About the Author

Steve Burrows

Steve Burrows has pursued his birdwatching hobby on five continents, while researching articles on a wide range of environmental issues. He is a past editor of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society Magazine, and his first book in the Birder Murder series, A Siege of Bitterns, was released in 2014. After travelling the world together, Steve and his family now live in Oshawa, Ontario.

Books by this Author
A Cast of Falcons

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.

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A Dance of Cranes

A Dance of Cranes

A Birder Murder Mystery
also available: Paperback
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Chapter 1

VI. Six. The most dangerous number of all. It meant perilous conditions. It meant violent, unpredictable forces. And for Annie Prior, it had meant death.

The man stared back up the river, transfixed for a moment by the raw energy of the water boiling down through the narrow chasm. A low roar reverberated off the rocks, filling the air with its dull thunder. He had never seen Category Six rapids before, but he knew these would qualify. Surely, no level of river danger could exceed the way this water was churning through the steep-sided gorge, crashing down in explosions of white spume onto the jagged rocks below. Even for the most experienced white-water canoeist, any attempt to navigate this stretch of rapids would be madness. For a novice, without a helmet or life jacket, it was tantamount to suicide. But for someone who is in fear for their life, any escape route must be tried, no matter how terrifying.

The man still found it hard to believe that this stretch of river was undocumented. In most places on earth, such waters would have been part of the local folklore, highlighted on the maps, most likely with a sidebar warning about their dangers. But in this vast, remote wilderness, even deadly Category Six rapids could go unrecorded. They were merely one more hazard in this unforgiving landscape that offered no quarter to those who dared to challenge it. Those like Annie Prior.

He had suspected the body would end up in this eddy. The two of them had noted it during their earlier reconnaissance of the river, when they had decided the drops and ledges of this section were far too risky, far too treacherous to be navigated. He’d headed for this spot as soon as he’d seen the canoe disappear into the rapids. Annie Prior hadn’t bailed out by then, and that meant she wasn’t going to. All that remained for her now was a short, dizzying descent toward death. As the raging waters thrashed the canoe to pieces on the razor-sharp rocks, she would have been rag-dolled into a state of near-unconsciousness, even before the craft flipped and submerged her in the frigid currents. After that, there would have been no hope. Annie Prior’s body would be pounded against the boulders time and again by the force of the churning water, until it eventually broke free of the rapids and drifted downstream to this spot.

He saw Annie’s lifeless form now, a few metres from shore, turning in a slow spiral. Set against the manic rushing of the river beyond, the movement of the water in the eddy was as benign as the swirling of cream in a coffee cup. The silence here seemed to fill the air like a pocket of empty time. But despite the peace of this place, he could not allow Annie Prior’s body to remain like this.

He took off his clothes and laid them in a neat pile on the shore. As cold as the water was going to be, it would be vital that he had warm, dry clothes when he was done. In these temperatures, damp clothes wouldn’t dry for a long time, and as evening approached, they’d leach out what little body heat he had. With no heavy jacket to protect him, it would leave him vulnerable to the cold night ahead.

After two steps, the shallow incline disappeared into a steep drop-off, plunging him thigh-deep into water so cold he couldn’t even breathe. Numbness seized his legs, freezing out all feeling, the still air all around him seeming only to heighten the intensity of the icy chill. Carefully testing the footing, he began wading forward. He felt his chest contract as the icy water rode up his ribcage, and he opened his mouth repeatedly, as if trying to bite off chunks of the cold air to gulp down into his lungs.

Part of him had hoped he would not see her face, but as she drifted round towards him, he could not bring himself to look away. She stared back at him through cold, dead eyes, her face so bloated and battered it was almost unrecognizable. He had not seen many smiles from Annie Prior, amid the firm set of her jaw, her intense concentration, her determined expressions, but those few that had come his way had been worth waiting for; face-brightening moments of unfettered joy. She should have let herself smile more often, he thought.

He stretched out his arm across the glassy surface and his fingertips touched the rough Gore-Tex material of Annie’s jacket. He tugged at it and the body began to drift gently in his direction. He felt in the pocket of the jacket to retrieve Annie’s inReach device and clicked it off. Then he removed the battery and threw both parts of the unit into the fast-flowing waters beyond the eddy. He reached out once again and pushed Annie’s head under the water, forcing the body down against its natural buoyancy until it snagged on a submerged log.

