IT IS 7.10pm on a freezing November night in Crescent Road and a chill wind is whipping in from the Moray Firth. The Nairn United Reform Church is cloaked in darkness but the Havelock House Hotel on the opposite corner is bathed in light - befitting the summer residence of the Emir of Jaipur who, bizarrely, built this elegant home as his refuge during the Indian mutiny of 1857.
Beyond, a row of imposing Victorian stone villas stretch away into the gloom and only one, a three-storey building with stone balustrades outside the first floor windows, stands out. Here, at No 10, a single overhead lamp illuminates an imposing blue door at the top of a small staircase flanked by decorative iron railings.
No one is around in the early evening calm. The pub, whose front entrance faces directly on to No 10, is in the quiet time before drinkers congregate for an evening's entertainment. Along the street, curtains are closed against the autumn chill. Families are cocooned inside, watching TV, eating their evening meals, bathing their children before bed. It could be a small town street anywhere in Scotland.
Two years ago at the same time, it must have looked the same when a short, stocky man, wearing a dark jacket and baseball cap, walked down Crescent Road and stopped outside No 10. He then ascended the stone steps and rang the bell next to the blue door. Inside was the owner Alistair Wilson, a 30-year-old bank executive, his wife Veronica and their two sons, Andrew, four, and two-year-old Graham. Alistair was about to read a story to his two sons as they settled down to bed. It was Veronica who opened the front door to the caller and in the process unwittingly unleashed the chain of events that led to the brutal killing of her husband, one of the biggest manhunts in Scottish police history - that has so far cost more than £1.5m - and a murder mystery that, two years on, continues to perplex seasoned detectives.
They have a description of the killer, and have the gun that was used to fire three bullets into Alistair's body, leaving him dying on his doorstep. What they do not have is any sort of motive.
Next week, the police officer in charge of the case, Detective Chief Inspector Peter McPhee, accompanied by Veronica, will use the second anniversary of the killing on November 28 to renew their appeals for any new leads. It may be a forlorn hope as even a £10,000 reward for information, offered from the early days of the investigation, has failed to prove a sufficient lure. The 10 police officers still working full-time on the case are running out of options. The rumours of who was behind the murder - a business enemy, a cuckolded husband, mistaken identity, even his wife - have all been checked thoroughly and dismissed.
"It's very frustrating. No motive for this crime has become apparent," admits a spokesman for Northern Constabulary, before adding bullishly: "But we have always said we are in this for the long haul and this is very much an ongoing investigation."
Little more is known now about the shooting than what emerged in the immediate aftermath. Hearing the bell, Veronica opened the door to the caller who asked for her husband by name. Alistair broke off from the children and spoke to the visitor, who handed him a blue or green envelope, the contents of which are still unknown. He went back inside his house and spoke to his wife, saying he didn't know who the caller was. He returned to the front door, spoke briefly to the man, who then pulled out a handgun and shot him three times in the head and body at close range.
When Veronica reached the front door, Alistair lay dying in a pool of blood and she says she glimpsed the man, presumably after retrieving the mysterious envelope, running off up Crescent Road. She ran across to the Havelock House for help. Two nurses out for a Sunday evening drink tried to resuscitate Alistair but he was dead before he had travelled the 16 miles into Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. The police were called at 7.13pm and immediately launched a manhunt - but they were too late. The killer had vanished. Just a few yards from Crescent Road, the open expanse of Nairn Links stretches far into the darkness.
A major breakthrough appeared to be in hand when, 10 days later, the gun used to kill the banker was found in a drain by council workmen. But that lead has now fizzled out, leaving Northern Constabulary facing criticism about its lack of headway in the case. In its defence, it proffers a ream of statistics that reveal that if Alistair's killer is never caught it will not be for the want of trying. The number of statements taken now numbers more than 3,200, and 8,000 names have been fed into the national police computer database. Almost 400 homes have been visited and more than 4,000 people interviewed. More than 200 DNA samples have been taken and the number of other Alistair Wilsons interviewed in the search for a possible explanation of mistaken identity totals 19.
Almost 1,700 documents have been collected and 1,730 vehicles checked. Although the number of officers now working full-time on the baffling case is down to 10, it originally stood at 63. The force points out that its conduct of the investigation has twice been subjected to the scrutiny of independent officers and, it says, has not been found wanting.
Nothing has so far been discovered in a painstakingly thorough trawl of Alistair's personal or professional life to suggest a motive. Initially promising lines of inquiry have so far yielded nothing. The gun is a Haenel-Suhl Schmeisser pocket pistol made in Germany between 1922 and 1926. Although the inquiry team tracked down the 70-year-old son of the manufacturer, factory records only date back to 1932, so the trail of ownership could not be traced. The 6.35mm bullets were made by a Czech firm, Sellier & Bellott, between 1983 and 1993. But although 600 gun owners who bought, or could have bought, the bullets have been interviewed, the trail has again gone cold.
There have been TV appeals for information, an extensively covered press conference to mark the first anniversary of the murder and the release of harrowing video extracts in which a child psychologist tells Andrew his father is not coming back. Veronica agreed to subject herself to a prime-time breakfast show and not only early viewers were watching. One veteran detective said: "Having watched the interview, I don't think she had anything to do with it. There are certain reactions you just can't hide."
One remaining hope, albeit a slim one, is the human DNA samples found around the scene of the crime. Of the 19 initially unidentified, there is one that remains to be pinpointed to an individual. This was found on a discarded cigarette butt and the genetic information has been fed into the national police DNA database. A police insider said: "The fact that we have a DNA hit is very significant. It may be the case that the breakthrough could come if he's [the gunman] brought in for something totally different, even a breach of the peace."
