WIP Wednesday – Dark Tides: Chapter One

For this Work In Progress Wednesday, I’m introducing you to a science fiction story I’ve had on the back burner for some time. Set in the oceans, it explores the backlash of nature against humans, driven by an unseen, unknown force.

CHAPTER ONE

A shuddering, violent exhale of breath burst from the blow hole of the bull, as his great back breached the surface and rolled under again. Close to exhaustion, he drifted a few yards and stilled his tired body. The water around him was colder, darker, and much shallower than his usual paths and harbours. The pain in his head had driven him far beyond his familiar haunts, into dark lonely seas.

The sound of the small boats above and behind him stirred him into laboured movement again. He slowly arched his back and raised his tail into the air, smashing it down onto the water’s surface to vent his frustration at their presence and efforts. Although the pulse in his head was much more subdued in these colder, eastern waters, he still had to fight the aggressive urges that swept over him. In the sixty-five years he had lived, he had been lucky to have never been hunted, although he had witnessed the pursuit once as a calf. His memories of the water turning red, his father’s screams as his side had exploded, and the thrashing slaps of his flippers as he writhed in agony had long been buried. But recently, they had surfaced again, tearing through his consciousness with renewed intensity and purpose.

Since the death of his father, whenever he had heard the mournful, grieving song his mother and aunts had sung that day, he had known to turn away and seek new seas. His new memories of humans had been good ones. They were of small boats like the ones surrounding him now, filled with people that coaxed him closer with gentle sounds, or divers drifting with him in warm blue water. He bore them no grudge.

The bull rolled onto his side, letting his flipper tower out of the water. Residual streams ran down its surface before it splashed back down. He righted himself and moved off again with deliberate flicks of his flukes. He ignored the purr from the boat motors, his echolocation telling him he was unable to go much further now. Although invisible to him in the dark murky water, he could sense the banks of the river rising out of the bed of the estuary and closing in on him. He could taste the mixture of salt and fresh water, the salinity dwindling with every move forward. The physical toll of his journey, and the extra effort needed to keep his mass buoyant in the waters of the river was draining the last of his strength. He knew he wouldn’t live much longer. He hadn’t fed during his lonely swim to the east and south.

~

Sergeant John Mitchell of the Metropolitan River Policing Unit circled the immense whale again, frustrated by its stubborn passage along the Thames. The small boats he had commandeered to try and force the animal back were not having the desired effect, and as he looked up, he saw that several recognisable silhouettes of the London skyline were coming into view. Largest and closest was the London Eye, the giant Catherine-wheeled tourist attraction whose elevated pods gave views stretching across the capital. But today, all eyes were looking down.

The tide was at its highest right now, but in five hours’ time, the mighty Thames would be at its lowest point. The whale would be in serious danger of becoming stranded in the shallows or even on the banks.

He glanced at the helicopters beginning to gather in the sky. The stubborn cetacean was the only news story for Londoners today. Humpback whales followed strict migration routes between the polar seas and the Caribbean. Although they were known to spend several months off the coast of southern Ireland and even western Scotland, it was a very rare and strange occurrence to see them in the North Sea or English Channel. One had never been reported in the Thames before.

The whole spectacle sickened Mitchell. If the whale was to die, which he now suspected was its reason for wandering into the estuary in the first place, the city would be able to watch it on the breakfast news, just another momentary spectacle in an otherwise boring and stagnant world. He grabbed the radio.

“Is the net ready? Over.” He spoke so quietly it was as if he was asking only himself.

There was only a second’s pause before the crackled reply came.

“Yes sir, it won’t get beyond Waterloo Bridge. We’re all set here. Over”

He replaced the radio back on the wheel column of the Targa 31 Fast Patrol Vessel he was piloting. He wondered what the whale would do when it reached the dead end. He knew his commanders were talking to authorities around the world as to why this creature was even here, in his river. Some were saying climate change. Others were saying illegal whalers had chased him there. The only thing that seemed clear was that nobody really knew.

~

The bull now knew his purpose. At first, it had been to simply keep moving, hoping the pain in his head would dull. His enormous brain, the size of a small car, had recognised the link between his aggressive desires and the pulsing agony. It was as he had prepared to attack and sink a small vessel in sheltered waters that he had noticed the sudden subduing of the pain. He had turned away from the boat in angry confusion, driving himself away. He was used to parasites – the crustaceans that clung to his flippers and flukes, or the remoras that sucked onto his belly. He now recognised the violent urges that swelled up in him as the alien intrusions of such organisms. He fought the unnatural desires with his wavering will-power, seeking out and trying to communicate to the animals he felt compelled to destroy. Now stripped of his strength, there was little more he could do. It was then that he began to sense the net.

~

Sergeant Mitchell felt the swell underneath as the whale’s giant tail rose out of the water in front of the boat. The animal was putting on a sudden burst of speed, heading straight down the middle of the river. Waterloo Bridge was in full view to the small boats following in its wake, and as Mitchell looked to his left, he could see large crowds gathering on the embankment.

The enormous rippled spine broke the surface of the water. There were cheers and shouts from both sides of the river. The great black head surged through the froth, creating a bow wave as the whale put on more speed. Whistles and camera flashes began to ripple along the banks of the river on both sides. Fathers held their children on their shoulders, pointing and smiling. The cheer rose as one, as an enormous snort thundered out of the blowhole, followed by a jet of mist that rose seven feet into the air. Then it disappeared below the water’s surface.

~

The bull spread out its flippers wide as it tilted its body and glided into a graceful turn. He sang a last and pitiful song knowing there would be no answer. The very edge of one fin gently stroked against the muddy bottom of the river as he propelled himself upwards with powerful thrusts of his tail. With a final and well-timed flick of his flukes, he shot into the air. His head burst from the water, his body rigid and working hard to gain height and momentum. Then gravity turned against him and his mass, slowing his ascent to the point he seemed to hang in mid-air. He began to twist and fall backwards.

~

The crowd had little time to react to the enormous creature as its shadow fell across them. They hadn’t expected it to breach so close to the embankment. They watched, unable to move as its great eye moved over the crowd. Those closest felt a wave of sadness sweep over them as they understood its action. The whale crashed down over the concrete rail, rolling forward through the snack and souvenir stand at the entrance to the London Eye. Water streamed down the sides of its body. Its own weight was already killing it, crushing the heart and lungs that would usually be protected from its bulk suspended in water.

~

As Sergeant Mitchell circled close to the bank, children on the shoulders of their fathers cried. The crowd surged backwards as wonder turned to horror. They turned away from the spectacle they had turned out to see, hurt and embittered by an event they could have never imagined. As families comforted each other, little did they know it would be a poignant yet unheeded warning.

WIP Wednesday – Blues Hound

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I got to keep moving….and the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail…

 Robert Johnson, 1937

The above lyrics were written by Robert Johnson, an American blues guitarist, singer and songwriter. He was known for being somewhat ordinary in most regards, except for his musical talent. His undeterred commitment to the road – travelling in all seasons and weathers saw him travel all over the Mississippi delta, playing in Memphis, Helena and smaller towns across the region. He died at the age of 27, of unknown causes. But legend tells of a deal done with the devil at the crossroads, perhaps explaining both his seemingly supernatural skill, and need to keep moving on.

This popular, enduring legend has sat with me for some time, and today’s ‘Work in Progress Wednesday’ is Blues Hound – a story that I hope you find devilishly good!

CHAPTER ONE

Isaac sighed as he placed the trumpet back inside its battered case. The red velvet lining was beginning to look worn and had torn in a few places. He once imagined it covered in stickers of exotic locations and visa tags, but now, the only thing it was coated in was the beer some drunk had knocked over as he passed by. He cleaned and buffed away until the liquid and the smell had gone. He sighed again as he shut the case and locked it.

Three of the bulbs around his dressing room mirror had blown and never been replaced. It made his strong, dark face look drawn – grey almost. Strange shadows fell down from his brow. His salt and pepper stubble and matching buzz crop hair made him look younger than he was, but the crows-feet and eyes themselves never lied. He was old and tired.

He took his old trilby hat from the stand and placed it on his head. He looked in the mirror and let out a third and final deep sigh. At least black never went out of fashion. The hat, shirt and suit were the only clothes he owned, but he had never needed more. He opened the door of the dressing room and turned out the lights as he left.

He crossed the dark bar in silence, giving a simple nod of the head to Bubba – the big, mean looking, but actually kindly owner who was stacking the tables and chairs. In a few short steps he was out into the early morning air.

Honestly, what do I expect? he thought. He looked around. He was playing in a swamp, on the outskirts of a town even Louisiana considered distinctly back-water. This is how he would end his days, playing in an out-of-town bar surrounded by nothing but swamp, gators and cottonmouths. He shuffled along the dirt track to the crossroads where he would wait for his grandson. He set down the trumpet case, disturbing the dust a little so that it was picked up and carried a little in the wind.

It wasn’t cold out, but he felt a sudden chill in the air. As he looked up, he watched as the stars seemed to go out one by one. He checked his watch to see if he was early, only to notice the second hand slowly shudder and then stop. He heard the wind pick up, then suddenly, it was rushing along the road, howling like an express train, and, as he looked, he caught the thick tendrils of a twister as it touched down a little way from the crossroads. As his breath caught in his chest, it seemed to suddenly change size and velocity, passing him by in a cyclone of brown tainted air and tumbleweed. He realised it was just a dust devil, but he felt unnerved and on edge.

He looked back up the road and saw a pair of headlights steadily approaching him. He smiled with relief, grateful for his grandson’s timely appearance. But as the car drew near, he realised it wasn’t his grandson in his dishevelled Volkswagen bus. It was a sleek, black, 1955 Cadillac Coupe de Ville in immaculate condition. It looked like it had just driven off the production line. It slowly trundled to a halt beside him, the big V8 four-stroke engine burbling and rumbling its displeasure of the low spluttered revs as it idled. The blacked-out window now opposite him slithered downwards with an electric hum. A silver-haired, handsome – but older white man, met his gaze with steely blue eyes and a smile that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a crocodile.

“You must be the Isaac I’ve heard so much about,” grinned the man.

At that, the driver’s door opened and a very large black man, wearing an expensive and tight fitting pinstripe suit stepped out. He had a huge barrel chest and he seemed to ripple as he walked. Isaac had seen Cassius Clay and Doug Jones fight at Madison Square Gardens in 1963, and he felt sure this man would have been able to hold his own against either of them, or perhaps even both at the same time. As it was, he appeared to be the man in the car’s valet, as he opened the door for him.

The man wore a perfectly tailored, dark grey pinstripe suit, with a claret red tie and a white silk shirt underneath. As he stepped from the car, he put on a matching grey pinstripe fedora with a claret silk band. Isaac had always liked the look and feel of a hat and found himself warming to the man unintentionally.

“Who have you heard about me from?” Isaac asked, wondering if he could be a talent scout maybe.

“Oh word gets around,” smiled the man. “Smokey Bo Benson mentioned you, wanted me to check you out.”

“Really? Thought that boy died a long time ago,” Isaac smiled.

“Bluesmen don’t die, they just improvise,” grinned the man.

“You play?” Isaac asked.

“I’ve been known to play a mean fiddle from time to time,” the man quipped with a grin. “Why don’t we talk about getting you out of this dump and into the limelight Isaac? Come sit with me whilst you wait for your grandson.”

Isaac took a step towards the car. After all, what do I have to lose he thought.

WIP Wednesday – Rogue: Chapter Four

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Artwork: Stephen Meyer, Yeti concept. Featured in line with fair use.

In last week’s Work-In-Progress Wednesday, you were introduced to a new character who will be appearing in my upcoming book, Phantom Beast. That character was Nina Lee, a Forest Ranger, who will be getting her own spin-off series, the first of which is titled ‘Rogue’.

Rogue is another America-set story with a cryptid at its heart. This time however, it is the legendary sasquatch, aka bigfoot, that will be stalking the forests. I won’t give much else away, but I hope you enjoy this first introduction to both Nina Lee and Rogue

CHAPTER FOUR

Nina Lee took a deep breath, glancing at her cup of coffee that had gone stone cold. She waited for the sobs to reside at the other end of the line. She stared back over the missing persons form. Jake Sutton, nineteen years of age, last heard from three days ago as he hiked south, away from the Pacific Crest Trail and along the eastern border of Mount Rainier National Park. He had abandoned a group of elderly hikers he’d been with, and hadn’t picked up the supply pack waiting for him at the forestry post he’d been scheduled to stop at yesterday. It had now been 24 hours, so he could officially be listed as a missing person. His hysterical mother sounded like she had been counting down the seconds before picking up the phone.

People went missing all the time up here. Some even wanted to. That’s what the families sometimes failed to grasp. After finishing the phone call and completing the report, she filed it and printed out the missing person poster for the board. Whilst there, she took down the outdated ones, the oldest, to make space.

Nina had been with the forestry service for just over five years, joining straight from the University of Washington at Tacoma. Despite majoring in Wildlife Ecology and Management with a minor in Forestry to boot, her aspirations of working with wildlife had quickly been grounded. It was mainly campers, timber firms and water treatment that took up her days. She walked through to the morning briefing. The call had held her up, and she was the last to enter.

“Now that we’re all here,” barked the agent at the front of the room.

