Read The Trowie Mound Murders Online

Authors: Marsali Taylor

The Trowie Mound Murders

The Trowie Mound

Marsali Taylor

When a visiting yachting couple go missing from the Shetland oil capital of Brae, sailing skipper Cass Lynch overcomes her mistrust of the land world to ask for help from her old adversary DI Gavin Macrae. He discovers a link to international art theft, and warns Cass to steer clear – but when one of her sailing pupils goes missing, she goes alone to discover the secrets of the Neolithic tomb known locally as a ‘trowie mound' ... Ghosts, folklore and a nail-biting finale at the local show come together to make an atmospheric, fast-moving thriller.


To Mr Malcolm A. Loudon, M.B.Ch.B., FRCSEd., M.D., FRCS (Gen), Consultant Surgeon and NHS Grampian Lead Clinician for Colo-rectal cancer, with great gratitude.

This novel was written during ‘interesting times'. The first third was written in CLAN Haven, Aberdeen, during five weeks of radio- and chemo-therapy after a diagnosis of bowel cancer. Thank you to Mr Samuel, Janette, and the oncology and radiotherapy teams; thank you, the kind housekeepers at CLAN, the therapists, the staff, Bill the bus driver, and thank you, my fellow cancer sufferers, all of you far worse than I was, for all your companionship, cheerfulness, care, and kindness.

After that I was sent home to recover, and finished the first draft before the Big Op. The cancer bit went fine, but I developed an infection. Thank you, to the surgeons, nurses, and orderlies of Ward 1 in the Gilbert Bain Hospital, Lerwick, for your care; thank you, Mr Mikolajczak and Miss Weber, for putting me on that emergency flight to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary before it was too late. I think Miss Weber would approve my independent heroine, Cass!

My next thank you is to Mr Loudon of the ARI, and his staff in Ward 31. The operation he perfomed there, on what should have been his Queen's Jubilee holiday, saved my life.

I managed to stay out of hospital for all of two weeks before being re-admitted to the Gilbert Bain with acute dehydration. I spent five weeks on a drip – which left my writing hand free for improving my first draft. Thank you, once more, to the wonderful staff of Ward 1.

The editorial copy of
The Trowie Mound Murders
arrived in my in-box as I was lying in the renamed Ward 501, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, after the stoma reversal operation which we feared might not be possible. Thank you once more to Mr Loudon, for putting Humpty Dumpty back together, and to John Graham and all his team in Ward 501 for their care during my recovery.

Finally, thank you to all my friends who sent cards, letters, and flowers, who brought communion to me in hospital, and remembered me in church services and prayer groups – your support was truly appreciated. Thank you to my wonderful agent, Teresa Chris, who phoned with news of a publisher at last on the day I'd had my first chemo blast, and encouraged me to keep writing through it all. Thank you to my editor at Accent, Cat Camacho.  Most of all, thank you to my husband and family, for all their support through two difficult years.

, can I get back to normal life …?

Monday 6 August

Tide times for Brae:

Low Water 06.32           0.4m

High Water 12.58          2.1m

Low Water 18.41           0.6m

High Water 01.03          2.3m

Moon waning gibbous

Two days after it was all over, I set out for Bergen.

The salvage boats were out before me, one on each side of where the Rustler had gone down. I watched them as I sailed
down between the low green hills of Busta voe, with the township of Brae receding behind two solidly built, catamaran-hulled metal hulks with the power to raise a thirty-six foot yacht from the green depths of Cole Deeps.

I wasn't going to stick around to watch. I knew how the water would already have damaged her immaculate interior: gleaming varnish clouded white, tendrils of weed and clawed sea-creatures creeping over her willow-green cushions and into her closed lockers. Her electrics would be beyond repair, her rigging starting to rust. She was a salvage job now, if anyone cared to buy her – someone who hadn't had to identify the dreadful things that had lain on the cabin floor down in the depths, for the crabs to scavenge.

Four people had died, and three were in custody. It was over.

I tacked
round, and turned her nose to the open sea. 

A silk Monenday maks a canvas week.

