"‘So you know about birds, I take it?’
‘Yes, sir.’ He pointed along the shore with his stick. ‘That?’
A female oystercatcher.’
‘And by the pool?’
‘Redshank. He has been stamping his feet and flapping for nearly an hour – in courtship. I believe he must have lost his first brood and is trying again.’
‘Am I being tested?’ I asked.
For the first time he smiled, but it wasn’t a pleasant expression. It was more like the smile a snake is said to give, when swallowing prey.
‘What can you tell me of these?’ he said, producing a couple of eggs he had folded into a band of cotton.
‘Well, the more elongated one is a sandwich tern’s. The other is a turnstone’s. Its markings often have a smudged appearance, such as this one. If you would like my opinion I would say it is not a particularly good example—’
‘Yes, yes, ’ he said impatiently. ‘I will employ you. I have a fine egg collection which is in need of restoration and of cataloguing. I shall pay you well and feed you for the duration of the time you spend at the house. Are you interested?’ He asked without any possibility of being turned down. He was forceful and persuasive.
‘We’ll walk back to the staithe together and discuss the particulars.’
‘Sir,’ I said. ‘What is in your bag?’
Celeste’s father, Judge Cottesloe, gave an ugly smile, while he considered. ‘You may look,’ he answered. In a matter of seconds he had reached into his felt bag and pulled out a live Arctic tern, which I estimated to be a juvenile from the previous year. The bird splayed its slender wings in terror as Celeste’s father held it, expertly but a little too tightly, as if he was wringing water from a flannel. ‘A sea swallow. I snared it in the colony.’ The bird trembled under the pressure of his hand.
‘For what purpose, sir?’
With that, he pushed the tern roughly into his bag, and it was then that I should have known, known that this man was a cruel and horrid man, known that I should never go to work for him. For as he forced the bird into the bottom of the bag his hand lingered for a second too long, and it was in that second that I heard a soft damp click. A noise that might easily have been missed. But I knew what it was. It was the bone in the tern’s wing being snapped."
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