The unidentified agent wore darkened glasses and looked like Chuck Norris’s fatter, meaner brother. Nina ignored his stare and took a seat. The guy had already waltzed in like he was the President, not even bothering to tell the lowly rangers which agency he and his suit-clad partner were from. Whoever they were, they seemed to make the chief and the other supervisors nervous. They didn’t seem like the usual Law Enforcement and Investigations Unit types. Although his partner could easily pass for FBI, fat Chuck most certainly couldn’t. With long red hair, a denim sleeveless jacket and a dirty camouflage tee underneath, he looked more like one of the truckers that might occupy any of the local sheriff drunk tanks. He dressed like a hillbilly and spoke like an asshole, that’s all Nina knew.

“Anyway,” stammered Marty Johnson, her boss, standing up as he did so. “North of the Resolute Campsite is currently out of bounds, and will remain so while these men are in the area.”

“I’m still not clear on that,” another ranger spoke up. “Who are these guys and how come they have that kind of authority?”

Travers was young, but spoke his mind. Nina knew everyone else was thinking the same.

“Fuck you, that’s who I am, son,” growled the Chuck Norris wannabe.

Nina glowered in her seat silently. She really didn’t like this guy.

“This grizzly is nothing like you’ve dealt with,” said the agent in the suit, changing tact. “We’re here to help and sort it out. We’re operating a curfew and closing most of the trails for the time being. You’ll also be paired up for the remainder of your patrols until we clear the area, just to be on the safe side.”

“Excuse me,” Nina interjected. “But most of us are hunters, from native backgrounds. We also deal with aggressive bears and other wildlife all the time. Why the extra precautions?”

“He’s a killer,” snapped the Chuck wannabe. “And the reason he’s a killer is because some little sweetheart like you in the Forestry Service took a pot-shot at him. We’re clearing up your mess.”

“And the fact that none of us here have seen neither hair nor hide of this supposed grizzly?” Nina challenged.

“Trust me darlin’, that speaks volumes,” chimed Chuck smugly.

Nina sat back, bristling at the man’s rudeness. She was Skokomish on her mother’s side and Navajo on her father’s. She’d probably known more about tracking and handling wildlife by the time she’d turned five than this guy would ever know. She was certain his attitude stank as much as he did, and looked at Marty for back up. She couldn’t believe he was standing for this. Marty failed to notice, as he was too busy staring at his feet. The meeting appeared to be over.

As the rest of the Forest Service officers got up and began to make their way back to their desks, Nina hung back. She noticed she wasn’t the only one. Scott Travers was too. Concerned his youth and brashness would get the best of him, she was determined to get to Marty and the two agents before him. She walked over, hurriedly.

“The others may be prepared to put up with this anonymous juris-my-dick-tion crap, but I won’t. I want to know who you guys are, I want to see your shields, and I want to see written authority. Until then, you, especially you,” she declared, pointing at fat Chuck, “can check your egos in the parking lot, whilst I run your plates.”

The look of panic Marty fixed her with did little to dissuade her. She couldn’t believe that a few seconds ago she had been worried about Travers being too blunt.

The agent in the suit stood up, a half smile on his face.

“Okay, settle down, I get it. My partner here can be a little forthright. My name is Special Agent Gregory Smith. This is Agent Cordell Jones,” he explained, nodding towards Chuck.

“Agents Smith and Jones…I’m seriously meant to believe that?” Nina exclaimed.

“Believe what you like, it’s the truth. And it’s all you’re getting,” Jones growled in her direction, stepping forward.

“What department are you with?” Nina asked, ignoring him. “You guys aren’t LEI, that’s for sure.”

“We’re…from a branch within the Bureau for Land Management,” Smith replied.

“That’s even harder to believe,” said Travers, who had walked up behind Nina as they were talking. She realised he was making it clear she had back up, but was keeping a respectful distance. He wasn’t stepping in, but he was prepared to. She appreciated the gesture.

“The Bureau for Land Management are investigating a grizzly bear attack?” Nina continued.

“Imagine if you can, there may be shit you don’t know,” Jones grinned.

“What I can imagine,” shrugged Nina, “is that’s a two-way street.”

Marty met her gaze. He seemed more in control now, but his glance still warned her to back off.

“Maybe they can be of help,” Marty suggested to the agents. “You’ve got a lot of ground to cover, a lot of people to talk to. Maybe it’s a case of many hands make light work.”

Smith gave a nod signifying his approval to Jones, who didn’t seem quite as taken with the idea. Then, smiling smugly, he reached behind him and grabbed a large pile of manila files from the table.

“Well, seeing how good you are at running your mouth n’all, maybe you can carry out some interviews,” he sneered. “It’ll keep you out of our hair, and we won’t have to waste our time with a bunch of drunk natives.”

Nina glowered at the man. She was on the brink of losing control of her temper. She imagined darting forwards and slamming her elbow into his face, breaking his nose. It would be easy, and satisfying. But she guessed Marty was nervous for a reason. She clenched her fists, only a little shake in her arms hinting at her pent-up fury. She snatched the files from him.

“Happy to be of help,” she replied, turning her back.

“One more thing,” Marty said, calling her back. “The patrolling in pairs thing is mandatory. Take Travers with you.”

“What?” Nina exclaimed. “Marty, there isn’t a thing in these woods I haven’t come across on my own before. I can handle it. Plus, up on the res, I can’t vouch for his safety, especially among them drunk natives,” she scowled, staring at Jones.

“My partner was out of line before,” Smith offered, “but you’re close to being the same way. It’s our way, or no way. If you want to be involved, this is it.”

Nina looked at Travers. He shrugged. He was trying to look nonchalant, but he clearly wanted in. She sighed. It seemed like a hopeless fight anyway. And Travers wasn’t a terrible choice of partner. Despite his youth, he was tall, well built, and could handle himself. He was a little impetuous and thoughtless, but nothing she couldn’t keep in check. And he knew not to push his luck with her, which was a major plus. As soon as her demeanour softened, his bright blue eyes sparkled mischievously. She often teased him that he had only been recruited because his brown hair matched the uniform, but compared to everyone else, she knew they could at least work together.

“Come on you big lug,” she sighed.

Travers followed her out of the room back to her desk. As she flipped through the files, she saw some familiar names. Some she dismissed, shuffling them to the bottom of the pile. Others she took an interest in and brought them to the top.

“Well, it might not be a dull day after all,” Nina quipped, looking up at Travers. “We’ll head up to the reservation like they want us to, but we’ll do some sightseeing on the way.”

“Where to?” Travers asked.

“First, there’s Lucas Christian,” Nina replied, raising an eyebrow.

“The writer?”

“The very one. Bought a huge piece of land out in the forest and built a luxury house out there. Rumour is that it’s less writing retreat, more fortress. I don’t know about you, but I’d like a look around that place.”

Travers nodded, impressed.

“Then there’s Patwyn Dalton, owner of Dalton logging. He’s been complaining about guys from the res moving stuff around his camp, damaging equipment and such like. And he just happens to have been the guy who sold the land to Lucas Christian.”

“Think that’s just a coincidence?” Travers asked.

“I think it’d be interesting to see how they’re linked to each other, that’s for sure.”

“Isn’t it like you said, guys from the res causing trouble with chunks of the forest being sold off?”

Nina smiled. “No, I don’t think so. But I think you’re right about one thing. I think it’s about territory. Let’s go find out.”

 

WIP Wednesday – Phantom Beast, Chapter Ten!

I’m going to be introducing some new regular posts across my channels, one being WIP (Work In Progress) Wednesday, where I’ll introduce you to some of the stories I am working on. To get things started, here is another new preview chapter from Phantom Beast. I know many of my readers have been waiting patiently for this release, and I am pleased to say that the end is very much in sight. But for now, let’s head to the wilds of Wyoming and a brewing storm!

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CHAPTER TEN

In the time it took Jericho to arrive, Thomas had changed out of his fishing gear into working boots, jeans, and a thick green-check chamois shirt. He hadn’t felt it whilst he’d been walking, but as he paced impatiently up and down along the trail outside of Lodge View, the cold wasn’t improving his mood. Despite being a relatively bright day, a storm was brewing inside him. Jericho had been flippant and dismissive on the phone. And now, he found himself questioning why Jericho would even be in the United States at the same time he was. With everything that happened, it surely couldn’t be a coincidence. A notorious tracker and trapper, with a flexible approach to the law, Jericho’s services were in high demand from a broad range of organisations. From government departments to private collectors, Jericho O’Connell worked with anyone willing to pick up the cheque. In return, problem animals would disappear, or the rarest specimen could be found. But the secrecy was something new. Jericho usually boasted unrelentingly about his exploits.

At the sound of a large vehicle making its way up the trail, Thomas turned to look. A brand new, jet black SUV of enormous size was making its way towards him. Just then, Jesse emerged from the treeline on the other side of the trail. He was clearly as interested in what Jericho had to say as Thomas was. As the car got closer, Thomas could see it was a top-of-the-range GMC Yukon. He was surprised on two accounts. First, a $100,000 vehicle was an unlikely find in a rental lot. Secondly, like himself, Jericho favoured slightly more rugged trucks, at least looks wise. The tinted glass made it hard for Thomas to see inside, but he could make out the white glow of the rancher-style hat Jericho preferred. The truck pulled up on the side of the trail, a little way off. The broad driver’s door opened, and out stepped the Irishman. He was wearing a leather drovers coat on top of his bright orange denim shirt and pale jeans. His sharp blue eyes shone in the shade the rim of his hat provided, and wisps of sun-bleached blonde hair poked out from under it and trailed down towards his shoulders.

“Quite the place you’ve got here,” Jericho nodded to Jesse.

“Want to explain what you’re doing in it?” Thomas accused.

“Now, let’s not forget the pleasantries,” Jericho replied, his eyes narrowing.

“You say you know something we don’t. Figure we skip the time-wasting,” Jesse remarked.

Jericho looked from one to the other and read the looks on both their faces. He quickly realised that tensions were already high.

“Okay,” he sighed. “Remember your cat back in Cannich?”

Thomas nodded silently, his eyes growing wide in alarm.

“Well, he’s a dad, and it’s a beautiful, bouncing baby girl,” Jericho chuckled.

The punch Thomas threw was so quick, Jericho never saw it coming. It connected with the right side of his chin and made him stagger a few steps to his left. For a moment, he was stunned, and he saw the anger burning in Thomas’ eyes.

“How could you?” Thomas roared “you know what we went through. You know it killed people.”

“including my pa,” Jesse growled, stepping forward.

“Now gents, let’s be civilised about this,” Jericho warned. “Besides, I can’t take two of you on. Well actually, what I mean to say is, I don’t want to.”

Jericho shrugged off the leather coat and let it fall to the ground. He raised his arms slightly, tensing the muscles in his forearms as he did and letting his fingers curl halfway into fists.

“You’re an asshole,” Jesse declared, stepping back and shaking his head.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Thomas spat. He walked straight up to Jericho and rammed a finger into his chest. “How could you not tell me?”

Something ignited in Jericho. Maybe it was the long drive. Maybe it was the cold weather. But he’d had enough. He shot his left palm into the centre of Thomas’s chest, pushing him back and out of his face. Almost out of habit, his right fist swung in a roundhouse punch to Thomas’s jaw.

“I owed you that,” Jericho nodded, slightly surprised at his own reaction.

Before he could say anything else, Thomas sprang, connecting in a full charge with the Irishman’s shoulder and knocking him backwards. Thomas kept the momentum going and they collapsed onto the ground. Thomas bent his arm and crossed it against Jericho’s chest, who was lying on his back and trying to get up. Jericho flinched as he saw the pain and rage wash over Thomas’s face. He decided to take what was coming. But he didn’t have to. Thomas staggered back to his feet, distracted by the noise of another truck coming along the track. His eyes were fixed on it.

“Have you quite finished?” Catherine demanded.

Thomas helped Jericho to his feet. They both looked sheepish and avoided her steely gaze. She stood in the doorway, but her attention too was drawn to the oncoming truck.

Thomas could see it was an older truck, black in colour and relatively compact.

“Shit,” sighed Jesse.

That’s when Thomas recognised the car too. It was a 1991 GMC Syclone pick-up truck. In its heyday it had been capable of out accelerating a Ferrari 348. It was fairly pointless as a working vehicle though. It was too light for heavy work and too heavy for light work. All it and its supercharged V6 engine had meant to do, was get from one set of lights to the next quicker than anything else. But Thomas already knew this one had been modified. It sat higher, on stiff, strong suspension and bulky all-terrain tyres. And he could already hear from the exhaust and the whine of the supercharger that they were not factory-issued. But he also knew all this because he knew who was behind the wheel of the truck. It belonged to Nina Lee, Jesse’s former girlfriend. She pulled into the side.

Nina was Native American. Her father was Skokomish and lived in Washington State. But Nina lived with her mother, who was of the Crow nation, and Wyoming born-and-bred. Thomas knew she was a Forest Ranger and an excellent tracker. As she got out of the truck, he could see why Jesse would have taken the breakup hard. She was stunning. Dark brown hair that rolled off her shoulders, hazel coloured eyes that shone with defiance. She was a very attractive woman.

“Look’s like it’s quite the party,” Nina jeered. “Trouble has a habit of following you around Mr. Walker,” she said with a smile.

“Joined at the hip,” Thomas shrugged.

“I’m guessing we’re all here and getting worked up about the same thing. Why don’t we all go inside and talk about this bear and whatever else might be on a killing spree,” Nina suggested.

“Finally, someone talking sense,” Catherine concluded, rolling her eyes but pushing the door wide open to welcome them all in.

Thomas nodded towards the door at Jericho.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be,” the Irishman replied. “I deserved it; I just didn’t like it.”