(Old Shetland proverb: a week that begins too well can end badly)

Chapter One

Monday 30 July

Tide times for Brae:

Low Water 01.08           0.7m

High Water 07.22          1.9m

Low Water 13.30           0.8m

High Water 19.39          2.0m

Moon waxing gibbous

‘I know how you got that scar,' the boy said, eyes travelling along the ragged indentation that ran across my cheek.

I wasn't going to let him see any reaction. He was in his mid-teens, sturdily built, with the tan of someone who's rarely indoors, glossy black hair, and a seaman's earring dangling from his left ear, a gold hoop with a cross. He had grey-green eyes, set close together over a beaked nose, and very dark lashes, half-lowered at the moment so that he could watch me slantways from behind them, like a cormorant keeping an eye on a dangling fish.

I was still trying to place him. I was getting to know most of the children in the area, and his face was familiar. Not one of the club's sailors – then I remembered this face smiling insolently at me from under a helmet. He'd come to fetch his little brother on a quad. His brother was Alex, a keen sailor who was still working his way through the wind-still in the marina's rocky entrance behind me. Olaf Johnston's son – Norman, that was his name. I remembered Olaf from school, and wasn't at all surprised that he'd turned into a parent who let his children charge around the roads on the quad; he likely considered that making them wear a helmet was discharging his duty to health and safety.

He wasn't a parent who'd be much help in the present situation.

It was a bonny, bonny evening. Even though it was almost nine o'clock the sun shone steadily on above the hill to the west and glinted on the water. The tide had turned an hour ago, and was just beginning to sidle down from the warmed concrete of the slip. The silver ghost of a three-quarters moon gleamed above the eastern hills. The force 3 southerly had kept the pink-sailed Picos scudding briskly around their racing triangle, and we'd all been having a really good time until there was a high-whine engine roar from the jetty below the clubhouse, then this boy bounced out on his jet-ski, curving around the dinghies to rock them, and flipping in between them to send water glittering over them. I'd resolved to have a word with him once he came ashore again.

‘Look,' I said, ‘I know this is a public slip, but there's no need for you to be driving your jet-ski so close to these beginner sailors.'

He ignored that. ‘Your boyfriend shot at you. Then you pushed him overboard and left him to drown.'

Alain … 
It felt as though he'd slapped me. He must have seen my eyes widen in shock, for his thin lips spread in a mocking grin.

‘That is enough,' a voice said over my shoulder. There was a heaviness about the t, a guttural note to the vowels, that made the speaker Norwegian. A young man had come up from behind me to stand at my shoulder. He was half a head taller than I, and broad-shouldered with the muscles that come from spending the day hefting engines about. His silver-gilt hair was covered with a cap that sent a dark shadow across his brow, his eyes were the cold blue of the sea on a winter's day, and his mouth was a hard line between the fair moustache and neat Elizabethan beard. He took a step forward. ‘I see you here again, you won't be on a jet-ski for a couple of months.'

I made a protesting movement. He stepped in front of me, squaring into the boy's space. ‘Not until the plaster comes off. You understand?'

‘You can't –' I began. They ignored me, staring at each other like two foredeck hands playing poker. The boy wasn't going to show he was intimidated, but his defiant stance shifted and the eyes meeting mine so boldly slid away. He wasn't going to take total defeat though.

‘Like she said, it's a public pier. I can use it if I want.' He surveyed the Norwegian, then that unpleasant smile curled his mouth again. ‘My dad's Olaf Johnston. He wouldn't want you to be bothering me.' His eyes shifted to my face, then back to the Norwegian.

Anders wasn't having it. He took a step forward, spoke very softly. ‘This is nothing to do with your father. I am talking to you. Don't come anywhere near our dinghies.' He gave the boy a last hard stare. ‘Or me.' Point made, he turned to me as if the boy wasn't there, and jerked his head up towards where our pupils had finished hosing down the dinghies and moved on to splash suits, lifejackets, and each other. ‘Shall we go, Cass?'

