North: Killian Glass, the Bowerbird
South: Hope Rippa, the Magpie
East: Oliver Ragnarsson, the Starling
West: Andresína Sheikh, the Canary
Chapter One: A Farmer in Banffshire
One might be surprised how many murderers ply their trade in Scotland. One would be shocked, however, to discover just how many don’t do their own shopping. Whether you were the heiress to a Greek shipping magnate or the American corporate lawyer expatriated abroad, the Highlands offered ample space to dump bodies where they would sooner rot than be found. There were a few exceptions, of course. A deer stalker might stumble upon a corpse left on the heather moors. A coastal crofter might uncover a pale face in the sand at low tide. But even if the police identified the victim—even if the victim was buried with everything from the murder weapon to the clothes the killer killed in—the most diligent detective would never find the perpetrator. Hope was too good at her job.
Midnight in Aberdeen, where the River Dee empties into the North Sea. Across the harbor, the city’s gold lights winked along its endless beach, home to endless people sleeping in endless granite flats. All was dark south of the river, where a crumbling old fort stood sentinel over the bay—and, more importantly, where few of the city’s endless people wandered past twelve on a winter weeknight.
Hope rubbed the invoice between gloved fingers, imagining the fuzzy scratch of overhandled paper. It’d been an odd request, even for him. One that had demanded bribing, smuggling, and a threat to a sketchy curator at the Swedish Museum of Natural History who had the misfortune of being on her radar. She was about to unfold the note—not to review the order, but to admire the handwriting—when the tailgate slammed shut and the driver’s door popped open. Mr. Charles slid behind the wheel. He kept the door open as if he were seated beside an untrained dog and might need a quick exit. The dashboard dinged away at an otherwise silent night.
“We’re square now, eh, Magpie?” After a week’s worth of Scandinavian sing-song, his brash Aberdonian was near unintelligible. “Squared up?”
“That depends on your ability to keep your mouth shut, Charlie,” she said, matter of fact. “Wouldn’t want to owe me another favor. Unless, of course…” She swung an elbow atop the center console and leaned in close, slapping on a sardonic smile. “Are you… No, you wouldn’t be a masochist, now, would you?” Mr. Charles stiffened. Hands on knees, eyes straight ahead, jaw double-knotted. “What a scandal that would be, huh, bud?”
His breath came in clipped clouds; hers wafted his face. Made his cheek twitch. She closed her eyes, savoring Charlie’s fear as if it were tiramisu… But, as it happened, Hope rather disliked tiramisu. Coffee belonged in cups. Not dessert.
She dropped the act, reclaiming her classic deadpan.
“Yeah, we’re even, Mr. Charles.” She slipped the invoice in the pocket of her peacoat, sliding from the pickup’s passenger seat. “Go home to Marcie and the girls.”
She shut the door, smacked it twice, and Mr. Charles peeled down Greyhope Road, leaving naught in his wake but a pallet stacked with crates and the silhouette of a man, leaning in the ancient archway of Torry Battery. The figure descended the small hill to the dirt parking lot. There was no swish of grass, no crunch of gravel. An Irish lilt, smooth and deep, crooned to her from the dark.
“You took your sweet time.”
“My time’s money,” Hope replied. “Better have enough for what this load cost.”
Killian stepped from shadow to starlight: blue eyes, black hair, and a snow leopard’s smirk. “I have more than enough, little Magpie,” he said, rapping a knuckle on the top crate. “Always do.”
“And you always enjoy it,” he said, adjusting his rectangular silver-framed glasses. “Albeit privately. I’ve probably paid the tab and then some on those new earrings, eh? Bvlgari, is it?”
“Buccelatti.” Her American accent, which hadn’t faded despite a decade traipsing about Europe, butchered the Italian brand. She’d never been good with Romantic languages. “Well? You know the drill.”
Killian retrieved a fat envelope from inside his herringbone overcoat. Hope knew the piece well. She’d purchased the original from an octogenarian tailor in Stavanger, Norway; had it modified with hidden pockets by a mute seamstress in Trucios-Turtzioz, a village in the Basque Country, at the dreadful height of summer. She’d slid it off his shoulders, once, too—naked in the backseat of his Beemer.
