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!

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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 Modern Day Man-Eaters

When you get to pick up The Daughters of the Darkness, (hopefully sometime in the next few months), and begin to weave your way through the story, you may be surprised to find the theme of active man-eaters a little surprising and out of place in a modern age. However, the truth is that predators haven’t stopped doing what they have always been capable of when the opportunity and right circumstances present themselves.

The statistics show that man is still very much on the menu. In sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 3,000 people are taken every year by crocodiles. 1,500 Tibetans are killed by bears. 600 Indians are preyed on by leopards whilst another 85 are taken by tigers. The king of beasts naturally tallies the most kills, with lions taking 700 people on average annually.

Some of them become revered and infamous. The Tsavo Man-eaters who feature in the legacy of the fictional lions of the book, were very real, as is the tigress in Nepal known as the claw. A lion given the name of Osama killed more than 50 people in Tanzania between 2002 and 2004. He was less than four years old and suspected to be part of a local pride that deliberately targeted humans. The story you will read is not as far-fetched as you think.

Another Osama, this one a crocodile, ate its way through 83 villagers in the waters of Lake Victoria before being captured in 2005. After sixty years of snatching victims from the banks, capsizing boats and even boarding the wooden vessels to find his prey, he now lives out his days as breeding stock for Uganda Crocs Ltd, makers of fine leather handbags.

Human-predator conflict isn’t restricted to the more far flung places of the world either. Hans Kruuk, a carnivore zoologist for the University of Aberdeen concluded that wolf predation on humans is still a factor of life for Eastern Europeans after a lengthy study of death records.

In the U.S, although rare, predator related death is a possibility too. Mountain lions take an average of one person every four years. Bears (polar, brown and black species combined) take to man meat about twice a year. Wolves barely register, with one human fatality every five years in the last twenty. Only a total of three fatal coyote attacks ever have been recorded.

The risk is minimal, and I do mean minimal. You are eleven times more likely to win your state lottery than fall victim to an American predator taken to a palate based on people. Death by dog is fifteen times more likely, and death by cow or horse 32 more times likely.

But there is one killer that just can’t even begin to be compared to – us. Americans kill over 3,000 mountain lions every year. In the last two decades, over 100,000 black bears have been killed in the eastern United States alone. About 1,750 wolves are culled or simply hunted across North America annually.

The story you will read is fiction. The facts are very different. I hope you enjoy the book and find a new respect for our predators in equal measure.

In the meantime, if you need your fill of man-eating before the arrival of The Daughters of The Darkness, why not catch up with Shadow Beast first?!

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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.

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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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A Place for Product Placement

I’ve been quite lucky that in the twelve months Shadow Beast has been out, the worst review it has received has been three stars, with comments varying from a simple ‘okay read’ to another which gave away the twist and ending. 76% of the reviews give it a five star rating, with another 18% giving it the four star treatment.

Any author should be pleased with that kind of impact and feedback from readers who have put their money down, especially after nearly a year on the market.

However, a latest comment in a review did at least make me chuckle, and I took a little time to consider it. They weren’t very happy with the product placement in the writing. I also suspect he may have been a Land Rover enthusiast, as he took some umbrage that I referred to Thomas’s modified Defender as an Overfinch rather than a ‘Rover’ or ‘Landie’.

It is of course impossible to please all of the people all of the time, and I don’t intend to try, but I thought I would take a little time to talk about product naming and usage in writing generally, and in my own.

First of all, when a self-published author like myself names or uses real life brands and products in their books, it is very unlikely to actually be product placement, where a company has paid for its inclusion. That said, should Rolex be wondering which of their watches Thomas wears, and if they would like me to wear it as an endorsement, it’s this one, but with a leather strap.

Naming a product can have several purposes and uses to a writer. I use it specifically in three ways in the most part. Firstly, I use it to tell the reader something about the character. By associating a character with certain brands, I can provide you with an essence of their personal tastes, financial status, and even possibly things like age, gender and background, and normally in under three words. It can be very useful to set a scene, especially at the beginning of a story.