His grisly task completed, he was in the process of turning away when the body broke free and burst up beside him in the water. He recoiled from the grotesque mask of discoloured flesh with its dead, unseeing eyes, sputtering and gasping furiously as he splashed back into the frigid water. Recovering, he approached the body and tried again, pinning it beneath the log and securing it firmly. He paused for a moment, in case the body broke free and once more floated to the surface. But this time, it held fast and he backed away carefully until he reached the shore.

He emerged from the water, shivering violently. He pulled on his clothes as fast as his numb hands would permit, hugging his thick, lined sweater around him tightly when he had finished. As he stepped into his boots, he stopped to fish out his own inReach device. He pried off the case and removed the battery. Pausing, he held the two parts as if testing their weight. And then he slid them both gently into the water. For a moment they seemed to hang suspended on the surface, and then they slowly sank, until through the clear water, he saw his only contact with the outside world disappear.


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A Shimmer of Hummingbirds


The cold lay across the land like a punishment. Along the lane, the grassy verges bowed with their burdens of frost, and lacy collars of ice fringed the edges of the puddles. On the far side of the lane, beyond the hedgerow, the skeleton shapes of bare trees lined the boundaries of the fields. Stands of pale grass moved uneasily beneath metallic skies. Winter was stretching its fingers over the landscape, and if it had not yet drawn them in, to clasp the land fully in its grip, the time was surely near.
The street lamps along the lane were already on, shining through the grey light of the fading afternoon like tiny suns. Suspended in their light, ice crystals spiralled like shards of shattered glass. From the window of a small cottage, a man watched a girl’s progress along the lane. The lace curtain hung from his fingertip like a veil. “Prospect, Erin,” he said without turning. The man’s shoulders were hunched slightly, as if he might be expecting a strike from the tension that seemed to hang in the room like a presence. “This could be the one.”
From the armchair behind the man, Erin offered no opinion. A kitten mewled around the legs of the chair, looking for an affectionate pat that wasn’t forthcoming. At the window, the man’s eyes tracked the girl’s approach carefully. She was perhaps eighteen, a youngish eighteen, though, slightly-built, with hardly an ounce of adult bulk on her delicate frame. He wondered if she was a runner. But there was no sign of well-developed muscle tone, no athletic spring in her step. Besides, it hardly mattered. Those boots she was wearing, all pointy toes and high heels, would not be much good for running over the uneven cobblestone surface of this laneway. Not that he intended to give her the chance.
“Yes,” said the man, nodding softly to himself, his eyes flickering slightly as he watched her. He could feel the pressure building in his chest. The hair at his collar was damp with sweat and the dryness in his mouth made it hard to swallow. Stage fright. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He was surprised to find it affecting him like this. He had been over the scenario many times in his head. He should be calmer than this. But the heart holds surprises for even the most disciplined minds, and now the moment of truth was drawing close, the doubts were starting to flood in.
The girl was closer now, and he could see the wispy trail of her breath as she chatted on her phone. Distracted. Not ideal. He wanted her to know what was happening, to take it all in, to be aware of everything. His eyes moved to the greying sky beyond her, and then switched anxiously back and forth along the lane. No one. He turned his attention back to the girl, perhaps twenty metres away now, no more. If it was going to be this one, he had only a few seconds. Cap, jacket, open the door and run. Her head would spin around at the sound of his approach, just in time to see him bearing down on her. A momentary look of confusion on her face? Panic? Terror? And then. Over. It would be done. He could feel his pulse throbbing in his temples. This has to be done. His heart was racing. You have to do it. He clenched his fingers into his palm, feeling their wetness. But still he hesitated.
“I don’t know, Erin. This one? Or not?”
He let out a pent up breath and withdrew his finger, letting the curtains fall back into place with a delicate shimmer. From behind his lace screen, he watched the girl pass beneath the street lamp outside, still chatting on her phone. Her breath spiralled up in the cold air, seeming to him like whispered prayers, drifting up to heaven. She would never know how close she had come.
It was the light. It was important, perhaps the most important thing of all. It needed to be right, and it wasn’t. Not yet. The man saw the mug on the window ledge in front of him and a bolt of alarm speared his chest. What if he had left it here, in his rush to get outside? He picked up the mug and carried it wordlessly into the kitchen. As he walked past the armchair, the kitten let out a small bleat. It looked for a moment as if it might follow the man into the kitchen, but in the end it jumped up onto Erin’s lap and curled itself inside its tiny tail to go to sleep.
