Sam Thorne had never been a superstitious man. He did not believe in omens, or providence, or the tired old philosophy of ‘what goes around comes around’. He prided himself on being a practical man, rational and thoughtful. And yet, when he awoke that morning, he found himself paralysed by a clear and palpable dread. It hung in the air above his bed, a nameless, shapeless thing, whispering to him, warning him of the events to come.
Guilty conscience, he told himself; that’s all.
Once he was on his feet, he put it to the back of his mind – but the grim, uneasy feeling stayed with him for a long time after.
He stood at the French windows and watched the sun come up, drinking hot, strong tea from his favourite mug. The gulls were restless this morning, swooping and swaying on the currents of the North Sea, hundreds of them clustered around the top of the old lighthouse which marked the skyline like an exclamation point. After a fitful night’s sleep, the spectacular view of Port Farron and Scalasay’s eastern shoreline never failed to revive his spirits.
This was why he’d come here. That view, so refreshing after the cluttered, claustrophobic skyline of London, soothed his soul. He had no regrets about coming to the island. He just wished Rachel felt the same. She never said a word about it, not anymore, but she didn’t have to; he could read her discontent in everything she did or said. But things would get better, he kept telling himself. Given time, she would come around.
“Sam, I need you to do me a favour.”
He turned to find his wife crossing the wood-panelled floor in her navy blue nurse’s uniform, holding her hair above her head in clumps, hairclips clenched between her teeth like masonry nails. She stopped in front of the mirror and set about creating a French plait.
“What?” he said.
“I need you to have Becky today.”
He threw his head back and sighed. “Today? Why today?”
Rachel stopped working on her plait and turned to him. “Sam,” she said, head cocked to one side. “You know why. Ben Garrett is coming today.”
Sam closed his eyes.
Ben Garrett. The convicted rapist of three young islanders ten years back. He murdered his last victim, a thirteen year-old girl, slitting her throat and pushing her off a cliff. Ben Garrett was a monster, and yet the authorities were letting him out to visit his dying mother. There’d been much debate in the press over the ethics of letting someone so dangerous out of prison, even for one day, even under the strictest security escort.
“I thought they weren’t going to give him his day release?” Sam said.
Rachel shrugged. “Soon as they threw the Human Rights ball into the argument, the Government caved in. They’re calling it a mercy trip.”
Sam snorted in disgust. “Mercy trip? That’s rich. Where was Ben Garrett’s mercy when he threw that girl onto the rocks at Pierre Point?”
Rachel didn’t answer, her attention focused on applying her lipstick. “So will you have Becky so I can be there with Cynthia?”
“Aren’t there more deserving people on this island who need you?”
“Sam! Don’t you dare try and take the moral high ground over this. There are only a hundred and twenty people on this island. I have to go where I’m needed. It’s not like–”
“Not like London,” he finished wearily. He had heard the argument so many times. She’d been a district nurse back in Bushey Heath where they’d spent the first few years of married life. There’d been an abundance of sick and elderly people there, providing her with full-time work, a good wage and self-esteem. Here, on this tiny Hebridean island, the work didn’t justify a full-time waged district nurse. No wonder she resented coming here.
“I did warn you this might happen,” she said.
Sam turned away again, looking out to sea. “Well, I wasn’t planning on doing any writing today anyway!”
He saw Rachel roll her eyes in the reflection of the glass. “Sam, please. You told me yesterday you haven’t written anything in weeks. Don’t tell me today was going to be any different.”
The accusation stung like a blade between his ribs, but something made him bite his tongue. Probably, he admitted, because it was true. He hadn’t produced anything, not in weeks but months. He’d managed to grind out a couple of short stories, but before trying them on the usual markets his agent had sent them back, requesting rewrites. ‘Lacking inspiration’, was the attached comment, and Sam thought that just about summed up his entire situation. After three prolific years, in which he’d produced three best-selling mystery novels, everything had come grinding to a halt. The only thing coming out of the Sam Thorne literary stable now was a stony silence.
He tried to think of an acerbic response to Rachel’s cutting remarks, but even that seemed beyond him.
So he said, “I’m not sure I like the idea of you being at the Garrett’s house when this murderer turns up.”
