“A cow?” repeated Cara, staring at Solveig as though she’d turned into one herself.

We were at the restaurant, at our usual table. It was just starting to fill up for dinner, and the chatter of diners and clink of cutlery that filled the air made our conversation seem even more absurd.

“Why would anybody murder a cow when there’s perfectly good McDonalds everywhere where they can get one already deid for a couple of pounds?” she demanded, and Solveig rolled her eyes.

“I don’t think they were planning to make burgers,” she said. “It was drained of blood.”

“Oh for goodness’ sake, somebody’s having you on,” said Cara. “Some mad farmer on a dare, or –”

“Wait, hold on Cara –” I held up my hand. “How did they manage to drain a cow?”

“It was hung up in the woods, from a very large branch,” said Solveig.

“Who has the strength to hang a cow up?”

I’m not really a weight lifter myself, but every once in a while we do bootcamp activities like tire flipping, and I’ve seen Roddy and a few of his muscle man pals lift stuff that’d make your eyes water, but still, a cow? Aside from anything else, it’s not exactly a convenient shape to get a decent grip on, and – at the risk of putting somebody off their lunch – I would have thought all that blood would make it pretty slippery.

Solveig shrugged. “It can’t have been one person. There must be at least two of them.” She turned to me. “You definitely don’t recall more than one person when you were attacked?”

I thought it over. My memory of the attack itself is still a bit fragmented. Probably if I hadn’t given it so much thought, I wouldn’t be aware of the blanks, I suppose you rarely recall every single second of anything. But when I think of it, it’s like flashes. Being grabbed. Being on the ground. Kicking, rolling, ducking.

“I wasn’t aware of anybody else. They’re certain it was the same guy?”

She nodded. “Normally we wouldn’t do such extensive testing on the body of a cow of course, but because it was the same area and the whole thing is so bizarre, the expense was approved, and they found skin cells and things that match.”

So the person who attacked me – and spared me – a year ago – or a few days ago – also gruesomely murdered two people, and a cow.

Right then.

“Had he eaten any?” asked Cara suddenly. “The cow. Didn’t you say he’d taken bites out the people?”

Solveig nodded, with an apologetic look at me. “You know I shouldn’t tell either of you any of this, right?” Cara waved her words away impatiently. “It’s difficult to be certain, but yes, there is some evidence to suggest cannibalism with the human bodies, but not on the cow.”

“We’re after a maniac who’s a fussy eater?”

“I think it was sacrifice,” Solveig said quietly.

“As in human sacrifice?” demanded Cara. “But a cow?”

“Many cultures around the world make various sacrifices to their gods, most often animals. Human sacrifice gets all the attention because it’s such a horrifying idea, but it’s far from the most common.”

“Still you have to admit it seems a wee bit back to front to eat people and sacrifice cows,” Cara said, and I knew that she was at least partly being funny to take the edge off for me.

I gestured to her to pass the wine as I – no pun intended – digested this.

Solveig explained that the efficiency with which the cow was killed is now making the police zero in on farmers. Most people these days wouldn’t have a clue where to start killing an animal, particularly not one as big as a cow.

“They’d make a meal of it?” suggested Cara, and I started to giggle.

Solveig grinned too, then added that the guy must have worked in an abattoir or something to have been able to kill so swiftly and surely.

“So they’re looking for a highly trained fighter who probably weight lifts and works in an abattoir?” said Cara. “Surely that’s not going to take them long – how many of those can there be?”

“He’s like a bear,” I blurted suddenly, and they both stared at me. I can’t explain where that impression had suddenly come from, but as soon as I thought of it, I was certain. That’s what I’d thought, while I was fighting for my life. That I was fighting a bear.

“It’s not –” began Cara, then she stopped, a blush spreading over her face. It was the oddest sight; if there’s one thing Cara has never been in her entire life, it’s embarrassed. “Look, just let me say this before you laugh –” She cut herself off, then rolled her eyes and started again.  “My gran was evacuated up north to the Highlands during the war, somewhere near Inverness, I think. It was a kind wee couple that took her in, who had no kids of their own, and she loved them to bits. She kept in touch with them for the rest of their lives, and visited them most summers. Anyway, they were quite superstitious, proper old-school teuchters, full of stories of fairies and ghosties and Kelpies and the like.”

“A Kelpie’s a horse, is it not?” I said. “I would definitely remember if I’d been beaten up by a horse.”

“Well they can shapeshift,” Cara replied defensively. “And they’re hardly the only creatures, Highland folk talk about. No doubt there is some bear-like…”

“– Monster?”

She shrugged, then went silent long enough to freak me out a bit. “Spit it out, Cara,” I snapped.

“It’s just that there’s another story she used to tell that’s niggling at me,” she said. “It was about these two folk musicians who used to tour the Highlands. Young guys, twenties. One night in the middle of a storm they happened upon a wild party going on in a barn in the middle of nowhere. A right proper Ceilidh, the kind where one minute you’re being flung about and the next somebody’s broken your nose. They stayed all night, dancing and drinking and hooked up with a couple of wee lassies. Then then next morning, they went home to, Edinburgh I think it was, and one of them couldn’t get his front door open – the key wouldn’t work. Finally he just battered on the door and it was opened by somebody he didn’t recognise – but then he realised it was his baby son, all grown up. And the minute the son realised it was his dad who’d been missing for 20-odd years, he stepped forward to hug him – but the old man turned to dust.”

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