I’m going to be introducing some new regular posts across my channels, one being WIP (Work In Progress) Wednesday, where I’ll introduce you to some of the stories I am working on. To get things started, here is another new preview chapter from Phantom Beast. I know many of my readers have been waiting patiently for this release, and I am pleased to say that the end is very much in sight. But for now, let’s head to the wilds of Wyoming and a brewing storm!
In the time it took Jericho to arrive, Thomas had changed out of his fishing gear into working boots, jeans, and a thick green-check chamois shirt. He hadn’t felt it whilst he’d been walking, but as he paced impatiently up and down along the trail outside of Lodge View, the cold wasn’t improving his mood. Despite being a relatively bright day, a storm was brewing inside him. Jericho had been flippant and dismissive on the phone. And now, he found himself questioning why Jericho would even be in the United States at the same time he was. With everything that happened, it surely couldn’t be a coincidence. A notorious tracker and trapper, with a flexible approach to the law, Jericho’s services were in high demand from a broad range of organisations. From government departments to private collectors, Jericho O’Connell worked with anyone willing to pick up the cheque. In return, problem animals would disappear, or the rarest specimen could be found. But the secrecy was something new. Jericho usually boasted unrelentingly about his exploits.
At the sound of a large vehicle making its way up the trail, Thomas turned to look. A brand new, jet black SUV of enormous size was making its way towards him. Just then, Jesse emerged from the treeline on the other side of the trail. He was clearly as interested in what Jericho had to say as Thomas was. As the car got closer, Thomas could see it was a top-of-the-range GMC Yukon. He was surprised on two accounts. First, a $100,000 vehicle was an unlikely find in a rental lot. Secondly, like himself, Jericho favoured slightly more rugged trucks, at least looks wise. The tinted glass made it hard for Thomas to see inside, but he could make out the white glow of the rancher-style hat Jericho preferred. The truck pulled up on the side of the trail, a little way off. The broad driver’s door opened, and out stepped the Irishman. He was wearing a leather drovers coat on top of his bright orange denim shirt and pale jeans. His sharp blue eyes shone in the shade the rim of his hat provided, and wisps of sun-bleached blonde hair poked out from under it and trailed down towards his shoulders.
“Quite the place you’ve got here,” Jericho nodded to Jesse.
“Want to explain what you’re doing in it?” Thomas accused.
“Now, let’s not forget the pleasantries,” Jericho replied, his eyes narrowing.
“You say you know something we don’t. Figure we skip the time-wasting,” Jesse remarked.
Jericho looked from one to the other and read the looks on both their faces. He quickly realised that tensions were already high.
“Okay,” he sighed. “Remember your cat back in Cannich?”
Thomas nodded silently, his eyes growing wide in alarm.
“Well, he’s a dad, and it’s a beautiful, bouncing baby girl,” Jericho chuckled.
The punch Thomas threw was so quick, Jericho never saw it coming. It connected with the right side of his chin and made him stagger a few steps to his left. For a moment, he was stunned, and he saw the anger burning in Thomas’ eyes.
“How could you?” Thomas roared “you know what we went through. You know it killed people.”
“including my pa,” Jesse growled, stepping forward.
“Now gents, let’s be civilised about this,” Jericho warned. “Besides, I can’t take two of you on. Well actually, what I mean to say is, I don’t want to.”
Jericho shrugged off the leather coat and let it fall to the ground. He raised his arms slightly, tensing the muscles in his forearms as he did and letting his fingers curl halfway into fists.
“You’re an asshole,” Jesse declared, stepping back and shaking his head.
“I’m inclined to agree,” Thomas spat. He walked straight up to Jericho and rammed a finger into his chest. “How could you not tell me?”
Something ignited in Jericho. Maybe it was the long drive. Maybe it was the cold weather. But he’d had enough. He shot his left palm into the centre of Thomas’s chest, pushing him back and out of his face. Almost out of habit, his right fist swung in a roundhouse punch to Thomas’s jaw.
“I owed you that,” Jericho nodded, slightly surprised at his own reaction.
Before he could say anything else, Thomas sprang, connecting in a full charge with the Irishman’s shoulder and knocking him backwards. Thomas kept the momentum going and they collapsed onto the ground. Thomas bent his arm and crossed it against Jericho’s chest, who was lying on his back and trying to get up. Jericho flinched as he saw the pain and rage wash over Thomas’s face. He decided to take what was coming. But he didn’t have to. Thomas staggered back to his feet, distracted by the noise of another truck coming along the track. His eyes were fixed on it.