They all went inside Lodge View and headed up to the kitchen. They each took a seat around the breakfast bar. Thomas headed over to the coffee pot and began pulling mugs out of a cupboard. After filling each, he passed them over two at a time, then fetched a quart of milk from the fridge and some sugar cubes. He took a handful of spoons from a drawer and left people to adjust their drinks to their own preferences.

“Okay, Jericho, time to fill us in on what we don’t know, but you seem to,” Thomas suggested, softly but firmly.

The Irishman sighed deeply and took a big swig of his coffee, which he’d left black but added plenty of sugar to.

“The Cannich cat,” he said. “One of the highlights of its Highland fling was a visit to a wildlife park, where it killed a number of animals and a keeper. It did so to get access to a female mountain lion they had there. She had come into heat and proved too much of a temptation for the strapping lad. I’m sure you also remember the reported tragedy of how that same mountain lion then mauled the park’s owner to death? Well, that part wasn’t strictly true. It was her cubs.”

“Her cubs?” Catherine asked. She glanced at Thomas, who had gone pale.

“Four in total,” Jericho nodded. “They escaped, but two were killed pretty quickly – not my doing I might add. But as for the other two…”

“One’s made it over here?” Thomas asked, barely getting the words out as his throat clammed up at the mere thought.

“The British government thought it best not to tell you. The one over here is called Tama, and she was sold to a private collector. I arranged her capture and sale a few years ago.”

“So, what is Tama doing out in the wild then?” Catherine demanded.

“Beats me, obviously that was never part of the agreement,” Jericho shrugged.

“Is this why Keelson hasn’t been answering my calls?” Thomas asked. “Because she knows you’re wrapped up in this?”

“When did you speak to Kelly?” Jericho queried, a concerned look on his face.

Kelly Keelson was the TV news reporter who had shot to fame when the Cannich cat’s rampage had caught the headlines. Since then, having started her own production company, she had worked closely with Thomas, documenting how he and Catherine had hunted down the unusual pride of lionesses that had killed his first wife. Set in the same African wilderness that had been plagued by the man-eaters of Tsavo over a century before, it had been picked up worldwide. Since then, Thomas, Catherine and Kelly had become good friends. And Jericho and Kelly had become much more, at least it was rumoured.

“I haven’t, and that’s unusual,” Thomas replied.

Jericho didn’t seem relieved.

“Where’s the other cub?” Jesse asked.

“That we don’t know for sure, although I have a feeling she’s also in the hands of a collector. Not on these shores though, that’s for sure.”

“So, you’re on clean-up duty?” Thomas asked.

Jericho shrugged. “Kind of.”

“The problem is worse than you think,” Nina interjected. “It hasn’t made the news yet, but it’s all over the law enforcement channels. Last night, a dog fighting ring run by a star football player was destroyed. A fire pretty much cleaned up most of the evidence, but one body was found with both burns and bite marks. Big bite marks.”

“It started a fire?” Catherine exclaimed.

“Right now, they think it must have started accidentally,” Nina explained. “But I went and had a looksee. Whoever it was covered their tracks well, but not of their truck. And it was pretty heavily loaded at the rear. Somebody made it out of there. And I think they have this cat.”

“That’s a whole new problem if so,” Jericho added.

“You didn’t sell anyone a big grizzly too?” Nina accused, mockingly.

Unusually, Jericho went quiet, his eyes focusing on the mug of coffee.

“So, Tama,” Thomas said, changing the subject. “How much does she resemble her old man?”

“When I last saw her, she was nearly fully grown,” Jericho replied. “I’ve only seen your cat in the Natural History Museum in London, but I’d guess she’s only a shade smaller by now. She has mountain lion colouring, sort of sandy brown. But she has the bulk, and all the equipment of dear old dad.”

“A sabre-tooth?” Jesse exclaimed incredulously. “There’s a God-damn sabre-tooth loose up here, that’s what you’re telling me?”

Jericho went quiet again. Thomas thought he could see sweat on the Irishman’s brow.

“Tell me more about this buyer,” Thomas demanded.

“He’s not the problem, he’s who I’m working for right now,” Jericho replied. “If somebody is setting this cat loose here and there, it’s not him.”

“I’m guessing that $100,000 status symbol out there is a company car then?” Thomas added, finally making the connection that Jericho was still on the payroll.

Jericho nodded.

“So, are you here to help out, or are you going to get in the way?” Jesse growled.

“Neither,” Jericho shrugged. “My first port of call is to meet the buyer in Denver. I won’t know much more until then. But believe it or not, I’m feeling just as pissy about the whole thing as you are.”

“I doubt that,” Jesse muttered with menace. “But it clears a few things up, least ways.”

“Such as?” Nina enquired, pointedly.

“It’s a hybrid animal,” Jesse said flippantly. “Imported illegally into the United States. I can hunt it and kill it without issue. And that’s all I needed to know.”

“With those things?” Nina accused.

“I don’t remember inviting you to this party anyways,” Jesse retorted back.

“I came here to warn you, not give you a reason to risk your life and let those damn things loose,” Nina scolded. “We already have two potentially killer animals out there. We don’t need a pack more.”

“I can control them,” Jesse said, dismissing her concern.

“Really?” Nina shot back, whipping up the sleeve of her arm and revealing a healed-over scar that ran along her forearm.

The room went quiet.

“I told you, I think it smelt that wolf of yours on you,” Jesse said, quietly.

“But that’s just it, and something you need to consider,” Nina continued. “I can control a 150lb wolf better than you can those animals. He’d never bite me, or anyone. Unless I told him to, that is,” she added, smiling at Thomas.

“I don’t know about the killing part, but it does need hunting down Nina,” Thomas added. “Guess that’s what I’ll be doing too.”

They sat together in silence for a few moments before Nina got up. The rest of them followed suit, following her and Jericho downstairs and out the door.

“Keep in touch from now on, okay?” Thomas said to Jericho as he climbed into the GMC.

The Irishman nodded. He turned the key in the ignition and the big V8 rumbled into life. Thomas stepped back as Jericho turned the truck around. As he was passing Nina, who was making her way towards her own truck, he slowed.

“Ms Lee,” Jericho said, almost under his breath. “I don’t know much about this bear, but the circles I frequent are suggesting something isn’t right about it. Talk about it being dropped here by the government, that it killed people up North or something. All the normal conspiracy stuff, you know. But still, be careful.”

“Not my first rodeo,” Nina smirked. “But thanks for the warning.”

Thomas, Catherine and Jesse watched the two trucks headed back down the trail.

“Did things just get better or worse?” Jesse asked.

“Much, much worse,” Thomas replied.

Here be Dragons

In celebration of St. George’s Day, I thought I’d share a story I started some time ago, that like many others, is now on the perpetual back burner as other projects take priority. It’s titled “Here be Dragons”. It is set in the Mediterranean, just after the time of the Buccaneers, and as its name suggests, it hints of when sea maps were marked with ominous warnings of maritime monsters.

When I write my creatures, I always try to fit biology and behaviour to the mythology. For instance, we all know dragons love their gold. But why? It’s not like they spend it. However, we also know that dragons breathe fire, and presuming they are reptiles, are likely to be egg layers. Gold is one of the greatest heat-retaining metals there is – so what better to line the nest of an iron-hided reptile?!

There is a small chance that the clash between St. George and the dragon took place – but actually may have been an out-of-place crocodilian of some kind. However, if it did happen, the legend leads to what is modern Libya, or Central Eastern Turkey rather than dear old England.

There will be two dragons in the story, Firefang and Swordtail. The prologue introduces you to the former.

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Here be Dragons

The cave was dark. The rocks were hot to the touch and the air was dry, creating a strange and eerie atmosphere given they could still hear the crash of waves at the entrance. But there was no moisture here. The cave was arid and scorched. Its inner sanctum was hotter than the baking Mediterranean sun on a still day at sea, or at least it seemed so.

As they crept closer, the rasping sound of venting steam echoed in the darkness. The rocky path was narrow and steep, and they chose their footing carefully. Only a few of them carried torches, in an effort to keep their insurgence secret from what they feared and hoped lurked within the cave’s depths.

A foul stench reached them, stinging their nostrils in warning before their eyes found the graveyard of carcasses in the dim light. A fresh, fleshy island pony was strewn upon the heap close to them. Blazing embers still glowed in the few patches that remained of its hide. They passed in silence, most holding their breath. None uttered their contempt or distress of the stink.

The sound of thunder echoed around them. The youngest amongst them thought it the noise of the sea. Only the oldest knew better, and the sound shook them to their very bones. Perhaps it was the venting steam they had seen above the hill, a few questioned in silence.

Steam vented indeed, from two nostrils billowing carbon from lungs larger than the holds of their ship. Wrapped in wings greater than their grandest sails, she watched them approach. She cared not if it was the gold, her eggs, or she herself they came for, they would not leave. She began to uncoil, slithering towards them and emitting only a barely audible hiss. As her clawed feet found purchase and her entirety was unveiled, she sent loose stones clacking down the slope. She let a guttural snarl echo and reverb around the cave. It had the desired effect, stopping the men in their tracks.

The least conditioned of them turned tail and ran, but with one almighty clap of her wings, she knocked them to the ground with the hurricane that followed. She laughed at their foolishness, or so it seemed from the thunderous, mocking snarls she sent in their direction. The men let a volley of arrows loose towards her. She snapped her tail across her body, letting the steel-headed projectiles clatter harmlessly from her iron-like hide. She hissed as she straightened out, letting out one final damning roar of threat. The message was clear: leave or die. The sailors knew it wasn’t a warning, but a choice they were being left with.

The men who had already tried to leave picked themselves up off the floor and ran for their lives. One of the older members of the crew heard the hiss of an intake of breath and the clack of jaws. He turned and slipped away, knowing what came next.

The men that remained crept forward and a torch caught the hint of gold. The rumours had been true, and they found new courage in their greed. It was short-lived, as were they themselves. The darkness of the cavern was illuminated in a dazzling lick of fire. It seemed to hunt them out as if it were a living thing. The strike came from above, the dragon landing behind them on silent wings of black and crimson. They were now cut off from the only way out of the cave. Her talons reached for them, crushing a number of them into mangled clumps of flesh and bone. Another lick of fire roasted several more in their boots. Her eyes found the last, cowering against the stock of gold that gave and held heat for her eggs. She lowered her head, her forked tongue tasting his fear. Blue flame filled her jaws and flickered over her protruding front teeth. Her meal screamed, then was silenced forever with a single bite. She roared with triumph.

As the roar echoed out of the cave and rippled across the water to the small rowboat, the old man looked back towards the small island.

“What was that?” one of the young crew asked.

“Firefang. A she dragon. Count your lucky stars you saw fit to turn back lads.”

As another roar echoed out, none in the boat doubted the fate of those who had stayed back in the cave.

 

Ena Mel & the Lily of the Forest

As it’s Tell a Fairy Story day on Wednesday 26th February, I’d like to introduce you to a character I’ve only ever told stories about to close family and friends. But, I think it might be time she had her debut. I’d be interested to hear what you think!

~

You may have heard a story about a tooth fairy, whose name was Ena Mel. She became very famous in the fairy realm when the Goblin Lord Thard tried to blackmail her into giving him treasure for all the Goblin teeth that had ever fallen out. But that is a completely different story, and it would take far too long to re-tell it here. This is the second adventure that happened to Ena Mel, and it happened not too long after the first.

Ena has a friend called Butterwick, who is also a fairy. Butterwick is not a tooth fairy, in fact his job is totally different. Butterwick is a type of house fairy, and like all fairies, his name and his purpose are the same. Has there ever been a blackout in your house? Without electricity, you can’t even turn on a light, and it is often at this time that a grown up will go and look for a candle. Have you ever noticed how surprised grown ups can be when they find a ready supply of candles under the sink or in the cupboard? Well, it was probably a fairy like Butterwick who put them there. Hence the ‘wick’ in Butterwick – just like a candle.

Bizarrely, he is also responsible for making sure that you never run out of dairy products, which is where the butter bit comes from. Whereas some fairies make sure you have eggs, polish your shoes, repair your socks and feed the dog all in the name of being a good house fairy, Butterwick pretty much keeps it to a minimum. That said, there is a little village in Devon that hasn’t run out of milk, candles or light bulbs since 1907. Ena asked him about it once; Butterwick just said he likes it there.

The fairy realm is hidden from the human world, deep inside an enormous forest in the south west of England. People do sometimes walk in or near the realm, but they never see the fairies. Sometimes they think they’ve seen a firefly, or a glow worm, or maybe an unusual butterfly. Even rarer still, a person may pass a beautiful woman or handsome man, not knowing that they were actually fairies. You see, fairies come in many different sizes. Some look like you and me, whilst others are small enough to ride on the back of a small bird, or maybe even a bumblebee. Not all fairies have wings either, although most do – including Ena Mel. There are even fairies that look just like horses, who are called Kelpies. Next time you see a horse frolicking in a field whilst all the others are just staring at him, you might just have seen a kelpie.

As you may have guessed, all the different fairies have different jobs as well, just like Ena Mel and Butterwick. Having said that though, no one has really worked out what the kelpies do yet other than jump in the air a lot. However, most of the fairies do something helpful one way or another. The tooth fairy leaves money under your pillow when you lose a tooth. House fairies do housework and other odd jobs round the house. Some leave you presents when you’re lonely, or if you’re upset. And some have very special jobs indeed.

