Betty Ramage turned up the volume on her radio. The four o’clock news was about to start and she wanted to hear it. She didn’t have hearing problems, though many people her age did. Instead, the reason for turning up the radio was the noise of the rain. The sky outside the shop’s window had turned dark and ominous* about fifteen minutes ago and now sheets of rain* were hammering against the glass. The sight made her feel cold. She shivered and pulled her cardigan* more tightly to her body. The window rattled*. She doubted that she would see another customer between now and five o’clock, but that didn’t matter. In this small community* in the north of Scotland, it wasn’t unusual for the shop to be empty for hours. All the same, she didn’t like to close early. Betty felt a duty to follow the advertised hours: the sign on the shop door said ‘9-5 Mon-Sat’, so the shop stayed open from 9 till 5, Monday to Saturday.
*ominous – threatening
*sheets of rain – heavy rain
*cardigan – a piece of clothing, like a sweater but with buttons
*rattled – shook noisily
*community – populace, group of people
The window rattled again. ‘A snell wind,’ thought Betty, enjoying the word. ‘Snell’: severe, grievous, bitter. The word certainly suited: today was not a day for being outside. Outside was cold and wet and miserable*; but inside the shop, the neon lights were shining and a gas heater that sat near Betty’s feet was doing its best to warm the air. She also had a comfy* chair and a supply of tea and biscuits in her little kitchen at the back of the shop. Later, after she had locked the shop’s front door and gone to her apartment upstairs, she would watch ‘Countdown’ on the VCR that her nephew – a lawyer in Inverness – had set up for her. Then, after something light – she didn’t like big meals in the evening – she would settle down and read Poirot again, starting with ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles.’ She liked that sort of thing – puzzles, detective fiction, mysteries – and Christie was the master*. No one could write a mystery like she could.
*miserable – sad, dreary, unpleasant, stormy
*comfy – comfortable
*the master – the expert, the genius
The sound of Keith Dunlop’s familiar* voice on the radio told Betty that the news was starting. A thought crossed her mind: she hadn’t yet tied all of today’s unsold newspapers into a bundle*. She’d do it after the news. Although it was a small shop, there was always something more to do. Four o’clock already! Today had been a quiet day. The nearest big supermarket was forty miles away, so when people in Craiginver needed milk, bread, rolls, canned food, or newspapers – the basics – they first came to Betty’s shop. Mornings were the busiest time. By the late afternoon, hardly anyone came, though sometimes Mrs Murdoch would pop in* – not to buy anything, but just to have a chat. Betty was glad to have some company. Her husband, Bill, had passed away many years ago – a heart attack. One minute, he was fine and healthy; the next, he was as cold as stone. She missed him. The winter nights were long in northern Scotland…
*familiar – well-known, usual
*a bundle – a group of objects gathered together, often tied together
*pop in – visit someone unannounced, an unplanned visit
The words of the news report interrupted* Betty’s thoughts.
‘…escaped from police custody* earlier today when the police vehicle that was carrying him was involved in an accident on the B764. The man, John McGovern, is considered* dangerous and the public are warned not to approach* him.’
Betty leaned forward and turned up the radio.
‘McGovern, 47, was arrested last week in connection with the disappearance of Gillian McGovern, his estranged* wife.’
Betty leaned back as the topic of the news report changed. A murderer on the loose* – and so close! The B764 was only thirty miles away. Betty shivered* just as a sudden gust of wind struck the shop. The front door flew open, someone stepped inside and the door closed again.
*interrupted – broke into, brought to an end
*police custody – under arrest
*considered – thought to be
*approach – go near, go towards
*estranged – no longer together, separated from
*on the loose – free
*shivered – shook
Because she was seated, Betty couldn’t actually see the front door: between her and it stood a row of shelving* that blocked* her view. She rose to her feet, pushed a hair from her face and watched. She could see the top of someone’s head – a man’s – moving down the other side of the shelves towards her. It bobbed* slightly, rising and falling with every step. Shiny and bald, it wasn’t one that she recognized. A moment later, the stranger appeared and stepped towards her. And that’s when the little alarm in Betty’s head began to ring. Something wasn’t right. Something didn’t add up*. It wasn’t his face. No, that wasn’t it. That was bland*, almost expressionless*. It wasn’t the clothes either – though she didn’t get many customers in a three-piece suit*, shirt and tie these days; there was even a handkerchief in his suit pocket, for goodness sake. No, it was something else, something she couldn’t put her finger on*. The little alarm bell was ringing away and she couldn’t think why.
