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.

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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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The Daughters of the Darkness – Pre-order Now!

So, after over two years of waiting (and working hard at the writing desk in my case), I am very pleased to announce that The Daughters of the Darkness is now available to pre-order on Amazon. You can find the details here.

For the moment, only the eBook is available to pre-order, but I am hoping to be able too add the paperback by the weekend, after some formatting issues have been resolved.

It’s also a great time to catch up with the first book in the series – Shadow Beast. As a celebration of the release of Daughters, I’m currently offering it as a free download until Monday. You can get your free copy here, if you haven’t yet had the chance to meet Thomas,  Catherine, and of course, the beast.

There’ll be lots more exciting news and updates in the next few days and weeks, but for now, head to Amazon and pre-order your copy of The Daughters of the Darkness today. Content will be delivered automatically to you on Monday.

And one last thing. Thank you. Thank you for reading my books, keeping me going, and for supporting an independent author.

Oh, and one more last thing. Reviews are really important, so please, if you have the time, remember to leave an honest review of what you think. It’s greatly appreciated, and helps get the books even greater levels of exposure. After all, the more books that go out – the quicker I have to write the sequel!

The Daughters of the Darkness – a villain’s tale

With the release of The Daughters of the Darkness now only weeks away, it’s time to introduce you to one of the key new characters, Kanu Sultan.

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Kanu Sultan stepped out into the courtyard of his compound. The sun was all but gone and he let the warmth of the last few rays linger on his skin as night crept slowly from the east. He had chosen his new home well; a dense marshland nestled between the three national parks of Tsavo East, Tsavo West and Chyulu Hills. Several other smaller wildlife conservancies were on his doorstep but like the one he now occupied, they had been abandoned following his arrival in the territory. It was a hunter’s paradise, benefiting from the movement of animals between the parks and being close to water. At thirteen miles to the nearest road, the remote location gave him privacy and security but was still central enough for him to have a wide influence over much of the area. Roughly equal distance from his native Mombasa to the east and the more tourist-friendly Nairobi to the west, much of southern Kenya was within his reach, as was the border of Tanzania.

Kanu walked past one of his men, a former Kenyan Army Paratrooper who remained statuesque at his post as he went by. Kanu hand-picked most of his men from either the paratroopers or the Presidential Escort Regiment, Kenya’s best. He also made up their number with some local Maasai, and he paid all of them well. Although relatively small, the force was elite enough to make his reputation formidable and kept his activities safe from government interference. Out here, he was the authority. And it was that authority he was about to exercise now.

At the far left corner of the courtyard he turned, making his way down a flight of stone steps that led to a makeshift prison block. Weeks before, it had held expensive wines and brandies for the paying guests of the game lodge, now serving as his personal quarters. He walked down the dimly lit corridor to the end cell, the only one occupied. He stared in, the flash of his white teeth against his dark face alerting the dishevelled man on the other side of the iron bars to his presence.

“I respect a man who takes risks in business,” said Kanu. “It’s why I asked you, with respect, to go elsewhere. Unfortunately, like most Afrikaans, your greed and disrespect have brought an end to your good fortune.”

“Stepped on your toes did I, kaffa?” the man leered, easing himself up onto his feet from the floor, using the wall to support his weight.

Kanu stiffened slightly at the insult, glancing down the corridor as he heard the hurried footsteps of one of his men. His eyes told the young Maasai to stop where he was, only momentarily glancing at the sack the warrior held out in front of him, its heavily twisted top held firmly between both hands.

“Racism is born of fear Mr. Van Zyl, and fear is natural when facing death. Did you know the kingdom of Kaffa was once a state of what is now Ethiopia? Its first capital was named Bonga, as was the district around it. It was one of the prime trade routes for slaves, which is why both Kaffa and the term Bonga Bonga land came to be used by the whites in such a derogatory way. It was where the slaves came from.”

“Getting back at the whites is it then?” Van Zyl sneered. “Bit late don’t you think?”

“Hardly. You are a dealer of drugs. Instead of plying your trade to wealthy visitors in Nairobi as I suggested, you targeted the poor and vulnerable on the streets of Mombasa. The same streets where I grew up and watched men like you destroy whole families and neighbourhoods. You did not do as I asked Mr. Van Zyl, and that situation demands nothing short of my full attention,” Kanu replied.

“You’re a fucking hypocrite Kanu. You’re a dealer too. Admit it, this is about shutting out the competition,” sneered Van Zyl.

Kanu stepped closer to the bars, his eyes fixed on his captive.

“I don’t mind you selling drugs Mr. Van Zyl,” he said in barely a whisper. “But I do mind who to. And you are wrong, I am not a dealer like you, I am a trafficker. I organise, sell and allow safe passage of product, be it arms or narcotics, through the territory. What I don’t allow is for those items to be used against my people. There are plenty of opportunities outside of Kenya, and even a few within its borders. You were urged to explore them. Now you must face the consequences of not doing so.”