I could tell he wanted to get out of there while he still had the advantage. He'd taken only two steps away when his left shoulder bulged and moved; the lump travelled along his front and slid upwards. A pink nose and a set of quivering whiskers appeared in the neck of his checked shirt, then Rat wriggled out to sit on his shoulder, tail coiled around Anders' neck. Pet rats are sizeable animals, and Rat was a well-grown specimen, nearly 60 cm long from nose to tail. His fur was gleamingly white, with one glossy black patch on his starboard side, and another over his port ear and cheek. I liked him; he was clean, agile, and generally trustworthy aboard a boat, if the ship's biscuit container was screwed closed, and the light airs sails kept in the stern locker. All the same, I could see why Anders had wanted to keep him under cover; he would definitely have spoiled the hard man image.

Anders strode off up the slip; I paused to help haul the last dinghy up. The water was warm around my ankles.

‘We got stuck in the mouth of the marina,' the skipper explained. It was Alex, our jet-ski maniac's brother. He was an under-sized ten-year-old with lavender-blue eyes set in a round face, and gold-rimmed glasses held on with elastic. His fair hair was cut fashionably long, and straggled damply round his neck, like the tendrils of a jellyfish.

‘I saw you,' I agreed. ‘What were you doing wrong?'

He thought about it. ‘Waggling the tiller.'


‘Going into the no-go zone?'

‘That was your main problem,' I said. ‘Next time, free off a little and get your boat speed up. Never mind if it takes more tacks.'

‘Okay,' he said. He looked up at the day-glo-pink triangle flapping above us. ‘Do I have to hose the sail too?'

‘Did it go in the water?'


I gave his wet hair a pointed look. ‘How come you did then?'

‘Oh, yeah, I capsized,' he conceded.

‘Then hose the sail.'

We backed the dinghy into its place in the row below the Boating Club. The club itself was a seventies concrete cube, one of the legacies from when Shetland had suddenly found itself the oil capital of Europe. During the building phase of the huge terminal ten miles north, at Sullom Voe, there had been over four thousand men in the accommodation camp, and so the bosses had had to find ways of keeping them amused. The cinema and sports hall had long since decayed into sheep fodder stores, but the boating club had been embraced with enthusiasm by local folk. Shetlanders were traditionally fishermen with a croft. In the eighties, this voe (the dialect word for a long sea-inlet like this one) had been white with the sails of the traditional Shetland Models, or Maids; youngsters had been encouraged in the red-sailed Mirrors. Now the older sailors extended their sailing range with yachts, heading off to Faroe and Norway at the drop of a shackle-spindle, and slaking their competitive instinct with hotly contested points races. The younger sailors spent their time in the Picos, something like a flattened bath tub with a mast. I wasn't taken with them from a sailing point of view, but had to concede that they were virtually indestructible, even in the hands of nutters like Alex, who spent as much time in the water as on it.

By the time I got up to the clubhouse, most of the children had hung their dripping blue splash-suits and scarlet lifejackets up in the drying room, and (from the noise filtering through the windows) were busy in the showers: the girls showering at length in a cloud of smelly bubbles, the boys splashing each other as much as possible. It's worrying how predictable genders can be.

I sat down on the bench to wait for them to finish. My hair was damp; I loosed it from its normal plait and let the dark waves curl over my shoulders. To my right, the green curve of Ladies' Mire stretched along below the standing stone that raised a rough back to the sun and cast a bulky shadow down the daisy-sprinkled field to the dark seaweed on the shore. Behind it was darker heather hill, the scattald. Crofters had been working with sheep there all day; there was a row of parked pick-ups below the hill gate, with black and white collies snarling defiance at each other through the rear portholes. Every so often I'd looked up to see a clump of indignant, nervous sheep moving across, with two or three dogs wheeling around them. Clipping, dipping, checking on feet, and spraying them purple, there was no end of things that needed to be done to sheep. These hill sheep huddled together so nervously in a multi-coloured clump were proper Shetland sheep, half the size of the muckle-nosed Suffolks that paced majestically around the green parks by the houses. They roamed the heather hills in summer, and in winter they came down to eat seaweed on the shore, and lick the salt from the roads. They were black, grey, and moorit in colour, with the occasional piebald or white one. The ‘black sheep of the family' proverb didn't work here.