*shelving – shop furniture on which goods are displayed
*blocked – stopped, got in the way, prevented
*bobbed – moved up and down (e.g. like a boat)
*add up – make sense, become understandable
*bland – ordinary, unexceptional, boring
*expressionless – without emotions
*three-piece suit – matching trousers, jacket and waistcoat
*put her finger on – specify, identify (as the cause)
Good afternoon, can I help you?’ Betty asked. Her voice, she thought, sounded a little frail*. Perhaps she was about to get a cold. No response. Suddenly, it seemed to Betty that she hadn’t spoken, that the sounds – the vowels and consonants she had given birth to – had never existed*. The man was staring at her because she hadn’t spoken. No, that wasn’t right: she had spoken: she had asked a question and he hadn’t answered. What was he waiting for? Betty stared back. The silence endured*. His eyes – pale* and blue, and magnified* by thick lenses – didn’t move from her face; and an image of an insect, a beetle pinned to a specimen board, ran through Betty’s mind. He was still staring, not coldly, just dumbly, when Betty frowned*. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like the little alarm bell that was still ringing in her head; she didn’t like his lack of a return greeting; but most of all, she didn’t like his silent stare. She could feel her heart begin to quicken and it made her resentful*. Who did he think he was? This was her territory: she was the one who woke up at five; she was the one who greeted everyone with a cheery* smile; she was the one who kept the shelves well-stocked with everything that the local community needed. Nobody had the right to frighten her in her own shop. Nobody. She narrowed her eyes. ‘What do you want?’ she asked. That was better. That was a voice that didn’t make her sound like some poor old dear one step away from the grave*.
*frail – fragile, easily damaged
*existed – to have lived, been a part of this world
*endured – continued
*pale – not brightly coloured
*magnified – made larger
*frowned – made a facial expression that shows puzzlement or anger
*resentful – angry because of someone’s thoughtless behaviour
*cheery – cheerful
*a grave – a place of burial
When he said the word, it made Betty shiver*. Silly, but it did.
Some of the locals still cut peat* from the moor, but they used shovels that had narrow blades. The shovels in Betty’s shop had broad blades – the sort that people bought to clear snow from their paths or dig up their onions and potatoes. ‘You’ll find one there,’ said Betty, nodding* in the direction of a single shovel leaning against the wall, its shaft and blade partially* hidden by the corner of the counter. The man reached over, clamped a hand on the grip and weighed the shovel in his hands. He peered* at the sun-faded price tag. ‘How much?’
‘Forty pounds,’ replied Betty. It wasn’t – twenty was the usual price – but that wasn’t the point. She had increased the price without planning to and she was glad. She didn’t know exactly why, but she wanted him to go, to get out of her shop, to leave. Would the ridiculous* price have the desired* effect? She hoped so. She was waiting for him to put the shovel down when another blast of wind hit the shop front. She glanced outside. For the first time, she noticed a car’s bonnet protruding* past the edge of the shop’s window. A headlight was hanging loose.
‘That’s expensive,’ the man said. His voice was neutral*.
Betty turned and faced him. She wanted to say ‘take it or leave it,’ but that was going too far. Instead, holding his eyes, she settled for a shrug*.
‘It’s a good shovel,’ he said; and holding its neck, he ran a finger along its blade. ‘Must be tidy,’ he whispered. ‘Must be clean.’
What Betty thought next was not the result of a conscious process: he was simply a strange man acting strangely. But as she watched him, as she listened to his hushed, urgent* words, as she stared at his intense, preoccupied* face, the epiphany*, when it came, was sudden and wholly explanatory*. There was no doubt in Betty’s mind.
