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.”

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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.

X-Files: The best monsters of the week

The latest series of the X-Files is currently on UK screens (Channel 5, Mondays at 10PM), and tonight sees the arrival of the always greatly anticipated “monster of the week” episode. In season eleven’s “Ghoulie”, two teenage girls attack one another, each believing the other to be a monster. The episode plays with cultural references such as Creepy Pasta, as it explores the myth of the “screaming skull” as well as what the real definition of a monster could be.

But as we shall see, the X-Files has a long and much-loved history of flirting with cryptids and creatures. I’m going to ignore the many human (ish) monsters that have made their way into the X-Files, and just stick to those that most of us would recognise as the real deal.

S1: E19 – Shapes

This is probably the X-Files episode that both scares me the most, and I have watched the most. Although we never really see the monster clearly, we do see it’s bulging, amber eyes and hear its panting breaths as it watches its prey from the shadows. A spate of gruesome murders brings Mulder and Scully into the jurisdiction of the Native American Tribal Police, and the legend of the Manitou – or werewolf to you and me.

In the episode, an elder explains that the curse revisits every eight years. Oh, how I wished it was a case that was returned to at a later date, but alas, it was never to be.

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S2: E2 – The Host

AKA as the flukeman, The Host sees a humanoid, parasitic organism using sewage systems to live in seclusion, away from humans. But when confronted, its predatory nature quickly comes to the surface.

S3: E22 – Quagmire

Another firm favourite, Quagmire sees our dynamic duo searching for a beast similar to the Loch Ness Monster, in a lake in Georgia. I love this episode, as it keeps you guessing all the way through, and there’s a lovely little Easter Egg right at the end too. Not an episode for dog lovers though…

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S5: E4 – Detour

A quintessential monster in the woods story gives Mulder the perfect excuse not to go to a team-building seminar, and instead drags Scully, and the two agents unfortunately (for them) hitching a ride, literally into the woods. Several disappearances and a boy’s tale of something invisible attacking him, leads Mulder to believe nature may be taking a vengeful turn against people.

S6: E13 – Agua Mala

As a hurricane bears down on the Florida coast, a contact asks Mulder and Scully to investigate the disappearance of two marine biologists. This episode is a controversial choice among X-Files die-hards, as it’s considered too funny to be scary – but it was great for two reasons. First, humour and the monster of the week episodes quickly became hallmarks of the series, and two, the late great Darren McGavin returns as Arthur Dales. Third, there’s a sea monster on the loose!

“Don’t sneer at the mysteries of the deep, young lady. The bottom of the ocean is as deep and dark as the imagination.”

Arthur Dales

S6: E16 – Alpha

A cryptozoologist and a canine biologist import a rare Chinese dog that kills those transporting it and seems to show supernatural cunning in its behaviour. More evil glowing eyes in this episode, and an interesting twist too.

S7: E12 – Cops

A clear example of how humour and the monster of the week episodes worked well together, the crew of hit show “Cops” follow Mulder and Scully as they investigate a neighbourhood monster.

S8: E19 – Alone

In season 8, it took a full-blown reptilian creature to drag Mulder back into the X-Files for a guest appearance. Just remember that folks, it was a monster of the week that brought Mulder back. You’d be watching Robert Patrick right now if it wasn’t for that scaly SOB.

S10: E3 – Mulder & Scully meet the Were-monster

This episode was greatly anticipated by show fans, not for just being the only monster of the week of the newly emerged season 10, but also for the return of writer Darin Morgan. The one-liners come thick and fast, and the twist is almost as funny.

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So, although I couldn’t quite make it to ten, perhaps tonight’s “Ghoulie” will make the list. Are you sitting comfortably? Yes? Obviously, I want to believe you, but you can’t possibly be watching the X-Files then! And remember, just like the truth, the monsters are out there.

 

Meet the characters: Thomas Walker

This is the first in a new series of blogs, where I’ll be introducing you to some of the characters you’ll (hopefully) meet in my books. I’ll be giving you some insights into their background, my inspirations, and even my thoughts on their personalities. Perhaps I’ll even do some imaginary casting for when that film deal breaks! As always, it’d be great to hear readers thoughts too!

It makes sense to start with the main man himself, so without further ado, lets find out a little more about Thomas Walker.