A hay-filled Berlingo rattled along the main road between the new houses on this side and the older ones opposite, traditional croft houses built after the Viking pattern, long and low, with grey-tiled roofs and a sheltering thicket of bronze-leaved sycamores. To my left, the shore curved around to old Brae, where each house was set in its own strip of land that reached up to the rough hill grazing, and down to where the boat waited in its noost. Even the minister's house had a stone landing point, and the former shop stood proud above a substantial jetty, from the days – not so long ago, either – when goods and shoppers all came by sea. Shetland's history was always with us, the old patterns continued.

The shore ended in the point of Weathersta. I'd dreamt last night about the selkie wife who'd lived there, one of those dreams that left you with a sense of foreboding that clung like a dark mist for the rest of the day. I'd been that selkie wife, born a seal and delighting in the roughness of the waves, yet shedding my skin to be a woman on shore, and dance on human feet in the moonlight – until a young fisherman had hidden my skin and kept me for himself. In the dream, I'd loved him, and melted into his arms. I wasn't going to give the face a name, not even to myself. But my selkie wife had grown gnawingly, achingly, heartsick for the sea, and I'd searched for my skin in the bare house with its driftwood furniture, in the cluttered byre under the old dogskin buoys and tangle of lines, until I'd become frantic, thinking he'd destroyed it, and I'd be trapped on this heavy land until I died of longing. I'd run into the sea, leaving my baby wailing in its cradle, and awoke gasping as my mouth filled with water –

I knew where the dream had come from. My friend Magnie had been telling ghost stories, and one of them had been of the wailing baby, the selkie wife's deserted child, which had sickened and died without her. I knew why too. It wasn't hard to analyse. After a dozen years at sea, as yacht skipper and dinghy instructor, I'd decided to go for a commercial qualification at the North Atlantic Fisheries College in Scalloway, Shetland's ancient capital. I knew it was a sensible idea – no, better than that, it was what I really wanted, to be eligible for a paid job aboard a tall ship, instead of being volunteer crew for my bed and board. All the same, I was dreading it, a year of school, of being trapped day after day ashore, stuck in this northern climate, with no chance of tiers of white sails above my head, and the southern cross bright before the prow in the blue-black night. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to do it, that the call of the sea would be too strong; that I wouldn't know myself in a classroom, with my hair neat in its plait, and a shore-patterned jumper, and shoes instead of sailing boots or flip-flops.

My brooding was interrupted by movement at the end of the voe: a motorboat coming in. I ran an eye over the pontoons, looking for gaps. The yellow one belonging to the noisy young couple was missing, but this wasn't them returning, thank goodness. This boat was white, with a high bow. At the speed it was coming down the voe, it'd be with us in five minutes. I was just wondering if they'd phoned ahead to book a berth when there was a scrunch of tyres on the gravel slope from the main road down to the slip. An ancient mustard Fiesta spattered past me and halted at the metal gate. It was Magnie himself, the marina's guardian, come to take their warps and give them a key to the club-house.

He'd dressed for the occasion. The sun picked up the dazzling white of his traditional Fair Isle gansey, knitted by his late mother and patterned with upright lines of cable and anchors on a dull-blue background. His reddish-fair hair was sleeked back, and his ruddy cheeks shone as if they'd just been shaved. They had to be visitors; Shetland residents enjoying a fine evening would have got the traditional blue boiler suit and yellow rubber boots.

The motor-boat was a forty-five footer, with a long foredeck for sunbathing in port, and a high wheelhouse opening into a sheltered cockpit. The engine roared as she curved round outside the marina, then quietened to a purr as the driver brought her round to the pontoon where Magnie was waiting.

Below me, on the slip, Norman watched open-mouthed as she gleamed her way across the water. There was a churning of water at the bow, then she stopped dead. Magnie threw the aft warp and the man at the wheel made it fast; a hatch opened in the foredeck and a woman came out, hand extended for Magnie's second warp. A pause, while they made her fast on the other side too, then Magnie clambered aboard. I wondered if he'd got a welcoming bottle in his hip-pocket.

Norman wasn't the only one staring. Anders breathed, in Norwegian, ‘That's a Bénéteau Antares.'

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