“Have you quite finished?” Catherine demanded.
Thomas helped Jericho to his feet. They both looked sheepish and avoided her steely gaze. She stood in the doorway, but her attention too was drawn to the oncoming truck.
Thomas could see it was an older truck, black in colour and relatively compact.
“Shit,” sighed Jesse.
That’s when Thomas recognised the car too. It was a 1991 GMC Syclone pick-up truck. In its heyday it had been capable of out accelerating a Ferrari 348. It was fairly pointless as a working vehicle though. It was too light for heavy work and too heavy for light work. All it and its supercharged V6 engine had meant to do, was get from one set of lights to the next quicker than anything else. But Thomas already knew this one had been modified. It sat higher, on stiff, strong suspension and bulky all-terrain tyres. And he could already hear from the exhaust and the whine of the supercharger that they were not factory-issued. But he also knew all this because he knew who was behind the wheel of the truck. It belonged to Nina Lee, Jesse’s former girlfriend. She pulled into the side.
Nina was Native American. Her father was Skokomish and lived in Washington State. But Nina lived with her mother, who was of the Crow nation, and Wyoming born-and-bred. Thomas knew she was a Forest Ranger and an excellent tracker. As she got out of the truck, he could see why Jesse would have taken the breakup hard. She was stunning. Dark brown hair that rolled off her shoulders, hazel coloured eyes that shone with defiance. She was a very attractive woman.
“Look’s like it’s quite the party,” Nina jeered. “Trouble has a habit of following you around Mr. Walker,” she said with a smile.
“Joined at the hip,” Thomas shrugged.
“I’m guessing we’re all here and getting worked up about the same thing. Why don’t we all go inside and talk about this bear and whatever else might be on a killing spree,” Nina suggested.
“Finally, someone talking sense,” Catherine concluded, rolling her eyes but pushing the door wide open to welcome them all in.
Thomas nodded towards the door at Jericho.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be,” the Irishman replied. “I deserved it; I just didn’t like it.”
They all went inside Lodge View and headed up to the kitchen. They each took a seat around the breakfast bar. Thomas headed over to the coffee pot and began pulling mugs out of a cupboard. After filling each, he passed them over two at a time, then fetched a quart of milk from the fridge and some sugar cubes. He took a handful of spoons from a drawer and left people to adjust their drinks to their own preferences.
“Okay, Jericho, time to fill us in on what we don’t know, but you seem to,” Thomas suggested, softly but firmly.
The Irishman sighed deeply and took a big swig of his coffee, which he’d left black but added plenty of sugar to.
“The Cannich cat,” he said. “One of the highlights of its Highland fling was a visit to a wildlife park, where it killed a number of animals and a keeper. It did so to get access to a female mountain lion they had there. She had come into heat and proved too much of a temptation for the strapping lad. I’m sure you also remember the reported tragedy of how that same mountain lion then mauled the park’s owner to death? Well, that part wasn’t strictly true. It was her cubs.”
“Her cubs?” Catherine asked. She glanced at Thomas, who had gone pale.
“Four in total,” Jericho nodded. “They escaped, but two were killed pretty quickly – not my doing I might add. But as for the other two…”
“One’s made it over here?” Thomas asked, barely getting the words out as his throat clammed up at the mere thought.
“The British government thought it best not to tell you. The one over here is called Tama, and she was sold to a private collector. I arranged her capture and sale a few years ago.”
“So, what is Tama doing out in the wild then?” Catherine demanded.
“Beats me, obviously that was never part of the agreement,” Jericho shrugged.
“Is this why Keelson hasn’t been answering my calls?” Thomas asked. “Because she knows you’re wrapped up in this?”
“When did you speak to Kelly?” Jericho queried, a concerned look on his face.
Kelly Keelson was the TV news reporter who had shot to fame when the Cannich cat’s rampage had caught the headlines. Since then, having started her own production company, she had worked closely with Thomas, documenting how he and Catherine had hunted down the unusual pride of lionesses that had killed his first wife. Set in the same African wilderness that had been plagued by the man-eaters of Tsavo over a century before, it had been picked up worldwide. Since then, Thomas, Catherine and Kelly had become good friends. And Jericho and Kelly had become much more, at least it was rumoured.