So, first off, how do I picture Thomas? Thomas is in his early forties. He’s six foot two, and he’s well-built, and of course, handsome, with dark hair (some signs of grey now too), and very deep blue eyes. His skin is a little weathered, but not damaged, and he never lets his facial hair get beyond a rugged yet short crop of stubble.

Thomas hates suits, and his clothes are usually a blend of luxury, comfort, and practicality.

Perhaps readers might be surprised to learn that I never depicted Thomas with a Scottish accent. Although he was born in the Highlands, he has travelled all over the world, and was educated in England. He spent years in both America (Wyoming) and Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), so is certainly a well-travelled man. But as with any true Highlander, a trace of an accent will always make itself known.

Although we’ve never really met them in the books (yet), Thomas has a sister, and his parents own a small vineyard in France, which is famous for a rare, boutique wine matured in whisky barrels (of course!). As we learn in the first book, Shadow Beast, Thomas’s father is a skilled carpenter, who has passed on some of his knowledge to his son. He put it to good use in the renovations of an old deer farm, which he named Sasadh – Gaelic for a place of comfort.

In both of the books he appears in to date, his tragic past, in particular the death of his first wife, Amanda, affects him deeply. He keeps people at a distance, and suffers from night terrors. He doesn’t really have any close friends, except for his dog, Meg. He tends to bury himself in his work, whether building the house, or working as a wildlife biologist.

But, as anyone who’s read the books will know, he doesn’t work alone. Thomas works with Catherine Tyler, and his attraction to her (and strong, intelligent, independent women in general), is apparent pretty much from the off. I’ll let you find out how things develop there for yourself if you don’t already know!

Thomas is a Cambridge zoology graduate, conservationist, and wildlife researcher. But he has also been a hunter, a safari guide, and a professional tracker. He has always been involved in the control, management, or protection of wildlife one way or another. He is strongly against trophy hunting though, as we again find out in Shadow Beast.

Thomas lived in Africa for a long time with Amanda. Amanda was a zoologist and Thomas was a game guide and hunter. On a safari where Thomas had to help hunt down a man-eating leopard, one of the guests, who was an American TV producer, saw the potential in a show and they soon shot to fame hunting man-eating animals all over the world. In the fourth season of the show, tragedy struck whilst returning to Africa, and Amanda was attacked and killed by a lion.

Following the death of his wife, Thomas drank heavily and lived in the United States where he hunted mountain lions and other problem animals with tenacity. This is where he met Lee Logan, who helped turn his life around. Lee Logan and his team of expert trappers are important characters in Shadow Beast, and Lee’s son will make an appearance in the upcoming third instalment, Phantom Beast.

His charm usually hides his accidental arrogance, but not always. He is gently spoken, but quite forceful in getting his own way and he is approachable and understanding to a point, but when that point is reached, he has little tolerance beyond it. He has a cutting sense of humour best employed on those he knows well, but suffers guilt and upset if he thinks he crosses the line. His temper is rarely seen, but is usually provoked by injustice to others. When he is personally attacked, he is much more likely to retreat and retaliate when he is in a better position to do so. In many ways, he reacts like a predator by responding when he has carefully considered all of the options, but does so instinctively and by producing the most damage with the smallest of input. He is very considerate to those he is close to, but possibly accidentally dismissive to those he isn’t.

Thomas is clearly respected and liked in his local community. Outsiders might feel slightly threatened by him. He is confident and content with himself, but also very aware of his short-comings and is his own worst critic.

Some friends have commented how they thought Thomas was somebody I’d like to be. But, whereas I certainly share his petrolhead tendencies – and I’d certainly like his money, I actually probably wouldn’t get on brilliantly with him. He’s a little too arrogant and cocky for me I’d say. Maybe we’d meet for the occasional drink and catchup though.

When it came to my inspiration for the character, there’s no definitive singular source. For sure, there’s a little of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt about him (although they admittedly wouldn’t look much alike). Perhaps more than a trace of Bond’s wit and appreciation of the finer things is in there too. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of the Preacher’s charm, empathy, and sense of justice from Pale Rider. You’ll have to wait until Phantom Beast until this particular cowboy gets a horse though.