“Sam, he’s going to be in chains, and under armed escort. I’ll be quite safe.” She paused, staring out at him from the mirror whilst her hands busied themselves with her hair. “Jesus, Sam,” she said. “For a moment there it sounded like you cared.”
Sam looked round at her. She pursed her lips, avoiding eye contact. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” he said.
Just then, he heard the side door slam shut. Seconds later, a small figure in a denim skirt and pink blouse raced across the garden outside. She skipped over to the small vegetable patch which Rachel had started up, blonde pigtails bouncing, and crouched down to examine something she had planted days before.
“Well?” Rachel said.
“All right,” he said. Watching his daughter soothed the brooding beast in his heart. “I’ll have her.”
The phone burst into life, ringing like a klaxon through the house. After three rings, Sam realised his wife was not going to answer it.
“I’m doing my hair,” she said.
Sam charged across the room and snatched up the receiver.
“Hello?” he said.
The voice was female, husky, pronouncing his name with an overtly sexual drawl.
He tensed, turned away from Rachel, cupping his hand over the mouthpiece.
“Sam? Are you going to talk to me, Sam?”
He was paralysed by a sudden irrational fear: that if he said the girl’s name out loud he would invoke her like some angry djinn, causing her to materialise in the room, and in so doing reveal the secret he had fought so hard to conceal. For those few protracted moments he didn’t know what to say or do – but if he continued to remain silent, that would raise even more suspicion. He drew in a deep breath, composed his face, and turned to his wife. Rachel had frozen mid-plait, an inquisitive look on her face.
“Who is it?” she asked.
He pressed his hand down tighter on the mouthpiece. “It’s Ronnie,” he told her. “Ronnie Gibson from the publishers.”
He told himself that, as Kelly worked for his publisher, it was only half a lie. Rachel resumed her hair maintenance, her expression unreadable.
“I’ll take it in the study,” Sam said. He transferred the call and then hung up the receiver before walking briskly out of the room. He felt Rachel’s eyes watching him all the way.
In the relative solace of his study, with the door firmly shut, Sam spoke with an angry hiss: “Jesus, Kelly, what the hell do you think you’re doing calling me here?”
Her sing-song voice drifted out of the phone like a phantom. “Oh, Sam, I know I promised not to contact you anymore, but . . .” She sighed. “Something’s come up. I need to see you.”
Sam crouched low over the phone, trying to project his anger into the mouthpiece without having to shout. “No! No way! That’s a really bad idea. What happened between us . . . It was a mistake, Kelly. A big mistake.”
Kelly said nothing for a long time, as if his stinging words had stunned her into silence. When she spoke again, it was in a flat, humourless monotone: “Sam, it’s about your next book.”
Sam sat up straight, thrown momentarily by this unexpected curve ball. “What?” he said.
“Hayden-Mills sent me. There are some issues we need to discuss with you.”
“Well, why didn’t you say that in the first place, Kelly?” He felt like such an asshole jumping on the offensive so quickly.
“You didn’t give me a chance to explain.”
“And this can’t be done over the phone?”
“No, it can’t.”
He sighed. “And where’s Ronnie? I thought he was my personal advisor now?”
“Ronnie’s off work sick. Stress.”
Sam sat in silence for a long time, allowing his head to droop, as Kelly’s voice continued in his ear:
“Sam, I wish it were possible to erase the past, but sometimes that’s just not possible. I really don’t want to upset you, honestly I don’t. If you’ll agree to see me, then maybe we can settle this quickly and painlessly.”
Sam shook his head, the hot, sick sensation in his chest rising to fill his head. He felt delirious.
“If I catch the next ferry I can be on Scalasay in about three hours–”
“No!” he barked, louder than he’d intended. “No. Not on the island. Please.”
“Sam, why ever not?”
“You know why, Kelly.”
There was a deep silence. Eventually, she said: “Rachel?”
“Yes, Rachel,” he said, bitterly. “Now listen to me. Don’t come here. I’ll come to you.” He ran his free hand over his face, shocked at the layer of sweat covering his palm. “Where are you now?”
“Oban. I’m at the Station Hotel.”
