘So just give it time,’ he said. ‘It’ll blow over. People will soon find something else to talk about.’ He was already planning his trip home.

‘I can’t stand it. Please, Jimmy.’

A door swung open and he saw that two children had cleared a space at the kitchen table. There was a girl who looked like Sarah and had her head stuck in a book. A boy was playing with a huge box of Lego.

‘Two days,’ he said. ‘I can’t give you more time than that.’ He paused. ‘Tell me about the woman who died.’ Jimmy Perez could never turn down a plea for help. It was almost an illness with him.

Sarah led him through to a living room at the back of the house, where two sofas sat close to the fire. Again, everything was tasteful and tidy. She drew the curtains. ‘The dead woman was called Anna Blackwell and she was a teacher at the village school. In her twenties. A single mum. In a place like this, that caused gossip enough.’

‘How did she die?’

‘An overdose. Antidepressants.’

‘And Tom was her doctor? He prescribed the medicine?’

Sarah nodded.

‘It’s a long jump from that to saying he was a killer. Was anything else going on?’

The room was quiet. Outside in the dark an owl hooted in the trees behind the house.

‘They’re saying he was having an affair with her.’ She spoke quickly, as if she couldn’t bear to have the words in her mouth. As if she wanted to spit them out.

‘And what does Tom say?’

‘I don’t know,’ Sarah said. ‘He won’t talk about it.’

‘But you have asked him?’

‘How can I?’ Her voice was shrill. ‘It would be like accusing him of murder.’

There was another moment of silence. ‘Does Tom know that you’ve asked me to help?’

‘No! He’s a proud man. He’d hate to think I’d asked you to sort it out. He’d see it as meddling.’

I see it as meddling,’ Perez said. ‘And I’m not sure that I can sort it out.’

But Sarah seemed not to hear. ‘Anna lived in one of the ex-council houses at the edge of the village. I expect her neighbours will tell you all about her. Perhaps there was another man. Or you can find out why she might have wanted to kill herself. Even if nobody else is charged with her murder, that might be enough to stop people thinking it was Tom. He won’t talk about it but it’s making him ill. He doesn’t sleep. And he’s grown so thin.’

There was another minute of silence, then Perez stood up. ‘I’d better make a start then.’

‘Yes, yes. You should go before Tom comes home.’ It was almost as if she was scared of her husband.

She opened the door to let Jimmy out. He stood for a moment on the path, looking in at the kitchen and the well-behaved children at the table. Sarah was stirring something in a pan on the stove. It all looked too good to be true.

2 The Landlady

Inspector Jimmy Perez booked into the Stonebridge Hotel on the main street of the village. It had a public bar and a dining room already serving high tea. In the lobby he could smell chips and smoked haddock. He’d thought that his ex-wife might have asked him to stay in her home. He hadn’t realised that his work was to be kept secret from her husband.

In his room he phoned Robert Anderson, a local cop. They’d worked together in Aberdeen before Jimmy had gone home to Shetland.

‘What brings you all the way down here, Jimmy?’

‘Well, we’re all Police Scotland now.’

Robert gave a little laugh. ‘So we are, but I wouldn’t come meddling in Shetland.’

‘The Anna Blackwell case?’ Jimmy said. ‘What did you make of it?’

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘Sarah King is my ex-wife. She’s finding it tough. Apparently her family is being targeted by gossips.’

There was a pause. ‘Ah well,’ Robert said at last, ‘I’m guessing Anna’s little girl is finding it tough too. It seems there are no relatives to take her so she’s gone into care.’

Jimmy thought about this. Anna had been a teacher. She must have loved kids. Would she kill herself knowing there was nobody to look after her daughter? ‘Have you dropped the case?’ he asked.

‘Aye, there’s no sign of murder. No break-in at the house. And it wouldn’t be easy to force-feed a healthy woman a load of pills. Anna’s daughter was at a sleepover at a friend’s house, so there’s no witness to what happened. It seems that Anna had drunk the best part of a bottle of wine. She didn’t leave a suicide note but suicide’s the way the lawyer in charge of the case, the Fiscal, is thinking. We think there’ll be an open verdict to allow that it might have been an accident. It’ll be kinder for the kid when she’s older.’

‘Do you think Anna was having an affair with the doctor, Tom King?’

‘Is that what the gossips in Stonebridge are saying?’ Robert sounded surprised.

‘According to Sarah.’

‘I’d heard that Sarah and Anna had fallen out about something that happened at the school, but there was no mention of the husband.’ Robert made the row sound petty, as if the women were kids who’d fallen out in the playground.

‘So you don’t mind me poking around?’ Jimmy asked. ‘I’ve said I’ll stay for two days. I can’t give it longer than that.’

There was a long pause at the end of the phone. ‘You’ll do what you want anyway, won’t you, Jimmy? You’ve always been a stubborn bastard. Just let me know if you find anything.’

The next day Jimmy Perez woke early. The first snow of winter had fallen. A light coating of white that made the village, with its backdrop of trees, look like a Christmas card.

Breakfast was fried and tasty. He thought of Cassie, who was only six but had strong views on healthy eating. Cassie was his stepdaughter and the love of his life now that her mother was dead.

The landlady, who told him her name was Elspeth, was nosy. His food came with a string of questions. She was like a hound sniffing for information.

‘Are you here for the fishing?’ she asked. Then, without waiting for a reply, she went on. ‘Of course it’s not really the weather for fishing. So maybe you’re a walker? We get folk staying who have walked Hadrian’s Wall and then come north of the border to see what we have to offer.’

‘I used to know Anna Blackwell,’ Jimmy said. He still hated lying after years as a cop, but it stopped the woman asking her questions. ‘The woman who died. I wanted to see where she lived.’

‘Poor lassie. What a tragedy!’ Elspeth sat at the ...

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