And…who should play him in that yet to come movie deal? Perhaps a rugged-looking Henry Cavill? One of the two Toms (Hiddleston or Hardy)? Ben Barnes or Richard Madden might be interesting choices too. Guess we’ll have to wait and see!

The Best (and worst) of 2017

So, as 2017 draws to a close, I’m taking a look back at some of the best and worst books, films, and TV that I had the good (and bad) fortune to fall for over the last twelve months. There may be some mild spoilers ahead, so be warned if you want to watch or read in blissful ignorance when it comes to any of my choices.

Books

Few and Far Between by Charlie Elder was one of the most entertaining and well-written books I’ve read in years. Told from the everyman’s perspective, the plight of some of our rarest animals and birds is explored with incredible charm, humour, and concern.

Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan is the second in the Last Werewolf trilogy. This no-holds-barred tale of Talulla and her child taking on the malevolent forces looking to rid the world of werewolves and other creatures is an absolute riot of blood, slaughter, violence, and mayhem. A great read.

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf is a love-letter of a book, putting a well-deserved spotlight on the work and life of Alexander von Humbolt. As one of the first scientists to truly understand ecology and the connections between all living things, not to mention having more species of flora and fauna named in his honour, this book rightly puts his achievements back under our noses.

On the other hand, Hominid by R.D. Bradly just rubs our noses in it. After a promising start and a horrifying childhood encounter, bigfoot turns out to be a gentle forest giant with super powers.

Monster of the Mere by Jonathan Downes follows the exploits of the Centre for Fortean Zoology as they try to establish if a giant fish could really call one of England’s greatest nature reserves home. The premise is intriguing, but unfortunately the delivery doesn’t quite live up to the expectation. I am all for self-publishing, and I realise that costs can be prohibitive – and I can also forgive the occasional spelling or grammatical error. But averaging one a page tends to detract from the reading experience. The same lack of editing also means that Downes is free to explore wild tangents at leisure. The actual account of the investigative aspects of the ‘expedition’ could be reduced to a handful of pages at best. Perhaps its apt, given the CFZ journeyed from one side of the country to the other, but this book really goes all over the place.

If you really want to be depressed whilst reading a book, then pick up a copy of Hold the Dark by William Giraldi. From characters you can’t possibly like, to pretentiousness that’s hard to ignore, this was a perfect example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Films

Without doubt, my top film of the year was Logan. This gritty, sombre, emotionally violent finale to the wolverine movies gives the X-Men’s anti-hero the sendoff that not only he deserves, but the one we wanted to see. And catch it in the ‘noir’ version if you can for even extra atmosphere and a little bit of extra class.

And when it comes to emotional strings being tugged, Bladerunner 2049 should have received an award for best use of original music ever. If you’re not welling up by the time you hear ‘tears in the rain’ pierce the score, then you may want to question your own humanity, let alone Decker’s.

And in joint third place, we have both Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Thor: Ragnarok. Both have their flaws, and both have proven controversial with their loyal audiences.

Star wars was probably my most anticipated movie of the year, and I personally find the running out of time storyline a huge improvement over ‘have to blow something big up’. There is some bold story telling along with impressive character development, but it is almost inexcusable that the line “I have a bad feeling about this” didn’t make the script. Director Rian Johnson says it is in there, but it is either uttered by a droid or a wookie, which is either pretentious, or more likely, sounds awfully like they forgot (if you’re not aware, it has been uttered in every single Star Wars movie to date). There are also some horrendous Disney-esque scenes, but I loved it.

Thor on the other hand, kills off a whole host of characters we have spent the last two films getting to know with explanation or ceremony, and leaves out one key character altogether, but makes up for it by squeezing every drop of comedy the God of Thunder has to offer. Both films are skirting dangerously close to getting it wrong, but have gotten away with it, at least for now.

But for an example of a film that flirted with the line of where not to go, crossed it, took a dump, and then kicked it in the general direction of the screen, look no further than Alien: Covenant. Just awful. Shockingly bad acting, a storyline that makes no sense and which took the advice of critics to ignore Prometheus a little too literally, plus some of the worst creatures and visual effects to grace the cinema ever, let alone 2017.

Other cinematic catastrophes included The Mummy, where Tom Cruise runs a bit and forgot he wasn’t making a Mission Impossible film. Russel Crow turning up as a certain Dr. Jekyll is amusing, but no where near as funny as what is meant to be his English accent.