In the kitchen, the man set the empty, unwashed cup carefully in the sink. He peered out the kitchen window, checking the narrow garden as it ran down to the boat dock. He could feel the cold winter air coming in through the neat hole in the glass panel of the door. On the far bank of the river that ran behind the cottages, a pair of Mallards was hunkered down, blending in to the pale, brittle reed stems. Nothing else moved.
The man sat for a long time at the kitchen table, watching as the day retreated into the half-light of dusk. There was a large part of him that didn’t want to do this. But something else had taken over. His actions were no longer his to control. His breathing had begun to quicken again. He steadied it. He felt tiny droplets of moisture running down his temples. Sweat. DNA. Bad thing.
He stood up quickly and walked back into the tiny, neat living room, now sheltering pockets of darkness in its corners. “We’ll leave the lights off for now, Erin,” he announced. He approached the bay window and peered through the curtains again. All the other cottages had lights on now. From outside, this one would look like a missing stone in the necklace of lighted windows that ran along the lane.
The man checked his reflection in the window glass; the brown leather jacket with its soft corduroy collar; the cap, tilted far enough forward to hide the plastic lining. And the greying goatee, with the little horns on the moustache. He gave the beard a downward stroke with his thumb and forefinger, as if to ensure it was in place. From the corner of his eye, he caught a flicker of movement, and he turned quickly to see a woman walking slowly down the lane, carefully picking her way between the puddles. Not up from the village as he had always envisioned it, but coming from the other direction. Panic started to rise within him. This was wrong. Why hadn’t he ever considered this? Pull yourself together. What did it matter? She was taller than the other one and slightly older; a year or two. More woman than girl, this one. His mouth felt dry, and he dragged the back of his wrist across his lips. His breathing was shallow and rapid. A whisper of doubt flickered across his mind. Would she put up a fight? Try to grab him? No, he thought, the twilight, the shock; they would do their work. It would all happen the way he had planned it.
The woman was getting closer. Another fifty metres and she would be directly beneath the street lamp outside. Darkness all around and just that tiny pool of yellow light spilling onto the cobblestone lane like a spotlight on a stage. He watched her approaching. She had picked up her pace slightly and was hunched against the evening, as if something in her subconscious might be whispering about the dangers a quiet lane like this could hold. He wondered where she was going. Home after a hard day’s work? To the pub to meet her friends? Or her boyfriend? It didn’t matter.
Seated at the window, his right knee was bobbing up and down like a piston, resisting all his efforts to control it. His heart felt like it might explode from his chest. He was finding it hard to breathe. The mantra built in his mind, like the roar of an oncoming train. This has to be done. You have to do it. “Here’s where I have to leave you, Erin,” said the man over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off the woman outside. His mouth was dry again and he licked his lips to moisten them. As the woman approached the pool of light beneath the street lamp, the man stood up. He ran to the front door and snatched it open. The door banged back against the wall of the cottage, but the woman was already looking in his direction — that primeval mechanism, perhaps, alerting her to danger? It was already too late. The man sprinted toward her. She stared, frozen in terror, as he closed the gap. Less than five metres now, with no signs of slowing. The woman raised her hands defensively, bracing for the impact. The man exploded into her, lowering his head and smashing his cap into her face. The impact lifted the woman off her feet and sent her flailing back against the street lamp, snapping her head back hard against the post. Lying on the cold round. Stunned. She heard rapid footfalls; the sound of running. She raised her head and managed to focus in time to see the man sprinting away down the centre of the narrow lane. His escape rang off the cobblestones until, like the assailant himself, the sound finally disappeared into the night. From behind the screen of the net curtains, the sightlines from Erin’s armchair to the street lamp were unobstructed. The woman was still on the ground, sobbing softly now, reeling from her injuries. She was beginning to shiver, too, as shock began to seep into the places where her fear had been. But Erin didn’t go to her, or call out to check if she needed help. Nor did Erin reach for a telephone to call for an ambulance, or a police officer. Erin Dawes did not respond at all. The dead never do.

