The threat from above casts a dark shadow.
A man falls to his death from a cliff face in western Scotland. From a distance, another man watches. He approaches the body, tucks a book into the dead man’s pocket, and leaves.
When the Scottish police show visiting Detective Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune the book, he recognizes it as a call for help. But he also knows that answering that call could destroy the life he and his girlfriend Lindy have built for themselves in the village of Saltmarsh, in north Norfolk.
Back in Saltmarsh, the brutal murder of a researcher involved in a local climate change project has everyone looking at the man’s controversial studies as a motive. But Sergeant Danny Maik, heading the investigation in Jejeune’s absence, believes a huge cash incentive being offered for the research may play a crucial role.
With their beleaguered Chief Superintendent blocking every attempt to interview the project’s uber-wealthy owners, Jejeune and Maik must work together to find their answers. But will the men’s partnership survive when the danger from above begins to cast its dark shadow?
About the Author
Steve Burrows has pursued his birdwatching hobby on five continents. He is a former editor of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society Magazine and a contributing field editor for Asian Geographic. The first book in the Birder Murder Mystery series, A Siege of Bitterns , won the Crime Writers of Canada 2015 Award for Best First Novel. Steve lives in Oshawa, Ontario.
Read an Excerpt
The noise. The deafening, terrible noise. The sound of air, rushing through his clothing, tearing at his hair, clawing his lips back into a grotesque grin. Ten seconds? Perhaps. Thirty-two feet per second, per second. A memory. School? Shadows. Sadness. Anger.
Lightheaded now, lungs unable to snatch the air rushing by. Panic. The rock face a grey curtain hurtling past at one hundred and twenty miles per hour. Terminal velocity. Another memory. School? Or college? Good times. Laughter. Women. Bars. Five seconds? Terminal! I’m dying.
He had seen the angel, a brief glimpse as he released his grip on the rock face. On life. Pure, white, beautiful. An angel that had brought him death. Angels. Heaven. Too late? Never too late, his mother said.
His mother. Regrets. Words not spoken. Actions not taken. Taken. Birds. Fear, now. Plunging down through open space. I’m going to die. Repentance. The key. God, forgive me. For the birds. For
The man watching through binoculars fixed the body’s landing place against the scarred granite backdrop, and then swept the horizon in either direction. Nothing else stirred. He focused again on the rock face and relocated the crumpled form, remembering the sickening flat bounce as life had left it. He lowered his binoculars and sat, deep in thought, seeming not to notice the fierce buffeting of the winds that scoured the bleak landscape. After a moment, he tucked his bins into a canvas bag resting against his hip, careful not to damage the other item inside. Things had changed now, but perhaps there was still a way; and perhaps this other item, now nestling gently against the bins, held the key. He rose from his crouched position and began to make his way toward the towering presence of Sgurr Fiona.
He moved with haste over the uneven terrain, beneath a sky that was grey and leaden. Swollen rain clouds were riding inland on the onshore winds. A fierce Atlantic squall was on its way and the exposed heath would offer no shelter once the storm arrived. The man wore only a heavy fisherman’s sweater, denim jeans, and walking shoes. He had no coat or waterproofs to ward off the horizontal rains that would soon drive across the landscape.
He had estimated the distance to the rock face at a quarter of a mile, and he could tell now, as he crossed the ground with his steady, purposeful gait, that he’d been about right. Even experienced walkers underestimated distances in these parts. The stark, featureless landscape seemed to draw in the mountains on the horizon, making them appear closer. But the man had spent enough time in the natural world to be alert for its deceptions. It was those of the human world he found harder to detect.
He moved over the tussocks easily, barely noticing the sprigs of gorse and brambles that snatched like harpies at his trouser cuffs. Once or twice he stumbled over the craggy, moss-covered mounds, but for the most part his progress was sure-footed, even in the flimsy, well-worn soles of his walking shoes. On the horizon, the grey mass of a low cloudbank had begun its inexorable time-lapse march across the landscape. He would need to work quickly if he was to find shelter before the storm came. He had a window, a tiny chink of opportunity: The coming storm would discourage others from venturing out here. But squalls passed over these coastal areas quickly, chased into the inland valleys and hill passes by the relentless coastal winds. Behind the storm would come the clear white-blue skies of the North Atlantic. And then the walkers would return to the trails. It wouldn’t be long before the body was found and reported. He must do what had to be done long before that happened. He needed to be far away by then.
The last of the vegetation died away and he emerged onto a slight slope of scree that led up to the base of the rock face. Sgurr Fiona towered above him, its peaks already lost in the greyness of the clouds. He stopped for a second to take in its grandeur, and as he looked up, he paused. Until now, only the images of the death, the violent impact of the man’s body hitting the ground, had occupied his thoughts. But the initial shock was starting to wear off,, and he began to recognize a meaning behind what he had seen; an explanation, perhaps. Had the other man recognized it, also, in those last, long terrifying seconds? Had he, too, acknowledged what it might mean? Either way, it was just him, now, standing alone on this empty, windswept heath, who possessed this wisdom, this secret, entrusted to him by another man’s death. He looked up at Sgurr Fiona once again, but the sky below the clouds was empty.
He approached the body and forced himself to look down at the broken, rag-doll form. It was clear the man had died on impact. The damage seemed to be mostly to the head and face. It was difficult to even make out the features now. He shook his head. It was as if the fates themselves had determined to cloak the death in a double layer of mystery: not only of who the dead man was, but of what he had looked like in life.
The man felt a momentary wave of sadness for the empty shape at his feet. All that was left of Jack de Laet, with whom he had drunk, and laughed, and swapped lies and unknowingly, a few truths too over the previous few weeks. He was a bad man, Jack, one of the worst. But he had been a person, a living, breathing human being. And now he was … what? The man didn’t have time to consider the question. Musing about the afterlife, the great beyond, was for a warm pub, where he would head after this, for a hot meal and a glass of single malt whisky and the comfort of a gently burning fire. Out here, at the base of a granite rock face, under a low, roiling, gunmetal sky, he had work to do.
He knelt beside the body and slowly began to withdraw the day pack from beneath Jack de Laet’s stiffening form. He worked with great care. He couldn’t see any blood coming from under the body, but if there was any, he knew the small pack could disturb it, smear it, perhaps in a way that a good forensic examiner might be able to detect. He breathed a sigh of relief when the pack finally slithered free showing no traces of blood. He lifted it to one side and peered in. “Ah Jack, you lied to me,” he said quietly, without malice. Using a handkerchief, he withdrew a book from his canvas shoulder bag. It was battered and dog-eared, with a long-faded cover from which the images of a couple of birds, well-drawn and easily identifiable, stared back at him. He took a pen from his pocket and wrote two words on the flyleaf, holding the cover open with the handkerchief. Then he leaned forward to delicately lift the flap on one of De Laet’s jacket pockets. He slid the book in.
He patted the pocket slightly as he closed the flap and rose from his kneeling position clutching the small day pack.
“See you soon,” he said. But he wasn’t talking to Jack de Laet.