Ena Mel loved living in the fairy realm. She lived in a little thatched cottage made of twigs and dried grasses, with beautifully set walls of cut stones. The cottage was set in the very top roots of a splendid oak tree. You would only ever know it was there if you happened to pass it at night and could see the faint glow from the tiny wooden windows. A little chimney made from an old whistle stuck out of the top of the roof, gently puffing little wisps of smoke into the air. But you’d have to look very carefully even to see all that.

One morning, Ena Mel opened the round door to her little cottage and looked out. She could see other fairy folk pottering in and out of their little houses in bushes, trees and even the rocks themselves. Some were retuning from a night’s work, whilst others were doing just as she was, and only just starting their day. The little part of the realm where she lived was simply known as the Oak Road, as it was a part of the forest where hundreds of oak trees all grew in a line.

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Now you may be wondering what a tooth fairy would be doing up during the day, and if you are then you’re very clever to do so. But there are places in the world where it is nighttime at the same time that it’s the morning in our part of the world. For instance, when its 9’o’clock in the morning in England, its 9’o’clock in the evening in Alaska. So, no matter what time it is, there is always somewhere in the world for a tooth fairly to go.

Ena fluttered up into the air and skimmed over the ground, waving at a few of her neighbours as she went. She sped up as she got closer to the ground. The location of the tooth tulip was deep inside the forest, and only the tooth fairies knew exactly where. She was determined to keep it that way and didn’t like other fairy folk being able to see where she was going. After all, even Butterwick didn’t know where it was and he was her best friend.

Have you ever wondered how the tooth fairy manages to get from place to place so fast? Are you now wondering what a tooth tulip is? The tooth tulip is a special flower that is shaped exactly like one of your teeth and instead of being red, like a normal tulip, it is brilliant white in colour. The petals fold over so that it forms a little chamber at the top of the stem, just large enough to fit a tooth fairy.

Ena Mel dived and squeezed between the folded petals of the tooth tulip as quick as a flash, with only a few specks of fairy dust leaving an evaporating trail to show where she had gone. Once inside, she looked down to a small pouch on her belt and took a handful of the dust. She blew gently on her hand, letting the dust hover gently over the surface of the walls of the petal chamber. Quickly, the dust formed a floating map of the world in front of her. She took out her wand and pointed it to a very far corner. Fairy dust showered around her as the tooth tulip seemed to shake as if in an earthquake for a moment. Then it stopped.

The walls of the chamber had changed colour from their brilliant white to a very deep green. The leaves looked prickly and hard, and much smaller than tulip petals. She also noticed how cold she was all of a sudden. She was definitely in the right place. She could see starlights through a gap in the leaves, and she shot out of the tooth tulip into the night air. When she looked back, she could see that the tooth tulip was no longer a tulip, but in fact a huge green fir tree, still in the shape of an enormous tooth. She smiled as she whizzed over the snow-laden ground. She had never seen a tooth tree before! The last time she had come to Alaska – for that was where she was, she had found herself inside a snowbell. But they only came out at certain times of year, and it was too early in the polar spring for flowers.

Ena saw the distant lights of a small town. As she drew nearer, the wand in her pocket began to glow. There were definitely teeth waiting to be collected. She took out the wand, and she slowly began to pass over the rooftops below. As she hovered over the first chimney pot, the very tip of her wand glowed red. So did the next one, and the next. Then, at the fourth house, the tip glowed green.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a house with a chimney, so she zipped into the guttering along the roof. She did her very best to keep her wings and legs off of the sides of the drainpipe. In Scotland and Ireland, the tooth fairy was a large white rat. Ena had met him a few times, and he was more than happy to scurry up drainpipes. Ena was much happier with open windows or chimneys, but she soon saw a ray of light at the end of the drainpipe.

Ena found herself looking out through a plughole, set in a small blue bathtub. She could see a little girl with black hair brushing her teeth at a sink on the other side of the room. Ena watched as the girl’s mother came in and hurried her out of the bathroom and into the next room. Ena flew up to the overflow and squeezed through, following the girl and her mother. Quick as a flash, she zipped through the open doorway of the little girl’s bedroom and hid herself in-between some books on a small shelf above the bed.

The girl’s mother kissed the little girl gently on the forehead, and pulled out a small purse. Ena watched as the mother put the small tooth the little girl had handed her into the purse, and then placed it under the pillow. The mother ruffled the little girl’s hair, then reached across and turned out the lamp before leaving the room. A small amount of light still filtered through from the bathroom. It seemed to take ages for the little girl to fall asleep. Soon enough though, Ena heard snuffly snores coming from below. Ena floated silently down towards the bed and landed softly behind the pillow. Carefully, she pushed her hand as far as she could underneath until she could just feel the strings of the purse between her fingertips.

Ena pulled as hard as she could, until the purse was clear of the pillow. She pushed the clasps open and took the tooth out with both hands. Remember, that even though a tooth is tiny to you and me – it’s the size of a football to most tooth fairies. Ena took out her wand and tapped the tooth once. At once, fairy dust fell from the wand tip and began to circle the tooth, which began to glow brightly. When the tooth was glowing so brightly that Ena had to shield her eyes, an amazing thing happened. The tooth began to shrink. It grew so small that it soon became just a twinkling spec of dust. Ena Mel uncorked a tiny bottle on her belt, and the spec floated gently into it.

She checked the little girl was still soundly sleeping, and then zipped out of the room and a long the corridor. She eventually left the house through a vent in the kitchen, sneaking past the grown ups in the front room, even though she knew they were less likely to see her. Children were the only ones who really saw fairies. All children have a little bit of magic in them, which means that magical creatures can see them, and more importantly, they can see magical creatures. That’s why, whenever you try to show a grown up an elf, or the monster under your bed, they never find anything. No one really knows what age children lose the ability to see the magical world around them. My advice to you is to keep hold of it as long as possible.

Ena flew high above the town. She had flown over every single house, and although she was sure that no other children lay sleeping with uncollected teeth underneath their pillow, her wand still quivered and shimmered. Somewhere, there was a tooth nearby that needed collecting. It was then that she heard it, high above the chilling call of the wind. A loud, deep, growly moan. Her sensitive ears picked out the sound more clearly now, and she glided with the wind towards the sound. She flew away from the town, its dim lights now behind her. The wind was laden with snow, and she felt the cold for the first time. She hoped she would find the owner of the rumbling growly voice soon. It was definitely getting louder now.

Out of the gloomy, snow-chilled night, came an enormous, lumbering figure. The polar bear stood up on its hind legs and let out a deep and pitiful growl. Ena suddenly realised – the bear had toothache! This was the tooth that she was looking for. Ena Mel flew close to the bear, hovering just on top of its nose so that she could look him in the eye. All fairies are able to talk to wild animals, and Ena Mel was no exception. She spoke to the bear in a quiet voice, which it understood perfectly. He opened his mouth wide, and Ena fluttered inside. The smell was awful – the polar bear had very fishy breath.

Ena could see the tooth easily enough by the light of her wand. It was hanging from the gum, only just still held in place by the stringy roots. Ena took two well-aimed shots with her wand, cutting the tooth free and catching it in her hands. She zipped back out of the bear’s mouth, clasping the tooth. She couldn’t help smiling as the bear yowled with pleasure and tried to rub noses with her despite being awfully big. She could see the roots of the tooth were almost green with rot. It must have been very painful for the bear! Ena Mel waited for the tooth to shrink to a spec, and then placed it in the bottle with all the other specs she had collected. As she flew away, she looked behind her to see the bear standing on its rear legs and lifting its nose in the air at her.

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She smiled as the bear disappeared from view through the now thickly falling snowflakes. Before she knew it, she was standing inside the chamber of the tooth tree, ready to head back home. This time, she pointed her wand up towards the ceiling of the chamber and whispered “reverso”. The tooth tree shook for a moment, and then suddenly she was back in her familiar forest, with bright sunlight peaking through the petals.

Ena Mel gently lifted off from the tooth tulip, and glided over the clearing, but instead of heading towards her cottage, she went the opposite way, deeper into the forest. She looked up into the branches of the trees as she passed, catching glimpses of the sun. The light was beginning to fade and it would soon be evening. She zigzagged back and forth through different lines of trees, all the time going deeper and deeper into the forest. Finally, when she was as certain as she could be that nobody had followed her, she stopped zigzagging and flew as fast as she could to the small forest pool that only the tooth fairies knew about.

Ena knew that she had to get her timing just right. The trees around the pool had grown in such a way that they gradually filtered out the suns rays until there was only one left as the sun was setting. It touched the water at the very edge of the pool, where Ena Mel now knelt, clasping the small bottle containing all the specs of dust that had once been teeth. She watched the reflection of the setting sun on the water until it resembled a small, golden disc hidden underneath the surface. She gently poured the contents of the bottle onto the water.

At first, nothing happened. Then, the water began to bubble. Soon, the water was frothing wildly, and the bubbles began to shoot into the air, erupting out of a fountain of water that shot up from the centre of the pool. Inside each bubble was a tiny spec of glittering light that had once been a tooth. Believe it or not, there is almost nothing so pure in this world as one of your baby teeth. Tooth fairies have a special magic that can take all the good and pure things that make up a baby tooth and transform it into raw magical energy – which is very powerful indeed.

Ena watched as the bubbles disappeared up into the air. Some didn’t go very far at all and landed on the ground around the pool. Immediately, new and vibrant flowers like bluebells and foxgloves sprung up from the ground. As the bubbles landed on the trees, they spread their branches out and their buds and leaves opened up fully. Blossoms and pollen erupted from flowers everywhere as far as she could see. It was then that she noticed a shadow. It was Butterwick! She realised that he must have somehow followed her. She was very cross indeed, but couldn’t help smiling when she saw the big grin on his face.

As a house elf, Butterwick stood a little taller than Ena, but only about an inch or so. However, in the fairy realm that was like being a few feet taller than someone else! Something else you probably didn’t realise is that fairy clothes are always green in colour. They can be many different shades of green, and Butterwick was wearing a dark green tunic and waistcoat, and bottle green trousers. They were made of the softest cloth you can imagine.

“I always wondered where you went,” said Butterwick, still smirking “I don’t think I’ve ever been this deep into the forest before”. Ena smiled, and then with a flick of her wand she whispered “boogerburp”. Before he could deflect it, Butterwick let out a huge burp, and a tiny bogey flew out of his mouth. Butterwick spluttered as he tried to get the taste out of his mouth. “Guess I deserved that” he said finally “You know you shouldn’t be here,” scolded Ena, still smiling at her spell. She had thought of it herself, and as far as she knew, nobody else knew how to cast it. Suddenly, Butterwick looked up towards the pool. “Does he know he shouldn’t be here?” he asked. Ena looked up too.

Creeping carefully through the reeds on the far side of the pool was a frog. But unlike a normal frog, he was waking on his hind legs just like a person. He was carrying a satchel over one shoulder, and as he crept through the reeds he was collecting the bubbles before they hit the ground. He put each one in the satchel, carefully making sure they didn’t burst. When he had found five bubbles in total, he closed the flap on the satchel and began to hop away.

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“Let’s follow him,” said Ena, “I want to know where he’s taking my bubbles” She looked at Butterwick for a moment “will you be able to keep up with me?” Butterwick smiled knowingly and took out a small flute from his jacket pocket. He played three shrill notes, and a handsome brown hare bounded out from underneath the trees. Ena raised her eyes and shook her head “You cheat!” she scolded again, “no wonder you were able to follow me!” Secretly though, she was quite impressed at how clever Butterwick had been. “Come on,” said Butterwick “the hoppity fellow is getting away”.

Ena flew high, keeping an eye on the frog as he hopped ahead of them whilst she also kept an eye on Butterwick, who was now riding on the back of the hare and following behind. It wasn’t long before the frog has led them even deeper into the forest. It didn’t stop until it reached the mouth of an enormous cave. It looked around for a moment, then made its way into the darkness. Ena folded her wings back and dived towards the cave, only spreading her wings again just before she hit the ground, bringing her to a perfect stop. Butterwick wasn’t far behind, and he and the hare soon leapt up to the cave entrance. Butterwick thanked the hare, and then let it skip back towards the forest trees. Ena took her wand out again, and gently blew on the tip until it glowed brightly enough to light their way. Butterwick and Ena took a deep breath and then they stepped into the cave together.

It was very dark inside the cave. Ena hovered a little way off the ground, but Butterwick had to pick his way through carefully by the light of her wand. They could hear the frog as he hopped over the cave floor, occasionally splashing into a puddle. Soon, they became aware of another noise – the sound of water crashing against rocks. Just as they were wondering what the noise might be, they began to see a glittering light. It was then that they realised that the cave was in fact a tunnel, leading to what must be a waterfall. As they approached the end of the tunnel, they could see that there was indeed a beautiful and enormous waterfall that cascaded down a sheer rock face into a huge pool at the bottom, close to where the tunnel came out.

Butterwick and Ena crouched in the long grass at the entrance to the tunnel. Ena let out a tiny gasp of shock. In front of them were hundreds of frogs! Some were standing on their hind legs like the frog that had collected the bubbles, whilst others wore strange looking helmets and carried vicious looking swords and shields that looked like lily pads. Ena decided to herself that they must be guard frogs. Then she began to wonder what it could be that they were guarding. She glanced at Butterwick, who seemed just as interested in the proceedings as she was.

The frogs seemed to be crowding round the frog with the satchel, who was making his way to the water. When he reached the edge of the pool, he bent his knees a little and jumped high in the air. Ena and Butterwick expected him to splash down into the water, but what happened instead was a little lily pad popped up out of the water as if by magic for him to land on. Then another, then another, and another, until they could see that they were acting like stepping-stones that led to an enormous lily pad at the centre of the pool. In the very centre of this pad was a large, unopened bud that the frog now stood in front of.

