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

A Cast of Falcons

A Birder Murder Mystery
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

1

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 Shimmer of Hummingbirds
Excerpt

1

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?”
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 Siege of Bitterns

A Siege of Bitterns

A Birder Murder Mystery
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Birder Murder Mysteries 3-Book Bundle

Birder Murder Mysteries 3-Book Bundle

A Cast of Falcons / A Pitying of Doves / A Siege of Bitterns
edition:eBook
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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
edition:eBook
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