At First Light (Dr. Evan Wilding)
THE VIKING POET
I am the wolf who walks your nights. The horror who haunts your days. Hear me—I am the soldier who slays the sinners.
Come, sinner, you who violate the Law. Walk with me.
Am I not fair company?
We will spend tonight together. And if you cannot answer my riddle, then I will—I must!—finish Odin’s work. When it is over, I’ll send birds to guide you from this world into another, as custom demands. Birds whose presence in Chicago defiles nature. Then I’ll scatter runes to tell the world of your sins.
Remember: fate goes ever as it must.
And I am your fate.
I speak my words aloud then, satisfied; cap my pen; and close the journal. It’s evening. The sun, Sunna, riding in her chariot, nears the far horizon. All around, shadows gather.
I look past the translations of Beowulf stacked on my desk. Past the knife. I pick up the framed photo of Alex and touch a finger to the glass.
A sound. Outside, a murmuration of starlings flurries past the windows. I stand and, still holding Alex’s photograph, I cross the room to stand in the dying light. I wonder what soul the birds accompany tonight.
Who came for you, Alex, when you lay broken deep in the earth? Who carried your soul to the underworld?
My fingers tremble on the picture frame.
The last rays disappear. Red still burns in the western sky, but overhead, a scattering of stars appears in the darkening vault, jewels on a diamond broker’s velvet cloth.
I replace Alex’s photo on the desk, then drop to the floor and knock out a series of push-ups, lunges, squats, and planks. I work until my breath comes hard and sweat sheets from my naked skin.
To calm my mind. To prepare for what is to come.
Then I shower and dress, draw on my coat, slip my cell phone and car keys into a pocket.
My work is nearly done. Not much longer now before the businessman’s soul journeys on and I turn my attention to the next sinner.
For there is always another sinner.
A bitter mid-November night slouched off to make room for a grim day that no one considered an improvement.
The wind off Lake Michigan rattled awnings and swept rain and trash along the streets and pressed dank fingers against the exposed necks of the locals—paper delivery boys, taxi drivers, cops—who stomped their feet and adjusted their scarves and dreamed of tropical beaches and sun-warmed skin.
Near a forlorn section of the Calumet River, Detective Adrianne “Addie” Bisset stared at the body of a man murdered more than once. By her count, he’d received three fatal wounds, and although all were cruel, she couldn’t be sure which injury had served as the actual coup de grâce. It was the detective’s macabre game—had it been the slashed throat, the tightened noose, or the bone-crushing blow to the head?
The body lay curled on its side, half in, half out of the water; the murky slosh of the Calumet broke and swirled around the dead man’s legs, which were held in place by wooden stakes. She noted the victim’s bound hands. His nakedness. The injuries to his face she hoped were postmortem. The man’s wounds spoke of ritualistic violence. The carved sticks arranged around his head suggested a dark magic.
Addie’s fingers rose to touch the cross around her neck, and she found it oddly reassuring that after four years of seeing almost everything one human could do to another, death could still leave her shaken.
She checked the time on her phone: 6:50 a.m. The machinery of homicide investigation—what Addie thought of as the three-ring circus in blue—was about to begin. In an hour, this haunted place of wind and water and the cries of birds would be carefully orchestrated pandemonium.
First things first. She crooked a finger at the uniform who’d called in the body.
“Find Dr. Evan Wilding,” she said. “He’s probably off in a park or reserve somewhere in the city, hunting with his hawk. Start with Washington Park near the university and use mounted patrol to track him down. Here’s his cell number”—she ripped a sheet from her notebook and jotted numbers on the paper—“but he probably won’t answer. When patrol finds him, tell him I need him ASAP. Tell him we’ve got one of the weird ones.”
The young cop squinted at her from beneath his cap with its blue-and-white-checkered tartan. His cheeks and ears were red in the cold. “Is Dr. Wilding the one they call the Sparrow?”
“The dwarf, right? I read about some case he solved. He’s a forensic semio . . . semioti . . .” The officer’s voice trailed off into a linguistic thicket.
“Forensic semiotician.” Addie turned her attention and her phone back toward the corpse. She snapped a photo. “And he prefers to be called a person with dwarfism. Or better yet, call him by his name.”
The cop persisted. “But what is that exactly? A forensic semiotician?”
Another snap. The corpse seemed to lunge in the phone’s flash. “It’s someone who studies the signs left by a killer. Any rituals the killer performs or writing he leaves at the scene.”
She turned to face him. The officer looked barely old enough to vote. His eyes were locked on some distant point high above the body. Maybe this was his first.
“Signs. Why don’t you ask him when you find him?” She made a shooing gesture. “Now go. And don’t let him put you off. I bloody well want him here.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The patrolman spared a glance for the body, then headed up the hill toward his blue-and-white unit parked on the dirt road behind Addie’s SUV. His shoes squelched in the mud along the path he’d taped off from the rest of the crime scene.
Addie turned back to the corpse. She had learned to say bloody well from the very British Evan. The phrase had served her well ever since she’d given up swearing for Lent one year and decided she liked being the cop who didn’t curse.
Always the rebel.
A witch’s gale scattered wavelets across the river, carrying the bite from Lake Michigan, the punch of it like a cuff from a bear. The body’s lower half swayed in the reeds. Only the fact that it had been staked down kept the river from tugging it into deeper water.
Far away, lights gleamed on the Chicago skyline, illuminating the Willis and Tribune Towers, the rippling visage of the Aqua Tower, and the square-shouldered, no-nonsense rise of the John Hancock Building. The Mag Mile Lights Festival was only a week away. Thanksgiving a few days after that.
A holiday this man would never again celebrate.
“I’m sorry for what’s happened to you,” she said to the corpse.
The body stirred as if still capable of hearing and understanding. As if it longed to rise out of the dark water and take in the glittering lights with her, imagine feast-laden tables and crackling fires, plump turkeys and tart cranberries and the velvet smoothness of all things pumpkin, finally raising a boisterous toast with family and friends: Here’s to a good year!
Addie touched the cross around her neck again and kept taking photos.