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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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.

~

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.

Remember the Self in Self Publishing

There is an awful lot of advice out there in the world of self-publishing. Facebook forums, blogs (erm…like this one), e-zine articles, you name it, some self-proclaimed, self-published guru will have called shotgun on the advice column. Some of course is legitimately helpful. But elsewhere, things can get a little out of hand and over analytical. It’s perfectly acceptable to have discussions about which font to use for your paperback, (something from the Helvetica family, or in my case Palatino Linotype), or your ebook (Georgia, but don’t beat yourself up too much as readers can select their preferred font and size anyway), but if you’re hung up on say whether to put the ISBN-10 or 13 first in the layout, we need to talk.

I’ll give you a recent example from a Facebook forum I’m part of. A well-meaning contributor did a little bashing into those who, in her opinion, mistakenly put their acknowledgements at the beginning of their books. Poor old readers just don’t have the time to read acknowledgements, and they are unwelcome as the personal ego trip they clearly are. I’m just going to come out and say it. Poppycock. Acknowledgements are traditionally found at the front of a book. I can go to any on my shelf, flip through the first front pages and you know what I’ll find. Acknowledgements. I’d think it rather odd to discover them at the back. And let’s face it. If you’ve self-published, many friends and family will have probably helped and contributed in their own way somehow. Do they deserve to be slotted into the back like an afterthought? No. And they’re probably going to be the first people to read your book too. But that’s not to say it’s fine to do the full Gwyneth Paltrow. Keep it short and sweet. Like most things in this post, you’ll be fine if you apply healthy doses of common sense and scepticism.

There are things you need to do. Your book will be remarkably better off having been professionally edited and designed. I completely understand that cost is the biggest issue you probably face as a self-published author, but your book will do better if it has benefited from a good structural edit, a copy edit, proof-read and the bonus of an expertly designed cover. I will go into more detail about the whole process in a future post, but the point I want to get across today is that ultimately, it is your choice.

Let’s face it, if you’ve gone down the self-publishing route, it’s probably because you were struggling to get noticed by a traditional publisher or agent in the first place. I’m no exception. My book, Shadow Beast, sat on the ‘maybe’ pile for two well known agencies for so long that in the end I gave up and did it myself. I am very proud of it, and I think it’s a great story. More to the point, so do the many readers who have left five star reviews and compared it to Jurassic Park, and demanded it be made into a film to boot. I’m very lucky that the book has been so well received that within six months of pressing the big red button, I can now say it is my main source of income. But it wasn’t guaranteed.

You are completely free to give up the day job and commit to being a self-published author, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You may have noticed quite an uproar of late over the changes to how Amazon pays authors for their ‘unlimited’ service. This premium library allows paying subscribers to borrow your book, but whereas until recently you were paid a set fee for each download, authors are now paid on the number of pages read. Suddenly, many saw a drop in their payments from Amazon and cried foul. But lets be clear, actual sales were completely unaffected! The unlimited service was meant to be an add on, not your main source of income. But the problem is…there’s an awful lot of dross out there. Certain genres, such as erotica for instance, are flooded by poorly written, novella length guff. And the problem for Amazon was that most readers, quite rightly, were giving up after a few pages. If you’re work was short and…well, shite, you were reaping a reward regardless. But that’s not how the world works honey.

Most people who write, do so because it is something they love and ultimately, need, to do. And this should always be your starting point. Self publishing opens up a world that allows you to hold a book you have written in your hand, or can download to your Kindle. It gives you massive creative freedom, putting you in charge of what you write and how you present it. But you’re not guaranteed an income, a new life as an author or ultimately, any success at all. You need to be happy with that as a possibility, and be happy to just write for yourself. I still wish you every success though of course! And the thing is, if you write for yourself…it becomes less important what others say, and you become less inhibited by their barrages of advice and what they think.

There are lots of things you can do to aid your book, and there is good advice out there. Price it competitively, and be realistic for instance. I don’t care if your opus is over 800 pages long and it took you a decade to write, I don’t know you and I am not going to pay book store prices for it. When you have Stephen King’s loyal following and captive audience, you can get away with it perhaps, but until then, I’ll pay via check, made out to reality thanks very much.

On the flip side of the coin advice wise though, be aware that sometimes people just want you to pay for stuff. Again as an example, I recently took a ‘free’ review of my book’s Amazon profile from the forum I mentioned. When I initially joined, I was praised for the professional cover of my book, which they said they loved. Six months later though, things had changed and a new cover was recommended, and they just happened to offer such a service! As I browsed the examples, I noticed the large type stating ‘images courtesy of Shutterstock’ on virtually every single one, and on checking the covers on Amazon, found it wasn’t just due to being a mock-up. Needless to say, I much preferred what I already had and thought it far better conceived too.

The point is, I was able to make that decision. It’s my baby and I’m in charge. It’s all down to me. There will be pros and cons to everything I decide, and the repercussions and rewards are equally felt by me. Self publishing is one of the few worlds where it really can be all about you. But if you don’t cater for readers at all, don’t give it your best, and don’t do your work justice, then you might not get a great deal out of it. My advice when it comes to advice is the same I give for writing generally. Find balance, find confidence and find your own voice, and you’re off to a good start.

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