The man in front of her was George McGovern.
*peat – a kind of fuel
*nodding – moving one’s head up and down to show agreement
*partially – not completely, somewhat
*peered – looked at carefully (because of puzzlement?)
*ridiculous – not realistic, stupid
*desired – wanted
*protruding – sticking out, extending beyond
*neutral – without any particular emotion
*a shrug – a movement of the shoulders to show apathy/uncertainty
*urgent – agitated, emotional
*epiphany – a moment of sudden understanding
*explanatory – helps to explain
‘Do you take credit cards?’
The question made Betty jump. A murderer was standing in front of her – less than a meter away with a heavy spade in his hand – and he was asking her if she took credit cards! Her mind flew to the little kitchen at the back of the shop. The shop’s phone was in there, sitting quietly next to a tin of digestive biscuits. It might as well be Alaska. And of course she didn’t have a mobile. She couldn’t see the point. ‘If someone wants to speak to me, a phone is good enough.’ How many times had she said that? She could hear herself saying it even now. Silly old woman! But there was no time for all of that. What was she going to do?
‘Yes! Credit cards? Of course, of course.’
She watched him reach inside his jacket pockets: first the right; then the left. He fished out* a wallet.
She was breathing hard but her brain was still working. The key! The key on the inside of the kitchen door. If she could get to the kitchen and close the door quickly, she could lock herself inside while she called the police. She glimpsed* behind her. The door was three meters away at most. The key was definitely in the lock, wasn’t it? She couldn’t see it but it was there, wasn’t it? She hadn’t moved it, had she?
‘Is there something wrong?’
She turned. He, McGovern, was looking at her intently*, his miniscule*, minimized* eyes holding her in their gaze*. He pushed the credit card towards her. She glanced* down at it. She glanced again. The third time, she reached forward and picked it up.
*fished out – pulled out (as one might do with a fish!)
*glimpsed – to see something partially, not completely
*intently – with a great deal of focus/attention
*miniscule – very small
*minimized – made small
*gaze – steady stare
*glanced – a brief or hurried look
‘Your name is Nairn.’
‘Yes? Is there a problem?’
Betty shook her head. For a moment, no one spoke and Betty felt embarrassed. She brushed a non-existent* hair from her face. It was a nervous habit* of hers.
‘You seem surprised.’
Betty gave a little grunt*. It was true. She couldn’t argue. She had been sure that the strange man in front of her was McGovern; that she was staring into the face of a murderer. ‘I just feel a little…silly. I’m a silly old woman. I really am.’
She smiled but the man did not return it. Instead, his face remained impassive*.
‘Silly? Why?’ he asked.
Betty laughed. ‘Too many Poirot books,’ replied Betty.
The man frowned*.
‘I mean,’ she continued, noticing his puzzlement, ‘I have an over-active imagination.’ She took a deep breath, preparing for the explanation. ‘Before you came in here, there was a report on the radio about someone called George McGovern. He escaped from police custody earlier. They say he murdered his wife – or at least, that’s what I think. She tapped* her temple*. ‘See what I mean? Over-active!’
‘And you thought I was this person?’
Betty nodded. ‘Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?’ She was laughing now. She put the credit card in the machine and made the transaction* request.
‘What made you think that?’
‘Think that you were McGovern?’
The man nodded.
Betty was still smiling. ‘Really, there was no good reason. None at all.’ She had her eyes on the credit card machine. Any second now the authorization* would come through. Any second now, the machine would spit out* the receipt and he would take the pen on the counter and sign it. Any second now.
‘There must have been a reason,’ he said.
*non-existent – not real, having no reality
*habit – an action performed regularly, sometimes without conscious control
*grunt – a form of phatic communication, a sound we can make to show agreement
*impassive – without any emotion (such as fear, anger…)
*frowned – move your eyebrows together to show anger or puzzlement
*tapped – hit gently
*temple – the side of our forehead
*transaction – an example of buying or selling
*authorization – permission
*spit out – eject from one’s mouth
Betty’s smile began to fade*. The shop’s overhead lights shone in the lenses of the man’s glasses, hiding his eyes. She couldn’t read his thoughts, but the alarm bell in her head was now a siren*. What he had said was not threatening, not the words at least. It was the tone*. It was the unblinking stare. It was the feeling he gave of being absolutely motionless and yet coiled*.
