Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
It was a sound like no other.
High, shrill, raw, it stabbed the night with sharp, juddering, ragged edges. It was a sound somewhere between a wail and a scream, yet it was unlike a voice; spoke of no human origin.
Moonless night had already claimed the city: dragging itself around the flanks of the Mound, insinuating itself through the crenels and embrasures of the castle, creeping down into the Old Town and stretching dark fingers into its narrow wynds and cramped closes; in the grand terraces and crescents of the New Town it rubbed itself blackly against the prosperous panes of the broad, high windows. But as if possessed of some dark gravity, nowhere was the night blacker than where it had sunk into the depths of the gulley that creased the city, carrying pure waters from the heights of the Pentlands to where they became soiled dark and foam crusted in the effluent shadows of the clustering mills that lined the Water of Leith.
When the sound found her, Nell McCrossan was a slight, insubstantial shadow moving through a greater darkness. Small for her fourteen years, her frame meagre and birdlike, her skin in the scarce and insubstantial pools of lamplight as bleach white as the flour produced by the mill in which she worked.
Nell was a fearful soul. She feared the walk to her shift, feared the swelling darknesses between the lamps, feared the shifting elm shadows and the voices she sometimes thought she could hear in the tumbling waters of the river. She had learned to mistrust her ears: the thunderings and clashings of the machines in the mill had distorted her hearing, tinkling in her ears as spectral tintinnabulations and haunting the vault of her skull with booming ghosts long after she had left the mill.
A generation before, her people had come to the city from the Highlands, driven from the green quiet of strath, mountain and glen to make way for the greater profit of sheep. The only world Nell had known had been the clattering, cramped, smoke-wreathed clamour of the tenements, alleys and closes of the Old Town, and the harsh, guttural Sassenach tongue of Edinburgh, yet her childhood had echoed with her parents’ soft Gaelic and tales of an unseen otherworld. So, as she made her shadow-haunted, brisk-paced way to her work in the mill, the mistrusted sounds of an ink-sleek river reached out to her from the gulley beside the path and conjured up remembered tales of selkies and kelpies and other malevolent water spirits.
But when the sound found her, all other fears, all other noises real and imagined, fell from her. The sound–that terrible wailing screech of a sound–seemed to penetrate her insubstantial flesh and ring in her bones. Nell gave a cry of her own as the fear within her welled up and spilled into the night.
The sound came again, a shuddering, ragged screech that seemed to swell and echo in the depression of the gulley, reflecting itself off the black flanks of the mills until it seemed to come from every direction at once.
Nell whimpered, a child lost in the night, desperately scanning the darkness to catch sight of the dread thing that issued such a fearful sound, to work out in which direction she should run.
Again. A third inhuman wailing.
Nell turned on her heel and fled, plunging into the darkness between the lamp standards.
She ran straight into it.
A mass unseen in the darkness but suddenly solid, as if the shadows had coalesced to form an obstruction to her flight. The force of her collision caused her to rebound and she landed painfully, her back slamming against the grease-slicked cobbles. The impact winded her, and she desperately sought to draw air back into her tortured lungs.
She had no breath to scream for help as the shape leaned down over her, its silhouette growing larger, darker yet against the black gathered night. Strong hands seized her, and Nell issued a strangled cry, still not yet possessing enough breath to shape a scream. And still her captor remained inhuman; she could make out no face, no feature.
The dark form lifted her to her feet as if there were no substance to her. It held her by her upper arms and she felt it would cost this monster no effort to crush her, to fold and crack her bones. She was helpless as he steered her into one of the pools cast by the gas lanterns.
The lamplight and shadow now etched a face for Nell to see. Her breath had returned to her but she found herself still unable to form a scream, to call out into the night for deliverance from the rough beast who now held her captive. The man in the gaslight had features that instilled terror. Heavy, brutal, harsh features that, while cruelly handsome, provoked revulsion. Fright. Terror. She felt captured by some monster; by the devil.
Then she recognized him. She knew exactly who he was and it did little to abate her fear.
“Are you all right?” His voice was deep and as velvet dark as the night. “Are you injured?”
Nell shook her head.
“Where did it come from?” he asked. Again she shook her head dully, still hypnotized by the bright blue eyes that glittered in the cruel face. “The scream, girl,” he urged, his voice impatient. “Where did that scream come from?”
“I don’t know, sir,” she stammered. “It was like it came from all around. But the first time . . .” She pointed vaguely down into the gulley beside them.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked. Nell once more took in his face, the glitter of eyes from under the shadow of both hat and heavy brow, the wide, sharp-angled shields of cheekbone, the broad bulk of the jaw. It was like a face carved from some material harder than stone. She nodded, still fearful.
“You are Captain Hyde, sir.”
“What is your name, child?”
“Nell, sir. Nell McCrossan.”
“Do you work in the mill, Nell?”
She nodded again.
“Then run there now and tell your foreman I need men to help me search–and tell him to send someone to the Dean police office to bring constables.”
She neither replied nor moved, instead fixed and immobile in her study of Hyde’s face.
“Go now!” he urged with more severity than he intended, and the jolt of his words sent her running in the direction of the mill.