The frog slowly opened his satchel and took out the first of the bubbles with the magical dust inside. He gently let it drop from his hand onto the bud, where it landed with a loud ‘pop’. Immediately, little white flowers erupted all over it, but it still remained closed. He reached into the satchel again and brought out the second bubble. Again, he let it drop from his hand onto the bud. This time, a large thick green vine wove its way round the bud, clasping at both of its sides like long green fingers. Yet, it still remained closed. The frog brought out a third bubble and again let it drop. Beautiful blue and pink flowers opened on the vine and out of each one flew a tiny hummingbird. Each hummingbird had a bright blue body and pink wings to match the flowers and they sang a beautiful song as the sun began setting. But the bud itself still remained closed.

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The fourth bubble was already in the frog’s hand and Ena and Butterwick watched in wonder as it burst upon the bud. Something stirred inside the bud and a white glow appeared from somewhere inside it. The frog stood back a little, just enough for Ena and Butterwick to see that the glow was coming from an enormous pearl that was now growing larger and larger between the leaves of the bud. The bigger the pearl grew, the easier it was to see inside. They could just make out the silhouette of a figure, curled up inside. Suddenly, the hummingbirds flew closer and closer to the leaves of the bud, taking pieces of vine in their beaks. They flew in a circle, wider and higher as they went, slowly pulling the leaves apart. Finally, the pearl was free. The frog took the last bubble in his hand, but this time instead of letting it drop, he blew gently so it lifted off his webbed fingers and it touched the side of the pearl.

There was a sound like thunder as the sides of the pearl broke, turning to water, which streamed downwards over the lily pad and into the pool. Ena beat her wings a few times, taking her a little way off the ground so she could see better. She let out a tiny gasp of astonishment. Lying curled up inside a silvery bowl – which was all that was left of the pearl, was a beautiful fairy. She was sound asleep. Her hair was the colour of autumn leaves just as they turn golden. Her wings, although tucked up behind her shone gold and silver with the setting sun. Ena, Butterwick and all the frogs waited in silence. Then, the fairy opened her eyes. They were the colour of the greenest waters of the deepest oceans. With a single beat of her wings, she gracefully lifted onto her feet.

Immediately, all the frogs bowed and lowered their heads. The fairy bowed her head in return, and then she looked straight at Ena Mel and smiled. Ena had been so excited by what she was seen, she had forgotten all about staying hidden and had floated high above the grass where she and Butterwick had been hiding. Everyone could see her. The frogs half ran, half hopped towards her. The guard frogs raced towards them brandishing their swords. Ena flew back down to join Butterwick. He seemed to be enjoying it, as he was grinning as usual.

Suddenly, the frogs stopped in their tracks. In the blink of an eye, the fairy had flown ahead of them, and had landed next to Ena. Ena had never seen any fairy fly so fast. Once again, all the frogs stopped and bowed low before her. The fairy was smiling warmly at the frogs. She turned and spoke to Ena “forgive my guardians. They are very protective of me. They have waited a long time for me to come” “How long?” asked Ena, still a little amazed at what she had seen “Five years,” replied the fairy, in a voice that seemed full of wisdom and understanding. Ena didn’t know what else to do “My name is Ena” she said, “and this is my friend Butterwick”. The fairy smiled warmly at them both “and I am Lily, one of the water fairies”.

Ena gasped. She had heard of the water fairies. No one she knew had ever seen one. She knew they were very special, even for fairies! As if sensing what Ena was thinking, Lily began to explain “my kind have always been few and far between. We are charged with bringing new life from the waters which we came. This very night, I will leave the fairy realm to plant new forests and to stir the oceans. I have only to daybreak before I must leave. Please stay with me and tell me stories of the realm”. Ena could see that Lily would be sad to leave the fairy realm, for it was a very special place. But she also knew that her job was even more special. So, she sat with Lily and began to tell her all the stories that she had ever heard.

As they laughed and told each other jokes and stories, the three fairies listened to frog singers and frog musicians as they sang and played throughout the night. One by one, the stars began to go out, and the glow of daybreak began to creep across the sky from the east. Lily smiled, even more warmly than she had before. She thanked Ena for the stories and for keeping her company throughout the night. She said goodbye to a very sleepy Butterwick who yawned as he shook her hand. As the sunlight hit her wings, she began to glow brilliantly gold, so brightly that Ena had to shield her eyes. The wind swept over the pool and the light began to fade. It wisped around Lily, beckoning her upwards and away. She smiled, and Ena caught a last glimpse of her dazzling green eyes. Then, she was gone, high above them, weaving in and out of the clouds as the wind took her up and away until she was just a spec in the sky. Soon, she had disappeared altogether.

Ena sighed. She turned to say goodbye to the frogs who had kept them company all night, but already they were hopping back down to the pool and jumping into the water. As the sun rose, a mist began to rise off the pool and soon it was covered in swirling grey vapour. Ena Mel and Butterwick smiled at each other. They made their way back to the edge of the forest, and decided there and then that they would tell no one else about the secret cave. It had been a wonderful adventure to find the pool, and they would always remember their meeting with Lily, the lily pad fairy. They hoped they would meet her again.

THE END

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Happy Halloween – New Chapter Preview

Hello everyone. I know it’s been a little quiet here of late, but, as promised on social media, a sneak peek at a key chapter from the upcoming third book in the “Beast” series is below. No trick, just a treat for Halloween!

In the next few days, The Daughters of the Darkness will be launching on Audible, and Phantom Beast should hit digital bookshelves early next year.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Chayton had been watching from the ridge since dusk. His sharp eyes had studied the ranch house and the big sweeping drive that curved in from the little-used track. But his main focus had been the barn and its out-buildings – the Midnight kennels in all their dishonourable glory. He closed his eyes, remembering the scratch marks on the black-painted boards of the floor and the ramps that led to the central pit. Most dogs, no matter the breed, didn’t want to fight. Chayton had watched the wolves and coyotes he’d encountered and tracked. Canines were one of the few species with highly-developed body language that signalled hierarchy and dominance. They had evolved this effective form of communication to avoid the physical fights that pack life might otherwise encourage. Squabbles over everything from who should be first at the dinner table to where they wanted to sleep, had the potential to escalate into a fight that risked serious injury or death. By showing they were willing to give in to a dominant animal, most confrontations ended quickly and peacefully.

Chayton opened his eyes again and lifted his binoculars. It had been dark for a good few hours now, and the lights were on in the barn. Preparations were under way. Beneath the soft yellow glow of a light at the front of one of the out-buildings, a door opened, and Beau stepped out into the cold night. Chayton could see the gasping puffs of the fat man hanging in the air. In his hand, he held three short leather leads, each of which belonged to a large, powerful dog. The three pit bulls didn’t pull away. They stood to attention, their cropped ears erect on top of their skulls. All of their attention was focused on the barn opposite the out-building. The dogs wagged their tails in anticipation. It made Chayton feel sick.

Midnight’s dogs also showed pack mentality. The three brothers hunted and killed together, working as a cohesive team. To them, the other dogs were outsiders, and just as with wolves, outsiders weren’t tolerated – and no submission or backing down would save them. Atlas stood in front of his two slightly smaller brothers. He was slate grey, with amber coloured eyes. His face was covered in tiny pink blotches, which from afar looked like a natural variation in his colouring, but was in fact old, heeled scar tissue. His chest had a bib of white, making him a strikingly handsome dog. He was the alpha. His brothers, Blitz and Blaze, had been sired by the same father, Midnight’s former champion, to a different bitch. They were black and white in colour, but whereas Blitz was predominantly black, with a white left ear and feet, Blaze was white, with a black eye patch and saddle. Chayton knew that on their own, each of the dogs had pleasant-enough temperaments, and he felt sorry for them in a way. But they were pure gladiators now: trained on treadmills, baited, and given smaller animals to practice on. And together, they were unstoppable killing machines. It ends tonight, he thought.

He waited another five minutes before making his way back down the ridge to where he’d parked the old Dodge, a little way off the same trail that led to the ranch. In the back of the pickup was a large wooden crate, and behind the truck itself, he was towing an old horse box. He checked on both before getting behind the wheel of the truck and heading towards the Midnight ranch.

As Chayton pulled into the drive, Beau stepped out of the main barn, and quickly directed him to the back of the building. Chayton had been counting on this, and he was pleased not to have to alter his plans too much. He parked up, carefully pulling the truck round so that it faced back down the drive. He deliberately and carefully backed the horsebox up so it’s rear-opening door was close to the ramp and double doors that led directly to the pit. He stepped out and walked with Beau into the barn.

“What’s in the crate?” Beau asked, correctly assuming the cat was in the horse box.

“Coyote,” Chayton replied. “Warm-up act.”

Beau nodded approvingly.

The barn had a stink that the other men couldn’t pick up on. Their senses were dulled, even switched off to it, but he could sense it. Ghosts walked here. Dogs that had been dragged down the ramp, terrified. Their claws had gripped the concrete and boards to no avail. He had seen it many times – the dogs hunkering flat and whimpering softly as if to plead with their captors. Thick leather leads, or in most cases, just rope, was used to drag these unwilling combatants to the arena, and ultimately to their demise. Chayton said a prayer for them, and the others that would die tonight. Whatever happened, they would be the last to be sacrificed here for the sportsman’s entertainment.

Chayton knew he would have to be patient, and he had already resolved himself to the possibility of failure. The cat could choose not to respond to his commands when the time came or might panic when he made his move. This would be their first test working together, and quite possibly their last. Chayton studied the interior of the barn. Despite not looking like much from the outside, the building was thoroughly soundproofed, and even shielded from thermal imaging cameras. With only two entrances, it was practically a fortress. And tonight, he and the cat would bring it down.

Beau was grinning at Chayton, dumbly. The man must have weighed 300lbs. His beer-belly spilled over his jeans, which in turn were held up by dirty, tightly-pulled braces. His mop of hair was now shoved under a Jackson Jaguar’s cap. He epitomised everything the modern American stood for: greed, laziness, and apathy. Right there and then, Chayton wanted nothing more than to purge it from the land. But he kept his temper staid, and moved on, looking over the ground with Beau. All seemed in order for the fight, and they walked back to the truck.

As they drew close, Chayton heard the coyote in the crate snap its jaws and yikker in fear. Chayton drew closer and began to whisper to the animal through the wooden slats.

“One last trick to play my friend,” Chayton said.

The coyote quieted at the sound of his voice, and then new, pleading, pup-like murmurings came from the crate instead. Chayton nodded to Beau as he climbed back into the truck to wait. There was nothing else to do now. He put the radio on and drifted off to old country and western tunes. About an hour later, he was woken by Beau knocking on the window. He looked worried. Chayton rolled down the glass.

“That’s one pissed-off mountain lion,” Beau exclaimed. “I ain’t never heard no critter growl like that before.”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Chayton replied.

“Well, I will soon enough, it’s show time,” Beau said. He seemed expectant.

Chayton sighed and stepped out of the truck. He could hear them now. The barn was full of both spectators and animals. It was time. He headed to the crate, speaking again to the coyote inside with soft, comforting tones. In one swift, deft move, he slid open the crate door and grabbed the animal by the ruff of the neck. Within moments, he had slipped a rope noose over its head. Obediently it stepped off the bed of the truck and followed Chayton at a casual trot a little way down the ramp.

As nervous and excited growls began to echo in the darkness, the coyote froze and cowered. As if sensing it, a symphony of barking erupted from the direction of the pit. Through his light touch on the rope, Chayton could feel the coyote trembling. He stooped gently, gathering it into his arms and walking the rest of the way.

As he entered the arena, Chayton took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. The only lights were positioned at the four corners of the pit, angled downwards at the floor. He walked down the ramp towards the drop off, still carrying the coyote. He could feel it tensing in his arms. His muscles flexed to keep it in place.

“Goodbye brother. I thank you for your honourable sacrifice,” Chayton whispered.

He let his arms fall to his side and dropped the animal into the pit. It screamed in fright, encouraging a round of jeering laughs from the crowd. Chayton couldn’t make out too many faces, which he knew was the idea. Anonymity was good for business. The pit was flanked on three sides by steep banks of basic wooden benches, and they were filled with Midnight’s elite friends and contacts. But the man himself hadn’t arrived yet. He always liked to make a big entrance, and Chayton knew the main man never arrived until the main event.

The coyote scrabbled against the wooden walls and ran its teeth against them to try and get purchase. It jumped and reared up on its hind legs, but the pit had been designed to hold much larger animals with ease. It ran back and forth in panic, then froze. A sound emanated from the back wall, where a partition was beginning to open up. A dark, square hole was left in its place, but from it came the sounds of a frantic pattering of paws and heavy, panting breaths. Two dogs erupted from the hole, one brindle-coloured, the other tan. The two pit bulls skidded to a halt when they saw the coyote and wagged their tails in anticipation. Chayton had seen the dogs before – some of Midnight’s less prominent champions. But no less formidable. Expertly, they flanked the coyote, barking and snapping their teeth to drive it into the far corner of the pit.

