hand of the wolf - dci mcneill book 3 - excerpt


The hunter moved silently, each step careful and calculated, leaving barely a trace on the crisp snow beneath him. The air was filled with the scent of green needles and the earthy musk of damp soil. Here, the trees stood as ancient sentinels, their interlaced branches forming an impenetrable canopy overhead.They allowed no competition, reducing the sunlight that seeped through their woven branches to almost nothing. In this realm of shadows and muted light, the trees dictated the rules of survival, smothering the ambitions of any undergrowth daring enough to vie for a place under their dominion. At midday, the forest was dark. In places the ground brown, where the snow had failed to penetrate the forest ceiling. The hunter moved deliberately, keeping to the cover of the fir trees. He wore camouflage and a mask covering the lower part of his face. Dark intent eyes gazed through the shadowed ranks of trees. He barely blinked as he raised the rifle to his shoulder and looked into the sights mounted on top of the barrel. A hundred yards ahead, slightly below him, was a woman. Long, fair hair tied back and a pretty, round face. A beautiful face. For a moment, the sights lingered on her perfect features, magnified.

Gareth Bellamy smiled, following her with the sights as she moved. Annika Eklund was slim, blue-eyed and with pert breasts that she showed off with tight jumpers at every opportunity. Gareth had asked her out in the first week that she’d been at the Kingussie Wildlife Reserve, an expert in wolves and wildcats. Gareth was ex-Army, a dog handler and marksman. He hadn’t expected to find a job that might use both skills when he rejoined civvie street and went home to Inverness. Then the job had come up at Kingussie, tagging animals that lived on the reserve so they could be tracked. And a month of training from a smoking hot Swede on the habits of the animals he was going to be tracking.

She’d been the one to shoot first. Gareth had crashed and burned with one word. Lesbian. Now he had her in his sights and she was oblivious to his scrutiny. It would take less than a second. She would know nothing about it. The sights dipped slightly, giving him a magnified view of her torso. The winter gear she wore covered up that body well. Gareth sighed and returned to his perusal of her face. A flash of white at the periphery of his sight came at the same time as Annika reached for a walkie talkie.

“Alpha, one hundred yards ahead, passing a deadfall, heading uphill. Do you see her?”

Gareth’s expert eyes darted to the flash of white, and he saw the wolf. Time for work. He was here because the vets at the Kingussie Reserve urgently needed to examine one of their charges. An animal that wouldn’t come quietly. It was coming up the slope, facing him. Head raised, sniffing the air. Gareth had no doubt it knew where he was, Annika too, though both wore a pungent scent to screen their own human smell. The vet, Colin McCauley, should be at the bottom of the hill and another sharpshooter fifty yards to Gareth’s right, atop the ridge there. The wolf was passing into a circle formed by the four people. Gareth reached for the walkie talkie fastened to the shoulder of his jacket and spoke softly.

“Gaz here. I have eyes. I see Annika and…I see you too, Taz. Colin, I can’t see you, so keep your head down.”

“Got you, Gaz. I don’t have a clear shot,” came Taz’s reply.

“I’ve got the shot,” Gareth said.

The entire exchange had taken place without the wolf leaving his sights. His finger applied pressure to the trigger as the animal turned, presenting a side-on target. He adjusted his aim and slowly let out his breath, then held it. He squeezed the trigger. The gun emitted a slight pop, and a second later, a bright flash of green appeared on the wolf’s side as the dart found its mark. The animal bolted, moving from stillness to full sprint in a heartbeat. Within two strides, the fight-or-flight reaction had raised the animal’s heartbeat, pumping the tranquiliser through its system even faster. It stumbled. Righted itself. Tried to run again. Fell.

“Alpha is down,” Annika said. “Let’s get her back to the Land Rover before the rest of the pack gets here.”


 “We got to her just in time. Her stomach looks quite distended. There’s some kind of infection there,” Annika said.

“I was thinking it might be torsion, but it’s too high. Definitely upper GI, not lower,” Colin replied, examining the gastrointestinal tract more closely.