“Right, listen to me,” he said, his tone businesslike. “I’ll meet you there in the lobby at noon. Okay?”
“Yes, Sam.” After a pause, she said, “Sam, I am looking forward to seeing you again.”
“I wish I could say the same.”
He slammed the phone back in its cradle and hung his head in his hands. He had barely a moment alone before the door to his study rattled open and Becky came bounding into the room. She was holding a tiny plant pot, cupped in both hands, and the expression of pure glee on her face lit up the room. She fell into his embrace, planting a big kiss on his stubbly cheek.
“Daddy, look! My geranium has three leaves.”
Sam appraised the tiny pink petals. “Wow, sweetheart, that’s very impressive.”
“Mummy says you’re looking after me today,” she said excitedly. “Can we go to the lighthouse again? I love the lighthouse!”
Sam stared at her for a long time, everything crashing together in his mind like a motorway pileup. He’d already agreed to have Becky for the day; Rachel would not let him wriggle out of that one. If he tried, there would be a row. A big one. And he couldn’t cancel his meeting with Kelly in Oban. He knew that if he didn’t meet her where he’d arranged to, she would simply come to the island, and that would be worse for everybody. He felt like a man standing in quicksand, whose only escape route was through a field of broken glass.
“Not the lighthouse, today, sweetheart,” he said, his voice deliberately low so as to avoid being overheard.
Becky’s eyebrows arched in disappointment, and her mouth stretched into a little ‘O’ as she prepared to voice her unhappiness.
“But,” he said, silencing her with a finger over her lips. “But we will be going somewhere else, somewhere just as exciting.” He put his mouth to her ear. “On the ferry.”
Her eyes bulged. “Where we going, Daddy?”
He shushed her again, whispering in that conspiratorial tone. “It’s a mystery tour,” he said. “But you have to promise not to tell Mummy where we went.”
Later, when the initial shock of the tragedy had finally begun to fade, he would look back over the events of that morning, turning over every word, every decision, every change of circumstance, in a desperate bid to find some meaning in what was to become the darkest day of his life.
Scalasay was an island community of one hundred and twenty-three inhabitants, most of them second or third-generation Scots, with a healthy sprinkling of newcomers who were either adventurous or affluent or both. Unlike some island communities, Scalasay was renowned for welcoming new blood with open arms. Many of the newcomers were retired couples who had worked hard and made their money and were seeking out a quiet, peaceful refuge in which to enjoy their golden years. Needless to say, they never caused any trouble. Young families were much rarer, and therefore welcomed with even greater enthusiasm. Without new blood, the residents were fond of saying, communities died; and there was nothing ‘dead’ or dying about Scalasay. Far from it.
Nestled in the cup of the island’s natural valley were fifty rows of uniformly white houses lining the five streets that made up the ‘Town’, as it was known. The houses had to be repainted every winter after the gulls and puffins and cormorants had done their worst during the summer months – although this was not such a bad thing as it gave the islanders a common grievance with which to while away the long winters, when the summer people had dwindled to a memory and the bitter winds began to roll in from the North sea.
A long esplanade dominated the valley, where retail trades old and new sat side by side: the grocer next door to the internet café, the butcher next door to the mobile phone shop, an unusually easy alliance which gave the impression that the island was one big, busy shopping precinct. It wasn’t, but the islanders were happy with the impression.
At the eastern end of the esplanade a wide flight of a dozen stone steps rose to a town square bordered by facades around an ornate fountain with a stone representation of a Viking boat resting at its summit. This was not unusual. The Vikings laid claim to Scalasay back in the dark ages, when they ruled most of the Hebrides, and signs of their legacy could be found all over the island.
Overlooking the fountain was the town hall, the biggest building on the island. It had been designed and built for the sole purpose of town meetings, but as these gatherings had become less and less frequent, the building had been used to accommodate other things such as the bridge club, the annual summer fete, countless dinner and dance events for the golden years set; anything to prevent the building falling into disuse and disrepair. As the islanders were quick to point out, nothing on Scalasay was allowed to die. The unofficial motto of Scalasay was that it was ‘the most vibrant of all the Hebridean islands’, a claim no one had ever disputed.