The brindle pit bull trotted along the far wall, rubbing up against it. It wagged its tail, moving confidently but not too quickly. It was panting gently and approached the coyote directly from the front. The tan dog had skirted to the back wall and was coming up on the coyote’s rear. It seemed to stop for a microsecond, then jerked forward, bouncing on its front paws and delivering a slashing bite to the coyote’s rear flank. The coyote whipped its head around, snarling viciously, giving the brindle dog to the front its opening. It lunged, grabbing the coyote’s jaws from the side and clamping them closed with its own. The coyote screamed high-pitched growls as it bucked and shook its head back and forth, but the pit bull would not be easily thrown. Then the tan-coloured dog rushed in for its second attack.

The first bite hadn’t really done much damage. The coyote’s coat was well equipped for a rough life, and the pit bull had come away with a mouth of fur. But now, it had the luxury of knowing the coyote couldn’t fight back and looked for a more prominent attack. A glancing blow of its teeth to the flank again bounced the dog’s head downwards, where it found the coyote’s softer underbelly and genitals. It attacked mercilessly, ripping and tearing with violent shakes of its head. The brindle dog began a gruesome tug of war with its tan counterpart. It emerged from underneath the coyote, its jaws bloody. The coyote collapsed, and the tan dog adjusted its grip with a snap of its jaws, gunning for the throat. The brindle pit bull pounced too, tunnelling into the flesh just below the coyote’s front left shoulder. It wouldn’t be quick, but it was over. The coyote wouldn’t get up again.

Over the next five minutes, Chayton felt his nerves become frayed as the dogs occasionally adjusted their grips or tore into a new part of the coyote. It made no sound now, but Chayton could see the chest still moving up and down as it gulped down its last breaths. Finally, a cheer went up from around the pit as the dogs were announced victorious. The barn went quiet again, and suddenly, Chayton knew it was time.

As if to confirm his thoughts, a large door opened on one of the upper levels of the barn, and a huge man stepped out to look down onto the pit. It was their gracious host in the flesh. Aeneas ‘Midnight’ Martin was bald, black, and big even for a quarterback. At six feet and four inches tall, he weighed in at 365lbs. But although undoubtedly a heavyweight on the field, every inch of him was muscle. He was a professional and most-disciplined athlete. And this operation wouldn’t be possible if he didn’t have the smarts to match. As Midnight walked to the rail, he looked down towards the pit and nodded his approval to Beau and Jace, who had joined Chayton.

“Pussy time,” Beau giggled.

Chayton ignored him.

“Just as you asked, the dogs will be waiting,” Jace smirked.

Hearing the pit door open up again, Chayton couldn’t help himself as he took a step forward and stole a quick glance. The three dogs looked up at him expectantly. Atlas, Blitz, and Blaze. The undefeated Midnight champions. Chayton walked back down the ramp towards the rear entrance, ignoring Beau and Jace’s mocking leers.

As soon as he was back out in the open, Chayton made sure he was alone before he skirted around to the front. He checked the door. Locked during a fight, just as it always was. It was now or never. He headed back to the truck. Chayton began to talk gently as he moved along the side of the horse trailer, tapping the sides lightly so that the animal inside would know he was there. He unbolted the ramp at the rear and lowered it to the ground.

~

She anchored herself to the floor of the trailer, her claws extending instinctively as her haunches raised, preparing to launch her forwards and into the air instantly. As the night sky became visible again though, she relaxed, catching the earthy scent of the one that brought her food. She knew by the sweat and pheromones in the scent that this companion of sorts was male. She trusted him. She rose and padded forwards, letting out a deep purr of contentment. The strange contraption, the noise of dogs in the distance, and the scent of strangers had unsettled her. But now, she expected a meal to be provided.

Her mass made the ramp reverberate, but although she had been wary of it on entering the box, she now knew not to fear it. The man stood by the side of the contraption, and she turned around to join him. Her head came roughly to his shoulders as she came to a stop and stood by his side. She could sense from his body language that this pleased him. As he walked towards a dwelling she was unfamiliar with, she followed, only to come to a halt again. She could hear dogs inside, and the scent of others. Ones like him. Until now, he had always turned her away when they came across their scent or heard them in the distance. He took another step towards the dwelling.

~

Chayton was patient, but he couldn’t risk taking too long. If somebody came out to check on him, it would be over. He couldn’t let an alarm go up.

“Come Tama,” he called.

Although it was meant to be a Native American name, Chayton hadn’t christened the cat. It had been named by the person who had brought it into the world. The mother had been a mountain lion, the great cat of the Americas, and they had looked for an appropriate name. In numerous baby books, Tama, or Taima, was often described as a Native American girl’s name that meant thunder or thunderbolt in Blackfoot or Navajo. But it didn’t actually mean anything, in any native language. The closest was a historical chief of the Meskwaki. The English shortening of his name, Tewameha, was Taima, but it still didn’t mean thunder. Chief Tewameha simply belonged to the thunder clan. It equally amused and annoyed Chayton that people couldn’t even get that right.

Chayton stood by the door. Tama lowered her head, inquisitive, but still uncertain.

“Asá,” Chayton commanded, using one of the many Crow words meaning to hunt.

~

She understood the meaning of the command, and instantly dropped to the ground. Her shoulder muscles tensed. Her ears flicked in the direction of the building. She powered forward, rippling over the ground in silence. She kept low as she worked her way to the door. She paused only momentarily as she stared into the darkness. Then she was gone. Tama was inside the barn.

~

Beau Brown looked expectantly towards the entrance ramp. There was very little light, but he had detected the movement. Something stepped forward. Something immense. The man smiled in relief. Damn injun, he did have a bear, he thought. He couldn’t see much more than a silhouette, but the animal was huge. It certainly wasn’t a mountain lion. As he strained his eyes, he was sure he could see the hump on the back. Not just any bear, a grizzly. Worth every buckBeau smiled. But then the bear did a strange thing. It roared. Beau jumped at the deafening sound, and his heartbeat accelerated wildly. Something didn’t feel right. He felt frightened. There was a flash of reddish brown fur, as something dropped into the pit. As it stepped into the light, Beau took a sharp intake of breath. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was impossible.

~

Tama tensed the muscles in her forelegs. She purred as she sensed the unease of the dogs. Their scent was flooded with pheromones that indicated fear. The nearest of the three animals was larger and seemed more dominant than the other two. Overconfidently, she turned her head in its direction. That’s when, with a sudden outbreak of furious barking, the other two lunged at her, jaws agape. The mixed dark and light hues of one of the dogs made it easier to see than its counterpart. It also seemed to move quicker. She saw the attack coming, but her long whiskers flexed as they picked up the vibration. The sensed the minute changes in air flow as they moved around the alpha animal, flanking her as the other two distracted her. She reacted out of instinct.

Her left front paw, the size of a dinner plate, smashed down onto the dark-coloured dog’s head almost casually. She turned her head, plucking the alpha dog from its mid-air leap and crushing its skull between her jaws. Its body went limp, hanging from her mouth in a macabre manner. She enjoyed the sensation of the thick hot blood that she could taste. As she felt a struggled movement under her left paw, black, razor-like claws extended and sliced through the dog’s skull. She dropped the dog that she carried in her mouth and stepped over the body of the one under her feet. The remaining dog whimpered at her approach.

~

At first, Beau thought it must be a clever hoax. The native had somehow dressed up the beast with a hump and elongated fangs. But as the creature dispatched the dogs with vicious ease, full panic set in. This thing, whatever it was, was real. And it moved like lightning. Beau rushed forward, but it had already cleared the pit. A blur passed in front of him, racing its way upwards into the benches. He could hear the people shouting, but still couldn’t comprehend what was happening. A bloody, mangled body fell to the ground ahead of him. He recognised Blaze’s blood-stained fur. He stumbled backwards, making his way towards the rear door. Finding it locked didn’t surprise him, but the heat he felt, and the cracking, spitting noise from the timber outside did.

~

Chayton watched bright orange licks of flame spread across the barn. The cold mountain air fed the fire, helping it spread as a breeze whipped at the building’s walls. The dry, warped wood on the outside eagerly embraced the inferno. Smoke began to billow as the black paint melted and stripped, adding to the potent scent of the fire. The outer hull of the barn began to buckle under the onslaught of the flames, the wood popping and exploding with sharp, loud cracks. Chayton readied himself, and reached into the cab for his weapon, but not before he pulled the thin silver whistle from his pocket. He blew on it hard.

~

Tama leapt from the pit with a roar, scrabbling her way up the tightly bunched bench seats. She found soft, wriggling flesh under her feet, and she clawed and bit and bellowed as she sought a way out. The screams of her prey fuelled a frenzy of lunges and swipes, each blow bringing down a new, mangled body. She tore strips of bloody, warm meat from the bodies as she went, eating on the run.

Just like the dogs, she had sensed the fire way before the men had. The smoke within the barn was beginning to subdue them, and they tripped over each other in their panic. There was now no doubt for her that these animals were prey. They reacted like any herd, driven together by fear and her presence. She revelled in it, roaring loudly above the sound of the raging fire. Then she heard the piercing sound that penetrated the dark interior. She leapt into the air back towards the pit, clearing it and barrelling towards the dark, fiery wall ahead of her. Although this was hotter and fiercer, she had been acclimatised to it by the one who fed her. She remembered the burning tree frames he had encouraged her to pass under, with him by her side. He had made the same piercing calls then. He was letting her know that he wasn’t far away and how to escape. She accelerated hard and leapt again with a roar that drowned out her fear and hesitancy. The act filled her bloodstream with adrenaline and fuelled her strength. The wood splintered at her touch, and a vacuum of cold air swept into the space behind her.

She stopped to stand by the male, whose hand patted her hard and reassuringly. She shook a few glowing embers from her fur coat and looked back at the fire. Just like the animals inside, she no longer had to fear it. He had seen to that. They watched it burn for several minutes, until the structure began to collapse in on itself.

~

Chayton was sure nobody was coming out. He walked with Tama round to the back of the trailer and allowed her to take her time to get comfortable. She lay down, seemingly unscathed by the ordeal. He would let her rest as he checked the rest of the property. He couldn’t afford for there to be any stray witnesses.

As he walked back around towards the truck, he caught the movement coming from the shell of the barn and ducked back out of sight. He heard the rapport of the gun, but the shot was in no danger of hitting him. The bullet slammed into a tree about thirty feet to his left. He stepped out again, this time more confidently.

Aeneas Martin had been seriously burnt. How he was even managing to stand somewhat baffled Chayton. Raw, pink flesh hung from his cheeks. Chayton could see where the skin had melted, becoming a thick, tar-like glue that had smeared itself to the quarterback’s cheekbones. A hole had burnt its way through his jaw, and Chayton could see the wrinkled pink gum as drool pooled over the yellowed teeth uncontrollably. Midnight stood about twenty feet from Chayton, and held a large revolver in his right hand, which shook uncontrollably.

Chayton gripped his own weapon a little tighter. It was cumbersome and heavy, but in the right hands, deadly. The buffalo jawbone war club was intricately decorated with inlaid gold thread and emblems of his own design. He had reinforced the raw bone with a natural varnish of honey, salt, and pine sap. And the large teeth set in the curved single edge had been fused into the bone by being dipped in molten steel and sharpened. The weathered leather handle allowed him to throw it with mortal accuracy or wield it up close without slipping from his hand. Until now, it had all been just practice. But now, he realised he would be required to kill, just as Tama had been.

He closed the distance between Midnight and himself with a darting, zigzagged run. The quarterback tried to follow his movements but had no hope of doing so. Chayton suspected the man would soon succumb to his wounds if he left him, but in his heart, he knew he was being tested. He had to show resolve, that he was prepared to make the sacrifices he asked of Tama. He closed in on Midnight from the left, gripping the war club with both hands as he did. He swung it sideways with incredible might, sending the athlete tumbling to the ground. Even here, the heat of the fire had melted the snow, leaving Midnight to crawl through the mud as Chayton circled him. He looked down at the charred, defeated frame of what had been a powerful man. He was both excited and shocked at how the strike from the club had lifted the flesh from the scalp, peeling it back like a clump of grass in the wind. Fresh blood flowed from the wound, trickling down Midnight’s face.

Chayton now felt panicked and upset. He had no interest in being cruel or callous. Midnight was suffering unimaginable horrors. Chayton did not want to take pleasure, or too long, in the man’s death. He spun the club in his hand and raised it above his head, bringing it back down with a decisive strike. Midnight collapsed onto the ground instantly. Life, spirit, and strength left the body all at once, the remaining flesh slapping back into the dirt like a gut pile cut from a strung-up deer. With one hand, Chayton pulled Midnight’s body towards the trailer and the open ramp.

Tama received her gift eagerly, using her teeth to drag the bloodied carcass into the back of the trailer with her. The rough surface of her tongue removed the skin and remaining flesh from the skull, allowing her to savour the sweet, coppery taste of the blood. As Chayton closed up the ramp, she had begun to gorge herself on the chest and legs. He secured the ramp before taking a final walk around the property to make sure no other fight goers, or evidence survived.

Meet the Family – Exclusive Chapter Preview

Book 3 in the Beast Series, Phantom Beast, is a little behind. However, if all goes according to plan, there should be not one, but two books to launch in fairly quick succession. Not only will you get Phantom Beast, but hot on its heels will be Rogue, which is a spin-off featuring a character you’ll meet in Book 3.

However, here is Chapter Two of Phantom Beast to whet your appetite, where we meet the latest addition to the Walker family, three-year old Cassie. Check out the previous post to catch up with Chapter One.