Hope caught the envelope, counting the wad of hundred-Euro bills inside.
“One-eighteen twenty-twelve,” she said.
A split-second side-eye at the date-turned-password. She tried to hide her grin. Poking Killian’s patience proved an amusing, if risky pastime, but as long as the stick was long and his temper deep enough in hibernation, what fucks remained giving?
For a while, there was only the click-click of metal keys and the Strep-throat hiss of waves on rock. Then: the telltale snick as the first, and the second, and the third and fourth crates revealed their wares. Annt first leering away from the stink, Killian’s smile eventually found its phoenix, and its rebirth was a mild thing. A sinister thing. A negative energy version of him Hope recognized instantly by the spark in his cyan eye, and deeply, thoroughly disliked. He rummaged carefully, tenderly like a lover through the first’s contents. He didn’t flinch from the puff of dusty fur. Seemed to inhale it, almost, like nitrous to a man mid-root canal. One after the next, crate lids cracked.
“You cut your hair again,” he commented, crowbar in hand. “Don’t you keep it long until spring?”
Hope suppressed the urge to run a hand through her platinum pixie cut. Killian had always been keenly attuned to body language—hers most of all—and this was more an inquest, a doctor’s yearly physical exam than any genuine curiosity. She’d forfeit no quarter, no data for analysis. So she deferred to the invoice and ignored him completely.
“Three Scandinavian grey wolf pelts.”
He lifted one from its coffin, drawing mouth to maw.
“Two taxidermied paws, claws attached.”
He hefted them—bigger than his palms.
“One upper and lower mandible.”
One in each hand, he fitted the jaws together.
Hope licked and bit her lower lip, tongue-tied by the final item. That was his game, she knew: where she poked the bear, he baited the bird—and birds preferred seeds to scraps, as the extra thousand attested.
From the smallest crate, which wasn’t a crate at all, but a hard, high-grade plastic tub, came an exhaust of something foggy and cold. Liquid nitrogen. Dry ice. Hope didn’t know, didn’t want to know and hadn’t watched as her contact at the World Health Organization packaged it cautiously in a glassed-in lab. Her jaw clenched, watching Killian pluck the vial from its foam bed and hold it to his face. Moonlight refracted through the glass. It cast a toxic glow.
“Twelve cc’s of rabies virus,” Hope said, burying her discomfort under six feet of apathy. “Twenty-two gauge hypodermic included, gratis.”
With utmost care, Killian replaced the vial, sealed the tub, and returned it to its place of honor upon the palate. A cloud of fur floated in the starlight like silvered gnats dying a mass death, slowly floating to the dirt. Hope suppressed a sneeze, wondering if dog allergies extended to dead wolf dander. Killian was unfazed. Forever unfazed. Forever watching her with a cocked head, pocketed hands, and an expression edging on amused and analytical. He studied her from behind his glasses. Wind swept his windswept hair, whipped his black priest’s cassock like curtains over an open window.
Hope cleared her throat. “Staging a mauling, are we, Father Glass?”
“When have I ever offered up the details of my affairs, Hope?” Her name on his tongue made pretzels of her gut and released butterflies in her stomach—nausea and excitement in equal measure. “It’s for your own protection. One would think you’d appreciate the concern.”
Ignoring his paternalism, Hope unwound the knots. Squashed the butterflies. Stepped forward—one step. A bold step. “Wolves were just reintroduced to the Highlands two months ago,” she said. “They’re gonna be blamed for whatever it is you plan to do with these… parts.”
“Perhaps I dislike wolves.”
Hope’s hands took flight in exasperated disbelief. “Who doesn’t like wolves!”
“A farmer in Banffshire,” he said, “whose son was killed by one.”
And for all the world, the look with which he fixed her was a wolf’s look as it eyes a fawn from the tree line.
A dense clunk as he punched the last lid shut. Hope was sure she didn’t flinch, but perhaps she blinked, and maybe he saw or maybe he didn’t. He rolled the pallet to his car, loading each tub into the BMW’s trunk without so much as a grunt or groan. Killian wasn’t a large man, nor a particularly tall man, but underneath his vestments Hope knew were ropes of muscle earned not by bench presses and bicep curls, pull-up bars or triceps dips. His strength was won through more barbaric means, uglier means. Bloodier, more preternatural means. Instinct forced her to take a step back. She huffed at her lack of self-control: planting her feet, hardening her face.