The mayor was Richard Ashworth. Fifty-six years old, large and round with fine black eyes and a Roman profile, Ashworth was undoubtedly the wealthiest man on the island, although this was not the reason the islanders had elected him mayor for three consecutive terms. His grandfather was Earl Ashworth, the man who had done more for Scalasay in the last century than any other. People on the island liked the sense of continuity and tradition that Ashworth’s appointment as mayor brought. And he was good at it, up to a point, although the community mostly ran itself, leaving Ashworth with very little to do on a daily basis, an arrangement which suited him just fine.
On the morning of September fifteenth, as the sun climbed steadily into the eastern sky, the town hall doors rolled open, and a great procession of people streamed into the main hall. The call had gone out: there was an emergency meeting, a meeting which required every islander to attend. But there were few surprised faces in the gathering crowd. Everyone knew what this meeting was about. The horror which had ripped the island apart ten years earlier was returning and, as mayor of Scalasay, Richard Ashworth wanted to know what the islanders intended to do about it.
When Rachel stepped through the open doors of the town hall the meeting was already underway. Angry voices echoed around the wood-panelled walls. The strength of passion in the crowd was understandable, but it also made her feel particularly vulnerable. She deliberately avoided taking a seat in the main auditorium and slipped unnoticed into the back of the hall.
On a raised stage at the far end of the hall, Richard Ashworth sat in the centre of a table, hammering his gavel, a throwback, no doubt, to his days as a judge at the Old Bailey.
“Please everyone,” Ashworth said, raising his hand. “This meeting will not achieve any kind of resolution if we are all going to shout over each other. Now let us all just listen to Ted for a moment while he reads out the letter we received this morning.”
A murmur of disgruntled acceptance fluttered around the hall, but silence eventually resumed. The man sitting on Ashworth’s right was Ted Sheldon, also on the island council, retired accountant and leader of the community choir. As he stood up, he carefully placed his reading glasses on the end of his large, blotchy nose, straining to read the letter he held in his trembling hands.
He cleared his throat noisily. “It’s from the Prison Service,” he announced gruffly. “Addressed to the island council. ‘Dear community leaders, it is with some regret that we must inform you of our decision to allow Benjamin Garrett the day release he has requested. This decision has been made in accordance with Human Rights laws which permit such visits in cases of this nature. It is our understanding that Mr Garrett’s mother, Cynthia, is only days away from death and that if Mr Garrett is to visit her then that time must be sooner rather than later.
“‘We have taken into full consideration the strong views expressed by yourselves on the council, and the island community of Scalasay as a whole, with regards to Mr Garrett’s return to the island, albeit for one day, and fully understand the feelings of all concerned. However, we must stress that Mr Garrett will be escorted to and from the island by prison van under armed guard. Under no circumstances will the community of Scalasay be at risk. We have made every provision possible to ensure that the day release of Mr Garrett passes without any unnecessary complications. We hope that this decision is acceptable.’”
Sheldon lowered the letter abruptly and yanked off his glasses.
“Ladies and gentlemen, as a member of this council and the community it serves, I say that this decision is wholly unacceptable!”
The crowd erupted in cries and jeers as Sheldon sat down, an expression of bitter resentment on his face.
Ashworth held up his hands, pleading for calm. When the hall settled, he pointed to a man in the front row. Everyone sat down to allow him to talk.
“How can they say they ‘fully understand our feelings’? If they did they wouldn’t allow that monster to set foot on this island for one second!”
Impassioned cries of “Hear! Hear!” echoed around the four walls. The man sat down.
“I agree,” Ashworth said gravely. “What Ben Garrett did ten years ago was appalling. It would be appalling in any part of the world, even the roughest slum or inner-city area, but here in our peaceful community its effects are bound to be magnified. The ghosts of Garrett’s actions cannot be easily laid to rest. We accept that. And in an ideal world we would rather not see Ben Garrett ever set foot here again—”
Sheldon shot to his feet again, pounding the table with his fist. “It would be better for everyone if Ben Garrett just stayed in his prison cell until he rotted. Even that would be a mercy for him.”
Rachel saw anger flash across Ashworth’s face at the interruption. He’d clearly been building up to a point, a diplomatic solution to the quandary they all faced. He raised his arm and beckoned for Sheldon to resume his seat.