This is something that one of my favourite authors, Ian Fleming, constantly did. From providing his hero with a shiny Aston Martin DB4 in Goldfinger (you read that correctly, it was in the film that it became the eponymous DB5 we all know and love), to his Rolex (now Omega), the purpose was always to suggest Bond’s swagger by way of his swag.

Secondly, a specific piece of equipment is usually most easily described by its brand and model. I agree that you probably don’t need to know the serial number, but by letting you know that Thomas is using Leica binoculars or shoots a Holland & Holland .465 bolt action rifle, it should help the reader visualise it easier – or in the case of the gun, give you an idea of its power. I don’t see much point in going to great lengths descriptively when naming the product does everything I need it to do.

Another of my favourite authors, Michael Crichton, used this in his writing often. He would always go to great lengths to describe scientific apparatus, surveillance equipment and other items down to the model number. Sometimes I would look them up, sometimes I knew what they were, but I always had the visual reference. Clive Cussler is somebody else who is very fond of mentioning the exact make and model of cars, planes and weapon favoured by Dirk Pitt, his own hero.

Thirdly, by using a real product or brand, it can help reduce word repeats. It provides another option descriptively on top of common adjectives.

There is of course the obvious reason too. It’s always a little bit of wish fulfilment. Authors tend to give their characters the things they’d like to have, from simple attributes to sharp suits and expensive cars.

I know it isn’t always to everyone’s taste, but product naming and use does have a place. In the case of at least a few, it was my editor who asked my to specify brands for the reasons above.

Feedback also has its place, and I’ll certainly keep all of the kind comments and constructive criticism Shadow Beast has attracted as I prepare the sequel, The Daughters of the Darkness. Some, like my recent reviewer may be pleased to hear he’s ditched the Overfinch. I’ve given him a Twisted tuned Defender pick-up instead!

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The Daughters of the Darkness – Prologue

As I edge past the 74,000 word mark on the upcoming sequel to Shadow Beast, it is becoming clear that unfortunately, despite my best efforts, The Daughters of the Darkness may well not hit the shelves before Christmas as planned. The one thing I definitely learnt though in launching Shadow Beast was not to rush. I will continue working away, editing, proofing and amending until things are ready to go. Please bear with me, it won’t be much longer I promise!

In the meantime, travel back with me seven years to Tsavo, Kenya, the historic home of the infamous man-eaters known as The Ghost and The Darkness.

If you haven’t read Shadow Beast, there are no real spoilers here apart from the historical event from Thomas Walker’s past it depicts, which I don’t think will upset the story for you a great deal. Hopefully it will leave you thirsty for more! But for now, in relatively raw form, may I present the prologue to The Daughters of the Darkness.

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TSAVO, KENYA, EAST AFRICA – SEVEN YEARS AGO

Amanda Walker woke with a start, sitting up in her sleeping bag and instinctively reaching for the Gurkha Kukri blade she always kept under her pillow. For a few seconds she sat completely still, trying to ascertain what had woken her. Her first thought was that a snake had decided to curl up in or near the sleeping bag. It wouldn’t be the first time. When she couldn’t detect any movement, she relaxed a little and began to listen.

The door of the canvas tent was still tied shut. There was a soft breeze and she could hear the song of crickets carried on it. Then she heard it. Soft murmurs, coming from outside. She looked over at her husband Thomas. Even in his slumber he looked exhausted. She turned up the collar of his shirt to cover the insect bites on his neck. He had fallen asleep in his clothes almost as soon as he had returned from the day of tracking. She smiled to herself and affectionately ran her fingers through his hair. She decided to let him sleep. She could sense it was still dark outside and he had another long day ahead of him. They had heard the man-eaters calling close to the camp during the day.

She pulled the mosquito net up and crawled to the door flap of the tent. She undid the top tie whilst yawning silently and peered out. She could see the camp’s outbuildings across the way, but no lights were on in the windows. Nothing seemed to be stirring. Then she heard the murmur again. Standing on the veranda of one of the buildings was a little boy. His skin was incredibly dark, showing up the blue and mauve tones of the night sky above him. He was completely naked and held his hand over his mouth. He seemed to be crying.

