Ann Cleeves

Blue Lightning

The fourth book in the Shetland Island Quartet series, 2010

Chapter One

Fran sat with her eyes closed. The small plane dropped suddenly, seemed to fall from the sky, then levelled for a moment before tilting like a fairground ride. She opened her eyes to see a grey cliff ahead of them. It was close enough for her to make out the white streaks of bird muck and last season’s nests. Below, the sea was boiling. Spindrift and white froth caught by the gale-force winds spun over the surface of the water.

Why doesn’t the pilot do something? Why is Jimmy just sitting there, waiting for us all to die?

She imagined the impact as the plane hit the rock, twisted metal and twisted bodies. No hope at all of survival. I should have written a will. Who will care for Cassie? Then she realized this was the first time in her life she’d been scared for her own physical safety and was overcome by a mindless panic that scrambled her brain and stopped her thinking.

Then the plane lifted slightly, seemed just to clear the edge of the cliff. Perez was pointing out familiar landmarks: the North Haven, the field centre at the North Light, Ward Hill. It seemed to Fran that the pilot was still struggling to keep the aircraft level and that Perez was hoping to distract her as they bucked and swivelled to make a landing. Then they were down, bumping along the airstrip.

Neil the pilot sat quite still for a moment, his hands resting on the joystick. Fran thought then he’d been almost as scared as she had.

‘Great job,’ Perez said.

‘Oh, well.’ Neil gave a brief grin. ‘We have to practise for the ambulance flights. But I did think at one point we’d have to turn back.’ He added more urgently: ‘Out you get, the pair of you. I’ve a planeload of visitors to take out and the forecast is that it’ll get worse later. I don’t want to be stranded here all week.’

A small group of people waited by the airstrip, their backs to the wind, struggling to remain upright. Perez and Fran’s bags were already unloaded and Neil was waving for the waiting passengers to come on board. Fran found she was shaking now. It had felt suddenly cold after leaving the stuffy cabin of the small plane, but she knew this was also a response to her fear. And to her anxiety about meeting the waiting people, Perez’s family and friends. This place, Fair Isle, was a part of who he was. He’d grown up here and his family had lived here for generations. What would they make of her?

It would be, she thought, like the worst sort of job interview, and instead of arriving calm and composed, ready with a smile – usually she could do charm as well as anyone she knew – the terror of the flight remained with her and had turned her to a shivering, inarticulate wreck.

She was saved the need to perform immediately because Neil had loaded his passengers on to the plane and was taxiing to the end of the airstrip to prepare for the return trip to Tingwall on the Shetland mainland. The noise of the engines was very close and too loud for them to have an easy conversation. There was a momentary pause, then the surge of the engines again and the plane rattled past them and lifted into the air. Already it looked as frail and small as a child’s toy, tossed about by the strong wind. It turned over their heads and disappeared north, seeming more stable now. Around her Fran sensed a collective relief. She thought she hadn’t been overreacting about the dangers of the flight. It wasn’t a southern woman’s hysteria. This wasn’t an easy place to live.

Chapter Two

Jane cut margarine into the flour and rubbed it through her fingers. She preferred the taste of butter in scones, but the field centre ran to a tight budget and the birdwatchers were so hungry when they came in for lunch that she didn’t think they noticed. She paused as she heard the plane fly overhead and smiled. It had got off then. That was good. Half a dozen birders who’d been staying at the centre had gone out with it. Fewer centre visitors meant less work for the cook and when people were stranded here, stuck because of the weather, they became fractious and frustrated. It amused her to explain to a high-powered businessman that there was no way he could buy his way off the island – in a near hurricane neither the plane nor the boat would go no matter how much cash he offered to the skipper or the pilot – but she disliked the atmosphere in the place when people were marooned against their will. It was as if they were hostages and they reacted in different ways. Some grew listless and resigned, others became irrationally angry.

She added sour milk to the mixture. Although she made a batch of scones every day and thought she could do it with her eyes closed, she’d weighed the flour and measured the milk. That was her way: cautious and precise. There was a square of cheese that had been left unwrapped and needed using, so she grated it and stirred it in too. It crossed her mind that if the boat didn’t get out tomorrow she’d have to start making bread. The freezer was almost empty. She pressed down the scone dough, cut it into circles and laid them, touching so that they’d rise properly, on the baking tray. The oven was hot enough and she slid in the tray. Straightening up she saw a figure in green waterproofs walk past the window. The walls of the old lighthouse cottages were three feet thick, and the spray had streaked the glass with salt, so visibility was limited, but it must be Angela, back from doing a round of the Heligoland traps.

This was Jane’s second season in the Fair Isle field centre. She’d come the spring before. There’d been an advertisement in a country living magazine and she’d applied on the spur of the moment. An impulse. Perhaps the first impulsive act of her life. There had been a sort of interview over the phone.

‘Why do you want to spend a summer on Fair Isle?’

Jane had anticipated the question of course; she’d worked in HR and had interviewed countless people in her time. She’d given an answer, something bland and worthy about needing a challenge, a time to take stock of where her future lay. It was just a temporary contract, after all, and she could tell that the person on the other end of the phone was desperate. The season was only a few weeks off and the cook who’d been lined up to start had taken off suddenly for Morocco with her boyfriend. The true answer, of course, would have been far more complicated:

My partner has decided that she needs children. I’m scared. Why aren’t I enough for her? I thought we were settled and happy but she says that I bore her.

The decision to come to Fair Isle had been the equivalent of hiding under the bedclothes as a child. She’d been running away from the humiliation, the dawning understanding that Dee had actually found someone else who was just as keen to have a baby as she was, that Jane was alone and almost friendless. When she was offered the job in the field centre, Jane had resigned from her post in the civil service and because she had holiday still to take, had left at the end of the same week. There was a small ceremony in the office. Fizzy wine and a cake. The gift of a book token. The general feeling there was one of astonishment. Jane was known for her reason and her reliability, a cool intellect. That she should pack in her career, with its valuable income-linked pension, and throw everything away to move to an island, famous only for its knitting, seemed completely out of character.

Can you cook?’ one of her colleagues had asked, incredulous that the respected HR manager might be interested in something so mundane. And in the shambles of the telephone interview Jane had been asked that too.

‘Oh, yes,’ she’d said on both occasions with complete honesty. Her partner Dee had loved to entertain. She was a director with an independent production company and at weekends the house was full of people – actors and producers and writers. Jane had produced the food for all these gatherings, from the canapes for their famous

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