Reluctantly, the older man did.
Ashworth exhaled heavily. “Nobody wants this,” he said, holding up the letter Sheldon had just read out. “Nobody wants Garrett back on the island. But the simple fact is: he’s coming. Today. My question is not whether or not he should, but what we can do to stop this.”
Silence filled the hall. Ashworth’s eyes drifted over the faces of his community.
“Nothing,” he said quietly. “Not a thing. We can all go down to Port Farron this afternoon and stage a protest, maybe, but what good will that do?”
Silence. Ted Sheldon shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“I propose we let this pass, let Garrett have his day release, let him visit his dying mother one last time. Then we can all get on with our lives again. Fighting this any further is only going to make things worse.”
Sheldon turned and looked at Ashworth with anger flashing in his eyes. “Let it pass?” he hissed. “You know full well my daughter died at that maniac’s hands, Richard! Holly had her future, a bright future, snatched away in a moment. How can I ever let that pass?”
Sheldon stood up abruptly, sending his chair skidding across the raised stage. He stormed away from the table and disappeared through the side door, slamming it shut.
Ashworth watched him go, a miserable, pained expression on his damp, round face. When he turned back to the assembled islanders they began shouting their agreement.
Realising the meeting was lost, that there would be no real resolution, Rachel turned to walk out through the doors into the cool morning. But one voice broke through the noise of all the others.
“I’m surprised you showed your face here this morning, Mrs Thorne.”
Rachel stopped. The hall descended into silence as she turned slowly round to face them. There were so many faces staring at her that she didn’t know where to look. In the end, she sought out the owner of the voice who had called out to her.
It was the third island councillor, Reggie Jones. He sat with his hands locked together on the table in front of him, a judgemental squint on his face.
The silence was almost unbearable. Ever since Sam dragged her here, she’d never felt part of this community. Sam had always tried to reassure her that she was simply being paranoid, that the community of Scalasay welcomed newcomers. But that was all inconsequential in the face of this wall of hostility.
Hesitantly, in a broken voice, she said: “If you’re talking about me nursing Cynthia Garrett—”
“Of course we are,” Jones snapped. “How could you nurse the mother of a murderer?”
Her embarrassment fell away instantly, consumed by a sudden swell of anger. “Cynthia Garrett has done nothing wrong.”
“Apart from raising a monster!”
“Someone has to look after her. As a nurse it’s my duty.”
“Oh, really?” Jones said. “And what about ethics? What about your duty to this community? As a newcomer to this island . . .”
This time it was Ashworth’s turn to interrupt. He raised his hand, silencing his colleague in mid-flow.
“Reggie, please, I don’t think this is any way forward. Rachel Thorne is simply doing her job, nursing a very sick woman on her deathbed.”
Sam had become fast friends with Ashworth when they first arrived on Scalasay, but Rachel had never liked him. She found him condescending, not just to her in particular, but to all women. A man with a trophy wife like Marina Ashworth was bound to hold a certain opinion of women that was not, in her mind, entirely healthy. But right now, she wanted to plant a kiss on his big ruddy cheeks. In this nest of vipers, he was her only defender.
“So?” Reggie Jones went on. “There are plenty of people outside this community who could have done the job. If she was looking to be accepted into this community she should have left it to them, instead of—”
“Reggie,” Ashworth said, his voice hard and full of warning. “That’s enough.”
Rachel expected Jones to continue, but to her surprise he acquiesced, looking down at his hands with the air of a schoolboy who has just been reprimanded by the principal.
Ashworth held Rachel’s gaze for a moment and in that moment she saw his unspoken apology. She offered a small nod of acknowledgement, then turned to leave. As she stepped towards the open doorway a dark figure blocked her way.
It was Lawkins, Ashworth’s handyman and gardener.
She stumbled back a step, unable to withhold a gasp at the man’s disfigured face. He was dressed in fisherman’s oilskins, his face ruddy and unshaven, and his right eye was missing. He stared at her with his one good eye, but she saw no kindness there.
She stepped to the left and pushed past him, out into the welcome fresh air.
Damn you, Sam, she thought. Why did you bring me to this god-forsaken place?