Hyde took a pocket lantern from his Ulster topcoat and scanned the path, the trees and the river around him. Its light gave menacing life to his surroundings: the rushing water glistened blackly and oil-sleek in the lantern’s beam; the shadows of trees and bushes that edged the river writhed sinuously. Yet there was no sign of anything wrong.
He surrendered the path and took to the river’s edge, following it in the direction indicated by the terrified girl. The river became a sleek-backed snake, writhing its dark way towards distant Leith and the sea, while all around the sounds of industry clamoured louder in the night. Hyde startled at a loud metallic clang as the buffers of unseen locomotives clashed in Balerno railway goods yard. As he made his way farther along the water’s edge, the sounds beyond became lost. The currents of the Water of Leith drove the waterwheels of the mills along its course, and at intervals the tumbling torrent would cascade over weirs and cataracts. Hyde could hear he now approached the thunderous rush of water over a weir.
The tangle of branches and bush along the river’s edge slowed his progress and he had briefly to retake the path. Over the roar of the waterfall he could just and no more hear the sound of voices calling him: the men brought from the mill. To indicate the direction he had taken, Hyde removed his service whistle from his pocket and gave three sharp summoning blasts.
He walked on, along the path in the direction of the weir, but the river was shielded from him by a screen of dense vegetation. He reached the cataract and the water’s edge suddenly cleared of undergrowth. A short section of iron railing, rusted and time bent, offered the only security from where the river dropped twenty feet to the lower level. The darkness of the night and the thunder of the waterfall disconcertingly rendered him deaf and blind to anything outside this small theatre of his awareness. He shone the light from his pocket lantern along the riverbank on his side, then across the foaming edge of the waterfall to the other bank.
It was then he saw it.
It moved in the light, turning, twisting and shuddering: something sallow and fleshlike. At first, he could make no sense of it.
The bough of an elm reached out across the water as if offering Hyde its pale fruit. The form which hung from it was at first unrecognizable in the insufficient illumination of Hyde’s hand lantern. What added to the confusion was the movement of the thing, as if alive. Then he made dark sense of it: close to the far bank, suspended by a long rope fastened around the tree’s bough, a naked man hung upside down, his ankles rope bound. Hyde’s lantern followed the pallid form to where a wound gaped lividly in the chest. A thick trail of blood, glistening black and sleek in the night, traced its way down to the man’s throat, but his head was hidden, submerged in the frothing water of the river. It was the tugging of the impatient current on the unseen head that had given the form motion and the semblance of life.
Hyde again took the whistle from his pocket, turned in the direction he had come and gave three short blasts.
As if in response, it came again. The cry. Audible and no more over the roar of the waterfall. To start with, Hyde thought it was the echo of his whistle, but he recognized the same high, inhuman sound, this time more plaintive, mournful. He spun around but couldn’t fix the direction of its origin. But wherever it had come from, one thing was sure: it had not issued from the dead man hanging upside down from the tree.
He gave another three blasts on his whistle and was answered this time with louder cries of mill workers hastening towards him. When they arrived, the young girl who had run into him earlier was with them, her face ghostly in the light of the lanterns. Hyde instructed the men to take her to one side, lest she see the horror hanging from the far bank of the river.
“Did you hear it again, sir?” she asked Hyde. “The bean-nighe.”
“The bean-nighe.” Nell’s voice trembled with a fear sown not just into her fabric but woven through generations before her. “The washerwoman–her that laments by the water’s edge.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Hyde.
“The bean-nighe comes up from the Otherworld and wails while she washes the clothes of them about to die.” The shaking of her voice was now a tremor through her whole insubstantial body. “That’s what we heard. The bean-nighe–she’s a ban-sìth, you see.”
Hyde nodded. “I understand now. But I assure you what we heard was very much of this world, Nell.” He turned to one of the men. “She’s in shock. Take her back to the mill and have someone attend to her.”
After the young Highland girl was gone, Hyde led the men to the nearest bridge across the water and back along the other bank toward where the naked man hung from the tree. They stood in silence for a moment, as men do in the presence of violent death. Hyde could see the body more clearly, but the head and face remained hidden in the rush of the river. The wound in the chest he could now see was deep and wide, like a gaping mouth. Someone had removed the man’s heart.
“He’s been murdered,” said one of the mill workers at Hyde’s shoulder.
“More than that,” said another. “He’s been three times murdered.”
Hyde turned questioningly in the man’s direction.
“Hanged, ripped and drowned . . .” explained the man. “Why would anybody do that to someone?”
“Get me a pole or anything with a hook on it,” said Hyde. “I want to bring the body to the riverbank.”
A third mill worker volunteered to run back to the mill and find something suitable.
As he waited with the others, Captain Edward Henry Hyde, superintendent of detective officers in Edinburgh’s City Police, was greatly troubled by two thoughts. The first was that he had, by pure chance, uncovered a brutal murder through his entirely coincidental and fortuitous presence at the scene–yet he could not, for the life of him, remember why he was in this place, so far from his usual habit, or how he had got there.
The second thing troubling him was the earnest terror of a young, frightened mill girl haunted still by the distant Highlands and their myths. A terror founded on the belief that what they had heard had been the cries of a ban-sìth.