They stood over the slumbering form of the Eurasian gray wolf. It looked like a dog, but with all the domesticity that humankind had bred into dogs stripped back. What was left was a majestic lean form strapped with muscle and a face that would stare down a man with ice-blue eyes. Even under the thick fur, the distension of the stomach was clear.

“There’s something hard there,” Colin said. “Could be an abscess has formed around whatever it is.”

He was balding with glasses and a stomach that stretched the disposable plastic gown he wore. His brown eyes glanced at the monitor showing the wolf’s vitals, picking out the key information from the dancing numbers.

“X-ray?” Annika suggested.

“Yes,” Colin replied. “It’s lucky our army boy didn’t hit the stomach. The shock of that much pain might have killed her.”

“He’s an excellent shot,” Annika said. “I don’t think Taz could have got her from that distance. One thing he’s got going for him, anyway.”

“Anything else?” Colin asked, looking over the top of his glasses.

Annika smiled. “Shall we focus on the job? I don’t date where I work. I told you.”

“Right. Just checking,” Colin replied.

“I’m sure your husband would appreciate your interest in my love life,” Annika said, crossing the clinic to a locked cupboard where the portable x-ray machine was located.

“I’m only looking out for you,” Colin said, kicking off the locks on the wheels of the metal table where the wolf lay.

He pushed the table into the middle of the room, orientating it to make the animal’s stomach accessible to the x-ray.

“I’ve spent my career around dangerous predators. Gareth doesn’t even come close,” Annika said. “He’s a child.”

“He is, aye,” Colin agreed. “A Ned, as we would say in Scotland.”

“Ned?” Annika asked, wheeling the x-ray machine out.

“Non. Educated. Delinquent. Probably straight into the Army at sixteen,” Colin said. “Right. How’s that looking?”

Annika switched on a monitor connected to the x-ray and made some adjustments. Colin arranged the screens over the parts of the wolf they wanted to protect. She wasn’t just precious because she was a living creature. She was the alpha female of Kingussie’s only wolf pack. That pack was part of the project to re-introduce the Eurasian Gray Wolf to Europe, and the highlands of Scotland were one of the zones chosen for the program. On the basis that if it didn’t work, the wolves would be confined to an island and more easily recaptured. Colin desperately hoped that wouldn’t be necessary, though. The media and farmers as far away as Sussex were up in arms about the project. They were ignorant. Colin hated nothing more.

They completed the set-up of the x-ray with expert precision. Colin left the room while Annika took the pictures. Beyond the clinic was a corridor lined with maps of the Kingussie reserve and cross-section illustrations of wolf anatomy. A seating area at the far end of the corridor held Gaz and Taz, as they liked to be known. Two young men hired for their marksmanship more than their veterinary knowledge. Gaz raised a coffee cup in salute, his hair and beard auburn and his grin boyish. Taz was on his phone, his naturally anxious expression firmly in place, black eyebrows drawn down. Colin nodded to Gaz and stepped into the room next to the clinic, where a laptop would display the digitised results of the x-ray. Colin sat in a swivel chair and wheeled it across the lino floor to the laptop.

He heard someone coming along the corridor and didn’t need to look up to know when Gaz stood in the doorway.

“How’s the target?” he asked.

“Sleeping like a baby,” Colin said. “Just waiting on the x-ray results coming up.”

“Excuse me, Gareth,” Annika said.

Gaz moved into the room, but not quite far enough that Annika didn’t have to squeeze past him. Taz appeared behind and pulled Gaz fully out of the way by his sleeve. Gaz sniggered. Annika put a hand to the back of Colin’s chair, the other on the desk, and ignored the marksman. Colin didn’t know how she did it. He clicked into the x-ray translation software and they waited while it processed the images being transmitted digitally from the machine next door. They appeared on the screen in monochrome. Colin’s eyes skipped to the area of the lump, but Annika saw it first.

“Christ! What the hell is that?” she said, pointing.

Colin felt his stomach clench and the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Gaz had come into the room and he swore, making him jump. Colin stared at the image on the screen, at the foreign object in the wolf’s stomach that had been causing her pain, bringing her to the attention of the veterinarian team, which he was part of. An object whose presence could mean the end of the project. He licked his lips, his mouth dry.

“We need to call the police,” he said. “Now.”