I am not scared of you, she told herself, as Killian shut the trunk.
I am not scared of you, she informed herself, as he rolled the pallet into the sea.
I am not scared of you, she assured herself, as he dusted his legs off, cleared his throat, and set his diagnostic gaze upon her.
I am not afraid, she thought. I’m fucking terrified.
“Well!” Killian clapped his hands. Hope didn’t jump. “Care for a coffee, darling?”
“At three AM on a Tuesday?”
“Bethesda Bean is open for twenty-four,” he said. “You should know that, Madam Barista.”
“That was ten years ago. The hours probably changed.”
“They haven’t.” He didn’t need to add the fact that he’d checked.
Hope eyed the silver Beemer—its obvious claim to wealth painting a prime target on its windshield for desperate low-lives or inebriated undergrads bound to discover the payload in its trunk.
“How d’you think you’re gonna drive that thing down High Street?” Hope asked. “Let alone park it?”
“We always find a way.”
“We used to,” she corrected.
Killian dipped his head in acquiescence. “Still, the side streets are dead this time of night.” He looked up from the gravel. “Fancy a trip down memory lane?”
Hope saw her hand misspelling Killian’s name in black Sharpie on the first cup of red eye she’d served him at the Bean. His second. His third. Fourth, fifth, twentieth. Eventually they’d been accompanied by a smiley face, and then a heart, and then her phone number jotted along the rim of the lid where he put his lips. She wondered, at times, if that was her life’s grand mistake. Her point of no return. She more often wondered what dirty alley she’d be whoring without making said mistake—what corner she’d choose to shake paper cups of change at scoffing passersby. She smelled fresh-ground coffee and steamed whole milk; heard frothers whizzing and shouts for more caramel syrup at station two; calls at the pickup counter for Scott with the soy latte, Nial with the mocha frap, Deoiridh with the flat white, extra whip, and three Splenda.
Killian with the red eye. No sugar. No milk. Nothing but black, black ink for the post-grad Divinity student fresh out of Seminary, on his way to lecture at five.
Opening her eyes after failing to realize they’d been closed, Hope shook her head. The temptation to keep her attention fixed on the ground was strong—oppressively so—but she resisted the urge and met his stare tit for tat.
“No,” she said. “Can’t.”
“No?” Killian cocked a brow, drawn by the assertion of her refusal like a moth to bonfire flame. “And why can’t you, my dear? Some dazzling fundraiser’s ball to attend with a gimp on your arm?”
Scowling and emboldened by his patronizing tone, Hope tossed his invoice. The wind snatched it, ferrying the note to an unknown locale; likely the sea, where it would dissolve.
“Because ex-fiancées don’t go on coffee dates.”
A change in his face. A minute one, apparent in the post-forty lines crow-footing his eyes, the sides of his mouth, the posture of his lower lip. The kind of change only a long-time lover—a close friend, an almost-wife, or a bitter, bitter rival—would ever notice.
“Enough of your reminiscing, Father Glass,” Hope said, bolstered by verbal victory. “I’ve got a day job to do. Gotta run to Cartier.”
“There are no Cartiers in Aberdeen.”
Hope sashayed down the sloped path to Greyhope Road, refusing to look back and glad of her choice of sneakers over heels.
“Damn right.” From her peacoat pocket she retrieved a boarding pass, a dark blue passport, and a clearance card for a private jet flight. She flashed the ticket trio over her shoulder. “But there’s one in Bordeaux!”
Hope stopped at the intersection of the street and the path. She looked up at Killian, leaning on the hood of his car. Relief flooded her chest, warm and serene, at the great canyon of space yawning between them.
“You know how to reach me,” she said, unsure why. “Next time…”
Killian offered what looked, to the unpracticed layman, like a reassuring smile as welcome as noon sky. Hope, on the other hand—a creature well-versed in his minutiae of movements and their subtle diction—saw the predatory smirk for what it really was.
“Next time I need you, darling.”