CHAPTER TWO

Thomas Walker eyed the cat with an unblinking stare. Its own gold-green iris met his gaze with equal confidence. The long black tufts at the end of each of its ears flicked once as it raised a paw to step forward. Thomas matched the movement, pushing his chest out as a sign of dominance. The cat was silent but dropped its chin and bobbed its head from side to side as it sized him up. He wondered if this was perhaps why its smaller cousin was called the bobcat. This cat, a northern lynx, was a fine specimen. Male, fully grown at nearly three years old, weighing close to 110lbs, and nearly four feet in length. Thomas had given the cat the name Loki, befitting both its temperament and its Norwegian ancestry.

As the cat pounced, so did Thomas, whisking the little three-year-old girl up into his arms, feeling the thud of her heavy outdoor clothes against his chest as he clutched her tightly. Loki rose onto his hind legs, reaching out with his front paws towards Thomas and the girl. The pads of the cat’s paws met the wire-mesh fence harmlessly, which flexed a little under his weight. Thomas met the stare of the cat with a smug look of his own as he dropped the girl back to her feet.

“Cassie Walker, what have we said about going near the enclosure?” Thomas demanded, gently.

“Loki wants me to be friends with him, daddy,” the girl answered adamantly.

Thomas smiled, brushing away her red curls and meeting her vivid green eyes, which burned with resolve.

“Loki wants you for lunch, munchkin,” Thomas sighed.

“No claws daddy, no claws!” Cassie replied, thumping him on his calf with a scowl.

Thomas looked at the cat. He could see his daughter was right. Loki had not extended his claws. But it was no reassurance its predatory instinct hadn’t kicked in.

“I was going to accuse you of having your mother’s good looks and my brains, but it seems you’re using your head. It’s still my job to make sure it stays attached to you though, okay.”

“Silly daddy,” Cassie sighed.

Thomas took his daughter’s hand and led her back to the house. Named Sàsadh, an old Gaelic word meaning a place of comfort, it was now homelier than ever. The grand old farmhouse had changed rather dramatically over the last few years. First had come an impressive extension, incorporating a bedroom, bathroom and play room for Cassie on the ground floor. Then had come the further addition to the grounds, with enclosures for the lynx. Part of a reintroduction programme, the Mullardoch forest on their doorstep was one of three test sites where the cats were being released as part of the pilot scheme. Thomas’s wife Catherine, and the Highland Wildlife Research Centre that they ran together, were overseeing the reintroduction.

He walked in with Cassie through the back, into the boot room, where both he and Cassie removed their shoes and left them by the door. He again whisked Cassie up into his arms, lifting her up from behind and making her giggle. A good-natured bark sounded from the hallway as two dogs trotted down the corridor to greet them. Meg, Thomas’s three-legged chocolate merle Border collie, and Arturo, a slate grey cane corso mastiff he and Catherine had adopted. Cassie began to squirm, signifying her want to get down to greet the dogs. Meg eyed Thomas sheepishly as Cassie’s feet hit the floor and she rushed forward, licking and yipping at the little girl with loving affection.

“Traitor,” Thomas sighed.

Meg instantly came to his side and leaned into him. He lent down and patted her side tenderly.

“Daddy, I want a doggy,” Cassie declared.

“Looks like you’ve got two already greedy-guts,” Thomas replied.

“No,” Cassie shrugged, as if tired at having to explain. “Meg your dog, Atty mummy’s.”

“Well, they’re ourdogs really Cassie,” Thomas explained. “They’re as much yours as mine and mum’s.”

Cassie seemed to think about it for a moment, then stomped off down the corridor.

“Mummy, want a doggy,” he heard Cassie whine to Catherine, who was in the kitchen.

“That’s a kind offer darling, but I’ve got two already,” he heard his wife reply snappily.

Thomas couldn’t help but smile as he saw Cassie storm out of the kitchen towards her room, scowling, and with both dogs in tow.

“Don’t think she liked either of our answers,” Thomas said, raising an eyebrow as he lent up against the kitchen doorframe.

“That’s the price she pays for having parents with over-developed sarcasm glands,” Catherine laughed.

Thomas admired his wife from the doorway. There was no doubt where Cassie got her red hair and striking turquoise eyes from. Whereas Catherine’s hair was short and gave her something of an elfin look, Cassie’s was longer with a curl. Catherine often remarked Thomas’s black hair and pale blue eyes had been traded for his stubbornness. Her temper was all redhead though, something he could again blame Catherine for.

“By the way,” Catherine remarked, closing the fridge door slowly. “With everything that’s been going on at work, and with Loki’s arrival, we plain forgot to do any shopping. There isn’t any food in the house.”

“That’s alright, I’ll take Cassie out for a ride and we can go to the farm shop. I spoke to Annie during the week about keeping the cat’s diets varied, and she thinks she can help out.”

Annie Patterson ran a farm shop in the nearby village of Cannich. It specialised in the high-end produce of the local area and its farms. Thomas had always preferred to get his groceries there as it was, but now, Annie also served as a conduit of communication between the farmers and Thomas and Catherine. Not everyone was thrilled by the idea of having large cats reintroduced into the area. For many, it was a very sensitive subject. The potential killing of livestock by the lynx was one aspect of the residual resistance. But as Thomas well knew, the events of his past had also dramatically impacted the Highland hamlet. A big cat had been here before. Its existence was denied by the government, and it had killed over a dozen people before he had stopped its rampage. Although the lynx was considerably smaller, he empathised with the local community’s hesitance in welcoming the species

“Settled then,” Catherine smirked. “But hurry up, I’m hungry,” she thumped him playfully on the arm.

“What is it with you two hitting me?” Thomas grumbled playfully.

Thomas walked to Cassie’s room and pushed open the door. Arturo was laid out on the white rug that covered the floor, with Meg by his side. Cassie was slumped on top of the big grey dog, her arms trailing either side of his rib cage, her eyes firmly fixed on the expansive picture window opposite. Thomas went and sat on her bed, shaking his head but smiling.

“Come on kiddo, we’re going into town to do some shopping. We need to feed mummy, and then we need to feed Loki. Wanna help?”

“Wanna dog,” Cassie said quietly and sulkily.

“There’s one underneath you, hon,” Thomas pointed out helpfully.

Cassie tried to stop herself smiling but couldn’t quite help the corners of her mouth turning up. With a sigh, she picked herself up and walked over to Thomas, leaning into him. He put an arm around her shoulders and scooped her up again, brushing away some of her curls. He carried her back through to the hallway, where they grabbed fresh coats and shoes. Cassie took his hand as she impatiently dragged him out through the front door.

Thomas walked across the gravel drive to the converted stables that were now a garage and workshop. He clicked the remote from inside his Barbour jacket, and the double-fronted, fire-station style doors began to open. Inside was another reminder that Sàsadh was now a family home. The Land Rovers he favoured had proven a little impractical, and Catherine had put her foot down about a replacement. Inside sat a more modern and conventional Jaguar F-Pace SVR SUV. But, with a penchant for more unique vehicles, he hadn’t been able to quite leave it at that. A German tuning company had upgraded its performance and looks to his approval. It now boasted nearly 650hp, as well as a racing tuned exhaust and brakes. Its 22-inch wheels were clad in heavy-duty tyres capable of high speed off-road and on road performance. And a wide body kit matched to the electric blue paintwork made it look more aggressive and muscular. There were days though when he still missed the ruggedness and rawness of the Land Rovers, even if they had been luxuriously appointed like the Jaguar. Catherine had joked it was still a big cat at least – a nickname given to his modified Defender pick-up with a supercharged Jaguar engine. He opened one of the rear doors and lifted Cassie into her seat.

As they drove towards the village, Thomas pointed at birds in the sky and asked Cassie to name them. It was one of her favourite games, and she participated eagerly. As they wove through the wooded lanes that surrounded Sàsadh, she picked out the flocks of siskin and chaffinches. As they got nearer to the village and the forest gave way to arable fields, she called out the lapwings and hooded crows with pride. As they passed the sign that indicated the village boundary, she shrugged and sat back in her chair, declaring all they would see now were sparrows. Thomas smiled at both her intelligence and stubbornness.

Patterson’s Farm Shop was close to the village border, making it logistically convenient for the local producers. Most of the groceries had food-miles less than what he’d just driven to get there. He pulled in to the gravel parking area to the side of the wooden barn-like building and stopped the car. Cassie was pushing against the restraints of her car seat by the time Thomas opened the rear door. He unbuckled her and tried to control her hasty descent to the ground.

Thomas often thought the inside of the store was probably what markets used to look like. Annie was strict about only stocking seasonal produce that met her high standards for quality. Today, the steeply angled displays were filled with cauliflower, purple-sprouting broccoli, leeks, rhubarb, and cabbages. Thomas knew he would also find cockles, clams, mussels, and oysters on the fish counter, taken from the Beauly and Moray Firths, and the cold, clear waters of the Scottish east coast. But today, it was the meat counter, or even the cold-store that he was interested in. Cassie dragged him impatiently towards a room to their left, which was home to popular pets like rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, as well as kittens and puppies from the local area looking for homes. But he pulled her back as he caught the eye of Annie, who was watching him make his way over. She smiled when she saw him coming.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face around these parts,” Annie joked.

A few of the customers looked around to see the object of her mirth. Some smiled as they recognised him. But at least one studied him with a cold, stern gaze.

“Hello Cassie, how are you today?” Annie asked.

Cassie swayed to and fro in silence but beamed a brilliant smile back.

“Why don’t I ask my friend Alex here to take you to the pet section?” Annie asked, nodding at one of the store assistants, who was unpacking some boxes behind her. “I think the rabbits need feeding.”

Cassie nodded her head enthusiastically and looked up at Thomas for permission. He laughed and let go of her hand. She immediately dashed over to the surprised Alex and took his, dragging him off in the direction of the animal room.

“Speaking of feeding, I’ve come to take you up on your kind offer of helping out with supplying my charges with their meals,” Thomas said.

“Aye, I guessed as much,” Annie smiled. “Better follow me.”

Thomas followed her through to a room filled with cold cabinets and steel counter tops. She opened one of the largest fridges, a big industrial metal one.

“I’ll need a hand,” she indicated.

Thomas stepped over and helped her haul out a large sackcloth bag. It was long and thin, reminding him a little of a body bag. He realised that was pretty much what it was as Annie opened it. Inside, was a pristine rib cage from a red deer, and some meaty lower leg bones. It was much more than he had expected.

“Loki will love them,” Thomas exclaimed.

“It makes me happy to see them not go to waste,” Annie replied. “We could also look at the heads, offal, and other bits that don’t get used. And of course, there’s also pork, mutton, lamb, and beef carcasses to make the most of.”

“That’d be great,” Thomas said. “Although I’d prefer if we stuck to their more natural prey items as much as possible. I don’t want him getting a taste for livestock.” He appreciated the support and was determined to make it go as far as he could. “And I want to make sure we pay a more than fair market price. I want the suppliers to know my animals, and theirs, are going to contribute positively to the local economy.”

“You’ll need to do more than that,” Annie shrugged, “but it’s a start.”

“How bad is it, is it even worth trying?” Thomas asked. His concern was all too evident in his voice.

“Of course it’s worth trying,” Annie replied. “I’d say you have as much support as you do resistance. Most people know you understand the community. To a certain extent it’s not even you they don’t trust.”

“It’s the government,” Thomas added.

Annie nodded. “If the last few years has shown us anything, governments and leaders come and go at a fair rate of knots these days. This scheme could lose official support as quickly as it got it. And it has only been five years since…”

“Since a big cat killed a dozen people here,” Thomas nodded, finishing her sentence.

“I don’t think you’ve even seen the start of that part of the uproar,” Annie sighed. “We’re a small village Thomas, but we’ve got a big grudge there. And long memories.”

“I know,” Thomas said. “I once hunted every big cat I could. I was motivated by vengeance and hurt. I was a force of destruction.” Thomas paused as he remembered his time in the Mato Grosso of Brazil, hunting jaguars and pumas in the wake of his first wife’s death. She had been killed by an unusual pride of lions, descendants of the infamous man-eaters of Tsavo. It had taken him seven years to settle the score and steer himself right with Catherine’s help. He now knew more than ever that big cats needed human protection. It was something he had learnt in Wyoming, under the mentorship of a skilled hunter and trapper named Lee Logan, who had also been one of those killed by the Cannich cat.

Annie seemed to be able to read his thoughts through his distracted look.

“People know you lost someone too,” she offered. “We know you’re not an outsider on this, and that makes a big difference.”

“Hopefully, so will this,” Thomas nodded, pulling out his wallet.

After grabbing some venison, mushrooms, kale, and potatoes for their own dinner, he went to find Cassie. She was still with Alex. He reported that Cassie had helped him feed the fish, and the rabbits, but had become immovable from a pen that held a new batch of puppies. There were four of them, leftovers from the unplanned mating of a farm collie and terrier. The black and white, wire-haired bundles were lapping up the attention Cassie was lavishing them with. Thomas guessed they were about fourteen weeks old.

“I’ve already told her they’re all reserved,” Alex explained, reading Thomas’s worried expression. “We only take the ones the owners can’t find homes for, and word gets out pretty fast.”

“Come on munchkin, you can help me feed Loki if you’re good,” Thomas suggested, hoping it would be a strong enough pull to draw her away from the overload of cuteness.

“Bye boys,” Cassie chirped, getting up from the straw-covered floor of the pen.

Despite having been born in the local village of Drumnadrochit, Thomas had lost his natural accent after moving to England whilst still young. It had been the same for Catherine. So, it gave him great delight to hear Cassie’s soft Highland lilt well and truly established. He lifted her up and over the wooden rail of the pen, rubbing noses with her as he drew her close to his face. She laughed as he dropped her down to the floor in a fast swing. By the time they got back to the car, Annie was waiting for them with the big sackcloth bag on a trolley.