‘Oh!’ cried Betty when the credit card machine spat out its receipt. Betty tore it off. ‘Just sign that,’ she said, sliding the little piece of paper towards him with the tips of her fingers. He reached for the old Bic* and Betty had a brief view of the top of his bald, shining head and the dirty fingernails that gripped the pen. When he straightened and pushed the piece of paper back towards her, Betty glanced at the signatures on the credit card and on the receipt – and wiped an imaginary* hair away from her face. It was just a glance, but that was all it took.
They did not match*.
She looked up. A voice in her head was screaming, telling her not to show it, not to allow the fear that was swelling* up in her brain to seep* through her eyes: but she was already running helter-skelter* through options, she was already in flight from* this murderer. The kitchen? Yes, the kitchen…
‘I have a favour to ask.’
Betty was taken aback. His words seemed to come from another place – one from which she had already mentally escaped. She gawped*. There was no other word for it, and she knew she was doing it. Her mouth fell open and she gawped.
*fade – become less strong, less apparent
*a siren – a very loud danger signal
*the tone – the sound quality
*coiled – twisted (like a snake)
*an arc – part of a circle, a curve
*a Bic – a manufacturer of ballpoint pens
*imaginary – from one’s imagination, not real, illusionary
*match – look the same
*swelling – becoming bigger, heavier, thicker
*seep – escape, leak (like water through a small hole)
*helter-skelter – disorganised, unruly, confused
*in flight from – escaping, running away from
*gawp – (British English, informal) stare openly in a stupid way
It felt like her lungs had shrunk, that they were two, dried dates* in her chest. Her nose was flaring*; she was struggling for breath. She knew that; and she knew that he was watching her, knew that he could see every fluttering*, shallow breath that she was taking.
‘Could you come out to my car for a moment?’ he asked. When he said it, he turned away slightly, indicating, with a nod of the head, the edge of the car that she had seen earlier and which was now almost invisible on the darkened street.
His glasses swung back to her: no eyes, only neon glare. He smiled.
‘I..I,’ she was stammering*.
‘It won’t take long,’ he said, and swung the shovel onto his shoulder. She followed its arc; and as she did, her mind started to clear. This was her chance, she told herself. This was how to get rid of him. She couldn’t be sure about the key in the kitchen door. If it wasn’t there – and there was a chance that it wasn’t, she would have to get him out the front door. ‘As soon as he steps out, I’ll lock it; then I’ll call the police.’
‘You see, my wife’s sure that she knows you. She said that just before I parked outside.’
Even to Betty, desperate as she was to get him to the front door, that explanation sounded weak. She wasn’t going to ask, but the question must have shown on her face.
‘She’s hurt her leg – that’s why she didn’t come in. It’s easier if you go to her.’
He extended his hand in the direction of the door. ‘Shall we?’ he asked.
Betty nodded again and stepped around the edge of the counter. Her eyes were on the door. Three more meters and she would be safe. Three more meters, then she could slam the door behind him and the nightmare would end. But she needed him to go first. She hung back*. ‘Go ahead,’ she said, her eyes on his face.
He hesitated; and for a second, she thought he was going to refuse. Then he stepped forward. A single step, but it told her everything. It told her why the little alarm bell in her head had rung. It told her she wasn’t just a silly old woman. It told her she didn’t even need to look down at his feet, that she had known it all along. But she did look. It almost made her feel glad: no nice, solid brogues*; no slender Italian slip-ons*. Nothing like that. In fact, nothing at all. The sound she had heard, the one that had raised her suspicions, that had set the alarm bell ringing, was the sound of skin slapping the cold concrete floor.
He was in his bare* feet.