Kanu carefully stepped back, taking a large iron key from his pocket. Van Zyl watched him as he slowly placed it in the lock of the door and turned it. As a heavy sounding clunk signalled the release of the door, Van Zyl shot forwards and pulled it open as he attempted to dart between the two men in his way. Kanu was ready for him, pouncing forward and punching him in the chest with both fists, his forearms straight as spears. Van Zyl was knocked head over heels backwards. He crumpled onto the floor by the back wall.

Before Van Zyl could get up, Kanu quickly took the sack from the Maasai. In one flowing movement, he took the corner in one hand and pinched the top open in the other as he upended it and flung it forward. Van Zyl screamed as an enraged snake leapt towards him, its open mouth and two inch long fangs all he saw before he instinctively raised his arms to shield his face. He was surprised at the heavy impact he felt as the snake hit him. He panicked and threw the snake aside, but not before its teeth sank into the bicep of his right arm. The snake hit the floor with a thud and immediately made for the darkness underneath the cot bed. Once there, it coiled and lay with its eyes fixed on Van Zyl. It made no noise, but its forked tongue tasted the air every few seconds.

“My apologies for the theatrics Mr. Van Zyl,” Kanu said. “The gaboon viper has to be somewhat provoked into delivering an envenomed bite. They’re actually quite docile. But I find them hard to resist being the largest of their kind. The fellow who just bit you weighs 20lbs.”

Van Zyl spat. His mouth tasted dry and his tongue felt heavy and swollen.

“Not exactly common in this part of Kenya, people might get suspicious don’t you think?” he said, beginning to feel slightly faint.

Kanu smiled. “Oh we’re not quite finished yet Mr. Van Zyl. When you’re found, I doubt they’ll think to check for a snake bite. I just needed to slow you down.”

Kanu nodded to the Maasai, who had been joined by another of his men. They both stepped into the cell and picked up Van Zyl, dragging him out and back along the hall towards the stairs. Kanu slipped into the empty room behind them and picked up the snake with ease by the tail. It sought out the open sack as soon as he offered it, and he knotted the top as he walked out. At the top of the stairs, he handed the Maasai the sack.

Van Zyl was thrown across the flatbed of a large green Toyota Land Cruiser truck. Kanu climbed into the open back with him. He looked the man over as the truck pulled off, passing quickly through a large archway made up of the black volcanic stone of the region. The truck ploughed forward into the African night.

Kanu smiled down at the pale sweat strewn face that looked back up at him from the bed of the truck, the eyes bulging and bloodshot.

“I would have allowed you a slightly more luxurious last ride Mr. Van Zyl. I personally would have preferred the air conditioning. But your body is no longer in control, and I couldn’t have you shitting and pissing yourself over my leather seats,” Kanu explained.

He brushed aside the dying man’s shirt. The welted, swollen purple flesh of his shoulder and neck were already beginning to blister. The man could no longer talk from his enlarged tongue. Soon his eyelids would also be too heavy to keep open. Kanu knew the man’s pulse would be racing and slowing with complete irregularity. If simply left, his death could still take up to an hour. He looked up and began to peer into the darkness.

After driving for nearly thirty minutes, Kanu finally thumped on the cabin roof of the old Land Cruiser, giving the signal to stop. The driver pulled over into the long tussock grass.

“My pets are close Mr. Van Zyl, you will not suffer much longer,” Kanu laughed, towering over him.

Van Zyl barely felt the rough grasp of the two men who picked him out of the flatbed and threw him to the ground. The impact of the dry, rock strewn earth on his blistered and swollen flesh sent a wave of agonising pain through his body. He continued to writhe and struggle as he heard the truck pull away, but he no longer had the strength to stand. The sound of the engine dulled, faded and then disappeared altogether.

He lay stricken. His arms and chest felt like they were on fire, and his skin felt tight, like it was too small for him. With great effort he opened his bruised and tumid eyelids and gazed at his hand. His arm had ballooned. Its purple and yellow colouring was punctured by burst cracks that streamed with thin, cherry red blood. He knew he would not stop bleeding now. He closed his eyes, knowing he would not be able to open them again. He gagged and choked on the froth filling his throat, turning his head to the side to try and vent it. His strength left him and he waited for death. Just as his thoughts threatened to fade, a sound piercing the night stabbed him with a momentary surge of adrenalin and renewed panic.

The diabolical laughter crept closer on swift, padded feet. It made the animal sound nervous, but it was a sign of pure confidence. Van Zyl convulsed involuntarily as the hyena sniffed at his head. The animal let out a yip of excitement, leaning in closer to lick the man’s forehead and scalp.

Another sound penetrated the night. A low, deep rumble of warning. The hyena gave a scream of fright, only pausing to snap off one of Van Zyl’s ears as it loped away. Blind and half deaf, his body shutting down in shock as his flesh was putrefied by the snake venom, Van Zyl still had time to sense the presence of the large heavy animal as it came closer. The press of its paw on his chest was the last thing he felt as he slipped into unconsciousness. Moments later, a pair of five and a half inch fangs smashed through his temples.

~

She dragged the body further into the grass, seeking the cover of scrub and thorn. Deep in a thicket, she lifted her head and let out a thunderous roar, calling in the rest of the pride. She listened to them slink closer as she began to feast on the body.

