Chapter One

„Alright, give it a rest, you silly dog, I'm coming!"

Vivian Baker slammed her book face down on the armchair and got up. It was foggy outside, wet and chilly. Scottish summer, Vivian thought with a wry grimace as she shrugged into her jacket and put on her walking boots. The dog, that had been pacing the tiny hall, stood still now, looking at her expectantly. With a sigh she took down the leash and fastened it on the collar. Then she opened the door and they stepped outside into the damp evening air. The light was already fading, but she would still be able to do her usual round, starting at the footpath along the river. Drawing up the hood of her jacket against the drizzle she set off at a quick pace.

The narrow streets were deserted. Had all the other people walked their dogs earlier? Or were the other animals so well-behaved and undemanding that they didn't need an evening walk? As a matter of fact Vivian didn't like dogs very much; this one belonged to one of her friends and had come together with the cottage. Her friend was a script-writer and had managed to get hold of a job in Hollywood, asking Vivian to house-sit during her absence. She'd had nothing better to do; having just lost her job with a public relations agency as well as broken up with her boyfriend, Vivian's life was in shatters and she was glad for the change of surroundings. So here she was, transferred from busy London to a quiet and picturesque village in Scotland, sharing an equally picturesque cottage with a large Australian shepherd dog. She had arrived four days ago and at this particular moment the prospect of staying here for another six months to her was not a very alluring one.

They passed the last houses and came to the footpath, the softly murmuring river on one side, a stonewall badly in need of repair and behind that a large meadow on the other. The loud panting of the dog and the regular patter of his paws on the wet gravel were the only noises in the damp stillness of the night. Despite her waterproof jacket Vivian felt cold and quickened her pace in order to return to the warmth of her temporary home as quickly as possible. Suddenly the dog stopped in his tracks, making Vivian nearly trip over him. The animal stood perfectly still, his posture one of highest attention. Vivian pulled down her hood and held her breath to listen, staring into the foggy gloom of the meadow, but there was nothing she could hear or see. She gave the leash a determined pull.

"Come on, Hercules, it's nothing, let's go home," she said. The dog, however, living up to his name concerning strength, defied her attempts to move him and stubbornly remained where he was. Vivian pulled again – and nearly unbalanced, when the dog suddenly jumped over the low wall and vanished, taking his leash with him.

"Hercules, come back!" she shouted, furious about the dog's disobedience and her own failure to handle him. But the animal didn't heed her, she could see his shadow as he was speeding across the meadow.

"Shit!"

She scrambled over the wall and made after the dog, stumbling rather than running on the uneven ground. It was getting darker and darker and she hoped she wouldn't get caught in a rabbit hole and break her leg.

She could hear the dog bark a short distance to the right and changed direction. Another bark. Finally, panting and with painful stitches in her right side, she reached the animal and saw what had upset him so much. There was a dark shape lying on the ground. On closer inspection the dark shape turned out to be a man, dressed in swathes of black cloth, his face very white and, as far as she could see in the fading light, covered with blood.

"Bloody hell!" was all that came to her mind and it took her some seconds of staring and helpless indecision before she was able to react. She crouched next to the man and with trembling fingers touched his blood-stained neck, trying to find his pulse. It took her some time to ascertain that there still was one, albeit very faint. What next? First aid? Her mind was blank, she couldn't remember what to do in such a situation. Better stay away. Her fumbling fingers started looking for her mobile in the inside pocket of her jacket and she barely recognized her voice when she finally dialled and called an ambulance.

Then she resumed her helpless watch. They had told her not to touch anything, not to move the man, so she could only wait and hope that he wouldn't die before the arrival of the ambulance. It was very quiet, darkness had fallen, the nearly full moon partly hidden behind the fast moving clouds. The dog was sitting next to her, uncannily quiet and stiff.

Slowly she crouched and in the eerie light of the bright moon studied the man's face. It wasn't handsome. A large hooked nose, deep lines around the mouth and between the brows. Lines carved by what? Grief and sorrow? By angry scowls? Grimaces of hatred? Whatever it was, his life could not have been easy. How old? Hard to tell, anything between 40 and 50, she thought. And his clothes – she had never seen such an attire in real life. It looked as if it was some period costume. Strange, definitely strange. The man stirred, his face contorted with pain and he drew a shuddering breath, his right hand twisted briefly and then he fell quiet again. Vivian stared at the face in terror, straining her ears to hear him breathe, then putting her hand on his chest, feeling for the movement. Don't die, please, don't die, she pleaded silently.

Finally she saw the flashing blue lights approaching and heard the noise of cars moving slowly on the uneven, narrow footpath, yellow headlights bobbing up and down. And then the place erupted in noise and commotion. A doctor and paramedics busied themselves with the injured man, police started searching the area for traces of violence and questioned Vivian about her finding him. He was carried into the ambulance and Vivian heard the doctor say 'Crosshouse, Kilmarnock' and they were off. Vivian and Hercules were given a lift home by the police; the female officer asked her if she was alright and when she had assured her that she was she was alone again. Alone with the image of the pale, black-clad man in the dark meadow.

Thanks to J.K.Rowling for letting me borrow characters and plot.