*dates – the fruit from a palm tree
*flaring – growing larger (especially a fire)
*fluttering – moving up and down/side to side gently (e.g., a flag)
*stammering – speaking unclearly, repeating words
*hung back – waited
*brogues – heavy leather shoes
*slip-ons – light leather shoes without laces
*bare – naked, without clothing
His eyes followed her gaze*.
‘Mmmm…’ he said, his eyes on the mottled*, darkly hairy toes that were peeking out from the hems* of his trousers. ‘You’re probably wondering why I’m not wearing any shoes, I suppose.’
‘Yes. I am.’ What else could she say?
‘The car broke down earlier. I stepped into a puddle*. My shoes and socks are drying in the car.’
‘Right. I see.’
‘They should be dry by now.’
He wiggled* his toes and looked sheepish*. ‘Toenails need cut,’ he said.
For a moment, she wanted to laugh. This was too ridiculous. A murderer in bare feet in her little shop looking embarrassed because his toenails needed clipping*. It was beginning to feel…what was the word? Surreal*. Yes, surreal.
‘Well, shall we?’ he said, indicating the door with a tilt of the shovel.
He nodded, reached for the door and pulled it open. The night’s cold wind hit them, rain mixed with it. For a moment, darkness framed him in the doorway, a well-dressed, balding man and an empty street. She was watching, waiting for him to step out; she was waiting to reach up, grab the door, slam it shut. Just two more steps and he would be out. She was ready. But in the sliver* of space between him and the doorframe, she saw the car and – ill-lit, just the suggestion of long-hair and a bored expression – a woman in the passenger seat.
‘My wife,’ he said, turning back towards her. Turning back! She wanted to lunge* forward, shove him hard in the stomach, slam the door shut.
‘Would you mind? I think she really would like a word.’
She stared at him. This was crazy. For the sake of politeness, was she actually going to go and speak to this person?
‘Oh, please. Just for a second,’ he said.
*gaze – fixed look
*mottled – spotted, differently coloured
*hems – bottom edge of a garment
*a puddle – water that collects after rain
*sheepish – embarrassed, self-conscious
*wiggled – moved (especially toes, ears and fingers)
*surreal – dream-like, bizarre
*sliver – thin slice
*lunge – move forward (aggressively)
He turned, stepped towards the car; and, unbelievably, she felt impelled* to follow.
‘Look,’ she was saying, ‘I really must shut the shop. It’s after 5 and there really is so much to do.’
‘I know,’ he was saying, back still turned. ‘I appreciate* that. But she’ll never forgive me if I don’t bring you over to say hello. Gillian? Gillian?’ Shovel in one hand, his knuckle* tap, tap, tapping the passenger side window. ‘Gillian,’ he was saying, his eyes on Betty. ‘Gillian? Your friend wants a word.’ Still his eyes were on her, but now his expression was changing. Now there was a smile on his face. Something wasn’t right. A sudden wave of fear drove Betty back: a primal* response to a predator*. He snarled*. An arm flashed out; a hand tightened around her throat. Betty felt weightless. She heaved towards him, nothing against his strength, and crashed into him.
‘No,’ she bleated*.
Betty’s head was hard against his shoulder, her face pushed against the passenger side window. The impact of their collision, their dark dance, had rocked the car and now Betty couldn’t avoid looking. She was staring into the car, staring at the body in the front seat. She was watching as it gave a final judder*. She was watching as the woman’s spinal chord and brain stem separated, as the head toppled against the glass, as it tumbled to the cabin floor. And before the spade swung down, there was time for one last thought from Betty. And what was it? What was Betty’s last, grandiloquent* thought? The one that would bring light where no light had shone before? The one that would echo for all eternity*?
‘Like a pumpkin*.’ Betty thought. ‘Like a Halloween pumpkin.’
*impelled – forced
*appreciate – understand
*knuckle – the bony part of a fist
*primal – ancient, instinctual
*predator – hunter, animal that hunts and kills other animals
*snarled – an aggressive sound, like an animal
*bleated – a sound like a sheep
*grandiloquent – high-sounding, grandiose, pretentious
*eternity – everlasting life
*pumpkin – a large orange fruit