~

A breath of wind carried the whisper of the roar to Kanu’s ears as the truck rolled through the night back towards the compound. He smiled.

Big Cats in Books

In order to celebrate World Book Day, I’ve decided to put together a short list of my favourite characters and reads that centre on big cats. Some are heroes, some are villains, some aren’t so easily classified. Cats carry mystery with them – so no wonder they make such excellent characters and subjects for these great books.

Bagheera. Bagheera

Bagheera is the black leopard that offers his sage like wisdom to Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Born in captivity as part of a Rajah’s menagerie, he plans his escape into the jungle following the death of his mother. He is described as having the cunning of a mongoose, as bold as a buffalo and as reckless as a wounded elephant. Kipling describes him as having a voice like honey and skin softer than down. The Jungle Book is a real favourite that I return to again and again.

The Tiger – John Vaillant
The Tiger

This is the true story of a man-eating tiger on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. To the horror of a team of hunters, it emerges that the attacks are not random; the tiger is engaged in a vendetta.

Injured and starving, it must be found before it strikes again, and the story becomes a battle of survival between two main characters: Yuri Trush, the lead tracker, and the tiger itself.

Coeurl

Coeurl

Coeurl is an alien cat-like creature that appears in A. E. Van Vogt’s short story ‘Black Destroyer’. It later became incorporated into his novel ‘Voyage of the Space Beagle’. Coeurl is unusual in appearance as a feline as his front legs are twice as long as his hind ones, and he has two tentacle-like appendages attached to his shoulders that possess suction cups. Coeurl feeds on the id of other beings – a potassium based organic compound.

When a human starship arrives on the planet, they find Coeurl but assume him to be an unintelligent animal, and even allow it to come on board. Coeurl realizes it can feed on humans but plays along in order to learn more about them and their ship. Eventually however, it gives in to hunger and kills and feeds on one of the ship’s crew. The crew suspects the Coeurl did it, and tries to prove it by feeding the creature organically-bound phosphorus similar to that in the victim’s bones, but Coeurl is smart enough to pass the test. I remember this book in particular because it was one of the first to ever put you inside the mind of the beast.

The Nature of the Beast – Janni Howker

Nature Beast

It started out as a game. A game that Billy and his friend Mick play to take their minds off the fact that the mill might be closing and everyone could lose their jobs. They’ll hunt down the Haverston Beast, that’s killing sheep and hens and maybe even men, and kill it. So what if the farmers say it’s just a dog – they know that it’s real and they’re out to prove it. But then Billy’s dad finds out that the mill might close for ever, and suddenly the game doesn’t seem so much fun any more – and the terrifying Beast might be closer to home than Billy imagined… An astonishing novel about the monster that is unemployment, and its devastating effects on a local community, The Nature of the Beast is as painfully truthful and relevant today as it was when it was first published, to critical acclaim, in 1985.

Elsa the Lioness

Elsa

Elsa is arguably the most famous lioness in the world after appearing in both Joy Adamson and George Adamson’s books, as well as the movie adaptations. Born Free was a book I used to love reading to escape to a world where man (or woman in this case) and beast walked side by side. Seen through the lens of history, it now appears Joy Adamson was much warmer towards animals than people and both her life and death are subject to controversy, but her stories offer tales of a time and place now gone and much changed.

The Beast in the Garden – David Baron

Garden Beast

When residents of Boulder, Colorado, suddenly begin to see mountain lions in their backyards, it becomes clear that the cats have returned after decades of bounty hunting drove them far from human settlement. In a riveting environmental tale that has received huge national attention, journalist David Baron traces the history of the mountain lion and chronicles one town’s tragic effort to coexist with its new neighbours. As thought-provoking as it is harrowing, The Beast in the Garden is a tale of nature corrupted, the clash between civilization and wildness, and the artificiality of the modern American landscape. It is, ultimately, a book about the future of our nation, where suburban sprawl and wildlife-protection laws are pushing people and wild animals into uncomfortable, sometimes deadly proximity.

Shere Khan

Shere Khan

There is of course, another big cat in Kipling’s Jungle Book. But in contrast to Bagheera’s role as teacher, Shere Khan is the undoubted villain. Despite being born with a crippled leg and scorned by his own mother (classic roots for a psychopath anyone?!), Khan is arrogant and regards himself as lord of the jungle. It is his hunt of humans that separates a certain man-cub from his parents in the first place.

Kipling portrays Khan in the way they were depicted at the time. Cowardly, injured animals that perhaps couldn’t hunt other prey. And although not necessarily true of other big cats, there does seem to be a grain of truth in this. Nearly all of the tigers that Jim Corbett, a famous hunter of man-eaters in India tracked and killed sported injures, just like Lungri – or ‘the lame one’ as Khan’s own mother called him.

~

If this list of big cats in books hasn’t been quite enough to sink your teeth into, why not check out my novel Shadow Beast. You might just recognise some attributes from these famous felines! Shadow Beast is in Amazon’s Top 100 chart for British Horror. Read it now before the thrilling sequel, The Daughters of the Darkness hits the shelves.

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