When Cal comes out of the house, the rooks have got hold of something. Six of them are clustered on the back lawn, amid the long wet grass and the yellow-flowered weeds, jabbing and hopping. Whatever the thing is, it's on the small side and still moving.
Cal sets down his garbage bag of wallpaper. He considers getting his hunting knife and putting the creature out of its suffering, but the rooks have been here a lot longer than he has. It would be pretty impertinent of him to waltz in and start interfering with their ways. Instead he eases himself down to sit on the mossy step next to the trash bag.
He likes the rooks. He read somewhere that they're smart as hell; they can get to know you, bring you presents even. For three months now he's been trying to butter them up with scraps left on the big stump towards the bottom of the garden. They watch him trudge up and down through the grass, from the ivy-loaded oak where they have their colony, and as soon as he's a safe distance away they swoop down to squabble and comment raucously over the scraps; but they keep a cynical eye on Cal, and if he tries to move closer they're gone, back into the oak to jeer down at him and drop twigs on his head. Yesterday afternoon he was in his living room, stripping away the mildewed wallpaper, and a sleek mid-sized rook landed on the sill of the open window, yelled what was obviously an insult, and then flapped off laughing.
The thing on the lawn twists wildly, shaking the long grass. A big daddy rook jumps closer, aims one neat ferocious stab of his beak, and the thing goes still.
Rabbit, maybe. Cal has seen them out there in the early mornings, nibbling and dashing in the dew. Their holes are somewhere in his back field, down by the broad copse of hazels and rowans. Once his firearm license comes through, he's planning to see if he remembers what his grandpa taught him about skinning game, and if the mule-tempered broadband will deign to find him a recipe for rabbit stew. The rooks crowd in, pecking hard and bracing their feet to jerk out bites of flesh, more of them zooming down from the tree to jostle in on the action.
Cal watches them for a while, stretching out his legs and rolling one shoulder in circles. Working on the house is using muscles he'd forgotten he had. He finds new aches every morning, although some of that is likely from sleeping on a cheap mattress on the floor. Cal is too old and too big for that, but there's no point in bringing good furniture into the dust and damp and mold. He'll buy that stuff once he has the house in shape, and once he figures out where you buy it-all that was Donna's department. Meanwhile, he doesn't mind the aches. They satisfy him; along with the blisters and thickening calluses, they're solid, earned proof of what his life is now.
It's headed into the long cool September stretch of evening, but cloudy enough that there's no trace of a sunset. The sky, dappled in subtle gradations of gray, goes on forever; so do the fields, coded in shades of green by their different uses, divided up by sprawling hedges, dry-stone walls and the odd narrow back road. Away to the north, a line of low mountains rolls along the horizon. Cal's eyes are still getting used to looking this far, after all those years of city blocks. Landscape is one of the few things he knows of where the reality doesn't let you down. The West of Ireland looked beautiful on the internet; from right smack in the middle of it, it looks even better. The air is rich as fruitcake, like you should do more with it than just breathe it; bite off a big mouthful, maybe, or rub handfuls of it over your face.
After a while the rooks slow down, getting towards the end of their meal. Cal stands up and picks up the trash bag again. The rooks cock smart, instant glances at him and, when he starts down the garden, heave themselves into the air and flap their full bellies back to their tree. He hauls the bag down to a corner beside the creeper-covered tumbledown stone shed, pausing along the way to check out the rooks' dinner. Rabbit, all right, a young one, although barely recognizable now.
He leaves the trash bag with the rest and heads back to the house. He's almost there when the rooks kick off, jostling leaves and yelling cuss words at something. Cal doesn't turn around or break stride. He says very softly through his teeth, as he closes the back door behind him, "Motherfucker."
For the last week and a half, someone has been watching Cal. Probably longer, but he had his mind on his own business and he took for granted, like anyone would have a right to do amid all this empty space, that he was alone. His mental alarm systems were switched off, the way he wanted them. Then one night he was cooking dinner-frying a hamburger on the rust-pocked stove's one working burner, Steve Earle good and loud on the iPod speaker, Cal adding in the occasional crash of air drums-when the back of his neck flared.
The back of Cal's neck got trained over twenty-five years in the Chicago PD. He takes it seriously. He ambled casually across the kitchen, nodding along to the music and examining the counters like he was missing something, and then made a sudden lunge to the window: no one outside. He turned off the burner and headed for the door fast, but the garden was empty. He walked the perimeter, under a million savage stars and a howler's moon, fields laid out white all around him and owls yelping: nothing.
Some animal noise, Cal told himself, drowned out by the music so that only his subconscious picked it up. The dark is busy around here. He's sat out on his step well past midnight, a few times, drinking a couple of beers and getting the hang of the nighttime. He's seen hedgehogs bustling across the garden, a sleek fox stopping on its route to give him a challenge of a stare. One time a badger, bigger and more muscular than Cal would have expected, trundled along the hedge and disappeared into it; a minute later there was one high shriek, and then the rustle of the badger moving off. Anything could have been going about its business out there.
Before Cal went to bed that night, he stacked his two mugs and two plates on the bedroom windowsill and dragged an old desk up against the bedroom door. Then he called himself a dumbass and put them away.
A couple of mornings later he was stripping wallpaper, window open to let out the dust, when the rooks exploded up out of their tree, shouting at something underneath. The fast trail of rustles heading away behind the hedge was too big and noisy for a hedgehog or a fox, too big even for a badger. By the time Cal got out there, he was too late again.