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A Tiding of Magpies

The hunter was closing in. It had pursued them relentlessly, silently stalking them as they ran, splashing water all around them in their panic. Now it was here; a menacing grey curtain, hovering over the surface of the water, ready to take her. To add her to the victory it had already claimed.
She didn’t know how long she had been standing out here, hunched against the dampness and the cold. She had stopped moving when Monte left, just as he told her she should. I’ll check ahead. Better you wait here. Now, she was frozen in this place. She couldn’t go back, she knew that. But her mind wouldn’t allow her to take even one step forward. The hunter was waiting. The hunter that had taken Monte.
The inexorable approach of the fog had gradually shut down her senses. First, the horizon had dimmed to nothingness, then the waters around her had faded from her sight. Now, even the air itself seemed to have gone. Only this deep, impenetrable greyness remained, surrounding her, filling her world. The sounds had disappeared, too, sucked up into this void until there was nothing. No foghorns, no bird calls, not even the soft lapping of the waves around her feet. It was as if all the voices of the world had ceased. Only the echo of silence surrounded her now. And the terror that came with it.
She felt the life slowly ebbing from her body. She could sense the wet patches on her skin where the thin dress was sticking to it; feel the dampness in her hair and on her bare arms and legs. There were water droplets beneath her eyes, too, and on her cheeks. But those were different. Those had been for Monte, when she could still weep. Now she couldn’t even raise a single sob for him. She had no tears left.
The waves washed over her shoes. The water was deeper than before, cold and cruel. Tide’s coming in fast. We got to keep moving. But she couldn’t. She could only stand here, with the fog and the sea all around her.
It was time. She would sit down and let the rising sea gather her in. It would be a relief, from the terror, the sorrow, the uncertainty. She wondered where she would be found when the fog lifted and the light returned to this place. Perhaps someone would discover her on the distant shore, lying peacefully on her side, looking like she was only sleeping. Perhaps she would drift with the tide and be found miles away, days from now. Perhaps her body would never be found at all. Her poor parents; they would never know what had happened to the daughter they loved so much and who had never really loved them enough in return. The thought pierced her heart with sadness. And it made her stay standing. Not to fight — there was no longer any point — but just to stave off the inevitable, to hold back the insidious creeping advance of death for a few moments more.
The water was at her ankles now. Her feet were aching and the dampness seemed to be seeping inside her. The air was getting colder, but she had stopped shivering. Her body had nothing more to give. Now it was just a matter of time. I’m sorry, Monte. I can’t do this anymore. For it to end like this, after all she had gone through, all they had both gone through, in the past few days. Once, she had believed it would all end well. Monte’s notes had said so. Hold on. Be brave. We’ll make it.
But they hadn’t. You didn’t make it, Monte. And you left me out here alone, far from the shore, with the sea all around me, coming in to claim me, while the fog hides its sins.
Perhaps it would have been better to end it the way Monte had, pushing on into the unknown, the unknowable. But she knew she didn’t possess that kind of courage. So she would wait. It would be over soon. Like him, she would simply disappear into the fog. Or the water. She had heard splashing once, before the swirling grey blanket had stolen the sounds from her. But there had been no calls. Monte had gone without crying out. It was his way. Be brave.
She didn’t know why she looked up. For so long her eyes had been cast down, toward the water she could only feel, toward her feet that had gone numb inside her shoes. But when she stared ahead, a shape coalesced in the fog, slightly darker than the surrounding greyness, almost human in form. And then she saw the arm, extended in her direction as the shape advanced toward her, through the fog, across the water. Sounds were coming from the form, but she couldn’t make them out. She was frightened, confused. It seemed so lifelike, this apparition, she wanted to believe it. The cruelty of her hope stung her. The arm had almost reached her now. It looked real; flesh and blood she could grasp onto. The sounds, too, started to distill into meaning, penetrating the awful silence of the fog.
“Are you alone?”
She nodded, still unsure if this spectre was real.
“There’s no one we should wait for?”
She shook her head dumbly. It was a real voice. She knew that now. But it sounded strange, the words odd and distorted. “We have to start moving. We don’t have much time.”
And then she realized what it was about the voice, and tears started to roll down her cheeks. “It’s you. Monte said you would come for us. He knew you would.”
“Take my hand,” said the voice. “I’m here to take you home.”
She reached to take the outstretched hand.


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Birder Murder Mysteries 3-Book Bundle

Birder Murder Mysteries 3-Book Bundle

A Cast of Falcons / A Pitying of Doves / A Siege of Bitterns
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Birder Murder Mysteries 4-Book Bundle

Birder Murder Mysteries 4-Book Bundle

A Shimmer of Hummingbirds / A Cast of Falcons / A Pitying of Doves / and 1 more
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Birder Murder Mysteries 6-Book Bundle

Birder Murder Mysteries 6-Book Bundle

A Dance of Cranes / A Tiding of Magpies / A Shimmer of Hummingbirds / and 3 more
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