Annie crouched down and began to frisk Cassie. “Just need to make sure you’re not smuggling any puppies out,” she joked, gently tickling Cassie under her arms. The little girl laughed shrilly and uncontrollably.

Thomas loaded the deer meat into the back of the car, thanking Annie for her help again. As they drove back, Cassie explained to Thomas that they hadn’t been the right puppies for her anyway, but she was going to keep looking. Thomas was in no doubt she would.

When they arrived back at Sàsadh, Thomas dragged the sackcloth bag over to Loki’s pen with Cassie’s help. The lynx bounded over to the fence with eager interest. It didn’t escape Thomas’s attention that the cat rubbed the side of its head and chin against the mesh close to where Cassie stood. In fact, Loki seemed to follow Cassie rather than Thomas as they headed to the gated door of the enclosure. Thomas went in first. Loki retreated to the rear of the pen, watching intently as Thomas pulled out the rib cage from the bag. He kept an eye on Loki as he hid it in a log pile and covered it with some brush. He then closed the sackcloth bag and headed back to the gated door. He picked Cassie up and took her into the enclosure with him. From a distance, they watched Loki dig through the rocks and scrub of his pen until he found the meat.

Having seemingly not noticed them whilst he ate, Loki lifted his head as Thomas and Cassie went to leave. He made a short, fox-like yowl as they headed to the door. The cat took two swift bounds towards them, putting Thomas on alert. When it was just him in the enclosure, Thomas let Loki be quite playful, but he was wary, having Cassie with him. Loki was watching him now, still as a statue.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Thomas warned the cat. He moved to Cassie’s right, getting between her and the lynx. He could see Loki wasn’t hunting from his upright stance. But being Labrador-sized, he wasn’t an insignificant animal, and was not to be underestimated. Loki bounded forward again, flanking Thomas as if trying to approach from the front. Thomas was a little amused as he watched Cassie instinctively pick up a good-sized rock.

“No need for that, look at his behaviour. What’s he trying to tell us?” Thomas asked Cassie.

“He wants to play,” Cassie remarked.

“Exactly. He’s approaching from the front. He’s had a good meal. But, he’s lonely.”

Thomas knew it was a slight risk, but he decided to crouch down and see how Loki reacted. The lynx seemed to relax and walked casually over to him. Thomas kept Cassie to his side, still separating her from the cat. But Loki was in a good mood. He greeted Thomas as he had a few times before, butting his chest with his head and pushing it under his arms. The cat slumped down onto the ground, and Thomas carefully began to stroke the cat, bringing Cassie in closer.

“We’re trying to get Loki used to us, so that when the time comes, it will be a little easier to put a radio collar on him. That way, we’ll know where he is when we let him out,” Thomas explained.

Cassie nodded, her eyes wide in wonder as Thomas took her hand and ran her fingers through Loki’s belly fur.

“Better than a doggy, huh?” Thomas asked,

Cassie nodded slowly, then caught herself, suddenly vigorously shaking her head, thrashing her curls from side to side. Thomas laughed. Having had enough attention, Loki jumped up and retreated to a favourite rock, which he sprang to the top of to watch them leave.

Thomas went to a small shed on the other side of the enclosure and put the rest of the deer meat into a chest freezer inside. As he came back out, he heard Catherine calling him. She had a concerned expression on her face as he walked up.

“You have a phone call,” she explained. “He says his name is Jesse Logan.”

Phantom Beast – A preview to the first chapter!

 

So, as I am a little behind where I thought I’d be with Book 3, and some very patient readers have been in touch to ask how things are going, I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at the work in progress.

The opening chapter to the upcoming ‘Phantom Beast’ sees us in the wilds of Wyoming. How did we get here you may ask? Well, here’s a quick recap.

In the first book, Shadow Beast, we meet Thomas Walker, the main character in the ‘Beast’ series. Later on in the story, we learn that somewhere in his past, he spent time with a team of expert trappers and hunters in Wyoming. Here, we meet the son of the leader of that team. The rest, I’l let you figure out for yourselves!

CHAPTER ONE

JOHNSON COUNTY, WYOMING

Jesse Logan woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in bed. He was on alert instantly, his eyes darting to the door and then the cracked open windows out of instinct. He knew he still felt uncomfortable sleeping in what had been his father’s room. It was worse now Nina had left – she had brought warmth and life back to the upper floor of the old ranch house. But even before then, the room had never disturbed him this much before. Then he heard it. The horses were whinnying and neighing in anger and panic. Rhythmic thumps sounded out as the stallion kicked at the enclosing walls of the wooden stable. It wanted out, and so did the mare. But it was the heifers that were making the most noise. They were on the move and calling to each other in unbridled fear.

Jesse wiped the sweat from his brow and flung back the covers, dropping his feet to the floor. He moved to the window and peered out. The unforgiving Wyoming landscape, gripped by the icy tendrils of winter, loomed back. The foothills and woodland that bordered the Caterwaul Ranch to the west, eventually gave way to the more impressive Bighorn mountains and forest. A heavy mist was descending from them now, reminding Jesse of the movie ‘The Fog’, or the original version at least. He’d never seen the remake.

The cattle were breaking from one side of the field to the other, constantly on the move and bunched together in a tight herd. He cursed, stuffing his naked feet into his boots and throwing on a thick padded sweater from the drawer. He shuffled downstairs, leaning heavily on the open banister as he went. As he passed the gun cabinet in the hallway, he opened it and pulled out a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun, padding the sweater’s pockets with shells of buckshot at the same time.

He opened the double doors of the ranch house and stepped out onto the deck, which was covered by a veranda. It helped block some of the bright moonlight that was illuminating the yard and meadows beyond. Both the cattle and horses were now quiet, although the livestock were still on the move. He let his gaze wander from right to left before stepping off the porch and making his way across the yard.

He was half way when the sudden silence struck him. Jesse was overcome by a feeling he hadn’t experienced for some time. Somewhere, out in the dark, he knew a big cat was watching him. Most of the county’s mountain lions had learnt a long time ago to avoid the ranch. The efforts of his father and his team of hunters had meant generations of cats now avoided the area. Known as the ‘hole in the wall gang’, they had taken the name from the group of infamous outlaws, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who in turn had taken the name from the nearby gorge that served as their base of operations. Mountain lion numbers in Wyoming were dropping, to the point where even lion hunters had suggested reducing the availability of permits, after seeing less than ten percent success one season. But if a cat had decided to visit the ranch, that was equally troubling.

Jesse pressed on, now bringing down his feet heavily and making his presence known. Jesse had adopted the same strict protocols as his father and had sworn never to take a life without reason. If the lion hadn’t attacked his animals, he would leave it be. But as he neared the boundary fence of the fields and meadows where the livestock were, he realised that was no longer an option.

He only kept a small herd of Simmental yellow cattle, mainly in remembrance of his father, but he could already see they were scared. The animals were bunched tightly between a stand of Canadian hemlock trees and the back of the stable, where the horses were kept. He could see the heavy breath of the cattle in the cold night air. Their searching eyes bulged in fright and eerily reflected the moonlight.

For many years, the family business had been predator control. Jesse didn’t quite share his father’s tenacity for it. He’d recently spoken out against both wolf and mountain lion hunting in Wyoming. His real passion was in breeding animals for quality and purpose. He had chosen the Simmental cattle for their ability to stand Wyoming winters and the rich marbling their meat offered. But he was also interested in improving the quality further and had recently introduced a new strain in the form of a black American Gelbvieh bull. It was an experiment, and he was keen to see the results. As he climbed the wooden fence, he straddled it and sat with his legs either side, hesitating. He looked towards the upper meadows where he knew the bull and the cows he had selected to breed from were. It was ominously quiet. As he sat there, he considered returning to the barn behind the house for his more recent breeding experiment.

His father’s reputation meant that his services were still in demand. But the dogs Jesse’s dad had employed had proven incapable of saving him. His father had been killed by a mysterious animal, in the Highlands of Scotland and thousands of miles away. Jesse had made it his mission to breed a hunting dog not just capable of tracking a big cat, but taking it on, either alone or by working in a pack. His animals were now second generation, but he wasn’t ready, and neither were they. For now, it was just him.

He swung his legs over the fence and landed with a thud, breaking an ice-laced puddle as he did. He began the long, slow march towards the upper meadows. He swung the shotgun from left to right as he went. Despite his experience as a hunter, he realised he had been holding his breath when he reached the next fence. He let out a stalled, ragged gasp as he listened to the elevated thump of his heartbeat. Fear was taking hold.

A few moments later, it was replaced by anger and shock. The six Simmental heifers he’d put in the top pasture were still there, but there was something very wrong. As his breath left his mouth in visible puffs of water vapour, he noticed no such exhalations came from the cows. Each lay on their sides, some with their rear legs splayed and sticking up in the air. He could smell the blood in the air and he knew they were all dead. He approached the nearest to him slowly and steadily. His eyes flitted to the treeline, now much closer and ominous.

Seeing the six animals strewn around the meadow, seemingly ripped down together, he began to think he had been mistaken about the cat. Only dogs would kill so brazenly, fuelled by frenzy and excitement. But he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t heard anything. A wolf pack would have been in full voice as they hunted, constantly communicating. Coyotes, coy-wolfs or a pack of feral dogs would have been even louder and haphazard in their attack. For a moment, the thought that this was some kind of retaliation for speaking out against predator hunting crossed his mind. But he soon dismissed it when he saw the savagery up close.

As he examined the carcass, any thought of it being dogs or wolves also vanished from his mind. The precision and neatness of the kill affirmed his suspicions. It was undoubtedly a cat. The heifer had been opened along its stomach. The blood loss had been so instant and dramatic it had poured onto the ground like rain. The ribs had been snipped through as if by shears, leaving a neat line of cut-through bone. Splinters and shards around the carcass indicated the ribs had also been broken open to extract the fatty marrow. The heart and liver had been removed, and presumably devoured. It was only when he got to the head that he discovered something that surprised him.

The heifer’s throat had been ripped out completely. A gaping hole, marked by shredded clumps of fur and flesh at its edges, was all that remained. The cow’s eyes had rolled over into the back of its skull. They were lifeless and frosted over. He couldn’t tell if it was due to the temperature or the first signs of rigor mortis. He shuddered, but it wasn’t the cold that made him do so. It was the enormous paw print, etched into the frozen lake of blood. It had to be at least six inches wide, and even more in length. He’d never seen anything like it.

Hell, African lions don’t get that big, let alone cougars, he thought.

He examined the five remaining cows, finding the same results. Then he headed for the top pasture. He was surprised to find the bull standing there, in the middle of the field. It let out strained, icy blasts of breath from its nostrils. Jesse had named the bull Fabian, hinting at its German ancestry. He had often considered ‘Ferdinand’, like the cartoon character, would have been more appropriate, given the animal’s placid and affectionate nature.

As Jesse appeared at the gate, Fabian began to trundle towards him. But immediately, he saw the bull was in trouble. It veered from side to side, unsteady on its feet. It let out a distraught bellow as it tripped and hit the ground. Jesse was up and over the gate and running to the bull’s side before it was down.

Fabian lay where he had fallen but held his head up as Jesse came close.

“Easy big fella,” Jesse exclaimed, patting the bull on his neck and shoulder.

The source of the animal’s distress was obvious. A set of deep claw slashes, starting at the hock of his front left leg and ending on his rump were bleeding freely. The animal was weak and exhausted. Jesse tried to comfort the animal, eyeing the treeline again. As his gaze settled on a patch of darkness between the firs, he thought he glimpsed something. Two green spots of glowing light. As he watched, they would slowly blink in and out of visibility. Finally, they faded away into nothing. He shuddered again, realising they had been the eyes of the predator, reflecting the moonlight.

He backed his way through the pastures, never fully turning around or shifting his line of sight from the trees. The cows in the bottom field watched him all the way to the ranch house. He closed the front door behind him and locked it, noticing the shake in his hands as he did so. He went into the office and picked up the phone. He flipped through the old-fashioned rolodex on the desk and found the number for the veterinarian, a woman named Walke, who like his cows, also had German ancestry. He took out the card, looking at it and turning it over in his fingers as the line rang.

After apologising and explaining the situation to a sleepy Anabel Walke, Jesse went to put the card back in his father’s rolodex. He paused, staring at the next card in the slot behind. He picked it out and lay it on the desk. He reached for the phone again, glancing quickly at the clock. It was a little after three in the morning. He didn’t know how far ahead Scotland was, but he didn’t hesitate to dial the number. He hadn’t spoken to Thomas Walker in five years, but something in his gut told him it was time to talk.

National Poetry Day – Heads Down

In celebration of National Poetry Day, here’s one I wrote earlier, whilst still carrying out a daily commute on the train, inspired by the ‘poems on the underground’ series.

Heads Down

We slow, with jerks as the station approaches.

The carriage creeks, a baby cries.

The doors shriek their opening.

Into our faces cold wind flies.

Maybe that’s why our heads shift downwards.

Eyes seek out the path of our feet.

Fingers grope for screens and phones.

No one shares warm words or smiles that greet.

If only courage took us rather than indifference.

We’d talk to people and laugh as we commute.

Find comfort and warmth in classless groups.

And make time fly along the route.

So now I pledge, when I travel by train.

To talk and laugh, to smile and share.

To listen to buskers…comfort silent sufferers.

And end each journey with a new friend there.