Probably bored kids spying on the newcomer. Not much else to do around here, with the village no bigger than the little end of nothing, and the closest two-horse town fifteen miles away. Cal feels dumb for even considering anything else. Mart, his nearest neighbor up the road, doesn't even lock his door except at night. When Cal raised an eyebrow at that, Mart's high-boned face creased up and he laughed till he wheezed. "The state of that there," he said, pointing towards Cal's house. "What would anyone rob off you? And who'd rob it? Am I going to sneak in some morning and go through your washing, looking for something to spruce up my fashion sense?" And Cal laughed too and told him he could do with it, and Mart informed him that his own wardrobe would do him grand, seeing as he had no plans to go courting, and started explaining why not.
But there have been things. No big deal, just stuff that flicks at the edges of Cal's cop sense. Engines revving, three a.m. down faraway back roads, deep-chested bubbling snarls. A huddle of guys in the back corner of the pub some nights, too young and dressed wrong, talking too loud and too fast in accents that don't fit in; the snap of their heads towards the door when Cal walks in, the stares that last a second too long. He's been careful not to tell anyone what he used to do, but just being a stranger could be plenty, depending.
Dumb, Cal tells himself, turning on the burner under his frying pan and looking out the kitchen window at the dimming green fields, Mart's dog trotting beside the sheep as they plod peacefully towards their pen. Too many years on the beat in bad hoods, now farmhands look like gangbangers.
Bored kids, ten to one. All the same, Cal has started keeping his music down so he won't miss anything, he's thinking about getting an alarm system, and this pisses him off. Years of Donna lunging for the volume knob, Cal, that baby next door is trying to sleep! Cal, Mrs. Scapanski just had surgery, you think she needs that blowing her eardrums? Cal, what are the neighbors gonna think, we're savages? He wanted land partly so he could blast Steve Earle loud enough to knock squirrels out of the trees, and he wanted buttfuck nowhere partly so he wouldn't have to set alarms any more. He feels like he can't even, for example, adjust his balls without looking over his shoulder, which is something a man ought to be able to do in his own kitchen. Kids or not, he needs this put to bed.
At home he would have solved this with a couple of good, discreet cameras that uploaded straight to the cloud. Here, even if his Wi-Fi could handle that, which he doubts, the idea of taking his footage down to the nearest station doesn't sit well. He doesn't know what he might start: neighbor feud, or the watcher could be the officer's cousin, or who knows what.
He's considered tripwires. These are presumably illegal, but Cal is pretty sure this in itself wouldn't be a big deal: Mart has already offered twice to sell him an unregistered shotgun that he's got lying around, and everyone drives home from the pub. The problem is, again, that Cal is in the dark on what he might set in motion.
Or what he might have set in motion already. Listening to Mart, Cal has started to get an inkling of how tangled up things get around here, and how carefully you have to watch where you put your feet. Noreen, who runs the shop in the brief double line of buildings that counts as Ardnakelty village, won't order the cookies Mart likes because of a complicated saga that took place in the 1980s and involved her uncles, Mart's father and grazing rights; Mart doesn't speak to an unpronounceable farmer on the other side of the mountains because the guy bought a pup that was sired by Mart's dog when it somehow shouldn't have been. There are other stories like that, although Cal doesn't have them all straight, because Mart talks in big sweeping loops and because Cal doesn't fully have the hang of the local accent. He likes it-rich as the air, with a needle-fine point that makes him think of cold river water or mountain wind-but chunks of the conversation go right over his head, and he gets distracted listening to the rhythms and misses more. But he's gathered enough to know that he could have sat on someone's stool in the pub, or cut across the wrong piece of land on one of his walks, and that that could mean something.
When he arrived here, he was ready for closed ranks against the stranger. He was OK with that, as long as no one set his place on fire; he wasn't looking for golf buddies and dinner parties. But it didn't turn out that way. People were neighborly. The day Cal arrived and started hauling stuff into and out of the house, Mart wandered down to lean on the gate and probe for information, and ended up bringing over an old mini-fridge and recommending a good building supplies store. Noreen explained who was what kind of cousin to who and how to get onto the group water scheme, and-later, once Cal had made her laugh a few times-started offering, only halfway joking, to set Cal up with her widowed sister. The old guys who apparently live in the pub have moved from nods to weather comments to passionate explanations of a sport called hurling, which to Cal looks like what you might get if you kept the speed, dexterity and ferocity of ice hockey but took away the ice and most of the protective equipment. Up until last week he felt that he had been, if not exactly welcomed with open arms, at least accepted as a mildly interesting natural phenomenon, like maybe a seal that had taken up residence in the river. Obviously he was always going to be an outsider, but he was getting the feeling that that wasn't a big deal. He's no longer so sure.
So, four days ago, Cal drove into town and bought a big bag of garden soil. He's aware of the irony of buying more dirt, when he just spent most of his savings on ten acres of it, but his personal dirt is rough and chunky, shot through with grass roots and small sharp rocks. For this he needed fine, moist, even stuff. The next day he got up before dawn and spread a layer of it by the outside wall of his house, under each of the windows. He had to pull weeds and creepers and scrape back pebbles to get a decent surface. The air was cold right down to the bottom of his lungs. Slowly the fields lightened around him; the rooks woke up and started bickering. When the sky got bright and he heard Mart's faint peremptory whistle to his sheepdog, Cal crumpled up the soil bag to stuff at the bottom of the trash, and went inside to make breakfast.
Next morning, nothing; morning after that, nothing. He must have got closer than he thought, the last time, must have given them a scare. He went about his business and kept his eyes off the windows and the hedges.