“I haven’t, and that’s unusual,” Thomas replied.
Jericho didn’t seem relieved.
“Where’s the other cub?” Jesse asked.
“That we don’t know for sure, although I have a feeling she’s also in the hands of a collector. Not on these shores though, that’s for sure.”
“So, you’re on clean-up duty?” Thomas asked.
Jericho shrugged. “Kind of.”
“The problem is worse than you think,” Nina interjected. “It hasn’t made the news yet, but it’s all over the law enforcement channels. Last night, a dog fighting ring run by a star football player was destroyed. A fire pretty much cleaned up most of the evidence, but one body was found with both burns and bite marks. Big bite marks.”
“It started a fire?” Catherine exclaimed.
“Right now, they think it must have started accidentally,” Nina explained. “But I went and had a looksee. Whoever it was covered their tracks well, but not of their truck. And it was pretty heavily loaded at the rear. Somebody made it out of there. And I think they have this cat.”
“That’s a whole new problem if so,” Jericho added.
“You didn’t sell anyone a big grizzly too?” Nina accused, mockingly.
Unusually, Jericho went quiet, his eyes focusing on the mug of coffee.
“So, Tama,” Thomas said, changing the subject. “How much does she resemble her old man?”
“When I last saw her, she was nearly fully grown,” Jericho replied. “I’ve only seen your cat in the Natural History Museum in London, but I’d guess she’s only a shade smaller by now. She has mountain lion colouring, sort of sandy brown. But she has the bulk, and all the equipment of dear old dad.”
“A sabre-tooth?” Jesse exclaimed incredulously. “There’s a God-damn sabre-tooth loose up here, that’s what you’re telling me?”
Jericho went quiet again. Thomas thought he could see sweat on the Irishman’s brow.
“Tell me more about this buyer,” Thomas demanded.
“He’s not the problem, he’s who I’m working for right now,” Jericho replied. “If somebody is setting this cat loose here and there, it’s not him.”
“I’m guessing that $100,000 status symbol out there is a company car then?” Thomas added, finally making the connection that Jericho was still on the payroll.
“So, are you here to help out, or are you going to get in the way?” Jesse growled.
“Neither,” Jericho shrugged. “My first port of call is to meet the buyer in Denver. I won’t know much more until then. But believe it or not, I’m feeling just as pissy about the whole thing as you are.”
“I doubt that,” Jesse muttered with menace. “But it clears a few things up, least ways.”
“Such as?” Nina enquired, pointedly.
“It’s a hybrid animal,” Jesse said flippantly. “Imported illegally into the United States. I can hunt it and kill it without issue. And that’s all I needed to know.”
“With those things?” Nina accused.
“I don’t remember inviting you to this party anyways,” Jesse retorted back.
“I came here to warn you, not give you a reason to risk your life and let those damn things loose,” Nina scolded. “We already have two potentially killer animals out there. We don’t need a pack more.”
“I can control them,” Jesse said, dismissing her concern.
“Really?” Nina shot back, whipping up the sleeve of her arm and revealing a healed-over scar that ran along her forearm.
The room went quiet.
“I told you, I think it smelt that wolf of yours on you,” Jesse said, quietly.
“But that’s just it, and something you need to consider,” Nina continued. “I can control a 150lb wolf better than you can those animals. He’d never bite me, or anyone. Unless I told him to, that is,” she added, smiling at Thomas.
“I don’t know about the killing part, but it does need hunting down Nina,” Thomas added. “Guess that’s what I’ll be doing too.”
They sat together in silence for a few moments before Nina got up. The rest of them followed suit, following her and Jericho downstairs and out the door.
“Keep in touch from now on, okay?” Thomas said to Jericho as he climbed into the GMC.
The Irishman nodded. He turned the key in the ignition and the big V8 rumbled into life. Thomas stepped back as Jericho turned the truck around. As he was passing Nina, who was making her way towards her own truck, he slowed.
“Ms Lee,” Jericho said, almost under his breath. “I don’t know much about this bear, but the circles I frequent are suggesting something isn’t right about it. Talk about it being dropped here by the government, that it killed people up North or something. All the normal conspiracy stuff, you know. But still, be careful.”
“Not my first rodeo,” Nina smirked. “But thanks for the warning.”
Thomas, Catherine and Jesse watched the two trucks headed back down the trail.
“Did things just get better or worse?” Jesse asked.
“Much, much worse,” Thomas replied.