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 recognised 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.
To continue reading, Hyde, by Craig Russell, is published in Hardback by Constable, priced £16.99 on April 29