As Amanda undid the tent flap completely, the boy immediately noticed her. As she watched him streak out of the camp, she realised straight away he wasn’t one of the children that lived with the hired help and staff. He moved with absolute silence, his feet hardly touching the bare earth as he ran. The moon was full and cast a bathing light onto the day scorched ground. Amanda couldn’t help her curiosity and stepped out of the tent, taking a few steps in the direction the boy was headed. She hesitated. She knew Thomas would be angry if he knew she had left the tent during the night. All the better reason to let him sleep she decided.

She had also fallen asleep in her clothes, sporting nothing more than a khaki vest top and a pair of bush shorts. She began to follow the little boy. The red dust began to stick to her bare feet and the ground was still warm from the baking heat of the day. She crossed the road that led into the camp and stood for a moment as she looked out over the long grass that stretched out in front of her. Thomas really would be angry at the thought of her going into the grass without a gun or an escort. But she could see the path the boy had taken and now she was growing concerned. She had already imagined the possibility the boy was from a local village, where maybe the man-eaters had attacked. What if he came for help? Amanda thought. She pushed on into the long grass.

She moved carefully and quietly, pushing the brush aside and listening intently with every step. She could barely see over the top, so instead she crouched and followed the path the boy had made, peering ahead.

“Kito,” she whispered softly, “kito?”

The Swahili word was often used affectionately by mothers to children. The literal translation meant ‘precious one’. Amanda had considered the boy was so young that he may never have met a white person, and her appearance may have startled him. If he heard her speaking softly and in Swahili, he might stop running.

The moon was directly above her, making her long blonde hair look silver in the strange light. Somehow it made her feel alone and exposed, and she shivered with the cold she suddenly felt. Instinct overrode her and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she reached the abrupt end of the trail. The boy had seemingly disappeared into thin air. The tall grass ahead of her swayed silently in the wind, moving back and forth as if caught in the breath of some invisible giant beast. She crouched, spinning on her heels to face the direction she had come from. She began to tremble as she closed her eyes and listened as the crickets stopped singing one by one until there was silence.

For a moment, she couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes. She gritted her teeth and blinked, peering out into the grass around her. At first, she didn’t see anything. Then a pair of amber eyes flashed somewhere in the black undergrowth, then another. More eyes, like burning coals in the darkness, appeared over to her left. Even in her fear, she was amazed at the pride’s ability to work together in silence and in the gloom. She could feel them closing in on her. She estimated them to be no more than twenty yards away and they were obviously hunting. She was in no doubt what, or rather who, the prey was.

She decided she had only one chance. The camp was three hundred yards ahead of her, beyond the long grass and across the road. She leapt upwards, her bare feet tearing into the ground violently as she sprinted through the grass. The greenery around her seemed to ripple with tawny coloured flashes of flesh. The lions began to call to each other quietly, emitting little coughs and grunts that came from both sides. She knew they were verging in on her, attracted by her flight and the noise she made as she ran. Her muscles burned as she willed herself faster.

She could now see the road and she felt a momentary swell of relief. She was going to make it. She knew the lions would at least hesitate before they broke cover, giving her the few seconds she needed to make it into the camp. She decided anyhow that she was close enough to start screaming and raise the alarm. She opened her mouth just as the silhouette passed in front of her. She found herself suddenly stunned and winded as she was knocked to the ground. A large, pale coloured paw pushed her face into the dust, stifling the scream that waited to burst from her lungs. It had been the perfect ambush. The big female had always been behind her, waiting for the rest of the pride to drive Amanda into her waiting jaws.

The animal snarled at the unwelcome human scent of the still squirming prey. It opened its mouth wide and bit deep into the back of Amanda’s neck. She kicked out a few times in her violent death throws as she asphyxiated, then her body went limp as her windpipe was crushed and the nerves at the top of the spinal cord were cut off. As the big female began to feed, the other members of the pride drew close, waiting their turn to feast.

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Shadow Beast is out now in paperback and on Kindle.

Buy it here