And Underworld Blood Wars was a film where not even Kate Beckinsale wrapped in leather could distract from quite how bad things were getting for that particular franchise. Unfortunately, the tiresome war between vampire and werewolf needs a stake through the heart and a silver bullet to the head just to be sure.

Honourable mentions should go to Beauty and the Beast, John Wick 2, Wonder Woman, and Murder on the Orient Express, and even Justice League, all of which I enjoyed.

But dishonourable mentions should be awarded to xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, The Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell, and Transformers: The Last Knight. All were terrible, but not quite in the league of insult as those mentioned above.

TV

I’ll stick to the good stuff on the small screen, as I tend to only catch the stuff I know I like.

Let’s start with Billions. This is without a doubt one of the best written, most griping bits of television out there. A warring hedge-fund ‘king’ and a District Attorney get to grips with what real power can do, only to discover what it does to the people surrounding them.

And of course, winter eventually arrived and Game of Thrones delivered dragons on a scale we were never expecting. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until 2019 to find out how it all ends, as it’ll almost certainly beat the long awaited book to the finish line.

So, there you have it – my 2017 in books, film, and TV. On to new discoveries in 2018!

2017: A reflection.

I often have my most profound thoughts and reflections at the oddest of times. There’s the cliched ‘eureka’ moment in the bath of shower of course, but for me, nothing beats the good old commute. Whether on a train, in a car, or on the bus, you can be surrounded by other people yet lost in thought. And as this year trundles to its final stop, it seems a perfect opportunity to reflect on the journey I’ve taken as a writer this year.

My second novel, The Daughters of the Darkness, came out in June. It continues the adventures of Thomas Walker, the wildlife biologist turned monster hunter, whom we met in Shadow Beast. The book is getting some lovely reviews from readers, and is slowly making itself known among the Amazon charts.

A few readers were surprised to find Thomas facing his past rather than picking up exactly where the first story ended. However, there is method in my madness. Firstly, given that Thomas is a hunter of man-eaters, I couldn’t resist pitting him against what are arguably the most famous duo to have ever developed a palette for people: the Tsavo lions. The legend and historic record of the man-eaters features strongly in the narrative, and as we learn in the first book, Thomas has unfinished business with a pride possibly made up of their descendants. There is of course something a little more cryptic (or perhaps cryptid), to their nature too. But, secondly, I also needed some time for things to…shall we say grow? Without giving any spoilers away, Phantom Beast, the third instalment, will see a return to the animals we met in Shadow Beast, and things have certainly…developed!

So, obviously Phantom Beast will be a major project for 2018, but getting stuck into my third novel was also a major part of this year.

But, there are a few other things on the go too. I’ve made progress with a science fiction story, and some headway with a rampaging bigfoot as well. And a recent achievement to my 2017 was mapping out what I see as my “novel universe”. Connecting characters, books, and storylines proved a really interesting exercise and gave me considerable clarity on where to take the stories. It also gave me a considerable to-do-list, so 2018 will be a busy year! Like many writers, I collect notebooks and journals, jotting down everything from vague thoughts to one-liners I’m yet to fit to a character, plot, or storyline!

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One of the funnest experiences in 2017 was joining Shannon Legro of Into the Fray Radio for an episode of her excellent podcast. If you’re interested in the paranormal, strange goings-on, cryptids, serial killers, UFOs, and other worldly things, you should definitely check it out. You can find my episode here, and you can find Into the Fray on all good pod catchers.

Another lovely aspect of 2017 was receiving reader mail from all over the world. From a gentleman in Florida, to a horror fan in Germany, I have been amazed and touched to find my books have spread so far, and pleased so many. If you’d like to get in touch, you can drop me a line via luke@blackbeastbooks.co.uk.

So, 2018 beckons, and of course, there’s plenty of things I didn’t get round to doing. I still haven’t set up a website, or started a mailing list. I don’t promote my books enough. Writing and a full-time job do take their toll, but I’m going into the next twelve months a little more prepared and determined. Christmas has seen aids, such as a social media planner from the brilliant Lucy Hall added to my resources, so I’ll hopefully be a little more proactive and less reactionary on my channels.

And along with everything else, I’ll keep writing too. Here’s to 2018!

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