A Handful of Ash
Liveaboard skipper and amateur sleuth Cass Lynch is busy at marine college in Scalloway, until one night she finds an acquaintance dead in a doorway with her hand smeared with peat ash. Rumours spread of a strange ritual linked to the witches once burned in Shetland’s ancient capital, and of a horned figure abroad in the night. At first Cass believes these to be mere superstition, until there’s a second murder, and she begins to wonder if the devil really does walk in Scalloway …
Marsali grew up near Edinburgh, Scotland. Her summer family holidays were spent in a remote cottage in the West Highlands, the region where her detective Gavin Macrae lives. Like her sailing heroine, Cass, she has always been used to boats, and used her ‘gap year’ earnings to buy her first sailing dinghy, Lady Blue. She studied English at Dundee University, did a year of teacher training and took up her first post, teaching English and French to secondary children in Aith, Shetland. Gradually her role expanded to doing drama too, and both primary and secondary pupils have won prizes performing her plays at the local Drama Festival. Some of these plays were in Shetlandic, the local dialect.
Marsali teaches dinghy sailing at her local club, and is a keen single-handed sailor in her Offshore 8 m yacht, Karima S – the double of Cass’s Khalida.
A qualified STGA green badge tourist guide for Shetland, she now spends a good deal of her summer sharing her home with visitors from overseas. She is particularly interested in women’s history, and has published Women’s Suffrage in Shetland, two years’ worth of original research. She followed this with The Story of Busta House, the romantic tale of the house which is the setting for part of Death on a Longship.
Marsali also writes for the monthly magazine Shetland Life – a mixture of travel writing, interviews, investigative journalism and historical research.
You’d have heard the door slam over the sea in Faroe. Cat froze at my heels. I hesitated on the other side of the garden wall, my hand on the old-fashioned door knob. If the household was in the middle of one of those daughter/parents rows, they wouldn’t want the gardener waltzing in. Then footsteps clattered down the flagstone path. Cat leapt nimbly into the ditch and skulked among the long, yellowed grass. I stepped back just as the door flung open, and Annette tumbled out.
Yes, there had been a row. Her cheeks were scarlet, her eyes flashing. The wind caught her scarf as she came out of the walled garden into the sea air, and pulled one end upwards. She grabbed at it, swore, then realised I was standing there. She bit her lip, doubled her scarf with elaborate care, threaded the end through, and pulled it around her neck, grimacing as if it was too tight, then at last stood straight up to face me. Her eyes went first to the long scar running along my cheek, winced away from it and moved up to meet my eyes. ‘Hiya, Cass.’
‘Now then,’ I said, traditional Shetland style. Noo den, lass, foo’s du? How are you, what’s wrong? But we weren’t on those terms, and I didn’t want to be nosy.
She shuffled one foot, as if she wasn’t sure what to say. She was one of those china-doll girls, with a smooth complexion, groomed brows, and perfectly separated eyelashes above velvet-brown eyes. Her lipstick was glossy, a dark plum colour. She was dressed in her usual purple jacket, with a black velvet beret tipped to one side on her blonde hair. Her black skirt trailed lace like the streamers on a jellyfish. It was all too artificial for a windy morning in Scalloway.
She glanced down at Cat, slipping out of the long grass, his plume of a tail lashing, and her brow cleared. ‘He’s a bonny cat.’ She bent down to him and put out her hand. ‘Here, puss.’ His yellow eyes looked at her with disdain. He didn’t do casual caresses. She said, almost to herself, as if she’d suddenly had an idea, ‘He’s a bonny, healthy cat …’ She moved forward on her hunkers, brought her other hand forward, as if she was about to grab him, and Cat hissed and backed away.
‘He doesn’t like being picked up,’ I said.
She turned her head up with a look I couldn’t read, a mixture of defiance and apology, then stood up. The petulant frown returned. ‘You ran away from home, didn’t you? When you were much younger than me?’
‘Sixteen,’ I agreed. I didn’t want to encourage whatever daft ideas she was brewing. ‘It wasn’t thatna good idea. It’s a tough world out there.’
‘But you managed.’
‘I lived aboard tall ships, with someone else to do the cooking, and no money worries. Bed and board taken care of, at the price of climbing a mast or two daily.’ Whatever else she did, I’d bet my last shackle Annette wouldn’t run away to sea. For a start, nobody made sensible outdoor gear in her favourite Goth black with lacy frills, and her sleek hair wouldn’t last five minutes in the wind.
She fiddled with her scarf again. As it slipped, I saw there was one deep scratch and several smaller ones on her neck, as though she’d picked up someone’s cat, and it had fought to get away. No, the marks looked too big, too indented, with the shadow of a bruise around each – dog’s claws? They had two pointers, Dan and Candy, a pair of soft lumps. I couldn’t imagine them going for anyone’s throat. She saw me looking and pulled the scarf up to cover the marks. Her cheeks reddened. She looked away from me, and reached into her pocket for gloves, put them on carefully, finger after finger, then sighed. ‘They don’t understand!’ It came out as a suppressed wail. She drew a ragged breath, then continued, ‘They’re suffocating me. Why shouldn’t I go out and meet people, if I want to? If I think they can help me?’
‘No reason,’ I agreed. It wasn’t any of my business, but although what I’d heard of the rows with her parents sounded like typical teenage angst, she was eighteen, past the most dramatic stage, and well old enough to be leaving home. ‘Why don’t you get a flat for your gap year, and do what you like?’
‘I’d have to get a job first,’ she said.
From the look on her face, she wasn’t going to do that, not when Daddy was willing to keep her. She must have seen the thought, for she said, defensively, ‘It’s not that easy. My degree’s going to be research-based, so I’m waiting for something in my field, as useful experience.’
At her age I’d cleared tables and washed dishes while I waited for another ship. She drew an angry breath. ‘Anyway, I think I’m old enough to decide where I can go, and who I can see.’
And you know perfectly well, I thought to myself, that it’s someone you shouldn’t be seeing …