But Ian Stephen, an Edinburgh-based forensic psychologist who has advised on TV sleuth series such as Cracker and Prime Suspect, believes that as time passes the case will become even more difficult to solve. "The police have done just about everything they possibly could have and found nothing. All they can do now is basically hope and pray for a new line of evidence.
"It is an unusual case because there appears to be no indication as to why it happened. Hits like this in Scotland are usually drugs related, where there is a debt or a grudge, but this doesn't apply in this case. It also doesn't appear to have been a crime of passion."
The crime scene also appears to be a strange place for a contract killing, Stephen said. "It is such a public place. He was on the doorstep for some time so the chances of him being seen, opposite a busy pub, must have been quite high. It was very, very risky."
Despite the lack of evidence, however, theories still abound in the bars of Nairn. As Alistair was involved in banking, could he have slighted a hard-nosed businessman who had wanted a loan? Was it simply a case of mistaken identity? Was there an adulterous affair? Police have exhaustively gone down this route and found nothing. As one local put it: "If he [Alistair] was up to no good then he must have been extremely clever about covering his tracks."
As Scotland on Sunday reports today, suspicion still inevitably falls on Veronica, which, she acknowledges herself, is unsurprising in such a bizarre case. Yet police have repeatedly insisted there is nothing to link her to the crime. A police source said: "It's pretty much standard to suspect someone in the family at first, or at least consider it as an active option. But the more this was looked into, the clearer it was that she had nothing to do with it."
The 11,000 residents of Nairn have had no choice other than to get on with their lives. Last week, as usual, elderly ladies were out walking their dogs on Nairn Links. Groups of children were making their way home from school past the Victorian-style bandstand. On the famous golf course, players wrapped up against the chill were heading for the 19th hole. The High Street was buzzing with shoppers.
The Wilson killing has not been forgotten but it no longer has immediate relevance to the lives of the town's residents. Only one poster showing a smiling Alistair and asking for information is on display - outside Nairn's small police station, encased inside a salt-encrusted wooden display cabinet with a broken lock.
Sandy Park, the provost for the past eight years and a no-nonsense local butcher, said: "Of course there was a great deal of initial shock but what happened is way outside the experience of most of the people who live here.
"Nairn is a holiday resort and one of the most crime-free towns in the north of Scotland if not the whole of Scotland. The last murder we had was 20 years ago and the previous one 15 before that; both related to drink or women or provocation or some such easily-found motive.
"What is strange about this is the mystery element of it. If there had been an obvious motive it would have been solved by now."
Although many expected Veronica Wilson to leave Nairn after the shooting, she has decided to stay, and her eldest son is now at the local primary school. She returned home three weeks after the killing and has talked about how her children simply headed for their toy room as if nothing had happened. She prefers callers to use the back door but has steeled herself for those with no knowledge of the crime ringing the front door bell.
Park says he is pleased she has decided to stay: "She seems to have a close circle of friends who have helped her through. But she and her husband came to stay in Nairn in the first place because it is a wonderful place to live and I still believe that to be the case."
The whole town, Park adds, shares Mrs Wilson's sense of frustration. "All we can hope is that some sort of breakthrough comes very soon." Veronica herself has said that she and her children will be unable to grieve properly until the case is solved. Two years on, they are still waiting.
The hunt for the killer
NOVEMBER 28, 2004 Alistair Wilson is shot dead on the doorstep of his home in Nairn.
DECEMBER 6 Crimestoppers put up £10,000 reward for information to help catch the killer.
DECEMBER 8 Council workmen find a handgun in a drain half a mile from Crescent Road.
DECEMBER 10 Veronica Wilson talks publicly for the first time of the murder and says she cannot understand why anyone would want to kill her husband.
DECEMBER 14 Police confirm the gun found is the murder weapon.
DECEMBER 20 A memorial service is held for Wilson in Nairn.
JANUARY 31, 2005 Police begin taking DNA samples of people who were in the area at the time of the shooting.
FEBRUARY 7 Police appeal for help in tracing a Honda 4x4 they believe could be significant to inquiry.
FEBRUARY 17 Mrs Wilson gives an interview and denies being involved in the shooting.
APRIL 6 Wilson's funeral is held in Fort William.
APRIL 12 Police release details of the murder weapon, an early 20th-century pocket pistol made in Germany, as part of a BBC Crimewatch appeal for information.
MAY 29 Cost of inquiry reaches £380,000.
JUNE 15 Police reveal that DNA tests on the murder weapon do not provide any clues to the killer's identity.
NOVEMBER 1 Police release details of Mrs Wilson's 999 emergency call and an extract from six-year-old Andrew's interview with a child psychologist.
NOVEMBER 4 Police receive more than 30 calls after two television programmes about the killing.
NOVEMBER 28 One year on and Mrs Wilson tells a press conference of her "utter disbelief" that the killer has not been caught. She says she and her children will not be able to grieve properly until the case is solved. The costs of the investigation break through the £1m mark.
JANUARY 2006 Detectives fly to Germany and the Czech Republic to begin tracking down the detailed history of the gun and purchasers of the type of bullets used. Both lines of inquiry eventually fizzle out.
MAY 24 During an interview for ITV's This Morning, Mrs Wilson reveals her son Andrew referred to the killer as "the Bad Man. This person came at the children's bedtime, and that's a big fear."