Authors: Steve Burrows
For Mark, Andrew and Matthew
May your stories always have happy endings
would like to thank my editor, Allison Hirst, and the staff at Dundurn for their continuing support and enthusiasm for the Birder Murder series. I am grateful, too, for the guidance and advice of Bruce Westwood and Lien de Nil at Westwood Creative Artists. Doug Gibson has pointed me in the right direction on more than one occasion, and the same is true of my many birding companions. My thanks to all of them.
And, as always, love and thanks go to my beautiful wife, Resa, who from the very beginning was convinced that there would be a second Birder Murder Mystery. Once again, darling, I have no hesitation in stating, in print, that you were absolutely â¦ not incorrect.
was like driving into death; a grey maelstrom of ferocious rain and roiling storm clouds that cloaked the landscape with their dark menace. The storm of the century, they were calling it, worse even than '53.
It had been building for days, hunkering offshore, marshalling its power as it waited for that one perfect confluence of weather systems. In the previous hours there had been a couple of tentative incursions over the land â high winds and swift, angry rain squalls â but at 9:32 that morning, as the tide rose to its highest point in fifteen years, the storm began to unleash its full fury on the north Norfolk coastline. By now it had built to its peak, bringing evening to the afternoon in a sinister twilight of bruised skies and vast, swirling sheets of rain. The low-lying coastal lands were being inundated by the deluge from above and the storm-driven tidal surges from the sea. And now the floodwaters were headed this way.
The man urged the tiny car onward, a shiny sliver of light creeping over the oily blackness of the road. He wondered how long it would be before he saw the first evidence of flooding in the fields on either side. The river had already burst its banks, according to the latest report that had come over the car radio. Soon the waters would begin creeping insidiously across the flat black earth of the farms, swallowing up every feature, every hollow of the land. It was no wonder the radio announcers had started rolling out the Noah's ark references, even if they didn't know what they were talking about.
Two by two?
He had turned the radio off in a fit of exasperation at that point. How could you trust their storm updates when they couldn't even get basic scripture right? Seven: that was the number of clean beasts God had commanded Noah to take on the ark. Seven and seven, of each species, the male and the female. Not two.
At least somebody knew his Bible.
A momentary wave of lightheadedness passed over him. This snail's pace driving and those earlier diversions had taken him long past his scheduled time to eat. Still, a glass of orange juice and a couple of digestives when he got home â¦
The man blinked hard to clear his blurred vision and concentrated on the narrow country lane in front of him. The incessant hammering of the rain on the roof seemed to fill the car. In the feeble headlights, he could see the manic devil-dance of raindrops falling so hard they were bouncing back up from the surface of the road. All around him, the storm was attacking the land with such terrifying ferocity that it seemed almost to have one single purpose: to obliterate Saltmarsh from the map. When the storm finally passed, thought the man, the destruction left in its wake would be devastating. It would take the local communities a long time to recover from the day this veil of misery descended upon them. Perhaps some never would.
Violent gusts of wind tore at the tops of the overgrown hedgerows along both sides of the narrow lane, scattering leaves like tiny wet messages of the storm's destruction. A burst of wind-driven rain came out of the darkness like an ambush, rattling against the driver's window and startling the man into a momentary oversteer.
Careful. Get stuck in a ditch tonight, with the north Norfolk countryside disappearing beneath this storm of biblical proportions, and who knows when they'll be out to rescue you.
According to the radio reports, the emergency services were already stretched to the limit, clearing people from the path of the relentless brown tide that was bearing down on them.
And besides, there was his precious cargo. He didn't want to have to explain that to any potential rescuers. He patted the lid of the large cardboard box on the seat next to him and wiped the back of a clammy hand across his forehead, blinking his eyes once more to clear his vision.
There were those in his church, he knew, who would argue that this storm was a punishment from above; divine retribution for Saltmarsh's sins, past and present. He wondered if his actions counted among them. He had committed a crime, yes. He was prepared to admit that much. A perfect crime, as a matter of fact; but not a sin, surely. After all, he had acted with the best of intentions â compassion and mercy and pity. There could be no sin in that. The sky lit up as tendrils of lightning clawed their way across the towering bank of cloud on the horizon. The thunder that followed threatened to tear the swollen sky apart with its force. Somewhere over the noise of the storm, he heard the splintering crack of wood and saw the severed arm of an ancient oak crash onto the road ahead of him in an explosion of leaves and debris. Motive: that was what made it a sin. The man understood that now. His act of kindness had only ever had one real motive: his own gain. He knew it. And God knew it, too.
He steered cautiously around the fallen limb, gripping the steering wheel tightly as he feathered the accelerator. Silver sprays cascaded up against the bodywork as the wheels found a deeper patch of water near the edge of the road. He felt tired; the constant focus, the concentration, was taking its toll. And all the time, the metronomic beat of the wipers slapping back and forth against the wet windshield filled his senses, as measured and constant as a heartbeat, lulling him toward the rest he so badly needed.
In the dark, he almost missed the driveway. The little yellow carriage lamp had been torn off the gatepost by the wind and lay shattered across the road. What a shame. Maggie loved that lamp. An irrational sadness moved him almost to the point of weeping. He pulled into the driveway and parked. His body was bathed in sweat and he was shaking.
He sat in the car, watching the rain stream down the windows. The house beyond was dark. His mind fogged with confusion.
Where was Maggie?
Of course. Working. He would call her from the house; make sure she had arrived safely at the hospital. But first he needed to rest, to close his eyes. Just for a few minutes. Not in his bed. Too far away. Here in the car, next to his prize, the spoils of his perfect crime. He fumbled in his jacket for a pen and scrawled a spidery note on the top of the box:
For my Turtle Dâ¦
The pen slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor. Too far away. The drumming of the rain on the roof of the car was almost deafening now. He felt the weariness, the overwhelming weariness, pressing down upon him. He needed food, but it was in the kitchen. Too far away in this storm. Too far away. Just rest, then.
aggie knew before she reached the car. Not when she alighted from the bus, stopped so thoughtfully by the driver a few feet past the actual bus stop, so she could avoid the massive puddle: not as she was walking along the lane, with its vegetation still dripping and heaving from the effects of last night's storm. But by the time she turned into the driveway, she knew.
The threat of death had been a constant in their lives ever since his diagnosis all those years before. Though it sometimes drifted to the back of their consciousness, it never really left them. So she approached the car with a strange mix of reluctance and haste, pressing in to look through the passenger window, through the clearing morning mist on the glass, where she saw her husband slumped against the steering wheel. She opened the door and put a finger to his neck. Even to her, it seemed a cold, professional gesture. Perhaps it was best that she was still in her nursing mind-set. Sometimes it took her hours to switch off after a shift, especially after a night like last night, with all the stress and trauma of the storm-related injuries. She withdrew her hand, noticing for the first time the box lying on the passenger seat, and the words, his last words, scrawled on the top. She gently lifted the lid, peered in, and then replaced the lid and carried the box into the house.
Inside, she set the box on the floor and sat for a moment at the kitchen table in the cold, empty house. Then she crossed to the computer, typed out a short note, and printed it off. Folding and refolding the paper a couple of times, she opened a drawer of a battered old filing cabinet and stuffed the note into the middle of an untidy sheaf of papers, closing the drawer again with exaggerated care.
By the time she had swept the seat and floor of the passenger side of the car with a dustpan and brush, and emptied the dustpan onto a flowerbed, the shock was starting to set in. Back in the house, now barely aware of her actions, she put away the dustpan and brush and picked up the telephone. And then, having called the police to report the death of her husband of thirty-five years, Margaret Wylde sat down on her living-room couch and cried.